Final Fantasy

Introduction

Hironobu Sakaguchi was a student at Yokohama National University. He studied electrical engineering, but dropped out mid-semester in 1983 along with his colleague, Hiromichi Tanaka. Upon leaving school, they joined a company named Square as part-time employees. It was founded the same year by recent Waseda graduate Masafumi Miyamoto as a software development division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by his father. Mr. Miyamoto held a belief that ran counter to how games were developed at the time wherein a single person conceived and developed a project entirely on their own. He believed that graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together could create something greater than any of them were capable of producing individually. In 1986, Square became a standalone company, and Mr. Sakaguchi was made a full-time employee as the Director of Planning and Development.

The next few years proved to be unrewarding for Mr. Sakaguchi and Square. They had created numerous titles for Nintendo’s Famicom platform such as The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner and Rad Racer, but all of them largely failed to become major hits – even when ported to North America. Mr. Sakaguchi then began questioning if he chose the right career path and if he was qualified to be a game writer. He had intended to make an RPG shortly after receiving a full-time position, but the executives refused on the grounds that such a product would not sell well.

This changed when a game named Dragon Quest was released. This collaboration by programmers Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura and popular manga artist Akira Toriyama introduced the RPG to Japanese gaming fans. Taking note of the millions of units Dragon Quest moved, Square reconsidered their stance and allowed Mr. Sakaguchi to bring his vision into reality. It was originally to be called Fighting Fantasy, but the staff changed it when they learned of a tabletop RPG that already bore the name. Mr. Sakaguchi wanted his work to have the initials FF so that the title could be abbreviated in the Roman alphabet and pronounced in four syllables in the Japanese language. After some consideration, Mr. Sakaguchi at last came up with a definitive title. According to the man who would go on to produce the game’s score, Nobuo Uematsu, this name was chosen for a twofold reason. The first part concerned Mr. Sakaguchi’s personal situation; had the game failed to become a hit, he felt it would be appropriate to quit the industry and return to his college studies. The second had to do with Square’s situation; the game’s failure would have all but ensured the company’s demise, for they were on the precipice of bankruptcy. Knowing this project could have been their last, they saw it fit to name their game Final Fantasy.

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The Legend of Zelda

Introduction

July 15, 1983 marked the launch of Nintendo’s Famicom console. It was released alongside ports of three golden-age arcade games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. The original versions of the console were of decidedly poor quality, as a bad chip set caused many of them to crash on a regular basis. It gained momentum after a product recall, and by the end of the following year, it had become the best-selling game console in Japan.

In 1984, designer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team began work on two original titles for the Famicom: a sequel to Mario Bros. and a new IP. Mr. Miyamoto sought to downplay the value of setting a new high score in favor of offering to his audience a simple narrative with a real goal for them achieve – a stark contrast to the average arcade game, which one played indefinitely until they exhausted their supply of lives. However, while one of these games was to have a linear structure wherein the action occurred in a strict sequence, the other would be more open-ended, encouraging players to think about their next course of action in the face of complex situations.

Shortly after the Famicom’s debut, Nintendo began working on a peripheral which utilized floppy disks. Particularly appealing about this proposed format were the 112 kilobytes of storage space and the fact that they could be rewritten. This opened up the possibility that a console game could be completed over the course of multiple sessions. This was the aspect Mr. Miyamoto and his team considered as they worked on this IP. The peripheral, dubbed the Famicom Disk System, was released in 1986, with this game having been one of its launch titles. Its name was The Legend of Zelda: The Hyrule Fantasy.

When it came time to introduce the game to their newfound audience across the Pacific Ocean, there was a slight problem. The North American equivalent of the Famicom, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), couldn’t support a disk-based format, and cartridges as they were precluded the ability to save. Many games were able to get around this limitation by implementing a password system, but Nintendo sought an alternative.

By attaching a battery to the circuitry, they gave NES cartridges the ability to emulate the Famicom Disk System’s data storage without the use of floppy disks. The following year, the game was published in North America without its subtitle, and defying the management’s expectations, it became the first NES title aside from Super Mario Bros. to sell more than one-million units. Such was the extent of its popularity that many people bought an NES just to play it. Since then, The Legend of Zelda has been considered one of the greatest games to ever grace the console, and it continues to influence artists to this very day.

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Super Metroid

Introduction

In the early eighties, Nintendo began to recruit new employees from art programs at universities. Among them was Yoshio Sakamoto, a graduate hailing from Nara Prefecture. His first experience with video games involved contributing sprite artwork for Donkey Kong Jr., the follow-up to their 1981 arcade classic. Shortly thereafter, he worked on the arcade version of Wrecking Crew, a puzzle game starring Nintendo’s mascot, Mario.

Back in 1980, the company revolutionized the industry with their line of portable Game & Watch consoles. In the face of this enormous success, their creator, Gunpei Yokoi, was then put in charge of the company’s first research and development team; among his subordinates was Mr. Sakamoto. One of their first assignments was to create games for their up-and-coming Famicom. This console, called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) overseas, would help revitalize the American gaming scene after its crash in 1983. Contributing to its success were two classic games created by Mr. Yokoi’s team: Kid Icarus and Metroid. Nearing the end of the decade, they elevated portable gaming to a new level with the Game Boy. It was on this platform that he decided to produce a sequel to Metroid. This new entry was also a success, and contributed to the sale of many more Game Boys.

Makoto Kano, who worked as a designer for the two Metroid installments took notice that both games proved popular with their North American audience. Inspired by this unexpected market, Mr. Kano asked his colleague, Mr. Sakamoto, to direct a new Metroid installment utilizing what were then the cutting-edge graphics of the Super Famicom. The man who found himself in the director’s seat sought to push their 16-bit console to the limit by enhancing the game world’s appearance and generating a greater level of expression all while leaving the core concept untouched. He would later state in interviews that the project came dangerously close to being canceled on three separate occasions. Their primary skeptic was, ironically enough, Gunpei Yokoi, one of the most important figures behind the series’ creation. Purportedly during development, he would take note of the team’s attention to detail and sarcastically ask if they were trying to create a masterpiece. Nevertheless, Mr. Sakamoto and his team, supplemented by staff from Intelligent Systems, soldiered on, and the fruit of their labors was released in 1994 under the name, Super Metroid. The game was met with widespread critical acclaim, quickly cementing itself as one of the system’s greatest titles despite competing against Rare’s more visually striking Donkey Kong Country released later that year. Even to this day, it’s considered the crown jewel of the franchise, and one of the best games of the nineties. Mr. Yokoi himself would be won over, describing the final product as a reference to what a good game should be. Was Super Metroid able to improve upon the original and stand as one of the finest in the Super NES’s library?

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Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation

Introduction

Dragon Quest V was released in 1992, marking the debut of the popular series on Nintendo’s 16-bit Super Famicom console. Though its presentation arguably paled in comparison to that of Final Fantasy IV released a year earlier, it nonetheless continued the success of Yuji Horii and his staff at Chunsoft by selling millions of copies just like its four predecessors. It has since been declared by fans and Mr. Horii himself to be the series’ pinnacle due to its unique, forward-looking storytelling and novel monster recruitment mechanic. The latter would go on to revolutionize the industry over the next few years when several creators provided their own take on the concept.

As Chunsoft went on to develop a spinoff series known as Mystery Dungeon, the first installment of which cast a supporting character from Dragon Quest IV in the lead role, Mr. Horii joined a new company known as Heartbeat. Their first product was to be the sixth installment in the Dragon Quest series. Production of this game, entitled Dragon Quest VI: The Illusionary Land, proved to be rather troubled, and its initial release was delayed numerous times. The game was at last formally revealed in 1995 at the trade show Shoshinkai before being released a few weeks later. Owing to the large cartridge ROM used in this installment’s creation, Dragon Quest VI ended up selling for a steep price of 11,970 yen. In no way, shape, or form did this deter the dedicated fanbase, as the game went on to sell over three million copies.

Nintendo Power magazine once insinuated that the game was slated for a Western release in 1996 under the name Dragon Warrior V. However, much like its direct predecessor, it was not to be. The series’ lack of success outside of its native homeland, the fact that accurately translating text in a cartridge ROM already at its maximum storage limit into English was an impossible task, and Enix ceasing activities in North America all meant such an undertaking would almost certainly be unprofitable and therefore not worth the risk. Did their admittedly understandable business decision doom another classic to fall into obscurity in the Western world?

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Introduction

The PlayStation 3 was widely mocked upon its release, but after many critically acclaimed games found their home in its library, Sony regained much of the market share they had lost to their competitors. One of the developers that helped draw newcomers to Sony’s console was Naughty Dog. With their trilogy of Uncharted games, they received a level of critical praise few other artists could claim to match. In 2013, they followed up this success with The Last of Us, which in many circles, managed to surpass their previous efforts in terms of artistic merits. These four games were widely believed to possess the best of both words; not only did they boast the cutting edge of 3D technology, the voice actors brought their characters to life when their peers in the AAA industry struggled to do the same.

The Last of Us is popularly considered to have been the seventh console generation’s swansong, and the within same year of its release, the gaming world saw the debut of the PlayStation 4 in North America and PAL regions. Much like the PlayStation 3 before it, the PlayStation 4 faced something of a backlash when it launched. Though gaming fans marveled at the superior processing power of this machine, there was a major point of contention regarding its lack of backwards compatibility with any previous PlayStation console. Naturally, fans weren’t enthralled with the idea of purchasing a console incapable playing the games they had amassed, so the savvy ones saved their money. It was clear like any successful console before it that the PlayStation 4 would need a sizable selection of exclusive games in order for the average consumer to consider it a good return on investment.

In November of 2013, Naughty Dog announced their newest project: the fourth installment of their Uncharted series. Series writer Amy Hennig was to make a return and serve as its creative director working alongside Justin Richmond. However, Ms. Hennig and Mr. Richmond left the company during the game’s development in March of 2014. These sudden departures led to some speculation within the gaming community, spurred by an IGN article suggesting that Ms. Hennig was forced out by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the directors of The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, released an official statement, clarifying that neither of them were involved in Ms. Hennig’s departure while proscribing the article as “unprofessional” and “hurtful”.

In June of 2014, the co-presidents requested Mr. Druckmann and Mr. Straley to lead the game’s development. It was during the E3 conference of the same year that Naughty Dog formally unveiled the project under the name Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Examining the promotional materials caused some fans to suspect the series was to take a darker turn, though in a 2014 interview, Mr. Druckmann assured them that the story would be different while still retaining its charm. The sudden change in personnel caused no shortage of problems. Plot ideas and eight months of shooting were left on the proverbial cutting room floor and the voice actor for a central character had to be recast. Consequently, the project was plagued with numerous delays. It was slated to for a late-2015 release before getting pushed back multiple times within 2016. Uncharted 4 at last saw its debut in May of 2016. Like their previous four console efforts, it became a critical and commercial success, and it was considered one of the finest titles for the PlayStation 4. The subtitle this game bears does not belie its status as the series’ grand finale. Was Naughty Dog able help make the PlayStation 4 a viable platform while also giving their most lauded franchise a proper sendoff?

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The Last of Us

Introduction

In 2004, a student of Carnegie Mellon University named Neil Druckmann participated in a group project. At the time, he was pursuing a Master’s degree in Entertainment Technology, and one of his professors happened to be friends with George Romero, the man who directed Night of the Living Dead. This 1968 classic is widely considered to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse genre. For this assignment, Mr. Romero compelled the students to pitch an idea for a video game. Mr. Druckmann’s idea merged the three works which left an indelible impact on him as a creator. It would feature gameplay akin to Ico, star a protagonist with a personality comparable to John Hartigan from Sin City, and the story was to be set in the world of Night of the Living Dead. The game’s concept centered on a cop would protect a young girl in a ravaged land filled to the brim with mindless, flesh-eating monsters. However, the cop had a heart condition that would act up every now and again, prompting players to take control of the girl in these situations, thus reserving the roles of the protector and the protected. In the end, Mr. Romero chose another project.

Later that year, Mr. Druckmann met Jason Rubin, the co-founder of a game company named Naughty Dog. Mr. Rubin’s company had made their impact on the medium on Sony’s PlayStation platform with their Crash Bandicoot series of 3D platforming games. It was a success that would continue into the following console generation with Jak & Daxter. After “bugging” Mr. Rubin enough, the co-founder handed the enthusiastic college student a business card. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Druckmann joined Naughty Dog as an intern before being promoted to full-time employee as a gameplay programmer mere months afterwards.

When his tenure at Naughty Dog began, Mr. Druckmann began to revisit his rejected game concept, thinking to himself, “What’s another way I can explore these characters?” The answer to this quandary came in the form of a comic book named The Turning. It was to be about a criminal who found himself tasked with escorting a young girl across a dangerous land. The roles would be reversed in the end when he is captured by erstwhile criminal partners and the girl saves his life. He intended to write and draw the comic itself. When he completed the script for a six-issue story arc, he submitted it to an independent comic book publisher. Unfortunately, much like George Romero, the publisher rejected the idea – Mr. Druckmann being told, “I like it, but I don’t love it.”

Meanwhile, as Naughty Dog was in the middle of developing Jak 3 and Jak X: Combat Racing, Mr. Druckmann asked co-president Evan Wells about joining the design team. Although Mr. Wells was hesitant about the idea, he allowed Mr. Druckmann a chance under the stipulation that he completed his design work after hours. Once Jak X: Combat Racing saw its release, Mr. Wells was convinced by his subordinate’s skill and put him in charge of design for their next project: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This game and its sequel were commercial and critical successes, and Mr. Druckmann soon found himself as one of the lead developers for the series’ third installment.

As he worked on the design for the first two Uncharted installments, Neil Druckmann would often have dinner with co-worker Bruce Straley to discuss ideas about what they should do next. This time, his proposed story followed a man accompanied by a mute girl with whom every point of interaction was executed via game mechanics. During these sessions, they became intrigued with Cordyceps, a fungus that infects insects by taking control of their motor functions and forcing them to cultivate more of itself. This game was to be set in a world in which the Cordyceps began to infect humans, but only women fell victim to it. The girl was the only female immune to the fungus, and the hero had to transport her to a laboratory so a cure may be synthesized. The concept was vetoed when the company’s female employees voiced concerns about a game in which men had to band together against women who became ugly, irrational, and powerful. Not helping matters was its proposed title: Mankind. By Mr. Druckmann’s own admission, “The reason it failed is because it was a misogynistic idea.”

Undeterred by these numerous setbacks, he began to refine his idea, and in 2010, he and Mr. Straley felt it was ready to be pitched. However, it was rejected yet again when the higher-ups felt his new concept failed to mesh with his characters’ arcs. After weeding out the last remaining issues, Mr. Druckmann’s dream project was finally greenlit, being formally announced to the world in 2011. As Naughty Dog received innumerable awards and a large, dedicated fanbase with their trilogy of Uncharted games, this new title, dubbed The Last of Us, became one of the most hotly anticipated titles of its time. At long last, the medium would have a title to show the world that video games had grown up and were every bit as worthy of being considered legitimate artistic cornerstones alongside film, music, and literature. This heavily promoted game was released in 2013, and saying that it received unanimous critical acclaim would be a gross understatement. Critics felt it was one of the medium’s greatest artistic achievements while fans fell in love with the characters and the setting. Essayists have gone into great detail about the game, its themes, and how immaculate the experience is as a whole. Many spectacular titles were released within the seventh generation of console gaming, but many insisted The Last of Us blew every single one of them out of the water. That it managed to somehow surpass Uncharted 2 in terms of accolades is no mean feat. Was Mr. Druckmann able to use his determination over the better part of a decade to create something that stands not only as Naughty Dog’s magnum opus and the seventh generation’s swansong, but also one of the greatest games ever made?

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Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Introduction

Naughty Dog’s 2009 effort, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, received glowing reviews from nearly every major gaming publication upon its release. It wasn’t just a critical darling; Naughty Dog soon found themselves with a fanbase that utterly eclipsed the ones for their earlier games in terms of sheer numbers. It was largely due to exclusive titles such as Uncharted 2 that the PlayStation 3, which originally had been widely ridiculed, began taking back much of the ground it lost to the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the seventh generation of video game consoles.

There was only one logical reaction to this overwhelming success and torrent of critical accolades: make a sequel. The game was formally announced during the Spike Video Game Awards ceremony in December of 2010 with a trailer depicting a table covered in Arabian artifacts. A few days later, a worldwide demo premiered on the American late-night talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In interviews, creative director Amy Henning stated that she and her team wished to push themselves by setting the next Uncharted installment in a desert region, as elements such as sand, fire, and water are considered “technically difficult to credibly render with animation”.

Naughty Dog spared no expense with their marketing campaign. Spike TV held competitions where the prize was the honor of getting to play the game before the official release date. Two important people, narrative leader Taylor Kurosaki and stunt movement coordinator Mike Mukatis, appeared on an episode of America’s Next Top Model: College Edition wherein contestants acted out a scene from the original Uncharted. Players who purchased certain items from the fast-food restaurant Subway would be granted access to the game’s entire multiplayer mode. By the time of its release in November of 2011, the anticipation for this installment, entitled Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, couldn’t have been higher. Its reception continued Naughty Dog’s winning streak by receiving unanimously positive reviews from critics and fans alike. It’s an impressive feat to be sure, but could Ms. Henning and her team truly live up to the lofty standards set by Uncharted 2?

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