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?
Though not held with the same level of admiration as Final Fantasy IV, Breath of Fire proved to be a modest hit in 1993. It found its audience among the newly formed JRPG fanbase, and is considered one of the console’s better games. Because of its success, Capcom decided to do what they did best – greenlight a sequel. Many of the same employees who worked on Breath of Fire returned for the sequel, though Tatsuya Yoshikawa, who previously contributed promotional artwork, designed the entire main cast this time around. Furthermore, while Squaresoft stepped in to publish Breath of Fire overseas, Capcom’s USA branch performed that duty for its sequel.
The game, titled Breath of Fire II: The Fated Child, was released in Japan in 1994, receiving its official North American localization the following year. Unlike its predecessor, Breath of Fire II saw a European release around six months after its North American debut. The game met with the same level of success of the original Breath of Fire. Though not exactly a bestseller on the same level as the average Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest installment, it nonetheless moved 350,000 copies in Japan, and fared well enough internationally to reinforce the following the first one established. Though the first game is liked by the fans, the second is considered to be a major improvement. Some even go as far as saying it’s on the same level as other contemporary classic JRPGs such Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. Does this cult classic deserve to be held with the same regard as its decidedly tough competition?
In Japan, role-playing games were a rising trend ever since the release of Dragon Quest in 1986. Though it inspired many artists throughout the decade, many of these bestselling titles, including Dragon Quest itself, failed to catch on overseas. This changed in 1990 with the international debut of Final Fantasy, notable for being one of the first JRPGs to fare better in North America than in Japan. To keep this trend going, the company behind Final Fantasy, Squaresoft, decided to localize the series’ fourth installment to coincide with the launch of Nintendo’s Super NES console in 1991. The result was a critically lauded commercial hit in both the East and the West. A boost in popularity for console RPGs ensued, inspiring more people to experience a genre that, up until then, was primarily enjoyed by a comparatively small niche of enthusiasts.
The success of Final Fantasy IV inspired many artists to provide their own take on the genre. One such group was the Japanese developer Neverland. The company was founded in 1993, and they launched their debut title, Biography of Estpolis, shortly thereafter. For the North American localization, it was renamed Lufia & the Fortress of Doom after one of its central characters. The game proved popular enough that the publishing company, Taito, entertained the idea of creating a port for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive), but the closure of their North American branch in 1995 caused the plans to fall through. Before that moment, there were a few advertisements for the port, one of which claimed its release date was delayed until spring of 1995, claiming “[it would be] worth the wait”. Furthermore, European enthusiasts never got a chance to play the game. Would the game they missed out on indeed be worth waiting for?
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, despite providing a radically different experience than its predecessor, nonetheless became a bestselling game, continuing Nintendo’s winning streak. In 1988, they began work on a new Famicom installment for their increasingly popular saga known as The Legend of Zelda. However, as the development cycle continued, Nintendo found themselves face-to-face with unexpected competition. One year prior in 1987, NEC Home Electronics launched the PC Engine, a console with an 8-bit CPU that boasted a 16-bit color encoder and video display controller. Moreover, in 1988, Sega introduced the Mega Drive, the successor to their Master System and a full-fledged 16-bit system. Though Nintendo executives were in no hurry to design a new console, they reconsidered once the success of these consoles caused their industry dominance to weaken. As a result of these developments, the team behind the new Legend of Zelda installment brought their project to this new platform that would be dubbed the Super Famicom in its native Japan and the Super NES overseas.
The creation of this new installment, eventually named The Legend of Zelda: Triforce of the Gods, would continue over the next two years, concluding in 1991 and seeing its release in November. Like the ones that preceded it, this third game received positive reviews from critics and fans alike. When it came time for localization, the game’s name fell victim to Nintendo of America’s draconian censorship policies regarding religious references. It was consequently renamed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for its international debut in 1992. Western critics then too began to praise the game. According to Nintendo Power’s list of the top selling SNES games, A Link to the Past spent five consecutive years in the number one spot. To this day, it’s considered one of the greatest games ever made. It couldn’t have been easy to create a worthy follow-up to The Legend of Zelda – itself thought of as one of the best games of the eighties. How could Nintendo even begin to accomplish such an insurmountable task?
The year 1991 marked the debut of Capcom’s Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. This arcade classic took the world by storm, codifying the fighting game as a genre and leaving a profound impact on the medium as a result. Such was the popularity of this title that the ensuing console ports sold by the millions. It didn’t take long for other companies to ride the wave generated by this rapidly rising trend. One of the most famous rivals to Street Fighter II was released the following year in the form of Midway’s Mortal Kombat. It generated no shortage of controversy due to its violent content coupled with the fact that the characters were represented by digitized spites based on real actors.
Another company that threw their hat in the ring was Visual Concepts. Founded in 1988, this company took the fighting game template and decided to provide a more humorous, cartoonish take on it. The result was ClayFighter, and though it didn’t fare as well in the critical eye, it nonetheless proved to be a modest hit, selling 200,000 copies. Shortly thereafter in January of 1994, Visual Concepts released a game known as Lester the Unlikely. During this time, certain developers began to experiment with the artistic side of medium, crafting unique experiences such as Flashback and Out of this World. I have little doubt Lester the Unlikely could be described as unique, but how does it fare against these pioneering art titles?
With a trilogy of beloved Famicom JRPGs under their belt, the once-struggling Squaresoft became industry juggernauts able to stand toe-to-toe with Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series. Upon completing Final Fantasy III in 1990, Square planned to develop two games: one for the Famicom and another for Nintendo’s forthcoming Super Famicom console. They were to be called Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V respectively. Unfortunately, due to the company’s small size at the time, they ended up stretching their resources thin, and the former project was canceled. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series’ creator claimed in an interview that the game was nearly eighty percent complete when it was scrapped, but outside of his word and a single screenshot, very little information about it exists.
“There exists an airship shop in this town. An array of airships that have remained since historical times are all there.”
As a result, Final Fantasy V was renamed Final Fantasy IV, and some of the ideas that came about during the halted project were reused for it.
With a development team consisting of fourteen people, Final Fantasy IV took a single year to develop. It was released in Japan in July of 1991 whereupon it received the most critical acclaim of any installment thus far. Sales of the original Final Fantasy in North America surpassed those of Japan. Therefore, Square saw this as a perfect opportunity to appeal to their unexpected, newfound fanbase. They decided not to localize the remaining Famicom games in favor of focusing on their newest work. To avoid confusion, Final Fantasy IV was dubbed Final Fantasy II. Released in the same year as the Super NES’s launch, it became a hit overseas as well, and is considered to this day one of the finest efforts in the system’s library.
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?
In 1989, Nintendo released an RPG known as Mother. It differed from its contemporaries in that its scenario was conceived by a professional writer who saw a great storytelling potential in this budding medium: Shigesato Itoi. His celebrity status, which he achieved long before he had an idea for a video game, played a big role in Mother selling over 400,000 copies in Japan. It wasn’t just a big name being attached to the project that moved so many units, however; kids and adults alike enjoyed the game for its compelling, emotionally driven narrative, and its appeal transcends generations.
Naturally, because Nintendo realized they had a hit on their hands, it wasn’t long before they asked Mr. Itoi to create a sequel to continue this newfound success. He happily accepted, as the Super Famicom was released in Japan a year after the debut of Mother. This new machine provided more than a mere graphical upgrade; it allowed for creative possibilities inconceivable on the original Famicom. HAL Laboratory, the company that would eventually create the Kirby franchise, joined Mr. Itoi and the rest of Ape Inc. to aid them on this new project. With this new talent and the prospect of ascending his canon to a higher level on a new and improved system, the possibilities were endless or so it would appear on the surface. Shortly after development began, the team began running into a multitude of problems. The isometric perspective that gave Mother its identity was difficult to render, new mechanics failed to work properly, the two studios were in entirely different regions of Japan, and eight megabytes of storage proved insufficient to hold the soundtrack let alone an actual game. The project began to stall, and all hope seemed lost.
This all changed when HAL Laboratory sent one of their most skilled programmers to save the day. Once appointed lead programmer, this man was able to systematically manage all of the technical issues plaguing the development process. His name was Satoru Iwata, the very person who would become Nintendo’s president a decade later. Due to his efforts, the project became even larger in scale, and took nearly four years to complete – something that was practically unheard of at the time. The game was finished in 1994 under the name Mother 2: Giygas Strikes Back. Like its predecessor, Mother 2 received a warm reception to the point where hundreds of thousands of copies were sold within the first few weeks. Mr. Itoi’s success was at an all-time high, and Nintendo decided to take a chance by pouring resources into getting the game localized for a Western audience. In North America, Mother 2 inherited the working title of its predecessor before the plans for localization fell through at the last minute: Earthbound, and Nintendo marketed the game heavily in the hopes that it would catch on overseas. Sadly, this effort ultimately fell short, and the game barely sold 150,000 copies – dismal sales compared to other Nintendo titles. What few critics did play Earthbound dismissed it for its seemingly childish presentation and not looking enough like Final Fantasy VI. Exactly what did they choose to pass up?
By the nineties, PC gaming companies such as Sierra, LucasArts, and Origin Systems took notice of the fact that almost anything released on the newly revitalized console market easily sold thousands, sometimes millions, of copies. The biggest appeal consoles had was their accessibility; this was an age when operating a personal computer required a degree of expertise, and knowledge wasn’t as widely shared. Even the simple task of loading a game involved typing multiple command lines in DOS – far more complicated than the act of placing a cartridge into the slot of a gaming console and pressing the power button. Naturally, these developers sought to capitalize on this blooming market. A select few of them were able to make the conversion successfully such as ICOM with their MacVenture NES ports, but quite of a lot of them ended up borderline unplayable such as King’s Quest for the Sega Master System. The primary reason this transition proved tricky was because PC and console games were designed with entirely different user interfaces in mind. After all, if a game required a keyboard, recreating the interface on a console where players only had four buttons and a control pad was a nearly insurmountable task.
Around this time, Origin Systems attempted to market their pioneering Ultima series of computer RPGs to a larger demographic. Although their NES interpretation of the series’ fourth installment is somewhat regarded in select circles, this plan came to a halt in the 16-bit era with their SNES ports of Ultima VI and Ultima VII. The former unsuccessfully tried to have the controller emulate the complex item management and combat interface present in the original version while the latter fell victim to Nintendo’s strict censorship policies at the time, becoming an incomprehensible mess in the process. Undeterred by these setbacks, Origin Systems decided to try their hand at a then-booming genre tailor-made for gaming consoles: the platformer. In 1994, Metal Morph, the effort created from this newfound ambition was released.
In the 8-bit era of gaming, Capcom found much success in the home console market in the form of Mega Man along with an entire slew of games bearing the Disney license. This streak would continue into the nineties when they released Street Fighter II, the title that codified the genre of competitive fighting games in the public eye. It is difficult to overstate how much this game dominated arcades. Millions upon millions of quarters were spent, and it wasn’t uncommon for fans to have to wait over half an hour for a chance to play it. Naturally, once ports were created for the Super NES and the Sega Genesis, they quickly became bestsellers.
Fresh off their triumphs, Capcom set their sights on a then up-and-coming genre that was quickly gaining momentum thanks to the efforts of Squaresoft: the JRPG. Produced by Tokuro Fujiwara, the creator of the legendarily difficult Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise, and featuring a cast of characters designed by Keiji Inafune, better known as the brain behind Mega Man and its countless spinoffs, this new project saw its completion in 1993 under the name, “Breath of Fire.”