Return Of The Pixel: The Call For An Old-Fashioned Final Fantasy

by Tim Turi on Jul 26, 2012 at 09:00 AM

No game in my must-play backlog can beat the gravitas and hype of Final Fantasy VI. A few weeks ago, I finally downloaded the RPG onto my Wii and started playing. My Final Fantasy-loving friends were ecstatic when I revealed I was playing it for the first time. I’ve invested many hours into my quest, and can say that this game has stood the test of time alarmingly well. So well, in fact, that I wonder why Square Enix doesn’t consider eschewing the high-budget spectacle new Final Fantasies have become in favor of something simpler. Something 16-bit.

Square Enix gave gamers a glimpse of next generation graphics the E3 2012 trailer Agni’s Philosohpy. The glossy, expensive demonstration hints at what many believe may become the next big Final Fantasy game. A scared girl flees a ritual gone wrong as AK-47-wielding enemies give chase. Wisps of blue magic, tracer bullets, and impressive explosions paint her sprint across shantytown rooftops. The trailer looks great, but then again so did Final Fantasy XIII leading up to release, and that’s one of the most polarizing games in the series. Looks aren’t everything. I’m excited for what Square Enix has brewing for the next console generation, but I think the company could have wowed just as many fans with a simpler approach.

Imagine the Square Enix logo followed by simple text plot exposition against a black background. Calm yet stirring orchestral music heralds a new adventure. Then, the music and the text both degrade into 16-bit form. The text becomes pixelated and a lone, digitized harp stands apart from the symphony, plucking out arpeggios of the classic Final Fantasy prelude. We see panning shots of a flat, Mode 7-inspired world we’ve never visited. The music builds towards the driving bass of a rousing new battle theme while the screen shows snippets of classic turn-based combat and new, unique characters. “Final Fantasy XV” flashes across the screen and the crowd loses its collective mind.

This game would be an entirely new adventure, not something attached to an existing Final Fantasy. No continuation of Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy XIII’s convoluted Nova Crystallis universe. Square did give Wii and PSP owners a 16-bit style sequel with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, but the title didn’t exactly cause waves; it’s a continuation of Final Fantasy IV, with few enhancements to combat and character development. Another episodic game called Final Fantasy Legends launched on mobile devices on Japan in 2010. The game is releasing worldwide this summer as Final Fantasy Dimensions, but looks to share similarities with Final Fantasy IV: The After Years’ smaller scale. Final Fantasy VI’s cinematic style, interesting character interactions, and rewarding Esper system prove that Square Enix is capable of making something deeper within the 16-bit guidelines. 

Square Enix has been great about bringing its classic RPGs to mobile devices, and I think the company should continue the trend by delivering this hypothetical sequel to all platforms. Swapping my progress between a Vita and PlayStation 3 is an enticing offer. Who wouldn’t like to do some quick level grinding on the bus, then continue playing on their nice HDTV at home? The game should obviously be available on downloadable markets like Xbox Live, PlayStation, and PC, but making the game available on mobile devices can only help. For those cringing while imagining using those clumsy virtual gamepads on their phone’s touchscreen, worry not – turn-based RPGs without a focus on twitch reflexes control fine on mobile devices.

Successful titles in the current downloadable market prove that flashy graphics don’t make great games. Fez, Super Meat Boy, Cave Story, and many other games have received high praise for their retro-themed look. Final Fantasy VI’s crisp sprites have aged beautifully, from Kefka’s animated flamboyance to Terra’s bewildered blinking. I’ll admit the Mode 7 airship navigation is a bit blurry, but it gets the job done and the dated gimmick is charming. Additionally, the music is some of the best in the series, making full use of the Super Nintendo’s powerful audio chipset. The famous opera scene is still a stirring display of expert musical craftsmanship, thanks in part to the creativity necessary to make full use of 16-bit hardware. If Square Enix could do it in 1994, there’s a chance the company could hit the mark again now. It’s worth a shot.

Several 16-bit RPG tributes have bubbled up into the mainstream this generation. Zeboyd Games developed Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, a parody of old-school RPGs and all things gaming. That title, along with Cthulhu Saves the World and the recent Penny Arcade’s on the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3, all offer gamers a new take on the old-school RPG. I love that Zeboyd is creating new, old RPGs, but not everyone wants something couched in sarcasm and satire. The classic Final Fantasy games are wonderful experiences even without any apologies made for the passage of time. A laugh isn’t the only reason to return to a bygone era – Final Fantasy VI proves that sympathetic characters, intense narrative twists, and complex combat can all be conveyed in 16-bit form without the self-deprecation.

Growing up with Sega systems, I didn’t get to play Square games like Final Fantasy IV and VI when they were relevant. I’ve been chatting with coworkers, friends, and Twitter followers throughout my playthrough of FF VI, and everybody’s combined enthusiasm is intoxicating. It reminds me of what middle-schoolers must have felt sharing battle strategies and secret Esper locations during lunchtime. Nostalgia weighs heavily on gamers’ appreciation for Final Fantasy VI, but my current run through the game is free from it. I’m essentially playing a new 16-bit Final Fantasy game, and I’m loving it. I think it’s time for a new adventure we can all experience for the first time, together.