An Amorphous Beast: The Many Alluring Faces of Final Fantasy

The widely loved JRPG series Final Fantasy is probably one of the most well known and widely adored franchises in gaming. The game series, which had its first installment in 1987,  is developed and published by Square Enix (previously Square before merging with Enix).  There have been over 65 titles released in this massive game series with the most recent being the HD remaster of “Final Fantasy: Type Zero”.  The games have been commercially and critically successful. They have been praised for their worlds, storylines, characters, music, gameplay, and visuals.  That leaves a question to be answered, what about these games makes the so successful? What keeps bringing gamers back to Final Fantasy?

Examining this brings even more questions to mind however.  Unlike other popular game series such as “Call of Duty,” that reuse mechanics, keep the same basic focus, and use the same system of gameplay with a fresh coat of paint slapped on it, Final Fantasy has changed vastly over its many years of existence, and branched off into many different subgenres. So what makes a Final Fantasy game a Final Fantasy game?  It’s a hard question to answer considering the game has had installments that could span the categories of tactical role-playing, action role-playing, massively multiplayer online role-playing,  racing, third-person shooter, fighting, and rhythm.

A specific mechanical change that highlights this variation across the series is the evolution of the combat system in the main titles.  The original “Final Fantasy” had what I will refer to as a true turn based system.  When enemies were encountered the character with the highest speed would move first and everyone would get to go in a row.  This would comprise one turn.  When “Final Fantasy IV” came out this system was changed into something called active time battle.  The ATB system introduced a modified turn based system.  There would be a set amount of time that would pass before a character could make a move.  This amount of time was based on the speed stat of characters as well as certain spells like slow.  This allowed faster characters to go more often, even getting more total turns than other characters.  “Final Fantasy V” further improved this system by showing the time until a character’s next turn via a bar under their name, and “Final Fantasy XII” even further adapted the system, allowing for time based attacks but freedom of movement in the environment while in combat.  Smack in the middle of these games, “Final Fantasy X” abandoned the ATB system for a conditional turn system. This system showed the lineup of whose turn would come next and the turns were determined by speed; however, the battle would not progress until a turn was taken. Additionally, actions could be taken to move a character’s turn back in the order and players could swap party members out mid fight.  I could continue, bringing up the tile maps and full team turns of “Final Fantasy Tactics,” or at the opposite end of the spectrum, the rhythm based auto-battles of “Final Fantasy Theatrhythm”  but it would get exhausting listing all of the changes.

Final fantasy VI combat

Final Fantasy XII combat

Final Fantasy X combat

final fantasy VII combat

This brings me back to the question, what draws people to this series again and again, in all of its different shapes and sizes? One of the creators of the series, Hironobu Sakaguchi, once said, “‘Final Fantasy’ is ‘Final Fantasy’ if it has a blue window with text in it.”  While perhaps not the most eloquent answer, there is a simple beauty to this.  It just means that the creative minds behind current Final Fantasy can take it in any direction they want as long as they respect where it came from.  Later Sakaguchi described the series in a much more eloquent way, as, “what is born after those who live intensely, run across a multitude of unbeaten paths to reach the same goal in the end. After all, we’ve always strived to do new things, and I’d like it if we kept doing that.” So perhaps the allure of Final Fantasy is that it is always changing but maintains its spirit.  Innovation coupled with nostalgia is the hook.  After all, I know I’ll keep coming back, and I eagerly await the next installment, whatever form it may be.

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