‘Not so Final Fantasy’ – The Series Turns 30

Not so Final Fantasy is a new, triweekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.

So, at the end of the previous edition of ‘Not so Final Fantasy’, I stated unequivocally that the subject of today’s article would be Final Fantasy XIII; specifically, why the game’s linear structure isn’t its biggest problem. However, given that 2017 marks the series’ 30th anniversary and I’ve yet to celebrate the occasion appropriately, I thought it sensible to move things around a bit and rectify the situation.

With that in mind, today’s article – which will almost certainly be the last NSFF of the year – pays tribute to the original Final Fantasy. Though not in the form of a simple panegyric. Instead, I think it might be slightly more fun to take a somewhat different approach and look at five recurrent features of Square’s classic franchise that debuted along with the game in 1987, and five that, though seemingly as old as the series itself, didn’t, alternating between the two in the interests of entertainment/not boring readers to tears.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, so let’s get started.

Crystals

Crystals were at the heart of every Final Fantasy game for a decade; including the 1987 original.

Representing the ‘Five Elements’ of Japanese Buddhism (Earth, Fire, Water, Wind, and ‘The Void’), basically every title up until FFVII revolved around protecting/saving these powerful, semi-sentient gemstones from a nefarious villain whose goal it was to use them to control or even destroy the world.

Things were slightly different in the original Final Fantasy, in that the ‘Warriors of Light’ (the game’s unnamed party of heroes) weren’t travelling the world in search of said crystals; they already possessed them. Indeed, it was these hitherto innocuous trinkets that marked them out as heroes of legend. Instead, their quest tasked them with defeating ‘The 4 Fiends’ – a quartet of legendary monsters, each one of which connected to a specific gem by virtue of a shared elemental characteristic (Marilith = fire, for instance, Tiamat = wind) – restoring the crystals to their full power and safeguarding their beleaguered planet in the process.

After ten years and six games, however, the role of the crystals would change. In FFVII, for instance, crystals were represented by Materia thus ceding their position at the center of the game’s narrative, while in XII they fulfilled a variety of roles from save point to dwelling place of the enigmatic beings known as Occuria.

Regardless, no matter what form they take, crystals remain one of the most recognizable features of the entire series.

Biggs and Wedge

As someone who grew up during the so-called golden age of Final Fantasy, the characters of Biggs and Wedge have always felt like a fundamental part of the series. Something familiar and comfortable, like an old pair of boxer shorts.

Yet, in actuality, this particular duo is a relatively new feature, debuting as recently as Final Fantasy VI.

Named after Star Wars characters Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles, they’ve figured in every subsequent Final Fantasy title (with the exception of IX) as everything from Blitzball players and shop assistants, to officers and founder members of eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE.

Fun fact #1: in response to Square’s use of the names throughout the latter half of the series, in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Lucasfilm named one of Queen Padme Amidala’s security officers Cid. Turnabout is fair play, I guess.

Airships

Traditionally depicted as a mix of 18th century frigate and old-fashioned Zeppelin, and usually the brainchild of the game’s own personal Cid, airships have been the primary mode of transportation in every iteration of Final Fantasy since the very beginning.

Faster and more versatile than Chocobos, the moment the player first gains access to these liberating aircraft is always a significant one. Opening up the previously vast world map, they enable players to explore hitherto inaccessible locations; revisit towns, caves, and dungeons at will in search of new side-quests and errant loot; and scour the land for any other secrets that might be tucked away in the far reaches of the world.

It goes without saying that the design (and at times the function) of these invaluable vessels has evolved over the years; in much the same way as the series’ signature crystals. Many of the most recent airships (FFVIII’s ‘Ragnarok’, say) have doubled-down on the sci-fi aesthetic that Square had flirted with in previous titles, while X’s ‘Fahrenheit’ abandoned the free-form traversal of the past, operating instead like a modern fast-travel point. Though, having seemingly taken inspiration from the James Bond franchise, it’s fair to say XV’s ‘Regalia’ probably marks the most significant shift in airship design to date; I mean, it is a luxury car that can transform into a compact jet plane at the flick of a switch, after all.

Moogles and Chocobos

This one will probably come as quite a surprise to anyone who’s never played FF Origins on the original PlayStation, but neither Moogles nor Chocobos (they’re a package deal for the purposes of this article) were present in the original Final Fantasy.

Chocobos were introduced one game later, in fact, garbed in their traditional yellow feathers and providing a handy alternative to walking during the early stages of the game. They weren’t as colorful or diverse in appearance as they would be later on, of course, nor were they capable of crossing rivers, mountains, or oceans. But, thanks to their charming design, friendly demeanor, and practical value to a foot-sore and battle weary traveler, they immediately established themselves as one of the series most iconic elements.

Moogles, on the other hand, had to wait a further two years before making their debut in 1990’s FFIII.

But, with their silky white/pink fur, vibrant pompoms, diminutive bat-like wings, and adorable feline features, a player’s initial reaction to the introduction of the Moogles depended largely on their ability to tolerate something that was so unapologetically cutesy. Though it was certainly easier to do in the days before video game characters were fully voiced; XIII-2’s Mog still haunts my nightmares to this day.

That being said, having played a prominent role in the stories of VI and IX, to name but two, it’d be hard for even the most cynical fan not to have at least the tiniest of soft spots for these characterful little chimeras.

Fun fact the second: The name ‘Chocobo’ derives from a brand of Japanese chocolate called ‘Chocoballs’, while its appearance is said to be based on Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Horseclaws’ from the film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Inexperienced Party

Although it wouldn’t be until ‘Memory of Heroes’ (a novelization of the first three Final Fantasy games) was published years later that we would finally discover the names of and a bit more information about FFI‘s otherwise ambiguous ‘Warriors of Light’ (they were called Daewoo, Floe, Sauber, and Zest, out of interest), one thing was abundantly clear: the game’s heroes were young – probably not a day over 21.

And this concept – the band of innocent, youthful heroes who, usually as a matter of fate or necessity rather than choice, become embroiled in a quest to save the world – has endured ever since.

Indeed, even modern Final Fantasy titles continue to favour this particular setup (everything from VII to XV, with a handful of individual exceptions, is driven by a group of adventurers barely old enough to enter a UK night club, let alone by a Bacardi Breezer from the overcrowded, malodorous bar), despite the increasing prominence of the morally ambiguous anti-hero in the wider medium.

Perhaps Square thinks its core demographic would struggle to relate to a cast of characters that didn’t qualify for an 18-30 holiday to Ibiza? Who knows.

MP

It seems strange to think a core gameplay mechanic like this hasn’t always been part of the series, but, before MP conservation became as important to dungeon exploration as hunting down save points and concealed treasure chests, the original Final Fantasy opted for a slightly different approach to magic.

For all intents and purposes, magic in FFI functions like any other consumable; it’s a commodity. Rather than class-specific abilities learned through leveling or the reward for equipping a specific trinket/summon, individual spells were purchased from shops and assigned to individual characters from the inventory menu. Moreover, they could only be used a set number of times before the player was forced to replenish their stock at the nearest inn.

This system wasn’t necessarily bad as a result of these difficulties, I hasten to add. In fact, magic was pretty well-balanced; it felt like a secret weapon that had to be reserved for particularly challenging battles, rather than just another resource to be plundered casually when the player felt like mixing things up a bit. So effective was it, Square used a similar system in FFIII and have been more than willing to experiment with magic in various subsequent titles. VIII introduced us to the actually pretty enjoyable ‘Draw’ system, for instance, while XIII disposed of the idea of MP entirely, making magic almost indistinguishable from standard skills and abilities.

The results haven’t always been completely successful; but, crucially, they’ve never been completely disastrous either.

Excalibur and Masamune

Until the internet confirmed that my memory hadn’t let me down and such fan favourites as Tonberry, Cactuar, Flan, Behemoth, and Malboro didn’t appear in FFI, I was going to talk about monsters at this point. But, rather than scraping the barrel for lesser known creatures that did debut back in 1987, I thought I’d focus on two of the series’ most recognizable weapons instead: Excalibur and Masamune.

Based on the famous Arthurian legend, Excalibur was the Knight class’s ultimate weapon in the original Final Fantasy, later becoming the go-to weapon for Paladins once it was infused with the Holy element. However, it’s position at the head of the FF armory was relatively short-lived, having been replaced in more recent games with the likes of the Ultima/Ultimate Weapon, Ragnarok, Caladbolg, and even the Excalibur 2 in FFIX.

Conversely, the Masamune’s origins lie in the real world, deriving from legendary swordsmith Masamune Okazaki, to be exact, who lived and worked at the end of the Kamakura period. Though, like Excalibur, it too has lost some of its prestige in recent times, relegated from its position as the joint best weapon in FFI (tied with the above) and the blade of choice for Samurai, to just another powerful sword.

Fun fact #3: Both swords are wielded by multi-limbed antagonist/comic relief character/summon Gilgamesh in various titles.

Summons

As I mentioned no fewer than 36,000 times during the inaugural edition of ‘Not so Final Fantasy’, summons weren’t introduced to the series until FFIII, in the form of Bahamut, Chocobo, Ifrit, Leviathan, Odin, Ramuh, Shiva, and Titan.

Apparently inspired by the Kami spirits of Shinto (as far as their form and function was concerned, anyway) they quickly became one of the most interesting aspects of the series: not just because of their effectiveness in battle or the always impressive animations that heralded their arrival, but because of the fascinating relationship between them and various real-world myths and legends.

Even so, despite this rich mythological tradition, it wasn’t until Final Fantasy VI in 1994 that summons were given a proper name (Espers) and a genuine backstory to explain their unusual powers, appearance, and in-game origins.

From this point on, summons became more than just mighty, transient allies the player could call on to get their party out of a tight spot during battle, but bona fide characters in their own right. In Final Fantasy’s VI and IX, for example, they were integral to the plot; while in X and XII, once summoned, they actually replaced the party in battle and fought on their behalf. They also gained the ability to transform into motorbikes and dragon-shaped jets in FFXIII, but I try not to think about that too much.

Jobs

Probably best known from FFV and Tactics, the job/class system that’s underpinned most, if not every Final Fantasy title to date, can trace its origins all the way back to 1987 and the original Final Fantasy.

At the beginning of the game, the four ‘Warriors of Light’ were able to select one of six starting classes (the number increasing to twelve later in the adventure, once the party had spoken to King Bahamut), each of which could be augmented with class-specific spells and armaments. True, it feels somewhat rudimentary when compared to the twenty-two separate classes offered in Final Fantasy V or XII’s comprehensive Zodiac Job System, but, apart from giving the player an impressive degree of tactical control in the field, it was this system that actually made it possible to distinguish between the otherwise homogenous band of heroes.

Most importantly of all, it provided a solid foundation on which V, XII, and every other FF game’s progression systems and combat mechanics would be built. Players might be unable to change a character’s job in IV, VI, or IX, for instance, but these titles clearly follow the same blueprint as that laid down by the original, nevertheless; Zidane clearly fulfils the role of ‘Thief’, Shadow that of ‘Ninja’, and Cecil ‘Paladin’.

Cid

Retconned into future releases of Final Fantasy to cover his omission, in the original NES version of the game a character named Cid was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until FFII, in fact, that the first true Cid appeared on our screens.

Then, as on numerous occasions since, Cid was slightly older than the rest of the game’s party; a gruff, mechanically minded NPC who aided the rag-tag band of heroes during the course of their adventure.

The character has branched out in subsequent years, serving as everything from party member (IV and VII) and King (IX), to robot (World of Final Fantasy), and antagonist (XII and Type-0). But no matter how he’s connected to the story, meeting Cid for the first time in any Final Fantasy game is almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

Fun Fact the last: Explaining the inspiration behind the character during an interview conducted in 1997, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi revealed it was always his intention to include a character like Cid; someone who’d appear in every iteration of Final Fantasy without fail and be welcomed by fans with open arms when he did. Which strongly suggests his omission from the NES original was due to uncertainty about the studio and Final Fantasy’s future, rather than a simple slip of the mind.

Well, that was longer than I intended; my sincerest thanks to anyone who made it the whole way through without the aid of a chemical stimulant.

Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that about does it for this week’s edition of ‘Not so Final Fantasy’. Come back in the new year when Final Fantasy XIII really will be the subject of discussion. Probably. Maybe.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

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