Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda - two series synonymous with RPGs, if not with video games in general. Both began on the NES in the mid-eighties and have remained at the forefront of the industry ever since. They have walked very different paths to their rightful places in the annals of video game history - join me as I explore what makes these series tick, how their approaches to game design and story compare, and decide what each game could learn from the other.
A quick caveat: I'm discussing the series in broad strokes, with a little more emphasis on Final Fantasy given that this article is appearing on a site devoted to it. I looked at both entities from game design and story-telling perspectives, and some points may be grounded in my opinion. My intent is to analyze and celebrate the things that make these games great, and not to dismiss or berate any game in either series. Final Fantasy XI and XIV will not factor in to the discussion much. And be warned, spoilers abound on both sides, but I try to keep them minimal.
Let's begin by establishing some context for each franchise. The Legend of Zelda was released on February 21, 1986 for the failed Family Computer Disc System (and on the NES in the west the following year); since then it has seen a total of 17 core games (with its 18th due next year) and one or two spinoffs; very few games are directly connected as sequels, but all are considered part of an overarching timeline. It's a flagship franchise for Nintendo, second only to Mario itself and appearing on every Nintendo platform since the 8-bit era; its central trio of characters (Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf) are essentially mascots for the company. Its games have earned an average metascore of 92.35*.
Meanwhile, Final Fantasy was released on the Famicom December 18, 1987 (and only saw an international release on the NES in North America on July 12, 1990). There are currently fourteen main titles in the series with the fifteenth due next year (granted, two of them are MMORPGs), but also an armada of spinoffs, subseries, and sequels. Entries I-VI were Nintendo exclusives, VII-XII were Playstation exclusives, and since XIII they've been multiplatform (XI and XIV, as MMORPGs, were also on PC). Its games have earned an average metascore of 89.25*.
* Scores gathered from Metacritic.com on March 22, 2015. Scores for any NES, SNES, and Game Boy games, excluding A Link to the Past, were not available.
II: Worlds & Graphics
Settings play vital roles in both franchise's stories. In the case of Zelda, the games could very well be called "The Legend of Hyrule," for the recurring game world's fate is at stake as much as the eponymous princess' life. Each game takes place within the same game world, which includes the famous Hyrule Kingdom, though some take place exclusively in unique, individual subregions (like Koholint Island in Link's Awakening or Termina in Majora's Mask). Though the setting may technically be the same world, each game features a unique iteration of it, and very rarely does the geography stay the same. Sometimes the world has been covered in oceans following a great flood, as in Wind Waker, or is plagued by darkness, as in Twilight Princess. In other words, the games' worlds are known to be the same and feel familiar enough (even featuring the same cultures and animal species), but are always cosmetically different. As part of the storyline, Link may travel to another adjacent world, like the dark reflection of Hyrule, Lorule, in the recent 3DS entry A Link Between Worlds.
Graphically, Zelda moves freely between 2D and 3D; as technology advances, the franchise isn't afraid to return to its topdown roots. The decision is based on the gameplay and story, not the hardware, as the 3DS has seen both ports of 3D N64 entries and original 2D-style gameplay with 3D graphics. Storytelling is executed via textboxes and minimal physical acting throughout.
At the other end of the spectrum, each numbered entry in the Final Fantasy series features its own separate world with very few connections to others. There are easter eggs suggesting connections between them (like an allusion that Ricard from II is the father of IV's Kain, or Zidane suggesting he's met Cloud and Squall) but no concrete evidence - though theorists could suggest that each game-world is part of the same solar system, or that all are connected dimensionally via the Dissidia subseries. The only exceptions are Ivalice, the setting of XII and some Tactics games, and the world of XIII, which shares elements with other games in the Fabula Nova Crystallis compilation, but the connections there are loose or even metaphysical (as in Tactics Advance, where a protagonist dreams he's in the actual video game Final Fantasy XII itself). Some creature races are shared between entries (like chocobos, moogles, and iconic monsters like behemoths and bombs) but likewise, each puts its own spin on their designs.
Travel to adjacent worlds is often a theme in Final Fantasy, particularly in the SNES entries, though the party never travels to the same world as another game (Bartz travels to a neighboring world, but it isn't the home of Cecil). To save the home world, protagonists sometimes travel to parallel worlds (ie. V or IX), are influenced by the moon (ie. IV and the Lunar Cry of VIII), or must explore the ravaged remains of their world (VI). Either way, the fate of the world is in the balance in each entry.
Graphically, Final Fantasy seeks to push the limits of technology. With each instalment the visual bar is raised for the franchise and the medium as a whole, and theatricality becomes ever more relevant. It's evolved from exposition one text box at a time to full cinema-quality spectacle, with a stop at a 16-bit opera house along the way. 2D has been reserved for spinoffs.
One must look closely to see the connections between the gameplay of some Final Fantasy games; each entry tries to do something unique from its predecessors and the common threads running through them are sometimes very obscured. The NES trilogy uses round-based combat, where each playable character and monster inputs an action and executes them in turn; each combatant gets one action at a time (holding true to its Dungeons & Dragons inspiration). The SNES introduced the Active Time Battle system, where combat happens in real-time, and faster characters can act more often than slower. From the PS2 on, the series has blurred the trends between these approaches and indecisively switched back and forth.
Outside of battle, players explore a larger world with a minimal set of context-based actions available (like searching or talking), and the first nine games used an overarching world map to connect locations. Ability development became a main focus from II on, and players must invest a considerable amount of time in menu screens planning their party's skillsets and equipment. Each game handles this system differently; a common approach is the Job System, where characters fill archetypal roles like Black Mage or Knight, while other games have them learning/using skills based on their current equipment. Gaining experience and/or ability points by vanquishing enemies is essential to growth.
Essentially, gameplay boils down to exploration by a single playable character punctuated by combat, where the player controls a party of 3-5 playable characters. Progression requires successful exploration, the passing of periodic combat trials (bosses), and story exposition via cutscenes or cinematics.
Compared to Final Fantasy, Zelda has a simpler approach. In the most common terms, gameplay hasn't changed much from Day One: players steer Link through the world, using weapons and tools mapped to the controller's face buttons to beat enemies, solve puzzles, and obtain items. Link's tools vary greatly from game to game depending on its themes (like the suite of masks in Majora's Mask), and success often depends on the acquisition and/or successful use of magical musical instruments (like the ocarina or the eponymous conductor's baton, the Wind Waker). Progression through the game requires successful exploration of the larger world, the passing of trials in dungeons to obtain new items, and the defeat of pattern-based bosses; clearing each dungeon is central, as the tools obtained within are required to access the next area, and puzzles are integrated flawlessly.
The original (top) took up a lot of screen space reminding you which buttons used which items; in Skyward Sword (bottom), little has changed.
IV: Plot & Story
As video games, especially as they originate from Japan and are classified as fantasy tales, it's fairly easy to guess what the overall story arc of entries in either series: you're probably going to save the world by the end of the day. Let's pick apart how each takes us to this final destination.
Just as the core gameplay has changed little, Zelda has not deviated too far from its origins. In broad terms, each game features a protagonist named Link, the foretold reincarnation of a legendary hero, who embarks alone on what becomes a quest to save the kingdom/world. By successfully completing the game the player fulfills the prophecy. Link is destined to succeed and be the hero. Outside of the threat of failure on behalf of player error, there's really no doubt that Link will save the day. It's unfathomable for Link to fail (perhaps fatally) halfway through the narrative and be replaced by another character, like Zelda for example; happy endings are pretty much guaranteed, though they may carry a hint of melancholy. From the get-go, the ending is essentially in sight, even if plot twists come along the way (like the apparent villain actually serving Ganondorf).
The course of a Final Fantasy plot, however, is a many-varied thing. Due to its more cinematic nature, plots have much more room to grow, develop, and surprise; heroes falter and are overwhelmed by grief, characters confront unresolved issues from their pasts, villains are given complex motivations, and nations may rise or fall. There's a very real possibility that your most beloved protagonist may die before the final battle. It's produced some of the most iconic moments in the series - though it's fallen out of vogue in recent entries, and the fate of PCs is only in question at the game's end.
Don't become too attached to party members early on in FFIV, unless you want your heart ripped out later.
Simple narratives are rare: you start the game with one goal, only for the plot to be turned on its head partway through. Consider VII: what begins as a story of revolution against a tyrannical corporation becomes an epic tale of nihilism and a villain's desire to destroy the world to become a god. Consider VIII: you begin as a student at a mercenary academy with little goal in mind beyond your graduation and current missions, and end up embroiled in a multidimensional struggle to save time itself. These are not mere A-B narratives. Even the simplest, the original Final Fantasy itself, subverted its original plot arc by introducing the "time loop" and connection between Chaos and its first, wimpy boss Garland; at a time when Nintendo's games barely had any extra text, Square made the player responsible for causing and correcting the world's ills.
This is not meant to suggest that Final Fantasy's plots are necessarily better than Legend of Zelda's, of course - just that one dares to attempt more complex narratives with greater theatricality.
That's it for this week! Check back for Part II next Tuesday!
This article was submitted by Twitter user Hoogathy. You can check out his Twitter here and his blog here.
Check out Hoogathy's previous article on 5 Reasons We Should Get Final Fantasy Explorers In The West!
Got an idea for a cool story like this related to Final Fantasy? Run it by us by emailing us at Lauren@gamingunion.net