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When the first Final Fantasy game was released in 1987, no one could have realized what a misnomer that “final” in the title was, or what a profound effect the title would have on game developers all over the world.
Final Fantasy is one of the longest-running franchises of all time, and the latest entry in the series is one of the longest-awaited titles in games. With Final Fantasy XV finally, finally arriving today, it’s a good time to take stock of several key ways that Square (Enix)’s preeminent role-playing series has introduced innovations to gaming and influenced other designers.
We reached out to several developers and afficionados for whom the franchise has been a touchstone, and got their input on what makes FF games so unique. Thanks to Bill Steirnberg, Andrew Allanson, Alexa Ray Correia, and Greg Kasavin for their input.
There’s a saying that only a few thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but everyone who did went out and started their own band. Millions of people played the early FF titles, and many of them were so inspired by their mechanics and storylines and characters and presentation that they paid homage to the franchise in their own work.
Korean developer Yang Bing is the latest example. He was so enthralled by the trailer for Final Fantasy XV that he single-handedly made a prototype for an entirely new game, Lost Soul Aside. After two years of work, he released his own trailer, which prompted a massive response; publishers such as Sony and Epic have even reached out, hoping to help make the game a reality.
Lost Soul Aside
Final Fantasy has inspired generations of creators to make their own games.
Zeboyd Games is well-known for its old-school takes on JRPGs such as Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World, and Ackk Studios’ upcoming title YIIK uses prerendered backgrounds in a way that invokes the PS1 classic Final Fantasy VII.
"I have this distinct memory of getting home from Blockbuster and trying out Final Fantasy IV [FF2 in the west]," says Bill Steirnberg, programmer, Zeboyd Games. "I remember thinking, 'Man this isn’t like Legend of Zelda at all.' At first I was put off because I was a kid and it wasn’t what I was expecting. But then I got sucked in."
"I loved how the creators were courageous enough to create new worlds each time, and to make characters who were empathetic and nuanced... In short, I want to make games that can make people feel the way the classic Final Fantasy games made me feel."
"I have a very fond memory of getting Final Fantasy IX," says Andrew Allanson, co-founder, Ackk Studios. "I didn’t get games very often so I always made sure when I got a game it was the longest game available. So the idea of a game that was four discs really excited me. After I beat it, I quickly bought FF7 and FF8. And I bought a Super Nintendo to get FF6. And so on and so on. Within two years, I’d beaten every Final Fantasy game available aside from Final Fantasy Tactics. I was 13 at the time."
“I distinctly remember playing the original Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Entertainment System as a kid," says Greg Kasavin, creative director, Supergiant. "Even when I wasn't playing it I would be theory-crafting new ways to play it: 'What if I create a part with four Black Belts, or two Black Mages, a Red Mage, and a White Mage?' This sounds silly now, but at the time it was incredibly refreshing to have a game that afforded me this level of freedom."
"Final Fantasy is a huge inspiration to me personally, as those games helped open my eyes as to what could be achieved with interactive storytelling in games," adds Kasavin. "I cared so deeply for those characters and their stories, and I loved how the creators were courageous enough to create new worlds and casts of characters each time, and to make characters who were empathetic and nuanced...In short, I want to make games that can make people feel the way the classic Final Fantasy games made me feel."
In a genre where you’ll spend upwards of 80 hours with certain party members, it’s important that they make for good company. The designers and localization teams who have worked on the Final Fantasy series have created innumerable memorable teammates throughout the years. Like any celebrity worth their salt, we know them by a single name: Cloud. Squall. Lightning. Aeris. Vivi. Zidane.
The series has presented players with memorable characters ever since Garland first threatened to knock us all down.
As a developer or writer, you’re lucky if you create any one character that stands the test of time. Final Fantasy’s cast is rich enough to support multiple Best Of lists, with different publications and fan sites naming their top 20, 25, and even 100 greatest characters.
"I think a lot of people gravitate toward the Final Fantasy series because of the characters," says Steirnberg. "Some of them you root for and some of them are kind of goofy and some of them are annoying to be honest. But the diversity of personalities in the cast stick out for me.”
“There's a scene in Final Fantasy IV (originally released as II in North America) where a vengeful old man called Tellah sacrifices himself in a desperate attempt to avenge his daughter," says Kasavin. "While this wasn't the first time in an RPG where a playable character dies as part of the story, that his quest ends in failure made it very impactful, and served as an important point in a memorable story.”
Final Fantasy XV is not a continuation of Final Fantasy XIV, just as Final Fantasy II did not pick up where the original left off. Each main title in the series is its own self-contained story with a new world to explore. A game succeeds if the player wants to spend time there. In most every case, Final Fantasy creates a world worth discovering.
"When I think of Final Fantasy, I think of these grand experiences: long, epic journeys and pilgrimages with new faces and places at every turn," says Alexa Ray Corriea, who is working on an upcoming book-length examination of Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts II. "I turned to the series as a means of escape. I was that nerdy girl in school that was always bullied, always the outcast because I didn't follow what was popular and didn't fit the mold, and I still think of the series that way. It's my safe space…the place I go to hear a beautiful story and to challenge myself."
"Final Fantasy, for me, was the first game that really made you feel something, in terms of feeling for characters and feeling that the world meant something," says Allanson. "When you play Final Fantasy VII, you feel compelled to save the world because you enjoy being in it so much. Between the art direction and the characters and the music, there’s something very inviting about it."
"I loved how the Final Fantasy games used music to deliberate effect," says Kasavin. "They had musical scores, not just soundtracks."
Composer Nobuo Uematsu enriched this simple role-playing game with a sound that lingers decades on; his themes have been played at concert halls (and fans’ wedding ceremonies).
The series’ lasting impact and its music are inextricably linked. Even when the two are separated, success follows. Few game franchises could get away with releasing a game based entirely around its signature sounds. But that’s exactly what Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy for Nintendo 3DS (and later iOS) is.
“They did a reorchestration of [the famous Opera Scene in Final Fantasy VI] for one of the Distant Worlds CDs (an official album compilation of FF songs) and if you listen to the music and compare it to something like Wagner, which is real opera, the music is just as sophisticated," says Allanson. "There’s just as many complex moving lines and intricate harmonies. In a way, video games have moved away from this now. Everyone seems to be going toward a film score direction--it’s all just so harmless now. Uncharted 4 plays it so safe with [music] you feel could be playing in the background of a 'Law & Order' episode. Whereas Final Fantasy really always has been scored like an opera."
Beyond this winter's 15th mainline game, the Final Fantasy franchise has expanded beyond the traditional role-playing with dalliances in other genres. In addition to the rhythm games and the Chocobo handheld spin offs, there's Final Fantasy Tactics (a strategy game from the folks behind Tactics Ogre) and Dissidia Final Fantasy, a 3D fighting game, among many others. With what was supposed to be a one-off adventure, Square succeeded in building the ultimate renewable resource: a Brand Name in its own right, able to be grafted onto new, tangential ideas.
Perhaps the best example of the series’ malleability is in Kingdom Hearts, which enmeshes two unlikely universes--Final Fantasy and Disney--together. Whether this is smart evolution or cynical capitalism depends on how much you value survival in an increasingly hostile marketplace.
"Kingdom Hearts works because it looks like it shouldn't," says Corriea. "Disney is sweet and cuddly and Final Fantasy is dark and complex. But both of these properties offer a depth of storytelling and emotional power seen so little in other media. Final Fantasy has always been an idea: heroes on an epic journey with a few repeating elements, like cactuars and moogles and crystals and Phoenix Downs. You can build anything in any which way from that idea. Maybe that was the intention of its creators. Or maybe it was just a happy accident."
The upcoming Final Fantasy XV is a quest 10 years and untold millions of dollars in the making. It has a lot to live up to--the franchise has long sought to dazzle players with game experiences that are more detailed and grand than anything they've seen before.
“I think the reason FF took off compared to Dragon Quest is that, even though DQ did well, Squaresoft were able to push not just the story but get ahead of everybody else in the scope of production values and [get] into people’s minds just what this genre is and how big it can be and how beautiful it can be," says Steirnberg. "FF6 is probably a lot of people’s most memorable favorite in the series. Once that took off, they just cranked it up to 11 with FF7, and everyone else was left playing catch up. Once you have a franchise that can sell millions of copies, you can afford to spend millions of dollars making everything bigger and better and more impressive."
It's difficult to convey how revolutionary this commercial seemed in 1997 if you weren't around then
With Final Fantasy VII on the Sony PlayStation, Square found a receptive audience in the west enamored by the grandiose visuals and storytelling rarely attempted elsewhere.
"Ever since Final Fantasy VII, I'd say the series has exemplified big-budget gaming from Japan: lots of imagination, lots of production value, all with a specific point-of-view," says Kasavin. "I think it's always represented a certain type of blockbuster game, one more focused on world-building and storytelling than straight-up action."
And yet in the decades-long wait, other franchises have taken the mantle of Event Games that promise spectacle never yet seen. In Japan, Dragon Quest became the de facto mega-release that people cut class and took sick days to buy and play. Some question whether creating the most ambitious spectacle possible is still a valuable goal for the franchise.
Can Final Fantasy still overwhelm players with its spectacle? Should it try to?
"I'm not sure that just going bigger, bigger, bigger with each installment is that important in the grand scheme of things," adds Kasavin. "I would love to see new games in the spirit of Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy Tactics. I admit I'm likely not in the majority on this but I care more about the tone and quality of the storytelling, and the underlying game systems, than the fidelity of the presentation.”