The worst thing that ever happened to Japanese RPGs was Final Fantasy VII. In 1997, Square had grown weary of Nintendo's bold and crappy experiment with chunky cartridge-based entertainment and jumped the Nintendo ship to land the next game in their enormously popular franchise in the calm, welcoming Sony port-of-call. For those of us who cut our teeth on RPGs with the Final Fantasy franchise, this move seemed like the ultimate betrayal...for about three seconds until we saw the screen-shots and any allegiances we may have had went careening off a cliff on a snowboard.
It had three-dimensional graphics! The game spanned like seventeen discs! There was a black guy in it, and he cursed! Final Fantasy VII wiped clean our preconceived notions of what an RPG was supposed to be. Until then, they were 2D, top-down dungeon crawlers with battles taking place on a mostly static screen with animation limited to a sword slicing or some sparkling pixels (the sparkling pixels meant magic). But it wasn't just the graphical leap that captured our stupid imaginations, it was a whole new convoluted storyline with a twist right there at the end of disc one. You know, the part when Aeris dies. (THE PRECEDING SENTENCE MAY HAVE CONTAINED SPOILERS).
The unintended consequence of that story-telling decision was to create a world in which many gamers point to the Aeris-dying moment as the moment some gamers point to as the moment when a game was able to make them cry. For those of you not "in the know," a game making you cry is a very important event for gaming. You see, if a game can draw from its player the same sort of emotion that a book or a movie can, then games will finally be art. This is extremely important, for some reason, that games be considered art, and so those people who cried when Aeris died consider FFVII to be the moment when games crossed the threshold from electronic distraction to high-art. Have you ever been on a gaming message board ? There's going to be a Sephiroth variant among the users. Sometimes, more than one.
Final Fantasy "6" was the last of the 2D Final Fantasy games. I put the number "6" in quotation marks because despite it being the sixth title in Japan, for those of us in the United States it was actually Final Fantasy III. Hence the release title, "Final Fantasy III." I refuse to retcon my childhood by referring to it as anything but FFIII, and if I do, I make sure to reference the fact that the nerds won in referring to it as Final Fantasy "6," but it's not the good kind of nerd-winning, like at the end of a Hollywood movie where the nerd catches a touchdown pass, or punches the bully, or founds the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It's where nerds themselves become the bullies and force everyone else to succumb to their nerdish nit-pickery. Well it's Final Fantasy III to me and as far as Virtual Console is concerned, it's Final Fantasy III to them, too. Ha ha, nerds! That's straight from the top!
So why is FFVII the worst thing that happened to JRPGs? Because it defined what JRPGs would be for the next...forever. Ridiculous costumes, over-wrought story line, seemingly impenetrable system for spell casting. Oh yeah, and racial stereotypes.
There is a legion of hopeless fans who will argue until their dying breath that Final Fantasy VII is the greatest game of all time. There are more fans who will argue that is among the finest pieces of art ever created by human beings. But it just doesn't hold up. Go back and play it again, with a critical eye. The graphics...there's no consistency there. Sometimes they're hyper-realistic. Sometimes they're hyper-deformed.
"They're just shoulders. No one will notice."
I don't want to seem like one of those kids who's too cool for school. I really loved FFVII when it came out. It was a game changer, no question. I still carry with me fond memories of it, but I can also see its flaws. I honestly couldn't play through it again. The summon animations alone, while initially impressive, grew pretty tiring near the end of the game, especially if you spent the time to collect the Knights of the Round. And the in the PSN version, the summons are still unskippable.
Final Fantasy "6," on the other hand, holds up. The simpler, colorful 16-bit graphics exude a charm that used to be included in every box of delicious JRPGs. The limitations of the system meant that every pixel, every blip and bloop and beep, had to be dug forth from the CPU of the SNES with deliberate effort. Think of an old blues guitarist playing some licks. Those looks on his face, when he plucks a note? He plucked that note from deep within the very essence of his soul. That's what the best 16-bit games do. Games with higher graphical fidelity flex their muscles by doing all sorts of cool tricks, but 16-bit games had to fight for every kilobyte of memory and the results are, when properly executed, more thought-out, more soulful, than any wiz-bang polygonal tom-foolery.
It's not just the charming graphics, it's the characters and the story. Where FFVII's story seems often convoluted, the story in FF"6" feels...well, it's kind of convoluted, too, but it lacks that "shocking" moment FFVII has in Aeris' death, and that makes it, at the very least, seem like it genuinely evokes an emotional connection to its many characters. FFVII just killed off Aeris because no one really expected it. It was supposed to show how bad of a dude Sephiroth is, but come on. It was a cheap moment in story-telling, the sort of trick you're taught in an intro to screenwriting class.
Bottom line, if you feel nostalgic you can get Final Fantasy VII on PSN for a mere $9.99, or you can get Final Fantasy III (as it should be) on Wii Virtual Console for 800 Wii Points, or about eight bucks. I recommend you go with FFIII, as it holds up better than its sequel.
Seth Macy writes fun stuff and co-hosts on the F List Podcast, which you should check out right now. Which FF game is the least overwrought and annoying to you? Let us know in the comments!