Squaresoft used to be one of the most prolific gaming companies and a legendary RPG house. Practically all of their works received near-universal acclaim; just seeing them associated with a project was enough to guarantee the sale of millions of units. Unfortunately, it was not to last. Sometime around the mid-2000s, the bottom fell out and, suddenly, the same people who were praising their games found themselves instinctually shirking away whenever they heard the name of Square, eventually turning what was once a respected group of developers into the punchline of every joke lambasting JRPGs. “How could such a lauded company fall so hard?” many veteran video game fans doubtlessly wonder to this day. Personally, I don’t think the answer can be pinpointed to any one thing, and with this essay, I intend to demonstrate the factors that caused their downward spiral.
Sowing the Seeds of Defeat
Despite the varying quality of their localizations, the nineties was definitely Square’s golden age. At this point in history, they were about as close to untouchable as one could get. In the middle of the decade, they gave us classics such as Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy VI. Once they jumped ship to the PlayStation and entered the 3D era, they continued this streak. In this decade Square could do no wrong… or so it would appear on the surface.
While Square’s best games on the SNES, Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG especially, are indeed timeless classics, could the same truly be said about their PlayStation output? I maintain that any work that has a terrible conclusion is not worthy of being deemed a classic, and fans have often complained about otherwise amazing games such as Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Xenogears, and Chrono Cross having awful or nonsensical endings. Xenogears was an especially notable case, as the budget had run out before they could finish the game properly, forcing them to rush. Square’s propensity of not putting any effort into their endings only ensures that none of these games will hold up with time. Later generations would only see a primitive 3D game, and while they may be drawn in by the story, a backlash will ensue when the ending leaves them disappointed. So while the PlayStation era continued Square’s winning streak with a series of short-term victories, all of their defining flaws would manifest at this time.
A development fans like to point to when discussing Square’s downfall would be when they merged with Enix. The flagship series of these companies, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest respectively, constantly fought for the JRPG crown in their native Japan. Naturally, when the two companies merged in 2003, Square Enix practically monopolized the genre – their only real competition now being Atlus with their long-running Shin Megami Tensei metaseries. Competition breeds creativity. A lack of competition breeds stagnation. It’s a logical conclusion that this caused the newly-formed Square Enix to become complacent, as they could release anything regardless of quality and be guaranteed to make their money back and more. A part of me agrees with this assessment, but I think there’s more to it than that.
The Power of Limitations
Another commonly cited turning point is the year 2001 when the creator of the Final Fantasy series, Hironobu Sakaguchi, directed the film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The movie was a box office bomb and bankrupted the studio that created it. The movie’s poor performance also resulted in Mr. Sakaguchi stepping down from his position as executive vice president of the company. It’s reasonable to assume that without his supervision, the company lost its footing. However, as someone who tries not to partake in blindly worshiping creators as it often leads to an inaccurate assessment of a work’s quality, I don’t think his departure from Square entirely explains why the company fell as far as they did. After having played through Bravely Default, I think I have figured out what is perhaps the primary cause of Square’s decline. This is what I meant when I insinuated that the PlayStation era was the beginning of the end for Square; the quality of their games seem to be inversely proportional to the processing power of the machines on which they’re released.
To showcase my theory, let’s take a brief look at Final Fantasy XIII. Very few people will contest that it’s one of the best-looking games of its console generation, but its actual gameplay received a mixed reception, with many critics rightly deriding the game for being a metaphorical roller coaster ride, with a combat system that involves the player as little as possible. The ultimate irony of this is that despite the development staff insisting that they made the game that way in order for players to engage with the plot and its characters, the storytelling of Final Fantasy XIII is some of the worst in the medium’s history, with very little exposition regarding the protagonists’ backstories or how the world works. The main way of finding any of this out is to pause the game and read the supplemental information provided to the player in the form of data logs; hardly any of this vital information is worked into the narrative in any way. This form of storytelling would be inexcusable in any other medium; there’s a reason you don’t see books bundled with a glossary for the reader to turn to every time they stumble across an unfamiliar term.
In other words, Square needs strict limitations in order for them to have any sort of critical success. It’s because of this that Final Fantasy XIII and Bravely Default represent an interesting dichotomy. Final Fantasy XIII shows what happens when Square is not given any boundaries – they waste their time and money on cosmetics and presentation to the detriment of gameplay or even comprehensible storytelling. Conversely, when tasked with creating a game for a handheld device with Silicon Studios, they create Bravely Default, which has none of the aforementioned problems. There is a journal in Bravely Default that provides supplemental information about the characters and the world like the data logs in Final Fantasy XIII, but it is not necessary to read through it to comprehend what’s going on – the exposition is seamlessly woven into the narrative.
Despite not having received the same amount of promotion as Square’s console releases, critics and fans alike have widely praised Bravely Default, ironically, though perhaps not disingenuously, calling it the best Final Fantasy game in years. Want to know the scariest part about all this? We almost didn’t get a chance to play this game.
Square vs. Their Fans
Square noticed that Bravely Default sold nearly 100,000 units on launch week and apparently decided to follow up this success by not making an effort to publish it overseas. It wasn’t until the release of the second edition, For the Sequel, that plans to localize the game were finally being made, and even then, the burden fell on Nintendo to save the day. Meanwhile, Square apparently had no problems publishing all three games in their Final Fantasy XIII series overseas themselves despite their increasingly tepid receptions.
I’m certain this isn’t an isolated incident either, and more proof of this trend can even be found in Square’s heyday. To start with, there have been several instances over the years where games would never see the light of day outside of Japan. Square is particularly notorious for this, as many of their games from the mid-nineties such as Live A Live, Treasure of the Rudras, and Seiken Densetsu 3, the sequel to Secret of Mana, were never considered for localization. They do have some justification in the case of the first two games, however. There is no way Live A Live would have made it past Nintendo of America’s draconian policies at the time without censoring it to the point of incomprehensibility. Furthermore, with its unique magic system involving the creation of your own spells, Treasure of the Rudras likely would have needed a ROM size larger than what cartridges were capable of holding at the time.
The first sign international fans would receive that Square wasn’t exactly on the level on the subject of localization would be the release of Final Fantasy VII. The second, third, and fifth Final Fantasy games were originally glossed over, so the fourth and sixth installments were localized as Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III respectively. Final Fantasy VII was when Square decided to stop changing the installment numbers, causing much confusion to Western fans. To their credit, Square did eventually make efforts to remake and localize the skipped Final Fantasy games.
Despite this, a fair chunk of their catalog remains exclusive to Japan. Square’s policy in this regard seems to be to sweep those games under the rug and hope international fans don’t notice. This would work if it were still the nineties, and it hasn’t been for quite some time. Things have changed – the advent of the internet has, among other things, allowed people all over the world to discover the existence of these games. It has also allowed diehard fans to band together in order to create their own translations of these games, giving people unfamiliar with Japanese the chance to enjoy them. Seiken Densetsu 3 has proven to be especially popular amongst Square’s non-localized canon. Square has responded to this by not making any efforts to localize or remake the game whatsoever. Even more damningly, whenever fans attempt to show their appreciation for Square’s older works by trying to remake them or even create their own non-canon sequels, the creators of these games reciprocate this display of goodwill and hard work by sending out cease-and-desist letters. This is from the same company that sees nothing wrong with remaking Final Fantasy IV over and over again.
This is arguably the main reason Square has such a bad reputation as of late. Outside of Capcom, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of creators have such a hostile relationship with their fans (EA and Activision don’t count). I do realize that the balance between doing what the fans want and maintaining one’s artistic integrity is a tricky one. Sometimes following the fans’ wishes leads to poor decisions. Typically, the more volatile a fandom is, the more ill-advised it is to take advice from them. However, by that same token, it’s not a good idea to completely dismiss everything they say. Even the most obnoxious fanbases have good points every now and again. It’s a judgement call to be sure, and it’s not always going to be clear what the right choice is, but developing that skill is the first step Square needs to take if they wish to repair their less-than-stellar PR.
Drawing a Conclusion
Considering the astonishingly bad actions the folks at Square have taken over the years, it’s actually a minor miracle that they haven’t completely folded. The fall of this company should be studied by any aspiring game developers to warn them of the dangers of hubris and treating one’s audience with contempt. It would also teach them the unsung importance of promoting creativity through competition and hardware limitations. Many of these trends would be problematic on their own, but when combined, they were enough to make Square the video game equivalent of George Lucas.
However, despite all of the poor decisions they’ve made, I do think there is a small ray of hope. Bravely Default shows that they can still make good games as long as they collaborate with other companies and stick to the handheld market. It really is one of the best JRPGs of the 2010s and proves that the genre is alive and well despite not having the same presence it had back in the nineties.
Besides, I’m sure they’ve learned their lesson this time. In response to the fact that localizing Bravely Default more than doubled their sales figures and seeing the positive reception it received from longtime, international JRPG fans, Square decided to do the intelligent thing… by letting Nintendo take over publishing duties for Bravely Second in regions outside of Japan.
On that note, I feel it’s appropriate to end this essay with an ode to Square’s decision-making abilities.