On Ultimate Weapons (Day 15)
Nothing gets me more excited than the term “Ultimate Weapon”, which probably says a lot about me and my social life. But I’m not alone – Ultimate Weapons are a popular feature in many, many games, and are often tied to some of the most interesting (and difficult) quests or secrets.
I’m having difficulty pinpointing exactly what it is I love so much about the idea of having an ultimate weapon in a game, but I think it ties back to an unhealthy predilection with Final Fantasy as a kid.
As a series, Final Fantasy has a history of great ultimate weapons (often called “Ultima Weapon”, because being great isn’t always the same as being creative). Each game typically has an involved process to finding them, either locking them away in optional areas or by completing a complicated series of quests. Final Fantasy 9 even had the famous “Excalibur 2”, which could only be earned by completing a speed run that’s impossible in most versions of the game.
Having grown up with these games, it’s always something on my mind when I begin any new game with a weapon system. I spend the whole time wondering what the best weapon is, how I’m going to get it and what it’ll look like. When I find out that the game has different “best” weapons depending on circumstance, I’m immensely disappointed. Give me a single weapon that’s objectively the best and I’m a kid again.
The strange thing about this is that it’s something I consider to be bad design (in most cases). Having a single weapon stand above the rest is uninteresting – if games are “a series of interesting decisions”, having an ultimate weapon is the death of many of those decisions. Do I bring the fire spear, or the water axe? Oh, I’ll bring this rocket launcher, because it’s obviously the best. This is the case every single time.
Final Fantasy 7 actually combats this in a strange way. The protagonist Cloud Strife can obtain the Ultima Weapon, which is objectively his strongest sword, boasting high attack (that increases with his HP) and several slots for Materia, part of the games customization system. However, when the weapon is equipped Cloud’s Materia can’t grow (level up), which means he’s not getting any stronger.
It’s a strange compromise that I’m not sure works too well. On one hand, it’s still objectively the best weapon, head-and-shoulders above the rest. On the other, you’re actively discouraged from using it. This doesn’t feel balanced, it just feels shitty. Want to use that awesome sword? Better hope you’ve grinded your Materia first.
My feeling is that games with “Ultimate Weapons” should hide them away in very difficult locations or after a tricky sequence of events, so that players get the most out of the gear system before being rewarded with something powerful enough to make the system moot. Finding a reward like that is a great feeling, but it comes at the obvious cost of neutralising an entire – often deep – system in the game (weapon selection). It’s a hard thing to balance, and so should be used at a point where players would be basically done with gear anyway.
The cardinal sin of ultimate weapons is hiding them until after the player has finished the game. Thanks, game. What the fuck am I going to do with it now? I can’t (usually) import it into the next game I’m off to play, and I’m done with this one. There are a couple of exceptions – especially with joke weapons, which I’ll cover another day – but otherwise, it’s a right mess.
Look at a game like Xenoblade for the Wii. The best weapon in the game is acquired just by beating the story and starting New Game+. This is in a game that often takes players over 100 hours to beat, so if you want to use that weapon where it matters – in end game boss fights – expect to play that 100 hours all over again just to get where you were, but with a slightly better weapon.
Anyway, if I keep going I’ll probably start rambling about Dynasty Warriors, which is a slippery slope. How do you feel about weapons that are objectively the best? Do you have any favourites? What are they? Let me know in the comments!