Sunday, September 27, 2015

Final Fantasy II - It Spoke to Me Across Time and Space
And Squaresoft's musically rich, story-soaked RPG classic told me that video games had the power to change my life in ways I couldn't have expected.


The Prelude

Before Squaresoft's otherworldly opus landed its vessel on that lamp table in our den, I considered myself to have a strong handle on the measurable number of ways in which video games could personally affect me. I knew that they had the power to stoke my imagination and move me to wonder about worlds I'd never be able to visit. I knew that they could inspire me artistically. I knew that I could learn from them and apply their language to my written works. And I knew that they could function as an invaluable ingredient in the bonding experiences between my friends and I. 

Up until the day I played Final Fantasy II for the first time, those qualities, I believed, represented the limit of their potential, and it would have sounded crazy to me had someone suggested that the medium could move beyond that narrow scope--that video games might one day wield the power to profoundly impact my life and shape the person I'd become. That was the case Final Fantasy II wanted to make.

At the time of its arrival, though, I wasn't exactly prepared to receive its message. Rather, it was only a few seconds before I tuned out my brother, James, who was excitedly explaining to me why the newly purchased Final Fantasy II was worth my time--mine another stupidly hasty dismissal of a game I couldn't be bothered to examine past the box art. Of course, I had a built-in excuse for my disinterest: I wasn't a fan of the RPG genre in general because of my unpleasant, unproductive experiences with Dragon Warrior and the original Final Fantasy, which were fun to explore but featured that same random-battle system that stifled all of my attempts at progress and bored me into submission. So I left the game right there on the lamp table, where it remained for almost a week until my brother asked if he could borrow my SNES and Final Fantasy II with it; after I passively agreed, he took both of them downstairs to his basement hangout.

See--I'd occasionally let him borrow my SNES for about a week or two, thinking that my NES and my art projects would be enough to keep me busy for that length of time, but it never worked out that way; it was usual that I'd soon grow tired of drawing monsters and replaying all of the Mega Man games and long for my SNES, which had since become my go-to system. If I wanted to be close to it--if I longed to feed off of its 16-bit vibes even as an observer--then I'd have no choice but to sneak downstairs and watch my brother play it; provided he didn't immediately kick me out, I'd watch on, enviously, from a distance.

This time, however, not even a day had gone by before I started missing my SNES, and there I was standing at the basement's backdrop, by the bar, watching my brother play Final Fantasy II, in which I had approximately zero interest. Frankly, I'd rather it had been any other game. 

And that's when Final Fantasy II began to work its magic.


I don't when or how it happened, but at some point I'd found myself completely immersed in the audio and visual projections coming from that TV, the reverberant aesthetics of Final Fantasy II's world bombarding me from all sides and arousing my every sense. So much of it appealed to me: The vibrant color schemes (RPGs tended to be drab-looking and overly gray), the attractive battle scenes (whose decor was actually indicative of the woodsy, sandy locales from which they were prompted, where in the past there was only blackness), and more so the wistfully evocative music's overpowering presence. In fact, I couldn't remember a game whose musical conveyance was so effective at drenching every pixel of the accompanying imagery with some shade of emotional resonance.

No matter how verdant its topography or lively its activity, there wasn't a single location that could escape the music's harsh admonition: The castles and towns, for instance, were saturated with a bright, sun-soaked hue, and their bustling citizenry dashed about as if all was wonderful, but their apparent sanguinity did little to belie the reality that the world surrounding them was enveloped in plaintive tones that only highlighted their silent desperation.


By the time James had switched off the SNES and finally kicked me out, I was intrigued enough to where I was willing to ignore my dislike of standard RPG conventions and give Final Fantasy II a fair chance. I was eager to find out what else the game had in store for me. I wondered about it in the interim. Where was the story was going? What was the music was trying to tell me? What was Cecil hiding under that mask? What happened to Kain following the earthquake at Mist? When James returned my SNES to me a few days later, I wasted no time in hurrying to my room and connecting it to TV, hoping to soon find my answers.

I'd made it no further than the Antlion's Den before I was hopelessly engrossed in the world of Final Fantasy II. By then there was no turning back; once the game grabbed hold of me, I would forever remain its captive. The reasons for that are many, though I've never been able to express the whys and hows using a cohesive narrative; trying to do so has had the unintended effect of undercutting what Final Fantasy II truly meant to me. Sometimes words aren't enough, so I would rather just say that I cherished everything about my first experience with the game: The story, the characters (heroes and villains alike), the music, the level design, the many poignant moments, and the way its wonderfully intuitive systems helped me to overcome my phobia of RPG mechanics and meet challenges that I'd previously regarded as monstrous.


More than anything, I loved the game's incredible soundtrack. The more I'd listen to it, the more I'd wonder if the composer was absolutely possessed at the time of its creation. Track for track, note for note, Final Fantay II's was the most masterfully composed, utterly evocative video-game music I'd ever heard. Whenever I'd reach a new destination, I'd be sure to temporarily park the controller and listen to its newly introduced tune, which was likely a stirring-yet-indescribably-wistful piece whose complex arrangement was analogous to the bevy of contradictory feelings it was able to evoke. No matter where the music was being heard--in the basement, in the den, or in my bedroom--its resonant tones would permeate every surface and every corner, their encompassing reverberations able to color my thoughts and transform the space around me. Final Fantasy II's was nothing short of some of the best music ever created.

An adult or a video-game detractor might have told me that I was being silly--that video games didn't have "real" music--but I'd have known better. I mean, Final Fantasy II's music was certainly more meaningful to me than any of those silly love songs on the radio.


I was so enamored with the game's soundtrack that I dedicated at least one future play-through to taping the entirety of it on my tape recorder (the battle themes were unfortunately riddled with the sounds of enemy strikes, though I eventually regarded them as a seasoning ambiance and part of how I wished to remember the compositions). I'd listen to it all the time, never skipping a track. Its every tune held the power to touch me in some way. When I'd be dealing with the onset of my condition--when I was on the road with my school's basketball team in an unfamiliar part of town at nighttime and in the dead of winter, stressed beyond belief as I tried to figure out why things were the way they were and where my life was going--I could find comfort in thinking about, say, its title-screen theme, which would wash away the negative thoughts and replace them with images of the friends and family who were waiting for me back home. 


There was no better accompaniment for prolonged sessions of daydreaming. When I listened to Final Fantasy II's music, I could imagine myself to be whoever I wanted: I could be an heroic knight in a medieval setting. I could be Earth's last hope against an invading enemy force. Or I could be the star of the theatrical adaptation of Final Fantasy II--the all-time box-office champion remembered for how its story united the world. The music has a similar effect on me even today.

I was intimidated by Final Fantasy II's long length (the types of games I played were usually four hours in length at most), so I didn't replay it as often as I did my other favorites. But when I did return to it after a couple of months or so, I'd treat that play-through as a big event--a special occasion to be celebrated over a period of days. I'd have my reservations, of course, since the experience would entail spending 10-plus hours with the game, which even to a 14-year-old seemed like an enormous amount of time. Though, when it came down to it, I was always excited about the prospect of reliving the adventure. I didn't mind enduring through all of those grinding sessions and tedious side missions like repeatedly flying back and forth between the Sylph Cave and Fabul for the sake of reviving the comatose Yang. I didn't mind spending as much time in Final Fantasy II's world as I could.


James would give me some advice from time to time. He'd point out how certain enemy types had elemental weaknesses that weren't plainly obvious. He'd reveal the locations of the best grinding spots. And he'd give me some helpful tips for better item-management--suggesting that I remove an ally's gear before their departure (so I could sell it later on) and fill my inventory with several sets of 99 Cure 2s before entering the final area. 

In my first play-through, though, I had to face the game's trials on my own. Oh, and there were a nightmarish few: I remember struggling to kill Baigan because I kept focusing on destroying his arms, which he'd continually revive (this battle is the source of my everlasting disdain for RPG villains that have attackable, regenerating limbs). I almost suffered an emotional breakdown trying to defeat the Magus Sisters, who wiped me out so many times in a row that I seriously thought about quitting; I hate to think about what would have happened had I not discovered that you could reflect a spell onto an enemy by chanting it on a Wall-bearing ally. I couldn't stand navigating the unbearable Sealed Cave with all of its one-shotting Trap Doors. And I had an absolutely miserable time trying to earn the services of Leviathan and Odin because I didn't understand the importance of being properly leveled.


But I eventually figured it all out and in the process learned a lot about the virtues of RPGs. I still wasn't a big fan of the genre, and I might not have explored it beyond a handful of games, but I couldn't deny that it had produced one of my favorite games of all time. 


Somewhere in the World...

As I stated: My long history with Final Fantasy II isn't something that can be quantified with a simple chronology of events, which could never accurately convey my feelings. I'm not even going to bother trying. Rather, I'd like to continue remembering the game for its special moments and its musical resonance, examples of which I'd like to list here.

- No journey could begin until I'd finish listening to multiple loops of the title-screen music, whose opening verse demonstrated how even a simple arrangement of notes--an arpeggio of soft keyboard strokes--could be used to evoke intense emotions from the player. I'd always anticipate the second loop, when the chorus would lend its heavenly accompaniment and fully envelope me, the song's newfound sublimity inducing chills every time. None of the other Final Fantasy games' title-screen themes can match it.


- I loved the quest-opening scene where Cecil and Kain silently emerge from their chambers and join together in the castle hall. As they exited the castle, walking side by side, the amazing prologue theme would kick in and impose its presence as if seeking to guide their movement. It was the game's most rousing piece, and it could empower me like no other.

- Final Fantasy II had in incredibly invigorating battle music, each piece working to tell a distinctly flavored story of struggle and eventual push-through. The plainly titled "Boss Battle Theme" was the best of the four in that regard, its composition building toward an ultimate crescendo and then a second loop that felt all-the-more-inspiriting as a result; it also doubled as great workout music, particularly if the session entailed practicing my Mr. Furly-inspired fighting moves.


- The three map themes (reserved for the overworld, the underground and the moon) did well to supply ambiance and inspire contemplation. Upon first arriving on their respective surfaces, it seemed necessary that I remain idle for a bit and let the music wash over me as I considered what it was trying to say. I concluded that the overworld theme was about a long journey whose destination was unknown, its increasingly effectual melancholia marking each step with an anguished uncertainty. The underground theme had a similar construction but was a bit more optimistic in tone, its sanguinity working to belie the underground's sense of desolation and despair; it was as much commentary on the volcanic environment as it was the citizenry that had happily embraced their seclusion--their shadowy world of magma-formed walls and sunless skies. 

The moon theme's intro had a whimsical quality about it--its quirkiness suggesting that the remainder of the piece would also entail appropriately weird, alien-sounding composition--but this brief divergence was more about quickly acclimating me to an unfamiliar place before bringing me back to center with the mournful tones that underlined the continuing human struggle.

 - I remember how the buoyant aircraft themes would supply me a temporary escape from the world's doleful grip. The Big Whale theme, in particular, would fill me with a sense of triumph, as if I was now king of the world.

- I was devastated by Kain's betrayal and how he callously stomped Cecil in their one-on-one confrontation. At the time, Kain was my favorite character (he was the cooler of the two, and I enjoyed wrecking enemies with his jump ability), and it was my fear that his turning toward the dark side meant that I would never again be able to utilize his services. All I could do was imagine a scene in which I was able to talk some sense into him.


- One moment I always looked forward to was Cecil becoming a paladin following the successful scaling of Mt. Ordeals. Mostly, I couldn't wait to hear that wonderful confirming ditty, which rivaled the "Link obtains the Master Sword" in how it could fill me with energy.

- I watched on with delight as crazy Tellah used his Meteo spell to cut down the intrusive, antagonistic Golbez, who until this point projected an air of invincibility. It was a true watershed moment in the game even though we lost our best magic-user as a result. As Rocky's manager, Duke, would say to us: "You cut him! You hurt him! You see!? He's not a machine! He's a man!"


- I remember how sad I felt the first time I entered the underground's Land of Monsters, whose somber music suggested that our crew's sense of desperation was never deeper. I couldn't think of a more depressing-sounding video-game tune.

- When I gained access into the Giant of Babil, I heard what became my favorite music in the game. More than any other, it captured the mix of disparate emotions that Final Fantasy II was able to make me feel at any given moment. Sadness, joy, distress, and hopefulness--the Giant of Babil theme encapsulated all of them while somehow managing to tell a coherent story. Its message was that our long journey was still far from complete--still to be wrought with hardship and loss--but we were going to successfully hunt down the world's source of evil no matter the cost.


- Golbez' turn reminded me a lot of Darth Vader's redemption (Final Fantasy's creators obviously drew a lot of inspiration from Star Wars), and I was happy to have him on our side. One of the best scenes in the game entailed his teaming up with the Lunarian FuSoYa (basically Tellah on steroids) and unloading top-level spells on ultimate evil Zemus; though, I wasn't quite sure why he'd suddenly become a little chibi midget (I was taking those battle perspectives a bit too literally, I suppose). My only disappointment was that I never got to take control of him. Still--it wasn't a bad consolation prize to instead gain the temporary service of FuSoYa, who was absolutely packed; I felt invincible with him in our party.

- The epilogue's cheerful-sounding renditions of the overworld music and Rosa's Theme of Love made for the most appropriate capper to our emotionally charged adventure, their alterations a reflection of a world that had finally been freed from its dolorous chains.


- The credits theme was a little too Star Wars-sounding for a game that was decidedly medieval in tone, I thought, but I'd be remiss not to mention that it was punctuated with the most awesomely arranged, rousing outro I'd ever heard in a game (no, really--hear it for yourself). After the credits were done scrolling, I'd always wait around for the main theme to kick in; if I was going to take some time to reflect on the experience, after all, then its wistful resonance would be a necessary ingredient.

These feelings would never change.


The Epilogue

As my teenage years passed and I entered my 20s, I could no longer bring myself to play Final Fantasy II (to which I'll now refer as Final Fantasy IV, its proper title). I wanted to remember it how it was; I didn't want to play it so many times as to reduce it to a mere exercise wherein I might start to focus more on its inadequacies, like its English translation, which is kind of poor--not bad enough ruin the story, no, but apt to diminish the impact of certain exchanges. It's by no means a graphical powerhouse, either, its map areas barely distinguishable from its 8-bit predecessor's save for some increased color depth. 


RPG die-hards might even chime in and say that Final Fantasy IV is "too easy." I would agree with them that it's not a super-difficult game, but I'd stop short of listing that quality as a "flaw." I mean, I like to be challenged by my video games, sure, but it's not a big deal if a game doesn't push me to the limit. Sometimes there's more to a game than what the cliched categorical listing tells us. In the case of Final Fantasy IV, numbers could never convey the importance of the music, the story, and the memories they combine to create.


For the sake of curiosity, I made an exception and played through the Japanese version (with a translation patch, of course)--the so-called "hard version"--sometime in the early 2000s and finished it all the same. Despite the warning, I didn't find it to be that much more difficult than the North American version. The bumped-up difficulty didn't mean anything to me, and it was my conclusion that Final Fantasy IV was an amazing experience regardless of any variance in its difficulty (I can't speak as to the quality of the PlayStation, GBA and DS versions, since I haven't played them). All I know is that I wasted way too much time in the Lunar Subterrane attempting to encounter the elusive Pink Puffs for the purpose of fishing out the apparently invaluable Pink Tail item, which according to VGMuseum owner Mek and a few others was worth acquiring if I hoped to get my hands on the game's strongest armor. I never did manage to get a hold of it.


I was so in love with Final Fantasy IV that I was suddenly open to the possibility of following the series; however, I had a change of heart when its immediate follow-ups failed to capture me. I enjoyed Mystic Quest for what it was--for its engaging setting and its similarly evocative musical score--but I couldn't ignore the fact that it was intentionally dumbed-down, lacking any in the way of Final Fantasy IV's scale or complexity. I was excited to try out Final Fantasy III (or VI, rather) when my brother brought it to my attention, and I remained hopeful that it could exceed its predecessor in terms of presenting an alluring world and creating the same type of emotional resonance, but I wound up not liking it; I gave up on it after repeatedly failing in the scene where the party took control of mechs and split up to repel an invading force. It just didn't work for me (though, I did like its rendition of the classic Final Fantasy theme and as well as a few of its other tunes, like Edgar & Sabin's Theme, which I'd listen to all the time in SPC and MIDI format). 


But that was OK--playing them made me realize that no game could ever displace Final Fantasy IV in my heart. It was too indelible; it left me with too many great memories to suffer such a fate as being replaced by something "better." There was no such thing; there would never be another RPG that could speak to me the same way. 

I haven't played Final Fantasy IV in over 12 years now, yet its spirit remains with me. I still think about its characters and their wondrously evocative world. I continue to draw inspiration from its story. And I listen to its soundtrack regularly via Youtube and my years-old MP3 files, the music's wistful tones still the best accompaniment to my ponderance and reflection. So much time and so many hardware generations have passed, but Nobuo Uematsu's brilliant, endlessly enrapturing 16-bit musical score endures as one of the best ever.


His work will forever live on in my mind as will the whole of Final Fantasy IV--a game that contributed as much to my personal evolution as it did the video-game industry's.

2 comments:

  1. You're posting these like clockwork, I have so much catching up to do.

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    1. Too quick, you say? And here I was beating myself up for lagging too far behind (the original plan was to pump out one of these every two-three days and be done with the memory-based pieces in about 9 months, but then I found out that it takes actual work).

      I'm going to need a vacation when I'm done.

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