Welcome all to Part II of "The Hero of Time Vs. The Warrior of Light: A Comparative Case Study". For Part I, click here!
Last time I looked at the game design elements of these series; let's continue discussing the narratives before getting down to the heart of the matter.
Both franchises rely heavily on thematic elements, some unique to individual games and some that tie the series together. Let's look first at some mutual themes and how each series handles them (bearing in mind that thematic interpretation can vary from person to person, and you may not exactly agree with me on all these points).
Distinctive Weapons/Items - Which is a more iconic weapon for the gaming industry, Link's Master Sword or Cloud's Buster Sword? Either way, both franchises are readily recognizable by the weapons in their protagonists' hands. These are often important to the plot, as in Link's need to obtain the Master Sword to stand a chance against Ganondorf or the role the Buster plays in Cloud's identity crisis. Zelda leans more on unique tools like the hookshot than on neat swords, but the principle remains.
Other Worlds - Whether it's the mirrored "dark" world of Lorule or the Moon where the Lunarians slumber, the battle for the protagonists' world is often decided on another world; both franchises have been known to take their heroes to adjacent worlds in order to save their homeworld.
Time Travel - Sometimes it's not where Link or Squall fights his foe, but when. The key to defeating Ganondorf in Ocarina of Time was to travel forward in time, and likewise SeeD has to endure the phenomenon of Time Compression in order to witness and prevent Ultimecia's horrible victory. The original played with this notion as well, but time is a more present theme in Zelda with its ongoing timeline and legends of heroic reincarnation.
Relationships - Here I note a greater division in the series' approach to this theme. In Final Fantasy games your main character forms closer relationships with his/her companions (even developing romances) and the common folk they interact with are there more as window-dressing or information sources. Meanwhile Link is often joined with a companion like Navi, Midna, or Fi and forms a single close friendship with them (despite all the nagging he must endure from them), and the NPCs seem more vibrant and interesting. Consider the Nibelheim Incident: we care about the destruction of the town and the death of its inhabitants more because of the tragedy it causes in the lives of Cloud and Tifa. We see it through his eyes in VII, we feel his rage, and we seek to get vengeance on Sephiroth; the town folk themselves are rather bland and simple people, and there's less grounds to be outraged on their behalf. I think this incident would play out differently in Zelda, knowing its approach - those people would be more vibrant and you probably would have spent some time doing little fetch-quests or mini-games with them, so when Ganondorf destroyed their town you'd have more personal incentive, as the player, to seek vengeance.
One franchise nudges protagonists toward romance, the other toward profound friendships.
Fate - Here again we can see a broader variation in approaches to the same notion. Legend of Zelda is just that: a legend. Link is typically fulfilling a legend that dictates the reincarnated hero shall defeat the reincarnated villain; along with Zelda and Ganondorf, he is a figure born to play a certain role in the history of the world and it's never really an option to embrace that calling. At first Final Fantasy took this route with the idea of Light Warriors in I and III, but when the term was reused later on in V the prophetic undertones were downplayed, and Bartz took up the fight for personal reasons, not just because his father was a Dawn Warrior. Final Fantasy protagonists are often average people or typical soldiers who are drawn into the struggle to save the world, and sometimes they may be royalty with obligations to help, but regardless there is more free will involved in their decisions.
Godhood - There are the three goddesses of Hyrule in Zelda, but they are just there to facilitate the plot; their will plays upon Link and Zelda, but they are out of reach - not like most deities in Final Fantasy. When these games include godly figures at all, they are capable of being killed by the heroes or villains, and their positions or powers can be seized by the same. This potential, this accessibility, is what drives Kefka and Sephiroth. The series can also be unkind to the idea of organized religion, as in X when the Faith of Yu Yevon proves to be incredibly corrupt and baseless.
The franchises have quite different views on divinity.
Dualism/good versus evil: As a legendary tale, a Zelda game deals in absolutes. Link is the good guy because he's the good guy, and the villain is evil because he's evil; there is little need for either to do things to establish why this is the case, because we're essentially acting out a fairy tale. We know the villain du jours seeks to destroy the world and/or conquer the kingdom and that we must stop him, that light is good and dark is evil, end of story. There are deeper shades of complexity, nuance, and motivation in Final Fantasy; villains are not always born to destroy the world, but are turned down that path by tragedy and loss. Some seek to rule for authority's sake, some to avenge a wrong, some for righteousness, and sometimes because they're living embodiments of entropy born from a tree. We deal with good and evil in the guise of science and religion, or nature and technology. AVALANCHE is "good" because they take up the Cetra's struggle to preserve the Planet, while Shin-Ra is evil because they want to bleed the Planet dry for personal gain. The terms of dualism here, like most of the common themes, are on a grander scale with more nuance. This both works in Final Fantasy's favour and against it, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Here are where the major thematic connections end, but there are a few more exclusive to FF worth noting:
Transcending limits: Link's quest relies on him meeting his potential, but from VI on Final Fantasy has taken surpassing limits as a core mechanic. VII popularized the best term for this phenomenon: Limit Breaks. Your playable characters from this point on almost always have a handful of Limit Break-type skills, usually used once they've taken enough damage or are in danger, that allow them to unleash tremendous attacks - attacks that should, by all means, destroy a large swath of the nearby geography (looking at you, Squall's Blasting Zone).
If Squall uses Blasting Zone in Esthar, do you think it could destroy buildings in Galbadia?
Beyond this mechanic, superbosses and other quests stronger than the final boss or dungeon have become essential to the formula. It's not enough to destroy the final, ultimate enemy of the storyline. Consider VIII: you can cut your teeth on the Ultima Weapon and make Ultimecia a breeze. Not brutal enough for you? There's an ever greater foe in Omega Weapon. Not even the eponymous ultimate threat is the end, for there is a superboss even stronger still. To see Link in a similar endeavour would feel out of place; Final Fantasy has come to be discontent with a simple contained quest.
Superbosses like Yiazmat often take up the entire screen - and more.
Existential angst: This is such a central struggle for so many protagonists that it needs to be noted. Cecil, Terra (and most of her party), Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus, Lightning... The quest to save the world requires resolution of some serious identity crises in these games. The protagonists are enriched by their angst, but at the same time they include some of the flaws that many gamers complain about, like the stoic attitudes of Squall and Lightning or Cecil's moping. Perhaps it's because he's silent, but we never see Link coming to terms with his identity as the Hero of ____, aside from the rare appearance by his dark clone.
Final Fantasy VII: Identity Crisis Simulator
VI: Reception & Legacy
If it seems like I've been harping too loudly in FF's favour thus far, here's where the scales begin to balance.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a "best game ever" list that doesn't include either Final Fantasy VI or VII (or both) - but that's where the entries for the series in those lists usually stop. For all its success and impact on the industry, for all its devoted fans, the series' reception from players and critics alike can be incredibly divided. The last few iterations have had a particularly divided response (arguably every entry since Square merged with Enix). The games continue to outsell most of the competition, and even the bitterly-reviewed XIII was able to garner two sequels, but the general outcry I've encountered has been inclined to negativity. It's as though the series has difficulty living up to its own name, or if its audiences expect too much.
Lightning Returns: unnecessary product of "sequelitis", or victim of high expectations?
Conversely, new Legend of Zelda games continue their predecessors' critical legacy. A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time have been widely considered contenders for the title of "best game ever" since their releases in 1991 and 1997. Each ranks among the best titles for its respective console and generation. Perhaps Nintendo owes this to its steadfast "quality over quantity" approach; there have only been three spinoff games, and of them only last fall's Hyrule Warriors was a full-fledged game in its own right. Meanwhile Final Fantasy has spun out into a plethora of sub-series and even gimmicky party games like Chocobo Racing.
Let's summarize. On one hand, we have a series that has kept to a very close canon of games, maintaining the same core essence of gameplay and relying on changing core concepts (like water in Wind Waker or masks in Majora's Mask) to keep the games fresh; it holds to its fairy-tale essence, rarely venturing into deeper narrative waters, but has not faltered from the critical pedestal on which it has been placed. On the other, we have a series that has ballooned into a juggernaut, ever attempting bigger, braver things in narrative and gameplay but suffering some missteps along the way. Each game tries to outdo its predecessor with new complexities and the result is not always pretty; newer entries simultaneously irritate the fanbase and earn a place in the gaming "hall of fame."
The differences in the series can be distilled into two key concepts: quality versus quantity, and the use of tradition or heritage. Zelda is a freshwater lake, and Final Fantasy is an ocean - one safe and populated with familiar varieties of fish, the other a vaster body with bigger risks. Nintendo takes its time with (almost) every Zelda game to assure they meet a certain standard, while Square-Enix has taken to exploiting the Final Fantasy name with remakes, rehashes, and spinoffs. Zelda walks hand-in-hand with its traditions, while Final keeps its heritage as a token in its pocket; one holds very closely to its core essence while the other has perhaps lost sight of its own.
Sticking to what works, or stagnation? Trying new things, or losing touch of what made your games great in the past?
But perhaps Final Fantasy deserves credit for trying innovative new ideas and pushing its narratives into drastically deeper waters. Is it better to keep doing what works well, or to seize ambition and try new things? To constantly seek reinvention or hold to concepts that may be getting stale?
A clear consensus on this matter could never be reached (in part because I'm beginning to touch on artistic debates that have been contested since the Renaissance), and my intent is not to declare one series superior - Final Fantasy has earned a permanent position as my favourite game series, while I appreciate Zelda's game design immensely. Let's instead focus on some of the lessons one can learn from the other.
What can Cloud learn from Link? That one does not need to reinvent the wheel each time, for starters. Back in the PlayStation days, fans were beginning to question the franchise's future but the return-to-roots IX won back their hearts. This is something the series desperately needs again, fifteen years later. It's noble to push the envelope but there's nothing wrong with holding closer to the ideas that earned them a place in gaming history. Look at Square's recent hit Bravely Default - a game that began as a new spinoff and is, despite its name, the most faithful and well-received Final Fantasy game in years. It was a huge success in critical reception and sales, despite its old-school approach.
FFIX returned to the series' roots and revitalized the series.
Bigger isn't always better, either. I think a lot of the decisions that end up irritating audiences are born of a desire to trump the other games, or to make lightning strike in the same spot twice. VI and VII were tremendous triumphs but Square is left chasing that glory now, taking large strides to catch up to themselves and stumbling since X. Zelda proves that a game of this calibre doesn't need to be explosively surreal and convoluted. Perhaps that's part of the impact the early demo of Final Fantasy XV has created - it's a simpler scenario, compared to the grandiose ambitions of XII and XIII.
In a nutshell...
What can Link learn from Cloud? That taking bigger steps forward won't hurt. Take a chance on some new narrative twists - make Link female, as many fans are suggesting, or make him truly fail his quest and have Zelda take it up in his place. Changing antagonists and goals has been the series' saving grace (if every game was Link versus Ganon for the life of Zelda, we'd have gotten bored long ago) and more could be done to this end. Look at Majora's Mask: Zelda barely appears in flashbacks, Link is in an alternate dimension where everything is absurd, and the villain is a dancing forest spirit; so many of the narrative elements from other games are absent and yet it has a legacy nearly matching its older sibling, Ocarina of Time. The franchise has already made a plethora of bizarre decisions and still stands tall, so why not take some more realistic chances? Deeper narratives and cinematic elements would definitely not hurt either - let's get a bit of Link struggling with his predestined fate.
And let's customize Link a little bit already! He's called "Link" because he's meant to be our "link" to the game world, our avatar in Hyrule - and yet we can do incredibly little to make our mark on him. Incorporation of RPG elements like stats and experience could be the kind of small change with profound implications that the series loves.
There's no single "correct" way to approach game design, as these franchises prove. They started on the same 8-bit platform, endure to this day, and have become inexorably entwined in the industry's history along the way. One could say they've followed opposing paths to this point - one the meandering and distracted path to innovation, the other afraid to step too far off the path it started so long ago. They've been exemplars to the rest of the industry for nearly thirty years, and perhaps it's time they started to learn from each other as well.
Which approach do you prefer: Innovative Final Fantasy or Traditional Legend of Zelda? Which series is dearer to your heart? Who would win in a fight, Link or one of the many Final Fantasy protagonists? Ganon or Sephiroth? Let us know what you think!
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!
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