Quarantine has been hard. All I know is McDonald’s, charge my phone, twerk, be bisexual, eat hot chip, and lie. I’m not equipped to do many things. So I’ve needed a distraction during these trying times, and I’ve found myself pulled back towards that most legendary of gaming franchises, Final Fantasy. In part due to nostalgia, and partly due to slowly preparing myself for the inevitability of my caving and getting a copy of Final Fantasy VII Remake once EB allows physical delivery again. The economy is gonna collapse right as I graduate, might as well go get my eggs cracked at Wall Market.
It’s a franchise that we all know about, and it helped build gaming as we know it, even if a significant proportion of the shared fondness for the franchise comes from a faint recollection of FF7 – however, the inability to move past that fondness is a big issue for Square Enix’s reputation, and these new remakes are also the ones that serve to make or break the future of the franchise.
Some history, to explain how we got to where we are today. Final Fantasy first rose to global prominence with Final Fantasy VI, one of the most admired examples of story and atmosphere in an era where story was often reduced to a single black screen telling you that demons had opened a portal on Mars or some shit. It weaved together fantasy and futurism, pessimism and hope, cultures past and cultures to come. It’s possibly the most critically acclaimed game in the franchise. But this game is something typically only remembered by diehard fans and gaming journalists, because its immediate successor quite literally changed the face of video games; Final Fantasy VII became a cultural touchstone for the earliest millennials in a way that’s hard to imagine nowadays, due to the sheer variety of options in consuming media. Think of it how Harry Potter used to be treated, before we knew that J.K Rowling had terf bangs in her soul, and that wizards used to magic away they shite ‘cause sittin’ on the loo and wiping they arse was ah proper struggle. Two years before the first Matrix movie redefined how sci-fi saw itself on the cinema screen, Final Fantasy VII had led the way on the gaming front. It was the first massively successful product to sell gaming’s possibilities of telling stories in a fun way; it was part of the rise of sci-fi anxiety pre-Y2K, a surprisingly unappreciated selling point in today’s world; it was part of the late ‘90s perception of the Japanese cultural march around the globe; it was a massively successful merchandising behemoth, due to the game’s graphics being ‘advanced’ enough (it was 1997) to turn those polygons into recognisable brands, and Tifa had PS1-era polygon triangle titties. Looking back, it’s almost predictable to see how huge the game’s following became, but back in that time, it was a bigger meteor surprise than… well, #gamers know.
In the years that followed, Square (now Square Enix) released games that never quite equaled the critical and commercial success of FF7; one was a critical success but not a commercial hit, for vice versa. Final Fantasy X being the sole exception in the decade following FF7’s release, beloved by all. This hit its height in what many consider to be the tipping point towards mediocrity in the franchise, Final Fantasy XII. While I personally love that game, it’s often cited as the game that brought the franchise down a few pegs in terms of its ability to be marketed to people that weren’t already leaning a bit too close to weeaboo. Combined with the fan realisation that Square Enix was never going to stop trying to emulate FF7, plugging failed sequel after sequel to that sub-franchise, the floor was beginning to slip out from under their feet. Supposedly lifelong fans were shunning the future of the franchise. While they had solved their finance issues of years past, the jewel in SE’s crown was beginning to lose its long-term viability.
Enter Final Fantasy 13. Marketed as the rebirth of Final Fantasy for a new era of #gamers, it is now seen as maybe the biggest critical dud across the entire franchise; while it sold well, and its central character became a Louis Vuitton model in real life (right????), the attempt to repackage all that made FF7 interesting in 1997 came off as out of touch in 2009. Lightning, its main protagonist, was seen as yet another attempt to sell Cloud; yet another edgy, emotionally repressed soldier, without the nostalgia filter to cover up the flaws. The linearity of the game itself caused many to try sell it for $10 in a desperate attempt to get some level of money back, and while Square Enix made off like pirates, there was a solid seven year period where it was generally accepted that Final Fantasy had become a polished turd, unable to move beyond its past. At the same time, however, it was remarked upon that the same people who claimed this issue were the ones financially sending the message that perpetually emulating FF7 was Good Shit, Man!
Enter Final Fantasy XV in 2016, once again marketed as a rebirth of the franchise. This was more successful, if not critically so, due to its emphasis on Dudes Being Sexy Bros: Two Feet Apart ‘Cause They’re Not Gay!. I got a PS4 for this game, lol. And I enjoyed it, playing it for a month straight. However, there was an inescapable feeling that, for all their emphasis on doing something new, they just wanted to remake FF7 again; around every corner was yet another reference to it, yet another plot element or aesthetic lifted from it, so on. Like Season 5 of Community in reference to Season 2. But for all the complaining over this reference overdosing, the money consistently flowed one way. This was the final bit of messaging Square Enix needed. They gave up on trying to work around their decades-old problem; rather, they decided to go straight through it.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake represents a culmination of what gamers think they want from Final Fantasy versus what they have done; for all the desperation about trying to avoid it, the money has shown that consumers consistently love FF7’s balls being sucked across spacetime. It’s the game that has perhaps topped all lists of ‘most desired games that will never be made’ for 20 years, with the exception of Half-Life 3, and yet the clinging to FF7 is simultaneously cited as the reason for Final Fantasy’s decline over time. Square Enix consistently avoided questioning over whether a remake would ever come to pass, but faced with a reality where despite all the messaging from the fanbase about letting go of their most famous game, their wallets say otherwise, Square Enix have decided to not pretend any longer. You want this behemoth again? You can have it. And you’re going to keep having it, and this episodic revival will become our primary focus over the next decade. Choke on the width of our plans, the girth of our download sizes.
And the thing is, all signs point to Stage 1 of this multiple game remake becoming one of the biggest hits of the year, financially and critically; for all the reasonable complaints over Square Enix becoming overly reliant on a hit from two decades past, Square Enix seem to have realised that simply giving the people what their hearts have clamoured for all this time may be their best chance to break out of the timewarp and give Cloud and Sephiroth’s balls a chance to dry off. Cast Holy, and let us pray.