It’s been a great year for games, hasn’t it? A feast most exquisite by most accounts. Regardless of your particular poison there’s something for you. In the tail end of 2016 we had plenty wonderful games that likely overflowed into this year for many people. With Final Fantasy 15, Pokemon Sun & Moon, The Last Guardian, Titanfall 2, Dragon Quest Builders, Gears of War 4, the entire PSVR platform, Civilization 6, Battlefield 1… No one can really blame you for not being able to put a nice crisp bow on last year and walk clean into this one. Aside from the launch of Nintendo’s Switch and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we still had a flurry of critical or cult hits like Gravity Rush 2, Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, Torment:Tides of Numenara, Nier: Automata, Persona 5, Mass Effect Andromeda, Yooka-Laylee, so on and so forth. Hopefully you’re catching my drift of there are simply too few of hours in the day, week, month, and year to keep up with all of this. Sure quality can be called into question with the likes of items like Mass Effect Andromeda or The Last Guardian. End of the day though they’re not bad games that clearly have their supporters… The larger part of us just lost them in the deluge of video game releases since then. So really where do you even begin if you’re wanting to pick something up to play? Some sort by game completion times to get the best bang for their buck. Others stick to their franchises or genres of choice. Maybe cruise down to Metacritic and start with the highest rated? Perhaps the road less traveled and grabbing whichever you’ve heard the least about?

I’m really not hear to talk about creating a priority list for tackling down all these games though. What’s been nagging on my brain lately is impact of a game on us as individuals. Why is it that something like Kingdom Hearts 0.2 ~ A fragmentary passage can create such an impact on me to the point of being one of my favorite experiences of the year. Compared to games like Destiny 2 which is a hotly anticipated reset, acting as a much needed reset to create a fresh jump point for new fans… KH 0.2 could be considered a glorified tech demo for Kingdom Hearts 3 with about 2 hours of content alongside an intro cinematic retelling the stories thus far in the erratically organized series. I’ve spent near 70 hours with Destiny 2 this point yet at the end of the day I rather have that snippet of KH in my life. It’s weird, isn’t it? Or is it?

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16-Bit Cloud Strife (FF Record Keeper)

16-Bit Cloud Strife (FF Record Keeper)

When Final Fantasy Record Keeper first launched, I thought it was a hoot. It gave me the opportunity to play through a Reader’s Digest version of all my favorite Final Fantasy games. At least that was the promise. I hadn’t played Final Fantasy 7 in a year or two at that point so I was intrigued on getting a quick tour of the story, world, and characters again. Mechanically it played like the SNES era titles with ATB turn-based combat yet it also brought post-SNES games back in line with cute little sprite versions of our heroes. Seeing locations recreated from settings I knew while listening to tunes from their respected games was great. As I grinded through those worlds to max out my little 16-bit inspired Cloud Strife sprite, I began to feel a small tinge of disdain for the game. For whatever reason it just didn’t feel special anymore… and not just for that game, but the worlds contained within it as well. My disinterest grew as I felt compelled to grind up in levels just to continue plowing through the missions. Eventually I’d get to just setting the game to auto-battle through encounters while I watched Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt episodes in succession. The fun had died and once I broke from the compulsion to continue clicking character commands carelessly I uninstalled the game never to look back.

Despite It burned hot on my mobile for about a month or two I was never able to finish the story of FF7 I started in it. The chapters were broken up in an extremely non-linear fashion among the rest of the FF series, the furthest point they took me to was the raid on Shinra Tower just before leaving Midgar. Afterwards it forced me by design to travel to Final Fantasy 4, and from there to Final Fantasy 9, etc. It left me bitter towards the brand, a feeling that I hadn’t had before that. Even through Dissidia, Threatrhytm, and countless other spin-offs of the series I hadn’t felt this exhaustion towards Square or it’s IP. What the hell just happened? How did an unassuming mobile recap of some of my favorite games just turn me against them?

Musing on the experience or what I got out of it I realized the problem. It had taken one of the characters that was special to me, from a game I loved, and churned out a product that had none of the care or respect baked in. This wasn’t the first time either. “Well shit…” I thought as I went back through my head of all the games Cloud appeared in. Square has been watering him down for nearly a decade at this point. Every time they wanted to push a new product they’d shove Cloud into the code and shuffle the puppet on stage to detract from how bullshit it was. Seriously, take a list at all these games Cloud Strife has made an appearance in since the original Final Fantasy 7 back in 1997.

  • Before Crisis: FF7
  • Crisis Core: FF7
  • FF7: Advent Children
  • On the Way to a Smile: Episode Denzel
  • FF7: Dirge of Cerberus
  • Last Order: FF7
  • Ehrgeiz
  • Chocobo Racing
  • Itadaki Street Special
  • Itadaki Street Portable
  • LittleBigPlanet 2
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call
  • Final Fantasy Explorers
  • FF7: G-Bike
  • Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U
  • Final Fantasy Tactics / War of the Lions
  • Kingdom Hearts
  • Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories
  • Kingdom Hearts 2
  • Kingdom Hearts coded
  • Dissidia Final Fantasy
  • Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy
  • Final Fantasy Record Keeper
  • Final Fantasy All the Bravest
  • World of Final Fantasy
"Remember when I was genuinely interesting, cool, damaged, and an anti-hero worth celebrating, kids?!"

“Remember when I was genuinely interesting, cool, damaged, and an anti-hero worth celebrating, kids?!”

Nice list eh? Sure you can break it down to a few core groupings like “Compilation of FF7” or “Kingdom Hearts”, but it stands that Cloud Strife is one of the most overused characters in the series. I’m sure I’ve missed something, but that list stands at a tall 27 games to date over 19 years, averaging more than one appearance per year. Hell, even from a  marketing standpoint there are multiple action figures and statues available with several depictions of his transformations through the years. With his prominence in Kingdom Hearts plus the planned Final Fantasy 7 Remake I don’t foresee his role as the brand of Final Fantasy dying any time soon either.

When Final Fantasy 7 first rolled out it was highly regarded for it’s story complexity, specifically in the case of Cloud. While the amnesia angle has become a groan-worthy trope at this point, back in 1997 upon release it wasn’t as traversed. JRPGs in general were few and far between in the US, social media at least a decade away from taking off, and critical dissent of games even further. People were excited and enthralled by this new tale to explore. Cloud’s memories were uncertain, his past recalled was an amalgamation of lived events, a dead friend’s stories, and the dreams of who he wanted to become. The level of psychosis was a curiosity most hadn’t played through in a game before. Beyond that his demeanor was uncommon in the media at the time – Rife with self-doubt, spikes of brash arrogance, distrust of himself, and most importantly deeply vulnerable at a level unbecoming of a lead role. Half of the game was spent trying to discover the truth of who he really was and going on that journey chasing Sephiroth, a complicated man who had control over Cloud.. The air of darkness and uncertainty of Cloud’s origin made his story worth remembering… or at least intriguing enough to want to get to the next disc of the game. It was special. His story was crafted in a way that Square just doesn’t write characters any more. Afterwards they tried again with the next entry in the series featuring a heavily introverted Squall Lionheart. Sure he lacked social grace but for the most part he played the role of a confident hero. The player never had any doubts on who he was or what his part was in the grand scheme of things. The mysteries just weren’t there to inspire the imagination as much. Zidane, Tidus, Vaan… None came even remotely close to the level of interest generated by Cloud. Eventually we’d lead into Lightning from FF13, designed primarily as a female version of Cloud by Tetsuya Nomura. Throughout her trilogy of games she shares a lot of similar traits as Cloud… IE; self-doubt, reluctant hero, mercenary playing a role, uncertain ties to the villain, redemptive journey, and constantly edging on the side of darkness – but Lightning walks away feeling every bit her own character thankfully. Despite ya know, even being dressed in Cloud’s garb. My point here is despite how badly Square wants to recreate a character as cherished as Cloud, even after 19 years lightning just hasn’t struck twice.

Record Keeper’s existence is a crass cash grab by Square to capitalize on the days gone by them. Final Fantasy was once a name that meant undeniable quality. It’s had it’s fair share of fair-weather fans as well as die-hards. I’m not looking to label it as a fallen franchise by any means, but it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t quite have the appeal it once did, even in it’s home country of Japan. Offerings like Record Keeper seem like a harmless jaunt through memory lane at first, yet in time it became a sour note that drains the emotions I felt for those games. Every time I see Cloud now I’m just reminded of how far he’s come from being who I remember him as. Sure the original game hasn’t changed. Like Cloud himself though the memories of who he is through all the lenses I’ve seen him through at this point has left me uncertain with what’s the real Cloud Strife anymore. He’s been so diluted and devalued it’s hard to say what we ever saw in him. Maybe my original outing was misunderstood and all these new renditions are more accurately reflecting his actual nature? An unfortunate side effect of being bombarded by his appearances is I’m just starting to not care anymore. That ping of excitement in my brain from when I see an old friend has been replaced with the unsettling familiarity of when you cross paths with Ned down from accounting, unable to dodge his gaze and are forced to greet him with a feigned smile and small talk about the weather.

Thanks Square. Keep up the good work and I hope those quarterly figures are worth the permanent loss of integrity.

Of course then there’s one shot at redemption. I was in complete denial, a blubbering idiot when E3 2015 revealed Final Fantasy 7 Remake. The trailer was cut perfectly. I was filled with so many emotions as the narrator spoke of a promise and a that unmistakable silhouette filled the screen. This is how it should feel when things are done with care. Instead of an easy write-off or disingenuous tug at my purse strings, I’m left feeling like Square actually gives a shit about doing things right again. Final Fantasy 15 is reinforcing that hope that just *MAYBE* when the FF7R releases I’ll feel like once again, Cloud Strife is something special.

FF7 Remake

“The promise has been made”

Final Fantasy is as nebulous a title as most of Square’s subtitles. I should insert a recycled joke about there being nothing final about the series, but it’s been done to death. All the games within the series fly under the same banner and share some consistencies between them still. So what exactly makes the brand of Final Fantasy, and why is it special among the endless sea of RPGs out there? In a world where the genre has lost it’s luster as it’s strongest qualities of storytelling and character growth have become commonplace among every other type of game, what do RPGs, let alone Final Fantasy really have to offer anymore?

Final Fantasy X

Sure, some this has been covered to death. None of it has quite hit the mark with me as being the core essence of Final Fantasy. By the end of those articles I’m still left wondering what the deeper connection is between them. Why can I jump from FF4 on SNES to FF8 on PS1 to FF13 on PS3… Nearly two decades later and it still instill the same feelings despite being so disconnected? Lists a plenty share the top layer points like engineers named Cid, chocobos stolen right out of Nausicaa & The Valley of the Wind, the collection of elemental crystals, and those weird cat-bear-bat things we call Moogles. Items and spells are more or less consistent between games. Heroes, worlds, villains, and anything unique to the story gets a clean slate every time despite all of that. Kind of funny when your games are known for the richness of the story tossing aside everything established before it. Up until Enix merged with Square there were never even any direct sequels so you were always left making new friends and exploring new locations. Don’t get me wrong, I was always excited to adventure through new spaces with new faces, giving chases to empowered fascists. There’s more to the product than just the assemblage of assets within the code. As words can be assembled in sonnets, books, scripture, or reference material depending on the tone and theme for their purpose, Final Fantasy assembles events and people to a greater purpose than the actions held within that single installment.

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LoZ: BotW

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been unveiled and some have criticized it with “what’s the big what” with it – A lot of the features shown are found in numerous other games for the better part of a decade now. Those thoughts are not wrong, but there’s a lot more to games now than the mechanics. We’ve gotten away from technology limitations with the assistance of beefier hardware and middleware solutions. No longer are the key identifiers of a game it’s mechanics or systems. What you know as a genre has become increasingly irrelevant in classifying a game. In short, genre is dead. What we’re left with is something with a much greater potential…

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#UncoveredFFXV event happened last week and it blew expectations out of the water for most. They revealed quite a bit about the project that most would have never guessed. Aside from the core game, there’s going to be a complete CG feature called Kingsglaive with some high profile names doing the voice work. It focuses on Noctis’ father, the king, before the events of the game while Noctis is still a young boy it seems. Likely in the same time we also got a demo that night dubbed Platinum Demo. The content found within it was said to be specific to the demo and wouldn’t be incorporated into the final game. While mostly a tech demo it does have settings and a bit of story tied to Noctis. Specifically it deals with him being knocked out by an outside force while everything inside the demo takes place inside his mind. The demo concludes with child Noctis transforming into his late-teens, more aligned with what we know him to be during the events of FFXV proper. There’s a bit of learning who he is and where his heart lies. Then for the third leg of announcements that night, independant of both of those stories is an additional anime mini-series with Noctis, Ignis, Prompto, and Gladio – the four heroes of li… I mean the protagonists of FFXV. Titled Brotherhood, it’s set shortly before the game takes place and gives fans an opportunity to get to know the crew and understand their relationships before the game starts. Going into Final Fantasy XV we’re expected to have a good read on the fellas. The first episode, “Before the Storm” is already available and plays out like a scene you’d find in the game. Dialog, camaraderie, camping, and gravity-defying combat. It works as a great showpiece for what the world of FFXV has in store. During the events of the first episode they recall moments of Noctis as a young boy (again) when he nearly died when his city was under siege… but why go through all this trouble with episode of anime, unique demo story, or a full CG movie? Historically with The Spirits Within and VII: Advent Children the non-gaming viability for Final Fantasy is questionable at best. Why not just focus on the game, especially after the negative response to the Final Fantasy XIII saga? Let’s go back a bit to answer that question.

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Welcome to the 1950’s. Y’know, the time of poodle skirts, drive-in movie theaters, soda fountains, and video games. Only one of those things really exists these days and we’re still calling it by the same term. Care to guess which? Over sixty years of progression for the hobby we all know and love and yet we’ve never managed to do away with the oversimplified technical term as a label. I don’t want to jump into a history lesson on video games… Plenty of other places do a well enough job with far more attention then I would have the patience to go into. Let’s just take a look at what qualified as a game back in 1958 though with “Tennis for Two”.

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Video games were conceived as a means of play using video displays. Purely a technical term in an era of discovery it was appropriate. It made sense to people uninformed without a heavy explanation. A simple definition of games has been described as follows: “a physical or mental activity or contest that has rules and that people do for pleasure” . A very broad statement that could include nearly anything you do for entertainment that is dictated by rules. A crossword puzzle for example requires you to figure out intersecting words that match the clue associated with the numbered field. Ignoring the rules we could just load whatever letters we want into the blank boxes and render the game useless. The point of a game is to challenge the player mentally or physically. Without that it becomes indiscernible from just another activity. Challenges imposed by rules create what becomes a game. So where do we stand once the challenges and structures (rules) are removed from video games? I don’t mean simply being tied to what’s coded within the reality of the game. That’d be like explaining that gravity is a rule for competition in physical space. We’ve stumbled into an era where the focus of video games isn’t to be challenged anymore. Every year more and more titles are being released without any expectation of adhering to what previously defined a game. Gone Home, Dear Esther, Stanley Parable, or even some Minecraft modes are tough fits under the umbrella of video games. That isn’t meant as a slight to them at all either. Each and every one of those releases has earned a circle of respect from different communities of gamers. With the advent of Virtual Reality in 2016, writing them off “video games” is going to get more and more inapplicable to the experience held within. I’m thinking maybe it’s finally time we retired the term video game entirely and found something more relevant to today’s applications. Otherwise as long as it’s mislabeled people are going to have a disconnect between the expectation and the delivered product, as well as limiting the scope of what can and can’t be created while developers are trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.

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The term “ludonarrative dissonance” was an interesting concept when first proposed. The core of the idea is there’s an uncomfortable disconnect between the story being told and the actions of the playable character which then corrupts the experience for the player. A common example is Lara Croft struggling emotionally with her first kill in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, followed by a guilt free murder spree for the next 15 hours of gameplay. What was an intense struggle for her an hour ago in-game has become as easy as changing channels on the remote. It doesn’t throw me off. Games aren’t reality after all, and expecting them to mirror our world is a strange goal to chase.

I understand the knee-jerk reaction to be thrown off by this gaming specific phenomenon. For starters it comes built on the idea of games as a Hollywood-film substitute. You can’t really blame players for expecting that either since it’s been the intent of game publishing bean counters to replicate Hollywood for the potential crossover audience. Hell, it’s not even an oddity in passing years for film directors to become involved with game creation, the most recently notable project being P.T./Silent Hills that was set to be a collaborative effort with Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame. It’s remarkable how much has changed in the relationship between games and film given their start of cheaply made tie-in products meant to turn an easy buck from impulse buyers. The lack of new ideas within Hollywood at the turn of the century now has them knocking on the doors of video game publishers for the rights to create derivative films since games are continuing to outsell films annually.

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PSP-1001 Straight OnI’ve had a long history of spending hours with handheld gaming. Thinking on it I’d have to say it goes all the way back to the original GameBoy. I’m sure for most that’s where it starts in one form or another. Nintendo really put some legs on that machine, stretching it out until 2001 when they finally released a successor in the form of GameBoy Advance. For some perspective on just how incredibly long of a shelf life it had, before transitioning to complete support of the GBA Nintendo had sold the original NES, SNES, N64, and GameCube while selling original GameBoy games. Sure there was a flurry of redesigns with the GameBoy Color, GameBoy Light, and GameBoy Pocket – All of which were spruced up form factors that shared the same gaming library. Nintendo established a firm lock on the handheld market and created a rich legacy of portable experiences. Several other companies tried to jump in with their own offerings, all of which were met with weak sales before eventual abandonment. Atari Lynx, Sega GameGear, Tiger’s Game.Com, Bandai WonderSwan, and the side talking Nokia N-Gage to name a few.

There’s a good reason why Nintendo has held the market as tightly as they did. Personally I have a ton of fond memories with the original GameBoy. Even before Pokemon took the world by storm, I dumped tons of hours into both of the Super Mario Lands, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Tetris. That torch carried into the GBA’s remodel (the GBA SP) as it was the only system I owned for awhile. I remember spending countless nights playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or one of several SNES era ports/spiritual sequels like Metroid Zero Mission or Mario Kart Super Circuit. Nintendo always stacked a potent and varied catalog of games that pulled you into that tiny sub-3″ screen. Speaking of which having a backlit screen and rechargeable lithium-ion battery made it the perfect solution to play in bed. Eventually they had to lose some steam though and the DS released to an eager audience with no new content. Thankfully Nintendo had the foresight to include the ability to play GameBoy and GameBoy Advance cartridges to help carry new owners through that drought. It wasn’t until the DS Lite launched that it really caught fire by it’s own right and eventually grew to become the best selling handheld system of all time at 154m units sold. Between the DS and the Wii, Nintendo was banking enough money to buy an island made of pure gold. Times were good and Nintendo remained untouchable in the handheld space. There’s always another side to every tale though…

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ff7 logo

Over a decade of excitement leads here.

A bit of history for those that don’t hold this PS1 era JRPG close to their hearts:

  • Back at E3 2005 Square-Enix provided a tech demo for Final Fantasy VII to showcase the PlayStation 3’s power. Then promptly put a boot to the face of every fan by stating it could never be remade to look like that, it was only a tech demo.
  • An epic-tier trolling occurs the first PlayStation Experience event in 2014 where they announced a PS4 port of FF7 no one expected it would be announced. We all thought it was an HD remake being announced, but alas… We’re doomed to suffer Popeye-arms Cloud & crew still.
  • E3 2015 rolled around the usual rumors and speculation were making the rounds that Sony would have a trailer for a Final Fantasy VII Remake.  Then The general consensus at this point was the game would be vaporware or release on PlayStation 5. In their own words, the promise made real as the trailer played. It was finally happening.
  • PlayStation Experience 2015 surprised everyone by opening with intercut gameplay and cinematic trailer rendered in-game of the now officially titled Final Fantasy VII: Remake

So in a nutshell, a full decade has passed of excitement for this. Hype train is in full effect as this is not only becoming a reality, but is expected to come to non-PlayStation platforms as well. Even rumors of Nintendo’s Wii U successor, the NX, are suggesting it will land there as well. PC and X1 are expected to support it too. Everyone gets to experience this massive undertaking so we should all be rejoicing… Then about 32 hours after that trailer Square-Enix drops a bomb on all the excited fans sending my Twitter bubble into either utter disbelief or complete rage.

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I am a completionist when it comes to video games. I’ll play an RPG that I’ve finished just to clear optional dungeons and bosses. I’ve replayed action games several times to get all the trophies or achievements. In Crackdown I tracked down every damn agility orb, and nearly every Assassin’s Creed has a save file where I’ve gotten all the stupid collectibles just so my mini-map would be empty. I’ve kept my memory cards since the first PlayStation that still have my clear files for every play through of a Final Fantasy title. So after spending endless hours with a game and not getting that final completion state leaves me with a weird feeling. I don’t get that sense of closure, of finality, preventing me from having what feels like a full experience. This compulsion that I have usually leads me to avoid current TV shows because I hate the lack of a structure. Too often they’ll lack that magic three act arc while the network just rides it out with a weekly drip feed until ratings force it to be shut down. Opposing that you’ll encounter the constant preparation to be cut off the air. Futurama suffered like Peter Jackson’s Return of the King; they both had TOO many endings, too many logical end points. With each cancellation Futurama tried to create that sense of closure for the tales of all the Planet Express crew. So what happens when games aren’t able to close your time with them properly? Two games that I actively play are holding me hostage as they continually recreate that discomfort. Animal Crossing New Leaf and Destiny couldn’t be any more different, but neither one is giving me that finalization I need to walk away fulfilled.

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