What Final Fantasy X did differently over X years ago

I've been replaying Final Fantasy X in its remastered form on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, curious to see if it matches my memory of the original. These are some of the things it did differently back in 2001:

"Listen to my story."

The story of Final Fantasy X is told from the perspective of Tidus, a young sports star who looks like a bleary-eyed Meg Ryan cosplaying as Prince. On the eve of his big game of Blitzball, a sadistic, underwater spin on soccer, the hosting city of Zanarkand is pulverized by a mercurial blob. Tidus gets sucked into its amorphous mouth and wakes up 1,000 years into the future, as you do.

None of this is especially weird for Final Fantasy, but making the protagonist and the narrator the same person is a unique choice for Final Fantasy X, which ironically casts expert swimmer Tidus as the fish out of water. His personal telling is tinged with bitterness over being flung so far from home, and it colors our view of how religion rules the new land of Spira. Tidus plays along when he's taught a religious gesture for greeting the devoted, for example, but awkwardly recognizes it as a Blitzball cheer from the old world.

As an additional indignity, nobody believes Tidus anyway: The hero doesn't have amnesia for a change, but everyone thinks he does.

Voice Acting (for the most part)

Final Fantasy X also marks the first time we've heard anyone's story in the series via voice acting. Oh, it's laced with awkward readings and botched drama, but for a first attempt rooted in the comical pantheon of "acting" in Japanese role-playing games, Final Fantasy X could have been so much more embarrassing. Generally, you're in real trouble if you can't tell who's cringing more between listener and actor.

You've likely heard the actors of Final Fantasy X in other good work since 2001: After he played beer-swilling robot Bender in Futurama and Wakka in Final Fantasy X, John DiMaggio inhabited Marcus "Shit, Yeah" Fenix in Gears of War, and Jake the Dog in Adventure Time.

Tidus, also known as James Arnold Taylor, is perhaps better established as the first, furry half of Ratchet & Clank. And who could forget Hedy Burress as soft-spoken, naive Yuna in Final Fantasy X, and Yuna in Final Fantasy X-2, and Yuna in Kingdom Hearts II, and Yuna in Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy?

Not your turn, Active Time Battle

Though still plagued by unexpected shifts from the regular environment into battle scenes (here it goes for the screen-shatter transition, not the swooshy blur-swirl), things generally take a turn for the polite in Final Fantasy X. The creaky "Active Time Battle" system, which saw the participants race to action at independent speeds, is replaced by the "Conditional Turn-Based Battle," which makes upcoming turns explicit and adds a new layer of planning between them.

Better still, the CTB isn't punitive in doling out options. Only three characters are active in battle, but you can summon anyone from a pool of seven without penalty. There's no dreading being stuck in a dungeon with your underutilized weaklings, because everyone has a valuable strength: Wakka is adept at killing evil wasps, Auron can cleave through crab armor, Yuna can yank a lightning unicorn through an inter-dimensional portal, Tidus can hit highly evasive lizards, and Rikku can pilfer items from sentient mushrooms or, uh, the treasure chests that occasionally show up in battle. And no, this is still not especially weird for Final Fantasy.

The Sphere Grid

The characters in Final Fantasy X don't grow in traditional numerical levels – they earn moves on a big game board, traversing a web of interconnected spheres as they successfully smite things. All combatants share the same board but start in different places, unlocking the abilities and stat boosts adjacent to their playing piece. Yuna begins in the area of the board containing white mage abilities, for instance, whereas Lulu stars in an area filled with offensive spells.

There's potential for skill crossover, especially with middle-of-the-road characters like Kimahri, but I've always like the board just for how it organizes your entire party's progress and skills visually, or geographically in the wide view. It's a little on the nose, though, since progress on the basic board (outside of the optional "advanced" version) is predictable, predetermined and conducive to dutifully filling out an outline made for you by the designers. The closer you get to completion, the less you consider it.

That's the real grind of Final Fantasy: the rush to grind the battle system into an irrelevant dust, which is then lightly sprinkled on the story.

You got your death metal in my Final Fantasy

Longtime series composer Nobuo Uematsu is joined by two more composers for Final Fantasy X, namely Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano. Their collaborative effort gives Final Fantasy one of its most varied and melodic soundtracks, though Uematsu is behind a musical choice that you'll either love or hate.

At the game's outset, you hear an effervescent, upbeat remix of the classic Final Fantasy theme – so far, so expected – which then shifts to a growling metal track a few scenes later.

The total destruction of Zanarkand is accompanied by "Otherworld," a pounding song chosen by Uematsu and hollered by metal vocalist Bill Muir. It offers an impressive jolt worthy of Final Fantasy's first move to the PlayStation 2, and almost acts as a gateway drug to Uematsu's over-the-top band, The Black Mages.

He who has the last HA HA HA HA

Okay, this part, at 2:20 in our video ... yeah, this is especially weird for Final Fantasy.

[Images: Square Enix]