In 1987, things didn't look bright for developer Square and game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi. Sakaguchi's first titles such as King's Knight or The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner for Nintendo's Famicom console (NES for us) were not very successful. The Japanese doubted his job and even considered leaving the games industry. Nevertheless, he received the green light for his dream project: He wanted to launch a real role-playing game in the style of Ultima and Wizardry.
But none of those involved seriously believed in a hit – a fact that curiously had a direct impact on the name of the game. The originally intended title "Fighting Fantasy" had to be discarded due to a tabletop role-playing game of the same name, so the decision was made for "Final Fantasy". How so? Sakaguchi feared it might be his last game. He should be thoroughly mistaken …
At the beginning there was …
On the face of it, the first Final Fantasy followed the recipe of Japanese competitor Dragon Quest. Accordingly, it was an extensive, but easy-to-control 8-bit role-playing game. In contrast to Dragon Quest, where you only embodied a single hero, you moved here with four warriors through the imaginative world. The turn-based battles against all kinds of creatures therefore felt more gripping than in the Enix production.
Different classes and a solid magic system also provided more depth of the game, and the story also looked more mature than the competition. For the setting, Square relied on a combination of medieval fantasy elements and a healthy dose of science fiction – a mixture that was to become one of many trademarks of the role-playing game series.
Final Fantasy was indeed the final salvation for Square and Sakaguchi; it sold over 520,000 times in Japan alone. Logically, a successor appeared in 1988, in which the developers introduced the iconic Chocobo mounts, among other things. Courageous: This time, Square did without a classic level system based on experience points. Instead, the player improved the values of his characters individually by gaining strength when attacking or improving their magic skills while casting spells. Unfortunately, the idea turned out to be half-baked: Anyone who played in the conventional way quickly failed due to the high level of difficulty. The other way around, you could easily bypass the system by attacking and healing your own party members in rotation.
Source: Moby Games
Fortunately, Square dropped the concept for Final Fantasy 3 (1990) and came up with something completely new: the job system. So each character could now take on different roles like black magician, bard or ninja and learn their characteristics. When playing, this concept generated a high level of motivation to optimize each character in as many jobs as possible.
Final Fantasy 3 should also shine in a completely different way: regular composer Nobuo Uematsu was in top form for the first time and arranged legendary pieces of music such as "Eternal Wind", which exploited the technically limited NES sound chip to the last.
The 16-bit era
At the time, Square was rather skeptical that Americans or even Europeans would be interested in Japanese role-playing games à la Final Fantasy. So, for the time being, only part 1 was translated into English. It wasn't until Final Fantasy 4 (1991) made the leap across the pond again, but to the confusion of many players was sold there as Final Fantasy 2.
With Final Fantasy 4, the series debuted for the first time on Nintendo's 16-bit Super Famicom console (Super Nintendo for us) – and again shone with a fantastic soundtrack. This benefited from the technical possibilities of the new console and was unusually extensive with 44 pieces of music. Technically, Square shifted the focus again and concentrated on a complex story. From today's perspective, the exaggerated drama and the many twists and turns of the fourth Final Fantasy part are reminiscent of soap operas, but in 1991 there was hardly anything comparable.
In addition, they liked the new Active-Time-Battle-System (ATB for short), which enabled a balancing act between round battles and real-time combat. According to this, every character and every opponent had an (invisible) bar that was filled depending on its speed value. Only when it was charged was the fighter in question allowed to perform an attack or a spell.
For Final Fantasy 5 (1992), however, Square reanimated the job system of the third part, provided it with more gameplay and once again wrote an exciting story. Nevertheless, the episode reached comparatively few fans, which was partly due to the tedious leveling up and partly due to a lack of translation into English. Instead, Square fed North Americans and Europeans in the same year with the heavily controversial Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (released in 1993 as Mystic Quest Legend) – a very shallow "role-playing game light" that was more like child's play.
Meanwhile, a dispute arose in the Far East: Square wanted a 32 Mbit module for Final Fantasy 6 (1994), but Nintendo only allowed a maximum capacity of 24 Mbit. Despite this limitation, the creators delivered an unprecedented presentation and a pixel-perfect level design that made the series a legend worldwide.
Source: Moby Games
Final Fantasy 6 was a brilliant work in almost every respect: the otherwise quite classic good versus bad plot thematized the individual fates of over twelve game characters, all of whom told their own story. Each character had individual abilities; the famous job system of the predecessor said hello. Antagonist Kefka rose to become one of the most colorful and chaotic villains ever. The graphics impressed with their varied game world architecture and the figures looked many times more plastic compared to their predecessors.
The showpiece, however, was the music by Nobuo Uematsu. In our opinion, it is still among the best that has ever been heard in a video game. Once again, the Japanese packed with a dizzying scope, he packed 61 individual topics into the game. The compositions ranged from classic to industrial and were bursting with catchy tunes. The highlights included the setting of a small opera in four acts and the spectacular, ten-minute Endboss music.
Since the game only appeared outside of Japan under the name Final Fantasy 3 in the USA, even European Super Nintendo owners resorted to expensive imports. In short: Final Fantasy 6 was an absolutely brilliant role-playing game, an increase hardly seemed possible. But just three years later, Square achieved the next sensation that helped the Japanese RPG genre to make its international breakthrough: Final Fantasy 7.
The world success
The first bang came before the game was released in 1997: Square gave its previous partner Nintendo the cold shoulder and switched to Sony in the PlayStation warehouse. A logical step for the developer: Thanks to the computing power of the 32-bit console and the new CD medium, it was now possible to draw on significantly more power and memory reserves, replace pixel figures with polygon characters and show off pre-rendered backgrounds and cutscenes.
The legendary story about Cloud, Aerith and antagonist Sephiroth reached epic dimensions in unimagined proportions. In particular, the untimely death of a central character broke a taboo that left video gamers stunned in front of the console and stirred them emotionally like never before. And even if Nobuo Uematsu's music did not take advantage of CD technology and was "only" available in MIDI form, individual topics such as "J-E-N-O-V-A" or "One Winged Angel" should become more famous in the long term than various chart hits from that time. In summary: Final Fantasy 7, which was released worldwide, hit like a bomb and also became a million seller outside of Japan.
Source: Moby Games
Spurred on by this success, Square dared to take the next bold step for Final Fantasy 8 (1999): the creative minds adapted the graphic style to the tastes of western players; the little figures gave way to realistically proportioned characters. In the story, Square relied fully on the heartbreak that the protagonists Squall and Rinoa had to endure. But the weakly presented opponents disappointed. They couldn't even begin to compete with Kefka or Sephiroth from the previous games.
Playfully, Square relied on the clever draw idea, with which you could pull all kinds of magic spells out of your opponents. Unfortunately, the system was not very well thought out and tilted the difficulty level as soon as you overdid it with farming effective spells.
With Final Fantasy 9 (2000), Square made another U-turn: It contained the charm of the classic episodes and was therefore primarily aimed at fans of the still popular Super Nintendo hits. Playful without major revolutions, the ninth part developed into an insider tip thanks to its amiable characters such as black magician Vivi or bodyguard Steiner.
All three PlayStation 1 parts made Final Fantasy a cultural phenomenon, which is why Hironobu Sakaguchi was able to realize his next dream: a movie. With Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), an elaborate and completely computer-generated work was finally created, which unfortunately missed its target group in terms of content and flopped. Fortunately, this didn't affect the success of the games, as evidenced by Final Fantasy 10, released that same year. The first part for the new PlayStation 2 shone with voice output, again realistically proportioned characters and the sympathetic spheroidal board, which encouraged the player to collect character attributes and traits.
According to a recent survey by the Japanese broadcaster NHK, Final Fantasy 10 is still the most popular part of the RPG series among the Japanese. So it's no wonder that a sequel appeared in 2003 under the curious name of Final Fantasy 10-2. Unfortunately, the creators of the game went out of their way in tone – even fans found the game too flashy and too colorful. Above all, the change from the formerly level-headed Yuna to the scantily clad, dancing pistol bearer did not appeal to every player.
At the same time, Square squeezed an online role-playing game into the series canon with Final Fantasy 11 (2002), which three years before the release of World of Warcraft was one of the best games of its kind. But one or the other player was frightened because of the "de-level" system. In other words: If you died too often in combat, you lost experience points or even a whole character level!
A new age
Shortly after the release of Final Fantasy 10-2, Square merged with competitor Enix. Big names like Hironobu Sakaguchi or Nobuo Uematsu left the company and Final Fantasy 12 (2006) came into being under new management. The consequence: the twelfth series offshoot was radically different from its predecessor.
He first played in the world of Ivalice, the setting for the strategy spin-off Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), and the action RPG Vagrant Story (2000). The game consisted of large areas, in which – similar to Final Fantasy 11 – all opponents could be seen in advance and thus no annoying random fights had to be feared. The story focused on politics and treason. Gone are the days when it was about saving worlds or the heartache of two lovers.
Source: Moby Games
The decisive unique selling point, however, was the innovative gambit system: Because for the first time you only controlled one character directly in combat, the other characters were controlled by a computer AI. This could be programmed properly by assigning commands such as "Heal every character below 20 percent life energy".
Final Fantasy 12 was one of the most controversial episodes in the series due to the many changes. Even the pompous, Hollywood-esque music of Hitoshi Sakimoto had a hard time with the fans of Nobuo Uematsu.
Square Enix still turned it up and released all sorts of sequels, adaptations and spin-offs in chord. While Dirge of Cerberus (2006) and Crisis Core (2007) expanded the universe of Final Fantasy 7 with various action-role-playing hybrids, the old Final Fantasy 3 saw the official light of the European for the first time in the form of a 3D remake for the Nintendo DS -american world.
Final Fantasy 13 was split into three parts right from the start and published from 2009 to 2013. The first part detoxified the gambit system and reminded of Final Fantasy 10 in terms of atmosphere. At the end there was a remarkably colorful game on the shelf, whose confused story was one of the weakest in the series and at best reached the level of well-written fan fiction. In addition, Square Enix was weak with the level design – most of the time it was designed much too linearly.
Final Fantasy 13-2 surprised all the more with a cleverly staged time travel element, while Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13-3 initially rewarded frustrated, patient players with a cool mission design due to its difficult entry.
Source: Moby Games
Things got really turbulent in the meantime thanks to Final Fantasy 14 (2010), the second online offshoot. The first version is by far the worst-rated offshoot of the main series to this day – thanks to the cumbersome user interface, the constantly repeating game world elements and the boring quest design.
The response was so catastrophic that the then Square Enix President Yoichi Wada officially apologized for the MMORPG disaster and promised a complete rework. Square Enix kept its word: Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn was released in 2013 – and thanks to the wonderfully designed game world, it blossomed into one of the best online role-playing games on the market.
Source: Moby Games
Fortunately, the only thing missing was one more single-player adventure, which he finally got in 2016 and after countless postponements with Final Fantasy 15. What was originally intended as a spin-off to Final Fantasy 13 ended up being the first action role-playing game in the main series.
The story mixed a classic kingdom with a hearty road movie, in which most of the time you spent most of the time as a prince in modern clothes and his entourage by car, but mostly only on predetermined tracks. The game itself was well received, but in terms of storyline it seemed pretty incomplete. Even director Hajime Tabata later admitted omissions and wanted to remedy this problem in the form of DLCs, which, however, should only appear partially.
The real Final Fantasy fan doesn't care about any of this anyway, because he is getting a big dream come true these days: the remake of Final Fantasy 7. In fact, the first part of the game, which is divided into several episodes, is just around the corner nobody really knows how much of the original story will already be there.
And even if the series has some stumbling blocks behind it and you feel like you have to wait longer and longer until the next adventure, the hype surrounding the remake of the seventh part proves: Final Fantasy is still something absolutely unique and rightly has its cult status preserved for several decades. Square and Hironobu Sakaguchi had certainly not expected that in 1987. It's getting exciting with Final Fantasy 16: In which direction will the series move this time?
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