In moving into a new house, I’ve been undertaking one of my favorite traditions: the video game marathon. It’s an old habit, harkening back to the earliest days of my gaming life where, upon moving to a new house or apartment, I would play through all my games, from start to finish.
In my distant youth, this meant beating a handful of the Nintendo games I owned, like Vice: Project Doom, and getting as far as I could in others (which in the case of Legacy of the Wizard was about five minutes). Later, as my console and game collection grew, I attempted to do theme marathons. All the Castlevania games, all the Zelda games, etc. At least all the ones I owned.
Well, in buying (what I hope is) my first house, I decided to pull out all the stops and play all the Final Fantasy games. As this is the 30th Anniversary of the landmark RPG franchise, it seemed a good choice. Final Fantasy games are among my favorite, with FF12 possibly my favorite game of all time (come at me). Others, like Final Fantasy 8, I enjoy more than many of my peers, while some fan favorites, I can barely tolerate (looking at you, FF10).
I started at the beginning, with the seminal work, Final Fantasy. Remaining one of the best games ever made (in this or any other franchise), it involves choosing four characters from six different character classes (Fighter, Black Belt, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage). While I own an original Final Fantasy NES cartridge, I decided to play the Dawn of Souls remake. While most of the charming hiccups of the game have been fixed (remember the game grinding to a halt in Elfland?), Chaos remains stupidly hard. The extra dungeons are largely pointless, too.
But I digress (yes, I’m going somewhere with this). Upon beating Final Fantasy, I dove into Final Fantasy 2. A complete 180 from Final Fantasy, this involves named, distinct heroes (instead of nameless templates you create for yourself) and a surprisingly intricate political plot. We would go on to learn that even-numbered Final Fantasies involve a rogue empire expanding its domain, while all odd-numbered Final Fantasies involve elemental crystals being used for world conquest/destruction…but, again, I digress.
The mechanics for Final Fantasy 2 are radically different from Final Fantasy. Gone are the numerical levels to demark your characters’ might, as are the jobs. Your three principle characters are capable of using all weapons, all armor, and all magic. There are, essentially no constraints on how you wish to make your character. Want a battle axe-wielding spell caster? There ya go. Want a dual-wielding ninja who buffs the other characters? Why wouldn’t you? Sure, you must endure the contrasting stats of equipment and its effects, but the point is you can make what you want.
Another oddity about the lack of levels is that characters stats improve as you use said character. Hit Points grow very gradually unless the character takes a lot of damage. Strength goes up when a mighty hit is struck, magic improves by using magic, etc. The characters get better at what they do.
For many players, this is staggeringly confusing. For some, it’s overwhelming.
What do you mean, your character can do everything? Where are the predestined job roles? Where are the definitive skills for which the character excels? Where is the absolute clarity for who should do what? Granted, certain characters lend themselves to certain roles, but if you want to make Maria the badass, axe-wielding tank and Guy the Red Mage, you can with ease.
My playthrough of Final Fantasy 2 has been delayed by my efforts to ‘figure out’ how to game this system. I looked into all the cheats and hacks, like attacking your own party members to artificially inflate their HP, and to cast spells every round to bump up the MP and magic stat. But the more I looked for help in FAQs and online, the more I saw seasoned gamers advocating to basically ‘just play the game’. Equip what you want to who you want and have them do what you want. If you change your mind, just change the equipment and do some level grinding. Yes, shields block magic power and if you’re halfway through the game, bringing up a character that’s never used magic will take a hot minute then somebody who started out using magic, but it can be done. And with some comparative ease.
I’ve found this strangely inspiring.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled to ‘get good’ at art. With a pencil and paper, trying to draw a figure in life-like movement has been frustratingly elusive for me. My sketches look blocky and stiff. Sure, the anatomy is solid and I can accurately chart the movement of the thoracic duct from the cisterna chyli to the commencement of the brachiocephalic vein, but ask me to display weight of a figure just standing against a wall? Uh…
Languages are the same. Long have I toiled, and often, at trying to raise my Japanese and Spanish skills to any level of competency above native speakers asking if I’ve suffered brain trauma. Often, I don’t mind my incompetence, just enjoying the process. Yet sometimes, I find myself wishing I could jump forward to the end result of fluency. I look at friends who can jump between languages mid-sentence with awe.
I think part of that comes from the very false notion that some people are good at certain things and not others. Is there a predisposition? Sure. The long limbs that make an amazing kickboxer will make a wrestler have to work twice as hard. But you can be what you want. You might have to work harder at it, but it is yours.
So I plug away at my game. I study art and language in ways that are fun, not worrying about the optimal approach. Likewise, I play Final Fantasy 2. I gave up on min-maxing my party and instead just equipped what I wanted on who I wanted, and have played the game as I imagine it was intended. Thus far, it’s been terribly entertaining. I highly recommend it.
Video games aren’t just meant to be won. They are meant to be played. They are art. They are meant to be enjoyed. And there’s more to the enjoyment of a game than winning it.
Life isn’t all that different. Life isn’t meant to be won. Life is meant to be lived. Life is art. Life is meant to be enjoyed. And there’s more to enjoying life than winning it, than being ‘the best’ at it. Free yourself of constraints of the end result. Keep the goal and objective firmly in your mind, but focus on your next step, not your last step.