Chocobo Racing May Be Back in Final Fantasy; Here's How It Started - VRGyani News and Media


Monday, August 16, 2021

Chocobo Racing May Be Back in Final Fantasy; Here's How It Started

On January 31, 1997, Final Fantasy VII was released. The video game industry changed that day. As to how it changed, perhaps your first instincts would first point you to the 12.8 million copies that have subsequently sold around the world, or that the game was the unofficial gateway to Japanese role-playing games for the West, or that it redefined the art of video game storytelling. I can't blame you for thinking of such accolades, but you're wrong. No, Final Fantasy VII's real contribution to our beloved gaming landscape is that, without it, we don't have Chocobo Racing.

On the outskirts of the town of Coral, half-buried within Final Fantasy VII's epic, expansive world of Gaia, sits the Gold Saucer, the video game casino of all video game casinos. It's here in this Final Fantasy version of Las Vegas that we first got to race chocobos. The Final Fantasy fans among you already know about this nonsense, but for the uninitiated, let me tell you about these mutant birds that gallivant around these worlds with absolute impunity despite those worlds being threatened into oblivion by super villains all the damn time.

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You know how in The Shining, Danny Torrance rides that creepy bike? How it's not quite a big-wheel, but it's not quite a tricycle? Well, if Danny Torrance was riding a chocobo—don't try and tell me Stanley Kubrick wouldn't have at least thought about it—audiences would have been equally uneasy: "Remember that creepy bird Danny was riding? How it's not quite a chicken, but it's not quite an ostrich?" These hybrid creatures—as hybrid as this new version of The Shining I am apparently creating—have been around since Final Fantasy II and continue to be present up through the franchise's most-recent entries.

These appearances vary in terms of purpose and level of importance. Sometimes chocobos serve merely as a means of quick transportation similar to a horse, or through minigames like "Chocobo Hot and Cold" in Final Fantasy IX. But it was in Final Fantasy VII that chocobos were given a special focus—the aforementioned racing at the Gold Saucer.

The process of obtaining chocobos went something like this: You wandered around the world until you stumbled upon a random encounter (next to chocobo tracks on the ground) where a chocobo would appear. You would then kill the enemies around it, and then catch it for your stables. Following this, you would feed it all kinds of food, then waltz off to the Gold Saucer and race it against other chocobos. Fun, right? Maybe, if you enjoy making sure Cloud gets in all of his Fitbit steps meandering between the Gold Saucer and the Chocobo Farm.

This repetitive process unlocked items and leveled-up your chocobo, which in turn made it more inclined to produce higher quality/different colored chocobos upon mating (with the appropriate items). This assault on your mental health was all to obtain a gold chocobo, so as to reach the laughably powerful Knights of the Round summon materia on a small, otherwise-unreachable island. So, naturally, after making us slog through this time-swallowing desert of boredom and frustration, Square Enix (Squaresoft at the time) decided that, "Hey, we need an entire game devoted to this!"

And so on March 18, 1999, Chocobo Racing arrived with a chubby, little chocobo donning roller skates on the cover and my life made slightly less sense.

The idea of the game—and the root of much of the criticism against it—was centered around being a mostly verbatim rip-off of Mario Kart. In an era where console racers were wildly popular (Naughty Dog's Crash Team Racing launched the same year; Diddy Kong Racing had released in late 1997), Chocobo Racing was Square's shot at grabbing a piece of the market pie, and it was the Final Fantasy flavoring that would help garner interest. It sold 300,000 copies in Japan. Conversely, Mario Kart 64 has sold 9.8 million copies. Sometimes the other guy just has the better go-kart.

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Oddly enough, this was not Square's first foray into the racing genre. Rad Racer had been released twelve years prior. Despite also being accused of mimicry—in that case it was Sega's Out RunRad Racer left a much more favorable legacy. The pinnacle of that legacy was its inclusion in the 1989 movie The Wizard and the gaming triathlon that was the 1990 Nintendo World Championship, alongside Super Mario Bros. and Tetris. Back in 2019, a long-lost cartridge from that championship was found in Seattle, selling for $13,000 (though it was resold "at a profit" for an undisclosed amount). Perhaps the day will come when Chocobo Racing brings in $13,000. I can't believe I actually typed that sentence.

I am not going to tell you that I didn't, on some level, enjoy Chocobo Racing. I was in the throes of my deepest Final Fantasy fandom, so getting to cast spells instead of chucking banana peels at unsuspecting opponents felt more like home to me. Chocobo Racing was not as good as Mario Kart, but it was in clothing that I valued and appreciated. It would have been difficult to convince my 12-year-old self that racing as Toad was preferable to racing as Cloud Strife, game mechanics be damned.

But for any game that has a chocobo as the main character and the word "plot" tied to any portion of the game, disaster is inevitable. There is actually a "story" (quotes emphasized) to this game, where Chocobo and Mog venture off to uncover the mystery of the Blue Crystal on Chocobo's leg ring, racing against opponents along the way like a Pokémon trainer conquering gyms.

I also question naming the title character "Chocobo." It would be like naming Lassie, "Dog," or King Kong, "Monkey." A chocobo is going to have a hard time carrying any story. The only chance it has of working is to make the character stand apart from every other chocobo. This particular chocobo's only uniqueness stems from his ability to use the "Chocobo Dash." (Tragically, this is not a dance floor move. Yet.)

Do racing games need deep character excavation and plot devices? No. Do they need a modicum of something resembling characterization? I would suggest yes. This is especially true if your character is an anthropomorphic, mutant bird. Don't come at me with Big Bird as a counter example either. He is a singular entity; he is not part of a race of eight-foot-tall, avian super monsters.

Chocobo Racing culminates with a race against Bahamut (because of course it does), who after being defeated in a race—Ah! Stop reading immediately if you don't want to have everything spoiled and your life ruined!—decides that he is impressed with the unity shown among the group of heroic racers and will therefore allow the gate between the magic realm of Fantasia and the normal world to remain open, allowing the two worlds to forever exist in harmony. It would have been nice to know that challenging all-powerful beings to a go-kart race could halt worldwide calamity. If only Cloud would have thought to challenge Sephiroth in such a way, Aeris would still be alive, and my childhood innocence could have been obliterated in a whole different way. But alas.

But what if you love this game? Surely, there are those of you who do. Hell, I may even love it. I genuinely don't even know at this point. It's like some childhood B-movie that you know is embarrassing and terrible, but it conjures up some distant sense memory that triggers lots and lots of dopamine. When that happens, suddenly a hovering dragon racing against a Frankenstein bird on roller skates sounds like a great idea.

What might be an even better (horrible) idea is that we may be getting a chance to ride the choco-circuit again! Some suspicious trademarks surfaced back in December 2020—"Chocobo GP" and "Chocobo Grand Prix" are the ones mentioned. A flimsy bit of evidence to be sure, but since when is "flimsy" not more than enough reason to create a racing game about chocobos?

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