Oct 3, 2013

Metallica vs. Final Fantasy

By Ian Cory

Last Friday, Metallica, the world’s most ludicrously popular metal band, released a 3D IMAX concert film directed by Nimrod Antal. The idea of a rock band, let alone a metal band, having both the money and hubris to do something this grandiose in 2013 is preposterous, but Metallica are one of the last holdovers from an era when rock bands could rise to the level of gods and get away with just about anything. I spent most of middle school and the early years of high school doing two things with my spare time: listening to Metallica’s first four albums and playing every game in the Final Fantasy series that I could get my hands on. When reflecting upon the patent absurdity of Metallica’s career decisions in the recent years, I realized that my two childhood past times had a great deal more in common than I would have thought. Both Metallica and Squaresoft had a decade of work where they could do no wrong, and became innovators and subsequently the face of their entire medium. Since then both have taken every step possible to tarnish their legacy, but have grown too big to fail, leading their fans to hold on regardless, in a twisted form of artistic Stockholm syndrome. In honor of James Hetfield and co.’s most recent exploration in abject silliness I’m going to take this comparison as far as I possibly can and break down Metallica’s discography by way of each release’s closest analog in the Final Fantasy catalog.

Various early demos – Final Fantasy I - III
Neither Metallica nor Final Fantasy invented the genres that they’d come to represent. The JRPG had already been going strong in the form of the Dragon Quest series, and the first Final Fantasy was designed to emulate that success. Likewise, heavy metal was over a decade old by the time James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich started writing songs together, and they weren’t alone in their desire to take the genre into higher levels of speed and intensity. Metallica and Squaresoft took recognizable forms and found a way to put their own stamp on them. Metallica played faster and harder then their contemporaries and Squaresfot aimed bigger. In both cases, these early works are the foundation on which their later superstardom lies, but both are also filled with some weird quirks (Dave Mustaine and Final Fantasy II’s bizarre stat system) that would quickly be jettisoned for more reliable parts.

Kill ‘Em AllFinal Fantasy IV
This is where it all comes together. On Metallica’s debut full length they took every dialect of heavy metal that was being spoken at the time and synthesized them into a brand new language. Kill ‘Em All has the ferocity of Venom, the unstoppable momentum of Motorhead, the technical precision of Diamond Head, and the refined melodic guitar work of Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy. For Squaresoft, FFIV was their first step into the big leagues, bringing the characters to the forefront of the gaming experience and pumping the plot with as much sweeping drama as the 16-bit art design could bear. This is where both Metallica and the Final Fantasy series start to become what they’re most celebrated for now, but both are also very much products of their time. James Hetfield’s voice is more of a squeak than a roar, and lyrically the band is more concerned with establishing their metal credibility than exploring anything of weight or consequence. Likewise, the characters in FFIV are pretty laughably underdeveloped by today’s standards, and when you really break the plot down, it’s not that far from the extended fetch quests of the first three games. Still, both have a great deal more charm and hold up to this day as a buttload of fun.

Ride The LightningFinal Fantasy VI
Only a year after their debut, Metallica stepped up their game in nearly every way. Ride The Lightning is heavier, darker, more complex on a compositional level, features more advanced playing, and finds the band tackling much more serious subject matter. The same could be said about FFVI, which expanded the cast of characters while also deepening the explorations into those characters' motivations and interactions. It broadened the scope of the world and was the most ambitious game thus far in terms of narrative and world building. While both still had some of the early silliness here and there (“Escape” and the lovably absurd Ultros) both of these represent the first fully mature works from their creators. Hetfield’s lyrics grapple with death in all of its forms, while FFVI’s Kefka is the most terrifying villain in the entire series, a truly sadistic nihilist that gains the powers of a god and uses them to destroy the entire world just for the fuck it. Both Ride The Lightning and FFVI end in incredibly inventive ways as well. “Call Of Ktulu” was the first in a long tradition of epic and moody instrumentals from the band, and the open-ended non-linear final act of Final Fantasy VI remains the most forward thinking moment in the entire series.

Master of PuppetsFinal Fantasy VII
When faced with the challenge of following up a masterpiece, Metallica and Squaresoft chose not to reinvent the wheel but to refine it. Master Of Puppets follows the structure of its predecessor nearly track for track. FFVII’s plot bears a lot of similarities to FFVI’s, and its game play is equally familiar, but far more simplified. What Final Fantasy VII and Master Of Puppets do to distinguish themselves is up the production value tenfold. Final Fantasy VII’s bleak and technologically advanced hellscapes were stunning and fresh at the time, and Master Of Puppets was packed end to end with some of the best riffs of Metallica’s entire career. Both have entered a rare spectrum of being so beloved and popular that they’ve looped from being overrated to being underrated. They’re both indisputable classics of their genre, like their predecessors, and which one you enjoy more really comes down to which you experienced first. Their worth is so self-evident and their influence wide reaching that it’s pretty much pointless to try and say something new about them. This is as good as it gets.

...And Justice For AllFinal Fantasy V or Final Fantasy VIII
At the height of their powers Metallica suffered the loss of bassist and occasional songwriter Cliff Burton. Determined to soldier on regardless, they recruited Jason Newstead as their replacement bassist and eternal butt of all pranks and released this... thing. ...And Justice For All is still a good album, but it’s also a pretty weird one. The aggression that makes early Metallica such a rush to listen to is still present, but it’s forced to run through bizarre and staggeringly complex song structures. Final Fantasy VIII also suffered from this kind of convolution. It made a brave attempt of reinventing the Final Fantasy stat and battle leveling system, but in an incredibly unintuitive way. That, along with its nearly nonsensical story make it a hard sell to anyone but die hard fans. However, there are a LOT of die hard Metallica and Final Fantasy fans out there, and those who put in the time to get used to AJFA will quickly realize that underneath the odd production, Metallica’s songwriting skills remain mostly intact. And like fans of the often forgotten Final Fantasy V, if you find detailed oriented tinkering to be more engaging than direct story telling, you’ll definitely learn a lot from the way Metallica gradually develop cycles of riffs and shifting rhythms through out the songs on AJFA.

Metallica (a.k.a. The Black Album) – Final Fantasy X
Both The Black Album and Final Fantasy X are immensely popular and have devoted fandoms that rival those of Master Of Puppets and Final Fantasy VII. However both are lightning rods for arguments about their actual worth. Their popularity and critical divisiveness both stem from the same source. Both are slickly produced and highly streamlined takes on the classic elements of their franchises. The concise and radio friendly songs on The Black Album are miles away from the labyrinthine epics of ...And Justice For All, and this shift towards simplicity helped Metallica break through into mainstream superstardom, which they’ve been able to ride for the rest of their career. FFX was the first of the series on the Playstation 2, and used every technical advance to its advantage, crafting a lush and beautiful world, but constricting the player to a linear progression through the game instead of the exploratory world map of the past. It was also the first game of the series to include full voice acting for all of the cut scenes and most of the dialogue, which was a noble attempt to raise the emotional stakes of the game, but almost always plunged the game straight into melodrama. The Black Album and FFX aren’t all bad -- there are some great moments in both -- but they’re inarguably the beginning of the end for both Metallica and Final Fantasy.

LoadFinal Fantasy XI
And just like that, the fun times are over. Metallica took the final step and removed all traces of their heavy metal past and replaced them with dumbed down blues-rock and even stupider sounds drawn from 90’s alternative. If The Black Album was a slap in the face to fans craving the challenging and innovative music from their first four albums, Load was an outright dismissal of them. Many fans are quick to claim that the source of Metallica’s problems was their haircuts and growing affinity for eyeliner, but the real problem is that the songs on Load are absolute trash. Even worse, the album never seems to end, piling on song after song for 80 minutes. While I’ve never played it, Final Fantasy XI is an equally bizarre change of pace as it abandoned the JRPG format for the cash grab of MMO’s. While both Load and FFXI have their defenders, they are far and few between.

ReloadFinal Fantasy XIV

S&MFinal Fantasy Dissidia
On paper this should be a great idea. It’s all of your favorites in one place, enhanced with the power of modern technology! But in execution everything just feels off. By placing the entire history of the franchise in a single game it highlights just how far the series has gotten from its roots, and the attempts to modernize those older characters fall flat. Also the idea of adding an orchestra to a Metallica show or turning Final Fantasy into a fighting game may seem cool, but in reality it goes against everything that Metallica and Final Fantasy stood for. Also, the voices are grating beyond all reason.

St. AngerFinal Fantasy XIII
Both marketed as a removal of the clutter that had built up and a return to the roots of the franchise, St. Anger and FFXIII ended up representing everything that had gone wrong and are indisputably the nadir of their respective bodies of work. St. Anger’s resemblance to Metallica’s first four albums is superficial at best. Sure it was the heaviest thing the band had released since the 80’s, but it was also the most monotonous, tuneless and sloppily constructed. FFXIII also attempted to use iconography from the series’ most celebrated title (the opening train heist, the moody blonde protagonist named after a part of the weather) but at its core only amplified the rot that had been spreading through the franchise by being more linear and cutscene oriented than ever. I’d like to believe that this is as bad as it gets, but I will undoubtedly be proven wrong soon enough.

Some Kind Of MonsterFinal Fantasy: Spirits Within
If anyone still believed that Metallica where infallible rock gods, Some Kind Of Monster did everything it could to shatter those illusions. By documenting the creation of St. Anger, the film revealed the members of Metallica to be petulant whiny children trapped in the bodies of hilariously rich adults. Nothing crushes dreams faster than watching your childhood heroes quibble over the placement of guitar solos or the need to hire a band therapist. The Spirits Within wasn’t as embarrassing to watch, but it did serve as just as much of a lesson to the fans and creators of Final Fantasy. The massive commercial failure of The Spirits Within proved that Squaresoft was not invincible, and that making hugely successful videogames does not mean that you can make successful films. The immense cost of FF:SW forced Squaresoft to merge with the creators of Dragon Quest and their one time rivals, Enix. Their rebirth as Square Enix is the line in the sand between the golden age of Final Fantasy and the never-ending parade of sadness that has followed.

Death MagneticFinal Fantasy IX
This comparison is a bit unfair to FFIX, which I’d put in the same league as FFVII or FFIV as one of my favorite games of all time, but it serves a similar purpose as Metillica’s first true “comeback” record. After the St. Anger debacle, the band took some time off and then regrouped with producer Rick Rubin in order to rediscover what made their first four albums so great. While the resulting album doesn’t reach those heights, it does as fair an approximation as is possible by a bunch of dudes pushing 50. Sure its overlong, mastered way too load and has a few clunkers, but it’s a worthwhile listen for anyone with nostalgia for the glory days. FFIX has the benefit of coming directly after the golden age, and subsequently isn’t so much about recapturing as it is about summing up. Attempting to marry the simple good vs. evil narratives of the first few games with the emotional expressiveness of the later ones didn’t always feel natural, but combining classic Final Fantasy motifs with a huge budget is a fucking rush to watch. Final Fantasy IX is the last hurrah of a series that was quickly on its way to being left behind in the game industry and serves as an excellent culmination of everything the series was trying to, and often did, achieve.

Lulu – The Kingdom Hearts Series
By any rational estimation, this should not exist, but somehow, it does. No one asked to hear Lou Reed moan over subpar thrash riffs. No one needed Mickey Mouse to be remade into a Tetsuya Nomura style badass. Why is James Hetfield screaming about being a table? Why is a former member of N’Sync voicing Sephiroth? What does the phrase “Junior Dad” even fucking mean? HOW FUCKING LONG CAN THIS FINAL BOSS BATTLE EVEN BE? That all being said, the first Kingdom Hearts is actually a lot of fun, while Lulu is a fascinating and wholly unique experience, although no where close to being what normally qualifies as “good” music.

Through The NeverAdvent Children

I haven’t seen Through The Never and I don’t plan on doing so anytime soon. 3-D Imax tickets are outrageously expensive, and Metallica have plenty of my money already. I’ve seen Metallica live before and really enjoyed myself, but I don’t need to relive the experience via a movie anytime soon. I’m sure I’d have fun, but the problem is that I know exactly what kind of fun I’d have because I’ve seen Advent Children, the feature length film sequel to Final Fantasy VII. As a story, Advent Children is fucking pathetic and only serves to undercut the power of FFVII’s shocking and ambiguous ending. It took every ounce of character development spent on Cloud and reversed it, turning him into a glum unlikeable jackass. That said, the fight scenes are a fucking blast if you take them out of context, and even though I know better I still get tons of nostalgia induced Goosebumps when Sephiroth shows up again at the end. It’ll be the same with Through The Never. There’s no way the narrative sequences, featuring Dane Dahaan, will be anything but immensely stupid eye candy. And while I’m sure I’ll be grinning ear to ear during the performances of my favorite Metallica numbers, it won’t be because of what I’m watching, but instead because of what those songs have meant to me for over 10 years. And honestly, at this point, I’d rather find something new. Enough with mining the past for everything it’s worth. It’s time to move on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check if there’s any news about Final Fantasy XV.


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