Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Every summer I fire up my Playstation 2—now 16 years old—and I play Final Fantasy X. Every year I start a new game and play through, right up to the end, taking a different strategy than I did the previous 14. And in over a decade of playing the game, I’ve never beaten it. I get to Sin (the game’s final boss, a mutant-whale monster powered by the spirit of the last person to kill it) and I die.
The final bosses in the Final Fantasy series usually take the form of an uninterrupted series of fights, so your party needs to be in top shape to survive multiple encounters with no breaks. But I have, in 14 years, been unable to cobble together a party capable of surviving Final Fantasy X’s final boss run. My difficulty in beating the game, however, is the very same reason I’m so attracted to it: the game, narratively and mechanically, is the closest a video game has come to approximating life.
In reality, your time is limited and the skills available to pursue are limitless. You can devote a little time to a lot of things and develop a basic competency in them. Or you can devote yourself to one skill and become an expert. These are the very real choices every person faces every day of their life. Not only does this need to choose how you spend your time dominate life, but it quickly defines who we are—from your interests and hobbies to the job you get and the education you pursue. But the limited nature of time and the finite length of life is the thing that makes all of it meaningful. Too much of a good thing is bad. Isn’t that what Highlander is about?
Compare this to a role-playing game like Final Fantasy. You level up, gaining strength, defense and special abilities. Each acquisition is predictable and replicable from playthrough to playthrough, player to player. There is a sameness to the path that you take. Maybe you play as character X while everyone else plays as character Y, but even then, your character choices are limited. The choice of who to be is already assigned to you. The choice of how to be that person is already assigned to you. The fun isn’t in staring down the paralyzing barrel of unending and infinite choices. The fun of these games is in experiencing the story and the challenge of leveling up and applying those hard-won strengths.
Unlike in other role-playing games, however, characters in Final Fantasy X don’t simply level up. They don’t acquire the same abilities or at the same point from play-through to play-through. Final Fantasy X uses an ability acquisition system called “The sphere grid.” The grid is a labyrinthine complex of nodes that you fill with “spheres,” which are dropped by enemies, and you acquire stats or skills by filling certain nodes on the grid. You can only fill nodes adjacent to the last one you filled, so you follow paths towards prestigious abilities—special magical spells or extra-useful fighting moves. Like life, the longer you stay on the path to one thing, the more difficult it is to traverse other paths. Tangentially related skills or abilities are easier than antithetical ones, and some characters have an affinity for certain things. Anyone with a knack for language whose parents expected them to do just as well in math class can attest to how realistic this feature is.
Final Fantasy X isn’t content with explicating its lifelikeness mechanically, though, and it drives home its point by focusing on mortality and the acceptance of loss as its central themes. The story is told from the perspective of Tidus, an athlete who is stolen from his time and flung into the far future. On his journey to return home, Tidus falls in love with Yuna and together they journey to bring peace to the world. Unfortunately, the game’s big twist is that Tidus has been dead the whole time and, after defeating the final boss, it’s time for Tidus to finally move on. As he fades away, we’re forced to watch him fly through the clouds, away from his friends and the woman he loves. But it’s okay. Tidus lead a good life, and he changed from spoiled, impetuous athlete to selfless hero—savior of the world.
This is the point where the game could either be crushing or hopeful, and it chooses to be hopeful. This moment is not painted as painful or unfair; it is an inevitability, something every person must, at some point face. It is sad—no doubt about that—but Tidus was allowed to love and to live a substantive, important life. And even though his friends are sad to see him go, there isn’t a sense of loss or devastation. There is a sense of pride, in Tidus and in having known him, and there is also the sense that they will meet again someday (not in a forceful insertion of religion, but as an acknowledgement of the game’s nebulous conception of an afterlife. Also, the sequel, but let’s not talk about that). In this way, the game is a polemic on the inevitability of death and the importance of acceptance.
These things make Final Fantasy X a challenging game, not simply regarding difficulty, but emotionally as well. It approaches mortality and approximates reality in compelling and novel ways—ways that are equitable with any work of fine art or literature. Because of this, Final Fantasy X is a game that is different each time and unique to each player. While these features no doubt make it daunting to some players, they also make Final Fantasy X one of the most rewarding experiences I continue to have.
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