Tuesday, October 20, 2009

You Or Your Memory: Final Fantasy VII

I've been trying to think of a good way to go back to some old videogames and music while at the same time getting a semi-regular column going. And so after some time mulling over ideas, I've conflated the two. For 'You Or Your Memory' I'll do just as I said: go back to videogames and music from years past and see how things shake out. Mostly it's a question of whether they still hold up, but I'll be providing some background to give you context and an idea of where I'm coming from.

Having recently purchased a PS3 about a month ago, I was perusing the Playstation Store for old games to play. For some reason Final Fantasy VII jumped out at me, even above Silent Hill 1, a game I've wanted to play for awhile now after loving Silent Hill 2 and, to a lesser extent, 3. Still, FFVII has become such a divisive game over the past 12 years since its release that I wanted to see what I would think of it now.

Ironically enough, the only place I'd played FFVII before was on the PC. I was a brainwashed Nintendo fanboy back in '97 and most of '98, so by the time I got a Playstation I didn't want to go back to FFVII since there were so many newer RPGs coming out. More importantly, though, I bought the pretty awful PC port of FFVII that Eidos did, so there was never any true need for me to pick it up for the Playstation. I say the port was pretty awful because it was. For whatever reason, the FMV played upside down so that the polygonal characters were completely opposite of where they were supposed to be. Cloud would fall "down", but the FMV was flipped so really he was soaring toward the ceiling. Despite this, I recall getting to the very end of the game (thanks to FAQs) but never beating it.

Since the late 90s there has been a tremendous growth in the number of RPG fans, many of whom cut their teeth on FFVII. For a lot of gamers in the West, it was the first Japanese style RPG they had played. However, I was somewhere in the middle between the people who first experience Japanese style RPGs with the original Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES and the aforementioned FFVII generation. My first Japanese RPG experiences were on Genesis with the Shining Force series and on SNES with Final Fantasy VI. Parallel to this, I was playing a lot of great stuff on the PC, though Bioware had yet to revitalize PC RPGs with Baldur's Gate so I didn't have any real sense of Western vs. Japanese RPG design anyway. What I did have, though, was pretty impressive graphics on the PC, which made the primitive 3D characters and pre-rendered backgrounds of FFVII seem a bit off. So when I did finally play FFVII on PC, a game that was ostensibly the first true "next gen" RPG (again, Baldur's Gate wasn't out, and my last RPGs were 16 bit), it seemed more like a weird transitional piece between late SNES RPGs and Playstation and PC titles to come. I'm especially thinking of Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars for "late SNES RPGs" here, a game which also toyed with 3D and pre-rendered backgrounds (or at least, I think it did...)

At any rate, I neither loved nor hated FFVII after my first experience with it. I don't know quite how to explain this, but it ended up being a pretty forgettable game for me. This was back in the time when if I couldn't understand a game's story, I assumed it was because I wasn't smart enough to get it--not that, you know, the game had had an awful translation. So the story and characters didn't especially grip me, the gameplay and character building seemed a bit dumbed down from FFVI, the graphics were odd, and the music was weird, squelchy MIDI shit in a time when PC games seemed to be going for "real" music and orchestration. But still, it was an OK game, and my ambivalence made it unmemorable.

Coming back to it in 2009, my initial enthusiasm saw me make quite a lot of progress in a few days. But I only made it to a bit of the way through disc 2 of FFVII before giving up. While I don't think it's actually a bad game based on its own merits and the standards of its day, it is a rather unfortunate case of a game aging poorly and being done in by its offspring. If one were to make the argument that FFVII was one of the most influential and important titles of the Playstation 1, I'd be hard pressed to argue. Bad translation and awful sounding music aside, so much of what that game did was, at the time, evolutionary if not outright revolutionary. The way CG cutscenes and cinematics were employed, the dynamic 3D battles and camera angles, the lack of censoring or changing Japanese elements (sure they still substituted gibberish for some swearing, but still left multiple shit's and the weird gay bathhouse part in), and the way the game tried for a more serious, pseudo-spiritual/philosophical plot...it was all damned cool at the time.

Unfortunately, almost everything about FFVII has not held up. Assuming you're a blind fan who has played the game so many times you don't even see it for what it is, you'll probably never feel that it's less than one of the best games ever made. But I think most people, even those who were blown away by it at the time, will admit that it hasn't aged well. Most of the revolutions it brought to the Japanese RPG archetype have been so improved upon and finessed that I would posit the notion that, with Final Fantasy II being a bit worse, FFVII is probably the least interesting and least playable Final Fantasy game by today's standards. There's a charm and artistry to sprite artwork that never goes away, while early polygonal/3D games like FFVII look like ass by today's standards. At the same time, since FFVII's story was originally kind of a mess made even worse by poor translation, you can't even enjoy it for that today. And the character building system is incredibly boring since all of you're actually building and improving is Materia. Sure, character stats go up with levels, and they learn new Limit Breaks, but all abilities and magic depend on which Materia is equipped to whichever character, effectively making everyone interchangeable. FFVI had something similar with Espers, but they were mostly for summons and spells; the characters had inherent special abilities, however, giving them each more personality and unique-ness in battle.

I'd be curious to see what younger people would think of FFVII. No, I don't mean people who played FFVII when they were 8 or 8. I mean people who didn't play FFVII back in the day at all, people who got into RPGs from latter day Pokemon titles or what have you. Given the context of the rest of the Playstation and Playstation 2 era RPGs (and games in general), I just don't think FFVII holds up in any way: graphics, story, or gameplay. Still, it is a curious time capsule of a game, and one that is crucial for understanding the past as well as the present and future of Japanese RPGs. I will agree on those points, at least; just don't make me play it anymore. FFVII may have been one of the best games of 1997, but it's also one of the worst in 2009.

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