The Problem With… Nintendo

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I’ve pretty much been a lifelong Nintendo fan, receiving a NES at about the age of 6. Since then I’ve owned every major platform they have released apart from the ill fated Virtual boy. I’m still a huge Nintendo fan to this day, but they really infuriate me with some of the stubborn decisions they make. Nintendo have always followed their own path and have consistently innovated and pioneered a lot of main stay features from the Rumble Pak to analogue sticks. At times though, Nintendo’s blind refusal to compete and stay relevant is just baffling.

There are several main points of contention that I believe Nintendo need to address. Without doing so they will find themselves drifting further away from consumer’s expectations.

Console Branding

Let’s start by tackling the whole branding shambles. Nintendo have always tended to stick to a familiar naming convention (as do Sony and Microsoft) and in the past this worked out relatively fine. It’s fairly easy to understand a Super Nintendo is better than a Nintendo and that a Game Boy Advance is better than a mere Game Boy.

Nintendo Entertainment System
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Nintendo 64

Game Boy
Game Boy Color
Game Boy Advance

Starting with the Wii and DS eras Nintendo have increasingly made poor marketing decisions when branding a console or handheld. As many will remember, codename “Revolution”1 was later renamed Wii which wasn’t exactly a fan favourite. Many fans will remember the jokes and digs at the name during the early days of Wii. Nintendo didn’t learn from this negative reception, in fact they refused to let go of both the “Wii” and “DS” brands by naming their subsequent consoles “Wii U” and “3DS”.

The DS itself isn’t necessarily a bad name and indeed it sold in excess of 154 million units2 making it the second best selling console of all time behind the PS23. So poor branding couldn’t have really been a factor here, the problem comes from branding successive consoles with extremely similar names. The hugely successful sales of the Wii and DS family might be one reason why Nintendo decided to use these brands to encompass the Wii U and 3DS. The problem here is that the majority of people aren’t typical gamers, they don’t read up on gaming news on a daily basis and they don’t keep up with the happenings of major game companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. I’d forgive the average parent then if they were under the assumption that the 3DS is identical to the DS other than the ability to transform DS games into stereoscopic 3D. After all, Nintendo had already released a range of DS consoles from the DS, DS lite, DSi and DSi XL, all of which were based around the standard DS model. The DSi had a handful of games that were not compatible with the DS and so it was essentially an intermediary step towards a new handheld, a DS 1.5 if you will.

To make matters worse Nintendo created the 3DS family which currently consists of 3DS, 3DS XL, 2DS (more on this in a moment), New 3DS and New 3DS XL. It isn’t exactly obvious if somebody states “I have just bought myself a new 3DS”. What does this even mean now? Are we talking about the most recent model titled “New 3DS” or is the person referring to a brand new original 3DS console as opposed to a second hand one?

The 2DS is yet another example of the poorly chosen branding Nintendo are becoming synonymous with. How does a parent differentiate between a DS, DSi, 3DS, 2DS and New 3DS, let alone the lite and XL variations? Ah, the 3DS is like a DS but with a 3D slider? So the 2DS is the 3DS without the 3D? Is it a DS then? No, actually it’s not a DS. My head hurts just writing this paragraph.

wiiu

The Wii U branding is even worse; just take a look at the announcement trailer4. The entire focus here was on the “new controller”, each new piece of text that flashed up on screen talked about “… the new controller”. In fact, there was no mention of the actual console (which looks remarkably similar to the Wii by the way, confusing the matter even more) and it was only shown on screen for a few seconds, in the background. The Wii’s unique motion controls were in part responsible for its huge lifetime sales. Many will remember the stories of elderly and children alike all enjoying a game of tennis on Wii Sports. The concept was simple, hold this thing that looks like a TV remote and just swing it as you would a tennis racquet. It’s pretty understandable that Nintendo may have come to the conclusion that a similar marketing strategy would work for the Wii U – advertise the controller, it will sell the system. There was only one problem; it confused a whole lot of people. What had they just watched? Did Nintendo just reveal a new controller for the Wii? Satoru Iwata later went on to acknowledge this marketing mistake5 yet Nintendo still don’t seem to realise the brand names themselves are causing some of this confusion.

Sony’s consoles are clearly identifiable; they all look different for a start. Sony use numbers to denote their home systems (PS1, PS2 etc…) while their handheld straight up use different names (Portable, aka PSP and Vita). Most people can easily understand that the PS3 must be the successor to the PS2. Can anybody not in the know really come to the conclusion that the Wii U is the successor to the Wii? Or that the 3DS is the successor to the DS but not the 2DS?

Nintendo simply need to step back and think about how their branding will come across to a consumer who knows nothing about their products. It’s all well and good for a consumer who reads games journalism outlets and lives and breathes games but what about a parent buying their 6 year old a console for the first time? If you must stick with Wii, then name the successor a “Super Wii” at the very least. Really though Nintendo need to shake off the Wii branding as the Wii U really hasn’t taken off as expected and the Wii is now known to many people as the console that collected dust and filled people’s homes with shovelware. Due to the confusion with the DS, 3DS, and New 3DS I’d suggest Nintendo move away from the “DS” branding altogether.

Horse Power 

I’m slightly torn over this one as I firmly believe game play is king, not graphics, not horsepower. There does come a point however where you wonder why Nintendo refuses to keep up with the competition. Iwata has addressed this issue before6 however, and he seems keen on Nintendo continuing to innovate and carve their own path through the games industry.

Link_und_Epona_(Twilight_Princess)

Nintendo consoles are generally considered to be under powered compared to their competition. It’s easy to see why they go for this approach; they can use cheaper components and sell a system based on unique features and well loved franchises. Each system can then sell for a profit, which is unheard of in an industry of loss leaders7. The Wii U bucked this trend by selling for a loss8 but what is under the hood didn’t exactly scream “next gen” when the system was released back in 2012. Comparison charts between the current 3 home consoles9 only need to be glanced at to immediately see how under powered the Wii U is. In fact, the Wii U would be far more at home being compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 which are 6 and 7 years it’s senior respectively.

There is nothing immediately wrong with Nintendo systems being under powered as long as there is a good catalogue of games. Fans will buy a Nintendo system for the Nintendo exclusive franchises, but will the average consumer? Hardcore fans are quite happy with the device sitting and gathering dust for several months a year while waiting for the next big exclusive. Nintendo have become many gamers secondary console of choice and for the majority of the year gamers will play with a Sony or Microsoft console then hop across to a Nintendo platform every couple of months to play an exclusive. And here we get to the real problem, 3rd party support. Having multiple consoles myself, I don’t really care if 3rd party support comes to Nintendo or not because I’ll just fire up my PS3 or PS4 and play games on those devices. However a large amount of gamers (particularly children) are not always in a position to have multiple consoles. They are left with a choice between a handful of really great Nintendo games or buying either a PS4 or Xbox One and playing their exclusives as well as a large amount of 3rd party games.

Nintendo could arguably dominate the market if they were to release a similarly powerful console complete with all of their historic franchises that consumers know and love as well as offering the same multi-platform games that both Sony and Microsoft provide. Developers would want to release games on the system because they wouldn’t have to create a stand alone, downgraded port just to run on that system. Porting games between PS4, Xbox One and PC is a fairly standard practice and can financially make sense. Porting a game to Wii U just doesn’t make great business sense because more effort has to go into the downgraded port and with such a small install base the risk isn’t worth taking.

As for the next system, well Nintendo have merged their hand held and home console R&D departments10. Many speculate that this merge may result in a future console being a hybrid device that can be hooked up to a TV and played like a traditional console as well as being portable. Whatever Nintendo choose to do going forward I believe they need to create a console powerful enough to compete with their rivals. Nintendo should take a hit on the sales of a new, powerful console and provide developers and consumers with a viable alternative to Sony and Microsoft’s offerings. This is the only way they will draw in 3rd party developers and increase their install base as a result. If Nintendo really want to impress they should look ahead to technologies that will be common place in 3 or 4 years time and aim to release a new home system in around 2 years time. This decision would allow for developers to easily port between all current consoles and PC as well as allow Nintendo to also show off powerful new exclusive games that wouldn’t be possible on the PS4 and Xbox One. If they wait too long to release a new system there will be early rumours of whatever Sony and Microsoft offer next, by this point many consumers will just hold tight until these consoles are released.

Cross-buy

Both Nintendo and Sony actively support multiple platforms yet Sony has been far more active in creating an eco system. When purchasing a game customers expect many will work across a combination of PS3, PS4 and Vita (if not all 3) all for one price. This isn’t always the case but there are countless examples of games being released and given away for free to previous customers, Dead Nation11 being one such example. Nintendo on the other hand haven’t made their ecosystem quite as friendly. This means that if you buy a virtual console game such as Mega Man on the 3DS there is nothing tying your Wii U account to that Mega Man purchase. In this instance you’d have to buy the game again on the Wii U if you wanted to continue playing on that platform.

I’m not aware of any sales figures that would highlight how many customers are buying a game twice because they want to play it on both the 3DS and the Wii U. Personally Nintendo are losing money from me as I hardly ever buy virtual console games because I don’t like the fact that Nintendo won’t let me play them on multiple systems. My digital library over on the Sony ecosystem however is pretty extensive, in part because I’ve had the ability to buy games on my PS3 and later replay them on my Vita. More recently games have then been ported over to the PS4 where I’ve had the option to download them again for no additional cost.

Nintendo online accounts, coupled with the lack of cross-buy feel downright archaic. What’s worse is customers cannot visit an online store to browse for and buy content. Generally when I receive an RSS feed from Sony informing me about a sale I’ll click through to the store and end up buying a few games if they take my fancy. It’s convenient to quickly log in and make a purchase while it’s fresh in my mind. Nintendo on the other hand don’t tend to have many sales and even when they do I’d have to be at home, boot up my console and head over to the shop then search for the game.

MvsDK

Nintendo are slowly making steps to improve their ecosystem as we’ve seen with Mario VS. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars12 recently being announced as a buy one version and get the other one for free deal. We might yet make some progress, however this is labelled as a “Special offer”, potentially meaning in a few months time the offer will no longer stand. Keeping a back catalogue of virtual console games is also possible by using the system transfer to permanently move all purchases from the Wii to the Wii U. The catch here is that the virtual console games have to be played with the Wii U booted into Wii system mode. A small payment can be made to update some games to work in the Wii U OS, however the current virtual console library for Wii U is pretty lacking.

Now in terms of preserving the history that Nintendo are famous for they really need to sort out their virtual console. For a start we need at least some sort of preservation of existing purchases, I don’t want to be buying a copy of Super Mario Bros. For every Nintendo console I own. At the very least I’d like the ability to purchase a game and play it on my Wii U or 3DS without buying 2 copies. Ideally though, I’d like the Nintendo ecosystem to evolve enough so that I only have to buy a VC game once. At which point the game is tied to my account and I can access it from any future Nintendo platform. This might seem like a bad idea from Nintendo’s point of view because they’d only make money from one purchase but look at it this way, how often are consumers going to keep purchasing the same game over and over again? I know I’d buy more VC games if I thought I’d be able to access them on future platforms. That being said I know the Wii U VC library is lacking at the moment and part of that is down to porting games to work with the gamepad. There would have to be a compromise in creating a VC platform that would remain relatively unchanged on future platforms. Nintendo would need to avoid using time and resources continually porting old games to new systems. And don’t forget, Nintendo might then only generate one sale per game from veteran gamers but with every new generation of consoles comes a new generation of gamers who have all this history to discover. Think of it like iTunes, I buy a lot of my music digitally now because I can always access it through my account. If I had to re-buy my iTunes music every time I bought a new device I’d think twice about buying an album.

Nintendo Creators Program

If Nintendo haven’t already done enough to prove they have lost touch with their fans then the recent youtube program just tops it off. Essentially this program allows Nintendo to siphon off earnings from every youtube creator that posts videos featuring Nintendo games13. If a content creator doesn’t sign up to this program their content can be removed for copyright infringement. On the other hand they can choose to sign up and give Nintendo 30% of their total channel earnings or 40% for single videos14. There is no question of the legality here, Nintendo own the original material and are perfectly within their rights to take a cut of these earnings.

In the modern age the way we consume media is drastically changing. With the rise of on-demand TV and sites like youtube many people now consume media as and when they are ready. Consumers subscribe to their favourite channels not only to view various pieces of media but also to interact with content creators. Many channels now feature “Let’s play” videos, these consist of a content creator streaming themselves playing through a game. Some narrate their experiences, some review and critique games while others offer walkthrough advice. Most creators monetise their channels and make a small amount of profit for each view they receive so essentially these creators are making money by streaming copyrighted material that they do now own. This is where Nintendo decided to step in and cash in on their games being streamed.

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So why is the creators program such a mistake? Aren’t Nintendo losing out on revenue if they don’t put this program into effect? Well yes but on the other hand many games companies are now getting free marketing. What better way to market a game than watching a likeable “real” person playing a game they have actually chosen to play rather than being asked to play? When viewers watch their favourite content creator having fun with a game they are much more likely to want to play that game than they would be from watching a very fake family in a studio “living room” all pretending to enjoy a game that they are being paid to advertise. So with Nintendo now forcing creators to pay a share of their profits many well known channels will be boycotting Nintendo games. Kinda Funny15 and PewDiePie16 have both expressed that while they admit Nintendo are within their rights to do this it’s not exactly a clever move. Colin of Kinda Funny went on to state that they will simply stop doing Nintendo content all together if this starts to affect them.

I’d just like to add that streaming a game cannot be compared to streaming a film or TV show. The core experience with the former involves interacting with the medium and making choices of some sort which you cannot do by watching a stream. The core experience with TV and film on the other hand is watching the content.

Nintendo should cut the creators program completely and let content creators stream Nintendo games without worrying about copyright infringement. Not only will Nintendo’s reputation improve from this move but they’ll benefit from the free marketing.

What else can Nintendo improve?

amiibo

Recently Amiibo showed just how loved Nintendo characters are but I’d like to see improvements here. Right now Amiibo are selling in their millions and are getting difficult to get hold of but how long can that bubble last? Nintendo need a way to keep the momentum going for years to come and the recently announced Amiibo cards17 and trial games18 should help see to that. Really though, I’d like to see Nintendo offering either full virtual console games or decent discounts on them. The other obvious idea is for a fully fledged Amiibo game in whatever form that might take. Characters could unlock parts of levels or new abilities and obviously a character model to play as in game. I suppose Skylanders is the obvious comparison but Nintendo have so many great ideas I’m sure they could come up with a unique twist.

Although trophies and achievements are loved by some and hated by others I think Nintendo are missing out on a similar system. If fans don’t care about these rewards, simply ignore them but at least allow fans who do like them to have something similar on the Nintendo ecosystem. I believe these reward systems can have value, for a start they lock a lot of people into the ecosystem. Player’s can look at all their trophies for all the games they have played on a system, when it comes to moving across to a rival they’d be losing all of their rewards. Secondly, Nintendo could incentivise collection of rewards by offering something similar to Club Nintendo. If 100% of the achievements are earned in a game the player might unlock a code for a virtual console game for example. Ok, so Nintendo would lose out on a sale here but they’d also be incentivising players to keep playing on their system and keep hold of their games for as long as possible.

Let’s go back to basics with the controllers. It’s all well and good having choice but having a Wii U with a game pad, motion controller and nunchuk as well as a classic controller is just overkill. Not only can this be confusing to new consumers but it also looks like an expensive system when at first glance a potential customer will wonder if they need all of these controllers on day one. 

Conclusion

I actually think Nintendo do get a lot right, they have a great back catalogue of classic franchises and as such they have a very dedicated fanbase. Nobody can deny that Nintendo innovate, who would have thought that motion controls would become so big over one console generation? Love or hate motion controls, there is no denying there was a point when every developer wanted a piece of the action with Sony and Microsoft also developing their own rival technologies.

Nintendo always experience peaks and troughs, going from such a phenomenal console like the SNES to experiencing low sales and a lack of 3rd party support during the N64 and GameCube eras. Nintendo have had huge failures in the form of the Virtual Boy and the Power Glove to huge successes that have changed the industry like the Rumble Pak and Analogue sticks. No doubt that whatever Nintendo does in the future they’ll have a mixture or sheer brilliant ideas and innovative games as well as a few failures along the way.

Nintendo are now playing catch up trying to get used to working with HD visuals a generation later than the competition. They have been late to the online party, having a pretty basic store, limited online multiplayer functionality and a lack of voice chat. Nintendo really do have the potential to rise to glory once again but a change is needed at the company. They really need to move with the times and reassess how they go about creating games and new technology. There is nothing wrong with keeping their core philosophies and inventiveness but they also need to look at what the competition are doing to stay relevant.

  1. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2006/04/27/introducing-nintendo-wii
  2. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1409.pdf
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2011/02/14/sony-playstation2-sales-reach-150-million-units/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e3qaPg_keg
  5. http://www.standard.co.uk/business/nintendo-boss-admits-wii-u-could-have-had-better-launch-6410045.html
  6. http://thebridge.jp/en/2013/10/nintendo-satoru-iwata-bdash#fn:2
  7. http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2006/11/8239/
  8. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-10-25-iwata-wii-u-will-be-sold-below-cost
  9. http://uk.ign.com/wikis/xbox-one/PS4_vs._Xbox_One_vs._Wii_U_Comparison_Chart
  10. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-01-16-nintendo-plans-to-merge-handheld-and-console-teams-in-historic-shake-up
  11. http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2014/04/14/dead-nation-arrives-ps-vita-week/
  12. http://mariovsdk.nintendo.com/
  13. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-02-05-nintendo-clarifies-youtube-revenue-share-program-asks-users-to-delete-non-nintendo-videos
  14. https://r.ncp.nintendo.net/guide//
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHlBzxc3P6A#t=319
  16. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/02/youtube-pewdiepie-nintendo-revenue-sharing
  17. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/library/events/141030qa/index.html
  18. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/02/17/amiibo-to-unlock-nessnes-virtual-console-trials-soon
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The Problem With… Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview

Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!

Introduction

I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.

I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.

Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?

Game Play Over Graphics

The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.

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Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”. [1] A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.

The 3 eras of Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre.  The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.

Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.

Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself

So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.

Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.

The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.

Final Fantasy XII

Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.

The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out

Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.

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As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.

Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.

Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.

XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)

Conclusion

It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5551606/how-long-would-a-final-fantasy-vii-remake-take