Let’s talk about the biggest problem in gaming.
I enjoy Final Fantasy 4. I have been playing Final Fantasy 2 (USA) since I could only afford it as a rental back in, yeesh, 1991. I was eventually able to purchase the game, and, despite a failing save battery, I played it through many times. Final Fantasy Chronicles, containing the “real” version of Final Fantasy 4 and Chrono Trigger (a game that I will buy sight unseen as many times as it takes [takes to do what? Who knows!]) was released in 2001, and, obviously, I played through the game again at that time (or thereabouts, Chrono Trigger is always first). Final Fantasy 4 Advance saw the game on a portable for the first time, and I plowed through that with some zeal in 2005 (there was slightly new content! Wow!). Final Fantasy 4 The DS hit our shores in 2008, and that was another forty hours of my life devoted to a slightly retooled version with voice acting and a hateful new game plus cycle. Speaking of hateful, Final Fantasy: The After Years migrated from Japanese cell phones to the Wii in 2009, bringing with it a “new” story that was really just a remix of Final Fantasy 4 OG with a colossal bonus dungeon. For the (as of this writing) final physical version of the game, there is Final Fantasy 4: The Complete Collection, a 2011 PSP release that was primarily based on the GBA version, but included updated graphics, a DS cutscene, and a quarantined copy of The After Years with a brand new complete waste of time bridging the “two” games called The Interlude. Since then, there have been various digital releases of the different versions available across systems, so you can play the original Final Fantasy 2 (USA) on the Wii/WiiU, the Chronicles version on Playstation 3, or the PSP version on your Playstation TV. Does your garage door have iOS installed? You can play Final Fantasy 4 on that, too.
I consider it a personal failing that I have beaten Final Fantasy 4 on every system on which it is available.
Final Fantasy 4 is a great game. Even if it didn’t have an Optimus Prime full of nostalgia backing up to my doorstep, it would still be an enjoyable, fun experience. It’s something that’s fairly rare nowadays, a JRPG that is “pure”: there’s a plot and robust battle system, but it’s still modest enough to reel in the hours of dialogue and plot nonsense that seem to detract from modern releases. While later versions have welded on some of these contemporary “innovations” (looking at you, DS), it’s nice to play a JRPG that isn’t constantly baiting you to achieve some nigh-impossible “100% collection” or forcing prime leveling up procedures to guarantee victory over a late-game “bonus” boss. I enjoy min/maxing as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to savescum for the next two hours waiting for Edge to score a winning sneak against 1/100 odds. What we have is a wonderful game, so I’ve played Final Fantasy 4 to completion many, many times, and I likely will again.
Except there’s this place.
That right there is the Tower of Babil, and I hate it. It’s not any fun. The encounter rate there is annoying, the encounters themselves are annoying, and the boss is annoying. The “plot” of the tower is lousy, you lose your karate man, and you wind up sucked into a trap when it finally ends. Worst of all, you’re forced to climb up the tower, defeat the boss, and then climb back down the exact same tower, with the exact same encounters, all because there’s a plot flag that has to be triggered at the entrance; so it’s the exact same stupid dungeon twice. I’m sure there are some escaped mental patients that enjoy this place, but for the rest of us, it’s just a slog from start to finish. As a special bonus, the DS version identified this issue, and made the random enemies even more aggravating.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve played through this game a number of times on a number of systems. Let’s give a low estimate, and claim I’ve only ever beaten the entire game a dozen times. That means I’ve played through The Tower of Babil twelve times. I’m certainly not going to try it right now to check, and, even at its most annoying, FF4 is a fairly brisk game, so let’s say a full trip through the tower takes about an hour. End result? I’ve spent at least twelve hours of my life doing something I absolutely hate. Could have been feeding the helpless, could have been helping the hungry, could have been nursing a wayward kitten, but, no, here I sit, knowing that I’ve spent at least half a day of my life wading through distilled excrement.
And, to be absolutely clear for the seven of you that are still reading this despite having never played Final Fantasy 4 (hi mom!), I like everything in Final Fantasy 4 on either side of The Tower of Babil. Rydia’s return, one of my favorite moments in the game, comes shortly before entering the tower, and afterwards, the party receives an airship and the ability to battle a particularly malevolent series of doors, and I think there’s a ninja somewhere in there, too. Eventually, Cecil and company escape the whole planet that contains that damn tower, and go on to explore one of my favorite final dungeons in the Final Fantasy franchise. But you’ll never see all the other highs of Final Fantasy 4 if you don’t struggle through its lowest low.
In an inevitable future playthrough, It would be nice to approach The Tower of Babil, and rather than loudly sigh at the misery I am about to experience, just skip it. You know, like you can do in every other medium that exists.
I’ve watched the whole run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a seven season, hour long episodic television series that contains 144 episodes. If I want to watch Season 5, though, I don’t have to rewatch the initial four seasons, including the lacking first season, just to “get there”. Speaking of awful early seasons, just because Star Trek The Next Generation is getting a new, HD rerelease doesn’t mean I’m sweating on my sofa at the fear of having to watch Troi birth a space baby again. If I want to read about Harry Potter’s entire adolescence, there’s nothing stopping me from skipping any pages that outline the worst camping trip in the history of magical teenagers. And you better believe that if a game of Monopoly has already cost hours of my friends’ lives, we’re implementing rules that will make the Atlantic City economy crash fast and hard.
I’m an adult, I am trusted to make relevant choices about my time in every form of entertainment except video games. Hell, I can even show up for a movie five minutes late just to avoid the preceding hour of advertising, or, while at home, skip every commercial break that has ever happened by bounding around channels like a coked-up paragoomba. There is literally only one way television shows make money “from” me, and I’m allowed to skip it. But I see the Tower of Babil, and here I sit, hitting the fight command over and over again until those damn flaming dogs are extinguished.
And it’s not getting any better! Recently, I picked up Final Fantasy 4’s descendant, Final Fantasy 10/10-2 HD Remaster. As you can likely guess, I played Final Fantasy 10 to completion back when it was a mere PS2 title. Final Fantasy 10 has one new game plus feature, a sort of reward for having already played through the game, and that’s that the Al Bhed, a fictional race found in Final Fantasy 10’s Spira that has the audacity to not speak proper Queen’s English, may be “translated” on a replay if you put in the effort to find Al Bhed Primers during your initial playthrough. I figured it would be nice to, now on my second playthrough of the game, to experience that “reward” I had earned in a previous, earlier version. First of all, obviously, there isn’t just some toggle that says, “Hey, we know you’re a fan, I know you’re pretty busy, here, let me help you out, here’s the translation from the start.” That would be silly. Next, I investigated if there was a way to import my PS2 save, which is sitting right there on the PS3’s hard drive, to this “new” PS3 game. No dice, likely because everyone already forgot the PS3 ever had the ability to read PS2 memory cards. So, I decided to turn to “cheating”: I’d download a “complete” game save and, at the earliest opportunity, import the primers from that save, so I could experience the quarter of the plot that I missed the first time. Well, guess what? The tyrants at Square-Enix decided to lock gamesaves to individual profiles for this release, so you can’t even do that. In the end, I wound up finding software that very likely is against warranty to modify the data on the saves themselves just to experience a piece of the game that would have been automatic if I was playing the exact same game on a different system. A game and system that, incidentally, I already owned, and could play at any time.
What possible reason would Square Enix have for locking such a feature behind so many hoops? Is it to protect the sanctity of “trophies” and “achievements”? Yeah, “points” are really important for my enjoyment of any media, that’s why my blu-ray player spits out a grilled cheese sandwich for my every tenth disc I pop in. Oh, wait, that’s just a wonderful fantasy I’m dreaming about because I’m hungry. Is it because SE is collecting data on which people win what trophies to better tailor future games to their audience? Well, here’s a freebie, guys, if someone has 100% completion inside of six minutes, that guy is cheating, ignore that data. Gee, that was hard. Here’s a thought: let me play the game I bought the way I want to play it, rules be damned.
I’m not advocating this position just because I’ve become so much lazier in my old age, either. This is an essential piece of what gaming is that is holding the entire medium back.
Final Fantasy 4 has another, later descendant, and that’s Final Fantasy 13. Final Fantasy 13 miraculously grew out of the pot of dirt that is the wildly homophobic Japanese culture (or at least homo-… What’s the word to describe when the only way you see a homosexual person in media is if they’re a big, flaming ponce? Yeah, probably homophobic.) and bloomed into a flower that is an amazing metaphor for LGBT struggles. To wit: the whole party of various genders and races being “othered” together and forced to deal with a society that does not (want to) understand them, Lightning personally experiencing much that metaphorically mirrors trans-issues, and then there’s Fang and Vanille, two women that don’t seem to be interested in a single male and are more than a little elated at their eventual reunion. During the finale of Final Fantasy 13, it’s the strength of the relationship between Fang and Vanille that literally saves an entire world. Think I’m reading too much into subtext here? The friggen logo for Final Fantasy 13 features a stylized image of Fang and Vanille in their “final” embrace.
There’s a point where subtext becomes supertext, and it’s the exact kind of thing the gaming universe needed when the game was released (amidst an army of testosterone-driven brown shooters) and now, more than ever (if you need an explanation of that, hi, welcome to the Internet). Final Fantasy 13, taken just for its characters and story, could be the posterchild for feminist and LGBT gaming. Only problem? As every review ever written on the game has noted, the meat of that story is locked behind a forty hour tutorial, and you likely won’t see the story’s conclusion before around hour eighty. And did you have a favorite part? Well good luck with that, hope you had the foresight to create a savefile copy before the event, otherwise you’ll be logging entire weeks in the game again.
It’s important for a game to have a message. It’s a problem if it takes the length of a college semester to get to that message.
And all of this is just noting time involved, never mind potential skill thresholds. Bioshock Infinite has an ending that is absolutely essential to understanding the story and message of the game… and it just happens to be locked behind the greatest, most tedious challenge in the game. Without exaggeration, it probably took me 10% of my entire time playing the game to complete the absolute final area, which is generally “only” difficult because it radically alters the respawning rules. I very nearly gave up on the whole affair right there, which would be akin to stopping The Sixth Sense as Bruce Willis begins to puzzle through his revelation. It would be insane to do such a thing, but many games with a big “final challenge” finale encourage such behavior.
Encouraging a different kind of behavior is why we’re unlikely to ever see an end to this, either. Practically since gaming was invented, there have been ways to sell consumers the ability to play better. From books on Pac-Man strategy to the advent of literal strategy guides and magazine subscriptions (I read Cheats Monthly for the articles) to the more modern practice of DLC meant only to level up your character, there will always be a way to make money on people wishing to improve their skills. All the better if the only way to complete the story, to get that “what happens next” monkey off your back, is to buy some additional product to aid your quest. Incidentally, I believe I have yet to name a game in this article that didn’t have a strategy guide. There’s big business in locking the gates and then licensing the key.
And gaming is poorer for it. Think of how many productions put much more effort into Level 1 than Level 8 because they know that’s all some people are going to see. Think of how many games lock their best content behind arbitrary, tedious conditions because it artificially inflates some imaginary “hours of gameplay” count. Think of how many monotonous, dull tasks you’ve willingly completed with the understanding that it would unlock something actually enjoyable? Has any of this made gaming better, or does it just, at best, create an animosity between players and designers, and, at worst, bar an entire medium of ideas and experiences behind a wall of potentially wasted time. Imagine not already having the foundation of gaming in your life and ask, “What’s going to be the better possible use of your time to get the same result: reading Nietzsche or playing Xenogears?” That which does not kill us only makes us stronger, chu.
Until we have the ability to play games how we want, gaming will continue to be a childish hobby. There’s no other way to see a medium that treats its audience like children. I know you want to dive into a giant robot and crush its balls, but you have to clean your room first. Sit down, finish your Tower of Babil, and we’ll see about getting you a shiny, new airship. If you’re good.
FGC #43.2 Final Fantasy 4
- System: SNES, PSX, GBA, DS, PSP, iOS, and a myriad of ports and rereleases here and there.
- Number of Players: Just one. You against the stupid tower.
- Version Differences: Too many to count. The PSP Complete Collection really does seem the most… complete, and, while some people may desire the original graphics, I really like the art in that title. There’s an issue here or there, but the enemy graphics look exactly how 90’s Goggle Bob would expect future generation Final Fantasy games to look.
- Favorite Boss Battle: Ain’t nothing like all four of the fiends polling together for an attack. Has that ever been done for the FF1 fiends? Seems like something that might be fun.
- Is this the last of Final Fantasy 4 for the site? If ROB ever distinctly chooses Final Fantasy 4 DS, I’ve got an entire post in mind on how the concept of New Game Plus is a revelation for most JRPG titles… and a complete pile of crap here. I’d put it together for Friday, but the idea of a Final Fantasy 4 week seems excessive.
- Did you know? Yes, Virginia, Final Fantasy 4: The After Years was originally a cell phone title that was distributed in chunks. It used really horribly repurposed Final Fantasy 4 graphics, and, though I loathe to admit it, I was champing at the bit to play the game back when it was just a few scattered screenshots and yet another game that was released in Japan on an unusual system that we’d never see stateside. Now, years later, we know that absolutely everything about it was terrible and better left in the Far East. Boy did I learn my lesson! Oh, what’s this copy of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD doing here?
- Would I play again? I figure we’re about a year or so away from another, newer version of Final Fantasy 4 where, I don’t know, Kain gets a new hat. Christ, I typed that, and now I’m kinda craving a FF4 where the characters have customizable outfits ala Dragon Quest 9. Yes, I’ll be climbing the Tower of Babil again. It’s a sickness.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Izzy’s Quest for the Olympic Rings. Wonderful. Who doesn’t want to play Izzy’s Quest for the Olympic Rings? I think I started this challenge just to punish myself for randomly buying the stupidest games for three dollars… I mean… Please look forward to it!