29 June 2015

A few weeks back was the annual edition of everyone’s favorite corporate blind hypefest: The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3. For those who live under a boulder, the E3 is the most important gaming trade show in the world, with an attendance of usually about 50,000 people despite being in theory “industry-only”. While Gamescom is bigger in terms of actual number of visitors, E3 is the one everyone looks forward to because that’s where all the marketing money goes.

This year left me somewhat moist, with Bethesda getting most of my interest and Nintendo receiving an honorable mention. Microsoft managed to come off as “not as douchey as Sony” this time, which I guess is a sign of improvement. They even showed whay I think is the best trailer of E3 with Cuphead. Overall, pretty solid showing all over.

Except for one exception: Square Enix. That presentation was so long, so boring, even their translator fell asleep in the middle of it. And even though Kindgom Hearts 3 sure looks interesting, everything else seems bland and trite, which really does not help Squeenix’s reputation of not being able to do anything new with themselves. And they blew off their load way too early by putting their biggest announcement the day before in Sony’s conference: the remake of Final Fantasy VII.

And this leads us to what I want to talk about: the hype surrounding that particular announcement. But first, a bit of tangential context.

My history with JRPGs

When I was a child, I had a NES, but I didn’t play a lot of it. I got a SNES, and I really got my parents’ money worth out of it. Then a N64, which also saw plenty of playtime, and finally a GameCube, which, while not as used as the other ones, featured some of my favorite games of all time. Then some time passed, and I finally broke the cycle by getting a PS3, and then I stopped playing on consoles and moved on to the PC. I got a Wii U for a few games, but as of now it’s kinda gathering dust until 2016’s Zelda.

Back then the only JRPGs I actually played was Final Fantasy VI (called Final Fantasy III in my region) and Super Mario RPG. The latter ended up being my favorite game ever until Ocarina of Time came in and pushed it to second place, and together these two games along with Metroid Prime can be credited for making me go in the game development business. As for FFVI, my shaky grasp of English at the time made everything difficult, and I never got really far.

I did end up playing more of it when I got older thanks to an emulator, but I never finished it. I think the furthest I got was beating Kefka at the end of that battle between the Returners and the imperial forces. The gameplay was way too unenjoyable for me, but I really wanted to see how the story ends, so I ended up watching let’s plays and reading about it, and that’s how I know that “Dancing Mad” is one of the best final boss themes in the history of gaming.

Now, you might think I have something against JRPGs, but that’s not exactly true. I really like the Mario ones, especially Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, and both Chrono Trigger and EarthBound stand very tall on my rankings. Although the more observant of you will have noticed something: they all feature a small core cast of characters and relatively simple mechanics. I don’t like having to micromanage huge parties of character that need to be individually levelled up, and juggle several different kinds of damage types, status effects and equipment properties. I want to be able to play the game without having to grind experience points or consult a strategy guide before every boss fight to figure out which buff I need in order to not get killed in one hit on turn 7. I like my RPGs to reward experiementation and to allow for a variety of party configurations and play styles, and that’s why in my opinion the Tactics subseries has always been the high point of the Final Fantasy franchise.

The final feature creep

Let me get something very clear right now: I’m not a Final Fantasy fan. But, since the franchise is very important for gaming as a whole and JRPGs in particular, I read about it, I watched people play it, I analyzed some of its points. This does place me in the somewhat strange place of knowing a lot about the games despite not really having played them.

A while ago, Jim Sterling released a very interesting video essay. I suggest you watch it, but to make it short, Square Enix is obsessed with, to quote Sterling, “overcompensating overdesign”. They don’t know when to stop adding details and features, and as a result, their games have convoluted plots, unecessarily complex mechanics, forgettable characters, messy art style and an overexpensive budget.

Looking back, I don’t really know when this all started. I think by Final Fantasy X the machine was under way (who thought Blitzball was a good idea?), but it’s really with Final Fantasy XIII that the whole thing broke in over itself. Maybe that’s why Kingdom Hearts 3 is taking ages to ship: they don’t know when to stop adding to it. Then again Chrono Cross had 45 characters and Final Fantasy VIII had some of the most stupid plots ever conceived, so maybe it’s older than that.

So, what about Final Fantasy VII, then? Why did the announcement garner so much attention when anything else Squeenix showed fell flat? What is so special about FFVII?

The hype singularity

I’m not part of that specific brand of nostalgia because I don’t follow JRPGs, I did not own a PlayStation back when FFVII came out, and overall I’m not fond of the franchise as a whole, so I can’t relate to the people who are incredibly excited. But there’s a group I’m a part of: the fans of The Legend of Zelda.

When Nintendo announced Ocarina of Time 3D, the reaction wasn’t nearly as strong, and I don’t recall seeing so much hype. Now, you can argue lots of FF fans were asking for a FFVII remake for years, but so were Zelda fans with Majora’s Mask, and MM3D, while well received, didn’t make the Internet explode. Again, what makes FFVII so special?

My theory has several parts. First off, FFVII was the killer app of the PlayStation. It’s the best selling game of its franchise, the second best selling game of its console after Gran Turismo, and the game that finally made the JRPGs part of mainstream gaming in the West. It stands as the central pillar of several different fandoms, and as such holds huge historical importance. Basically, back then, you were either a Nintendo fan, a FFVII fan or you were standing far above it all by playing Half-Life on a PC.

But there’s also something else: FFVII is the peak of the series. Each game after it sold less and less units and were not as well received critically. It is the last time a Final Fantasy game was inarguably of great quality. As a comparison, the Zelda franchise kept featuring great games after Ocarina of Time, and while they weren’t as revolutionary, they still stand tall and strong as great examples of game making.

Which is probably why people got excited with the announce of a remake and not just a rerelease. Final Fantasy fans have had blue balls for 18 years now, and as of now they’ll jump on anything that’s marginally better than it. And since Square Enix can’t make a good game anymore, then a remake is pretty much their only option. In the end, I think it’s not necessarily hype for FFVII, but more like hype for something good coming out of that sausage factory. The nostalgia factor just amplifies the feeling.

A moment of silence for Squeenix

Which leads us back to this article’s subtitle: “Or why we should feel sorry for Square Enix”. If Squeenix were a band, they’d be a bunch of washed up has-beens that puts out new material that nobody cares about whilst the diehard fans keep asking for them to play their old hits. They don’t know how to make good games anymore. Anything interesting that carry the Square Enix name has been made outside of Japan, either by Crystal Dynamics, IO Interactive or Eidos Montreal. They manage to survive only because their brand recognition guarantees some market share. And whenever they try to pull themselves out of that rut by mixing things up, they just ending up making a mess.

So, a word of caution, Final Fantasy fans. I’m happy for you, really. You’ll finally get the title you wanted after nearly two decades. But remember: the Square Enix that’s going to remake FFVII is the one that made FFXIII. I’m not saying it’s going to suck. What I’m saying is if they get funny ideas and decide to “improve” the game any more than by revamping its graphics, then we might have an issue on our hands. After all, Tetsuya Nomura, the guy who’s obsessed with overdesigned characters, is the game’s director, and he already has “plans” for its plot. Oh boy.

So, again, just because it’s a remake doesn’t mean you should resort to blind hype. In fact, you’re probably better off just buying the original game. It’s 15$ on Steam.

Wait, 15$ for a 18 year old game? How fucking greedy are they?

Ah man, who wants to bet they’ll sell DLC to add Aerith back in your party?