I remember clearly the first video game I ever bought myself. Until that point my parents had made all purchases of video games in my collection with new PS1 games being gifted to me on various holidays and my birthday. It’s how I got my first gaming console; my PS1 bundled with Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. But I knew that eventually I would want a game I wasn’t sure I could convince my parents to buy me. So I saved my allowance, counting quarters and dollar bills until I could afford it. And one night, once I had calculated the sales tax on top of the base price, I made my case for my parents to drive me to Sam’s Club so I could buy the video game/strategy guide combo pack I had seen on a shelf there weeks ago.
Final Fantasy IX was mine.
I don’t blame you for laughing right now if you are. On top of the cheesy nostalgia I just laid out, you probably already know that FFIX was accompanied by quite possibly the most infamously bad strategy guide ever written. I was naïve of this truth back then, but I had Final Fantasy IX. To me, it was a huge step. I knew that the games that I already had were somewhat childish. Crash Bandicoot had cred in gaming circles, but the rest of my collection was wrestling games from the Monday Night Wars and low-quality licensed movie tie-ins. But this was Final Fantasy, a well respected franchise I had read about in my monthly gaming magazines. This was me crossing over into a “true” gaming subculture.
And I loved it: The story, the characters, the battle system, everything. Even the novelty of having to switch discs mid-game was exciting to me. Final Fantasy IX was my gateway drug to the rest of the gaming world, the more complex one that I hadn’t experienced until then. So imagine my excitement for its sequel. Just a few short years and a console generation later, Final Fantasy X was released and I was eager to get my copy.
I got halfway through the game before I hit a boss I couldn’t beat. Evrae the Great Worm, protector of Bevelle. He was a brick wall, and I was smashing my head against it without rhyme or reason. Looking back I knew what I was doing wrong: the items I was neglecting, the grinding I hadn’t been doing, the patterns I was ignoring. It was a failing of my own making. But it was a failing all the same. I hate to rage quit a game—mainly because I hate getting frustrated enough to have to ragequit a game to keep from breaking another controller—but it wasn’t healthy for me to keep trying.
So I stopped. I shut the game off and I put it away. I saw the ending, but only because a friend show it to me when I was over his house. I remember which game I played next clearly: Animal Crossing. I remember because I named my first town Bevelle, after the place in FFX I had failed to reach.
My copy sat on a shelf. It sat there for a while. Then a few years later I sold it to Gamestop, back when they were still paying for PS2 releases. I couldn’t look at it anymore. Time passed. High school and college both came and went and my gaming collection evolved and changed. My experience with Final Fantasy X influenced this evolution too. I avoided JRPGs altogether. I didn’t care about any of the FF games after that. I didn’t want to suffer that same crushing defeat. Sure, I dabbled every once in a while; Kingdom Hearts, Lost Odyssey & Persona 4 are notable exceptions. But that defeat molded me. It never really left me.
But it wasn’t until this year that I began to actually think about it again. Occasionally the game would come up in casual conversation. My girlfriend would note fond memories she had about it, her cosplay of Yuna and fond memories of Auron. I knew it had been rereleased in HD a few years ago, but I hadn’t cared. Why should I have? I had plenty of other games to occupy my time. Then I played Bloodborne. My Final Fantasy scars had kept me away from the Souls games until then. I played games for the story, not the difficulty. But here was a game that proposed a challenge to me. It laid out the rules and it was honest with me: You are going to die. A lot. And I beat it. Hell, I platnum’d the bastard. And even as I was getting pummeled by Ebreitas, Daughter of the Cosmos or The Bloody Crow of Cainhurst, I was enjoying the hell out of the game.
So when I decided to halve my gaming shelf and get rid of games that I didn’t
see a reason to keep anymore, I used the money I got for trade-in value to get the PS4 re-release of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD. I swallowed my pride and I put it in my console.
And for the first few days it was fine. I was rediscovering a part of my childhood. And it wasn’t the same kind of nostalgia indulgence I am normally prone to. I’ve often replayed games from my youth, Kingdom Hearts being one that I revisit every couple of years to remind myself how great it is. But with Final Fantasy X I was storming a castle I had long ago abandoned. Parts of the game everyone likes to ridicule don’t bother me, especially the laughing scene. I realized I didn’t give the story or characters the chance they deserved when I was young and I was really happy.
Pretty soon I was again facing my old nemesis, Evrae. Surprisingly, I did rather well this time around. I have no idea why I completely neglected the Al Bhed Potions on my original playthrough, but they made all the difference in this playthrough. And in a matter of only 3 tries, I managed to slay the flying bastard...
...and then I died in the first enemy encounter at Bevelle, forcing me back to the main menu screen. I was stunned; legitimately, righteously furious. 15 years later and after I finally conquer the boss that had soured me on playing any conventional JRPG of any kind, and the game forces me to have to kill him again because it didn’t let me save my game. I shut the console off for the night. I couldn’t handle it anymore for the night. I went to bed. But okay, I understand. I screwed up, that was my fault and I should keep that in mind. So I slept on it and came back the next day and I got a few hours farther.
Then I met Seymour Natus shortly after slaying Evrae for a second time. He trounced me. At first I had wanted to get through the game on my own. I didn’t want help. I needed to prove this to myself. But this was the point where I finally looked up a strategy guide because I just wanted to get to the end of the game now, and I didn’t care how. And to my horror I read the recommendations and boss battle guides. Their authors were recommending moves and spells I hadn’t learned yet, strategies I hadn’t formed, and power levels I hadn’t yet reached. I realized what had happened. I realized to my horror what I had done.
I hadn’t grinded. I was so caught up in the story, so happy to be back in the world of Spira and reassessing my opinions of Final Fantasy as a whole, that I hadn’t stopped to remember the cardinal rule of all RPGs: level your characters consistently or you’re going to have a bad time. I had crashed through the brick wall that stopped me a decade and a half ago only to come face to face with a lead-lined vault door that I had no chance of passing. Evrae wasn’t my enemy, it was the damn Sphere Grid. You see, Final Fantasy games aren’t like Bloodborne or Dark Souls. The Souls games have a reputation for difficulty, but it’s a fair difficulty. If you can’t beat a boss or get through an area there is an inherent promise that you can get better, you can go away for a while and maybe find another unexplored corner of the world that is more suited to you. Even if the boss is higher leveled than you, you still always have a chance. Even if that chance is small, the Souls games want you to know that—even though they are going to fight you every step of the way—you can get through it, you can win.
Final Fantasy isn’t like that. Its a story-driven adventure. The areas you can utilize for grinding aren’t as plentiful as they are in the Souls games. Without realizing it, I had wandered into a critical point in the storyline. Seymour Natus is the last in a string of half a dozen bosses that begins when you reach Macalania. There’s no place to stop and grind, few save points to offer you respite, and few EXP points for you to use and level up your team. It didn’t matter the strategy anymore, my characters weren’t up for the fight. Seymour was going to steamroll me regardless of what I did. I had barely survived the last few fights; I didn’s have a chance here. So I did the one thing I hate to do, the one thing I try never to do. I started the game over again.
At the time of this writing, my Tidus and his friends stand again at Djose outside the lightning temple (roughly 1/4 through the story, give or take). This is after a week of playing, grinding my party until they can easily one-shot any low-level monsters in their way. And I don’t anticipate getting to Macalania anytime soon, because the Thunder Plains lie before me and I’m not leaving there anytime soon.
I will beat Final Fantasy X. It may have taken me 15 years, but I will beat it. I will get to Zanarkand and I will kill Sin. Then maybe I’ll hop on Rocket League for a bit...and I won’t even care if I lose.