Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Feature: “Living the Final Fantasy”, Part 1

Feature: “Living the Final Fantasy”, Part 1

What do you do when left with just one bullet? Take your best shot. This is what I’m going to analyze in this 4-part feature, detailing the Final Fantasy franchise, in preparation for another huge change it will undergo. Final Fantasy XV looms in the horizon, while Final Fantasy XIV is just hours away from launch. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII still has a couple of months to go. If the Roman numerals don’t seem intimidating enough, try converting them to modern numbers: Final Fantasy 14 is releasing, and Final Fantasy 15 is probably a year and a half away. For a franchise to reach so many numbered entries, and still go strong, it means it has something special, unique. Something the competitors don’t have, or replicate badly. How, then, do you make a Final Fantasy last so long?

The Final Fantasy

Square Co. Ltd was a small, humble Japanese video game developer and publisher. Founded by Masafumi Miyamoto in 1983, the company started out by publishing titles for Nintendo’s NES. Up until 1987, the company was struggling, with talented individuals present but failing to realize their potential. As such, one of the most promising people from the company decided to give it his final shot.

His name was Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was then planning to retire from the games industry altogether after his last game would come to fruition. Sakaguchi wanted to make an RPG, but Square wouldn’t let him, being unsure if the genre would be a seller in Japan. Square wasn’t in a position that allowed failure, so this would have to be the one, the game that pulls them out of the slump.

Sakaguchi worked with Hiroyuki Itō, the man mostly responsible for the game’s innovative battle system. This came from a man who had never ever played an RPG before; his main inspiration was sports. As crazy as it sounds, he used American football as a basis for the combat system; players lined up, each with their own strategy against the opposing team. Akitoshi Kawazu also put a lot of work in the whole combat aspect. Wanting to make it close to Dungeons & Dragons, Kawazu took staples from the tabletop game, such as type weaknesses, and implemented them into the gameplay. It was the first Japanese RPG to do so, taking a page from the books of Western RPG’s. The spells present in the game were also heavily drawn from D&D, with many of them having direct counterparts in D&D. The game’s bestiary was also influenced from it on a big level, even having some enemies straight out of Dungeons, like the Mindflayer. Kawazu also thought that the whole fun in an RPG is its titular role-playing aspect, so he ditched pre-determined player parties, letting the player pick his own. Wanted a team of Black Mages? You got it. A team of Knights? Got it. Games weren’t factoring imbalance back then, so the team didn’t care much about this aspect tipping the scales on one side.

Sakaguchi’s last game was close to completion. The man discussed with Square, upset over the company’s 200.000 sales estimate, to the point he took ROM’s out of the production line and presented them to every publication, spreading the word about it on his own. He demanded the forecast to be raised to at least half a million, but Square declined.

Final Fantasy was created. A “Final” endeavor with the “Fantasy” aspect of the role-playing adventure. 1987 would mark the year Square managed to not only see the light at long last, but make sure the light was sugar-coated with money bags hanging around. The game managed to compete with Enix’s “Dragon Quest” inside Japan, which was the number one RPG. The initial NES release sold more than 400.000 copies, double Square’s forecast, and closer to Sakaguchi’s. The man had a vision all along, which proved to be successful, and a messiah for Square Co.

While it didn’t feature a strong story, the gameplay was phenomenal. Six classes to choose from (Warrior, White Mage, Black Mage, Red Mage, Thief, Monk), all with their own strengths and weaknesses, and equipment limitations. You had to traverse three continents, spread out on a world map, to gather four crystals. In the meantime, you would randomly encounter monsters of all kinds, earn Gil (the game’s currency) and spend it on better equipment, curative items, or spells when in the game’s havens, the towns. Turn-based battles called for strategy; you commanded your party and when you were done, the enemy team was free to answer. Winning battles gave you Experience Points, and when you earned enough, you would go up a level.

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The game was met with strong critical reception, sporting a soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu that surpassed that of many of its opponents’. In July 1990, Nintendo of America published the game in North America, where it was free to compete with the localized Dragon Quest (named Dragon Warrior in the localization). It would not, however, see a European release until 2003, with the Final Fantasy Origins release on the Playstation. Since then, the game has been remade for any platform you can think of — in fact, it might have even been remade to play on toasters, as far as we know. The game that kickstarted Square Co. was a phenomenon, and it surely wouldn’t stop at that.

Stagnating means dying

Square knew this. They had a very expensive gem in their hands, and if they wanted to put it on the highest tower, knowing that if it ever fell, it would crumble to millions of pieces. They had to reinvent the game, just as they walked on land where no one had with the release of Final Fantasy. This time, they kept almost everything that made it good, but also added a meaningful story, which was, again, innovative at the time. The “Job system” (classes) was nowhere to be found; in its place was the “Skill-based advancement system”. This provided you with predetermined characters, but with undetermined skills and stats. Everyone could be anything simply by using a specific item or technique. Wanted to level up your health and defences? Just sustain hits! If you want to up your skills with a bow or an axe, just use them over everything else. Experience points were gone, and Square was again experimenting.

The SBA system was good in the developers’ minds, because they would still get the characters they needed to fill specific boots in the story, without compromising the open-ended character customization of the first entry. However, it could easily be exploited by certain legit, in-game mechanics; for example, you could hit your teammates to make them wake up from the effects of a sleep spell, which is a tactic people used to boost those characters’ stats. Being one of the first and best more story-focused games of the time, a dialogue system was also introduced, where you could converse with NPC’s about specific subjects, which was, again, groundbreaking to do for the era. It also introduced Chocobos and the Cid character, both of which would later become synonymous with the brand.

Kawazu designed the game in Sakaguchi’s place, whose retirement plans were out of question now. Uematsu returned to score the soundtrack once again, which marked his seventeenth video game work. Final Fantasy II was released in Japan in 1988, and while not as successful as the original, Nintendo of America with SquareSoft (Square’s North American subsidiary) still wanted to localize it for the market, as with 1990′s Final Fantasy localization. However, while in 1991 Final Fantasy: Dark Shadow Over Palakia was announced, it never came to be. By the time it would come out for the NES, the SNES would have been released, and more recent Final Fantasy titles were out. Thus, Final Fantasy II didn’t see a release outside Japan until 2003′s inclusion in the Final Fantasy Origins package for the Playstation. After that, it would be subject to a host of remakes and re-releases, standalone or packed with the original game. Even then, Final Fantasy II was the least selling game of all the first ten in the series. Soul of Rebirth, a story covering the past of some Final Fantasy II characters (very generic description, but I can’t say more without spoiling), was released alongside the GameBoy Advance and Playstation Portable remakes of the game.

With this game done, Square knew they had to bounce back. It wasn’t a bad game per se; it’s one of the best RPG’s of that era, but the company didn’t have the luxury of failing. As trivial as it sounds, success was the only way to, and once more, Sakaguchi and the team were back at the drawing board, designing the next big Final Fantasy. They had to keep what was good about the first two games, and use them to make a great third game.

Keeping what’s good

Final Fantasy was going forth, strongly, proudly, and full of confidence. Sakaguchi’s creation was more than Square’s savior — it grew to be one of the most valuable and revered franchises in the world. Scrapping the SAB battle system, Final Fantasy III adopted the “Job system”. Including 23 classes and over 8,000 party class combinations (8,855 to be precise), your character was not locked to one job like in Final Fantasy, nor would he level up exclusive stats, like in Final Fantasy II. Completing various sidequests and collecting more crystals as you advanced enabled you to juggle between the jobs.

In addition to new commands locked to specific jobs (like “Steal” for the Thief job), it also introduced another series staple; Summons. Characters could summon powerful, magical beasts in battle to give them a hand, or a claw, a tail, a row of teeth… It also further refined combat, with the inclusion of auto-targeting. In the previous games, if you attacked an enemy that was alive when targetted, but dead when the character’s turn came, the attack missed. In Final Fantasy III, it was simply transferred to another enemy. And what about the cute Moogles? These little creatures have appeared even in Kingdom Hearts, kupo! All these would stick with the series for years to come, further leading Square to success. The 1990-released game was making up for the shortcomings of its predecessor.

The size of Final Fantasy III was tremendous, to the point that it completely filled the NES cartridge. The impeding release of the SNES also took away a number of Square employees, who were working hard to grasp the new technology. This led to Square not having the manpower for an English translation of the game, nor the hardware ability to do so, since even the newer cartridges couldn’t hold an updated-for-the-platform version of the immensely sizeable RPG. Thus, Final Fantasy III was another title in the series not released outside of Japan until 16 years later. 2006 would be the year a completely 3D-remade version of Final Fantasy III hit the Nintendo DS. As you would expect, until today, countless platforms have seen re-releases of the title, even the 2-months-old Ouya. But Square needed something new, something better. The SNES was a considerably more powerful machine than the NES, and Square was looking to make good use of it with the next release.

Take you to the moon

Final Fantasy IV was inevitable. The world and the critics alike were in love with the daring franchise, and wanted to see it continue. The first Final Fantasy to release in North America after the original, it beared the title Final Fantasy II in that territory, to compensate for the two entries it jumped on the continent. 1991 brought the first SNES release of the franchise, and, personally, I think it was the first one to make Yoshitaka Amano’s designs stand out. The illustrator’s unique art is simply striking, and a way to identify Final Fantasy when you see it.

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Final Fantasy IV introduced what would become the main battle system for future Final Fantasy games, even Final Fantasy XIII. Hiroyuki Itō’s new creation, the “Active Time Battle system” was a dynamic, real-time addition that was really ahead of its time — it was explicitly used, with very slight alterations, in all of the five subsequent games. Itō wanted the players to not feel overwhelmed by too many action elements, so he created what was closest to real-time without the reflexes and on-your-toes reactions a true real-time system would require. Around the time of the game’s development, semi-automatic transmissions were introduced to Formula One, and this is what inspired Itō — again, surprising me.

With it, a gauge that filled in real-time for each character was present, with its filling speed depending on the character and the power of the move used, and the character could execute a move only when the gauge was filled. Enemies like the Demon Wall, a cursed wall that closed in as the battle went on, were introduced to the series, giving the player a run for their money and essentially asking them to make quick decisions — another element the series would carry to future installments. Also, meeting certain criteria when being attacked, the enemies can instantly retaliate by striking back. The player had to factor in tactics like status ailment afflicting magic, or avoiding attacks that trigger the counterattacks altogether. This new system did not come without its woes, though; even if a character’s ATB gauge was full, shuffling between characters was unavoidable. Sometimes, this led to using the wrong character at the wrong time.

The game was also unique in that it allowed for five party members as the maximum number, and is the only in the series to do so. Jobs are back though, and are unique to each of the twelve playable characters. In IV’s case, the pre-defined characters are actually a strength, since the fourth game has a great story, and rightly makes it its focus. In case you wondered, the paragraph title references the famous part of the game where you travel to the moon.

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Experience points make a return, and Magic is now split into four categories: White magic, Black magic, Rydia’s Summon Magic, and Ninjutsu (which is exclusive to the character of Edge). The Magic system as a whole was vastly different from previous games, too. Of the twelve playable characters, only eight could use magic. This, coupled with the fact that new spells were only gained through levelling up or reaching certain points in the story, made the whole system a different beast from that of its predecessors. Lastly, another addition that would become an expected aspect of the game was the save points.

Nobuo Uematsu’s music was a given for the series, with the man returning for the fourth time to score an emotional soundtrack to go with the game’s tone. The SNES was a big upgrade from the NES, and as such, Uematsu used the chance to have different music play at different moments, instead of locking a theme to a map as with previous games. This was the ultimate Final Fantasy; combining the story-centric element of the second game with the fantastic combat and class systems from the first and third games, Final Fantasy IV was the labour of some hard work, with a grand vision. In that vision, RPG’s were no longer a “fight boss, advance on the world map” affair; the story was guiding the players forth, instead of confusing them as to what they should do next on another huge, world map.

Final Fantasy IV was, without a doubt, the best in the series. It saw many (surprise!) re-releases, and it’s actually surprising I can’t play it on my GPS yet… I’ll have to wait for a port. Another glorious 3D remake landed on the Nintendo DS, while a special edition featuring “The After Years”, an expansion pack originally released for the Wii in digital form, was released for the PSP, bearing all sorts of goodies inside, along with “Interlude”, which bridged the gap between the two stories and was exclusive th the platform. It is clear that IV is one of the most beloved and daring installment in the series, and, having played it recently, I can say it has aged very well (save for the occasional frustrations). So how, then, would Square continue the series if this was the peak? Sakaguchi still had a lot to give, and further experimentation was inbound. This certainly wasn’t the peak for him, nor Square.

In search of the mountain top

We can all agree that, by the time Final Fantasy V landed to Japanese SNES systems in 1992, Square had a mountain in their possession. Made of gold, made of potential, or made of determination to not fail. Just five years before it, Square was a struggling company, having put out nothing worthwhile, and was sailing to bankruptcy on full sails, in a windy day. But the Final Fantasy train wouldn’t stop at anything, churning out successful games one after another, each one being an experiment in the development house’s search for the perfect formula.

The fifth entry brought along the beloved Job system, offering twenty two jobs to players, with a twist. ABP, or Ability Points, are introduced, and are mandatory in levelling a character’s job, alongside the now-standard Experience Points. Multi-classing is the new fad, which allowed characters to learn job-specific skills and carry up to two of them over to a new job should they wish to change. You can imagine the possibilities this opened; a Knight who can cast Meteor or Holy? Count me in, ladies and gents. Curiously though, this was the last game that would feature the Job system up until Final Fantasy Tactics in 1997.

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A reworked ATB system was back, unsurprisingly, featuring a fix over the shuffling problem I mentioned earlier. Players were now aware of whose turn would come next each time, clearing up the confusion and easing players’ nerves. While the story of the game, for me, wasn’t up to par with the previous game’s (or with any of the future games, for that matter), it was still there, leading the race to the ultimate RPG. Square was hitting all the right notes, and by this point, everyone was sorely waiting for the next big entry in the series. How would the battle system change? What would the story be? How would Square reinvent the genre and the series?

However, North American and European players were either cursed or blessed — you name it. The game was released in 1992, true. But it was only for SNES, and only for Japan. In 1995, Final Fantasy Extreme was the game’s name for the planned North American release, aimed at the core players who wanted to mess around with character building through the interesting Job system. This, though, never became a reality. In 1997, Square hired a studio named Top Dog to port the game to Windows, the project was apparently dropped. This left fans with only one way to play an English version of the game, and that was through RPGe’s fan translation patch that was floating around the interwebz. The rest of the world wouldn’t see a localized version until 1999, when the game found North American and European shelter in Playstation, Sony’s debut console. Keep this in mind.

The game, however, has since seen a ton of re-releases, the most recent being this year’s iOS and Android version. While I would consider it one of the weakest entries in the series, I can’t deny the risks it took, risks that would pay off in other forms, later down the long road this franchise created.

Here we are, writing the epilogue of the first part of our Final Fantasy feature, “Living the Final Fantasy”. Like everything in this world, it has its ups and downs, its awe-inspiring moments and the anger-inducing ones. But, now that you read its origins, which I’m sure at least some of you weren’t aware of, I hope you see how this franchise is inspirational. Not only within the games industry, but within life. How sheer determination and hard work can not only get you out of a hole so deep you don’t know which way is up (get the reference), but also give you a huge boost towards the sun — towards success.

It always struck me how Sakaguchi always gave each game a new universe, albeit with some shared item and character names, or recurring summons like Gilgamesh, who debuted in Final Fantasy V, or Bahamut, the majestic dragon that’s as recognizable as that spiky, blonde boy from a future release. He never really thought that the series needed sequels; after all, how can you relive your Final Fantasy?

Did you like the read? Did you learn something out of it, or do you think I might have forgotten something? Don’t hesitate to say so in the comments below!  Keep an eye out for the second part in a week, where I’ll break down the next five main games in the series and all games associated with them; a special part will go up on the fourth week, detailing movies, spin-offs not associated to the core games, and more. Until next Monday, live your Final Fantasy!

About Christos Chatzisavvas

Senior Editor. Your go-to man for everything you need, from games to Games Thirst; I'm always here to help. Gaming lover, web developer going for HND and Bachelor, founder and developer at Underground Journey. When I'm not under the faint light of a PC monitor or TV playing games, I try to lead a life as exciting as I can. Follow me on Twitter @CrashOkami, or Facebook.