Tonight at midnight CST an event that I’ve waited for for over a third of my life takes place. Ten years ago, in 2006 (the year I graduated High School), Square-Enix announced a companion game to FFXIII, their current entry to their flagship series. The game was called Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and seemed the polar opposite of its soon-to-be-released counterpart. The story in the trailer appeared to depict a story centered around one brooding prince clad in black, instead of a ragtag group of adventurers dressed in white and natural colorings. 18-year-old me was captivated as I had ever been by a video, and downloaded the trailer to watch ad nauseum and gush about to any other gamers who would listen. Noctis’s weapon generation powers, the vertical battle scenes, the ominous and beautiful music. Versus XIII appeared to be what I saw as the next step of evolution in the series, a series that I held near and dear almost my entire life. I’d have to wait a decade to find out, but that wait ends tonight, and to expedite my wait I decided to throw together a history of my experience with the series. I hope you’ll enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed reminiscing .
My Final Fantasy experience began slightly different from most fans. I was just born when the first game came out, and by the time the bandwagon for VII came around, I was already in the driver’s seat. This being said, it wasn’t II (IV in Japan) or III (VI in Japan) that started me off, either. Well, that should cover everything, right? There’s no FF title outside of these before VII, right? Not a numbered title, no. My first exposure to the Final Fantasy series was through a little game created by SquareSoft’s American branch known as Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo. My older brother and I were coming down from the high induced by the graphical and playable advances brought on by our father’s purchase of the system, and we had each just finished A Link to the Past (despite only being 5 and lacking the type of reading required to fully comprehend the story) and were looking for something in that same vein. I remember coming home from my uncle’s house (I’d stay there for a few hours after school and on weekends so he could help me with math and reading) to see him blocking the TV with something behind his back. He asked me if I was ready for our next big game, and I smiled wide-eyed in anticipation. He quickly drew a blueish black SNES game box from behind his back in one hand and then the game’s included map from the other. He handed them over and hopped on the lower bunk, controller in hand, and I climbed to the top bunk, in awe over the map and the Dungeons & Dragons-esque monster art. It was a school night, for both of us, and yet we stood up the whole night figuring out the complexities and nuances of the game, and its differences from what we were used to. I remember writing my Kindergarten journal the next day, sloppily and lazily just saying I spent the night “playing with my brother” with a quick doodle of the 5 crystals that dance around during the game’s opening below it.
I got a “check” on this entry, which by normal grade school standards is around a C, and was effectively my lowest grade of the year. My uncle was the type to panic and overreact to such things, and immediately revoked my video game privileges at his house when he reviewed my journal that week. Of course, being a child, my natural need to rebel stepped forth and I immediately decided that outside of his supervision I would continue to play while keeping a journal of my adventures in-game, while still maintaining perfect grades. After two weeks (and a perfect all +’s progress report) I showed him my journal and explained that I could do both. I remember the look on his face, equal parts proud and disgusted, as he said that he would get me a new game each semester if I kept up perfect grades but QUIT journaling about it, explaining that these were signs of addiction and obsession and that he feared I would lose touch with reality. And so began the long and tortured love-hate relationship my uncle would have with my gaming life, and my love affair of RPG’s and Final Fantasy in general.
I’d say this stage in my life is probably where my insomnia began. I was pulling late nights, often pushing my 5 year old 9-o’clock bedtime to around 10 or 11. My older brother John moved on to the imperceptibly “more powerful” Sega Genesis (in most of my flashback stories you’ll see it was actually John and not me who received everything. He was the firstborn and family favorite) and was constantly rambling about blast processing and Streets of Rage. He built an arcade-style sit-down cabinet using a computer monitor, his Genesis, an old stereo and a good amount of pegboard. The nights spent together swapping controllers between bunks were over and he spent most nights downstairs with his Sega. I didn’t mind, really. I had begun looking up every word I didn’t know and writing out their definitions, as well as keeping a makeshift bestiary complete with my own mythologies and origin stories for them. Playing Mystic Quest became a never-ending grind to become more powerful; I hadn’t played something like it, where your character became stronger in accordance to the time you put in instead of by what you’ve “found” so far. It was work with reward, with the number of attacks it takes to fell an enemy signifying your advancement. John would run upstairs, beckoning me down from my pillow fort of comfort and safety, to go see the new area he reached in Toejam and Earl, or to show me the last boss fight in Streets of Rage, and when I’d tell him about my character’s levels or the new spells or weapons we’d obtained, he’d feign interest or just outright call it a waste of time; the numbers and mathematical sense of it put him off from it, and my love and affinity to it instead of quick, twitch-reflexive game play (requiring motor skills above those a 5 year old possesses) drove a fear that led to hatred and bullying. It’s funny to think about now, really, but the games we enjoyed went from bringing us together to driving us apart once we were each on a separate system, each drawn to the types of games that succeeded on it.
Within a few months, I had beaten the game numerous times, with each playthrough improving my understanding and knowledge of the game. John had gone from being impressed with the idea his brother could beat games at such an early age to being disgusted by how much I played games for “nerds”. He traded it in for a discount on Street Fighter II Turbo, a game he knew I’d have no interest in (at the time, lower your guns XD), and left me with nothing to fall back on except to finally beat Zelda I on our old NES. I had always thought the game to be unbeatable due to a lack of reading ability, so I figured my now 6th grade reading level (Certified by the state. I was just out of Kindergarten, mind you) would fill in the blanks I missed. I was wrong. Zelda I required exploration and mental-mapping I was still ill-suited for at the time, and beyond dungeon 3 I’d find myself lost, confused, frustrated and longing for the straight-forward and branching, yet well-explained structure of Mystic Quest.
That summer, at a flea market off of I-80, I would find, for 50 cents, an original NES copy of Final Fantasy I, in its black dust sleeve, with its manual and map rubber-banded to the back. A sad, nostalgic glance drew a smile from my uncle, who knew the situation and recognized the title. He immediately told me to see if the man would take a quarter, and I remember precisely how aware of myself I felt in that moment. I felt particularly chunky, as my 60+ year-old uncle’s clothingredients choices for me were ill-fitting and tight. My belly hung over my neon purple and green shorts, and I remember being upset my palms were sweating; I knew that what I held in my hands was worth far more than half a buck, and felt like asking him to take less while sweating all over it was the most disrespectful thing I could do. I told him, in a feeble attempt to explain myself, “I want this. My uncle told me to ask if you’d take a quarter?” doing my best to allow my body to show just how awkward I felt. He took it from my sweaty hand (terrifying me in the process, of course) and asked, puzzled, if I knew exactly what kind of game it was. My response was immediate and sincere. “Yes, it’s my favorite kind!” He smiled and told my uncle that I could have it for free. “If he can understand it, it does him more good than me.” Research into SquareSoft after my fateful encounter with FF1 would drive my fandom for years to come, but without having had the exposure of Mystic Quest pique my curiosity, I would’ve flipped right past it like so many other people that hot Sunday . For that alone, as well as turning me on to RPG’s as a genre, Mystic Quest will always hold a special place in my heart.