Oi… Final Fantasy. Seeing as I spent countless hours playing those games as a kid, I am going to have to jump in.
Mostly, I am going to have to agree with Argh. The series has strayed very far from what it originally stood for, when Square was nearly bankrupt and Hironobu Sakaguchi had a crazy idea of updating the existing NES RPG standard, Dragon Quest, into something that would provide a more immersive idea for teenagers. It worked, and Final Fantasy 1 was followed by six sequels that combined meaningful plots and likeable characters with strategic gameplay that taught a lot of kids how to manage their resources (Ethers and Phoenix Downs, anyone?)
As far as plot goes, it’s between FF4 and FF6. Both had excellent plots, but FF4’s was simpler and more approachable for little tykes. For my part, I wanted to grow up to be like Cecil, renouncing darkness for light. (And I am now doing that as a catechumen in an accelerated RCIA class.)
FF7 is where the series really turned. Up until then, the games had alternated: the odd-numbered games emphasized gameplay, and the even-numbered ones graphics and story. FF7 tried to combine both, and made the graphics 3D. It worked, and for the first time, Square was able to sell their product to a mass market outside Japan.
FF7 had some issues, though. The cast of playable characters was much smaller compared to FF6: there were only 9 characters, and only one of them was different from the others in terms of gameplay, and she dies halfway through the game. The leveling (getting power-ups by defeating monsters continually) was much more tedious, and it turned out to be unnecessary, because the limit breaks/special moves were so powerful that the game lost all challenge once you were 2/3 done with it (1/2 way through disc 2 for those of you playing at home.)
But there were deeper issues brewing within Square, which really didn’t know what to do with all that cash from selling millions of copies of FF7. A lot of FF7’s success was chalked up to the replacement of series veteran character designer Yoshitaka Amano with newcomer Tetsuya Nomura. Nomura and his associate, Yoshinori Kitase, came from the world of anime and manga. Square promoted them because their designs were easier to turn into 3D graphics than Amano’s wispy watercolors. But Nomura and Kitase also brought along some traditions from anime, which were radical changes for the FF series.
The Japanese anime and manga companies have a bad habit of appropriating Western culture without understanding it, and adulterating it with elements from Shinto, or Japanese spiritism. (Maybe the West does the same thing to the Japanese by stealing ninja, samurai and so on.) But that is why FF7 replaced God with “the Planet” and the beatific vision with “becoming one with/returning to the Lifestream.” (In contrast, the previous games just had magic crystals and didn’t mess with religion, except that FF6 mentions goddesses in passing.) C.S. Lewis figured out how to have God and magic work in the same plot. Square didn’t really bother trying; they just kept trying to duplicate FF7 by de-emphasizing Amano and Sakaguchi’s contributions and adding more Evangelion-inspired pseudoreligious elements.
By the time we got up to FF10, the series had something of an anti-monotheistic streak, which ahollars alluded to. (Actually, that streak started with the spinoff, FF Tactics, right after FF7 was released). The gameplay had suffered, too; FF8’s gameplay and plot were convoluted compared to FF7’s, and FF9 simplified both by far too much. FF10 went back to FF8’s style (plus a lot of God-bashing) and the series never really recovered. It didn’t help that Square nearly went bankrupt again by producing a bad movie with the last of the FF7 cash, which lead to them getting bought out; Sakaguchi jumped ship and the old crew became mere consultants.
I don’t know about FF11 or FF10-2 (yes, they made a TEN TWO) or FF12. FF9 is the last one I bought and 10 was the last one I played. I’m not really a gamer anymore and I don’t think that anything is made in the tradition of FF7-and-prior role-playing games anymore. The games market today seems to consist of: (1) online RPGs (as opposed to novel-style); (2) first-person-shooters; and (3) sports games. I don’t like any of the above. The Wii seems to be the exception but I no longer have the time to learn how to play it.
But it was fun to reminisce.