There are few franchises out there with as beautifully ironic a title as ‘Final Fantasy‘.
Fourteen games in its main series, numerous spin-offs and side sequels, films, novellas and even an anime TV series… if anything the name is one weighted in an overwhelming desire to live on. Not that anyone’s complaining, of course. Because the simple fact is that, whichever way you look at it, there’s just something about this Role-Playing Wunderkind that the gaming community just can’t bear being without. To the table it consistently brings a sense of wonderment and epic scale (who’d have thought you’d need up to four discs to play one console game?), inspiring generation after generation of starry-eyed escapists and Cosplay enthusiasts in equal measure.
But, as with many a tale worth telling (and a great deal of Final Fantasy stories), the magic derives from humble beginnings…
It’s the mid Eighties: Live Aid’s just fed the world, mullets and moustaches are still cool, Heavy Metal is mosh-pitting against Glam Rock and Techno, the Indiana Jones films are still good… and, in the gaming world, Japan’s Nintendo Famicom was all the rage among the youth and more ‘indoorsy’ adults. Initially celebrated for its beloved turtle-hating Italian plumber, the games console had attracted a whole new market of swords and sorcery loving fan-boys with the release of The Legend of Zelda and, perhaps more notably, games developer Enix’s original 1986 role-playing classic, Dragon Quest. Though the premise of fantasy-based role-play had long been a popular medium among Japanese players, Dragon Quest’s release saw the genre hit a much wider audience with its engaging and greatly simplified game style. It was, for many, a pioneering move into a previously overlooked goldmine. It set a standard by which all future ‘RPG’s ‘ would be measured, unwilling to yield to anything but, for example, an utterly unpredicted giant lying in wait…
Of course, aforementioned giant was still but a meek halfling at this time… perhaps even less than that. Fade in to small-time games developer Square, scarcely able to hold its head above the water as title after title is smashed back into obscurity by the big boys. The threat of bankruptcy was baring over them and, by 1987, it was all or nothing for the company. This was the insurmountable challenge facing Square’s Hironubu Sakaguchi when he entered the planning stages for his last-ditch effort at breaking into Dragon Quest’s still bountiful market. If it flopped, it would prove a bitter end to his gaming career. Thus, that name which would one day become so iconic was elected with that very thought in mind. This was Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy…
Considered by many modern players to be the toughest title in the series, the first Final Fantasy followed a less linear attention to narrative (which would be what the later games would be celebrated for), with players leading their ‘Four Heroes of Light’ around the giant world map in search of their next (usually ambiguous) objective. It involved, primarily, a focus on levelling one’s self up and consistent battle to earn experience and gil. Recovery items such as Potions and Phoenix Downs were expensive, to say the least, and enemies tended to become increasingly more brutal at a rapid rate. The challenge, however (and it was a gargantuan one) proved tantalising to gamers, especially after the game recieved extensive coverage from Japanese Video Game magazine, Famitsu. Four hundred thousand units were eventually shipped and, after the successful reception of Dragon Quest’s North American translation, Final Fantasy hit the States three years after Japan in 1990. In short, Sakaguchi’s epic RPG was not to be an ending after all… but the beginning of a whirlwind success that he’d scarcely dreamed.
However, before Final Fantasy had even graced those Western shores– in fact, mere months into its Japanese release– the boys at Square were already avidly dreaming up a sequel. Of course, that’d never been on the cards originally, as the title constantly reminds us. The events of the first title were, whatever way you look at it, pretty well rounded up. Ergo, Sakaguchi decided it was time to go back to the drawing board, with an adventure unrelated to the first one, but familiar in character. He took up mantle of Director on the second game, pushing towards a stronger commitment to epic story-telling with a clearer narrative and more engaging plot, as well as re-designing the experience-based levelling system with activity-based progression (a change which was not to last into later titles). Much of the same team who worked on Final Fantasy returned, with Nobuo Uematsu composing the memorable music pieces, Yoshitaka Amano behind the concept art and Nasir Gebelli in charge of programming. The much-anticipated Final Fantasy II hit Japanese shelves but one day shy of a year from its predecessors release.
The title centered around the struggles of four youths, grieving the loss of their parents after an attack by the mighty empire of Palamecia. The formation of a rebellion ensues and their journey draws them head-to-head with the evil Emperor… all whilst greed and betrayal threaten to tear their friendship apart from within. This stronger devotion to plot and character development was to be the first common sign of things to come, though future fans of the franchise would find Final Fantasy II noteworthy for other reasons too. It was the first game to feature the loveable Chocobos, as well as the recurring character name of ‘Cid’ and also introduced the ‘front row/back row’ battle positioning which would become a staple of many later releases. At the time, however, the sequel recieved little coverage outside of Japan. In fact, the game wouldn’t see American or European players until its eventual re-release on the Playstation. In its home country, however, it was praised upon release, with reviewers favouring the game’s length and difficulty as well as, yup, that commitment to great story-telling that Sakaguchi held in such high regard. It seemed, in the end, that the only aspect of gameplay which kept audiences divided was the change to levelling, which many accused of being confusing compared to the classic experience point system.
By now we’ve hit 1990. Final Fantasy has just hit American game outlets. Meanwhile, back at home, Sakaguchi and the familiar team at Square were about to unveil, you’ve guessed it, Final Fantasy III. So much for going bankrupt, eh? The game was due for a release on the old Nintendo Famicom system, however it was around this very time that the Super Famicom (that’s the Super Nintendo to us of English tongue) would wow the country with its frankly incredible, wait for it, 16-BIT GRAPHICS. This, as it turns out, would work against the second and third games’ release outside of Japan, with the West devoting more time on pushing this amazing successor to the NES with all its might. There was no time for the tired days of 8-Bit Role-playing. Square, however, continued to bask in the warm glow of success among their Japanese kinsman, however, as Final Fantasy III continued to tantalise the taste-buds. Once again a new plot and new characters were devised. Much like Final Fantasy II, it centred around four orphans who, this time around, were drawn to the mysterious crystal of light. The crystal grants them its powers and sets them off on a quest to restore balance to the world (something which, obviously, a lump of shiny rock would be incapable of doing on its own).
Many classic fans would rejoice with the release of Final Fantasy III: though it was seen by some reviewers as a ‘typical RPG’ for its day, it did bring back the experience-based levelling players had missed so much as well as an advanced ‘Job System’ (giving gamers an option to change character class throughout the adventure). All characters had access to all jobs, though their proficiency in them increased the longer they stuck with a single role. This allowed players to be more tactful with customisable role-play. It was the first title to introduce individual battle commands, such as ‘Jump’ or ‘Steal’ and was the first game to feature the ‘Summon’ ability.
The game was to be overshadowed, however, by what many today still consider to be one of the strongest entries in the series.
By now, Square was growing rightfully cocky of its runaway success series. With the Super Famicom now doing the rounds, they planned to develop two new Final Fantasy games in succession: with the first due for release on the original Famicom and the second hot on its heels as a Super Famicom release. However, financial and scheduling restraints were raised and, in the end, the Famicom version was dropped entirely so that all focus could be put on the 16-Bit title instead. Hironubu Sakaguchi, the mastermind behind the existing ‘Final Fantasy Trilogy’ was to direct again, though he only offered initial ideas for the story on this occasion. Lead design was put in the hands of newcomer Takashi Tokita, who’d once wanted to make a career as a theater actor. His commitment to the scale of the new Final Fantasy, however, was driven by the desire to become a ‘great creator’ in the video game world. Many would agree he succeeded. In 1991, Super Famicom owners were to be treated to one of the landmark RPGs of all-time… Final Fantasy IV.
Focused on Cecil, a disgraced Dark Knight of Baron, the game centred on his quest for redemption as he is thrown into battle with Golbez, the new leader of Baron’s ‘Red-Wing’ airforce who seeks to seize control of four legendary crystals. Cecil allies himself with a memorable cast of characters, including white mage Rosa, summoner Rydia, monk Yang and the mage twins Palon and Porom as he sets out to uncover the truth about Golbez and his destiny. Takashi Tokita shared the same passion for plot as Sakaguchi and, as a result, Final Fantasy IV boasted an emotional, entralling journey unlike any of the games before it. So long, in fact, was the original game script that it was cut down to a quarter in length, though Tokita tried to edit nothing more than ‘unnecessary dialogue’ rather than story content. To his credit, it really worked.
It wasn’t just that incredible story that Final Fantasy IV is so fondly remembered for. It introduced the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which built upon turn-based combat with players inputting commands for their characters in real-time. As a result, the flow of battles became a lot more natural and the system was to be adopted and adapted in later installments for faster and more furious action. The music score, orchestrated once more by Nobuo Uematsu, was critically acclaimed and the enhanced graphics provided all-round eye candy. This might explain, in part, how the game was able to shift an incredible 1.44 million copies. So successful was it that, in spite not picking up the previous two entries in the series, North America got their own localization of it; albeit under the title ‘Final Fantasy II’. This was to remain its English-language name until the later re-releases, in which Westerners would finally realise they’d been playing Final Fantasy IV all along.
Since its release, major reviewers the world over have gone on record as calling Final Fantasy IV one of the greatest video games of all time. That’s quite an honour, to be sure, and one Square would have to take very, very seriously indeed when they decided to release the inevitable fifth installment. The boots were well and truly gargantuan to fill.
Final Fantasy V on the Super Famicom was helmed once again by Sakaguchi and it was up to him, again, to come up with an engaging and memorable story. This wasn’t, unlike Final Fantasy IV, what would really set the fifth game out in the series. That nod goes to the once more enhanced Job system of Final Fantasy III; allowing players a previously unimaginable level of customisability. With 22 jobs available, each character began out as a ‘Freelancer’ and acquired crystal shards to gain access to new roles. As well as experience points, characters would be awarded ABP (Ability Points) to further themselves in their chosen career. If they elected to switch job later on, they could even carry some of their old abilities (a Black Mage transferring to a Knight, for example, could keep hold of a few of those precious magic abilities). This encapsulated what was to become a standard in many other RPG series in future: a deep, fully-personalised experience that varied from gamer to gamer.
Once more the plot revolved around elemental crystals, this time keeping an evil sorceror named Exdeath at bay. As the crystals are threatened and the danger of Exdeath’s resurgence become apparent, our heroes (lead by wanderer Bartz Klauser) are forced into a battle to save the crystals. It was a familiar premise, make no mistake, with a few reviewers noting that (in comparison to early installments) the story was weak and the characters less interesting. However, it was that incredibly versatile Job and Ability system where Final Fantasy V really shone out, recieving all-round praise.
Regardless of any possible negatives, Final Fantasy V was always destined to be a huge succes. In fact, when it was released in 1992, the Japanese authorities bid that the game not be released on a school day as they became paranoid of nationwide truancy. Perhaps they’d been right to do so, as Final Fantasy V sold over 2.45 million units on the Super Famicom. With that sort of turnover, the North American release seemed set in stone. Translation for what would be called ‘Final Fantasy III’ in English-speaking countries began but, unfortunately, the project fell through. Much like Final Fantasy II and III, it was to be one of the ‘missing games’, not to resurface in the West until the Playstation re-releases seven years later. America and Europe would soon have their own ‘Final Fantasy III’, but it would be a translation of the sixth Final Fantasy, not the fifth…
Final Fantasy VI was the third and final Super Famicom title, released in 1994. The project was originally directed by Fantasy veteran Sakaguchi, however, for the first time since the series’ inception, he was forced to step down midway through development. Now Executive Vice-President at Square he couldn’t offer his full time and commitment to the project, thus the responsibilities were passed over to Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito. The game’s setting was notably darker than many of its predecessors: the first Final Fantasy to truly strike a balance between the worlds of magic and grimy Industrial Revolution technology (who can forget the incredible Magitek Armors). This halfway between classic fantasy and science-fiction would become the norm for most main series games to follow.
Final Fantasy VI follows the adventures of Terra, a half-human, half-esper woman who, up until the game’s beginning, had been under the control of an evil dictatorship (another recurring theme of previous games). With this bond severed, she finds she can’t remember anything about her past. What ensues is an epic journey by which Terra uncovers her own history and that of the oppressed science-driven world she lives in, pitting her and her rebel allies against Emperor Gestahl and, more notably, his maniacal clownish general, Kefka (considered by many hardcore fans to be one of Final Fantasy’s all-time greatest baddies).
Up until this point, Final Fantasy IV had generally been considered the crowning jewel in Square’s impeccable legacy. This all seemed to change with Final Fantasy VI. With one of the finest story-lines, most compelling multiple-choice scenarios and a large, memorable cast, it proved to gamers just how cinematic RPG’s could really be and still, to this day, stand out as the all-time greatest Final Fantasy for many. It was no wonder, then, that the game underwent North American localization to become the previously abandoned ‘Final Fantasy III’. This translation was particularly noteworthy, as many of the more aggressive violent allusions or suggestive sexual content featured in the Japanese release was edited or ‘softened’ for Western audiences. One of my personally favourite examples of this features in the escape of Edgar and his guests on the back of Chocobos: in which a pursuing Magitek soldier’s ‘Son of a Bitch’ line was altered to read ‘Son of a Submariner’. Talk about some ingenious off-the-cuff re-writing…
But, in spite Final Fantasy VI’s seemingly unsurmountable position in the top spot, it was to be the next game in the series which would, for most of us gamers here in the West, be the most memorable. Indeed, ’twas the very title which would introduce us to the awe-inspiring majesty of turn-based role-playing and, finally, synched up that confusing numerical difference between Japan’s VI and America’s III. This was to be, arguably, the most famous installment in the entire series.
The project was originally concieved back in 1994, shortly after the release of VI. It was initially set to be another two-dimensional Super Famicom release, with Sakaguchi taking the technological theme to the next level and setting it in a 1999 New York City. However, at the time, much of the Final Fantasy staff was pre-occupied with another Super NES RPG: Chrono Trigger. It was decided that, due to the scale of the seventh game, the likes of Yoshinori Kitase and other designers would be invaluable; thus development was put on hold. As a result, many elements which were originally to be used in the new Final Fantasy were transferred to Chrono Trigger, whilst others (including the New York setting and the sorceress character Edea) were held back for Parasite Eve and the eighth Final Fantasy. The original Sakaguchi script had closely mirrored a detective noir, though the finished product was to take on different form entirely, thanks to an expansive team of writers.
Development finally began in 1995 and was, at the time, the most expensive video game project in history: costing the equivalent of $45 million US dollars. The new game was to feature, for the first time in a Final Fantasy, incredibly rendered 3D graphics. This, of course, resulted in the need for incredibly high memory storage and, thus, a format change to CD-ROM. The game was too big to play on Super Famicom and Nintendo’s newest console, the Nintendo 64, was also to feature the use of old-fashioned cartridges. A dispute between Square and Nintendo ensued and, after a long and fruitful partnership, the alliance was finally severed. The new Final Fantasy would be released on Sony’s new Playstation, it was announced in 1996. What’s more, it was to be an international release, with a huge three-month North American marketing campaign rolled out to get the hype going.
In 1997, Playstation owners were finally able to get their mitts on the much-raved about Final Fantasy VII… the title which would bring Sakaguchi’s ‘swan song’ series (and the RPG in general) into the worldwide mainstream…
But alas, the conquest of the combined might of Sony and Final Fantasy is an epic tale in its own right. And one I’ll leave for next time.