When was the last time you were surprised by a video game? No, I don’t mean an occasional plot twist or the fact that the game turned out to be way better than you were giving it credit at first. I mean when you weren’t ready for anything that a game was going to throw at you. When you thought you knew gaming, but then it pulls you up from the Earth and into the open space to show that there’s a whole new universe beyond the one you were familiar with.
“I envy you. I wish I could go back and do it for the first time, all over again.”
— The Game (1997)
Arguably, you can experience this once in a lifetime. For me, the game which has expanded the horizon of gaming was Final Fantasy VIII. The game has brought a completely new genre to my attention – a genre that a 9-year-old me wasn’t yet ready to delve into. No, not because of mature themes, violence, or anything like that. FFVIII turned out to be something completely different, not yet seen before and something that was too difficult to categorize without prior familiarity with the JRPG genre. This is why I hold FFVIII so dear to my heart. Well, this, and the fact that the game has given me way too many WTF moments throughout countless playthroughs.
It’s predecessor probably had a similar effect on everyone who has ventured into the world of JRPGs, adding to its cult-like status. I’m sure that all of us have had a similar experience with one game or another, but let’s look at it step by step, focusing on FFVIII.
How do you even play this?!
Back in the 90’s in Ukraine, gaming magazines were the only way for me to learn something about the new releases. When I was reading “Velikyi Drakon” (Great Dragon) #48, I came across a walkthrough of Final Fantasy VIII and it was something completely incomprehensible. Let me make that clear. Back in 1999, I had a NES (a Subor, to be more precise, a NES knock-off popular in the CIS countries) and has just started playing on the very first PlayStation. It was mainly platformers, Disney-licensed games, occasional racing, and fighting games. I couldn’t understand from the screenshots alone to which one of the genres above FFVIII belonged to.
The screenshots mostly contained the images taken from the CGI cutscenes (which were absolutely gorgeous at that time) and the ones that depicted the actual gameplay made no sense. The characters looked way too detailed to what I got used to. I couldn’t see a glimpse of the traditional gameplay there: no one was running in the 2D side-scrolling environment, jumping on or over enemies and, in most cases, there wasn’t even a HUD. The walkthrough text didn’t make any sense either. It just didn’t look like a game at all!
Obviously, I had to get my hands on it! And when I eventually found it on the store shelves, the game had another surprise for me.
4 discs means 4 games, right?
Final Fantasy VIII came in 4 discs. This added to the overall mysteriousness of the game. Back then I had cartridges and disks with several games on them, but not the other way around.
So I booted the first disk up, got blown away by what it threw at me but eventually wanted to see what the other three disks had in store. Was I about to play some other games? Would I be able to simply skip to future events of the game? And when after booting up Disk 2 and seeing the “Insert Disk 1” message, the realization hit me like a tidal wave – I had to complete all discs in order. No other games and no skipping. Eh… Ok, but there was yet another problem with that…
There are no stages
Final Fantasy VII had completely flown under my radar when it came out (I’m not even sure if I had a PlayStation back then). The only time I saw it was in an another PC magazine and… it looked dull as hell. Not only the dedicated page had a black background, but almost every CGI image was of a character standing with it back to the viewers (a design choice I still find odd). Nothing a small kid can get excited about. So the eighth entry to the series became not only my first Final Fantasy but the first RPG I’d ever played. And it showed.
I’m not even going to start listing everything that Final Fantasy VIII did differently from the platformers and fighting games I was used to. But the way the game was structured has caught me completely unprepared, with no necessary equipment. I had no memory card, even.
PlayStation was a relatively new console, which, except for the graphics, didn’t progress much from its predecessors. This was quite obvious with most of the games: they had clearly defined stages or levels and to save your progress (or skip the stages you couldn’t beat) all you had to do, was to enter a password. Heck, I still remember a password to Pandemonium which opened all levels, gave you max lives and a power to shrink foes (it’s “AOMMHPIJ”, by the way).
I had no reason to buy a memory card because saving was optional in most games. But not in FFVIII. So when I made some minimal progress in the game, I simply turned off the console, starting it over the next time around. And, as you’ve probably guessed, I eventually asked my parents for a memory card and even they understood that it was a necessity in order to play newer games. That’s how, and only then, I was introduced to “saving” – something you can’t play a single modern game without today.
There’s so much important hidden content
The magazine I had contained only the part two of the walkthrough, so I had to explore the world of Final Fantasy VIII on my own. This, combined with the fact that I’ve played the first 3-4 hours of the game over and over again until I was able to save it, showed me how many awesome things the game held, and many of them were completely optional.
For example, if you don’t speak to that one guy in the Balamb Garden, you’ll completely miss Triple Triad – a card game that’s considered by many to be one of the best aspects of the game. If you don’t check Squall’s desk, you’ll miss the two summons (Guardian Forces), will be unable to draw magic and customise your characters for a quite some time. This, and many other things, I totally missed the first time around.
FFVIII barely has a tutorial to introduce you to a game, let alone to the rules of how you play a JRPG. The horrible Russian translation I had didn’t help either. I was blown away by the game and simply mashing the Attack command on every enemy. But when I was replaying the start of the game for the nth time and discovered that I could actually cast magic and summon some overpowered beasts, I was speechless. And even after that, the game didn’t become easy or “safe” — Final Fantasy VIII started to teach me its lessons the hard way.
T-Rexaur will destroy you
When you’re on the world map, you usually have a place to go and there’s a path to follow. And don’t even think about straying away from it! Final Fantasy is great at teaching its players the things they can and cannot do. And this is the “cannot” you’ll come across. Meet the T-Rexsaur – the game’s way of saying “fuck you” the most ESRB-friendly way possible.
For a newcomer with no abilities (or knowledge of their availability in the game), battles are hard. But when the game throws a giant dinosaur at you, you know you’re doing something wrong. That’s when I saw the FFVIII’s “Game over” screen for the first time. At first, the encounter felt like a cruel developer’s joke, but it taught me that you can’t defeat everything the game throws at you and that there are places you’re not meant to be (yet).
Surprisingly, now I look back at that moment with joy. Instead of placing an invisible wall that would prevent players from entering a forest, we were shown why you shouldn’t go there. When Final Fantasy XII did the same thing again in the very first dungeon (er, desert) I was both angry and amused. Frustrating at first, such moments tell us a lot about the game, and especially help us appreciate the progress we’ve made when we get back and show that T-Rex who’s the real boss here (albeit, so many hours later).
Fans can make the game even better
I’m not going to touch upon the story here. Yes, it’s flawed, but back then it was the pinnacle of game writing for me because the story was more complex than just saving a princess in a castle. The Internet today can spoil some cool game secrets, but it can also bring in some elements that are absent from the game. In the case of FFVIII, it’s the fan theories.
There are two fan theories that stand out in particular:
The first one suggests that the game protagonist dies at the end of Disk 1 and everything else that follows is the Jacob’s Ladder. Considering the many tonal shifts and a significant increase in the “fantasy” aspect of the game after Disk 1, this theory holds some ground. Still, there are many plot points that render the theory faulty.
The second theory is far more interesting, especially considering how a development process can make its own adjustments to the game. The theory suggests that Rinoa (the main female character) and Ultimecia (the final boss) are the same person.
We have a character who has some great witching powers and is afraid of eventually turning to evil. And we have a witch-villain with no particular origin and several connections to Rinoa’s past. This was never confirmed by the developers, but considering how happy end-y the game feels and how so much suspense resolves into nothing, it feels like this was the dev’s original intention, which was scrapped in favour of a happy ending to make the story less tragic.
Say what you will, but this is the only headcanon that I have, and it makes the game much more enjoyable.
The Ultimate Illusion
Final Fantasy VIII isn’t an ideal game. Most people agree that it’s the weakest one among the three on PSX. But for me, it’ll always remain a game of surprises. A game which taught me to explore every nook and cranny, to talk to every character you meet and to experiment with absolutely everything the game throws at you. All of this achieved without a single line of a tutorial — a feeling that’s even more satisfying.
It’s a marvellous experience: everything you knew about games is subverted in an instant. I believe that every one of us went through a similar experience, that there’s a game which was so new and different that you couldn’t classify it at first and, eventually, can’t get back to previous types of games you’ve enjoyed. I hope we all will be getting these kinds of games from time to time, but it seems like it’s more a case of nostalgia than game development.
Would you relive your gaming mistakes and shocks if you could go back and do it for the first time all over again?