Neither Here Nor There
Gavin Craig has a lot of games on his shelf that he’s never played. Backlog is his attempt to correct that.
This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #87, the Rebellion issue. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
The Final Fantasy series is a huge part of my personal history with videogames, and, paradoxically, it kind of isn’t. Along with the first Dragon Warrior games, the original Final Fantasy was one of the first games I fell in love with as a child. I’ll never forget defeating Garland and crossing the newly-built bridge from the starting island to the mainland, and the way that the long-delayed opening credits made me feel like I was taking my first steps into a larger world.
I never beat Super Mario Bros., but after hours of exploring and random monster encounters, I defeated the Dragonlord and brought peace to Alefgard. Final Fantasy seemed even deeper and richer than the first Dragon Warrior game, with mages and monks, elves and witches, pirates and sea monsters, but I never completed Final Fantasy on the NES. I didn’t even make it to the point, so enticingly hinted at in Nintendo Power magazine, where my monk would become a ninja, my warrior a knight and my mages wizards. I think I got as far as obtaining the canoe, but I’m not entirely sure. This summer, when my brother and I got together to try and reconstruct on paper our old collection of NES games, we couldn’t even agree on whether we had owned Final Fantasy or not.
My roommate and I played through the game together. I dodged two hundred lightning bolts on the Thunder Plains and he became a Blitzball grand champion.
After middle school, I fell out of videogames for a long time, or console games at least, in no small part because my family got a PC and never upgraded to a Super Nintendo Entertainment System or a Nintendo 64. While I was astounded by the flashes of Final Fantasy II I saw when visiting friends or relatives, I found myself playing X-Wing, or Sierra’s Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood. Eventually, since the PC wasn’t upgraded either, I stopped playing almost entirely.
In college and after, it was Final Fantasy X that reintroduced me to games. Like most Final Fantasy games, the visuals were astounding — not just more advanced than anything I was familiar with, but lush and beautiful. My roommate and I played through the game together. I dodged two hundred lightning bolts on the Thunder Plains and he became a Blitzball grand champion.
The first time I wrote about games, as part of a group blog in 2007, the second game we covered was Final Fantasy IV. Four years later, when I tried something similar with a different site, the first game we wrote about was Final Fantasy VII. I own a copy of every main-sequence Final Fantasy game except Final Fantasy XI, several of them in multiple formats. I’ve never played Final Fantasy II, V, VIII, IX or XII.
I had never, until the past few weeks, played Final Fantasy VI.
Appropriately, deciding exactly how to get started was a challenge of its own. Initially, I assumed that I would just play my copy of the PlayStation re-release from the 1999 Final Fantasy Anthology set. I was just trying to figure out whether to use my PlayStation 3 as I had for Final Fantasy VII (the wireless controller was a big plus in this column) or to pull my slimline PSone out of storage instead (I’ve never actually used it and it seemed like it would add an element of authenticity to the experience). If authenticity was going to be an issue, however, maybe I should play the 2011 Wii Virtual Console version of the original American NES Final Fantasy III (which would let me play on the largest available screen), or hell, maybe it would be worth tracking down a copy of the 2007 Game Boy Advance version, which is reputed to have a better script translation than the other releases.
I’m not entirely sure what’s going on yet and, based on series history, there’s about a 50-50 chance that I’m ever really going to get a handle on things.
I’ve settled on the Game Boy Advance release, which gave me an excuse to track down and purchase a rare-ish edition of a game I already owned, but I played through the first couple of hours of Final Fantasy III on the Wii Virtual Console as well. I can report that doing so really isn’t necessary. The text is a bit smoother and tighter in Final Fantasy VI Advance, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with Final Fantasy III, and they both look just about as good as the other. The world is generally flat, as is to be expected from a game from the 16-bit era, and both the Virtual Console and the Game Boy Advance do a good job of reproducing the Mode 7 scrolling that felt like such a revolutionary step toward three dimensions in the early 90s.
Beyond that, most of my impressions are tentative, as must be the case in the opening hours of a Final Fantasy game. I’m not entirely sure what’s going on yet and, based on series history, there’s about a 50-50 chance that I’m ever really going to get a handle on things. It’s easy to imagine that stepping away from magic toward a world of technology was a refreshing choice in a 1994 role-playing game, and I would still say that the mixture of (and tensions between) magic and technology is one of the more frequently interesting hallmarks of Final Fantasy storytelling. There are some gestures toward player choice in the narrative that I think I would have found inspiring twenty years ago, and that don’t really offer much less agency than many games that use narrative choice as game architecture even now. (Terra might not really have the ability to say no when she’s asked if she’ll become the resistance movement’s “last ray of hope” against the Gestahlian Empire, but then Lee doesn’t really have the ability to choose whether or not he’ll become Clementine’s caretaker in The Walking Dead either.)
But it isn’t 1994, and it’s not really possible to view Final Fantasy VI with 1994 eyes. The recent revival of 16-bit inspired gameplay and visuals in games like Undertale, Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge and Hyper Light Drifter make a strong argument that game design isn’t teleological — the new tools and technologies do not render the old tools unusable — but I’m interested to experience firsthand in exactly which ways the storytelling and gestures toward grand spectacle are and are not effective in 2017.
My nostalgia for SNES games is real but shallow. It will not carry me though dozens of hours of a two-decade-old game. I am looking forward to discovering what will.
Gavin Craig is a writer and critic who lives outside of Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @CraigGav