In order to aid the short attention spans of today, pictures will appear sporadically.
Welcome to a new section of the blog, one in which ranting takes a new direction as I temporarily move away from attacking anime in order to turn my attention onto games. These ‘Dark Side’ rants aren’t like the normal moans, however, for in them I shall abandon my usual writing persona to adopt a more informal ‘Dark Side’ personality, who finds even more faults than I do in my default state. And so, let the ravaging begin with that one RPG that brought many of us into the gaming fold- Final Fantasy 7.
The first FF game for Playstation, Final Fantasy 7 seems to be the game that everyone has played, and back in the day it spawned much debate and discussion, not to mention numerous threads about how Aeris could be revived using some convoluted method, or how Sephiroth was the hottest bishie ever to grace the world of gaming. Ah yes, in those early times we loved FF7 and thought it was the best, and it was only upon going back to it after years of better games that I came to realise that while I will always have a degree of fond nostalgia for it, on a scale of 1 to Phantom Brave, it isn’t really all that good.
Enter the Dark Side…
So come on, who didn’t love FF7 way back when? I know I did- it was my first RPG and I spent many a late night hacking away at it. Back then, the game seemed huge- I spent ages just getting through Midgar, and that was only the first town. I’d never seen an RPG, and this was just great- catching chocobos, equipping weapons, meeting playable characters, I loved it all.
In more recent times, however, I ended up helping my siblings with their play-through of the game, and all the lustre seemed long gone. With each passing town, I found myself thinking “I hate this part”, especially when those accursed torture devices the FF series called mini-games were involved. More often than not, characters looked like deformed Lego rejects, whilst the battle system was so slow and excruciatingly dull that all I needed to do was select attack over and over again. I still had the memories of the good times, but beyond that, it was clear the game needed to be left in the rose-tinted corridors of the past.
How cute…in a “couldn’t be bothered to find a better resolution” sort of way.
When Final Fantasy 7 begins, you find yourself in control of Cloud, a man who is desperately trying to be cool and MANLY, but who only succeeds in coming off as a complete jerk with poor fashion sense, an obsession with hair gel, and a sword so big that it surely must be compensating for a deficiency elsewhere. Worse yet, as we discover later in the game, he isn’t even the badass top-class mercenary he claims to be- instead, he was rejected and given a career as one of the blue-clad generic guys you can defeat in two hits right at the beginning of the game! It was only after some unfortunate experimentation and the death of his best friend Zack that he stole Zack’s clothes and sword (that’s right, he takes the clothes of a dead guy to wear) and convinced himself that Zack’s successful career was his own! He even gets it on with Zack’s ex-girlfriend Aeris- talk about pathetic.
Next to join the team is Barret, a hot-headed man with a gun on his arm and leader of a terrorist group trying to make a statement by blowing up reactors. Thanks to his weapon, Barret can at least inflict long range damage from the back row, but you have to wonder how he can cope with a gun in place of his arm. Doesn’t it ever overheat? How does he do up his zipper? These questions must be answered.
Third in line is Tifa, a well-endowed woman billed as Cloud’s childhood friend- at least until we find out a few more details from their past. Apparently, Cloud was so moody and antisocial even in his early years that he didn’t actually make any friends, and in fact he barely knew Tifa. Even so, in order to give hope to all the losers out there, Tifa falls in love with Cloud anyway, which proves that you can be a complete jerk and still get the girl as long as the two of you grew up in the same town.
You’d think a guy like Cloud would be lucky to score even one girl, but as it turns out, he’s quick to set his sights on another party member- the aforementioned Aeris. The last survivor of an ancient race (creatively called The Ancients), Aeris is gifted with mysterious plot powers, and also just happens to have been dating Zack at an unspecified point before the story began. Having absorbed Zack’s personality into himself, Cloud is able to make an impression on her too, but as it turns out she’s fated to get stabbed by main villain Sephiroth anyway. Unlike those who laughed at it, I actually felt a pang of emotion at seeing Aeris get stabbed the first time around, but it soon became replaced with annoyance- either I spent ages levelling her up to get her best Limit Break only to have the game throw all my work down the toilet, or I left her pathetically weak only for the game to once again screw me over by forcing me to use her in the Temple of the Ancients. This infuriating situation must be why so many people wanted to resurrect Aeris (it should also be noted that when she dies, she takes away the equipment she was wearing forever, and means that the three parties sometimes needed in the penultimate battle are one member short), but short of starting a new game, it can’t be done.
The fifth member of the team is actually the best character of them all, so utterly awesome that I even used his name as my internet identity for years. Yep, it’s Red XIII, the wolf/lion beast with fire-red fur, whose cool and calm exterior belies his fierce intellect. His name may be taken from Star Wars (with even his real name, Nanaki, said to be an anagram of Anakin), but we can forgive him this transgression due to his sheer worth in every other department. He may have been made ugly and reticent in Advent Children, but the True Red XIII has the looks and personality to go far.
Sixth to join up is Caith Sith, a remote-controlled toy cat who rides atop a giant plush moogle (as you do). In all fairness, aside from the fact that he’s controlled by a generic bad guy who initially betrays the team before deciding to wholeheartedly join the side of good, Cait Sith isn’t all that bad- his character design is quite appeal, and there’s nothing really wrong with him, it’s just that there’s no real reason to use him in battle either. He’s just one of those characters who inspires indifference when the time comes to decide just who should be on the front lines.
The final compulsory character is crabby old pilot Cid, a spear user who will ever be renowned for the line “Drink your goddamn tea!”. At home, he mistreats the woman who stopped his rocket launch to check a problem with an oxygen tank, only to find out that she was right all along, and didn’t deserve all those years of being sworn at. He also has a cigarette permanently lodged between his teeth, which somehow made it through to the US release without being changed into a lollipop.
For the truly committed, another two optional characters are available to recruit- the irritating ninja Materia Hunter Yuffie, and the dark yet cool Vincent, a tortured man who lost his one true love and got turned into a monster. Whilst Yuffie is annoying enough to steal all your material and force you to struggle through a tedious sidequest should you go anywhere near her hometown (she’ll also steal money from you if you don’t recruit her properly), Vincent at least shows promise, but his status as a side character means it isn’t properly fulfilled.
Naturally, no game would be complete without its NPCs, from those boring one-liner characters to a whole host of generically evil enemies with evil laughs and a fondness for lard in their tea (seriously). Standing at the head of the bunch is, of course, main villain Sephiroth, the silver-haired bishie who brought the leather-clad, pale-complexioned look out of the music sphere and into the world of gaming. Want to be a badass? All you need is the right look, and the tendency to turn from a reasonable if cold type into a complete psycho after finding out your father experimented on you. From then on, you must trawl across the world, dragging the head of your alien ‘mother’ with you as you massacre villages or leave them untouched on your way to a date with destroying the world. Naturally, you must always be one step ahead of the heroes, but be sure to leave them alone until they’ve levelled up enough to face you, instead strewing weaker underlings along their path to help them gain experience.
From the generic to the convoluted, RPG stories have come and gone, but only FF7 offers a story so twisted that it is hard to tell how much is due to its base lack of coherence, and how much can be attributed to a translation so half-hearted that some sections simply make the barest of sense (the most memorable translation blunders include “This guy are sick” and “Off course!”).
In the world of FF7, the race known as the Ancients have all but died out, whilst the evil Shinra Company effectively controls the world, sucking life energy out of the planet with its Mako reactors whilst financing various scientific experiments. One such experiment is Sephiroth, who is injected with cells from an alien being found in a geological stratum, resulting in his eventually turning into a psychotic murderer.
After an encounter with Cloud and Zack five years prior to the start of the game, Sephiroth ‘dies’ and is either resurrected by the life energy of the planet or cloned, depending on which theory you give credence to. At this point, Sephiroth goes on a whole new killing rampage whilst his clones and Cloud (also connected to Sephiroth via experimentation) trail after him. Finally, Sephiroth obtains the Black Materia and uses it to summon a meteor to threaten the earth, in the hopes that the planet will respond and he can suck in its power to become a god for some reason. Fortunately, this meteor conveniently waits for you to complete all side quests such as chocobo breeding before reaching a critical point, and thanks to Aeris, her White Materia and a final boss battle, the Planet finds the energy to defend itself and the world is saved (although some thought humanity was destroyed until Advent Children proved otherwise).
That isn’t all there is to it, however, for other Sephiroth ‘clones’ exist, men injected with Jenova cells in order to see if it draws them to the reunion. Cloud is among these people, although with no number tattoo he is considered a failure, despite being the only person to actually reach the Reunion. Red XIII also sports a tattoo, although after this is mentioned once it is never referred to again, and seems to have no bearing on the plot from then on. Still, at least poor Red XIII turns out not to be the last of his kind when he finds an off screen mate, although where exactly she was hiding when you can go anywhere in the world by the end of the game remains a mystery.
As with all the pre-X FF games, FF7 uses the ATB system, where both enemies and allies must stand around glaring at each other until their time bars fill up and they can move. At this point, the familiar menu comes up, enabling the player to attack, use magic or invoke any other commands at their disposal. It’s a fairly standard battle system, but in these modern times we have become so used to better and more involved ways of battling that it cannot feel anything other than slow and dull- especially as one can proceed by just selecting attack without really bothering with more advanced commands.
For those who like things a bit more complex, however, the game offers the chance to equip unique skills by way of special items known as materia. Each materia has its own set of skills, commands and stat modifications, and by placing them into a character’s weapon or armour, that character has access to the materia’s abilities and attributes. There are good points about this system, such as advanced commands like 2x and 4x-cut (attack two or four times in one attack) or interesting combinations like Added Effect+Transform (each attack now has a chance of turning your enemy into a small frog), but the materia system also comes with one big flaw- it removes pretty much all the differentiation between different characters.
Thanks to the materia system, every character is almost the same character- their only differences are the limit break attacks they can use after they take a certain amount of damage (most of which are high-powered attacks with negligibly different results anyway) and their base stats. Sadly, although a look at the menu will indeed show that Yuffie has a much higher dexterity than her peers, and that Aeris has a high magic stat at the cost of her strength, the truth remains that these stats are buried pretty deep- compared to the obvious individuality glimpsed in games where a given character has their own strengths, weaknesses and special skills, the act of equipping weapons, armour, materia and accessories effectively makes everyone much the same. All in all, I’d rather have a system where each character has their own merits, even if it means there must be utterly useless ones to balance the ‘party of 1337’ candidates.
Mini-games and sidequests: oh god, no more
I hate mini-games. Okay, so there’s a handful I like, but they’re so few and far between that for the purposes of this rant they don’t exist at all- hell, they certainly can’t be found in FF7.
- Chocobo Breeding and Racing: Alongside prinnies, grunties and the rest, I love chocobos, but when it comes to breeding and racing them, I enjoy the idea of it more than the actual facts. Yes, of course I want my own chocobo stable, but when it takes ages to catch the right sort of chocobo for breeding, and then to find the nut it needs to get in the mood, it can all get a bit tedious. Even catching a chocobo involves distracting it with greens before slaying the accompany monsters- one wrong move and the damned thing runs away.
And then there’s the process of racing them around the same two accursed courses, paying attention to speed and stamina all the while. It isn’t too hard once you get used to it, but by that time it has become so tedious and repetitive that you long for some variety in your racetracks. Worse yet, the constant shuttling between the race course and the chocobo farm, the feeding of greens in the hopes that they are actually improving the bird’s invisible stats and of course the waiting for the “you can’t breed a chocobo that just mated or was just born” message to finally go away is a formula designed to break even the most steadfast and dedicated of breeders.
If you don’t want to get your hands dirty with actual chocobo breeding, you can choose to just bet on the races, something which seems hard to get right at first, but eventually becomes easier. Even so, expect your investments to be large in terms of both time and money, and your returns to be small.
- Crazy Motorcycle: Protect your friends’ van from Shinra motorcycles by riding on your bike and beating them over the head with your sword- quite possible one of the less painful mini-games, but still drenched in a kind of endless futility.
- Wall Market: Early on in the game, Cloud must dress as a woman in order to gain entry into Don Corneo’s Wall Market mansion, a task which involves persuading a dressmaker to make you dress, not to mention some button bashing in order to win a wig in a squats competition. If you want to go even further, you must complete other mundane yet tedious fetch quest style missions in order to pick up cologne, a tiara and even some sexy lingerie. By the time you’ve accomplished all that, you’ll be happy never to look at the accursed Wall Market with its HARD GAY body builders and terrifying group bathing in the Honey Bee Inn again.
- Snowboarding: Aeris has just died and the world is in danger- what better time to go snowboarding? To be fair, this game could be quite fun if not for Cloud’s tendency to slam into everything from a tree to a snow-moogle the instant you dare to pick up some speed.
- Submarine: I loathe and despise the submarine game more than anything else in this game, because whilst it isn’t too hard after you’ve done it a few times, the stress of the first attempt always stays with you. A timed event with awful wire-frame graphics and a depressingly slow submarine trawling through a minefield in search of the enemy, the submarine game set the standard for awful mini-games for many generations to come (or at least until FFX).
- Stop that train!: In order to pick up a Huge Materia and save the town of Corel, you must fight several groups of monsters, and then button bash in order to slow a speeding train. I’ve actually never failed at this quest no matter how ineffectual my attempts to slow the train are, so it at least can’t be said to be too difficult.
- Gold Saucer: The nexus of mini-games in the FF7 universe, Gold Saucer not only hosts the chocobo racing, it also lets you replay the snowboarding, submarine and motorcycle games (why?), as well as adding some other games that can be played- all for a price, of course. Some of these, like a rock-paper-scissors style virtual battler or super dunk basketball, defy purpose, but the most notable area is the Battle Arena, in which a character must go it alone in eight increasingly harder monster battles, gaining an additional handicap in each battle. To be fair, the Battle Arena does not offer much pain beyond that of the basic battle system, but the amount of times you need to play it in order to amass the many thousands of points needed for the best prizes is just another example of how something can become when tackled repeatedly.
- Time those button bashes: At various points in the game, you must time your button presses exactly, whether to dodge rolling rocks, match your timing with an NPC, or jump onto a swinging rod. Somehow, all these instances prove to be memorable in their frustration, with specific examples of pain including a time when you must whistle for a dolphin in exactly the right place, and another instance in the same location where you have to fill your lungs to just the right amount in order to administer CPR to an NPC.
- Weapons: If all that isn’t enthralling enough, the first US release and all subsequent versions of the game include two incredibly powerful optional monsters, the Emerald and Ruby Weapons. You can either ‘cheat’ by chaining ridiculously powerful multi-hit attacks against these monsters, or if you feel like a better test of your gaming pride, you must hack away with standard attacks for hours- take your pick.
- Fort Condor: A pseudo-strategy situation in which you must spend your hard-earned cash defending a fort from endlesswaves of incredibly slow moving enemies. I managed to beat it once, but now I minimise the pain by letting my party just go in and fight the boss.
There are other side quests and secret areas to explore, but other than figuring out how to manipulate the carnivorous plants in the Ancient Forest, they lack the unique pain of the above examples.
Behold the visuals of yesterday- and this is his more detailed form.
3D games are never destined to stand up well to the test of time, and whilst FF7 can still boast a few worthy FMVs (for some reason, the sight of chocobos racing past on the Gold Saucer date provokes an emotional reaction from me), sadly the passage of years has revealed much else to be disappointing. There are times when the characters look passable, but in other scenes they are hideously deformed polygon-deficient mutants, with huge heads and stubs instead of hands. I’d hardly expect a ten year old game to be perfect or even near realistic, but some sequences really are too hideous to behold, such as the collapse of Mideel, or Cloud falling off the bridge after fighing Air Buster.
Damn those spin-offs, will they ever end?
“…one day get some dialogue, Red XIII.”
With the world’s continuing obsession with Cloud, Sephiroth and the gang obviously providing fertile ground for additional marketing, Square-Enix realised they didn’t need to come up with new ideas when they could just keep milking old ones. Enter Advent Children, a film sequel so awful that the angry rant it inspired was too intense to even post on this blog, followed by spin-off games such as Before Crisis, Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus (note that the spin-offs begin with the letters A-D, leaving E-Z open for further exploitation). As we well know, there can always be too much of a good thing, and so too much of a frankly quite mediocre thing is hardly to be welcomed.
Thanks to my history with the game, I’ll never hate FF7, but whilst enough has been written about it already, the time seemed right to expound upon its many flaws. For all that this game and the FF franchise in general has done for us, the time has come to acknowledge that in terms of actual gameplay and enjoyment, they still lag behind the likes of Grandia, Suikoden, Chrono and the rest.