[GAME REVIEW] Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

Introduction

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?

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Final Fantasy VI

Introduction

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?

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Final Fantasy V

Introduction

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?

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Final Fantasy III

Introduction

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?

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Final Fantasy II

Introduction

As Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Squaresoft developed Final Fantasy, the management decided to have 400,000 cartridges manufactured in order to make a sequel possible. To their amazement, the game was a success and they ended up selling all of the copies along with an additional 200,000. In doing so, the fledging Squaresoft created the first JRPG capable of standing on an even playing field with the Dragon Quest series. Suddenly, the possibility of a sequel was not a pipe dream; it was an inevitability.

From the project’s inception, Mr. Sakaguchi and his team lacked any concrete ideas. As a result, they decided to go in a new direction, not including any characters or locations from the original game. Simply named Final Fantasy II, the game was released for the Famicom on December 17, 1988. According to Square’s publicity department, the game exceeded the domestic sales figures of its predecessor by moving nearly 800,000 units.

Two years later, Square took a chance with their newfound success by localizing the original Final Fantasy, bringing it to the Western world. In an unexpected turn of events, it sold even more copies overseas than it did in its native homeland. Naturally, Square wished to capitalize on this newfound market by localizing the sequel as well. An early prototype cartridge was eventually created, bearing the name Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadow over Palakia.

Unfortunately, although the game was advertised in various Squaresoft publications, it ultimately failed to cross the Pacific Ocean. There were many reasons for this from the game having been two years old by the time the original was localized to the development cycle dragging on for too long. Kaoru Moriyama, the employee assigned to this project, admitted that, despite the prototype’s existence, the translation was far from complete. Running into memory issues compounded with their boss having no understanding of the amount of work it takes to create an English translation sunk any chances of the game had of venturing outside of its homeland. A game named Final Fantasy II did surface on the SNES, but unbeknownst to Western gaming fans, Square had skipped over the remaining Famicom installments and localized their then-newest entry, Final Fantasy IV, under that name. It was far more sensible to localize a game for Nintendo’s newest console than to sink resources in bringing over an old one for an outdated system. How does the true Final Fantasy II fare by comparison?

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Final Fantasy IV

Introduction

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.

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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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King’s Knight

Introduction

In September of 1983, a company in Yokohama named Square was founded by Masafumi Miyamoto shortly after graduating from one of Japan’s most prestigious universities: Waseda. Originally, it was a computer game software division of Den-Yu-Sha, a power line construction company owned by Mr. Miyamoto’s father. During this time when the medium was still budding, many projects were conceived and developed by a single person. Mr. Miyamoto challenged this, believing graphic designers, programmers, and professional writers working together on a common project could produce something far greater than the sum of their parts.

Square’s first title, The Death Trap, was created by a part-time employee named Hironobu Sakaguchi and sold enough in 1984 to pave the way for a sequel the very next year. After a series of modest successes, Square decided to branch out into the West. Six years after the company’s founding, the official North American subsidiary, Squaresoft, was established in Redmond, Washington. The American gaming scene had been revitalized thanks to Nintendo’s NES console after a particularly brutal crash in 1983, so this was Square’s chance to capitalize on this new, rapidly growing market. The first title they chose to localize was their debut as an independent company: the 1986 game, King’s Knight.

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Treasure of the Rudras

Treasure of the Rudras

Introduction

The nineties was a golden age for Squaresoft; during the course of this decade, many of their creations would become timeless classics such as Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger. When the medium made the leap to 3D, many third-party developers would move on from Nintendo to Sony – their new PlayStation console offering a more versatile format for them to develop games on. Nearly two years after the console’s debut, Squaresoft released a new entry in their Final Fantasy series. The previous three entries introduced many game enthusiasts to the JRPG genre, so one could only imagine their confusion when this newest installment was titled: Final Fantasy VII. It wouldn’t be long before fans had the answer to this mystery – the second, third, and fifth Final Fantasy games were never localized. Once the internet became widely available, fans would discover other titles in Square’s library that remain exclusive to Japan. One such game is Treasure of the Rudras. Released in 1996, it was one of the last games Square would develop for the Super Famicom before the debut its 64-bit successor.

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The Fall of Squaresoft

The Fall of Squaresoft

Introduction

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.

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