The End of the Future(ama)

Title Screen

Last year Comedy Central aired the last, at least for now, episode of Futurama. It is not the first time Futurama has ended. Or the second. For a show as consistently excellent and intelligent as Futurama, it seems to get cancelled a lot. Unlike when it was dumped by Fox or the uncertainty after the movies, this time I think I am ready to let it go. It feels like time. Very rare is the show that runs exactly as long as it should. Too often great shows are cancelled early, like Firefly, but just as frequent are great shows that run until they aren’t great anymore, like Scrubs or The Office. Futurama was once the first and by ending now keeps itself from being the second.

Many say that the new Futurama was not as good as the old, and I am sympathetic to this line of thought. There is something different about the Comedy Central episodes. They seem freer, in both good and bad ways. The Fox episodes felt more constrained in what they were allowed to do, especially in regards to sexual references. That constraint in gone. But the episodes also felt more tightly written, as though being told that they couldn’t do what they at first wanted to meant that they had come up with something better. There is looseness in the new episodes. Of course, maybe I feel that way thanks to the much looser animation. That looseness made the quality of the individual episodes more variable. If I were to rank all the episodes from best to worst (an endeavor I attempted just before the show started back up) I am sure than most of the bottom 10 would be from the new stuff. However, I also suspect many new ones would be near the top. The middle of the road episodes are all old Futurama.

The thing is, I don’t think the show was slipping. This wasn’t Family Guy coming back as a shambling homunculus of a once hilarious show. The Futurama writers were near the top of their game. The worst of the new stuff were the first few episodes right at start. They felt like an ace throwing warm up pitches. There is greatness there, plenty of movement on the fastball but the velocity isn’t quite there. Soon, though, they found their groove. The last ten episodes or so were largely great.

Still, there were hitting a point where they were largely retreading old ground. How many times can Fry learn that maybe his family did care about him? How many times can he or Bender make a deal with the Robot Devil? To be fair, nearly every time they went back to an old place they brought something new with them. The show wasn’t running out of ideas, but their world was becoming increasingly filled in. Which I why I am okay with seeing it go. What happens now is that characters are twisted into terrible parodies of themselves. That process was already happening to Amy and Hermes. It happened to Zoidberg long ago. While it is likely not their choice, this is a good chance for Futurama, after a nice long run, to go out with some dignity.

Futurama is one of the best shows to air ever on American Television. It was a show that wasn’t afraid to be nerdy; to be actually truly smart. It is the only show with jokes about mathematical concepts and references to science fiction beyond the standard Star Wars/Trek general knowledge. It also wasn’t above being stupid. Philip J Fry may just be the dumbest lead character ever. It was the melding of those two elements that helped make the show great. All good things must come to an end and now is that time for Futurama.

“Space. It seems to go on forever. Then you get to the end and the gorilla starts throwin’ barrels at you.”

A Final Fantasy Disappointment

I just beat Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII. The core of the game is perfectly simple, but they slathered it in a heavy layer of inscrutable junk. It still works, and works well, especially the Materia system. The story, though, is one giant lump of wasted potential. That is true for the entire Compilation of FF7. Crisis Core may be the worst of the lot, though, because it had the potential to be truly great.

I have a different perspective on FFVII than most people. It’s not just that I was a fan of Final Fantasy before VII came, though that is true. However, there is no “I like it before it was cool” feeling that many fans of the SNES games have. I wanted to play FFVII, I thought it looked great. I just didn’t have a PS1. By the time I did have one, VII had skyrocketed in price. Plus, by that point it no longer looked so cool. Why spend the time to hunt down VII when I could find the readily available and better looking IX or Chrono Cross just about anywhere. When all was said and done, I didn’t end up playing VII until 2008. By that time the whole Compilation of FFVII had already come out. I was shocked at how different the game was than even its makers seemed to remember it. Honestly, in many ways it wasn’t hugely different than FFVI. There was change, especially on the visual side but in large part it plays out the same as its predecessor. Cloud was not as angsty as he is thought and while there are a lot of flaws with the localization, the story is easy to follow. All recollections of the game only seem to focus on the series parts of the game, and ignore all the fun goofy crap that made it so enjoyable.

The three parts of the compilation that have been released in the states have been by varying degrees missed opportunities. All, I would say, started with a good idea. Advent Children is the most obvious starting point. A movie sequel had promise. It was well rendered and largely well animated, but the only story idea they seemed to have was to regress the characters to about the midway point of the original game. There is also a seeming weightlessness to everything. Characters fight, but what happens in the fight doesn’t matter until the plot says is does. Cloud and Sephiroth can fight forever with no consequence. The film is pretty but pointless. Still, while largely disappointing it is not irredeemable. Then there was Dirge of Cerberus. Again, they started on some solid footing. Vincent is the probably the one character from FFVII with plenty of room to grow. He is an optional character with an intriguing visual design and cool backstory. Turning that game into a shooter/rpg also fits with what is already established. Too bad the game turned out to be unimaginably horrible. (Note: I only played it for about an hour before I gave up. I am going off of reputation with that statement.)It was a failure in execution, not conception. The one thing both of those had going for them is that they were pretty wide open with what the story could be. Pretty much anything they wanted to happen could. Crisis Core was different.

That is how Crisis Core disappointed me. Assuming you’ve played FFVII, you know how the story ends as soon as you turn the game on. Zack is gunned down by Shinra troops at the edge of Midgar. We know that he never sees Aerith again. They had a chance to make a game with a genuinely tragic story. Other than some established pieces of his story, mostly to do with the relationships with Aerith and Cloud, we know little about Zack coming into the game. The big event they had to build off of was Nibelheim and the apparent death of Sephiroth. That stuff is all here, and it’s good. It’s just all the stuff they have added around it is crap. The stories of Angeal and Genesis are warmed over retreads of Sephiroth, characters whose existence lessens the impact of finding out the Sephiroth himself is a genetic experiment. The conflict with Sephiroth should be the fulcrum of this game, but almost feels more like a side story. The Nibelhiem chapter is lovingly rendered but largely disconnected from the rest of the game.

My biggest problem is that the game I imagined is much different (and in my opinion much better) than the game I played. I wanted more of stuff like the ending, with Zack facing impossible odds but still striving to reach his goal and protect his friends, the whole thing made all the more tragic by the fact that the player knows the whole time it ends in tragedy. I wanted Zack and Cloud on the road, on the run, hounded constantly by Shinra. There is one chapter like that, I wanted more. I wanted to see more of Sephiroth the hero, if he ever was one. As cool as Sephiroth looks, he remains mostly a cipher in the main game; Crisis Core was their chance to correct that.

I wanted more pretty much sums up my experience with Crisis Core, and most of Square Enix’s output for the last half decade. There are good ideas, even good games but they all leave me feeling a little shortchanged. There are glimpses of the company that ruled the PS1. Sure, they had their failures then as well, but they were interspersed with a consistent stream of classics. I liked FFXIII, but it was a deeply flawed experience. FFXIII-2 was a three steps forward, two steps sort of follow up. Both games left me wanting more in a bad way. I wanted to like Crisis Core; the potential for an excellent game is there. Instead, I play a solidly good game. It had some nice combat mechanics, handheld friendly mission set up and was darn pretty. Still, I wanted more.