- The first Final Fantasy had a time-travel plot that makes no sense. By the fourth game, we were ripping off Star Wars, flying to the moon on a whale, fighting inside giant mechs, and defeating the Big Bad with the Power of Friendship. While it's true that the games became extremely long-winded and cheesy with the introduction of voice-acting and motion capture, characters were silly and expressive for a long time before that. What changed, however, is that real dialogue meant that we couldn't just mash A to speed past the bazillionth conversation and the motion-acting made it more and more obvious that the characters were conceived for Japanese audiences.
- And finally, exploration was largely an illusion even in the franchise's "heyday". Even if the game gave players two or three different directions to go, most of those directions are blocked off or don't provide them with much to do until more of the game is unlocked. Starting with Final Fantasy X, however, this illusion was completely shattered because by this point, the player wasn't even allowed to wander around almost-empty space anymore to provide the illusion of freedom. Further, around this time, open-world sandbox games had really become the norm, which meant that linear paths were much less tolerable. Still, reaction to this was tame compared to future installments, because while FFX does do the linear pathway, you're given a lot to do, and plenty of legitimate reasons and explanations (both by exposition and visual display) as to WHY you're stuck in a straight pathway. Part of what made FFX work was that it was still possible to believe in the world you're in without noticing that you're stuck in a straight pathway. FFXIII on the other hand, offered next to none of that and less of an attempt to sell the illusion. By this point, Square had decided to double down on their stance of "story over exploration" by flat out stating that they didn't want freedom to distract players from the story—a statement that players reacted very negatively to. By XIII-2, Lightning Returns and FFXV, however, they abandoned that approach due to negative player feedback and featured some type of open environment for each of those games.
- Final Fantasy VI was the first to really start using many of the sci-fi elements that would define the franchise (and might even be better known in the same form in Final Fantasy VII). While sci-fi had been done before, VI made a technologically advanced empire a major part of the setting and story, with your party beginning the game piloting mechs. Vector could be seen as a proto-Midgar and a predecessor to full-on advanced settings. VI also features a Super Soldier villain and a Defector from Decadence hero who had gone through the same program. As for other weird elements, Kefka does the One-Winged Angel first and to a Ominous Latin Chanting style of song that would become standard. The difference was, at the time, they were fairly subdued. For instance, despite all of the sci-fi elements, Final Fantasy VI's story is still a fairly direct plot about a rebellion fighting against an evil empire. The most strange and drama-causing of a large cast of characters still pretty much boils down to a Child of Two Worlds. These things only started to become a problem when understanding the nature of these elements became necessary to understand the plot, and the elements started to become so convoluted that you needed outside information. Final Fantasy VII might be seen as the origin of having some details explained elsewhere like the Ultimanias, but even there, the main plot of the game could still be understood and enjoyed without it.
- As detailed in this article from Cracked and this video, Final Fantasy VII, with its focus on flashy visuals, cutscenes, and production values to rival Hollywood blockbusters, birthed many of the problems that plagued not only later games in the Final Fantasy series (which culminated in the divisive Final Fantasy XIII), but also AAA gaming in general, which became increasingly dominated by gorgeous graphics and cinematic spectacle at the cost of highly linear gameplay that's barely interactive. The difference was that Final Fantasy VII still had a deep combat system and a well-written (if poorly-translated) story to make up for it.
- Final Fantasy VII was praised at the time and still often is today for its dramatic and over-the-top Dysfunction Junction cast, with the main characters more complex and developed than anything Final Fantasy had managed before. The protagonist Cloud was an especially successful innovation, his arc about his cool demeanour being a fabrication of the secretly weak person he is underneath striking a chord with a mostly teenage playerbase. While in Final Fantasy VII these elements coexist with a great plot and setting and a playful, ironic, deconstructive tone that keeps it from descending into Wangst, other Final Fantasy games would go on to focus on psychological crises and Emo Teens without the lightness of touch, wit, or horror of VII. However, the immediate sequel, Final Fantasy VIII, is often criticised for its irritating and flat cast. The developers had been trying to create a cast more realistic than the VII cast, but ended up with a cast that was more vaguely drawn and defined by superficial quirks rather than personality. As for Cloud, his success caused the entire JRPG genre to spend the next five years furiously trying to Follow the Leader with surly BFS-swinging teenagers with murky origins and ridiculous hair, to the point where it's now the stereotype of the genre and has retroactively tarnished Final Fantasy VII's reputation.
- Final Fantasy VIII came up with the innovation of giving the hero a cool piece of jewelry (that could be made for real and sold to fans). Squall's "Griever" lion charm fit the character and setting (modern high school drama) well and it was incorporated into the plot reasonably well, with Rinoa wearing the Griever ring once she becomes involved with Squall and Ultimecia using it as a weapon in the final battle. Later attempts at doing this would be a lot more forced, often including characters who wouldn't have any reason for wearing flashy custom jewellery, or didn't live in settings where modern-style jewelry was a thing. In at least one case (Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) it involves a character decking themselves out in an emblem representing the animus of their depression.
- The numerous spin-offs and sequels have eclipsed the main series. During the glory years, there were still plenty of spin-offs and Dolled-Up Installments, but they were consistently high-quality games that brought honor to their franchise. Final Fantasy X-2, Ivalice Alliance, and the early installments of the Final Fantasy VII Compilation were both relatively well-received as well, despite the complaints they've engendered. However, Square's milking of the Cash Cow Franchise has started to leave its mark, ranging from the pricing model of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, to the planning of Fabula Nova Crystallis as a series from the get-go, to mobile games built on a microtransaction model (a business model certain to drive more traditional players into a frothing rage). Meanwhile, the wait between main-series games keeps getting longer and longer, which has also helped to bleed fans away from the franchise.
Franchise Original Sin / Final Fantasy
Final Fantasy didn't suddenly shift towards Kudzu Plots, Hallways, and Spinoffs — they were there from the very beginning.