A Year in Zelda, A Year in Final Fantasy

February 25, 2011 // Published by Matthew Blackwell

I have conceded this much to myself: try as I might to be a worldly, educated individual, I'm just a nerd at heart.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't in any way meant to be self-flagellating. I am perfectly aware of this and I move on. Sure, maybe I don't profess my nerdisms to the people around me at every opportunity (besides, uh, this website), but it's still there, and occasionally it just creeps up on me.

The most recent incident of this happened about two weeks ago. I had downloaded every Zelda game from the Virtual Console that's available because there were a few games I had never beaten (such as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link) and I thought that I should get ready for my inevitable "go through the entire series as a feature leading up to the release of the new Zelda game that's coming out this year" thing. And if you've never played a Zelda game, know that they generally take a really long time to beat.

But then a funny thing happened. I had been planning on playing Batman: Arkham Asylum (which I am doing now, and I'll have a review soon), but instead, I started playing Ocarina of Time. Again. For, like, the fifth time in my life. On a list of priorities, gaming or otherwise, replaying a game that I basically know through sheer muscle memory wasn't really one of them.

With that being said, I began to notice things about the gameplay and the world and the sheer magnificence and totality of its design that I hadn't before, things that I don't think many people who play these games or write about them actually talk about. Ocarina of Time is rightly considered one of the best games ever made, but few people are actually examining a lot of the things just hidden beneath the surface that make it so vastly important, and (I'd contend) even more important with each new iteration. That's not something that could be said of many games, and it's something I want to explore.

Let me say straight out that I love Zelda games, and there are most definitely some flaws that I am simply unable to see due to my raging fanboyism. That's not the purpose of this exercise, which will likely take about a year to complete; but neither is it to simply laud the series for its (many, many) perfectly executed ideas. Rather, the intent is to look at the Zelda series at a whole, work from a particular thesis, and use each game as a way to prove that thesis. Hopefully that's less boring than it sounds, but that's essentially the framework I'm working from.

An important aspect to consider, and one that is so blasely disregarded in most modern looks back at Zelda games (and retro games in general, honestly), is that context actually does matter. Zelda games, and especially any older than, say, Twilight Princess, should be considered in their original contexts, and not compared to modern games. Almost no other critic of any other medium would say that Citizen Kane is a failure because it fails at being shot in high definition, so this isn't really the place of game critics either. No, what I'm going to try to get at is a more specific look at a specific series and the way in which it stands in for a certain kind of interactive fiction, and hopefully not whether its gameplay is "antiquated" or what have you, because those kinds of arguments aren't useful or relevant.

Now, as for Final Fantasy: these are games that I find to be categorically worse "as games" than the Zelda series, and to some degree have been stretched far beyond their usefulness or importance. With that being said, I still love these games, as nerdy as that is, and I feel that they make a good counterpoint to the Zelda series for essentially getting at a lot of the same ideas (some would call them "tropes," and those people would be assholes) but from a completely different perspective, creating a completely different kind of experience that can still be called a "video game."

Is this pretty much fueled by a desire to play these games? Yes. And I also am aware that there are many better RPGs than even the best Final Fantasy games. But I am also legitimately interested in the effects of long-term storytelling broken up and altered to fit into the different kinds of narrative containers that the Zelda and Final Fantasy series both have invented and successfully (or not, depending on the entry) executed.

A few quick notes on this project: there will be no set schedule. I'll be starting with Ocarina of Time on Monday, but beyond that, these articles will be coming out basically whenever I finish a game. I sincerely hope I'll be able to finish this by the end of the year, but that's definitely a major undertaking. And finally, there won't be a set order, beyond that I'm going to try to alternate between Zelda and Final Fantasy games, but basically I'll be looking at whichever game I feel like playing at that point.

So, if you're even half the nerd that I am, I hope you'll enjoy this, and hopefully something fruitful will come of this project beyond simply playing a bunch of really good games.