A Youth Well (Mis)Spent: (Video)Games of My Mind

I was that kid.  I loved video games and was completely devoted to them.   Those that are out there that remember my 5th grade elementary class with Mr. Mercier will remember the ceaseless barage of video game references when it came to homework.  We had vocabulary and we had to make a sentence for each new word.  I made sure every sentence had something to do with video games.  (In retrospect, I wonder if committing myself to focusing on one arena lent to both learning the words more meaningfully and my interesting in writing fiction).  I had my first Nintendo (over the course of several years, I would end up with two since the first one broke from over use) by 2nd grade, my first Supernintendo by 7th grade, and several other game systems including Gameboys, Sega, and Playstation along the way.

Over the years, I fell in love with different games.  There was the original Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, Legend of Zelda, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out (I remember the first time I beat Piston Honda--epic win for me!), Wizards and Warriors,  Excitebike, E.V.O., Actraiser, Super Marioland, to name a few.  But there is one game that still lingers; that still embodies and triggers a great deal of whimsy, escape, magic, powerful storytelling, and just purse delight.  Final Fantasy II was the first RPG I played as a child that I grew to love dearly. (Note:  It was originally released on Super Nintendo as Final Fantasy II, but is widely recognized as Final Fantasy IV due to numbering in Japan)  It was as potent and as immersive story for my childhood as Star Wars and the Marvel Comics universe.

Final Fantasy II

The first time I played it, I had rented it from Tri-City Video (remember video stores?).  I didn't really get it at the time.  The closest I had come to an RPG up to that point was Legend of Zelda, which slightly counted, but was not quite the same (for instance, regular battling monsters would not result in increased experience or improved magical talent).  So I had trouble understanding the concepts behind Final Fantasy.  It was also right on the cusp of the internet (or rather internet in my house--sometime around this time, we acquired Prodigy, but I don't remember that being of much help to me in any capacity).  I (gasp!) read the manual and slowly made my wait through it.  It had interesting characters (Cecil, Kain the Dragoon, Tellah the Sage, and Rydia) and slowly but surely pulled me into its narrative.  It was an enjoyable and complex narrative (for a middle-schooler and early high school student, mind you) that dealt with worlds colliding, betrayals, salvations, and achieving one's potential.  The graphics weren't great by any means, but the story grew increasingly complex and interesting--the graphics didn't need to be done well; the narrative filled in the gaps.  Characters died or suffered greatly and it hit the user.  After all, some of these characters the player might have spent 20+ hours of adventuring and training with; only to see them turned to stone or sacrifice themselves so that the mission could continue.  But the most palpable experience of the game, was its ending.  After what culminated in over 100 hours of work often, the finale was equally rewarding.  The ending was my first experience on the level of what an epic ending can look like (You can view Part 1 here--go about 5 minutes into the video, and part 2 here).  I don't think I cried, but I was overwhelmed.  The story had ended and to some degree, I was left with sadness--the characters I had journeyed with were gone.  I could revisit them and adventure with them again (which I certainly did), but not anew.  It was, in fact, "game over."

I continued playing it for a while, trying to find all its little treasures and seeing how powerful I could make my characters, but eventually, my time with it was supplanted by Final Fantasy III (also known in Japan as Final Fantasy VI) and the new challenges that invoked.  Hurrah--new characters, new adventures, new challenges.  I sought out other RPGs and for a while go into the Phantasy Star series.  But eventually, in my freshman year of college, Final Fantasy VII emerged and I embraced it as it embraced me.

But always, when I thought of RPGs, my mind would go instantly to Final Fantasy II.  It's ending was clear but there was more to the story to be told.  I contemplated several times writing a novel that would serve as a sequel or tell the story of Final Fantasy II and its aftermath.  What happened after that?  There is a happy-ever-ending feeling to it, but there are some hanging strings, namely, Kain, who happened to be my favorite.  It was early narrative video gaming at its best and I wanted more.

Final Fantasy II: The After Years

So last summer, while playing around on my Wii; I came across information that there was now an extended version of Final Fantasy II called:  Final Fantasy II:  The After Years.  I was amazed and instantly purchased it on the Wii game system (it was a downloadable game).  And so there I was last summer, playing away just like I had some 20 years ago, thoroughly enjoying returning to these characters in learning about what has changed for them, nearly 20 years later (the story takes place about 20-30 years later).  I took my time and I delighted in returning to this world I had known so well and seeing the ways that it had changed (programming and time change all things--hahaha).

I played the game all last summer; after class, in the cooler hours of the evening, jamming away at the keypad, watching movies on another screen or listening to audiobooks.  It was delightful.  But the end of the summer drew near as did the end of the game.  As I got into the final dungeon of this game, I hesitated.  I continued in the same area, collecting experience and skills within the game without much desire to move forward.  In fact, I stopped in late August and did not revisit the game until this past July, nearly a year later.

Playing Final Fantasy II:  The After Years jettisoned me back into my youth like no time machine ever could.  I had flashbacks of the different peaks of the story, how the story made me felt, and what was going on in my life.  It triggered memories largely forgotten, including a summer day in eighth grade where I played away deep in the final dungeon of the game, battling blue dragoons (only as ferocious as behemoths), sitting on an ottoman, the TV mere feet from my face and my grandmother coming upstairs and seeing me play there.  She was finishing a roll of film on her disposable camera and took a snapshot of me.  Random moments like that.

I wasn't ready to end the game.  I dreaded the end of the game.  In so many ways, it was deeply connected to and interwoven with the experiences and emotions I connected with the Woods,  I lost myself in the story; I was in the world and these companions I fought along side.  It was as deep as any reading that touched me at the time and to boot, unlike so many other things in the life of a child and young adult; I was in control (albeit to a limited degree).  Thus, I was not ready to let that go last summer.  To end the game was to end that deep connection I was feeling with that time and place of my childhood.

This summer, on a whim, I returned to the game and started replaying it.  Maybe I was ready to end that connection or maybe I found someway to still hold onto it, but this would be the summer that I finished the game.  (Side Note:  In the making of this post, I came across there is a 3rd addition to this series--that takes place between Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy II:  The After Years, but it seems largely impossible to get a hold of in the US--and I'm ok with that).

Playing it this time around was just as enjoyable as last year and I had forgotten parts of the story so it pulled me back in fairly easy.  I again made it to the final dungeon; I maximized the attributes of my characters' skills through repeated fights and lingering. When it came time for the final boss, my characters did well and the end came.  It wasn't as grand as an experience as my youth.  That's likely because I've experienced a great deal of epic story endings since in novels, movies, comics, and games.  It's clear I have a more critical view of these things too since I can also recognize the ending was a bit forced--like the creators didn't know where to go with it entirely.

The ending after the final boss also felt disappointing.  The loops are largely closed but done so in five minutes--not the grandeur style of the original game.  I take this with a grain of salt though.  I'm more jaded about this ending in large part because I know more now about what it mean to play Final Fantasy II the first time around.  I realize the excitement of a brand new world opening up as opposed to returning to it.  There is that certain magic of newness that can be hard to recapture.  Playing the continuation of the game brought some of it back but more importantly, it reminded me of what I felt and experienced those many years ago.

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