It’s unlikely that if you were a gamer during the nineties that you didn’t play some sort of Final Fantasy title. From the NES, to the SNES and finally onto the Sony based trio, the series has had a long and intense history of fantastic and consistent innovation and creativity. Regardless of your personal opinion on each title, there’s probably at least one of the games that you’ve played and enjoyed. Whether its the creativity in character development, the expansive plot lines, gut wrenchingly beautiful graphics or expansive music score, there’s always something memorable about an FF title.
Do I think that the Final Fantasy series is one of the most important in modern gaming history? Yes. Why? Read on.
Square Enix has taken quite a lot of flak as of late. Since the release of the last Final Fantasy core title, XII, and the official merger of Square and it’s old rival, Enix, the company has had to deal with quite a remarkable amount of changes. Alongside the expansion of its handheld offerings, namely its Tactics IP and introduction of new IP in the case of The World Ends with you, the acquisition of Enix introduced another legacy to follow, in the case of the popular Dragon Quest and Star Ocean series’. The workload expanded, and a new generation of consoles presented themselves. New opportunities arose in markets that previously were not considered important, and requests for re-releases, such as Chrono Trigger became possible on portable devices.
Final Fantasy was no longer the only leverage the company held, and with that, so changed the philosophy. The heavyweights of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu who together created some of the most iconic games in the franchise’s history, left the company around the same time as the merger, forcing Square to make future titles without them. This huge shift was not to be without consequences. While well received, FFXII was one of the most criticized in the series, with many upset that the title removed almost all of the magic that made the original games special. While a talented team was involved, many of them had been working previously on Tactics titles and FFXI, Square Enix’s first MMO. Of the original greats, only Uemastu was involved, and his contribution was minimal.
But to find out why that magic existed, we need to go back to 1987, when Sakaguchi created the original Final Fantasy on the NES. For the first time, the emphasis was removed from standard combat and action, and instead placed on telling a story. The plot was one of fate, destiny and courage. Your team of knights fought to save the world from true darkness, and selflessly bring light to a dying planet.Final Fantasy was a revelation, a turning point in gaming. The focus was turned from the visceral and twitch and the gamble placed almost completely on the ability to guide the player through events. Uematsu created the game’s epic score, starting what would become an epic partnership with Sakaguchi.
Final Fantasy was originally meant to be that, Square’s final game. A string of financial failures had driven them to make one saving grace. Needless to say, it worked.
The partnership of these two would follow them throughout the subsequent NES and SNES sequels. Along the way, the game and how it was played would evolve. As technology improved, so did the ways the story could be told. But in each case, an immense amount of effort was placed on perfecting every part of the experience. Graphics were tweaked so low-res sprites could show emotion. Characters were fleshed out to the point where people could grow with them, learning about their past, their fears, their passions and their drives. The world was expansive, and as the player traveled through it, revealed its secrets and cultures. Pacing became especially important, with the designers finding new and innovative ways to guide the player along the experience.
Sound was for the first time tweaked to work alongside the player and their actions. Battle music was dramatic and edgy, complex and emotional scenes were soft and drawn. Many games before and even during would use sound as simply a mechanic to represent what things would sound like in the real world. Final Fantasy changed that, by creating dramatic orchestral scores that tug at emotions and provided the player with an aural sense of importance and meaning. Many gamers to this day can still remember the battle music from FF6 or the original introduction “theme” for FF1. How many other games can provide that sort of memorable experience?
Some might say that all of this came to a dramatic head with the release of Final Fantasy 7. Easily the most admired of the series, all of the aspects that had made FF games so revolutionary in game based storytelling were expanded with full motion cut scenes, crystal clear sound and unbelievable graphics. The designers were finally free from the restrictions of their cartridge predecessors but refused to compromise on innovating. Everything gamers had come to expect had simply been expanded or updated, from the new customizable magic system to the multitude of mini-games, side quests and quirky Easter eggs. The game was paced so well that many admitted to playing it almost non-stop to completion, while others praised the way in which the series truly evolved.
In every game in the series, the designers started from scratch. Refusing to release rehashed versions of the same game, the designers searched for ways to make the gameplay experience better, different and innovative at the same time. From job systems to world maps, aircraft to ships, junctioning to limit breaks – it’s almost impossible to find a series that has lasted this long without recycling the same mechanics. Even titles that used similar engines, such as the PSX titles (7-9) were completely and utterly different in how they were played, in almost every aspect. The characters and story (apart from some fan service) were completely original and extraordinarily creative, with each title focusing on one single “element” – from “life”, to “love” to “self”.
It’s all too often that innovation is an excuse for testing failed ideas on unsuspecting gamers. But the fact of the matter is that Square dug deep and long for every FF, making sure that it was nothing but a perfect example of how a game should be. Only a handful of companies push this level of dedication into their titles, especially in the day and age of games where differences can be attributed to graphics or statistics, then true innovation in gameplay or story progression. FF games aren’t for everyone, but many can agree that there is probably an FF game available to fit almost every taste for adventure.
For whatever reason you may not be a fan of the series, as a gamer, you cannot respect gaming without respecting Final Fantasy and its epic contribution to how games have evolved. Final Fantasy was responsible for saving a company, revitalizing an industry and, most importantly, pushing the limit further then what many expected games could ever go.
I’m just going to hope that the series continues to be developed for many years to come. Hats off to you Square.