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Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly 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.
I recently finished what I would conservatively estimate was my 300th playthrough of Final Fantasy VII. As always, between dealing with the competing threats of a megalomaniacal conglomerate and a genetically enhanced warrior with delusions of Godhood, I spent some time at the Gold Saucer.
While I tend not to bother with the majority of the wondrous theme park’s myriad delights these days, I do still spend a few hours of each playthrough breeding and racing Chocobos. And that got me thinking about just how many hours of my life I’ve spent indulging in the series’ various mini-games over the years, and, more to the point, which of them I’ve enjoyed the most.
After careful deliberation, I’ve managed to compile this list ranking what are, in my humble opinion, Final Fantasy’s five best minigames.
Although I enjoyed a few rounds of ‘Justice Monsters Five’ during my adventures through Eos with Noctis, Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis, Final Fantasy XV’s take on gaming’s most popular side-distraction – fishing – became an immediate favorite of mine.
It might have had something to do with the game as a whole failing to get its hooks into me like I hoped it would before release. Which isn’t to say I disliked Final Fantasy XV, I hasten to add. I enjoyed it, in the main; I was just a little disappointed with its inconsistent storytelling, complete shift toward hack ‘n’ slash-style combat, and lackluster quartet of protagonists. But that’s an article for another day.
To return to the subject at hand, the thing I enjoyed most about fishing in XV was its simplicity. There are no lengthy tutorials explaining the nuances of the game’s incongruously deep mechanics or 101 separate inputs to master; all the player has to do is mirror the fish’s movements whilst slowly reeling it in, making sure the line doesn’t snap during the process.
That’s not to say there’s a complete lack of challenge. As Noctis progresses through the story and new locations open up, the fish do become both larger in size and feistier, making it slightly more difficult to successfully land a catch. However, even then it’s rarely frustrating, instead tapping into that ‘just one more go’ mentality that makes these kinds of games so addictive.
Clearly, Square Enix understood that all players are looking for is a straightforward mini-game; a relaxing distraction that takes full advantage of XV’s undeniably gorgeous visuals to provide a few precious moments of calm in an otherwise hectic game. And it certainly succeeded in this aspect of the game. Many’s the hour I spent at the water’s edge, admiring the setting sun and the gentle lapping of the waves whilst attempting to finally land that elusive catch.
Ever since I first played Final Fantasy VII over twenty-one years ago (crikey that’s a long time), I’ve always spent the first couple of hours of disc three breeding Chocobos. Initially, it wasn’t something I looked forward to all that much, viewing it as a time-consuming and occasionally imprecise task that had to be completed in order to obtain a few, potent pieces of materia: Knights of the Round, Quadra Magic, and Mime. Not so much HP>MP – I’ve yet to come across a situation requiring that particular ability.
However, once I learned how to manipulate the background mechanics to suit my needs and read Mike Eyal’s comprehensive and extremely useful guide to Chocobo breeding, I began to really enjoy it.
Every aspect is perennially satisfying: catching those first two wild thoroughbreds, feeding them the right greens, collecting the nuts required to get them in the mood (as it turns out, nuts are a particularly potent aphrodisiac in Chocobo society), combining my new prize-winning birds to produce even better offspring, and finally, dominating the races.
It’s not just the material rewards on offer to those willing to spend some time in the stables that draws me in, however. As an animal lover, I love the process of nurturing this family of colourful, surprisingly characterful pedigree birds, especially once I’ve started racing them and I start to bond with my feathered companions. Learning which ones excel on the short track and which the long, for instance, or which of my flock possess the requisite speed and stamina to actually stand a chance of defeating Teioh – the only Chocobo capable of matching the player’s.
I only hope Square Enix retain the identity of this particular minigame in the upcoming remake. It can refine the snowboarding, submarine, and that bizarre rock-paper-scissors fighting game all it wants; it can even spend some time fine-tuning the racing mechanics, if need be. But the breeding mechanics are fine as they are. Well, apart from the potential for incestuous pairings, obviously… Yeah, that should probably be cut.
Continuing the animal theme, my pick for 3rd is Final Fantasy IX’s Chocobo Hot and Cold; an item finding game that, using the Chocobo’s famous ‘Kweh’ sound as an indicator of proximity, tasks players with unearthing a bottomless treasure trove of valuables buried throughout a trio of small map screens.
Again, it’s a mini-game that’s simple mechanics make it easy to fall back on when the player is looking to take a break from the main story, but one that promises plenty of rare items for those willing to invest a disproportionate amount of hours to it over the course of the adventure. Particularly as a special type of treasure known as a ‘Chocograph’ provides clues as to the whereabouts of additional caches dotted around the overworld map itself, the best of which being filled with powerful weapons, such as Steiner’s Ragnarok, as well as a handful of rare cards; a desirable prize for anyone who enjoys Tetra Master: IX’s fun but slightly wonky CCG.
“Vamo’ Alla Flamenco”, meanwhile, Hot and Cold’s accompanying soundtrack, is one of the best pieces in the entire game. A catchy tune that, with its upbeat tempo and just a dash of Spanish flair, doesn’t get old, no matter how many times you hear it. Yet more proof, if any was needed at this point, of composer Nobuo Uematsu’s sheer versatility and prodigious musical skill.
And, although they’re quite limited in scope and look somewhat dated by 2018 standards, spoiled as we are by the graphical fidelity and artistic brilliance of modern titles, there’s something ineffably charming about the three arenas in which the game takes place: the Chocobo Forest, Lagoon, and Air Garden. Like the rest of Final Fantasy IX, it hearkens back to the high fantasy/fairy tale aesthetic of the series’ early days.
Of all the minigames mentioned on this list, the one I’ve probably spent the most time with over the years is Blitzball. As a matter of fact, the day I got Final Fantasy X, I played for five hours non-stop, just so I could reach Luca and try out this strangely compelling mix of football and water polo for myself.
The initial tournament, the one I spent so long trying to reach, isn’t just fun, however, it serves as an excellent tutorial for the game, teaching players the basics in a largely pressure-free situation that ties in neatly with the wider narrative – in as much as it signals Wakka’s (supposedly) final game before retiring and committing himself fully to Yuna’s selfless quest.
Moreover, it perfectly encapsulates exactly what the player’s team, the Besaid Aurochs, represent; a lovable sporting underdog similar in spirit to the likes of The Mighty Ducks or the Cool Runnings gang. Giving the player a reason, if the enjoyable mechanics and rich supporting systems weren’t enough, to try their best to lead the hapless islanders to victory and, eventually, dominance over the rest of the Blitzballing world.
There are a few things that hold it back, however, preventing it from taking top spot on my list. Aside from the inexplicable decision of every Blitzball player in the world to stick rigidly to the equatorial regions of the arena, moving in a strictly horizontal direction and completing failing to make use of the three-dimensional space available to them, my primary issue with the game is the ever-declining difficulty. Once the player’s squad of players have learned a couple of overpowered abilities like the Jecht Shot’s 1 and 2, Invisible Shot, and Nap Tackle 3, losing is such a rare occurrence it becomes almost unheard of. I mean, I guess I could just eschew those particular techniques… But that might produce the opposite effect. Maybe next time.
Keeping Blitzball from the top spot is triple triad; Final Fantasy VIII’s modest, yet addictive and ridiculously fun collectible card game.
The basic form of triple triad is fairly straightforward. Using a deck of five cards (comprised of VIII’s numerous monsters, guardian forces, and a handful of its most important human characters), the player and their NPC opponent compete to occupy the majority of the game’s 3×3 square board with cards of their own color: blue for the player, pink for the computer. To do this, the player must try to capture as many of the opponent’s cards as possible, whilst protecting their own from retaliatory strikes, which is in turn accomplished by placing cards of a higher rank next to a weaker opponent – each card having an innate strength value corresponding to each of its four sides, indicated by a number located in the top left corner. If that sounds a little confusing, this video tutorial (created by YouTuber ladygilwen) provides a clear and concise explanation.
Things start to get slightly more complex once Squall and company have ventured slightly further afield during the course of their adventure, each town and city the party visit adding their own unique rules upon arrival. For example, one introduces a mathematical element to proceedings, while a second adds elemental tiles to the board which enhance any cards played on them that share the corresponding attribute; a third even randomizes the player’s starting deck, which can be particularly tricky to cope with if you have a large collection.
Yet, despite these modifications, the game remains highly entertaining throughout (especially if players make regular trips back to Balamb Town to reset the rules whenever a particularly complicated one is introduced), requiring a mixture of strategic placement and effective card combinations to succeed, and possessing a level of depth that’s really quite surprising for such an unassuming game.
The greatest testament to its success, however, has to be the release of a stand-alone mobile version in 2015 which, to date, has an estimated install base of 500,000. It’s very much a ‘freemium’ game, unfortunately, using pay walls to restrict players unwilling to spend money on microtransactions to a limited number of games per day. Still, with a raft of new cards representing various Final Fantasy characters past and present, and plenty of crisp new illustrations, it’s not bad if you’re only looking for a casual game every now and then.
Given the nature of this article I’m sure there are more than a few conflicting opinions. For one thing, I’d imagine there are those who’d contest that Final Fantasy XII’s hunting mini-game deserves a spot on this list. Indeed, it would almost certainly have made it into the top two if, at the last minute, I hadn’t decided it was closer to a series of side-quests than a bona fide mini-game. Regardless, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments.
Other than that, all that’s left to say is be sure to return in a couple of weeks’ time when the topic will be Final Fantasy XI: the series’ first foray into MMO territory.
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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