By 1987, a game developer named Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. Knowing that their next project could potentially sink the company, they decided to take inspiration from Yuji Horii’s landmark Dragon Quest and create a turn-based role-playing game. In a bit of gallows humor, they named this game Final Fantasy. The name turned out to be highly ironic when it proved to be a resounding domestic success. This encouraged the company to try to have the game localized. To their surprise, the game sold even more copies in the West than it did in its native homeland. Because contemporary role-playing experiences were primarily found on personal computer platforms, Final Fantasy ended up being a gateway into the genre for those limited to home consoles. With at least two major RPG series proving to be successful, many other developers joined in, causing the genre to enter a golden age.
However, even with the success of Final Fantasy, console-based RPGs were still a niche market in North America by the early-1990s. It was ambiguous as to exactly why many of these games failed to find a large audience. North America already had a thriving role-playing scene by the time Dragon Quest was released there, making Mr. Horii’s effort, which greatly simplified the genre, seem redundant. It could also be chalked up to a difference in expectations regarding the medium. At the time, Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog were some of the most popular video game characters. Both originated from series that placed a greater emphasis on gameplay over story. Because of this, slow-paced, story-focused experiences didn’t fit what Western consumers expected out of console games. Square’s executives, on the other hand, came down to a different conclusion. They cited their games’ high difficulty as a reason why Westerners shied away from them. Among other things, this caused the difficulty of Final Fantasy IV to be lowered.
Nonetheless, the success of the original Final Fantasy proved that there did exist a fanbase for these kinds of games in the West. In an attempt to broaden their international market, Square greenlit a project specifically designed for Western gamers. The game was released under the name Final Fantasy Mystic Quest in Western regions – first in North America in 1992 and Europe in a year later. It would see a domestic release in September of 1993 with the slightly altered title Final Fantasy USA: Mystic Quest. Square would later reveal that the game sold 800,000 units, though roughly half of them were domestic sales. With neither side of the Pacific being especially enthusiastic about the game, it would appear to have been a resounding failure. Would it have been capable of selling newcomers on the genre?
Special thanks to Mr. Wapojif for making the comment that inspired this question.
As a gaming critic, I make an effort to finish the games I review. Indeed, one of the biggest problems with criticism in this medium is that I could tell in many instances that the writers did not finish the games before reviewing them. On some level this is understandable. It takes much more time and effort to complete the average game than it does to watch even the longest (non-experimental) films all the way through. However, at the end of the day, reviewing a game before making it to the halfway point – especially when the story is at all important – would be like if a film critic left the theater thirty minutes in and wrote a review based off of what they saw.
I have to admit that between the three colors I use, the green tiers are the ones for which my process of assigning grades is the least scientific. When I was developing my rating system, I wanted to make it clear to readers that a game really has to go the extra mile to earn an 8/10 or higher so as not to devalue the highest grades. Admittedly, it does come down to gut feelings to a greater extent than when I’m entertaining the idea of assigning a red or yellow score. For games I’ve awarded an 8/10, there might be a few minor issues present, but they’re easy to overlook in favor of appreciating what they do well. These are games you should give high priority should they end up on your backlog.
We are now finished with the red and yellow tiers; the only ones left are the green tiers. In this post, I’ll be looking back over the games I’ve awarded a 7/10. The key difference between this tier and the one directly preceding it concerns my stance when asked whether or not I’d recommend a game. A 6/10 is a game I would have some reservations about recommending even if I think it’s technically good overall. There are no such reservations from this point onward; these are all games that were able to earn my seal of approval.
Funnily enough, the conclusion of this particular post will take us to the exact halfway point of my list. It’s fitting because a 5/10 signifies that I could go either way when asked if I recommend a game. In the end, I feel that whether or not the reader should check any of the following games is a decision they themselves must make. They have a lot of qualities worth praising, yet you have to wade through a lot of annoyance before their true value begins to shine.
The primary difference between a 3/10 and a 4/10 on my scale is that I couldn’t personally endorse playing any game from the former tier. With the latter tier, my stance when it comes to the question of recommending a game is less straightforward. Essentially, a 4/10 means that I would be more likely to dissuade people from playing the game in question, yet it does just enough right so as to not make the experience irredeemably bad. In practice, quite a lot of the entries on this tier are games that had historical significance, yet are decidedly inaccessible from a modern standpoint. Either way, now that we’re out of the red-score tiers, you can rest easy knowing that from here on out, I’ll be talking about games that are, for the most part, worth looking into.
Whether it was through Schoolhouse Rock, De La Soul’s debut album, or the Planescape setting of Dungeons & Dragons, we were taught that three is the magic number. That is sort of the case here on Extra Life as well. Specifically, 3/10 is that highest score a game can get without me being able to recommend it. The main difference between this grade and the two that preceded it is that I can imagine people liking the following games in a non-ironic fashion. I would suggest several alternatives, but I can see why they would garner a fanbase, as there’s enough to like about them.
With its improved job system, Final Fantasy V arguably managed to overshadow its direct predecessor in the eyes of Japanese fans. It was certainly no mean feat considering how Final Fantasy IV itself proved to be a turning point for the medium, inspiring countless artists to pen stories for their games more advanced than the kind of material typically delegated to instruction manual filler. Almost immediately after the launch of Final Fantasy V, Squaresoft began work on a sequel.
Due to his promotion to Executive Vice President of the company in 1991, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi wasn’t quite as involved with this game’s creation. Instead, he served as the game’s producer while Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito were the co-directors. Mr. Kitase was responsible for the fifth installment’s relatively lighthearted tone, and Mr. Ito, having taken inspiration from Formula One racing, conceived the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Mr. Kitase was in charge of event production and wrote the scenario alongside Mr. Sakaguchi once again, while Mr. Ito handled the combat engine. Despite the minor personnel change, the game’s development cycle went smoothly, taking about one year to be completed.
The man who composed the game’s score, Nobuo Uematsu, recalled Mr. Sakaguchi’s words at the launch party they held in the liner notes of a soundtrack he composed in 2010.
“Thanks to every one of you — we have created the best game in the world! No! The universe! Thank you!”
At that exact moment, Mr. Uematsu cried as he realized just how much of himself he had invested in the project, seeing the tears he shed as undeniable proof. The game debuted in April of 1994, receiving its official North American localization in October of the same year. Any success the series enjoyed up until this point seemed modest compared to the reception Final Fantasy VI received. Critically, it was praised for its character-focused narrative. Commercially, it became a bestseller, moving millions of units in Japan while becoming the eighth bestselling SNES cartridge in North America where it was dubbed “Final Fantasy III”. The reason for this change in numbering was because only the first and fourth installments had been localized in that region by 1994, and the localization team consequently changed the latter to “Final Fantasy II”.
To an even greater extent than the original, Final Fantasy VI was responsible for getting console enthusiasts interested in role-playing games. Indeed, the SNES is commonly considered to boast the greatest selection of JRPGs of any console library, and Final Fantasy VI is cited as one of its hallmarks – notably lauded by people who don’t normally enjoy the genre. Does it truly stand to this day as one of the medium’s greatest achievements?
The debut of Final Fantasy IV on Nintendo’s sophomore home console in 1991 provided far more than just a graphical update to their familiar gameplay; it marked a significant turning point. Suddenly, complex, dynamic protagonists became the standard, and artists began putting more care and attention into their storylines. Before this point, the idea of a video game having such an intricate plot was largely unheard of, and its success both domestically and overseas under the name Final Fantasy II proved how important a strong writing staff could be for the medium’s growth.
This success prompted Hironobu Sakaguchi and the rest of Squaresoft to create a sequel. Developed over the course of a single year, Final Fantasy V debuted in Japan in 1992. Unfortunately, the series’ newfound North American audience didn’t get a chance to play it on the SNES. Plans for localization were made shortly after its Japanese release, and it was to be named Final Fantasy III, owing to the real second and third installments having been passed up for localization. The plans shifted slightly when Square announced that because of its different tone and increased difficulty, it was to be released as a standalone game with a title yet to be determined, but they were ultimately scrapped. Square translator Ted Woolsey claimed in a 1994 interview that “[Final Fantasy V is] just not accessible enough to the average gamer”.
Rumors then circulated that Final Fantasy V was to see a Western release under the tentative title Final Fantasy Extreme, but these plans fell through as well. A third attempt was made in 1997 to localize the game for Microsoft Windows-based personal computers by a studio named Top Dog. Though they made significant progress, numerous communication problems between the two entities sounded the project’s death knell. Later that year, a temporary solution appeared. A group of people under the internet alias RPGe released a patch for the game’s ROM image, translating it into English. It was a notable achievement for being one of the first completed fan translations in history. Finally, in 1999, Square found their opportunity to bring Final Fantasy V to Western audiences in the form of the Final Fantasy Anthology compilation for the PlayStation. By this time, the franchise had broken into the mainstream with its universally lauded seventh installment, and any lingering doubts about the theoretical reception of Final Fantasy V were assuaged. Was this game worth a seven-year wait?
Although suffering from quite a few execution issues regarding its central gameplay mechanics, Final Fantasy II nonetheless proved to be another success for the once-struggling Squaresoft. Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team took a then-unusual approach to this project wherein they conceived the story first then programmed an actual game around it. The result outsold the domestic sales of its predecessor, and it became evident that the Final Fantasy franchise wasn’t going anywhere. To keep this success going, development of a sequel began almost immediately.
As was the case with the previous titles, an Iranian-American expat by the name of Nasir Gebelli served as the game’s primary programmer. However, roughly halfway through the game’s development, Mr. Gebelli’s work visa expired, forcing him to return to Sacramento, California. Undeterred, the rest of the team followed him to the United States with the necessary materials and equipment, concluding development of the project there. Named Final Fantasy III, the completed game was the company’s most ambitious tile to date, being published on a 512 kilobyte cartridge filled to its absolute capacity. Once again, Squaresoft’s effort was lauded by both critics and fans alike. It moved 1.4 million copies in Japan, and a panel of four reviewers working for Famitsu magazine each awarded it a high score, achieving a similar level of praise in 1990 as Chunsoft’s Dragon Quest IV and Nintendo’s F-Zero. Such was the lasting appeal of Final Fantasy III that readers of Famitsu magazine voted it the eighth best game of all time when polled in 2006.
Similar to the fate that befell its direct predecessor, Final Fantasy III in its original incarnation failed leave Japan. Squaresoft was working to catch up to the new technology afforded to them courtesy of Nintendo’s newest console at the time, the Super Famicom, and they lacked the personnel to work on an English version. An old promotional poster included cover art for a hypothetical English release of Final Fantasy III, but it wasn’t to be. In fact, because the final product filled the cartridge’s storage capacity to its brim, even the newer platforms that would emerge in the coming years lacked the space required to handle an updated version with new graphics, sounds, and other content. This effectively prevented any realistic chance of the game being remade for the longest time. Though a game named Final Fantasy III emerged in the West for the Super NES, the international equivalent of the Super Famicom, it was, in reality, the sixth installment renamed. Both were the final installments on their respective platforms. Did Squaresoft help end the third console generation on a high note?