If there’s one thing that’s true about video game fandom, it’s that they’re never, ever entirely satisfied. Final Fantasy fans had cause to rejoice yesterday as Final Fantasy 7, 9, 10 and 12 were announced as coming to Nintendo Switch and Xbox One in addition to their existing PC and PS4 releases. Quickly, however, a question arose: what about Final Fantasy 8? What did Squall, charismatic moody teenager and one of the series’ best protagonists, do wrong?
The answer is – well, it’s complicated, and there’s probably a few reasons compounding to prevent it from happening with ease. So let’s talk about it by taking a bit of a Final Fantasy history lesson.
An important piece of context to discuss here is video game preservation, and specifically how incredibly poor it was in the nineties, when Final Fantasy was in that golden age that produced FF7, 8 and 9. The truth of the matter is this: back then, Square didn’t have a proper system for archiving and saving its work after release. Things would be lost – and quickly.
The development of Final Fantasy 7’s original PC port provides a pertinent example of this. When a California-based team of Square and Eidos employees began work on porting Final Fantasy 7 to PC in 1997, the Japanese office initially dropped off what they said was the game’s source code. It turned out this wasn’t entirely true: it was an older build of the game, littered with bugs not in the final release and even complete with scenes that had been cut for pacing and tone from the PS1 release. This build was apparently all that the Japanese office could lay their hands on, and initially it was up to the PC port team to bridge the gap between that and the PS1 original in order to make the PC release resemble the original as much as possible.
Eventually the team got the PC version running, though it was littered with caveats and issues thanks to the way it’d been made. Not even the PC version’s finished source was saved, however – when gearing up for the 2013 PC re-release of the game that’d lay the foundation for the modern console and mobile versions, Square Enix couldn’t find it.
“The funny thing is, I got a call [a couple years ago] from Square, because they wanted to rerelease the PC version, and they asked me if I knew where the gold master was,” Eidos President between 1997 and 1999 Keith Boesky told Polygon in their excellent Oral History of FF7 last year. “Yeah, they lost it.”
In the end, Square would simply reverse-engineer and frankenstein the modern release together from the previous retail PC build. With FF9 more of the source was intact, which is why the mobile and modern console version of that game boasts higher resolution textures and other similar improvements.
This history of poor record-keeping and backing up has had a knock-on effect on re-releases of classic games of the era across the board. This is why the PS4 versions of Final Fantasy 7 and 9 can often look so uneven. They feature higher-resolution, crisply-detailed character models and in the case of FF9 even improved character textures, but the gorgeous pre-rendered 3D backgrounds look grainy and pixelated. This is because these pre-rendered backgrounds have, for the most part, been lost. All of the backgrounds in FF7, 8 and 9 were created at a far higher resolution than needed then compressed down to fit into 320×240 or 640×480 resolutions.
When Square was done compressing them, it seems the high-end work was mostly thrown away. Some examples survive, in particular high-resolution Final Fantasy 9 backgrounds that were saved by their Western artists and uploaded to portfolio websites (see the example of that below), but the high-resolution backgrounds are gone. The same is true for the CG animated sequences. If these native-res backgrounds had been saved, we actually could’ve had beautiful higher resolution versions of the PS1 FF trio years ago – but they were not.
This is ultimately the fate of FF8: it’s in a difficult limbo space where a version of the game that’ll be easy to port seems to no longer exist. Chances are that the original PS1 source has been lost, since teams used to delete work to move on to their next project once a product shipped. Square Enix know people want it, but much as with that long-coming FF7 port, it’s a larger undertaking to get it done.
Meanwhile, there is a PC version – but it’s a bloody mess, having not been given nearly as much love as the 2013 port of FF7. Its controller support is absolute toilet, it crashes more often than it should and it still has god-awful midi music, the sheer disaster of which can be heard over on YouTube.
People laughed and mocked Square for having a full year between the PlayStation Experience announcement of FF7 for PS4 and its December 2015 release, but the truth is this is probably how long it took Square Enix to get a version of the game running reliably on the platform. With source code lost and FF7 made up of five different game engines for the different modes of play, it was a very complex project. FF8 is a larger, more ambitious game, and is structured in a similar way. To bring it to PS4 (and in turn other platforms) will take time.
That doesn’t mean Square shouldn’t be working on this, mind. We’re years from the original PS4 release of FF7, and FF8 turns 20 in just a few months, in February. The time has come: whatever the cost, it should be Squall’s chance to shine again.
One more thing – there might be a secondary problem for FF8 aside from preservation, as spotted by eagle-eyed fans. This is based more on observation and supposition than hard facts from ex-employees of Square Enix, but a lot of fans speculate part of FF8’s woes might be tied to its vocal theme song, Eyes on Me.
While Eyes on Me was written by FF music scribe Nobuo Uematsu, it was performed by popular Chinese singer Faye Wong. Eyes on Me’s melody is strung throughout FF8’s soundtrack in pieces such as ‘Julia’ and ‘Waltz for the Moon’, and these non-vocal versions of the track have appeared in games like Dissidia Final Fantasy and rhythm game spin-off Theatrhythm – but the version with Wong’s vocal track has been absent from all these games. This is especially suspicious with Theatrhythm, which has included other FF vocal tracks like FF12’s ‘Kiss Me Goodbye’ and FF9’s ‘Melodies of Life’ – so there might be a musical rights issue as an additional wrinkle.
In the end, it’s the classic gaming fan story. Thanks for the ports, Square… but we want more. Fix up that gunblade, won’t you?