Ask me to pick two moments that sum up Final Fantasy X and I’d probably roll with 1) Yuna dancing on the ocean in Kilika to send the souls of the dead to the Farplane, and 2) Tidus performing a Sphere Shot in Blitzball. The first because it’s a riveting performance of heartbreak and transcendence, the second because it’s patently silly in the best way. Blitzball, in case you haven’t had the pleasure, is FFX’s central mini-game. It’s essentially rugby but played in a stadium-sized bubble of water, with stats and status effects happily lifted from the turn-based combat system. Sphere Shot is Tidus’ signature move as a young Blitzball star – it sees him somersault backwards in slow motion to perform a goal kick with a random buff.
I once tried to perform a Sphere Shot in the deep end of my local pool and I can attest that this is not how aquatic physics works – at the very least it should involve more bleeding from nose. But it looks dang swish in action, and while Blitzball has its flaws as a virtual sport, why can’t I swim up and down? Why don’t players drown? Why is it poison the ball not an automatic red card? – it’s a hugely fun addition to one of the great PS2 RPGs, not least for the way it flips into regular exploration. You’ll discover new Blitzball players from all over Spira, and rooting out local talent gives each settlement in the game an added element of intrigue.
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Final Fantasy has a proud tradition of minigames of all shapes and sizes, from the hidden number puzzle in the very first game to fishing in FF12 to pinball in FF15. I could have done with some of that playing Final Fantasy 16. As you may have read in my Final Fantasy 16 review, I found the game to be full of good things with a lot of less good things between them. Story quests can be exciting, but most side quests feel like office admins. The fight sings, but half the fights are with reluctant scorpions and rando bandits who barely seem to understand the mechanics of swinging a sword. A proper side activity would have been a nice relief. Sadly, the closest FF16 offerings to that are those spectacular genre-crossing feats you encounter in larger Eikon boss fights.
According to game director Hiroshi Takai, excluding minigames was a deliberate choice to “immerse” you in protagonist Clive Rosfield, who is driven by grief and revenge and, as such, has no leeway. of maneuver for such frivolous distractions. Given that you can send Clive on side quests to pick flowers and deliver packed lunches, I’m not sure that reasoning holds up – admittedly, the game locks these diversions when Clive is in max spade. It also isn’t really about how Clive thaws out over the course of the story, acquiring a surrogate family and learning – like many grim heroes before – that he must live for something other than revenge.
I don’t see grumpy old Clive getting into Blitzball, although I’d love to see him try – he has a habit of igniting, so at best the playing field will evaporate. But I can certainly imagine him developing a taste for a card game such as Final Fantasy 9’s Tetra Master, while wandering the many taverns of Valisthea. Newly upgraded to a standalone mobile game, Tetra Master lets you place numbered monster cards on a grid to turn over your opponent’s. It’s so compulsive that it almost stopped me from playing Final Fantasy 9 itself. I must have spent five hours wandering the streets of Alexandria during the prologue, tracking down every last Tetra enthusiast and depriving them of their best cards – or rather, slowly reclaiming the ones they had won from my hand.
Or how about an FF16 version of FF9 theatrical battles, where you match prompts to swing and dodge correctly and score points with the audience? The seeds of this crossover are already there in FF16’s Eikon boss fights, with their earth-shattering QTEs. I don’t recall there being any real theater in FF16, but given how much time Clive spends cheering up at the Hideaway, a community pantomime or similar doesn’t seem out of the question. The roles pretty much played themselves out: Gav can be a cool pirate, Mid can be the comedy kid who throws candy at kids, and Jill – well, Jill can play any tree.
The value of Final Fantasy minigames isn’t necessarily that they’re entertaining. This is how they give material and texture to the decor. The original Final Fantasy 7 is above all stuffed full of optional activities that are, in many cases, mightily lame. But even the less engrossing FF minigames enrich the world, offering it to you as a place where anything can happen, a seething society defined not just by bloodshed and the mechanics that sustain bloodshed, but a range of vocations and hobbies – even other types of play.
In the case of larger, ubiquitous side-activities like Blitzball and Tetra Master, they also offer more ways to bond with characters, who aren’t just people to buy things from or deliver items to. quest, but other nerds, potential recruits, and even rivals. . The world of FF16 is lovingly crafted, with a wealth of detail in both art and writing, but with no spare “gameplay verbs” (a term that many developers seem hate – sorry!) it seems a bit lifeless.
While I have no reason to doubt Takai’s sincerity when it comes to characterizing Clive, I wonder if this lack of minigames was also a budget issue. Games today are much more expensive and time-consuming to create than they were on PS1 and PS2, meaning publishers may have less patience for bespoke flavor content – everything has to plug in on the main loop. Nothing should be superfluous. Still, Square Enix has set aside a budget for dances and gym workouts in 2020’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake. Maybe they can whip up a dart board for Final Fantasy 17?
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