It seems to be "walk down memory lane" week at GameCritics.com. Last time around, Chi was reminiscing about the years and the money he wasted standing in front of a Gauntlet arcade machine. Now, I am about to relate a similar tale. Back in the day, action games were my thing and I never gave role-playing games (RPGs) much thought. It was only through a chance occurrence that I got my hands on Final Fantasy II. I was at a store trading in an old game and as fate would have it, the only thing I could get for Darius Twin was Final Fantasy II (FF2). I didn't want to do it, but thanks to some "urging" from Chi, I relented and made the trade. I knew of FF2, or Final Fantasy IV (FF4), as it was known in Japan (where it was immensely popular), but RPGs were nowhere near as popular in the U.S. and certainly not at my house. It took a couple of days for me or my brother to even touch it, but when we broke down and played it we were blown away right from the start. The intro was pretty good, but the evolving story and characters were beyond great and that's what kept me playing. The more I played, the more hooked I became. And once I beat it (and had recovered from the withdrawal), I rented every RPG I could get my hands on. I even tried my hands at the Final Fantasy Game Boy games (something I had sworn never to do). I credit this title with opening my eyes and convincing me to embrace other genres.
Apparently, just enough American gamers felt the same way as I did and this prompted Square to announce the future release of Final Fantasy V (FF5) as Final Fantasy III (FF3). Unfortunately, it was constantly delayed until, finally, its release was scrapped for the newer installment [Final Fantasy VI (FF6)], which would be called FF3. Square wasn't hurt by this move at all because when FF3 finally hit our shores, gamers gobbled it up in record numbers. An unprecedented number, over one half-million, of gamers have bought this game since its release, which is why it is credited with ushering in the age of RPGs in America. Since then, we've been fed a steady stream of RPGs from Square and Enix and even some unlikely releases from the likes of Konami and Capcom. This is something I think is worth mentioning because many in the industry these days act as if RPG popularity began with Final Fantasy VII (FF7).
A lot was riding on FFA as far as I was concerned. We've come a long way since these 16-Bitters were the best the industry had to offer and it seemed unlikely that they would hold up well after the advent of graphical wonders like FF7 and Final Fantasy VIII (FF8). Gladly, all my trepidation was allayed once I started the games up and was greeted by that oh-so familiar logo and tinny introductory music. Amazingly, the sprite-based graphics still hold up quite nicely. They may no longer be revolutionary, but they still show the inventiveness and genius of the artists and programmers who made them. After playing FF8, this was the kind of back-to-basics break that I needed; I needed to be reminded that there was a time when developers knew how to use story and gameplay to draw gamers into their fictional world as opposed to overblown CG movies and 3D characters. I quickly fell back in love with all the characters and their melodramatic storylines and I was further taken back by the excellent music so prevalent in this series. It was because of the deep storyline and the music and sound effects wizardry that enabled 2D sprite-based characters (using three or four frames of animation) to pull off some of the most dramatic and humorous scenes in the history of video games. I don't even hesitate to say that to this day, it is unmatched.
Once I started playing FF5, I was back in my parents' old apartment and sitting on my bed, ready to lose myself in a Square Soft adventure. I easily forgot that I was playing a PlayStation remake because everything was so faithful to the Super Nintendo system (SNES) from the 16-Bit midi music to the famed Mode 7 special effects, which were perfectly reproduced on the PlayStation. While the most linear of the bunch, FF5's inclusion of the job system makes it the most innovative of the series in terms of gameplay. Here, I could assign certain jobs like Knight or Monk to a character and have him learn those skills and once they were learned, I could simply choose another job for more diverse abilities. It added greatly to the game and, instantly, I was irritated that it took so long for Square to release it here. The job system was a little confusing, at first, but it quickly became second-nature and added a level of strategy that begged to be expanded upon and made into a separate game (it was finally done in a game called Final Fantasy Tactics). As for FF6, I am happy to say that it is just as I remembered it and this is a good thing. The sweeping music and ground-breaking graphics still impress and the stories take everything to a level that few have been able to match (even on next-generation hardware like the PlayStation).
When all was said and done, I couldn't get one question out of my mind: how can you have a Final Fantasy Anthology and not include FF4?! Two games do not an anthology make. It's incredibly hard to accept that they left out FF4 (which actually made it into the Japanese version of FFA) and instead, tried to placate us with a music CD. Music CDs are nice, frill additions and for nostalgic purposes, they are great for a while. However, this particular CD quickly loses its punch since it's just midi music taken right off the 16-Bit games' silicon and not done by an orchestra. Only the most hardcore of fans will keep this CD on their CD players for more than a day. Another addition that is mostly wasted on me are the CG intros and endings. Upon first viewing they look nice, but they do not fit with the overall look of the game and add nothing at all but fodder for print ads and television commercials. If they really wanted to do something to give the game an update, they should have updated the in-game graphics completely and then toss in the CG movies, but as it is, they are all merely token gestures.
FFA would have easily gotten a 9.5 if only it included FFV; the game is so good by itself that it warrants such a high score. I had untold fun playing these games and the nostalgia factor is unbelievably high. The problem is that FFA, ultimately, is an anthology and it must be judged by the sum of its parts. To its credit, Square EA did pack in the second best RPG in the whole series with FF6, but I cannot let Square off the hook because they left out my all-time favorite, FF4. When I first heard about this collection, I was salivating to get my hands on all three parts. The collector in me was dying to get my hands on this just so I could look at it on my shelf and say that I had pieces of history on my shelf, all together in one CD case. It's upsetting that they tossed in a mere music CD as a replacement for such a monumental game. Judged by the sum of its parts, FFA would make a nice addition to a collection, but ironically it really can't claim to be a collection on its own.