How much of our love for a certain game is based on our initial experience of playing it?
I am sure that I am not the first gamer to think along these lines, and I know that I will not be the last. It is a line of thought that will crop up ever more frequently when attempting to explain your love of a certain title to a person of a younger generation. Unless they experienced it at the time, it can be all but impossible to appropriately convey the awe and wonder that it managed to tap into upon initial release. After a certain point, attempting to sell someone on a favourite title will invariably delve into the realm of the subjective. Past this point, few (if any) of the uninitiated will be able to follow.
This is not, of course, to suggest that younger gamers are unable to enjoy older titles. I am sure that the PSN release of Final Fantasy VII managed to enchant more than a few youngsters — as it did for us so many years ago. No, this is merely an observation of the immutable fact that most people will not be able fully to enjoy a game when they are denied the opportunity to experience it within its proper context. A solid game is a solid game, but a transcendental game that managed to capture the spirit of a time may be lost on someone who is not of an age to appreciate it.
This editorial is not a mere platform for me to shake my fist at those damn kids on my lawn again. However, as an Australian gamer, I have also had first-hand experience with being on the other side of the argument. Japanese developers did not think of the PAL region as a worthy or viable JRPG market until the release of Final Fantasy VII, and so I was left with the little opportunity (if any) to experience JRPGs before that date. It was not until the dying days of the PSX era that I was able to experience a variety of SquareSoft’s classic SNES RPGs through their poorly ported Final Fantasy Chronicles range. I found both Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger to be extremely well-made games with impressive presentations and impressive narratives for the era. Notice how much of my praise comes with qualification. Imagine delving into the world of SNES JRPGs when your closest point of reference is Final Fantasy VII! I liked both games (and appreciate them even more nowadays), yet my appreciation of them was tangibly muted by both my removal from the era of SNES JRPG gaming and by my initiation to the genre through one of the greatest games ever made. And these titles constituted the pinnacle of SNES JRPGs.
My impression of Final Fantasy IV, on the other hand, is of a mechanically decent RPG with terrible graphics and wonderful music, all wrapped up in a very rough and underdone narrative. Having never played it at the time, I was unable to appreciate Final Fantasy IV for its innovations, and even now I am really only able to appreciate it for its historical significance as a stepping stone to better RPGs. My estimation of Final Fantasy IV is as nothing compared to my true bewilderment at the esteem garnered by The Secret of Mana, a game with stock standard action RPG mechanics and a decidedly unambitious scenario. I can only surmise that there was some deep-seated mood among JRPG aficionados at the time which I was failing to tap into retrospectively because, even now, all that I am able to see is a game which is somewhat inferior to a Korean mobile phone action RPG.
But why should this be so? Are we so beholden to novel graphics and game design that we must always shun the old in favour of the new?
The first thing that will occur to most people asking this question is that perceptions of a title’s presentation and game design qualities will degrade over time, and that newer initiates will be judging these classic titles against newer gaming experiences. There is a certain degree of validity in this: it is much harder for older Final Fantasy titles to wow new gamers with their graphical splendour. This, of course, goes without saying. Similarly, voice acting that was perfectly acceptable at the time now seems less so in retrospect. Then, of course, there is the question of a game’s translation, as many older titles have been translated so crudely as to bork the quality of their narrative.
That is not all it is though, I would wager. I think there is also an element of the right game for the times. Imagine, if you will, Lost Odyssey being released during to the early- to mid-PS2 era (sans HD graphics). Now, imagine it having scored a full additional point on Metacritic, and having sold an additional two million units. Not too difficult to imagine, is it? Now, picture Final Fantasy VII released replete with HD graphics in 2011. It is, of course, met with moderate but underwhelming success due to the unwashed masses having lost the appetite for sitting through lengthy story sequences. And this is without even mentioning the game’s dated battle system, because a stock standard ATB battle-system would not exist in any big budget RPG released in 2011. It would be either sped-up and streamlined like Final Fantasy XIII, or it would feature a button-mashing Kingdom Hearts-style battle system.
Every several years, a new generation of gamers harbouring their own unique predilections toward gaming enters the market. Every several years, older gamers find that they no longer have as much time to dedicate towards gaming as they used to. Every several years, the market’s taste in gaming seems to alter somewhat. And every several years, the players who made SquareSoft a household name become a more irrelevant segment of the market for that company. When the Square Enix fanbase is increasingly comprised of gamers looking for instant gratification and shallow spectacle, I don’t think anyone should be surprised that there are no plans at present to remake Final Fantasy VII, because it appears that the time for that sort of game has already been, had its moment in the sun, and passed into the West.
The sensibilities that helped to create the masterpieces we played during our formative years are no longer the same sensibilities that drive production and consumption within the gaming industry at present. As such, we should not be surprised that no more than a handful of games are made for us. I am certain that people are continuing to have such transcendental gaming experiences as I had a decade ago, but those people are not me. Nothing ever reverts to the way it was, but we can take solace in the fact that nothing ever stays the same either. Call of Duty will one day dry up and blow away like so many iterations of Final Fantasy, and no one but poor Montok will remember what anyone ever saw in that dreadful series. By that time, a new set of design sensibilities will hold sway over the public’s attentions, and one can only hope that they will be a higher-minded set of priorities than at present. Look to the future rather than the past if one wishes to avoid disappointment!