Dusty Games: Final Fantasy VIII

This month I got back in Italy to visit my parents and snooping into my stuff, I found my old 1st gen Play Station (PS1). Oh my, the feels! Near that treasure, I found also all my original games and one of the games that I bought some years ago (yes, I am a retro games collector), Final Fantasy VIII (FF8).

My relationship with both FF8 and FF10 is a weird one. I craved those games when I was a kid, but I only got to buy them few years ago. If you passed your 20, you know that finding time to play is very difficult because life get harder and busier, so I never got to play and complete those games.

Finding FF8 again, after so much time, during holidays (sort of), convinced me to try the game again. So I plugged the old PS1, inserted the first disc and powered on. It was like taking a time machine toward 1998. That logo, that sounds… The best generation, if you ask me.

As often happens with Final Fantasy games, the opening introduce you to some very crucial elements of the story and characters and then you’re on the main menu. After that, the story presented on the trailer expands and you get to know your own hero: Squall.
Yes, I know, some of you might think that FF8 was a ridicolous teen drama with gun-swords, bad haircuts and ridiculously sexy teachers, but… it’s a good teen drama! A little too Japanese for my taste, but it has zero plot holes, zero inconsistencies and well made characters. The design is super cool and coherent with the story told. Even if you want to attack it, you cannot. You can just say that you don’t like it. And that is why I think that FF8 has great story, setting and design.

Another thing you cannot criticize in FF8 is the graphics. Jesus, it was so beautiful for the time and it is even now! Square Soft really cared about aesthetics back in the days! It was light-years distant from everything we got to play in the 5th generation! I can only compare it to Metal Gear Solid!

Anyway, neither the story nor the graphics is my primary interest in Final Fantasy VIII. What did  hit me like a 1000 tons hammer smashed right on my head, is the complexity and variety of the gameplay.
You have the traditional party menu, where you can access to your heroes’ stats and items. In that menu, you can also micromanage some collectible creatures, called GF (Guardian Force). Those creatures can be trained and leveled up in different ways unlocking different skill-trees depending on your choices and they even mature a sympathy for the elements of your party that train them and fight with them. In fact, you can junction (= bind) those creatures to one of your party’s character so he/she can summon them during the fight and train them. When you junction a character to a GF, that character will gain the ability to junction some magics and skills owned by that GF.
Magics and skills, for the first time in FF history, are treated as consumable items. No more Magic Points. You can get those special items by drawing them from enemies, finding draw points in the world or by refining from items.

This complexity and variety was probably normal for the time, because it was an era of experimental projects where there were just a couple or maybe three well-established game genres and mechanics. But think about it now: it’s a lot of stuff and it’s from different modern game genres all in one!
You had an hybrid turn-based battle system and the ability to summon creatures. Those creatures were actual pokémons that you could pet, train and bind to your characters absorbing and improving their power and skills. You had a whole party to micromanage and a huge set of GFs to take care of… and this is not all! You also had a trading card game! Yes, there was a minigame in FF8 that consisted in a not-so-simple-to-master trading card game and you could challenge nearly all the NPCs in the world to play and when you do, you can win items or lose cards. You could also refine your cards! Doing that, allowed you to get magics and skills, so it’s not just a secondary mini-game, but a fun way to farm and it fits so good in the game that you don’t even realize you’re farming!
Even the lore around this card game is super believable. You are told that this card game was introduced and spread in the world by guards that started to play this game to pass the time. Every region in the world has its own rules and this adds complexity to a mini-game that is not easy at all! This is the first time in history where farming became a so complex and challenging action.

I am amazed, as a gamer and as a developer, by how genius FF8 was! It had so many ideas and a gameplay so complex that when I powered off my PS1 I wondered what the hell happened to RPGs these days. They’re all stats and numbers, dialogues and romances. Where is that creativity? If I had to think about the best RPGs we have right now, I think about The Elder Scrolls saga, Kingdom Come, The Witcher saga, Pillars of Eternity, Fallout saga, Dragon Age saga, Diablo saga… they’re all very stereotyped, in their gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all masterpieces and I love all of them, but they just improve a known and well established paradigm. You can take anyone of them and put them in a labelled box. Probably a modern RPG-ish game that tried to put something new on the table was Dark Souls, mixing a lot of game genres (ARPG, metroidvania, dungeon crawling, etc) and introducing a new way of conceiving sword fighting and story telling using objects and level design instead of cutscenes.

Probably it’s normal that the game genres are now so clear and well determined and it’s probably good that videogames are so clearly tied to well-defined genres. But I personally miss those avant-gardist games and designs. In a world in which we have to pay for every add-on to super-simple games and concepts (we payed to have religion in Civ5… never forget), I crave for old games like Final Fantasy VIII where you had a huge world of gameplay to explore and master for hours and hours.

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