Thoughts

Games of Legend by The Latino Gamer

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Every era of gaming history is known for its new consoles, but what really defines each generation much more distinctively are the games we remember playing during those times. From Space Invaders and Galaga to Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog to Halo and Guitar Hero, every console generation has those few defining titles, the names of which are enough to take you back to the mood and feel of an earlier period of your life. It makes one wonder which particular titles will be remembered as the defining moments of our current generation. As we move forward, certain games stand against the test of time. Often there will be games that are well remembered long after more commercially successful games of their period have faded into the obscurity of our long-term memory, reduced to fleeting images in the back of our minds. In these times, old classics can undergo resurgence in popularity, making a wider audience aware of them. Upon inspecting these classics, the reactions brought about by many gamers, being the melodramatic bunch that we are, is often one of approval towards an overlooked gem or heated pronouncement of how overrated the game in question is. Today I wish to take you, not all the way back, but merely about 10-15 years back to the fifth generation of games. This was one of the most significant turning points in gaming history, bringing us Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the title the rest of the series would emulate for years; Nintendo’s Super Mario 64, the first highly-successful 3D platformer; Team Andromeda’s final game Panzer Dragoon Saga, said to be the greatest game ever released on the Sega Saturn; Rare’s GoldenEye 007, which brought the formerly PC-exclusive multiplayer first-person shooter genre to the home consoles, a genre the market is practically flooded with today; Konami’s legendary Metal Gear Solid, credited for redefining the stealth action genre; Team Sonic’s innovative Nights Into Dreams…; Namco’s Tekken 3, still regarded as one of the greatest fighting games of all time; the first in Capcom’s long-running Resident Evil franchise, which popularized the survival horror genre; and, amongst others, Core Design’s first Tomb Raider title, the influences of which are obvious to this day. Most of us who have been gaming for a while have memories of at least some of these games. However, there are two games in particular which have received an unprecedented amount of attention over the years since their release. These two games, more than any other, may even define the fifth generation as the greatest era of gaming. It is difficult to imagine what gaming today would be like without the Nintendo 64’s golden gem The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and the Square’s franchise- and genre-redefining Final Fantasy VII.

Like anything else, one of the bet places to begin discussion of these two games is with the events leading up to their release. Nintendo ruled over the competition during the 8- and 16-bit eras with no one save for Sega ever being real competition. Two of the greatest games on the Japanese Famicom and American NES were The Legend of Zelda and Square’s Final Fantasy, directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Both of these series would continue on the Super Nintendo and Game Boy. The first spawned a direct sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and a Game Boy installment with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Final Fantasy, which was initially meant to be Square’s swansong (hence the title,) not only pulled the company out of bankruptcy, but became the foundation for one of the best-selling franchises to date; it would continue with Final Fantasy II and III for the Japanese Famicom, Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy, Final Fantasy IV (renamed II in the North American localization) and Final Fantasy Mystic Quest for the Super Nintendo and Final Fantasy V for the Super Famicom. To this day, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Final Fantasy VI (III in North America) are fan favorite Super Nintendo titles. This is where things change, though. Nintendo was on top of the world, but with the rise of CD-based technology, which held far greater capabilities for data storage, Sega released the Sega-CD add-on for their Sega Genesis console, allowing it to play their newer, CD-based games. Nintendo decided that their Super Nintendo would need a similar peripheral to compete, so they contacted Sony in the hopes of creating such a device, which was to be dubbed the “Nintendo Play Station.” However, Nintendo broke their deal with Sony and opted to work instead with Philips Electronics. Nintendo also broke their deal with Philips, which resulted in Philips being allowed to use Nintendo properties for games on their CD-i console, including three The Legend of Zelda games. In breaking these deals, Nintendo essentially shot themselves in the foot. The CD-i games, being the only ones in the series not produced by Nintendo, are unsurprisingly the most reviled in the series: Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda’s Adventure, known collectively amongst the fandom as “The Unholy Triforce.” While Nintendo may pretend these splotches on their otherwise-magnificent series never existed, the greater long-term consequence of their actions was Sony’s decision to use the work they had started with Nintendo to enter the gaming market solo with the creation of the first truly successful CD-based home video game console: The Sony Playstation.
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Nintendo had had a steady relationship with Square since the 1987 release of Final Fantasy. Naturally, the next installment of the series was set for release on Nintendo’s upcoming console, the Nintendo 64. Nintendo had made the decision to stick to cartridge-based technology for their console as opposed to the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn. The advantages to this were that their games would not need to rely on long loading times, seen as the biggest drawback to the other consoles, and the ability to save on the cartridge itself rather than requiring players own a separate memory card. Still, the storage capabilities of CDs began to attract a lot of newcomers to Sony’s side. As opposed to Sega and Nintendo, Sony has never been a “game company” at heart. During Nintendo’s early dominant era, it was very difficult for other developers to compete with Nintendo’s first-party games. Sony, on the other hand, knew that if it wanted to be competitive that it would need the support of third-party developers. Hence, many developers were now able to publish their games for a machine that could match Nintendo’s latest. Square, too, was attracted by the prospect of utilizing the CD storage medium for their upcoming titles. Thus, Square abandoned Nintendo and chose to release Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation with Hironobu Sakaguchi as the producer. Of course, the reason Nintendo has survived the harsh industry even while witnessing former hardware giants such as Atari and Sega fall around them is their uncanny ability to innovate and, yes, help define every generation with some of the most superb and polished video games. The following year, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the game referred to as, “The greatest video game of all time” more often than any other individual title, produced by “the father of the modern video game” himself, Shigeru Miyamoto.
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For those unfortunate enough to have never played either game, be forewarned: I will be mentioning key plot points over the rest of this paper, beginning with a brief summary of each.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time tells the story of Link, a young child living in the Kokiri forest in the land of Hyrule. His fairy Navi brings Link to the Great Deku Tree, who has been cursed, so he may receive the Kokiri emerald before the Deku Tree dies. Link then goes to Hyrule castle to meet Princess Zelda and they figure out that Ganondorf, the evil prince of the Gerudo race, is after the Triforce, an artifact of legend rumored to grant god-like power. When Ganondorf attains the Triforce, it splits in three and link is sealed away in the temple of time. When Link awakens, a sage tells him that he was put to sleep for seven years to protect him until he was old enough to face Ganondorf, who has taken over Hyrule. Link is given the Master Sword, defeats Ganondorf and then defeats him again after he transforms into his giant boar form, Ganon. At the end of the game Ganondorf is sealed away, Princess Zelda uses the titular Ocarina of Time to send Link back into the past so he may live out his lost childhood and we see the young-again link warning young Zelda of Ganondorf’s plot.

Final Fantasy VII revolves around Cloud Strife, a former soldier who joins the vigilante group Avalanche in their struggle against the mega-corporation Shinra. After a failed raid, Cloud gets lost and meets a flower girl named Aerith (or Aeris in the initial North American release) and protects her when she is attacked by the Turks, who work for the Shinra Corporation. Shinra finds the base of Avalanche, destroys it and kidnaps Aerith, who is believed to be the sole surviving member of the Cetra race. After Avalanche infiltrates Shinra and rescues Aerith, many of the remaining Shinra personnel are murdered by Sephiroth, a former soldier believed to have been dead. Sephiroth sets out to find the powerful black materia to cast Meteor, the most devastating of all magic spells. Sephiroth believes that the damage induced by Meteor will wound the planet to the point that the lifestream—the life force within the planet—will open up in order to heal it, allowing Sephiroth to merge with the lifestream and become a god. Aerith and Avalanche set off to find Sephiroth. Cloud defeats Sephiroth and we see the Holy spell rising to defend the planet from Meteor. The epilogue shows the now more-lush planet hundreds of years in the future, ending the game ambiguously—the immediate fate of the planet was unknown.

At first glance these two games are like day and night. In fact, that simile is surprisingly appropriate: my first thought when I hear Ocarina of Time is the sun shining over Hyrule Field…
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…when I hear Final Fantasy VII I think of a night in the Midgar slums.
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Ocarina is an action/adventure game focused on exploration and puzzle-solving. It is much more action-oriented compared to the Final Fantasy series with the player directly controlling Link and using his sword to fight off enemies. This makes sense for the Zelda series since Link is the only player-controlled character. As expected from Nintendo, gameplay is at the core of Ocarina; the narrative, despite the perplexing nature of time-travel stories, is ultimately a straightforward good-vs.-evil fairytale about the thirst for power and the corruption brought on by absolute power. Zelda and Ganondorf play key roles and there are auxiliary characters that also experience some character development, but the focus is always on Link himself. It is Link who travels through time and explores the world both as a child and as an adult. The setting is your typical medieval fantasy with forests, castles, temples, swords, horses and magic. The use of magic and combat skills never gets too complicated in theory, since it is all tied to a single character, and the challenge lies in timing, coordination and proper use of your weapons. By contrast, FF7 is a role-playing game focused on item-gathering and building up the attributes of your characters. Although the player controls Cloud directly most of the time while traveling from place to place, the combat is team-based and has the player taking control of as many as three characters at once from those available in the party. The actual fighting is simpler compared to Ocarina, since it boils down to menu-scrolling and pressing the X button, but as an RPG the magic and skill system is far more complex and strategy-based. In stark contrast to the Zelda games, FF7 is set in an industrialized dystopian society. As one should expect from the man who once said, “I don’t think I have what it takes to make a good action game. I think I’m better at telling a story,” the heart of Final Fantasy VII is the storyline—one with far more dynamic characters and moral ambiguity than Ocarina. Sephiroth’s dreadful past explains his psychotic nature while Cloud and Avalanche’s actions are not always genuinely righteous. The story is arguably as much about Sephiroth as it is about Cloud and every primary character receives their own subplot with (if you complete their side-quest) some conclusion. The plot is not just good against evil; it involves the psychology of inner struggle and fending off madness, identity and heritage with environmental and even biblical themes. Ocarina continues the dual-world concept introduced with the dark-world/light-world system (which Nintendo would continue to use for years with multiple franchises) from A Link to the Past by having Link explore Hyrule in two different time periods. FF7 is a work of science-fiction in continuing with Final Fantasy VI’s departure from the franchise’s fantastic origins—and herein is where we begin to see the similarities, which are far more significant.

Perhaps the greatest point to be made regarding the vast similarities between these two classics is that they represent one of the greatest turning points in their franchise, genre and gaming as a whole. Some surface-level parallels are quite obvious: a great villain with delusions of godhood obtains a dangerous artifact and threatens the world, so your sword-wielding protagonist sets off to save the day. There are, however, far deeper resemblances between the two. Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time were released during a period when video games were shifting from 2D to 3D. Both were the first in their series to make the jump to the third dimension and be represented with 3-dimensional models rather than sprites. Although “blocky” by today’s standards, they were considered very visually impressive at launch. Just as Super Mario 64 successfully brought the platforming genre to 3D, so did FF7 and Ocarina bring action and role-playing games into fully glorious 3D. For this reason, they are often still regarded as the best of their respective series or even of their entire genre. Aside from universally well-known characters like Mario and Pac-Man, Link and Cloud are probably the video game characters most often seen in parodies or other works. These two games are so popular, they have been re-released multiple times—Ocarina was re-released twice on Gamecube compilation discs, then placed on Virtual Console and is now planned for re-release on the upcoming Nintendo 3DS; FF7 was ported to Windows, then placed for download on the Playstation Network and there have been persistent rumors regarding a Playstation 3 remake ever since the E3 tech demo.

People love the stories of Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII, which is somewhat surprising considering one important fact about them—they’re both confusing. Ocarina begins with Link at the Kokiri forest and is a rather simplistic game for the first part. After obtaining the Kokiri emerald, Link travels to meet the mountain-dwelling gorons to obtain the Goron ruby and the water-dwelling zora to obtain the Zora sapphire. He uses the three items to unlock the Triforce, but it is Ganondorf who claims it and Link sleeps for seven years. This is where things can get confusing. The mythology and origin story of Hyrule are explained for the first time. On top of that, it is revealed that due to Ganondorf’s nature, he is unable to obtain the complete Triforce. Instead, it splits into its three components. Ganondorf obtains only the Triforce of Power, since that is what he craves. Meanwhile, the Triforce of Courage goes to Link and the Triforce of Wisdom to Zelda. The roles of these three and the component of the Triforce that they represent is a recurring theme of the series and it is implied that the three have their destinies entwined because of this. The kicker in all this is that, since Nintendo has never given a definitive chronology for the series, fans love to speculate this matter and it is Ocarina of Time at the core of the discussion, because of the way it ends. Ganondorf is sealed away at the end of the game while Link is an adult. Then, Zelda sends Link into the past so that he may regain the lost years of his life as a child. Thus, Link leaves adult Zelda behind in the future with a sealed-away Ganondorf. The direct sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask follows young Link after he has returned to the past. This leads to the split-timeline theory, which states that Ocarina really had two endings that then branch off into parallel time-streams. Some of these ideas are present, albeit to a much lesser extent, in FF7 as well. Just as Zelda has an entire series with which to add to the confusion, FF7 was given multiple prequels and sequels, collectively known as the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. Partway through FF7 we find out that Cloud is not the former Soldier he thinks he is. The great 1st-class soldier Cloud has been claiming to be was actually his former comrade Zack Fair, Aerith’s ex-boyfriend. Cloud’s psychological trauma brought on by Sephiroth led him to combine his memories of Zack with those of himself, which partly explain his eagerness to protect Aerith. Zack’s character is not really explored much until we get to the prequels such as Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The idea of the three main characters being linked is explored in the Kingdom Hearts games with Sephiroth describing himself as Cloud’s darkness and Aerith his light. One of the greatest aspects of The Legend of Zelda and Compilation of Final Fantasy VII is their villain. Whereas King Bowser has suffered decades of villain decay, Ganon and Sephiroth still seem genuinely threatening. Ganon appears to be stronger and more powerful than Link, who must be especially cunning to take him down. Sephiroth is portrayed as outright monstrous and Cloud often needs his friends in order to defeat him.

The time during which these games came out has also had an effect on how the story is remembered. These titles have gamers emotions tied to them unlike any others. For some among the legions of Nintendo fans who began on the NES, Ocarina of Time is seen as a coming-of-age story. Most of the previous incarnations of Link had been of him as a child, so this was one of the first times we saw Link as an adult and it came out at a time when many of those fans were growing up. Of course, it is Final Fantasy VII that is widely remembered more than any other title for having had an emotional impact on the players. When asked about the legitimacy of video games as a medium of storytelling, Steven Spielberg replied, “I think the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at Level 17.” Aerith Gainsborough, unlike a lot of other damsels-in-distress, is a widely well-liked character. Partway through the story, she sets off on her own in an attempt to stop Sephiroth from casting Meteor. She finds the magical white materia, which she must use in order to cast the Holy spell, believed to be the only countermeasure to Meteor. Cloud and Avalanche find her kneeling in prayer at the ancient Cetra city. Before they can reach her, Sephiroth swoops down from above, lands behind Aerith, and drives his sword through her body. Many have confessed to crying upon witnessing Aerith’s death, a beautifully well done cinematic with Aerith’s theme playing slowly while the white materia bounces away. In one fell swoop, Sephiroth murdered Aerith, cemented her as one of the few martyrs of gaming, himself as one of the most vile villains, and Final Fantasy VII as a game that will never be forgotten.
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While the phenomenon is not unique to these games, the overall “mystery” of video games, something we do not really experience anymore, was at its height with these two. People searched for secrets long before this period, but given the explosion of in-game area available when switching from 2D to 3D coupled with the popularity of these titles, we find ourselves with an extreme amount of speculation regarding in-game secrets. Forums still discuss everything that could be found in these games. It even reached the point that one can find explicitly “fake” secrets guides, written and read for laughs. As I said, this trend is common with popular games—it is pretty much part of the gaming hobby, really—but it propagated for a long time with these titles, because of gamers’ aforementioned emotional ties to the games. Everybody wanted to believe that Link could actually acquire the complete Triforce, something that is impossible, at least in this iteration of the series. Everybody wanted to believe that there existed some legitimate in-game means of bringing Aerith back from the dead. People searched every nook and cranny of these games looking for some so far overlooked secret. Others began to make ridiculous claims saying there was some truly bizarre scenario through which one could accomplish these feats and backed them up with phony screenshots—and people believed them! I feel sorry for anyone who ever set out to master 99 Knights of the Round materia because they thought it would bring Aerith back into their party. On top of all of this, it is now widely believed that obtaining the Triforce was meant to be possible early in the development stages, but was not implemented in the final product while Aerith was initially meant to die significantly later in the game. Some clues remained in the game code, ghosts of what could have been—and in Aerith’s case, that’s almost literal. Both have long been confirmed impossible and for good reason. Ganondorf retains the Triforce of Power when he is sealed away, which is an important plot point in entries of the series taking place after Ocarina. Also, Aerith’s death would not have held the impact it did if it could have been easily undone. Yet, some still say that this is totally unacceptable! As of this year (more than a decade after their release) there are currently projects underway which seek to remedy this situation. One group is reverse engineering the ROM-data off of Ocarina of Time in hopes of restoring it to a beta version, in which the Triforce is obtainable, and “completing” it by putting back areas that were removed. A separate group is planning a “patch” for the PC port of Final Fantasy VII which will either remove Aerith’s death scene or implement a way of resurrecting her (possibly by applying one of the well-known fake methods.) From a programmer’s standpoint, these both actually sound like very interesting projects to work on. From a rhetorical perspective, one could argue that this is akin to adding a scene to the end Romeo and Juliet and having both characters magically wake up. This is especially striking when you hear that it was the passing of his mother during development of a previous Final Fantasy title that prompted Hironobu Sakaguchi to explore life as a theme in FFVII. A popular interpretation of the narrative is that death is something we need to accept and learn to move on from—and there are still people out there who cannot let Aerith go!

This leads to another way in which Ocarina and FFVII are “different, yet similar.” Ocarina told the most of Hyrule’s back-story that we had heard up to that point. It is revealed that The Legend of Zelda comes complete with its own creation myth in a similar vein to well-known mythologies. The three goddesses of Hyrule created the land, life and the Triforce. The stories of the various incarnations of Link are passed down as legends, leading to Link’s title as “The Hero of Time.” Other stories and legends are introduced and explained throughout the series. Many see Aerith as a Jesus-figure since she dies while casting the Holy spell in her attempt to save the world from Sephiroth’s Meteor. This probably only fueled the resurrection theories and fans continued to see clues that were not intended to be there, such as pointing out that “Aeris” is an anagram for “Arise.” In turn, Sephiroth is hungry for power and wants to become a god; “Sephirot” is the Hebrew word for the ten attributes of God in the Kabbalah. Dialogue in the sequels would also have minor religious allusions, such as Cloud discussing sin and forgiveness in Advent Children.

Speaking of these characters’ other appearances, it is quite clear that everybody loves to see Link, Zelda and the cast of FFVII all over the place. Link is of course a recurring character in the Nintendo crossover brawler series Super Smash Bros. and has appeared in all three titles, with Zelda, Ganondorf and an alternate Link appearing in the latter two. On top of that, he was also Nintendo’s exclusive character in the Gamecube version of Soul Caliber II. The Kingdom Hearts games are popular partly due to the number of characters in it who crossed over from Square’s other games. Out of all the Final Fantasy titles whose characters show up in the two main Kingdom Hearts games, VII has the most with six out of its ten (counting Sephiroth) main characters appearing in Kingdom Hearts II and a visual reference to another one in the first Kingdom Hearts. Do not forget Cloud and Aerith’s appearance in Final Fantasy Tactics and Cloud’s in Dissidia: Final Fantasy.
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The influence of these games goes even beyond guest appearances. GameTrailers.com has described Ocarina as a “Walking patent-office” due to the key mechanics that became standard practice in 3D adventure games. To deal with the difficulties of shifting sword-based combat from 2D to 3D, Ocarina introduced a lock-on targeting system, which is still present in current games such as Ubisoft’s No More Heroes. Likewise, the context-sensitive button commands would go on to be a critical mechanic in Kingdom Hearts. Final Fantasy VII was the first in the series to introduce full-motion video and pre-rendered scenery, which would become near-staples of the genre. Beyond that, some see these games as pioneers as far as character roles. Princess Zelda and Aerith’s roles go beyond the damsel-in-distress stereotype and both have fought alongside their male counterparts. Barret Wallace, the leader of Avalanche in Final Fantasy VII, is not only the first ever playable black character in a Final Fantasy title, but even receives a significant amount of character development due to the fact that his desire to protect the world from Shinra prevents him from going home to his daughter. Barret’s side-story is one of the more memorable ones and sequels would continue to explore the psychological effects of leaving one’s child in order to lead an anti-government vigilante group with the hopes of eventually creating a better world for that child to grow up in. To this day he is still one of the few minority main characters in such a major RPG.

My final point in regards to these games’ similarities is something that is often overlooked by the average gamer, but nonetheless something that can completely make-or-break how a game is remembered: the music. Both of these games have beautiful musical scores. Koji Kondo, a Japanese composer influenced by Latin and classical music, composed the score to Ocarina while Nobuo Uematsu, whose style draws from classic symphony and heavy metal, is the composer to many Final Fantasy titles. These men are considered innovators among music composers and there have even been major concerts featuring their work. The title anthem to The Legend of Zelda is easily recognized by your average gamer and was named ScrewAttack.com’s “Greatest video game song ever.” Aerith’s Theme is still enough to invoke all sorts of emotions in people. Of course, we cannot forget Sephiroth’s famous theme, the orchestral One-Winged Angel found in FFVII, its spin-offs and even in Kingdom Hearts due to how well it emphasizes the ominous nature of the Final Fantasy villain. Ultimately, this serves to remind us of the most imortant reason these games are so beloved: they are the products of brilliantly creative groups of people. Shigeru Miyamoto, Koji Kondo, Hironobu Sagaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu and the rest of the staff at Nintendo and Square who worked on these titles were at the top of their game with these two.

As I said, some love these games and some think they are overrated. Love’em or hate’em, though, you have to admit that they have had an enormous impact on game development and gaming culture as a whole. There is a reason these games are so well remembered, so highly praised, so often criticized, so often emulated (and I mean that in both ways) and so often discussed. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII brought a lot of new cards to the table at a time when everyone was getting really excited about gaming and looking for that next critical step forward from 2D to 3D exploration, sprite to model animation, text-only to cinematic story-telling. While some will criticize them for those very reasons, they remain two of the most beloved games to ever grace a console and that will probably be true for a very long time. Many, many people cite one of these two legendary titles as their favorite video game of all time and it is very easy to see why.

My personal favorite is still Spyro the Dragon, though.

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Thank you for reading and happy gaming,
—Latino Gamer

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