"No more random battles!"
This was almost the tagline among me and my middle-school friends when it came to JRPGs. Back then, we'd get tired of the battles, and the extra ones for exploring felt like just as much of a punishment as the treasure chest was a reward. All games needed to be like Chrono Trigger! In that game, once you clear the area, you can freely search every nook and cranny for items.
I don't say that anymore. When I replay Final Fantasy VII, I'm rarely angry to hear that first trumpet beat of the battle music. Sometimes I'm actually excited to hear it. In a day and age where the same games that held my interest for hours on end ten years ago now force me to put them down after mere minutes, that random RPG battles hold my interest even longer today seems truly ironic.
As it turns out, RPG battles are like caviar or coffee: Once you get used to it you begin to crave it, you begin to need it. You can't imagine life without it.
So what went wrong?
The problem with RPGs, if you'd call it that, is that they're actually multiple different ideas all crammed into a single design. I once asked a friend what he enjoyed about a particular RPG that I disliked: the story. "Really? That's enough for you to dismiss the terrible gameplay?" As I talked to him more, I found out that story is the reason he's been playing RPGs his entire life. This was earth shattering for me. I absolutely love Final Fantasy VII, but it's not because of the story. It could have been the cheesiest thing on the planet and I'd still love it. No, what I enjoyed about VII, and what still makes it my favorite game was its to-this-day-unique game mechanic, materia. With materia, Square introduced the world to concepts that RPGs had never seen before. Mug an enemy then slap him again for good measure? A high-damage attack spell that can actually recover your MP? Begin the battle by tossing down a meteor before anyone even has a chance to do anything? This is the stuff of legends, and Final Fantasy VII actually let you do it.
For me, there was no going back. JRPGs had become the Magic: The Gathering of the video game world. No rule was safe from being broken. No idea too awesome to actually give to the player. JRPGs, and Final Fantasy, were secretly planting in me the seed of desire. The desire to hand me the reigns. The desire to let me put two plus two together to create five. I wanted to build a machine of destruction, and I wanted the game to feel like it was turning the other cheek. It was video game heaven and I couldn't get enough of its fruit.
So, really, what went wrong?
Square failed to recognize the existence of these power-hungry players. They failed to recognize the player that had acquired a turn-based taste. And above all else, they failed to recognize the player that was both. What followed was an era of a Square that believed the only gamer was the gamer like my friend. The gamer that only liked Final Fantasy for the story. The gamer that decried the random battle. The gamer that screamed out for change. Square listened, and the face of the franchise changed forever.
For gamers like myself, the age of Square seems to be at an end. Final Fantasy has inadvertently created a new fanbase. One that enjoys action games more than taking turns. One that wants his game to do his thinking for him, rather than giving him control over his own experience. Square has turned their back on its closest fans without even realizing it. They went from video game liberal to video game conservative, and they are blissfully unaware.
So what are people like me to do? What can we do but play Final Fantasy VII for the eighth...ninth...tenth time? The new fans of Final Fantasy are not us, and they are selfish.