Final Fantasy VIII, a Twenty Year Reunion
There’s a famous joke out there about Final Fantasy I quite like, but actually sparks an interesting debate. “Why do they call it Final Fantasy if they keep making installments? Isn’t it supposed to be the Final Fantasy?” While it’s rumored that the name is derived on Square Enix’s “final” attempt to make a franchise that would keep the company in business, the actual reason is because the original name proposed, Fighting Fantasy, would have created legal issues with an existing series of game books by the same name. Instead, they came up with alternative title with the same F.F. abbreviation so that it could easily stand out with ensuing roman numerals.
The great thing about the Final Fantasy franchise is that despite sharing the same name, each story is exclusively independent and discrete from each other. The controls, menu, and concept however are principally identical and accessibly designed, pleasing everyone from fanboys to newcomers. Today we’re taking a look back at Final Fantasy VII, released on February 11th, 1999, which also happens to be the installment of the franchise I played first. So how is FFVIII after twenty years? Does it hold up or is it passed its prime?
Final Fantasy VIII’s setting shifts more towards science fiction and takes a break from the steampunk feel that embodied Final Fantasy VI and VII. Without spoiling anything for the youngins, the plot follows an assembly of students, led by the drolly anti-social Squall Leonhart, who’re training to become SeeD, elite “mercenaries for hire”. These students are eventually hired to assassinate Sorceress Edea, who was accountable for the game’s preliminary antagonisms and who ultimately overtakes control of Galbadia Garden (their academy). We learn that Edea had been under possession of a future sorceress and key adversary, Ultimecia. Her goals is to create a “Time Compression”, which would unify every era into one believing it would eradicate all life excluding herself as she transforms into a universal deity.
While the stories of Final Fantasy are notorious for having lengthy, stretched out plots with a plethora of detail that three to four discs can contain, Final Fantasy VIII stands tall as one of the more confusing ones out there. It took me numerous playthroughs and the assistance of plot summaries to fully grasp what was happening because there was just so much happening. However, in the end, it does make for several interesting fan theories that I highly recommend looking into after playing the game.
RPGs in general are easy to control because the concept is simple, and Final Fantasy VIII is no exemption. You move your character around with the ability to run at times, and you interact with items and NPC’s to engage in conversations and/or advance the game. When engaged in battles, the menu systems are fairly similar as well, with slight differences that I’ll get into soon. All in all, it’s really hard to mess up how an RPG controls. They aren’t the most exhilarating of controls, but it doesn’t need to be. People know what kind of game they are playing and are not expecting anything strictly different. They want that comfortable simplicity so they can focus on story and exploration.
If you know me personally, you know that a key to my heart is to be an appreciator of the music of Final Fantasy. Hell, I listened to a created playlist as I wrote this. I invite you to check out my top twenty list of all-time favorite songs from the franchise (part 1, part 2). You’ll discover that a handful of songs from Final Fantasy VIII have made that list. From the moment you select “New Game” you are treated with what is quite possibly the best opening songs in any game period in Liberi Fatali, and simply sets the bar high for all other tracks. From the groovy battle theme of The Man with the Machine Gun to the calm and relaxing overworld theme of Balamb Garden as you venture through your school. From Eyes on Me, the first ever Final Fantasy song to have vocals, to the soothing Fisherman’s Horizon, Final Fantasy VIII is a musical treat to the ears from beginning to end that will forever be a part me without diminishing value.
Oh boy, the graphics. At the time they were revolutionary. It was the franchise’s first attempt at giving the characters a more human-like appearance after Final Fantasy VII made everyone look like a polygonal doofus. I’m sure during its initial release, people were in complete awe and appreciation of how the game looked in comparison to the previous ones, but today, the game looks downright choppy. When it comes to playing my Final Fantasy games, I’m old school and I play them on the platform they were initially released on, so I’ve played VIII every time on the PS1. I’m well aware that there are refined Steam/PC editions that give the game some polish, and I would recommend new players to play those editions. Graphics aren’t really a make or break ordeal with me, as all that matters is that the game plays well. That being said, the original 1999 PS1 version is an eyesore in 2019 and you’ll end up wondering if it was ever worth abandoning the classic VIII bit feel.
So the game controls as simply and effective as ever, the music will forever hold a place in my heart, yet the graphics are in dire need of polishing, so I guess that leaves us with the final question: Is the game still fun after all this time? And then answer is simply: depends on how you look at things. Final Fantasy VIII is the first game in the franchise that actually gets rid of set-level monsters. This means you can beat the game without having to do an excessive amount of leveling up, because the monsters and boss battles are set according to what level you are, not what level you should be (with the exception of the optional and brutally difficult Omega Weapon, whose health is set at Lvl. 100, regardless of your level on the PS1). While this is an amicable method for new gamers who don’t want to grind, it tends to make the game way too laid-back for most veterans.
Another feature different from the other installments is the Draw/Magic feature. MP is simply not a factor in this game. Instead players can draw magic from draw points and enemies during battle. This magic can then either be used in battle or set as attribute bonuses. While it is an innovative idea, this can simply break the game into being pathetically simple. Those accustomed with grinding can easily max out the necessary magic and combine the no-leveling-up strategy to absolutely cake-walk the game. It doesn’t sound like fun, and that’s because it isn’t. Take my word for it: Fight all the battles you come across, level up accordingly, and resist the urge to grind magic early game, because there is much more satisfying and appropriate way to do so that’ll pay off in the finale.
While there are a handful of mini-games to help you acquire great items and magic, one proudly and distantly stands above the rest. The Triple Triad card mini-game is unquestionably the greatest thing about Final Fantasy VIII and is still my favorite mini-game in any Final Fantasy. You start out with five cards and play them on a board. Your objective is simple: Flip your opponent’s card to your color by placing yours next to theirs in a way so that the number on your card touching theirs is greater. The person with the most cards set to their color wins and gets to choose a card (or entire deck depending on the rules) from your opponent’s deck. The main intention of the Triple Triad is to challenge certain NPCs all over who have rare cards that can be refined end-game into high powered magic and tools. As you travel the planet, you will venture into different regions that will implement different rules, making it more difficult to emerge victorious. Trust me when I say it gets really exasperatingly hard near the end of the game, and it is a very high risk high reward situation, because the rules and punishments stack. But also believe me when I say that it is so much fun to carefully strategize your attacks, you’ll lose yourself for a good amount of time building your deck. I would say Triple Triad is worth the purchase of Final Fantasy VIII alone and I wish later installments made minigames more like this one.
Twenty years later, Final Fantasy VIII still holds up as another worthy title in the Final Fantasy franchise. While it can be very confusing as a whole to understand and is probably the easiest Final Fantasy to get through with the help of game-breaking cheese, the fun factor is unquestionably there. A lot of people actually don’t like this game, and others wouldn’t place it anywhere near in their favorites list, but it’s honestly an acquired taste. The graphics are simply a mess that’ll have you begging for 8-bit, but there are updated versions that do its best to make the game look somewhat presentable, if it’s that much of an issue to you. I personally go through every Final Fantasy numerous of times when I have down time and am not playing anything current. Every time I restart the cycle, I find myself wanting to start with Final Fantasy VIII. Maybe it’s because it was the first one I played that got me to love the franchise so much, so it means a lot to me and my childhood. twenty years from then, it still means just as much.