It’s finally over: after a month-and-a-half playthrough in my first jaunt through Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth has been slain. I pump my fist in the air and watch as the final FMVs ensue: aged CGI models of Cloud Strife, Tifa Lockhart, and the rest of the crew conversed silently via text, their rickety automaton-like bodies bobbling about as tinny PlayStation music conveyed the climactic battle between Holy and Meteor. Much as the euphoria of a completed game washed over me, I admit one pessimist thought lingered throughout:
“Man, I’m so glad they didn’t revert to the Lego models.”
As it happens, “Lego people” – the endearing term FF7’s fans grant to the game’s squat 3D models – was something that naturally came to me, and I was morbidly amused by how its CGI cut-scenes alternated between acceptable to-scale character models or chibi-fied little people that never failed to undermine the game’s dirty, dreary presentation. For quite some time, I avoided playing the legendary PlayStation classic out of aversion for its rudimentary aesthetic, only recently dispelling such prejudices in my ever-expanding quest to explore gaming history. (Well, that, and Cloud’s presence in Super Smash Bros.; gaming’s greatest marketing tool, you understand.)
And I’m very glad I did – out of the seven I’ve played thus far, it’s not my favorite Final Fantasy (that’d be either IV or VI), yet it’s easy to see why it took the world by storm – but the point is, the passage of time is a particularly cruel mistress to gaming, as titles that impressed us with their scope and tales once upon a time gradually show their age. Be it 8-bit adventures of yore, three-disc PlayStation epics or formerly cutting-edge GameCube graphics, it’s inevitable to think, “wow, I used to think this looked good?”. In my case – interestingly, as someone who began gaming during the N64/PS1 era – newcomers like me come along and go, “wow, how on earth did people tolerate this?”
But what about beloved games I grew up with? There’s no shortage of aged classics there, and I can hardly think of a finer culprit than Tales of Symphonia. While easily my non-favorite Nintendo game (I’ve completed over a dozen times…and counting!), I admit it’s not an easy sell today: despite cel-shading, the graphics were dated even for its time, and the first act is woefully cliched to the point of parody. Much of the latter is attributed to a certain trick game scriptwriters used once upon a time: whenever there’s non-voiced dialogue, they could get away with stiff prose that wouldn’t sound natural via voiceover; consequentially, Tales of Symphonia presents an imbalance of writing quality between voiced scenes, non-voiced, the “skit” conversations (originally voiced in Japanese), and even the in-game synopsis. Be it the fault of the original scriptwriters or a localization team adhering a tad too closely to the original Japanese, I cannot say, but the results alternate between organic discourse and dry dialogue.
There are other games I’d elaborate upon – I could just sit here and discuss all the bizarre foibles within Kingdom Hearts, so I’ll instead refer to my blog review — but the sad truth is, the state of aged games can grow beyond how unsightly they’ve become. In the case of Final Fantasy VII, this is a mixed bag: on one hand, the Materia system and combat have held up perfectly fine, but as hard-hitting as, say, story events like Cloud’s trauma and gaming’s most famous death remain, it’s difficult to take them seriously with a poor localization and graphics such as this. Even if we were to dismiss these flaws as products of their time, can we truly overlook evidence of a rushed game in infrequent CGI models and irrelevant optional characters? (Yuffie Kisaragi is a truly wretched character, and cool as Vincent Valentine is, he possesses absolutely zero agency outside of his recruitment event and one side quest)
Worst of all, what if rust seeps into actual gameplay? In the case of games like Pokémon Red and Blue, visiting our old friends may be sobering in a more practical way: functionality. Even putting aside their infamous list of battle glitches and outdated mechanics, recent revisits to the Pokémon games that started it all unveiled a monkey wrench within their celebrated open-natured play: an imbalance of, well, balance. Much of the game’s first half — post-Pewter, anyway — has us rapidly out-leveling the game’s various gyms and dungeons, yet this cakewalk’s suddenly usurped by difficulty spikes by the time we reach Fuchsia and/or Saffron City. Combined with the absurdly late level-up unlocks (Slowpoke learning Water Gun at level 33? Growl at level 27?), and it becomes exceedingly clear the developers at Game Freak didn’t establish balance as a priority. (Given the games were notoriously difficult to develop, I can’t exactly blame ’em, but still)
The determined player aiming to recapture their childhood may find ways to work around primitive avenues such as this. For instance, I can readily admit Super Mario 64 is host to elementary tasks once stunning in its 3D heyday – be it “Shoot to the Island in the Sky” or “Boil the Big Bully” – but that game’s open-ended nature actually plays into its strengths; for instance, I can simply run about each world, poke around their nooks and crannies, grab the 100-coin Star before nabbing the offending star. That’s two objectives in one! (And hey, did you know it’s possible to reach floating island without the cannon? I never succeeded at that little trick, but I’m dying to triumph one day)
But let’s not kid ourselves: fact is, not every game will weather the ravages of time, as not everything’s as masterfully flexible as Mario 64; for instance, we could try avoiding trainers in Pokémon Red and Blue, but that level imbalance will creep in eventually. Other games suffer this sobering process as well: as I recently documented, Super Mario Sunshine’s rushed development and bizarre “anything goes” design will forever stain what’s otherwise an amazing physics playground. Dragon Ball Z: Budokai’s weathered polygons and plagiarized score will forever render it a relic. Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire’s opening Hoth stage may remain a thrilling set-piece, but everything afterwards is a nightmare to navigate. Even the ghastly, gaudy Photoshop filters within Luigi’s Mansion’s ghost portraits squarely peg it within a different time — no, seriously, just look at them.
Granted, all the above were criticized even for their time, but what about games previously regarded as impenetrable masterpieces? Does Super Mario World’s emphasis on exploration torpedo the game’s difficulty? Have I outgrown Kirby’s Adventure and Kirby Super Star, childhood favorites designed for beginners just getting into gaming? What about Mario Kart 64’s feature-less tracks and awkward controls relative to the Mario Karts of today? Do patches of juvenile dialogue in Chrono Trigger (“You got whacked, cuz you’re weak.”) and Final Fantasy VI (”Oh, that’s really smart, Kefka!” Celes sarcastically exclaims to the game’s villain, who’s about to destroy the world) trivialize the epic tales of our youth?
Does accepting all this mean we’ve betrayed our idealistic childhoods, where the likes of Mario, Sonic, Kirby and Ryu were held above all else? There was a time I would’ve done anything to bring my childhood back – futile, desperate attempts to channel adolescent nostalgia and thrills for the sake of crafting an eternal child. I’d play old episodes of Doug and Rugrats alongside abandoned play-throughs of Super Mario World. I’d take walks in the park and listen to my old Smashing…Live! CD — orchestral arrangements of Super Smash Bros. Melee I worshiped way back in 5th Grade. I’d open my GameCube disk tray and take a whiff of the indigo plastic — the thing of the future that once sat on my bureau. I convinced myself that feeling was still buried deep within somewhere — all smothered by the cynical transition into teenage puberty — and I simply had to put in the effort to bring it back…but it never worked.
It’s easy to say “well, they’re just video games, man,” but what’s the difference between this and any other medium of enjoyment? Surely, there exist those who’ve endured the same process with comics, books, and movies — why, I’m certain those disillusioned with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were even more disheartened upon recognizing the dated campiness of the original trilogy. There are many for whom such media was just a pastime, but for us, media helped sculpt our morals, our immersion, our sense of imagination. Think of it this way: why else are we hesitant of gaming remakes, even though they’ll never erase the originals? Much as I desire a Tales of Symphonia remake, potential problems arise in its mere concept — for instance, much as the chibi character models or silent text may impede its appeal today, they’ve permeated themselves within the game’s identity; in other words, a modern version wouldn’t feel quite right with those undesirable elements. Furthermore, could I even trust Namco with a modern re-imagining when they currently present Tales as an AAA JRPG, yet stinkers like Tales of Xillia and Tales of Zestiria prove clearly don’t have the resources or development know-how for such an ambition?
Could it be, perhaps, I’m expecting a paradox in desiring a remake that feels exactly like the original, yet yearn for those very same production values Namco can’t deliver? Could it be I fear a remake so good it’ll render the original superfluous? Could it be that I…have it all wrong? What if the answer doesn’t lie within how games made us feel back then, but how they do now?
How else could I continue championing EarthBound – a cult classic RPG that’s grown ever more profound in my journey from childhood into adulthood – as my favorite game of all time? Tales of Symphonia’s first third is painfully base in everything from setting to script, but everything afterwards remains an idealistic feel-good tale regarding acceptance and equality – two qualities I embrace above all else –and is otherwise brimming with addictive content prime for replays. As a newcomer, I can thoroughly enjoy most classic Final Fantasys despite any storytelling/graphical warts, because the memorable characters, deep battle systems, and Nobuo Uematsu’s engaging, riveting score are all thrilling to discover for the first time. Even bad games have their way of withstanding age: Sonic Adventure DX is fundamentally unacceptable on nearly every level, but good god, I’m left in tears every time I play it. (Big the Cat’s Ice Cap level is unintentional entertainment unto itself.)
What matters isn’t how we enjoyed games back then; nay, it’s how they grew up with us that matters. Those are the true classics that endure the test of time, as the older we get, they’ll undeniably provide new meanings and experiences we never dreamed of, be it coinciding with our own values (Tales of Symphonia), appreciating deeper gameplay (Super Mario 64), or just recognizing dirty jokes (Banjo-Tooie‘s “grab a sailor night” had me howling in a college replay). I know I’m just as excited to play EarthBound when I’m 45 just as I’m replaying it now; I mean, who knows, maybe I’ll recognize whatever cultural significance lies within the New Age Retro Hippie brushing his teeth in battle. If not, I’ll just laugh at the absurdity of it like I always have.