Old vs. New: Final Fantasies vs. Final Fantasy XIII (Part One)

It seems almost too easy to compare a new entry in a franchise to an older one: Of course one is going to be inspired by the other, that's how franchises work, right? But when you're able to adequately compare all twelve core entries to its newest one in at least one very specific way, that's a little more interesting. Depending on your fanboy or hater leanings, it can either mean that Square-Enix's venerable Final Fantasy series is either built on the foundations of its forebears; establishing a rich tapestry of common themes and conventions OR cannibalizing itself to constant diminishing returns with each new ponderous adventure to save the world from whatever silver-haired goon or angry tree is threatening it this time.
FF13 is the newest in the core franchise, if you don't include MMOs and I rarely do. Plus, I'm at the cusp of completing the damn thing. So that's the "New" for those following along at home. Was it maligned? Is it truly as terrible as they say? Will playing it make you go bald prematurely, regardless of gender? Hopefully this blog will go some way into answering these pertinent questions. But it probably won't. 
In the "Old" corner we have every other one of thems. The Final Fantasies. They're all lining up for a piece of the new guy. This is going to be looooooooooong.

On Beginnings and Endings (FF1)

So, Final Fantasy. The first one was created in 1987 famously as a last ditch effort to create something, anything that might sell for fledgling company SquareSoft; were it not to do so, it'd live up to its "Final" modifier for the company and for the game's planner Hironobu Sakaguchi. But then sell it did, and a whole bunch of stuff happened after that.
This is what's commonly referred to as "cutting a long story short".

For a slightly more specific comparison from FF's humble beginnings to its most recent effort, both FF13 and FF1 have exactly six classes apiece; though the vast chasm between the two sets is a handy demonstration of how far the video game RPG has progressed in those 23 years, for better or worse:


Fighter = Guy who likes swords and hitting things with swords. Powerhouse user, can use everything, pretty much essential.
Black Mage = The guy who casts the spells that makes the people fall down. Strengths: Offensive magic, pointy hat.
White Mage = Healer. Occasional buffer. Stands at the back. Waaay at the back.
Black Belt = Hits things, but with fists instead of swords. Manlier, but not essentially better than a Fighter (but a similar role).
Thief = A thief for, I dunno, in case you wanted to steal something. More practical in a game where thieves are needed for trap-disabling and locks. FF1 doesn't have those.
Red Mage = Jack of all trades. King of none. If he can hit that bullseye, all the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate. Nice hat.


Commando = Physical and Magical attacker, non-elemental DPS. Doesn't wear underwear. 
Ravager = Magical attacker, sheer elemental output to exploit weaknesses. Not an elementalist though. Ravager sounds cooler.
Sentinel = Tank. Does nothing but distract enemies and absorb their blows. Will absorb you if you hang around too long in one place.
Saboteur = Debuffer. Drops the effectiveness of enemies. Not to be confused with Sabotenders.
Synergist = Buffer. Enhances allies. Paradigms and Synergy? Was this game written by Square-Enix's marketing team?
Medic = Healer. Walking band-aids. Always essential. Occasionally talks in a German accent.
As the above lists demonstrate, the early video game class assortments were more or less based on D&D, which may or make not sense depending on how sophisticated your game world is. MMOs, due to their nature of being simple grindfests book-ended by NPCs telling you to find innumerable amounts of wizard skulls (and hey, they don't need to tell you how fucked up that is), streamlined the most useful aspects of these classes for combat, the archetypes of which FF13 utilized for their whole "simplicity" principle. 
So there you go, progress. Of a sort.

On Antagonistic Monarchs (FF2)

While the TRUE antagonist of any given Final Fantasy is infamously the kind of giant random entity of death that appears out of the ether during the 11th hour, more often than not there's a pretty complex villain either behind their appearance or messing around with the seal holding them in place. "Pretty complex villain" is entirely relative of course. We're not talking Moriarties or Lecters here, but generally speaking there's usually more going on with the cold-hearted murderer you're chasing down than sheer psychopathery hi-jinx.

In FF2 and FF13, you're drawn into a mega-lo-maniacal plot first as clueless fugitives, then as knowing and rebellious pawns and finally as the saviors and reclaimers of the oppressive empire you're fighting against. Of course, all FF games seem to have an evil empire staffed entirely by faceless dudes in black armor (like I'm one to talk with my avatar) but they usually vanish into obsolescence before the midway break to concentrate on some colossal new threat that wants to do something mean to the planet, like take it out for a nice seafood dinner and not call it again. In FF2/13's case, the empire never ceases to be relevant to the central plot and the final boss is more or less the culmination of the same evil patriarch's Xanatos Gambit that the whole game's been building toward. The enemy's dreadnought being called the Palamecia allusively supports this comparison. 

On Worlds Above & Below (FF3)

FF3 is kind of the lost Final Fantasy in many ways: It took the longest of any to go from its original release in Japan to a (legally) localized version. Like the Lost Levels, the main reason for this seems to have been its sheer difficulty. Pshaw, right, this is the hemisphere that created Ultima and Wizardry. Too difficult to sell, my dainty derriere. Might also be because the NES was essentially dead by the time FF3 would've been localized, but I'm going with the difficulty thing because of reasons.

Anyhoo, the biggest similarity between FF3 and FF13 are the separation of the two main "worlds" the game takes place in: The first is a floating, magically-supported continent where most of the early game takes place. The second is the dangerous and wild terra incognita of the "lower world", mostly abandoned of people with traces of various cataclysmic deeds throughout. There's also a giant tower that sucks to travel through.

Many RPGs like to take on the "are we really so different?" two worlds schism (mostly Namco's Tales of series) but the similarity with the friendly hometown floaty float zone/danger-filled unknown groundy ground zone split seem very deliberate indeed.

On Real-Time Meeting Turn-Based (FF4)

So, in another "how did we get here from there" comparison, FF4 was chiefly applauded on release for its Active Time Battle system, as well as its fleshed-out characters and nifty, colorful SNES graphics. Since then, most FF games have sort of balanced its thoughtful turn-based strategic combat with a real-time "dudes, you're getting attacked, better do something" impetus. FF13 takes this system to its logical extreme, creating a system that requires the same sort of reactionary stratagems more befitting one of those headachey RTS games. It's so fast the game helpfully chooses all the most relevant spells and powers in that class's repertoire, leaving you to concentrate entirely on which repertoire is needed for the task at hand. 

On Job Systems (FF5)

So while really FF3 was the progenitor of the Job System, perhaps one of the series' most enduring and endearing gimmicks, FF5 was the one that really established it for everyone on this side of the Pacific. Or this side of the Pacific and Atlantic, if you're European. Delete and replace with your own nearby bodies of water where appropriate if you're from anywhere else. FF5's Jobs improved with experience and some user tweaking, something FF13 builds upon with its own very specific jobs and crazy 3D Star Trek Chess "Crystarium". I could also mention something about both games having amnesiacs pouring out of an otherworldly mode of transportation and freaking out people, but that seems a little tenuous.

On Melancholy Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes (FF6)

 The best direction FF6 took with its plot progression was destroying a world it took pains to gradually introduce to the player. Everything shifts, and now the planet is a dark, dangerous place full of once-eternally sleeping eldritch terrors clomping around doing their own thing. This more than exemplifies the Archelyte Steppe and other regions of Gran Pulse of FF13: A vast plain of humongous beasts and powerful, immortal entities just waiting for your party to accidentally wander into and get annihiliated by. Gran Pulse in general is a "World of Ruin", and with all those giant turtle dinosaur jerks wandering around stomping the bejeebus out of everything it doesn't take a huge leap of logic to figure out why. Plus the fact that both regions begin more or less with the [SPOILER] of that game's Cid character tells you that shit just got real, son.
[End of Part 1. Man, there's going to be a second part? Apparently! Oh hey, it's right here.]