I'm a come-and-go fan of the FINAL FANTASY series. Generally, any discourse I have about the franchise ends up with a rant. I'll avoid ranting today. Instead, I'm going to talk about one of my favorite installments and roar about some of its brilliance.
I really like FINAL FANTASY IX. Frankly, I think it's easily the best entry on the PlayStation. (You heard me, Cloud. I don't love you.) And one of the things I really, really like about it is the opening scene. Why? It does everything right. It appeals to your imagination, introduces you to the world, and teaches you everything you need to know to enjoy the game in five minutes. (Suck it, Kingdom Hearts.*)
First, let's make sure we're on the same page. If you're unfamiliar with the opening scene -- or would just like a refresher – take a moment to watch it here before reading further.
Got it in mind? Then let's continue with the crunching.
Let's assume we've never played a FINAL FANTASY game before. We know it's a game about a fantasy world, but nothing beyond that. Actually, let's say we've never even played an RPG. This is even our first time to hold a PlayStation controller.
We put the game in and turn on the system. Tranquil, but somewhat mysterious and alluring music begins. We make it to the title screen and are presented with two options. A hand is pointing to "NEW GAME." At this point, the only buttons on the controller that respond are the up and down arrows as well as the X button. We press X, the screen fades to black, and the game begins.
1. Use the directional pad to move the cursor between selections
2. Press X to choose an option
First up when starting a new game is a cinematic to set the mood. We see a nightmarish storm, a beautiful princess, and a magnificent kingdom. There are also credits presented like you'd see at the opening of a movie. This gets our minds working and starts the spark for adventure. Finally, we see an airship – more adventure! -- and a strange man with a tail moving around inside. It's this man that we follow into a dark room.
Lessons learned: 3. This game is about a princess who appears to have a troubled past. She's dressed for a very important event. 4. This princess lives in a sizable kingdom. It appears the world may be quite large as well. 5. Airships appear to be a common means of transportation. This again suggests the world is quite large. 6. Not all characters in this world are human.
The cinematic is over. At this point we're looking at in-engine graphics. We see the monkey-man standing in a dark room. In fact, he's all we see, so he must be important. "Sure is dark..." he says. We press the X button – because we know that's how you select things to advance (Lesson #2 above) – and the dialogue continues. Once the dialogue is done, we're left staring at this monkey-man standing in the dark. Shortly, a hand shows up, pointing at the character. Since we know we can use the directional pad to move the cursor on the title screen (Lesson #1), we see if it works here – and it does! The monkey-man is our avatar and we can move him around. We're playing a video game!
So now what? Where do we move to? Well, there's not much to look at right now, so we're forced to explore our surroundings. As we do, we notice "!" and "?" speech bubbles. We press X to confirm them and either receive items or trigger a scripted event.
Lessons learned: 7. The main character -- our character -- is the monkey-man, not the princess. 8. The game is played from a fixed-camera, mostly top-down perspective. 9. We move our character with the directional pad. 10. We can interact with the environment when speech bubbles appear by pressing the X button. 11. We can sometimes find hidden items in rooms.
Once the room is lit, we get to give the monkey-man a name (Zidane by default), and three men come rushing in. Through some dialogue, we find that these are acquaintances or friends of Zidane's. Suddenly, a dragon-headed man bursts in from the opposite side of the cabin. The environment swirls and we go into a battle scene – Zidane and his three friends against the dragon-man!
A menu pops up with the hand cursor pointing at the "Attack" option. We press X and the active character lunges forward. Gradually, these options are shown again and again for each character. Sometimes the dragon-man attacks Zidane's group. Numbers appear anytime a character is attacked. Actually, there's quite a bit going on right now between the attacking, the numbers, green bars filling up and emptying, and options popping up. Fortunately, the dragon-man mostly just bumbles around and hardly hurts any of our characters when he does manage a hit, so we're feeling okay. No pressure. We take our time fumbling around in the options, watching the cause and effect of what we choose, and eventually win the battle. Hooray! Oh, and the dragon-man was actually our clumsy captain.
Lessons learned: 12. This game has battles! 13. Battles can be triggered during dialogue sequences. 14. We can fight with up to four characters in our party at once. 15. Actions take turns and the turn order is determined by the "ATB" bar on the right. This means actions tend to happen pretty fast, so it's best to stay alert. 16. Each character has his own set of available actions, including attacking, stealing items, using items, and more we don't know about yet. (The gap between "Steal" and "Items" indicates more actions may be available in the future.) 17. Characters lose HP when they are attacked. Characters die when their HP is depleted.
This concludes the opening sequence. Game play continues from here and quickly ramps up. We find out the Zidane and crew are headed to the kingdom seen in the opening to kidnap the princess during a big royal performance. Excitement and drama await!
Five minutes in and you know how to navigate menus, explore, and battle. Best of all, no explanatory dialogues were used. Instead, we were given the freedom to play in a safe environment. When learning how to move and explore, there was nothing in the room to distract or threaten us. The darkness inspires curiosity and provides a motive for searching around. The battle is scripted in such a way that losing isn't an option, giving plenty of time to take in everything that's going on. Starting with a full party gives a glimpse of what's to come; keeping the characters low level as well means there's not an awkward handicap to adjust to not having later on.
The opening cinematic is even nice, establishes the setting, but doesn't overstay its welcome. Long introductions can deflate the desire to actually play the game.
I love this opening. I miss this attention to detail in introductions for games. (Again, I'm looking at you Kingdom Hearts.) Tutorials are boring and I despise controller schematics. Learning from playing is always the best option.
Good job, Squaresoft.
*I love Kingdom Hearts, I really do, but its tutorial segments are ridiculous.
FINAL FANTASY IX was developed and published by Squaresoft.