[Author’s Note: Two years ago I meticulously picked apart two of the biggest franchises in the Japanese gaming industry, Final Fantasy and the Legend of Zelda. I made a case study comparison which was kindly published by my good friends at Final Fantasy Union – and now, two years later, a lot of my points have been rendered moot by Final Fantasy XV and Breath of the Wild. C’est le vie! Anyway, I still believe this two-part article to be relevant in many ways, barring the two latest entries in each franchise, and I hope you enjoy my insights.]
Over the last two weeks the excellent people at Final Fantasy Union graciously hosted a two-part case study I wrote, comparing the Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda franchises in terms of game design and narrative, dissecting each franchise’s approach to gameplay and story to see what each could learn from the other. If you missed these articles, you can read them here:
(Final Fantasy Union is an excellent source for news on the franchise. In addition to their great monthly podcast and up-to-the-minute coverage, Lauren and Darryl have recently been interviewing the entire English cast of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD. Check out their site!)
I found this article very interesting to produce, from the original concept back in March to its publication this month. I cut my teeth on both franchises back on the NES; I took more to FF, but spent a lot of time with LOZ and its sequel as well. Since then I’ve devoured the entire main line of FF games and soaked up a lot of the Zelda series (Hyrule Warriors on Wii U has kept me enthralled since its launch, which is the longest I’ve played one game reliably in… ever).
The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by the difference in their approaches. I love the limit-breaking, nihilistic, brooding themes of FF; ambition is one of the series’ strongest traits, but I began to realize it was a downfall as well. Each game gambles, in a way. For example, Cloud’s broken psyche is a hallmark of the most popular game in the series, but the same trait didn’t necessarily score a win for Squall and Lightning to follow. Each game tries a lot of new ideas, which keeps things fresh and innovative, but ultimately each game has more to prove and lose.
I claim in the article that Legend of Zelda can be a little less inventive and more formulaic in some ways; I know this is a very broad stroke and reductionist, but I feel justified in making it. Most of the core games can be boiled down to the same general story arc (excluding black sheep like Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask). And yet, despite the slightly predictable trajectory, I feel the series has an impeccable reputation far and above Final Fantasy‘s. Perhaps fans know what to expect (is anyone ever truly surprised when Ganondorf is involved? Excluding Skyward Sword‘s implications, that is), but they eat it up gladly and come back for more.
(Calling the series “more formulaic” tends to sound like a bad thing, but somehow Nintendo has turned this trait into a strength. That the series can be so fresh and enthralling to so many while staying relatively close to its predecessors is truly an impressive feat. So many other franchises attempt to do this and fail horribly in the current market.)
Final Fantasy certainly has more to learn from Zelda than vice versa. Both embrace their legacies, but I feel the former does so predominately in an aesthetic way – throw in some visual callbacks, recycle some weapon names, and call it nostalgia. I want to keep seeing innovation, but in a more familiar way, if that makes sense – License boards and Paradigm Shifts are cool and all, but what was wrong with the Job System approach? Couldn’t Jobs have been used as a coat of paint on top of these new innovations? Look at Final Fantasy X-2: its Dresspheres were just Jobs in a (fairly sexist) disguise. In keeping with the “girl power” theme Square called a spade a club, and perhaps lost a chunk of its audience in the process.
And think about it: could Square-Enix make a silent protagonist as compelling and charming as Link?
Speaking of “the link” between player and game, Nintendo could learn the most from Square in this regard. Link is supposed to be our avatar in Hyrule, the connection/link between us and the virtual world – and yet we have very little connection to him. He’s a blank, silent state for us to impose our thoughts upon, sure, but this approach worked better in prior technological eras, when we didn’t have sophisticated means of bringing him to life. I don’t mean to suggest we should be able to customize his entire appearance, or that he should be fully voiced, but it would be fantastic if we could influence him a little bit. A system for influencing Link’s emotions and reactions, for instance. As I mention in the case study, he has a terrible fate or tremendous responsibility dropped on his shoulders but he never bats an eye. It’s a part of why I feel the games are formulaic: the wise sage tells Link he’s the Hero, Link (silently) says “k,” and off he goes with little more than the occasional tear.
Fans are clamouring now for a gender reversal – female Link, male Zelda, or some variation thereof. There have been some awesome propositions for how this might work. I want to see Link fail instead. Maybe he fails early on, either losing his life or being captured by Ganondorf/villain-du-jour as a consequence, and it’s up to Zelda to become the Hero. (Maybe her amazing representation in Hyrule Warriors is twisting my arm on this one, but man, would I love to play a proper game in the franchise where she explores Hyrule with rapier, baton, and rod.)
Both games do so much right; I really believe their flaws are greatly overshadowed by their strengths. But both franchises are nearly thirty years old, and it seems they need to mind their pasts and futures in good proportion.