Editorial: The Power of the Zeitgeist

Would it even sell if we did?

Will we ever see its like again?

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 I would do anything for a Final Fantasy VI that looked like this!

I have never been a huge fan of Amano's artwork...

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.

I'm still waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way...

A place we'll return to someday?

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!

12 Comments

  1. Deimosion
    Posted 2011.05.26 at 12:51 | Permalink

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about Final Fantasy IV and Secret of Mana, particularly Secret of Mana. The game is a mediocre Action RPG at best, and is a buggy, boring mess of a game. FFIV is my least favorite of the SNES Final Fantasy games.

    Chrono Trigger, however, is an amazing game that has aged extraordinarily well.

  2. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2011.05.26 at 13:38 | Permalink

    I really like CT and FFVI, but just not with the zeal which many people seem to harbour for them, and I think that may have something to do with not being able to play them until much later.

  3. Lusipurr
    Posted 2011.05.26 at 14:49 | Permalink

    CT is phenomenal, and like to remain so, I think. It is simply timeless.

  4. Ethos
    Posted 2011.05.26 at 15:27 | Permalink

    Yeah, it’s a good point, SN. I played the SNES Final Fantasy games and Chrono Trigger during the PSX era and while I enjoyed some of them, I didn’t connect in the same way that I did to FF7 and 9. Same goes for Link to the Past. I play it, I think it’s really fun, and I can appreciate it for a game of its era, but it doesn’t strike me in the way that OoT and Majora’s Mask did.

    Using those examples, it’s why the vast majority – though definitely not all – of people will prefer FF6, FF7, LttP, or OoT depending on which they played first. I can argue until I’m blue in the face about why I think OoT is better than LttP, but if I had started gaming on the console one generation earlier, it’s entirely possible – even likely – that I would be arguing the opposite point.

  5. Lusipurr
    Posted 2011.05.27 at 15:05 | Permalink

    @Ethos: My first FF game was the original, and I’ve played them in the order they were released in the states. My favourite is FFVII, not I, or IV, or VI, or V, even though I played those first. Moreover I did not particularly like FFVII when it was released–it was not until just before FFVIII came out that I tried it again and began to think that there was something to it.

    My first Zelda was the original NES title, but my favourites are Link to the Past and Wind Waker. I wouldn’t touch the N64 games with a barge pole, despite having completed OoT and most of MM–I think they are easily some of the worst games I’ve ever played, let alone their position in the Zelda series. I’d rather play Twilight Princess, and I hate Twilight Princess. And yet, I played those long before I played Wind Waker.

    When CT came out, I disliked it intensely. I did not actually enjoy it until many years later when I picked it up again during the PS1 era, just before the release of Chrono Cross.

    Ultimately, I think saying, “You only like that because you played it when it came out and when it was thus the most novel” is a tremendous dodge. I have a little more faith in people than to conclude that the primary factor in their preferences is down to the particular moment when something was first experienced.

    That said, I’ve yet to meet anyone who loves FFVIII and for whom that was not the first FF they’ve played. I genuinely think the only way someone could like that game is because of nostalgia. It is terrible.

  6. Ethos
    Posted 2011.05.27 at 22:09 | Permalink

    Hm, fair enough.

  7. evilpaul
    Posted 2011.05.27 at 23:05 | Permalink

    Secret of Mana I think was partially overhyped because it had the most beautiful graphics anyone had ever seen up to that time. How enjoyable the actual game was I think is probably 90% a matter of whether you are playing it by yourself or with one or two other people. It is a very straightforward, simple action RPG with a blaise story, afterall. Just as the X-Men/Simpsons Arcade, Golden Axe, or whatever other random beat’em ups sort of suck by yourself with a few friends they were a blast.

    Graphics are something I’m fairly open to both in 2D and 3D varieties (and tolerant of lousy ones). But I’ve seen plenty of people dismiss games soley on aesthetics. The Shock and Awe tactics that Square-Enix has perfected over the years certainly won’t age well. So while I still think FF7 is a great game I also don’t think somebody playing it for the first time today will have his mind blown like people playing back in 1997 did.

    Also, Chrono Trigger is indeed still great. And the kids these days are lucky as I think the DS release is the definitive version.

  8. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2011.05.29 at 07:49 | Permalink

    “Ultimately, I think saying, “You only like that because you played it when it came out and when it was thus the most novel” is a tremendous dodge. I have a little more faith in people than to conclude that the primary factor in their preferences is down to the particular moment when something was first experienced”

    Not saying that anyone has to either love or hate a game based on when they played it, just that not playing it at the time causes one to miss out on that little something extra which makes classic games so important to a number of people. I didn’t need to play FFVI and CT at the time in order to be able to enjoy them today (though my appreciation for CT came late), but rather I am unable to relate to the number of players which absolutely revere these titles (in the same way that I revere FFVII).

    Have you ever wondered what has caused FFVII revisionism to be on such a rise? FFVII was one of the most amazing looking games that I had ever seen at the time, now it is apparently hideously ugly, though I just cannot see this.

  9. Ethos
    Posted 2011.05.29 at 12:21 | Permalink

    SN said it better than I tried to.

  10. Lusipurr
    Posted 2011.05.29 at 16:02 | Permalink

    @SN: The reason for FFVII revisionism is because people like to hate things that are popular, esp. if those things are popular with a subset of the populace that an individual has disdain for.

    I think FFVI is a fine game, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I revere it. As I’ve said, though, I didn’t even like CT at the time. So how does that factor in?

    I’ve played plenty of games at the time of their release and found I didn’t enjoy them at all–it was only when I came back to them later that I found them to be better than my original estimation.

    I think bringing up the argument of ‘your opinion of this is based on when you played it’ is hugely problematic. The person levelling the argument can not prove such a claim; it is entirely supposition, and as I myself demonstrate, in person, it is by no means universal and can, in fact, work entirely contrary to the manner that you and Ethan are both suggesting.

  11. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2011.05.30 at 00:29 | Permalink

    You’re still not understanding what I’m saying, Lusi. I’m not saying you can’t dislike a game from the outset, only to revise your opinion later. I’m not saying that whether you like or dislike a game is predetermined by when you play it. What I am saying is that is that certain games do seem to have additional intangible qualities that you can miss out on by not playing them within their original context (or close to it). This doesn’t mean that every contemporary player of these games has to have such an experience, just that some people do.

  12. Matt Dance
    Posted 2011.06.09 at 00:58 | Permalink

    Hmm… Final Fantasy VII was, for me, the culmination of Squaresoft games getting better and better since the original FF. The story, characters, music, environments, etc. resonated with me immediately and I still consider it my favorite _video game_, not just RPG, of all time. It may have antiquated graphics, and built upon an even older formula (with a slightly new twist for its time), and so on.

    What someone truly loves is an intensely personal thing, compared to what one merely likes or even thinks is amazing. It doesn’t actually come from being the technically best or most innovative at any one time or setting any standard (not that those factors would or should preclude favoritism), just that something hits more “I like that” areas inside your dark, black heart than others, which could be for any reason.

    That said, Secret Of Mana is one of my all time favorites too – I’m playing it right now, in fact – and the point is, I don’t need a logical reason to back that up. Deal with it.

    Finally, I do think one of the hugest attributes of liking a game is just being in that age. It’s not like buying an actual Super Nintendo and cartridge to play Chrono Trigger right now is going to make you enjoy the game any more, but say you were there to read the original announcement in Nintendo Power and go freakin’ nuts waiting for it to come out; well that’s one reason why you liked it. A newcomer to this game has their own expectations and gets their own enjoyment out of it, but I think it’s like listening to a classic rock album now compared to the excitement when it originally came out (like with the Beatles). The feeling for it is unquestionably different. And the ability to be critical of its merits and flaws compared to what’s current and in retrospect tends to take away from enjoyment in the moment rather than build it.

    Okay, to clarify that last paragraph… it’s usually not the case that someone getting into something much later likes it as much as someone who was into it at its beginning. Like, I really dig “Dark Side Of The Moon” by Pink Floyd, but I’m absolutely convinced that the people who were into it in 1973 (over a decade before I was born) had a much closer connection to it than I did. So that phenomenon explains why while someone who maybe played Chrono Trigger as a PlayStation game probably thought it was good, and someone who played it on SNES is more likely to really love and admire it. Yeesh.