December 17, 1987. The release date of the original Final Fantasy, a humble role-playing game intended by video game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi to be his final attempt at success in the industry. Had the game failed financially, he planned to leave Square – themselves a humble computer software company only formed one year earlier and reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy – and return to university in preparation for a change of career.
Needless to say, the game is now remembered for anything but financial failure. Developed by a core team of seven staff members (including Sakaguchi himself) within Square, Final Fantasy introduced many elements that would serve as the groundwork for its numerous sequels, including an overworld map, towns and dungeons, a battle screen and the infamous random encounter system. While these fundamentals had appeared in some form in previous RPG games, where Final Fantasy set itself apart was in two key areas, those being its plot (a mature, winding story with the occasional surprise twist) and a memorable soundtrack composed by Nobuo Uematsu.
Inspired by the games unexpected success and resulting financial boost for the company, Square initiated development of a sequel almost immediately. Final Fantasy II was released exactly a year after its predecessor and established certain staples of the series. Chocobos made their first appearance, appearing in every subsequent main title, as well as a character named Cid. These two recurring elements have tied each game since loosely together when almost everything else changes. The games story, world, characters and certain gameplay mechanics were completely fresh and new, a rule that would be adhered to until future generations decided differently.
Development and release of the early games in the series continued at a fast pace with Final Fantasy III (1990), IV (1991) and V (1992), with the series transitioning from the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) to the upgraded SNES (‘Super’ NES) between III and IV. This first generation of Final Fantasy titles hit their peak in 1994 with Final Fantasy VI, the final title released for the SNES.
The series’ sixth instalment was as epic a game as you could find on the SNES; the greatest achievement of the time for such limited hardware. Retaining and perfecting the aforementioned elements from previous titles, VI also boasted fourteen unique playable characters, the most of any game in the series before or since. Its setting paralleled that of the 19th century, featuring opera, fine arts, railroads and steam ships; to step into the game was almost to step into the time period of the Second Industrial Revolution. During the course of the story, the geography and landscape around you would change according to plot developments. Visually it was more impressive than gamers raised on current console generations can possibly appreciate.
Without a doubt, Final Fantasy VI was a fine artistic and technological feat. But historically, it would (perhaps unfortunately) be overshadowed by what was to come next.
It was a long time coming, but in 1997, ten years after the series’ first humble instalment, Final Fantasy VII was released for Sony’s PlayStation (Square having realised, with the SNES now becoming outdated, that the CD-Rom had more storage capacity and potential than the Nintendo 64’s cartridges), helping to popularize the JRPG genre outside of its home market. Western interest in the series skyrocketed. This was due not only to the switch over to a more powerful console, but also the ambitious changes that VII introduced.
One of the most obvious changes was in how the game looked. Although the main locations and environments consisted of 2D pre-rendered backgrounds through which you guide your 3D character model – it wouldn’t be until the PS2 era that these would become fully 3D also – the overworld map, along with battle screens, were now in glorious 3D and made the game feel more realistic than any previous instalment. This represented the biggest visual jump of the series; beyond this would only be incremental improvements, despite further jumps to the PS2 and PS3 consoles to come.
This graphical realism helped to give fans some of their most memorable characters and moments of the entire series. I am referring of course to Cloud Strife, with his oversized sword and hair style; Sephiroth, the main villain who everyone loves to hate; and that one scene mid-way through the game, which cemented its plot as an all-time favourite in the minds of many a gamer. Few stories, even in cinema, are able to create such emotional resonance with their audience as Final Fantasy VII achieved here.
Yet I would argue that these sentimental attachments lead people to over-rate Final Fantasy VII slightly. Taking it as a whole, I struggle to see, aside from great visual improvements, a game superior to its immediate predecessor. Then again, a similar accusation could be hurled at me for saying the next instalment, Final Fantasy VIII, is my favourite in the series – it was, after all, the first one I played.
I have already talked about VIII and IX. The former took great strides towards additional realism and revolutionised certain gameplay mechanics – substituting magic points for the ‘junction’ system included – for one game only. It is, I would argue, the best game for sceptics of the series to start on (highlighted further by the fact that so many fans were upset by it). IX was an amalgamation of all the best elements from the previous eight games, and could be summed up in one word: nostalgia.
From here the series changes further. It is hard to believe that in the space of seven years we go from Final Fantasy VI (1994) on the SNES to Final Fantasy X (2001) – complete with voice acting for the first time and fully 3D rendered in-game environments – on the PlayStation 2. But that was the nature of the fast-paced gaming industry when I was growing up. It has since slowed down significantly in terms of technological advancement.
As has Square’s output as a company. VII, VIII, IX and X were all released within five years of each other. It would be another five before we got the next main console game in the series: Final Fantasy XII. This can be attributed to numerous factors, including the box office failure of The Spirits Within (2001) and the departure of Executive Vice President Hironobu Sakaguchi – with whom we started this article – from the company.
Sakaguchi’s story is a fascinating one, and it is fitting that we should bring this retrospective back to him. He had started as a part-time employee at Square back in 1986. During the development of the original Final Fantasy, his small team’s project was dismissed even from within the company. Its success saved both them and his career in the industry; four years after this (1991) he was appointed to the EVP position that he held until his departure.
With that, Square changed, and so did the series that was beloved by many. Whether for better or worse is something I will consider tomorrow, as we bring this story back into the present.