Video game sequels are so different from movie sequels. Video games have the advantage of trying new things out, listening to what worked and what didn’t and then forging ahead with that knowledge in mind. Movies could do that, but clearly, they choose not to. The point of this is that some game sequels are way out there compared to the originals.
The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is a prime example, as is Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Both were sequels to very successful games and both were met with a tepid response. Oh, sure, you will find someone who will try to tell you that both games were the actual pinnacle of each respective series, but that same person probably thinks they understand David Lynch’s movies…and they don’t. Trust me.
This made me think of other franchises that went out on a limb with sequels and one franchise kept coming to mind: Final Fantasy. The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that Final Fantasy is the boldest game franchise in the history of video games. Can you think of any other series that knows what its fans want and yet does something entirely different anyway, pissing off some of those fans, delighting others and usually drawing in new fans, all at the same time? I can’t.
The first game for the NES was groundbreaking. I know, I know, Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest now) came out before it, but FF set the stage with its party selection feature. Want to beat the game with 4 White Mages? Good luck, don’t forget to take some Midol! That feature was what grabbed me from the get go. If I wanted to be a Fighter, a Thief and two Black Mages, I could. Any combination I could think of was available to me and I loved it.
Now, I know the original FF II did not come out in the U.S. until the last few years, but we will examine this one in order to full appreciate the boldness of Square. This game did away with choosing your party. Instead, you were stuck with 3 full time party members and a guest character who would change as the story progressed. The biggest change was the very frustrating leveling mechanic. As some of you are already aware, the way it worked was that the more you did something, the better you got at it. Using weapons made you stronger, healing made your magic go up and taking damage increased your HPs. But you had to sometimes force it, by beating your own party half to death in order to increase their health.
Bold? Stupid? Yes, on both counts. Square had a perfectly good thing going and could have milked it for all it’s worth (like they do now with FF VII), but they chose to try something totally unique. And instead of running, tail between their legs, back to the original’s format for FF III, they did something even more different than before: allowed you to change classes whenever you wanted! Pure customizable goodness in its purest form! Genius and dare I say…bold?
FF IV was bold in that the story was at the forefront and though it was melodramatic, it was still engrossing. Your party varied as the game moved on so you never got to customize it as you did in the previous game. A full 180 degree turn from something that many people found to be very successful. FF V made another U-turn, bringing back the job system of FF III, but enhanced with more modern sensibilities. And all that fine-tuning paid in FF VI, which had each character start was a certain class, but with the ability to customize them into whatever type of fighter you wanted. FF VI also was the first to bring steampunk aesthetics to the series, making it less “fantasy” and more “sci-fi” than other games in the series.
FF VII was very bold with its full on sci-fi/steampunk art style and amazing CGI cut-scenes that drew in millions of new fans to the series, which is a great thing, but also where the dividing line starts. For many people, this was their first foray into the world of Final Fantasy. They were not aware of the history or structure of the series, with each game having a new cast, story and world. Square’s habit of deviating from previous games was not known to these people. Which might explain why FF VIII felt like being anally raped to some.
Not to me. I love FF VIII, but I understand why people don’t like it. You want bold? How about no more MP, no traditional leveling up and no buying weapons and armor? How about a full on love story? How would you like the most powerful attacks to be summons that last FOREVER? A strange system where you junction your party to Guardian Force monsters in order to improve their stats was enough to make anyone think twice, but drawing magic spells from monsters really set some people over the edge. So after the euphoria that was FF VII to the drastic turn of FF VIII, I think from this alone I can say that this was the boldest move ever. All people wanted was FF VII-2, but got Emo Teen In The Tunnel Of Love. Square has huge cojones and they just teabagged you with them.
The underappreciated FF IX was like a homage to the older games in the series, which was nirvana for me, since I had been a fan since 1990, but was perplexing to newer fans who wondered where all the angst was. A chipper main character? How I can project my sullen, anti-social personality onto that? And he has a tail! And no scars! Square once again shocked gamers with a bold move that delighted some and angered others. The move to the PS2 brought FF X and its linear, turn-based gameplay turned off some, like me, but introduced a whole new generation to the series. Which only got pissed when the next game was a MMORPG and when FF XII was a single-played MMORPG. And don’t forget FF X-2, with its all girl cast and light hearted antics. Some people still have yet to recover from that one. Which is a shame since it is a really fun game.
So you see, FF has a history of doing something people love and then turning around and doing something totally different, which other people love. Then they yo-yo back and forth until they perfect it and do something else new. FF is constantly gaining and losing fans, which is so strange to me. I love every game in the series, none of them suck, but if one is not loved as another (VIII) people proclaim it to be broken and boring. Final Fantasy has taken the most risks of any series I have ever seen and more often than not, it has paid off.
Can you think of any franchise that is as close to Final Fantasy in this regard? I would love to hear your thoughts.