Thursday, April 17, 2014

Games of Yesteryear: Final Fantasy III, or How Four Onion Kids Fostered an Obsession






Welcome to the first installment of my Games of Yesteryear series! I'll be talking about a lot of games from my past, a lot of which you hopefully haven't seen discussed a whole lot. This entry might be the most popular and well known of the games I'll feature here, simply because of the series it's in. I originally wrote this for a Final Fantasy retrospective anthology that unfortunately went under, but now you get to read it for free! Hooray!


There are Final Fantasy fans, and then there are Final Fantasy fanatics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about Final Fantasy III. The third entry in the series was released in 1990 in Japan on the Famicom. While it was well-received in its homeland, its massive size combined with the Super Nintendo looming on the horizon meant the original game would never make the hop over the Pacific. Over 16 years later (the largest localization gap for any Final Fantasy game), North America finally saw a version of the game, although heavily updated from the original 8-bit release. Prior to this, fan-translated (technically illegal) rips of the game were the only hope for English speakers to experience a missing link in the series. And when the remake finally landed, I, like a quintessential RPG hipster -- equipped with a fingerprint-smeared Nintendo DS and NES emulator instead of a six-string and six-pack of PBR -- sauntered through my pack of friends chanting, “Oh, I played that before it had named characters.”
Ah yes, those characters -- those were what drew me in. The Onion Knights (or Onion Kids, depending on your translation) are the strangest leading characters in the series, if not in the entire jRPG genre. We’re never filled in on what in the world an “Onion Knight” is (though, I always like to think George R.R. Martin took his inspiration here), and the characters themselves are blank slates. While that sounds like a relic that hasn’t aged well, it’s also charming in its own way. The remake gave the kids names and personalities, but when I first booted up that fan-translated ROM a few years after Final Fantasy VII had brought the series into the mainstream, the sight of those odd, genderless youths with funny hats drew me in just as quickly as booming music and CG visuals ever could.
Those quirky kids held my interest long enough for the gameplay to really kick in. The job system, now a staple of the series, is Final Fantasy III’s most visible innovation. To some, “innovation” might seem a strong word. After all, Dragon Quest III used a similar class-switching paradigm years earlier, and static classes have been used in games for years, including the original Final Fantasy. Heck, we could probably trace the original idea back to chess. But Final Fantasy III’s use felt different, deeper, and it inspired the growth systems of Final Fantasy V, XI, Tactics, and even games outside the series.

The remake gave the kids names and personalities, but when I first booted up that fan-translated ROM a few years after Final Fantasy VII had brought the series into the mainstream, the sight of those odd, genderless youths with funny hats drew me in just as quickly as booming music and CG visuals ever could.

What makes FFIII diverge from previous class-based role-playing games? In my opinion, it’s simply diversity of the classes. Dragon Warrior III hewed pretty closely to the same classes seen in the original Final Fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons and pretty much every fantasy role-playing game, be they computer or pen-and-paper. Fighter. Cleric. Wizard. Along with a couple of silly classes that are more about solving some specific puzzles rather than battle. This classic combination is pragmatic, sure, but it reduces the combat decision tree essentially to “should I attack, heal or fireball?”
Final Fantasy III significantly expands this. Why have a generic Fighter when you can have a Dragoon, a mashup of a dragon hunter and 17th century European mounted infantry? Why summon banal lightning bolts and shards of ice when you can strap on your pointy Summoner cap and call down Bahamut, the God of Eidolons himself?
Those are just two of now-defining classes in the series that Final Fantasy III created; others include Geomancer, Scholar, and Dark Knight. And while those classes add some much-needed flavor, they also add strategic value in the same way the original game’s Red Mage played the jack of all trades, master of none role. Dragoons trade the ability to take heavy damage for the ability to jump out of harm’s way and dodge all of it. A Scholar will key in on an enemy’s weakness (invaluable before the age of GameFAQs), while the Geomancer sacrifices consistency and choice in attacks for an unlimited casting pool. To be sure, some of these classes are better than others, and in the end, you’re best served by beefing up a quartet of overpowered Sages and Ninjas. The idea of class balance came much later; most of Final Fantasy III’s classes were designed for use in a specific dungeon or two. But still, just the fact that a myriad of class options existed at all was a big step forward for the genre.
Of course, gameplay is only one aspect of a successful Final Fantasy game. Story and characters are just as important. In this, the game admittedly feels dated. The story is told mostly through the supporting characters, your motivation for proceeding is never really more than “save the world,” and the setting simply seems stagnant. The plot, unfortunately, does not have the same gut-wrenching emotion of Cloud sending Aeris to her watery grave, or Squall wrapping his arms around Rinoa in the frozen black emptiness of outer space. The story here is much more simple: evil sorcerer Xande threatens to upset balance of light and darkness by seeking immortality. A group of light warriors, aided by Xande’s former allies, Unei and Doga, gather the plot coupons necessary to find him, kill him and push back the darkness. Roll credits.
But even with the simplistic series of events, there are plenty of memorable story elements. The revelation that the respectably-sized continent where the game begins is actually a tiny portion of the entire world, floating above the ancient lands below. The village of the gnomes, which requires the player to shrink their characters to enter. Uncovering the Invincible, a massive airship fully equipped with a bed, shops and storage (a pretty damned cool feature for the time). And the old sage Doga and his moogles -- the first appearance of the furry little winged creatures.
The unreleased Wonderswan Color port
Final Fantasy III also introduces a theme which would become common in future games: the idea that the game’s main villain is actually just a henchman for a larger, more destructive force. In FFIII’s case, Xande is revealed to be a simple servant for the Cloud of Darkness, an almost literal embodiment of death and chaos. This sort of switcheroo left some players of Final Fantasy IX mystified, but Final Fantasy III used the same plot device years earlier. In fact, the last-minute appearance of Necron in FFIX is almost certainly a reference to Final Fantasy III. The two battles even share similar music -- a slow, moody progression of ambience progressing into an uptempo electric theme that’s more thrilling than doleful, especially when compared to the operatic climaxes of Final Fantasy VI and VII.
And that’s as good a transition as any into my absolute favorite part of Final Fantasy III. The music. My God. Even if you don’t play the game, you owe it to yourself to listen to the soundtrack. And make it the original soundtrack, not the DS port. There’s nothing wrong with the port, but it takes listening to the 8-bit original to appreciate how much work and originality was produced from so small a palette as the Famicom’s sound chip was. I can truly say, without exaggeration, that it’s some of Uematsu’s best work. He pushes the Famicom to its limit and squeezes out every bit of musical power and variation it has to offer.
The battle theme is simply the best standard Final Fantasy battle music there is, no question (all right, all right, Blinded By Light from Final Fantasy XIII comes pretty close). Two separate airship themes, both fantastic. Some of the most oft-remixed tunes of the series in the forms of Elia Maiden of Water, the theme for one of the game’s supporting characters, Tozas, the spritely theme of the gnomish village, and the solemn, Asian-inspired overworld theme, Eternal Wind. Several renditions of these songs can be found on official albums and from amateur mixers, but my favorite versions happen to be vocal mixes sung by Risa Ohki on the Pray and Love Will Grow albums.
All that, and I haven’t even mentioned my favorite song yet. Not just my favorite from the game’s many admirable tracks, but my favorite song from the entire series. Entitled Forbidden Land, it’s the song that plays in Eureka, the game’s optional dungeon. I forgive you if you haven’t heard it. To my knowledge, it’s never been remixed on any of the thousands (exaggeration, but only barely) of Final Fantasy remix albums, nor is there any representation in the fan remix community (a single Japanese remixer has tackled the song on YouTube). I’ll give you a second to go dig up the tune. Finished? Cool.
I remember entering Eureka and literally sitting back in my chair to listen to the music. Even in the best games, that’s an exceedingly rare reaction for me these days. I was blown away by the epic creepiness, the irresistibly catchy melody, the spooky minor chords and the key changing to a brief, hopeful major bar before falling back into dejection. I allowed the song to loop once, twice, and halfway into a third time before taking a step forward and promptly getting slaughtered by Eureka’s beefy inhabitants. Oh well. A chance to spend more time there.
Job concept art from the DS version
For all I’ve talked about the ins and outs of Final Fantasy III, a large portion of the American fandom’s introduction to the game came in the form of references from other entries in the series, most of which would be completely missed by unfamiliar players. I’ve talked some about the core Final Fantasy concepts that FFIII introduced, but even beyond Dragoons and moogles, there have been a handful of winks and nods that intrepid fans may have spotted. I’ve already mentioned FFIX’s use of the Invincible, but even more obvious is the existence of two key items named Doga’s Artifact and Unei’s Mirror which play an enhanced version of the sages’ song from Final Fantasy III when gathered together. “Onion” monikered weapons have also appeared in several of the later games as beginner equipment, and in Final Fantasy X, a plush version of the Onion Knight himself was Lulu’s ultimate weapon. And little oft-forgotten Final Fantasy III finally got some due recognition when it was included in spinoffs such as Dissidia and Theatrhythm with just as much reverence as any other game in the series.

I can’t claim that Final Fantasy III is the best game in the series; that would be somewhat disingenuous. I can claim that it did a whole lot of work in shaping the series that we know today.


Now Final Fantasy III has been remade and ported to multiple devices, which means the younger generation can appreciate the allusions somewhat effortlessly. Back in my day (he said, tapping his cane on the tile) we had to take the word of a friend-of-a-friend who had supposedly lived in Japan for a few years. Today, FFIII is playable on the DS, PSP, mobile phones, and it’s even being held up as a launch title for the recently-Kickstarted OUYA console. From unreleased and all-but-forgotten to a flagship title in just a few years. Not bad.
I can’t claim that Final Fantasy III is the best game in the series; that would be somewhat disingenuous. I can claim that it did a whole lot of work in shaping the series that we know today. Most of us will name Final Fantasy IV, VI or VII as our introductions to the series, and I’m in the same boat. But Final Fantasy III was the first game that really made me sit up and examine the series as a whole. It was the first game that made me think about the themes, art styles, musical motifs and game design decisions that make Final Fantasy more than just a bunch of games marketed together. It was the game that made me realize the entire series, with all its strengths, faults, evolutions and tropes, is something intensely unique.
The later games made me a fan. But Final Fantasy III made me a fanatic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New Schedule!

So, my posts around here have been pretty sporadic as of late. And by sporadic, I mean nonexistent. Some of it is due to my novel projects (Chanter is being shopped, Daughters is being revised), but that's not the only reason, and it's no excuse anyway. So starting tomorrow(!), I'm going to be getting onto a strict twice a week schedule. What will that entail?

Tuesdays: Literature type posts. Musings about writing, book reviews, maybe even some fiction here or there. This is where my Women of A Feast For Crows series will continue (and I promise, it's coming!)

Thursdays: Video gaming stuff. I know, I know, if you go back far in the archives, you'll see me specifically saying that I didn't want to cover video gaming here. But you know what? Games are one of my primary passions, so why not write about them? I'll try to make these posts outside the normal gaming-blog stuff. No talk of why Titanfall is OMG TEH BEST or why Kinect is OMG TEH SUCK. Expect a lot of retro focus.

In between, it's possible I'll have smaller stuff. But Tuesdays and Thursdays are the guaranteed posting days, so be on the lookout. And if you read a post, consider sharing or leaving a comment, even if it's just "lol" -- it helps me know that this is at least reaching some eyeballs!

See you tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Breathing Machine, A Memoir of Computers, by Leigh Alexander

"The secret sadness that underlies the proliferation of interactive entertainment and technology isn't only that we may lose their mystery. It isn't only that we’ll lose the pioneer feel of uncharted islands wreathed in newness, the half-finished thoughts of strangers surfacing in the distance. It isn't even so much that we may be disappointed by the thin realizations of virtual worlds and repetitive, static online games, or the barrage of social media. It’s that our appetites, wishes and fantasies are cool now, sanctioned and monetizable, and we are open to being exploited."

Leigh Alexander has long been one of my favorite writers on the Internet. I originally found her on Kotaku (where she still occasionally contributes), where her pieces on story, diversity and exploration in gaming serve as stellar counterpoints to the dudebro commenters giggling over "make me a sammich" jokes and wondering why anyone cares about that whole feminism thing.

Her announcement, seemingly out of nowhere, that she'd written a memoir about her youthful relationship to technology had me salivating (even if those dastardly Apple users got the book a few days earlier than I did). Anyone who's a fan of Alexander needs no convincing -- Breathing Machine is the Leigh you know and love. What about for everyone else? Well, it depends.

I say "it depends" not to disparage Alexander or her writing, but only to point out that the book is a very personal, very time-specific piece of writing. It's not about computers as much as it is about interaction -- interaction with machines, and our interaction with each other through machines, the evolution of which occurred mainly in the early to mid-nineties, when the Internet came out of universities and basements, but wasn't quite mainstream yet. To anyone who was an adult during this time, it likely seems a lot less mystical. To anyone born afterward, being entranced by text games and seedy chatrooms probably sounds a bit silly.

But to those of us in adolescence in that oh so perfect and mysterious time period, we understand. We understand GOing NORTH to PUNCH RATs. We understand the allure of anime, traded on IRC and watched in dark rooms with shitty projectors and shittier subtitles, back before anime was a billion dollar craze in the Western world. We understand pretending to be Final Fantasy and Dragon Ball Z characters, creating a world together and taking epic actions while ::speaking in brackets::.

The reminiscing reminded me of one of my most poignant online experiences, one that still sticks with me to this day. I remember being in class (sixth grade, maybe?) and being encouraged to participate in an international pen pal program. I didn't. What would I talk about? I asked myself. What would I say to someone a world away that wouldn't sound trite and ignorant?

A few days later, I logged onto one of my favorite chatrooms to talk about whatever miscellany normally occupied us (probably video games, anime and porn). I got into a discussion with one particularly brusque fellow about some minor Final Fantasy plot point, and when he declared he needed to get ready for work in the middle of the night, I discovered he lived in Australia.

In one fell swoop, the entire concept of pen pals was obsolete. It's easy to take for granted how much the Internet has expanded the scope of our social interactions, but for 13-year-old me, it was astounding. These are the memories Alexander's book forces me to regurgitate.

It might be fair to criticize the book as overly nostalgic. After all, who would go back to AOL chatrooms, given the choice? But though Alexander recalls her electric explorations fondly, she never pretends they were perfect, and doesn't assert that we could or should go back, even if they were.

She does end on a somewhat sad note by pointing out some troubling trends in the evolution of technology. Our shared language that was once used to build a community is now used to exclude those who look like past (or even imagined) tormentors. We erect barriers, not welcome mats. And the moneyed interests prey on our fears, make us suspicious of Outsiders so that we might buy, buy, buy in order to protect our Cred.

Breathing Machines is not a long book. It is not a thematically challenging book. You will not learn any grand truths reading this book. There are no historical tidbits or shocking answers to big questions. You may, however, recognize yourself in the author. And that in itself can be a sobering experience.