This week’s Wednesday Rant takes a look at where the numbered Final Fantasy series went wrong.

Note:  Please be aware that this article is merely my opinion.  The things I say in here may be extremely polarizing amongst some gamers…just know that as long as you respect my opinion, I’ll respect yours.  Thank you!

Allow me to tell you a short story.  The first time I played a Final Fantasy game (the original, on NES) was at my friend Ben’s house, back when I was in 2nd grade.  We spent three entire weekends working together to beat it, taking turns playing and drawing maps, taking notes, etc.  I never forgot that experience, and to this day, playing the first entry in the numbered series rockets me back in time to his living room.  While I didn’t play all of the numbered Final Fantasy games that way, my memories of II-VI are just as vibrant and rewarding to revisit.

Enter Final Fantasy VII.  With it, the series not only made the jump to 3D, but it also went from being a fantasy game with technology elements, to a technology game with fantasy elements.  This is a staple the series would follow from VII on, throwing technology in your face (such as Cloud’s bike in VII) rather than merely writing the story around it (such as the Esper Factory in VI.)  This not only shifted the focus of the story, but changed the entire dynamic of the series.  Look back at VI.  What threatened to destroy the world?  Some huge machine?  Some grand weapon?  No.  Three statues moved out of alignment…that was it.  That’s all it took to destroy the world.

With such an emphasis on technology, a certain charm of the series was lost.  Although, it wasn’t just the shift in perspective that made things different: it was also a new age, from a gaming point of view.  3D was the big thing, and VII was part of a class of games that attempted to leverage this new technology.  I hate to admit it, but the visuals DID play a role in this: while 3D was “OOH, SHINY!” back in the mid-90′s, Final Fantasy VI had come out just as sprite-based visuals were starting to show serious potential (and, leading up the 3D revolution, continued to show.)  I think this transition was jarring to me, and in a story-heavy series like Final Fantasy, it pulled me out of the game world.  Everything was vying for my attention visually, which made it difficult to focus on what was happening, rather than what I was seeing.  This aspect could have been avoided, had the series stayed 2D with sprites until the PS2/Xbox era.  This is no longer an issue, what with the beautiful visuals Final Fantasy games have shown in recent years…but it did make the transition much more difficult than it had to be.

“No worries,” I thought.  “It’s just different than what you’re used to.  I’m sure as the series goes on, you’ll get more accustomed to the look.”  But I didn’t.  Even as the visuals improved, the focus of the story still concentrated too hard on the technology present, with some mystical elements thrown in where they could be shoehorned into the plot.  As the series climbed in numbers, it started making the stories far more complicated.  Think back to the 4th, 5th, and 6th entries in the series.  They all had intricate plots, with a huge number of characters and twists everywhere you looked…but they were still simple!  Despite how much was crammed into each game, it was all laid out simply.  The twists and turns were smooth, well-executed, and in many cases, completely unpredictable.  Now, the storylines have to be as convoluted as possible, with a smaller cast than ever!   I realize this sounds like me saying “bah humbug, it’s too complicated to understand.  Now get off my lawn!”, but I’m not saying that.  What I’m saying is that the pre-VII games had amazingly epic yet simple storylines, while everything post-VII has to be as spaghettied as possible.  Complicated doesn’t equal epic, folks…in this case, it equals a lack of original ideas.

I think that’s my biggest problem with the numbered series now…they’ve started to run together.  Either some evil corporation is out to destroy the world, or some evil madman is out to destroy the world, or some crazy spirit is infecting machinery and making it go berserk…why not something that DOESN’T have to do with the apocalypse?  I love an apocalyptic story as much as anyone, but not when it’s the only theme explored for more than half a dozen games.  Why not do something like a power-hungry evil guy trying to merge parallel dimensions together, or some guy saving the world and, in the process, going nuts across the countryside?

Note that all of these problems don’t apply to the series as a whole…just the numbered series!  The offshoots (Crystal Chronicles, Tactics, Dissidia, etc) have been mostly amazing.  They explore awesome stories, with unique decisions, characters, and gameplay.  In fact, if the numbered series was more like the offshoots, you wouldn’t be reading this right now.  I-VI were amazing games.  VII was merely OK, but I was honestly expecting something a little more original than “the end of the world” for the first foray into 3D; everything after that has just been an unimaginative mess.  Recent entries in the numbered series seem to have attempted to refocus their efforts on politics and the world itself…yet they still suffer from the same problems.

Admittedly, nostalgia does play a role in all this…since I was fairly young when I-VI came out (I was in fifth grade when VI was released in North America), those games do hold a special place in my childhood memories.  Still, that means that I was in seventh or eighth grade when VII was released…the perfect age to “appreciate” it’s attempts at moving the series forward, while being able to process the more complex gameplay and technical aspects.  For the reasons outlined above, this just plain hasn’t happened.

The numbered series should have either been killed off long ago, or instead become what the offshoots are: explorations of different genres, with original stories, and attempts at not just different ideas, but NEW ideas.