The Innovation of Final Fantasy - Hits and Misses


Posted March 16, 2012 - By G4 Staff

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No one doubts that the Final Fantasy series changed the world of gaming, for better of for worse through their innovations. Their approaches to gameplay and cinematics have not only transformed the RPG genre, but have held a great deal of influence on many other titles across numerous genres.

Still, like many other franchises, Final Fantasy has also had a few noticeable missteps along the road where its attempts to break the mold have fallen incredibly flat. We’re going to take a look at some of Final Fantasy’s most notable successes in innovation – but also some of the series’ most fantastic flops.

Final Fantasy I


In the early days of RPG development, Japan looked to games like Ultima and Wizardry for inspiration. These games typically featured a first-person viewpoint for exploration and combat. While Dragon Quest paved the way for exploration in future RPGs with overhead-view maps, it still featured first-person combat. Final Fantasy, however, brought a whole new viewpoint to battles by having both the player and enemy squads onscreen in a side-view format. This was more than a simple cosmetic change: It allowed for the display of more enemy characters, meaning far bigger squads of baddies could threaten your team.

The original FF is notorious, in fact, for having regular battles that are far more challenging than boss fights. It also let the player surmise party status visually: weakened or status-afflicted characters would fall to their knees, while fallen comrades would be sprawled on the ground. It might not sound like much of an innovation at first, but looking at many of the RPGs that have come since goes to show that FF set a standard for how we typically view combat.

Final Fantasy II


Final Fantasy II took a very different approach to character strength building than other FF titles. Computer RPGs took the “level” system wholesale from tabletop role-playing games and made it a genre staple, but FF2 eliminated levels altogether, replacing them with a system that built stats based on how you fought. For example, casting magic spells regularly would make magic stats go up faster, while taking damage would increase defense. What sounds novel at first wound up being a huge mess, as it was generally more efficient for players to grind while assigning party members to attack each other rather than progressing through the game normally.

Final Fantasy IV


There has always been a distinction between the “RPG” and the “action-RPG,” though over the years the line between the two has begun to blur significantly. While far from a pure action game, Final Fantasy IV was the first in the series – and one of the first traditional turn-based RPGs - to pump up the pace of menu-driven combat. In most other games, you were free to dally around while you made your strategic decisions on which goblin would be on the business end of your Firaga, but thanks to the added horsepower of the SNES hardware, FFIV was able to implement a system called “active time battle.”

In ATB, foes would keep on attacking even as you were flipping through menus and making decisions, thus giving a combat a newfound sense of urgency. More powerful spells would also take longer to cast, making the tradeoff between speed and power worth considering. While the casting speed element never really carried on beyond FFIV, ATB would go on to be the most commonly used combat engine in the FF series – and would inspire numerous other RPGs to spice up blasé turn-based combat with additional gimmickry.

Final Fantasy VII Advent Children


The Final Fantasy that everyone remembers isn’t just the most influential games in the series, it’s one of the most influential titles in all of gaming. The power of the 32-bit PlayStation, along with the massive storage capacity of CD-ROM, allowed Square to create a story integrating cinematics to a degree no RPG had yet before. Prerendered CG backgrounds made the world look distinct and vibrant, while frequent cutscenes rendered using then-cutting-edge visuals exposited the unfolding story with a cinematic angle few games of its type had ever attempted.

While previous FF games had similar sequences, the limitations of the hardware didn’t allow for the Hollywood-inspired cinematic techniques that FFVII utilized frequently. What resulted was an experience that stayed in the hearts and mind of gamers around the world, filled with memorable moments and shocking twists that kept players in its thrall. For many players outside of Japan, FFVII was not only their first experience with RPGs, but with heavily story-driven games in general. The imagery and presentation of FFVII made a lasting impression on a generation of players, as well as being an inspiration to developers in a new era of gaming.

Final Fantasy VIII


Following up the runaway success of Final Fantasy VII was no easy task, and Final Fantasy VIII built upon what made is predecessor such a success: a complex storyline, memorable setpieces, and lots and lots of cinematics. In terms of pure gameplay, however, it made the same serious mistake Final Fantasy II did by shaking up established combat conventions without considering the consequences.

The Junction system, which allows players to “Draw” magic spells out of enemies and tie them to various stats, required the most tedious kind of grinding and allowed players to create a nigh-unstoppable party quite early on in the game. While FFVIII proved successful on the market, there was a considerable amount of disappointment among players expecting the same sort of stunning experience they got from FFVII.

Final Fantasy X


It seems like Final Fantasy goes through some significant changes each time it hops onto the bandwagon of a new console generation, and Final Fantasy X is no exception to that rule. While FF7, established a new standard for movie-style storytelling and cutscenes, Final Fantasy X took things one step further and actually used motion captured actors to convey the characters’ motions during these sequences. Motion capture wasn’t a completely new technology to games when FFX hit the scene, but up until this point it had primarily been used for capturing basic actions and stunts like attacks in 3D fighting games.

FFX was the first major RPG to make extensive use of the technology, resulting in sequences where character interaction felt far more genuine than the choppy, canned animations of FFs past and helping pave the way for the elaborate motion-captured cutscenes found in most modern titles. It also eschewed the then-entrenched ATB combat system for a more traditional turn based system, but added several twists to keep the pace and strategy every bit as intense as players has come to expect. This set the stage for further experimental battle systems in further FF games down the line.

Final Fantasy XIII


While FFIV, FFVII, and FFX had made transitions to a new hardware generation in fine form, FFXIII’s attempts to differentiate itself wound up generating a significant backlash. While the lush visuals and fast-paced combat (built on a unique variant of ATB) was near universally praised, the excruciatingly slow pace at which gameplay elements were revealed and the extremely linear path you were expected to follow through most of the game left many players bored, frustrated, and severely disappointed. The recently released Final Fantasy XIII-2 is an attempt to address many of the issues players had with the original game, and has been faring considerably better amongst fans and critics.

Fresh Batch Of Final Fantasy XIV Beta Test Invites Sent Out


If FFXIII was a disappointment, Final Fantasy XIV was the sort of disaster that left a black, smoldering crater in the ground to warn others not to repeat its mistakes. Launching in fall of 2010, the second Final Fantasy MMO was intended to usher in a new era of Japanese-developed MMOs, with gorgeous visuals and a story with the same sort of depth and intrigue seen in the more “traditional” FF games. The game players got at launch, however, was comically feature-strapped and unfinished, with little content to hold players’ interest and an interface that made performing basic tasks take an eternity. Dissatisfied players bought and then almost immediately left the game in droves for greener online gaming pastures, despite promises from Square-Enix that features would be rolled out soon.

How bad was it? For well over a year, Square-Enix didn’t charge players a monthly subscription fee as an acknowledgement that the game simply wasn’t in a satisfactory shape. While the development team is working on a seriously overhauled “Version 2.0,” the small playerbase the game has managed to retain (estimated to be only about 12,000 players) is a testament to how badly the game crashed and burned. It remains to be seen if the promised upgrade can build upon the ashes, as it’s still at least a year away.

The Innovation of Final Fantasy - Hits and Misses


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