[Takashi Tokita -- a lead creative force behind Square's Final Fantasy IV and lead designer of recent sequel The After Years -- looks back at the creative process of the original game from 1991, and also reflects on how the developer has strayed from its glory days.]
Lead designer Takashi Tokita joined Square 25 years ago -- prior to the company's merger with Enix, and prior to the Final Fantasy series becoming popular in the U.S. He was a lead creative force behind the game Final Fantasy IV, which is being rereleased on the PSP this week. Originally released on the Super Famicom (SNES) in 1991, the game has also hit the original PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS.
It is a seminal title in the series, in which two Final Fantasy mainstays were introduced: the real-time Active Time Battle combat system, and a reliance on rich character-based melodrama -- two elements which remain part of the series to this day, forming the underpinnings of last year's Final Fantasy XIII.
In this candid interview, Tokita, also lead designer of recent Final Fantasy IV sequel The After Years, looks back at the creative process of the original game from 1991, reflects on how the developer has strayed from its glory days, and examines what Square Enix could do to bring those days back in an age of changing consumer behavior and rapid platform expansion.
When did you originally join Square?
Takashi Tokita: Twenty-five years ago. I started just as a part-timer, and not a full-time employee, doing graphic design. From FF IV, I became a full-time employee.
So this [revisiting of FF IV] is you returning to your roots at this point?
TT: Yes. With FF IV, as a game designer, I was previously doing graphic design as well; but it was the first time I really saw a project from beginning to end. With The After Years, and these additional titles, and then also the 20th Anniversary Complete Collection, I really feel like I was able to return to my roots -- it was a fated project.
Has it been reflective for you? Twenty years is a big milestone. Has it given you a lot to think about?
TT: Yeah, I realized I've done so much over these years, and the game industry overall is an industry that changes so quickly. It used to be that every five years was essentially a new platform, but now we're at the point where the environment itself, including mobile, is just constantly changing. You never get bored, and so I feel like I blinked and it's been 25 years.
Game development used to be "what can you create? What kind of software can you provide for a specific platform?" But it's no longer really about platforms; it's about infrastructure and content. In terms of that, it's really a lot more flexible, and it's really about what kind of fun content can you create. That's what's going to get noticed.
That's a big change for Square, I think, because it was always about what is this epic new world that's going to be created, with what new characters. Maybe hooking people isn't going to be the same in the near future; maybe gaining interest isn't necessarily going to be about that as much.
TT: Yeah, I definitely feel that now, as well. Of course, we have the main big franchises of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, but beyond that it's about what kind of opportunities and challenges can they take on. Like getting into military, it's not just about having an Air Force and an Army anymore; it's also about having your guerilla troops and your people who are looking into R&D (laughs). It's just a much wider range of teams and areas to explore.
Final Fantasy IV has probably been ported to more platforms than any other Final Fantasy game. Can you give me an idea of why that is?
TT: When we made the original Final Fantasy IV, we wanted to collect all the best aspects of Final Fantasy I, II, and III, and create what is the basis for what a Final Fantasy is. As the standard for Final Fantasy, we really wanted to bring it to a variety of platforms.
You're right; it introduced Active Time Battle, and it introduced melodrama to the series, which is probably just as important. If you can think back to when you originally created it in 1991, what were you thinking? What was the goal with the original project?
TT: For Final Fantasy I, II, and III, they were for the NES. At that point, Dragon Quest was the number one most popular game in Japan. With Final Fantasy IV, we really wanted to surpass that. The previous Final Fantasy titles were not million-sellers yet, and so we really wanted to jump over that hurdle this time.
One of the things I really respect about Final Fantasy IV is that it seems like every dungeon has something different to do in it.
I was wondering if you would talk about why. That didn't continue throughout the series; it's very specific to that game.
TT: What we really wanted to do was to have a variety of different concepts for dungeons, and we felt that, without that, it just wouldn't be interesting enough. So we spent a lot of time brainstorming the different concepts that could be applied to each dungeon.
It certainly had a lot of different settings, as well. We had the underground, the main world, and the moon -- in a sort of similar way, is it just to keep the variety to the game?
TT: Even the monsters in the different dungeons -- if you were on the moon, they would be very alien-like. We spent a lot of time creating ideas for all the different types of characters.
Why did you feel the need to have multiple different worlds? At that time, that was pretty rare. Was that just another thing that you thought would improve the game and propel it to the kind of sales you were looking for?
TT: It wasn't just about the story. Each person who was handling the map design or the battles came to the table with their own ideas, and there was kind of a sense of a competitive spirit among us, of how we could make this more fun for the fans. Right now, a lot of games are more movie-like and more cinematic, and it doesn't offer the full, robust feel, when it's that kind of cinematic game.