Those crazy Japanese. Western culture can’t account for them. The Japanese are so bewildering that Sophia Coppola earned four Oscar nominations for a film that did little more than follow a pair of puzzled Americans around a Tokyo hotel. Let’s face it, nothing else happened in Lost in Translation. Okay, Scarlett Johansson was in it (before she turned into the devil and put selling SodaStream above orphaned children), but the fact that she demonstrated an iota of interest in the hangdog jowls of Bill Murray suggests that she singularly failed to comprehend the magic lurking behind the madness of modern Japan.
The Land of the Rising Sun may be aglow with neon lights that seem far removed from the days of Samurai and Shogun, but the Japanese still know how to kick ass. Sega, Sony and Nintendo, the royal lineage of console gaming, are Japanese to the core.
So are chocobos.
If you don’t know what chocobos are I genuinely don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life, but perhaps you’ve belatedly realised the error of your ways and have dropped outdoor activities, socialising, lovemaking, your career and all other irrelevant human activities to read up on the things that really matter: giant yellow birds you can race, ride and raise in the RPG that paved the way for RPGs to rule the world: Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series.
The franchise began in 1987 on the NES where its blend of map exploration and turn-based combat proved successful enough to save its makers from bankruptcy, but Final Fantasy really hit its stride with the seventh and eighth instalments on the PlayStation. As well as being the debut 3D titles in the series, these games were the first FFs to be released in Europe. Did even the crazy Japanese fear that the game was so out there it’d be “lost in translation” to Westerners?
I bought Final Fantasy VII purely on the basis of the hype surrounding it, which poured from gaming magazines with such weight of force that buying the game eventually didn’t so much seem like an option as an obligation. Try not looking when everyone points in the same direction at once.
I adjusted slowly to it – perhaps because of the sense of duty rather than excitement with which I’d bought it, perhaps because its style and controls were foreign to me – but within a week I knew it’d be the only thing I played until it was complete.
Final Fantasy VII wasn’t like other games. It didn’t have the gritty graphics of Resident Evil or Tomb Raider. You couldn’t charge around levels blasting away at enemies like in a first person shooter or sneak up on guards Solid Snake style.
The characters had the physical dimensions of newborn kittens: their heads comprised 90% of their body mass. They were cartoony and had names like Cloud Strife and Cid Highwind. The combat system was a shocking deviation from the instant-by-instant control of contemporary games. If I wanted to take turns I’d play Monopoly! And what was that music about? Why was the soundtrack to an ADHD-inducing kids TV show framing my battle to the death with mercenary soldiers?
Standing there taking the hits that are inescapable in turn-based combat had me tearing my hair out – until I began thinking. The beauty of Final Fantasy VII and VIII’s combat systems was that by removing the option to pile into enemies all guns blazing, dodging attacks with the d-pad while attacking with trigger buttons, you were forced away from instinct and into the realm of thought and strategy.
This was surprisingly addictive – as was the constant levelling up of weapons, health and magic that made you feel as if you were genuinely building a team of skilled warriors to save the world rather than simply proceeding from A to B with bigger and bigger guns.
It’s the intangibles and quirkiness of Final Fantasy VII that really make it stick in the mind, though. On the face of it the game’s plot could be Western – an eco-“terrorist” organisation sets out to thwart an evil mega-corporation – but the elaborations and diversions that knit this plot into the fully weaved pattern of art are pure Japanese anime.
Where in a Western game would the plot require you to take a break from saving the world to go chocobo racing, betting on the outcome of races between those adorable giant birds at a semi-satirical amusement park? Or how about forcing the hero at the centre of the story to cross dress in order to “seduce” low-level gangster Don Corneo? Of course, if you want a wig to complete the outfit you’ve got to do more squats than a rival in the space of 30 seconds…
Final Fantasy VII blended cutesiness and genuinely captivating story-driven adventure in a way I’d never seen before – and haven’t seen since. Final Fantasy VIII featured more realistically-proportioned characters and a more serious tone but was equally riveting, with cinematic cut scenes and an elaborate plot that generated powerful emotional attachments to characters – even characters with names like Squall Leonheart, who I never liked but somehow loved.
I suppose what I’m really trying to say, in this confused and meandering way, is that despite the fact that these games are torn by contradictions, make little logical sense and have almost nothing in the way of coherent tone and structure, they are complete masterpieces – and their influence is foundational to the RPGs and MMORPGs that dominate the gaming scene today.
If, as they say, there is a fine line between madness and genius, I’d suggest that line runs directly through Japan.