Last week’s Remembering the Classics was all about Dungeons & Dragons, the undisputed forefather of every modern RPG in existence. Ideas and standards set into motion 40 years ago by this table top RPG can still be seen to this very day. I guess you can say that this week’s Remembering the Classics is a sort of follow up to last week as the subject is one of the most profitable franchises to take cues from D&D. I even talked about it last week with it’s own brief paragraph. But when it comes to a franchise like Final Fantasy, a brief paragraph simply doesn’t cut it. With 27 years of fantastic games and undeniable global influence, you could write an entire freaking book about the history of this best-selling franchise. Yet I’m not here to write you a book. I’m here to write you a significantly shorter article. And with the very recent release of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, the end of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, there is no better time to reflect.
The Final Fantasy name almost had a tragic backstory. When Square was founded in 1986, it stumbled hardcore in the resurging video game market. Its games did not sell well and the threat of bankruptcy and severe job loss was all too real. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the Director of Planning and Development at Square, wanted to make a fantasy RPG for years but the company refused believing it wouldn’t sell. With literally nothing left to lose and the success of Enix’s Dragon Quest, Square gave Sakaguchi the green-light to make his own fantasy RPG. He aptly titled it Final Fantasy as it was intended to be the failing company’s final title and Hironobu’s final fantasy game had it failed.
When Final Fantasy finally hit Japanese shelves for the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) in 1987, it was a surprise smash hit and the exact thing Square needed to turn its fortunes around. The story follows four light warriors of varying job classes as they try to rid the world of the ultimate evil known as Chaos. At the start of the game, you choose your character classes and stick with them for the entire game, only promoting them once when the story calls for it. The combat is a basic menu based system where you choose commands and the battle plays out depending on what you chose. You can have your characters use normal attacks, items, and individual skills depending on your character class. Final Fantasy’s overall plot weaves through many towns, castles, and dungeons with battles around every corner and an overworld map you explore.
With an evolving class change system, several different methods of transportation including canoes and airships, and actually being able to see your characters in battle (every RPG before was in first-person during fights), Final Fantasy make its mark on history. Considering how these features have since become RPG staples, it’s difficult for a whole generation of people to ever imagine a time when this stuff wasn’t commonplace. Naturally Square soldiered on with their new flagship franchise and began working on repeated sequels. Final Fantasy II quickly came out in 1988 as a Japan only NES title featuring a whole new story and cast of characters, another change-up that has now defined the franchise. But due to rapidly changing technology and poor English localization efforts, countries outside of Japan wouldn’t see a new Final Fantasy until the groundbreaking Final Fantasy IV in 1991 (you can read about that game’s influence here). Square and their North American counterpart Squaresoft didn’t want to confuse Western fans though so FFIV came overseas as FFII for the SNES. Final Fantasy VI, easily one of the best (and some say THE best) titles saw similar treatment after Final Fantasy V (the game that opened this column) also failed localization efforts. This lead to FFVI becoming FFIII overseas in 1994.
Naturally all of these overseas issues frustrated Square. Despite the international success of FFIV and FFVI, they needed a monumental hit to really get permanent global attention. They got that in 1997 with Final Fantasy VII for Sony’s PlayStation. Every Final Fantasy game prior had been on a Nintendo console, but the sheer graphical power of CD-ROM gave the PlayStation an edge the Nintendo 64 couldn’t match. With previously unimaginable graphics, beautifully rendered CGI cutscenes, a tragically gripping story, and memorable soundtrack by franchise icon Nobuo Uematsu, FFVII was a runaway hit. The journey of Cloud Strife to both save the world and discover who he really was resonated with people on a global scale. It brought the franchise away from the castles and kings that popularized previous titles (not incredibly present in FFVI but there were remnants) and gave it a much more modern feel. FFVII gave Square the mainstream attention it needed and suddenly playing a Japanese RPG became much cooler. Riding the success if FFVII, Square was propelled into the stratosphere of greatness. The company that almost became bankrupt exactly ten years prior had become a true gaming institution.
After FFVII, everything was rosy for Square and their fruitful partnership with Sony. The PlayStation saw the releases of Final Fantasy VIII and IX, both to equal critical acclaim. When the PlayStation 2 came out, people began wondering when the next Final Fantasy game was coming. They got their answer with the incredibly popular Final Fantasy X that brought major gameplay and technological changes to the franchise. Their first MMORPG came in 2002 with Final Fantasy XI, just another example how much this series evolves with each new iteration. Now some people can’t help but look at the newest installment, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, and get amazed at how much the games have changed. With changing times comes new ideas, but unfortunately many fans are exactly kind to some of the more radical changes. As for Square, Final Fantasy’s success saw them become RPG kings, and they have since merged with rivals Enix to form the current company Square Enix. Every past Japanese only title has since received international attention, necessarily filling in several years of gaps.
I am not shy about my love for Final Fantasy. Ever since I first played FFVII as a kid, I have been a firmly dedicated fan, though admittedly I have yet to pick up the sequels to FFXIII. The amount of hours I have clocked in with each game is unimaginable. Like many hardcore fans of the series, I have a staunch favorite title: the greatness that is FFVII. For many personal reasons, FFVII holds a special place in my heart that very few games have ever reached. It’s like that good book, movie, or album you refuse to get rid of. I still have my original copy of FFVII and I hardly intend to sell it. I’d even go so far as to say that FFVII is my favorite game of all time, and that’s saying a lot considering my extensive catalogue. That’s all I will say now but definitely expect a full on FFVII dedicated post in the future. In fact, each title basically deserves their own posts.
The Final Fantasy series has always been one about rebirth. It gave a failing company new life and each numbered entry is an entirely different world for people to explore. Movies and sequels have come out over the years but nothing really holds a candle to the core entries. While many fans decry the changes wrought on in recent years, it’s hardly surprising considering how much the series grows with each new installment. A fresh perspective is what defines this series, especially when you consider each game as a “final fantasy.” I for one always look forward to a new title, though the jury is still out for me as to why FFXIII deserved two sequels. In all honestly, I’m still crossing my fingers for a full-on FFVII remake. Never say die I say. Until that day (hopefully) comes, we can be confident that the Final Fantasy name will continue to go strong for many years to come.