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Final Fantasy 25th Anniversary: thanks for the memories

Tuesday, 4th September 2012 08:56 GMT By Dave Cook

Final Fantasy officially turns 25 in December, but celebrations have already begun. VG247′s Dave Cook looks at why a series that started as a gamble needs to start taking risks again.

To say that Square’s competitors don’t owe at least a little of their DNA to Final Fantasy’s is to overlook how fundamental it was in popularising the genre.

Final Fantasy is 25. Square-Enix celebrated the series’s landmark by announcing a string of new memorabilia, as well as a new Final Fantasy 13 spin-off, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy. The game will continue the pink-haired protagonist’s journey.

The announcement of a new Final Fantasy title used to send RPG fans worldwide into a frenzy, but now – even though they still score and sell relatively well – that old spark, that frenzied excitement seems to have dampened over time. What changed?

Let’s go back to the year 1998: hot from the success of Final Fantasy 7, JRPG giant Squaresoft has just announced the eighth game in the series to thunderous fanfare.

There were no qualms about the character’s gravity-defying haircuts, odd outfits or anything like that. We were largely already sold on the idea thanks to the runaway success of the previous game.

Show a picture of Final Fantasy 13-2′s dreadfully named Noel Kreiss to a member of the public today and they’d likely spit on it and go back to playing Skyrim. Times have changed and RPGs have changed. The industry as a whole has changed.

But Final Fantasy for the best part hasn’t changed much. At base level it’s the same as it ever was, with comfortingly familiar staples like Gil, Mogs, Chocobos, and amnesia by the truckload. But that’s fine, everyone has their own tastes, after all.

Like Final Fantasy 13 or not, keeping the current story arc alive with spin-offs makes perfect sense. New IP is a gamble today, and Square-Enix obviously needs a lot of time and money to make Final Fantasy 15, and presumably recoup money pumped in to re-tooling Final Fantasy 14.

Franchising a cross section of a franchise is simply good strategy from the developer, as mechanical as that sounds. Some of us may not like the direction, but it’s surely a means to an end.

Desperate gamble

What many may not know, or may have even forgotten as of late, is that this entire series was allegedly founded on a gamble – a last-ditch effort to save a company dangerously close to bankruptcy.

This anecdote has been diluted over the years, but back in 1987, Square’s NES output didn’t really ignite the kind of sales it wanted in Japan. So under the direction of Hironobu Sakaguchi, the studio’s key staff started working on one last game.

If the game didn’t sell, Sakaguhi said he’d retire from the industry and make it his last project, hence the name ‘Final Fantasy’. You already know how the rest of the story turns out.

Somewhere along the line, that same Square spark has been lost, and although each new entry to the series still meets a particularly high quality, some of them simply don’t resonate well.

After Final Fantasy was a hit in the east, Sakaguhi and his team started honing the turn-based format it had popularised, and all the way through Final Fantasy 2-5, the game worlds got bigger and the narratives grew epic.

The real turning point was arguably Final Fantasy 4, in which dark knight Cecil is betrayed, prompting him to embark on an epic pilgrimage to become a Paladin and defeat the corrupt commander Golbez.

Square knocked it out of the park with the story and just started running laps around the baseball field for years afterwards. The games couldn’t be stopped, and it wouldn’t take long for them to raise the bar even higher.

Considered the epitome of the series by many retro fans, Final Fantasy 6 is a truly essential RPG game. It embodies everything that is good and accomplished in the series, and if you haven’t played it yet you owe it to yourself to do so.

Part of the appeal comes from Square taking many risks with the game’s narrative that few studios would have dared to at the time. It was a game that was fuelled by human interaction, and little tales from the world’s civilians that were significant even though the planet was crumbling around them.

Players saw an entire city’s population killed by a spiked water supply just to murder one man within its walls. As the population wretched and died violently, maniacal villain Kefka just sat back and laughed. It was unsettling, even then.

Final Fantasy 7. You may have heard of it.

There is also a touching scene in which the battle-hardened Celes bared her soul on an opera stage, in what is one of the series’s best musical numbers. Ultimately though, this is one of those rare games in which the villain actually won.

How many games actually see the heroes lose? Not many, and your team’s failure leads to almost all of the world’s population being wiped out in a cataclysmic event. You survive of course and see the world dying in front of you. It’s harrowing stuff.

Genre-defining

Final Fantasy 6 isn’t just a good game: it’s genre-defining. But again, that definition has long-changed for many people, and part of the reason is that the west has now caught up in the RPG genre and carved out its own, darker slice of the market.

But talk to anyone about RPG games in the late 90s and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t name drop Final Fantasy 7 for good or ill. Like the sixth instalment, this is also an incredibly important game.

Not only did it underline PSone’s dominance over the console industry, it also gave rise to a trend of CGI cutscenes, fully orchestrated soundtracks of course, ‘that’ death. It may not have aged so well on reflection, but to deny its contribution to the industry is to do Square-Enix a great disservice.

In fact, the PSone Final Fantasy games are all impeccable, even if Final Fantasy 8′s battle system is essentially an 80-hour maths test. Square’s sheer effort across all three titles was astonishing.

The developer even took another big risk by going back to the twee characters and high fantasy setting of its earliest games in Final Fantasy 9. The game is also home to some of the series’s most human and touching moments, especially black mage Vivi’s constant fear of death.

Then came Square’s 2001 PS2 debut, Final Fantasy X. Fundamentally, it’s a brilliant game that raised the bar as far as visuals were concerned, but the appeal of its cast is often called into question.

The game also delivered a funnelled approach to progression when compared to earlier games. There were new barriers in place where there were very few before.

Overall Final Fantasy X told a touching tale that satisfied millions of fans, so you can imagine the surprise that greeted the developer’s decision to take the series into MMO territory.

Square’s MMO efforts with Final Fantasy haven’t been exactly fluid, but the studio definitely sees life in its departure from single-player games. You could even see traces of this mindset in Final Fantasy 12′s sprawling world and Gambit system.

Final Fantasy 12′s move away from the classic template left some players feeling cold, although it was still a huge achievement that came late in the PS2′s lifespan and had the technical clout to back the system up. However, this was the beginning of a great divide among fans.

Look at the great western RPGs of our day: you have the Fallout franchise; the sprawling scope of the Elder Scrolls saga; Diablo’s infectious gameplay, and many more, including scores of accomplished F2P RPGs flooding the market right now.

Our tastes are changing and people have found new and equally as exciting RPG experiences to keep them satisfied. Some offer things Final Fantasy doesn’t, while others do things the series used to do, reminding us all of just how much it’s changed.

Next generation

Final Fantasy is now one RPG now swimming in a very crowded pool. For many, the series died with Final Fantasy 13. The biggest issue at review stage was that the game drives players down a tight corridor that was essentially a 30-hour tutorial before the world opens up.

You can only put up with so much of the same thing for so long, and perhaps Square-Enix has stuck too rigidly to its own values across the series. As we grow, we do tend to seek out new experiences, and that changing landscape is something the developer needs to try to crack.

Once it did open up, it took on new life, but its understandable why some players simply couldn’t put it with it for that long. Was this an attempt to teach newcomers how to play the game, or just a misguided design choice? Either way a rift had been torn in the player base.

Plus, Hope is just a pain from beginning to end.

Compare the scope of something like Skyrim to Final Fantasy 13 and there’s no contest in terms of size and the freedom to simply wander and explore. Final Fantasy games used to have a world map area, but even that has dissolved away, replaced by things like the Historia Crux – which is a terrible name by the way, Square.

You can only put up with so much of the same thing for so long, and perhaps Square-Enix has stuck too rigidly to its own values across the series. As we grow, we do tend to seek out new experiences, and that changing landscape is something the developer needs to try to crack.

That old Square spark could be coming back however. The studio’s Luminous tech demo at E3 took place in a very western world, complete with men brandishing assault rifles in what looked like a Middle Eastern favela.

If this is a taster of what Final Fantasy 15 will hold, the jury’s out on whether or not this darker direction will entice western gamers – especially those who are put off by the series’s staples.

Could the contents of the Luminous demo be a conscious effort to bring people back, or is it a tech demo with no future? Either way, many gamers attribute a lot of fond memories to Square-Enix and to Final Fantasy in particular.

The RPG genre may have expanded and grown a lot over the past 25 years, but to say that Square’s competitors don’t owe at least a little of their DNA to Final Fantasy’s is to overlook how fundamental it was in popularising the genre.

For richer or poorer. Thanks for the memories, Final Fantasy.

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11 Comments

  1. Deacon

    nicely done Dave :)

    #1 2 years ago
  2. Dave Cook

    @1 Thanks man, I’m a huge fan, it’s by far my most favourite series but even I’m starting to get a little weary of it al. They need to shake it up with FF15 I think.

    Drop Mogs with baby voices, drop the campness of some of its male characters, and just focus on telling a gritty, world-consuming story again. I’d love to see the series go totally dark without resorting to emo characters, like FF 13 Versus’ Noctis. He already looks like I’ll despise him.

    But, open mind and all that. Excited to see what he future holds.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Eregol

    Nice article Dave.
    I have to admit, I enjoyed FFXIII and XIII-2, but I am growing cold to Squeenix’s insistence on keeping with the semi real/anime styling.
    I’d love for them to go back to the chibi style of FFIX.
    The last JRPG I actually loved was DQVIII, and I’d love FF to return to a similar style. Getting fed up of laser blasters and steampunk. I want medieval fantasy again.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Alex Donaldson

    Great article, Dave. Couldn’t agree more.

    Hiroyuki Ito – Director of FF6, FF9 and FF12 – may well be at the helm for FF15, as we haven’t heard from him since FF12 and he’s definitely still at Square. He has the potential to deliver something truly different.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Dave Cook

    @4 I loved 12 and I got a lot of crap from mates about it. It was just so big and ambitious, plus I really enjoyed the Gambit system. I really hope FF15 stays thematically similar to the Luminous engine tech demo. Dark and sinister.

    @2 Yeah man I liked both FF13 games too, but I came away feeling a bit weary. Hope they change it in FF15 :D

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Alex Donaldson

    @5 Shameless self promotion – but with you seeming to love Luminous, you should read my chat with them from E3: http://www.rpgsite.net/articles/393-square-enix-luminous-studio-interview

    The thing these guys have that a lot of Square – like the FFXIII team – don’t have is simple: They haven’t been working on FF their entire careers.

    Three of the core Luminous Team are ex-SEGA – they worked on the Hedgehog Engine that powered the brilliant-looking Sonic Unleashed – and then moved to Square. Because they haven’t burned themselves out on millions of FF games, they have fresher ideas. That’s my theory, anyway.

    Lovely blokes. I hope they get a chance to work on a game, but they were quite clear to me that they are only a tech team – though individual members are ALSO working on different games – the tech director for that demo is the tech director on FF14 2.0, for instance.

    As far as Ito/Gambits goes – the reason I’m excited for an Ito-helmed FF is because he’s responsible for a lot of FF’s greatest stuff. ATB, Materia, Triple Triad, Gambits. FF9′s my favourite, as well, and that’s his work.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. kupocake

    @2 Got to say, it’s precisely that “grit” that has been Final Fantasy’s undoing. If you get rid of the quirky elements (or equally, just cram Moogles and Chocobos into random places for the sake of a little series tokenism), you’re just left with yet another half-sensical, oh-so-serious anime story about a bunch of kids (sometimes in the bodies of adults) vacationing and saving the world.

    Never trust Square-Enix/Squaresoft to understand “grit”. They think “grit” is a synonym for “angst” or “glumness”, for teenage boys running out of the room saying “I’m not having anyone talk about me in the past tense!” or for pink-haired protagonists looking glumly at the impending apocalypse before slashing at something for a bit.

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Dave Cook

    @7 awesome post. The first para is spot on, and I especially liked the ‘bunch of kids in adult bodies going on holiday’ line.

    It’s true that ‘grit’ gets mistaken for hormonal teen angst, but I would like to see them do a genuinely dark game that gets it right.

    Am I perhaps wishing for too much here? :P

    #8 2 years ago
  9. deathm00n

    Here comes a opinion from someone wich the first RPG ever was Final Fantasy VIII

    I’ve always liked how the characters of Final Fantasy looked like, Seifer was the coolest guy at the time I’ve begin playing, the history of VIII I didn’t really understand at the time because I’m brazillian and I didn’t talked english at the time, begun learning with this game. Then FF IX launched and I didn’t liked it, the design of the character are too childish for me. X I didn’t played, X-2 was great in my opinion, XII was very good but the change in the system “Enter a battle, fight it, return to the world” really let me down, and XIII is the second in the series for me(VIII still #1).

    You might ask me why, but the problem is: I don’t care what they do with how the world is designed, if it’s linear or not, what is good in FF is gameplay, history and design. I don’t like the FF who are more anime style, I like the ones where people are more like real world people but with things that ditinguish them from reality. In XIII you have this with Snow(looks a lot like Seifer by the way), you will never find someone who looks like him walking in the street, but you know he could be real.

    For the history part: a theme that is recurrent in most of them is: if you don’t fight, the world will be destroyed. This make everything that happens feel almost epic. This is present in XIII, but not in XII for instance.

    Everything I’m saying is getting me out of the point that is: I don’t think they need change things, they should stick to the formula: cool guy who looks like an awesome real person, world is going to be destroyed, world is a twist of themes. What they need to change is the world, the setting play a major role in all FF. In XIII we had a problem, the setting was great, 2 worlds, one futuristic, the other one with old technology, but in the end Pulse was only a empty world. VI was a good mix, technology is in contrast with medieval themes.

    The setting show in the tech demo was awesome to me, a wasteland with bandits and guns contrasting with magic. They made a error with XIII, there was no contrast in it, the linear part I don’t mind, because it had a great history, they couldn’t have done it with open world mechanics.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. HighWindXIX

    I’m gonna play Devil’s advocate and say they need to get back to basics. You can argue that the Final Fantasy games change too much between main titles. As far as pure gameplay mechanics, X, XII, and XIII have wildly different battle systems and totally different takes on exploration (or lack thereof). On the other hand, while there are numerous improvements, Skyrim is really the same game as Oblivion and substitute magic for guns and it plays the same as Fallout 3 and New Vegas.

    If Square really wants to get back on top, going back to basics and releasing something with a Retro vibe Ala FFIX might get them more love and praise than going off the deep end and trying to be Western which we all know they can’t pull off…

    #10 2 years ago
  11. Lounds

    Good article dave.

    FFIX was my favourite it was the first FF I played and I think to all fans out there, I think the first one game you play in any series will be your favourite.

    FFIX was epic, it was a dark story and I loved Zidane as a lead character, I wanted to be like him so bad lol. I remember playing it as a kid and wanting an Airship.

    Scenes that will stay with me is when Vivi is see all the model black mages with no souls fall out the airship as they’re being chased by the Black Waltze 3rd. Also I remember The horror on Princess Garner’s face when her mother Queen Brahne attacks Lindblum.

    Brilliant game start to finish, and I love it’s concept on a creator of planets and races.

    #11 2 years ago

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