Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Critical Switch: FFVII and Jazz Standards

On Jazz Standards

Joe Pass was a Sicillian-American Jazz guitarist who lived from 1929 to 1994, he is one of the greatest Jazz guitarists of all time, often cited along with Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and George Benson. He was particularly a master of solo performance, capable of deftly moving between melody and supporting harmony, all with a massive improvisational flair. He could move between chords whose names I can barely say and in the next bar be blazing across a lick with deftly incorporated passing tones. This was on top of being an incredibly capable band leader, and an extraordinarily skilled accompanist.

Joe played jazz standards. Rock can have problems with cover tunes, at least from the 70's-80's and onward. For whatever reason, songs are usually seen as inseparable from the people who first wrote and performed them, from the contexts in which they were first created. Jazz doesn't do that. Jazz performers, generally speaking, tend to take a song and put their spin on it, and sometimes even put multiple different spins on it, like Joe Pass did with the song “Summertime,” first written by George Gershwin for the musical Porgy and Bess. Three different versions of “Summertime” that Joe Pass recorded are playing under this episode.

There's been a lot of argument over whether Final Fantasy VII should even be remade. If the original is as great as we say it is, shouldn't it stay the way it is? I'm bothered by this line of thinking for a number of reasons, some sentimental, others outright selfish, but one point became burningly clear as I realized it:

If Final Fantasy VII had already been remade, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

Now that's a fairly tautological statement, but the evidence backs it up. I can think of no such dedicated originalists concerning, for example, Final Fantasy IV, which has been remade countless different times. Now, you could easily play the original version on the SNES and that's still a great game, but you also now have the choice of playing the PSP remake and the DS remake, the former a more traditional iteration with updated sprite graphics and more or less similar mechanics, (itself a port of a GBA remake) the latter a fairly major overhaul made in low poly 3D, adding voice acting, and redefining character combat functionality. Both of them are really great takes on the game. Both of them are really fun, both of them have the same great music and adventurous story. In my mind there is absolutely no reason not to play one of those versions over the original SNES version. And come to think of it, if you wanted to play the original game, would you play the US version with the butchered translation and altered mechanics, or would you play a fan translation patch of the Japanese version? That US version may be an inexcusably bad port by modern standards, but it was also the version that some people grew up playing, and probably the version some still play today.

Tales of Phantasia: now granted, nearly none of these versions are available legally in the US, but indulge me. The original version of the game on the SNES is by no means a bad game, but the Playstation version builds on it in every conceivable way, iterating on the combat system to more resemble the game's recent sequel on the Playstation, and adding the series legendary “skits” to the equation, adding lots of fun interactions between the game's lovable cast of characters. You could also consider Tales of Phantasia X for the PSP, which has all of the PS1 version additions and a fully voice acted cast.

Dragon Quest is a particularly blatant example: no one who likes people would recommend playing the original NES version of Dragon Quest when the Super Nintendo version exists that cut the grind in half, simplifies the environment interactions, and puts a fresh coat of paint on the graphics.

Chrono Trigger: the DS version adds stylus controls for the menu if that's your thing, a minimap, all the anime cutscenes from the PS1 version without any of the load times, and redoes the original translation. It is almost without question the definitive version of the game.

The primary difference, the only difference really, between any of those games and Final Fantasy VII is that those games were iterated upon consistently from their original release till present day. And while we can have reasonable discussions over which versions are we like better for what particular reasons, there's no real question as to whether the various iterations are legitimate interpretations. Final Fantasy IV, Tales of Phantasia, most of the Dragon Quest games are all jazz standards. Each version has it's own flavor, and thankfully, all those flavors are pretty solid!

Lemme let you in on a little secret, cuz a lot of people have forgotten this: Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX were all scheduled to be remade . . . for the PS2. Gamespot reported this in 2001. Quote:

Square has announced that it will release the remakes of Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and IX for the PlayStation 2 in individual packages. Each will be in DVD-ROM format, with graphical and audio enhancements. Additionally, special features will be included in the remake discs. No release information has been disclosed on the three Final Fantasy remakes at this time.

Then, a little movie called The Spirits Within happened, Squaresoft had a major corporate restructuring, they merged with Enix to become Square-Enix and the project never materialized.

A tech demo was even made that rendered Final Fantasy VIII's dance sequence in real time. With FFVIII being my personal favorite, I go back and watch that every once in a while and just go “Man, I wish I could play this version.” I mean yeah even it looks dated now, especially considering it's a real-time tech demo vs. the original games lovingly crafted FMVs, the character models are especially pale, but y'know what also looks dated? Every part of Final Fantasy VIII that isn't an FMV.

I guess the real question is, if all these games get remade and people are cool with it because those versions are awesome, why all the skepticism now about this game? Is it because this game is better? I mean sure, I like it better than pretty much any of the games I listed above and I'm also doing edits to my book about it, but Final Fantasy VII is also by no means perfect. The original translation has two ableist slurs and has Barrett talking like a Mr. T parody, and even the Japanese version has FFVII's infamously loosely structured endgame bit with the Huge Materia that we collect for . . . some reason or the other? Hell, FFVII is great, I'd still call it one of The Greatest but the game's Magic Defense stat doesn't even function properly, partially lending to the absurd cost:damage ratio for using magic all across the game. A remake would be a great chance to fix some of that stuff and maybe tweak the balance of high-level play as well.

And that's if Square takes the traditionalist route and remakes it as a traditional JRPG. I'd be perfectly fine with that, ecstatic even, but the more I think about it, the more I came to agree with my friend James Hearn that, like listening to Joe Pass' very different versions of “Summertime”, I'd love to play a version of Final Fantasy VII that, at least on an interfacial level, changed absolutely everything.

As noted by my friend Devon Carter in an episode a few weeks ago, Hiroyuki Ito, who designed the battle system for Final Fantasy VII, even said that when he first designed the Auto-Time Battle system for Final Fantasy IV, which Final Fantasy VII iterates upon, he saw it more as a means of abstractly presenting the fights in a way that was achievable with the technology at the time, and also said he thought that, as the series got older and tech got more advanced, how the battle work would change, and it has. The old 3-to-a-line battles had their own style and their own elegance, but Square shouldn't necessarily feel chained to them.

I understand preserving FFVII in it's original format, and I understand why for historical reasons that that is important, and I would never argue that the original game isn't worth remembering or caring about even with the remake on the way. What I will argue is that some of the stalwart dedication to preserving the original game instead of an effort to preserve Final Fantasy VII that also lets it evolve like a jazz standard comes from a dedication to the original game that is frankly silly given that the original game likely can, and arguably should be altered.

And if worst comes to worstand FFVII turns into some F2P MMO with all the music replaced by Sunn 0))), what a shame it would be, given that I can still play the original version or PC version, both of which now have excellent fan translations that address the major concern of preserving FFVII in the west.

I've rambled about but my primary point is this: FFVII should be remade. It should've already happened once, and ten or twenty years from now, it should happen again. Not necessarily because each version will always be better than the last, but, hopefully, because each of them will be interesting, and serve to give us multiple ways of looking at and thinking about one of gaming's grandest artistic achievement.

I will be returning next week, as promised, with an episode (or two given how these scripts are looking) about game design as a conduit to drama. From Seattle, Washington, I'm Austin C. Howe.

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