#127: Final Fantasy

I’ve loved video games my whole life.

The first game system I ever received was a Nintendo Entertainment System. I must have been three or four years old at the time. The first video game I ever remember seeing was Super Mario Bros. I remember watching my parents play it once in the living room together, with my mom not doing very well and asking my dad questions about how to play it. Funnily enough I don’t have a specific memory of playing the game, although I must have at the time. I do remember my earliest memory of playing a game, and it was Mega Man II, also for NES (although at the time we all just called it the system “Nintendo”). I remember sitting in my mom’s room, with the game hooked up to a television on her dresser, and watching the opening scene of a camera panning up a building to Mega Man standing with his helmet off on top of the building.

I remember how difficult Mega Man was. I could never get further than one or two levels in, and once I actually managed to make it all the way through to the final level and couldn’t beat it. I remember playing the original Super Mario Bros, and an old lady who babysat me tried to teach me the trick to getting 99 lives with a turtle shell. The second video game system I got was a Sega Genesis. In the early 90’s, everyone picked a side in what became known as the “console wars”: either you were a Nintendo person, or a Sega person. It’s not that you necessarily only liked the games from one system or the other, everyone loved all the games, it’s just that the systems were so expensive that no one’s parents could afford to buy them both. To have both was a big deal. I only happened to have both by luck, because my cousin, whose name is Andy (and who will reappear soon in this story), was getting rid of his Sega Genesis and sold it to my mom. I’m not sure for how much but for some reason my memory tells me 50 bucks. I have no clue if that’s true or not.

My first Sega game was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, along with Taz-Mania, a game about the Loony Tunes character Taz the Tasmanian Devil. Fun fact: I was surprised to learn Tasmania is an actual place later on in school, I always assumed it was a made-up place from Looney Tunes. Anyhow, a lot of people fondly remember the first Sonic the Hedgehog, and it’s opening level Green Hill, with nostalgia, but for me it was the second game. I actually never even played the first game until years later in elementary school, and was kind of aggravated by the lack of a spin dash ability.

I loved Sonic 2. I played it constantly. Eventually my cousins who were around the same age as me wanted a video game system, so my mom came up with a rule that I could only have one of my two game systems at a time, and if I wanted one, my cousins got to use the other. I still think that was a stupid rule, particularly because I always chose my Sega Genesis, and eventually my Nintendo just became their de facto possession, and they lost it.

Not that I’m still bitter about it or anything.

But it was mine.

Just saying.

Anyhow, like I was saying I loved Sonic 2. I loved the levels and the characters of Sonic and Tails, and during school I used to draw pictures of Sonic running around on the back of my school papers. I don’t know if schools still do this but at the end of the year the teacher would give our parents a folder filled with all of our work from that year, which make pretty great keepsakes. My mom still has many of my Sonic the Hedgehog drawings, which I was constantly getting in trouble for doodling.

The thing that I loved most about Sonic, though, was the music. Chemical Plant and Mystic Cave Zone especially. My aforementioned cousin Andy (the one who sold my mom the Genesis, not his two sisters who always got to keep one of my game systems) always knew more about video games than I did, was always a more skilled player than I was, and always had something interesting to show me. I used to watch him play in awe, and I was very entertained just watching. He revealed to me that there were cheat codes to Sonic 2, which he had memorized, and he would sometimes put them in and show me Super Sonic, who could jump incredibly high and fly through levels at triple the speed of Sonic. I was amazed by Super Sonic, by his shiny yellow hair and his ability to float in the air as stars rippled past him, and by the way he would cross his arms and stand on his tiptoes, looking regal and powerful, when you stood on the edge of a clif. I also loved the Super Sonic music that played, and I would go to the sound test menu and turn on the Super Sonic music, then turn the volume way up on the television, and run around the house as Sonic, jumping on the furniture and making up stories about Sonic’s adventures.

Incidentally, Andy refused to tell me the cheat code and never did, I learned them when I got older and found them online. He did input them for me and let me play as Super Sonic sometimes, but he seemed to enjoy not telling me and keeping the information a secret from me. Once, after I begged him incessantly, he finally wrote the cheats down on the back of an envelope, and it turned out they were completely fake and not the real cheat.

Not that I’m still bitter about it or anything.

But really, he should have just told me the damn cheat codes.

Andy was to be a pivotal player in my love of video games. He always had the newest systems and the newest games, and he would always let me play them, though usually I had to spend most of the time I visited watching him play, but even still, I was fine with that. I never really got to play much of the Super Nintendo, I had an aunt and uncle who had one along with Super Mario World, and on a few occassions I would visit and get to play, but I never had a Super Nintendo of my own. I still loved playing Super Mario World for the limited time I could, though. Anyhow, Andy eventually got a Sega Saturn, which I was entirely interested in due to it’s complete lack of Sonic the Hedgehog games, though I did watch him play Panzer Dragoon, and was pretty stunned by the graphics.

It’s funny now to look back at older video games and think of how stunning the graphics were to people at the time. But good game designers have tried different ways of creating beautiful games, and some of them have stood the test of time. For instance, I still think Super Mario World looks incredible, but unlike many other games it isn’t because of superior graphics as much as it is superior art design. The characters and environments are drawn in a style similar to cartoon animation, which means that they hold up over time. The opposite of this would be games like Doom or Goldeneye, who tried to go for a very realistic aesthetic, and as such look like paper mache pasted onto polygons now. I think that games that use an animated style, or any style that resembles animated art rather than realistic art, hold up over time.

I had only ever heard of Zelda as a game for the Gameboy, a device which I found fascinating. Gameboys were the first real handheld video game systems, apart from little handheld poker or Yahtzee games with little light up screens that had the game built in to the system. The first Gameboys were massive and heavy, with tiny little screens that were always green, and the games were black and white except for the fact that the screen was green, so they were more black and green than anything else. There was also a slew of accessories, my favorite of which was a huge clip-on magnifying glass that went over the screen and made everything look bigger, along with “worm lights,” which were glorified reading-lights that plugged in and lit up your screen in the dark (back-lit screens, surprisingly, would not arrive until much later). I had an aunt (Andy’s mom) who apparently loved Zelda and though she never let me play it I’d seen her playing it on her Gameboy (the game, by the way, was The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening). I later saw the original Zelda for Nintendo but never found it terribly interesting, and always died very quickly, along with having no clue where to go.

Andy had a Nintendo 64 and I saw him play a lot of great games: Wave Race was the first one I saw, followed by Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, and then shooters like Goldeneye, Perfect Dark, Forsaken, and many others. In those days video stores still existed, and in video stores there was a video game section where you could rent games. I both watched and played a lot of Nintendo 64 games through Andy, who would let me play his consoles while he was busy with something else when I visited him.

Andy eventually moved in with me and my mom when he was sixteen and I was about seven years old. He’d had a falling out with his mom, and in my family throwing your children out is a somewhat common occurence, so my mom took him in. I fell in love with Andy. He was the older brother I’d always wanted. I actually had an older brother but he’d been adopted before I was born by a relative who lived somewhat far away and didn’t allow us much contact, so Andy became my older brother. I totally worshipped him. I followed him wherever he went, I listened to his music and sang along with him, I watched movies with him, I read his video game magazines and played his games when he was busy, I watched eagerly as he played and asked questions which he patiently answered (being an adult now and having played video games next to kids who are around the age of seven, and listening to the endless barrage of questions, I understand just how patient he was with me, which is kind of surprising because I remember him not having too much patience).

Andy’s influence was a really big part of my life at that age. Because I didn’t listen to anyone but him. I wasn’t a bad or disobedient kid, it’s just that I did what Andy said, when he said it, and I did it happily. I loved his approval, and I did not question or argue with him. My mom probably used this to her advantage a few times and had Andy order me to do something that I wouldn’t do when she asked. Andy also began to go through a phase that a lot of white guys in the 90’s went through of adopting a lot of mannerisms and speech patterns of black culture. In the south, they have a word for this, which is “wigger,” a very crass portmanteu of the words “white” and, well you can guess the other one. He started listening to a lot of rap music (although he also listened to a good bit of alternative 90’s rock, provided it was a male artist, so I heard a lot of Third Eye Blind, Sublime and Sugar Ray in those days), and went through a very long Insane Clown Posse phase. To his credit, he never became the kind of cult-like devoted “juggalo” follower the band is known for having, he just enjoyed getting high and listening to their music and laughing at the absurdity of it.

My world changed in a profound way one day when I came home from school. I walked into the living room to find Andy just starting up a game. I was surprised to see it wasn’t a Nintendo 64 game, it was actually a Playstation that he was playing. I do remember seeing people with Playstations around that time, and I remember seeing games like Crash Bandicoot and some of the wrestling games that had a huge surge of popularity in the 90’s (along with professional wrestling itself, which was more or less a glorified soap opera with people throwing each other around and bouncing off of ropes), but I don’t know if it was before or after this moment.

This moment was important. This moment is imprinted on my memory. It’s the moment that everything in my life came into focus. It’s the moment that I became a writer, a musician, and an artist. I didn’t know all of that yet, but this is the moment that it started.

The game was called Final Fantasy VII (Andy had to explain to me what roman numerals were, and that the symbol meant “seven”). It was the start of the game, and Cloud Strife had just hopped off of the train and stood with his back to the camera. His blocky, pixelated form didn’t look silly to anyone at the time, in fact the graphics were great. The first thing I noticed was his spikey blonde hair. Now, I hadn’t watched Dragonball Z at the time, and didn’t know anything about Super Saiyans, but I remembered thinking that I recognized the game he was playing and said “Hey I know that guy! Who is it?” but I’d never heard of Cloud. Looking back, I must have thought it was Super Saiyan Goku, although paradoxically I don’t remember seeing the episode of Dragonball Z in which Goku goes Super Saiyan until a bit later, and I THINK that I was watching the show as new episodes came out.

At any rate, I was intrigued by the spikey blonde haired character, and sat down to watch Andy play. I had never seen a roleplaying game before, and I was confused about the fact that instead of actually moving around and slashing the sword with the buttons on the controller, Andy was selecting commands from a menu, and then the characters would go forward and do what he told them. Even though it was new, I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed watching a green aura swirl around Cloud as he did his magic incantation pose and throw lightning bolts or blocks of ice at enemies.

Final Fantasy VII quickly became everything to me. I think that what did it was the music. The music was so beautiful, so intensely beautiful, so world-changingly beautiful. I’d never heard anything like it. The song that always stands out the most in my mind is called Anxious Heart. It plays several times in the game, but it’s the area music for the Train Graveyard. I remember watching Andy play this area, and my mom was chatting with someone who was in the room, and actually made a comment about how these new video games had this cool incredible music. I’ve never forgotten her saying that. It was true, the music was incredible.

My favorite was the battle theme. I heard it constantly because there are endless amounts of battles in the game. I remember one morning when I woke up, and I heard that battle song as I woke up, and I instantly became filled with excitement and ran into the living room, jumping up onto the couch beside Andy to watch the action. I would stand in the living room floor and watching the battles, singing the battle music in “dum dum dum”s and mimicking the actions, standing in battle position and moving like I was slashing a sword, doing the character’s victory poses.

I loved Final Fantasy VII in a way I had never loved anything before. I was completely enraptured, watching this game. I was fascinated by everything, by the characters, by the battles, by the monsters the characters fought and summoned, by the villain Sephiroth, who was cool and soft-spoken and terrifying, by the artwork in the game’s manual which I tried to copy in my sketchbook and draw pictures of. I even drew little figures of Cloud and Sephiroth in battle, holding their swords, and I cut them out of the book and made the two little flat drawings fight one another.

Andy bought an unofficial strategy guide which I used to gleefully look through, looking at the pictures from the game and the incredible illustrations of items and materia, which I thought looked so beautiful and real. And even to this day, I think that the pre-rendered backgrounds of Final Fantasy VII are beautiful. Some of them hold up better than others, but the decision to put the game on pre-rendered backgrounds filled with lush forests, barren snowscapes, and brilliant skylines was a great one, and it’s caused Final Fantasy VII’s environment to age significantly better than, say, Tomb Raider, which looks like a pixelated polygonal mess now.

Andy beat the game, and then some. He did all the sidequests, he spent a long time breeding and racing chocobos. One day he was racing chocobos all day, and during that day he made us lunch, a huge pot filled with barbecue sauce, spices, and cut up hot dogs, which was so incredibly hot and spicy that I had to drain an entire glass of Sun Drop with every bite. It was a bright day, there was a sliding-glass door in the living room, and everything was perfect and bright and happy. I was so happy watching Andy play Final Fantasy VII. Everything in my life just came into focus when he was playing that game.

He wouldn’t let me play the game on my own because he was afraid I would overwrite his save file. I know he restarted the game many times, and I remember one time he restarted the game and gave the characters funny names, which he and his best friend, our next-door neighbor, found amusing to no end. It was kind of funny to see the characters all calling Cloud “Asshole,” Barret “Dr. Dre,” and Tifa “Bitch.” I mean, it was juvenile, but we were literally juveniles. Me much more so than them.

I remember one night I was watching television and I heard the opening music of Final Fantasy VII in the other room, and immediately bolted into the living room to watch Andy play. My older brother did actually come to visit once, and while Andy was away we played his Playstation (which I was EXPRESSLY forbidden to do when he wasn’t home, and I was PARTICULARLY not supposed to play Final Fantasy VII because I might scratch up the game disc or mess his Playstation up in some way). My brother and I played through the opening section in Mako Reactor No. 1, although I think I did most of the playing, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was I doing well, I actually beat the guard scorpion, the game’s first boss. Andy found out about this and got really angry, because from that point on, his disc 1 would always lock up at the FMV scene where the bridge breaks on Mt. Nibel in Cloud’s Nibelheim flashback. He blamed this on me mishandling the disc.

It didn’t really matter that I rarely got to play though, because I loved watching Andy play so much. He did manage to do everything there was to do in the game: bred a golden chocobo, got the master materia, and beat both Emerald and Ruby Weapon (Ruby Weapon was a long process of trial and error, and I happened to be out of the room when it happened but I remember Andy’s exuberant jubilation).

There are so many parts of that game that recall certain memories. I loved the music of Cosmo Canyon, I remember watching Andy battle these clowns that draw cards from a deck that have different effects, I remember the first time I saw Andy fight the final boss, Safer Sephiroth, and was stunned to hear that there was actual choral singing, in the music. I was stunned: people were really talking, IN A VIDEO GAME! There were actual voices.

I could probably go on for much longer about watching Andy play Final Fantasy VII. Suffice it to say, it became everything to me. When I was alone, I played pretend games of FF7 with myself, being Cloud or Sephiroth, turning sticks in the yard into swords and standing in place until my “attack” or “magic” command was selected from an imaginary menu, and then I would rush forward and slash my sword, then jump back into place to wait for my next turn. I also played the opponents usually too. I know it’s a common sight to see a little boy holding a stick and pretending it’s a sword, jumping around and swinging the stick through the air shouting like he’s fighting monsters, but it must have been a strange sight to see a little boy standing in place, assuming a battle pose, waiting for a command that came from himself, then rushing forward to slash and jumping back into place to wait for the next command.

Andy was playing Final Fantasy VII, fighting the red dragon in the Temple of the Ancients, on the day that my mom called me into the kitchen and, along with her aunt who was there, told me that I was going to be staying at a mental health center in the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation that my therapist had recommended, and that she couldn’t come with me and I’d have to sleep there and be away from my family. I was terrified buy they gave me a teddy bear, and I made everyone hug the teddy bear several times, so that if I got lonely, I could ask my teddy bear for a hug from Andy, or from Mommy, or from one of my cousins, and he would relay the hug to me.

It’s sad, I know. The experience at the mental health center (which was actually just a floor of the hospital) was horrifying, but it’s another story for another time. When I came back, I was anxious to see what I’d missed in Final Fantasy VII.

This is how it started. Final Fantasy became important to me, and changed my life. It made me creative. It inspired everything I did from that moment on. I wanted to create my own fantasy stories, I loved magic and swords, I wanted to make my own stories like Final Fantasy, I wanted to be a video game designer and work for Squaresoft, the company that made Final Fantasy. I read all the video game magazines and loved anything mentioning Final Fantasy. I resented Final Fantasy VIII when it was released because it wasn’t a direct sequel to VII, and how could anything be better than VII? I did eventually come to love every entry in the series, though.

Years later, I started learning to play piano because I wanted to be able to play music from video games. The music from Final Fantasy VII, from Sonic the Hedgehog, from Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts is it’s own story. I went absolutely nuts when I found out Cloud was in the game, and he had a voice. I could HEAR Cloud’s voice. My brother played a mean prank on me once, by pretending that he was actually Cloud, that he’d traveled to another world, and that he could morph between my brother and Cloud. I completely, legitimately believed him. I was heartbroken when he revealed to me that it was a lie, and cried my eyes out. Incidentally, he also pretended to morph into several other Final Fantasy VII characters. It’s a pretty funny story. Apart from me being heartbroken, anyway.

I printed out the sheet music to the Final Fantasy VII battle theme and put it in front of my chorus teacher, asking if he could play it on piano. He did. It was the first time I’d heard Final Fantasy music played on a real instrument, not coming through the speakers of a television, and not in the form of those wonderful MIDI sounds that I loved so much, but here on a real instrument. It was a different sound, but it was magic. I was hooked from that moment. I had to learn to play this song.

And really, that’s how it all started. I started trying to write my first novel when I was twelve, and it was a story heavily influenced by Final Fantasy. I started learning to play piano because I wanted to play music from video games. To this day, I’m still playing Final Fantasy, and I’ve never stopped playing the games from the 90’s either (although admittedly I rarely play Final Fantasy VII anymore, it’s a bit boring to me now and I don’t find the battle system as fun or engaging as others in the series).

My story with video games continues from here, but I’ll stop there for now. There were other games that had a big impact on me, other games that helped me create beautiful memories, and there are plenty more memories associated with Final Fantasy VII and it’s profound effect on me. When I started experiencing depression and became reclusive and afraid, I hid inside the world of Final Fantasy VII. At one point I even believed Cloud was real, and I begged that he would come and rescue me from this world and take me to his. Final Fantasy gave me a safe place, a place that made sense to me, a place where the things I loved were, where I was special and cared about and had magical abilities, and could do the things I wanted.

I never stopped believing in that world. I don’t believe it’s real anymore, but when I was a teenager I had an ardent wish. There’s an area in Final Fantasy VII, an area outside Nibelheim, where the green land drops off in a cliff and the ocean stretches out. I know that in the game, it looks like a bunch of polygons and textures. But it didn’t look that way to me. It looked like real green grass on a real rocky surface, overlooking a real, beautiful sparkling blue ocean, lit by the sun, with the Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII playing in the background behind it.

And one day, when I was fourteen, standing outside in the cold morning and waiting for my bus to come and take me to school, I hoped that Heaven would be that place. That when I died, I’d go to a personal Heaven, where I could finally live in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Even now, the memory of that wish still lives in my heart, though now I’m ostensibly an atheist so I don’t know if I believe in anything after death, or in real transcendance anymore. But it didn’t matter then. All that mattered was that I loved this world, and that I found beauty and joy and happiness and safety and security there.

Final Fantasy VII gave me hope, and it still does. During a difficult childhood, it gave me something that made sense, something to love. And the thing is, it’s not like I just started developing a fondness for it out of a need to cope (although I completely believe that’s probably what happened), it’s that I fell in love with it INSTANTLY. I was hooked from that first day. I was spellbound by the characters, by the places, by the music.

And I’ve never stopped loving Final Fantasy, or fantasy itself. And right now, a fantasy story lives in my heart, a story with my own characters and my own places, all of whom borrow concepts and ideas from Final Fantasy, but which are mine. I don’t have to be ashamed to take from Final Fantasy because all art draws from all other art. I try not to outright copy the series, but in my mind I always see a future critic of my novel that hasn’t even been written, saying that it’s a blatant copy of Final Fantasy. But I know that my vision, even if it borrows heavily from Final Fantasy, is unique, and that it will become clearer the more I write, the more I try, and the more I explore. As time has gone on I’ve drawn inspiration from many more sources than just Final Fantasy, and I will continue to do so.

But Final Fantasy will always be special to me. It will always be that safe place, that place of numbers and menus and RPG mechanics that gave me something to focus on when I was feeling scared as a teenager and gave my time structure, that place of beautiful music and scenery and adventure that captivated me as a child and made me want to explore the fantasy realms in my mind, the place that I started writing fanfiction about as a teenager, creating my own stories with these characters, borrowing them and placing them in a world where I coexisted, creating my stories out of thin air as I danced barefoot through the wet grass in the morning, slashing a stick through the air, and adventuring with Cloud and the other Final Fantasy characters.

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