I grew up during the peak years of the NES, just before the rise of the 16-bit era. I watched as the Nintendo dominance across American homes slipped into the great debates between SEGA and Nintendo kids. Today, there is what seems at times to be infinite choice in play. Definitive genres still permeate the gaming space, while pseudo genres have been born through a melding of others. When I was growing up, choice was still varied, but so much less so than now. My memories of gaming were kids playing a certain type of game and being known as the “x kid,” filling in that variable for shooter, Mario, action, or RPG.
A lot of what I played early on depended on the popularity of the game and how much it had been talked about amongst my classmates and friends. Games that I owned were typically bought because they were part of the cultural zeitgeist at the time, or because I played it at a friend’s house. It also didn’t hurt if it had Batman or the Ninja Turtles on the cover. I slowly tried new things and branched my tastes out a bit, but I gravitated toward character action games, particularly those of the side-scrolling nature.
I remember going to one friend’s house who basically owned everything that you could at the time. He held no strong allegiance to one side of the war or another, because he had a foot on both sides of the line. Going over to his house gave me the chance to play things I didn’t own for my own console, as well as consoles themselves that I would never own. While he had a lot of the games that I enjoyed playing, he had these weird games from Japan that I never had any interest in. They weren’t like Super Mario Bros. or Castlevania, and they were far from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They were top down. They let you wander in any direction. They made you fight by taking turns with the enemy. They were all about wizards and knights and warriors. They were single player. They were role-playing games.
Please, Can We Just Play Something Else?
We would often play whatever when I would visit, but if I happened to get dropped off while he was in the middle of a dungeon in Final Fantasy, I spent a lot of my afternoons with my face in my hands just watching with boredom. I think this might have contributed to my early aversion to RPGs, as I quickly associated them with intense mundanity and boredom. The days that I showed up and walked down the basement stairs to the sound of the Battle Theme were the days that I ran back up the stairs and looked to see if my mom had already pulled away from the curb.
To not paint this kid as a complete monster, I will say that he more often than not offered the controller to me and attempted to get me into the games. Perhaps it was too late to get excited, or it was that the games were just so slow. I think the tendency for RPGs to rely on storytelling often didn’t help someone who was jumping in halfway through the story with no idea who the girl with green hair was and why she was integral to save the kingdom. None of it made sense. None of it intrigued me. None of it let me throw fireballs and jump on a Goomba’s head.
Then something from Japan tricked me…
For years, I had learned to write off anything that resembled a JRPG in any way. If I was going to get myself invested into a game, both for my money and my time, it was going to be something that could hold my attention and ultimately provide me with fun and challenge.
However, as I said before, I was always playing games that happened to permeate the conversations I had about gaming at the time. When Pokemon hit, it was almost too big to ignore. We all had Game Boys that were collecting dust after the Tetris obsessions died down. The simultaneous launch of the Pokemon game, trading card game, TV show, clothing, toys, and every other piece of merchandise infected the minds of us all and made us want to collect everything involved with the franchise. I remember the excitement that came with the series and how great it felt to catch new monsters. Watching them grow and evolve, level up and learn new skills was addictive and satisfying to me. I got so wrapped up in everything that the series was that I didn’t even realize I had been playing what I had been hating for so many years.
In fact, I didn’t realize that I had been playing an RPG or a JRPG specifically for years to come. I continued to play the series in every iteration that came out until Ruby and Sapphire came out. By the time those had debuted, I think I subconsciously figured out what was going on. Not that I stopped playing out of spite, but that same repetitious nature that I loathed from watching my friend started to settle in when I had played the same game three iterations in a row. Every few years or so, I would play another version of the monster collecting mainstay, but RPGs remained off of my radar.
Despite growing and finding new friends with different interests, who too enjoyed the RPG, I never really got into the genre. It took years before anything finally clicked. I had borrowed games from friends through the PSOne era, PS2, and all the way up to what was modern. I would play for an hour or so before handing the disc back to the friend who was kind enough to lend it to me. For the better part of 20 years of my life, Pokemon was the only RPG that I could stomach. I had to make a conscious decision to try to find an RPG that worked for me. I wanted to find that game, outside of Pokemon that would make me love these games like everyone else loved them.
One Final Try…
I figured that if I were going to go all in with this RPG thing that I should go right to where the genre gained its strongest popularity. With that, I went right to Final Fantasy. I got ahold of the first game, specifically Final Fantasy Origins for PlayStation which contained both the first and second games, with updated sprite work.
I think I ultimately landed somewhere around eighty hours of play before completing the game, and I think for the most part I enjoyed every second of that. What held me back previously was the high fantasy setting, combined with the slowness of gameplay. Slowness might not be the correct word, but it certainly felt to drag in comparison to what I was used to playing. I think that Pokemon was able to pull me in because of its modern day setting and its encouragement to partner up with friends and trade and battle. Something like Final Fantasy was not something that my brother and I could have sat around playing, but Pokemon we could play on our own in order to compete or trade later.
When I finally gave into the genre and dove far into Final Fantasy, I was older and I had a little more patience for what I might have previously tossed aside. I remember being in a doctor’s office with a lot of time to kill in between different offices and I spent roughly six of those eighty hours total just grinding through one dungeon over and over. Grinding is one thing, and I had done it in certain games before in some capacity, but going six hours in essentially one lane within a cave just to earn gold and experience was something brand new to me. Something brand new, that I really enjoyed doing.
I also became intrigued by the setting, the type of which that I would never have found interest in. Today, I still don’t really enjoy that type of setting, but something about that original game was generic in a way that didn’t offend me. Where later games that shared the Final Fantasy name focused more on specific character stories, this first game didn’t even supply the characters with names or any strong characteristic outside of physical ones. Choosing from six different basic classes with titles like “Fighter” and “Red Mage” helped to make the game more about my experience with it rather than something that the creators wanted me to experience. There is a very simple story in place about four heroes setting out to stop the greatest evil ever known, but that story became whatever I wanted it to be.
I really came to like the enemy design as well. There were monsters that were seemingly created from some madman’s imagination while others were ripped right out of mythology or classic lore. What I found as commonplace in enemy design was that everything was compelling to look at. Each creature or boss was designed in a way that made my eyes widen whenever a new design flashed onto the screen. It wasn’t about flashy animation or state-of-the-art cutscenes, but more about what works in a 2D space and how simple presentation can be gorgeous on its own.
Much like Pokemon had trained me for, leveling up my characters and having them learn new skills or traits pushed me to keep going to watch how powerful each of member of my party could become. Being able to execute these incredibly punishing magic attacks or seeing one of my combat-based fighters do heavy damage from a simple kick or punch was so satisfying. Every time I was able to one hit an enemy or a party of enemies made me feel like I was doing something right, in the same way that running through a level in Super Mario Bros. 3 without taking a hit felt. Where I was normally against the RPG because it seemed both intense and simple at the same time, Final Fantasy was making so much sense to me.
Largely, I was right about how intense the genre could be as well as how simple it was through and through. Final Fantasy taught me that a great RPG should be easy and approachable. An RPG should be something that any person can pick up and understand immediately. You know how to navigate the map right from the start, and when you enter your first battle you are given the option to attack or defend or use magic or an item. Everything about the gameplay is incredibly simple and easy to learn. Where the genre becomes intense is when you want it to become intense. A great RPG can be played casually, without really diving into anything complex. However, for those who are seeking it, an RPG can offer some serious level of strategy and challenge. Learning to combine certain attacks with others, while using a particular item on a certain enemy can grant the player with an intense feeling of accomplishment. If we were to be reductive, a lot of this can apply to all genres of gaming, but I think what I am more trying to say is that the way the Final Fantasy was constructed and designed gave me these realizations and clarified what may have been lying there all along.
Since I first finished my eighty hour journey, I have been able to revisit so many of the classic games in the genre. I have approached games that I probably would have furled my brow at twenty years ago, but now I can easily place them in my list of favorite games. If it weren’t for everything that Final Fantasy taught me about RPGs, I would have missed out on so much in gaming history. Not only did my experience with the title open me up to the genre, but it opened my eyes to what works and what doesn’t work in game design. Final Fantasy helped me to appreciate games on a new level, a level that ultimately led me to starting this site and writing critically about games. I will forever be thankful for the series and my time finally spent with that first entry.