At first glance, the answer seems simple: Final Fantasy is a long-running role-playing game franchise from Square Enix. Beginning on the original Nintendo and carrying into the modern era (formally on the PS4 but also mobile platforms), the game spans 15 official and distinct titles, about a dozen or so spin-offs, a couple of crossovers (namely the Chrono Trigger and SaGA franchises), and half a dozen knockoffs (Record Keeper, Möbius, etc). Case closed, right?
In the truest sense, that explanation might suffice but what distinguishes Final Fantasy from any other gaming franchise? Is it merely the name on the box or is there something more? If you didn’t know a game was a Final Fantasy, would you be able to intuit it?
If you’re like me, there’s something a bit intangible to Final Fantasy, something that they possess that other games do not. Identifying that came up recently as I went searching for some new video games to play. I wanted to play a Final Fantasy-like game, but after a few false starts, I couldn’t figure out what I was looking for. Role-playing games are a dime a dozen, but even some of the best games ever made (Dragon Quest, for example) weren’t scratching this particular itch. Even some older Final Fantasy games weren’t doing it for me! How could Final Fantasy 2 NOT feel like a Final Fantasy game?! So I was forced to ask just what makes a Final Fantasy game a Final Fantasy Game?
Disclaimer: Your results may vary. What I define as critical to the franchise, you may find immaterial.
Further Disclaimer: I own the original Final Fantasy NEW cartridge. I’ve been at this for a while, so the role of nostalgia almost certainly plays a role. I will try to mitigate for that, but it’s worth stating upfront.
Final Fantasy has two plots:
1 – a group of four-ish heroes have to collect four-ish crystals that embody the plutonic elements (earth, fire, wind, water) to stop some sort of cataclysm from occurring, usually involving worlds merging.
2 – a group of plucky upstairs and rogues have to stop an evil empire from conquering the world in a manner that will end up destroying.
Often, the games are split odd to odd and even to even. Final Fantasy 1, 3, 5, and 9 follow Plot #1. Final Fantasy 2, 4, 6, and 8 follow Plot #2. Final Fantasy Ten is quite different and that may be why nobody likes it. I’m unfamiliar with the plot of Thirteen and since nobody knows (or cares) what Final Fantasy Fifteen is about, I’m not losing sleep over that one either. Final Fantasy Seven is pretty evenly split across both plots. Twelve is as well, although the role of the crystals is radically different. In fact, most of the games end up involving elements of the alternative plot to some extent. There are also lots of minor points that quite frequently get repeated (somebody always has amnesia, there’s always somebody named Cid, etc).
There are two major hallmarks of the game’s mechanics: elemental countering, and the job system
Elemental juggling is not unique to Final Fantasy, but it was present from the get-go. Fire weapons do extra damage to ice enemies; lightning does extra damage to water enemies, that sort of thing. It’s usually fairly straightforward, although understanding why Ice is effective against Fire but Water less so can take a moment to get used to.
More recognizably, Final Fantasy employs a job system in most games. It is from the first game that we get many of the iconic characters (or at least sprites) we associate with the game, such as the white-cloak-with-red-trim of the White Mage, the initially-awesome Red Mage, or the sombrero-wearing Black Mage (it’s a sombrero; come at me).
While the first game had six formal jobs, these were actually the characters themselves. You selected four voiceless warriors (mixing and matching jobs in whatever combination you wished).
Final Fantasy Two would do away with the job system entirely. In a bold move, the game had three set characters with several guests who would drop in and out. The game was devoid of levels or jobs but instead assigned ranks to various skills based off what the character actually did. Use a sword a lot and your sword skill went up. Took a lot of damage and your hit points went up. The system was more ambitious than admirable but the brilliance was evident, even if the execution was wanting.
Final Fantasy Three took a hybrid approach. Set characters but they would be able to switch jobs during the game, allowing you to constantly mix and match jobs based off what your needs were and what kind of play style you enjoyed.
Final Fantasy Four took an opposite approach. The characters all had set roles. Their jobs couldn’t be switched out but the characters could! Now customizing the party meant selecting the characters that best matched your play style.
Final Fantasy Five would be a return to Final Fantasy Three’s job system, only now skills from one job could be learned and carried over to other jobs, allowing a certain level of customizing of the jobs themselves. In the same vein, Final Fantasy Six would involve the set roles to the individual characters that Four used, but the characters could be somewhat customized depending on what summons were connected to them.
Final Fantasy Seven and Eight would incorporate similar hybrid approaches, with the characters being relatively set but increasingly customizable (through the use of junctioning materia and guardian forces, respectively). Final Fantasy Nine and Ten would be a return to Four’s approach by having little customization options beyond swapping out party members. Final Fantasy Twelve would initially lack any sort of job system, instead being more akin to Final Fantasy Two’s approach of a character’s role being defined by what he or she did most frequently.
Man, I thought this was going to be a quick little chat but this is turning into a real exploration. I think I may have to stop here and pick this up next week. O__o