There are so many memories, and such strong ones. We'll never forget the sacrifice Cid made in Final Fantasy IV. We'll never forget Aeris, whose death sent us crying and had people go to extreme length to change the course of the game. Vivi's farewell at the end of Final Fantasy IX brought us more tears, and it's safe to say that the Final Fantasy series has given us more moments like these over the last 25 years, than any other video game franchise.
The story of Final Fantasy starts with a 21 year-old student who recently dropped out of university. Fate obviously wanted something else for Hironobu Sakaguchi than a degree from Yokohama National University, and he quickly found work at a small company called Square. During the early 80's the gaming landscape was ruled by arcade games with consoles struggling after the crash of Atari. However, with the introduction of NES (Famicom), things started to pick up.
A genre that was growing in importance at this time was the Western role-playing game, often very complex creations brought out of the pen and paper traditions of role playing games. They were not very accessible, and mechanics and systems were more important than storytelling.
This is when another Japanese company called Enix makes a Japanese take on the genre - a game called Dragon Quest. Square are still struggling to grow their business in spite of creating a NES classic like Rad Racer. The company is fighting to stay alive, and Hironobu Sakaguchi decides to go out with a bang. With closure looming he sets about to create a final epic farewell - Final Fantasy.
To this day Hironobu Sakaguchi often points out that the name was a bit of a mistake. Given that we've reached the fourteenth numbered sequel it was not really final. When Final Fantasy was finished the competition was brutal. Enix had already released a sequel to Dragon Quest and Sega released Phantasy Star the very same week as Final Fantasy hit store shelves. A lot was riding on Final Fantasy, and Sakaguchi had given it his very best.
It was a well crafted game with design by Vampire Hunter D's Yoshitaka Amano, and it had a masterful soundtrack composed by Nobou Uematsu who remains one of the most revered composers in the industry to date, but at the time he was completely unknown. But in spite of it's lofty budget, Final Fantasy wasn't the storming success you may think. It was however, successful enough to buy Square a bit of extra time, and there was enough interest to create a sequel.
It wasn't until a few years later when the series was released in America that the real breakthrough came. Final Fantasy outclassed the Japanese phenomenon Dragon Quest in the American market as well as Phantasy Star II on Mega Drive - and this success vaulted Square into an international force. Nintendo realised the importance of Square, and formed an alliance with the company that would last for many years to come.
For some reason the American success of the games passed us by in Europe. Nintendo was of the opinion that Europeans had no interest in this type of game, and we were kept out of the loop until 1996 when the alliance between Nintendo and Square finally came to an end. And it wasn't just European Final Fantasy fans who were made to suffer, we also missed out on Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG in this part of the world.
Not only did Nintendo effectively shut Europeans out of playing some of the best RPG's Japan had to offer, they also muddled the waters by renaming and renumbering games as they saw fit. The first game in the Secret of Mana series is one such example - in Japan it was called Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, the American market got Final Fantasy Adventure, while Nintendo decided that Mystic Quest would be a better title for Europe. Adding to the confusion even more was a simple RPG that was called Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and renamed Mystic Quest Legend in Europe. It wasn't easy to be a European Final Fantasy fan at the time as the only games to make it over was inferior spin-offs. And it was about to get worse.
After the original Final Fantasy, they failed to release Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III in America as a result of chaotic translation work. Therefore the decision was amde to rename Final Fantasy IV - Final Fantasy II in America, and as they skipped over the brilliant Final Fantasy V - the American version of Final Fantasy VI became Final Fantasy III.
Very confusing and as if these mistakes weren't enough translator Ted Woolsey took enormous liberties with the source material as he changed names of characters, locations and even currencies. Perhaps the liberties he took with the translation is a reflection on how low the status of video games were at the time. It would have been unthinkable to treat translations of films and books in a similar manner.
But let's return to the original Final Fantasy for a bit. Even if it across as primitive and something of a crossover between Western and Japanese role-playing games it's definitely evident that Hironobu Sakaguchi was onto something big. Menu systems, combat, magic, airships were still there in many subsequent games, and we can still trace some of those origins in today's Final Fantasy games. It's easy to understand why people fell in love with the series as it came with a suitably epic storyline and a handy job system.
What the original Final Fantasy was missing was fully developed characters, something we associate with modern Japanese role-playing games. While we get to shape and create our heroes in games like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect from a lump of clay, the Japanese equivalents typically come with a fully developed main character. But in the first Final Fantasy we were playing as four unnamed character who refrained from saying a single word. It was with Final Fantasy II that story and characters became an integral part of the Final Fantasy concept.
We were introduced to Firion, Mario, Guy and Leon who revolted against an unusually cruel ruler - a villain who at the time felt very different from what we faced in other video games. It felt like a more mature take on what a video game could be at a time where platformers tried to squeeze as many colours as possible into every screen. Final Fantasy II had other unique aspects and one such aspect was the fact that the main characters were switched out during the adventure.
You didn't play with the same group of characters throughout, and they could even die in the middle of the adventure. The fact that main characters could die without being miraculously saved, was something surprising and captivating, especially for a generation spoon fed happy endings served up by Hollywood.
All the way up to Final Fantasy VII it was more rule than exception that main characters dropped off or even died during the adventure, regardless of how you equipped or levelled up your favourite characters. In a similar move it was easy to miss out on having a particular character join your group. In Final Fantasy VI you could miss out on Umaro, while some who played Final Fantasy VII missed out on fan favourite Yuffie.
It was in Final Fantasy II that we first met with Cid. A character that would appear in every subsequent main entry in the series, and he was even playable in Final Fantasy VII. Cid has often been cast as an elderly inventor, a role he reprised in the feature film Final Fantasy: Spirits Within where he was cast as the scientist Sid. Final Fantasy II also saw the birth of another Final Fantasy staple - the overgrown chickens known as Chocobos. On top of appearing in all subsequent Final Fantasy titles they've also starred in games of their own such as Chocobo Racing.
The final, and perhaps most surprising thing about Final Fantasy II was that it had nothing in common with the first game as far as story or world goes. This is a tradition that Square kept up as the story and world are switched out, while some themes may remain. This is perhaps the smartest single move Hironobu Sakaguchi is responsible for as far as Final Fantasy goes.
Given that there were no main characters or worlds to consider the developers were given plenty of freedom to surprise players and avoid stagnation. This way Final Fantasy IX had a sugar sweet fairy tale tone to its characters, while Final Fantasy X had a hefty dose of emo teenagers in latex outfits, while Final Fantasy XI was an online RPG with a hard and adult fantasy world.
If the original Final Fantasy was a feeling out process, then Final Fantasy II was the true saviour for Square. The franchise had saved the company from the brink of extinction, and now the main characteristics were in place. The only problem was the level system created by Akitoshi Kawazu. It created a lot of frustration among gamers, and together with the localisation problems it is often blamed for the fact the Final Fantasy II didn't make it across to Western markets. Kawazu's levelling system was not popular with the rest of the team, and subsequently he left the team and went on to create the SaGa series. It wasn't until Final Fantasy XII that Kawazu was brought back to work on the series again.
Prior to developing Final Fantasy III Hironobu Sakaguchi set out to design the ultimate Final Fantasy game. They had learned lots from the first two games in the series, and with two million selling games behind him Sakaguchi was given the chance to develop the third game on a 0.5 megabyte cartridge - and at the time that was a tremendous amount of data. The end result was brilliant and the game introduced summonings where beasts like Bahamut and Leviathan entered the battle to make things hard on your enemies. Final Fantasy III rightfully makes its way onto lists with the best Final Fantasy games, and it was remade as recently as in 2006 on Nintendo DS.
But even if the game was great its release came at a difficult period for the NES. Sega's Mega Drive was already released, and Super Nintendo was just around the corner. Final Fantasy games had never been graphical marvels, but instead they had relied on enormous open worlds, epic adventures and the brilliant music of Nobou Uematsu. 8-bits was no longer enough with the onslaught of 16-bit gaming, and there was a real risk of Final Fantasy IV becoming the final game in the series as the 8-bit era wound down.
This forced Square into a difficult decision as they had started work on two Final Fantasy games. One was Final Fantasy IV for NES, and the other was Final Fantasy V for the Super Nintendo. They had already put a lot of work into the NES game, when Square decided to pull the plug and instead what was planned as the fifth game became Final Fantasy IV. It was likely a very good decision as they avoided the pitfall of releasing their game on a console with little life left, and Final Fantasy IV became a massive success not the least thanks to the fact that it was the first RPG to make it out on Super Nintendo. Even if the graphics weren't special we were finally treated to the full potential of Nobou Uematsu's music thanks to the capable sound chip of the console.
Final Fantasy IV was the second game in the series to be translated to English, but as it was felt that Americans were incapable of understanding some of the finer points of Japanese role-playing games, the difficulty levels was lowered significantly and parts of the story removed along with symbols that were deemed to have religious connotations. Holy magic was turned into white magic, and as usual Europe was completely overlooked.
Instead Final Fantasy IV introduced many Europeans to importing American Super Nintendo titles and more questionable means of playing games that failed to make it to European shores. People wanted their fill of the Final Fantasy craze and when Nintendo and Square failed to deliver, and instead others saw an opportunity to profit from the demand. In a way, Square and Nintendo helped grow the pirate/import market to levels never before seen on Super Nintendo.
Final Fantasy IV also deserves to be mentioned as one of the absolute highlights of the franchise and it's a dystopian tale of a dark knight called Cecil who starts off the game killing innocents to acquire crystals. Cecil then starts to question his actions, and that's when the adventure starts out. Cecil's adventure is all about redemption as he seeks to ousts the mad king, and during his journey we're treated to some extremely emotional scenes including one of the most epic moments ever in a video game when Cid sacrifices himself to save the group.
The story heavy Final Fantasy IV was a trend setter as it led to deeper stories in Japanese role-playing games with tons of dialogue. I would also like to like to argue that this is where Square to acquire a taste for long cutscenes. The technology wasn't available to create pre-rendered clips, but it was a more linear experience than what was the case previously, and not as open to exploration. You simply had to accept the fact that characters could die without being able to do anything about it.
The previously mentioned title confusion started at this time. Not only was Final Fantasy IV renamed Final Fantasy II, but things were about to get even more confused. Square wanted to milk their success and the American market was flooded with games such as Final Fantasy Legend and Final Fantasy Adventure - games that actually belong to the SaGa and Secret of Mana franchises.
The oversaturation was a fact and Square were of the misguided opinion that Westerners had little interest in the next complicated entry in the main series - Final Fantasy V. Square felt it was too complicated for Westerners, and instead they set about developing Final Fantasy Mystic Quest - a game not based on any previous franchise and specifically targeted towards Westerners.
Lower difficulty, less depth, and a complete lack of any elements you associate with role-playing games and instead more platforming. It wasn't very successful, and as Europe was oblivious to Final Fantasy at the time, the game was simply called Mystic Quest over here. The lack of interest in Mystic Quest was taken as evidence that there was no interest for role-playing games in Europe.
The very complex Final Fantasy V remained exclusive to Japan in, eventhough it remained the creator's favourite entry in the series up until Final Fantasy IX. The legend of Final Fantasy V was further embellished as the Japanese government asked Square not to release the game on a school day so school children wouldn't play hooky as the game saw release. And for those out of the loop in Europe we were left having to read expensive gaming magazines for scraps of information.
Add to this the decision by Square not to translate and release Secret of Mana 2 in English, and you have some of the contributing factors to why emulators would become popular in the following years as avid fans took it upon themselves to translate and release the ROM's.
This marked the second time where the decisions of Nintendo and Square combined to hurt them by forcing fans to seek alternative sources to meet their needs. Later on they would have to own up to their mistakes and redeem themselves with re-releases. But the true change was still a few years away as it came with Final Fantasy VII - and prior to that momentous release Square released yet another classic entry in the series - Final Fantasy VI.
This was the time when Square really started to evolve. Final Fantasy was doing great and sales were climbing and climbing. The series was enormously popular in Japan, and the American market was ripe with interest and as Square made use of TV commercials for Final Fantasy VI even more interest was created. Over in Europe voices more gamers made their voices heard - and so Final Fantasy VI was to be the biggest undertaking in the history of the company. Hironobu Sakaguchi had risen to the rank of vice president of the company and fresh talent was needed.
Even if Sakaguchi still had a hand in the development, it was left to Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito to take charge of the largest development team to date comprised of 50 people, and they were given more resources than ever before and more time to complete the game in. All of this brought big changes to the concept. Even if each game had been a standalone experience, Final Fantasy VI left out several themes that the previous games had in common. Perhaps most importantly it was no longer a fantasy game, instead we were treated to mechs, trains, steampunk and a brand new and much evolved graphical style.
Square had filled the game to the brim with an enormous world to explore and lots of interesting side attractions. There was a total of 14 characters, each with a background story, and the cutscenes had grown longer and more grand, and the opera scene is perhaps the most memorable one. Uematsu had reached new levels as a composer and Terra's Theme still ranks among the best Final Fantasy tunes across the entire series.
There was no longer any way to contain the phenomenon. Final Fantasy VI was probably the best RPG of the 16-bit era, and reviwers and fans were jubilant. No longer could the series suffer weird title changes - and as it turned out this was only the beginning of the golden era of Final Fantasy.
This was a time of change, not different from when Square switched from NES to Super Nintendo. Final Fantasy VI was released in 1994, Europeans were not invited to the party, but massive numbers of the game was imported. Super Nintendo was still the biggest player in town, and development on Final Fantasy VII started as yet another pixel based game. But development dragged out as Square focused their efforts on bringing another massive project, Chrono Trigger, to completion.
The second part of A neverending Final Fantasy can be found here.
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