The Rise of SquareSoft (Part 1) – Telling a Story

During the 1990s SquareSoft was synonymous with quality RPGs. From Final Fantasy, to the Chrono or Mana series players were exploring magical worlds and experiencing unforgettable stories for over a decade. This series of articles will recount how a small Japanese video game company known as Square rose to become the king of RPGs and create some of the best games ever made.

In the late 1980s Square had produced a few games in different genres for Nintendo’s first home console, but were struggling financially. A young employee by the name of Hironobu Sakaguchi decided that his last game would be an RPG and if it failed he would retire from the games industry and return to university. Inspired by other RPGs of the time such as Dragon Quest from Enix, Final Fantasy was a success for Square and was translated and released in English by its North American branch SquareSoft, leading to a sequel and Sakaguchi becoming the director of the series.

“I don’t have what it takes to make an action game. I think I’m better at telling a story.” – Hironobu Sakaguchi

The first three games in the Final Fantasy series were developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System, but only the original was released outside of Japan at the time. These games established many of the foundations the series would continue for over a decade including turn-based combat, a job system for the characters, a world map and dungeons to explore. The second game featured a more involved story and an experimental leveling system, while the third returned to the style of the original but allowed characters to change their job throughout the game. The key staff members of the early instalments were Sakaguchi as creator, artist Yoshitaka Amano, Nobuo Uematsu and game designer Akitoshi Kawazu. Each new Final Fantasy game was an indirect sequel, presenting a brand new world and characters, that let the series evolve and grow as technology progressed.

While the early Final Fantasy games were proving very popular, Square also starting creating other RPG franchises around this time, such as the Seiken Densetsu (later known as the Mana series in English) and SaGa series on Nintendo’s first handheld console the Game Boy. Seiken Densetsu featured an action-based battle system similar to Nintendo’s own The Legend of Zelda, while Akitoshi Kawazu’s SaGa series expanded on elements he had incorporated into Final Fantasy II. Both were marketed as Final Fantasy spin-offs in North America and Europe to increase sales, but as SquareSoft’s popularity grew both series would use their original Japanese names in later instalments.

With the Final Fantasy series as their main franchise, as well as many other talented designers working on establishing their own series, Square had built a solid foundation that enabled them to transition into the next generation of video game consoles with the release of the Super Nintendo and to what many fans refer to as their golden age…

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7 Comments

Filed under Dragon Quest Series, Editorial, Final Fantasy Series, Mana Series, SaGa Series

7 responses to “The Rise of SquareSoft (Part 1) – Telling a Story

  1. Interesting. I’m sure you’ll get to it, but Square and Enix became one company eventually, right? I heard that once, then I noticed I have a game made by Enix, “The Illusion of Gaia”. I thought it was interesting having games from both Square and Enix, and games from when they were one company. It’ll be interesting to learn more about Square.

    • You are correct, both companies merged to create Square Enix in 2003, but back in the 1990’s, SquareSoft and Enix were rivals. Enix was known for publishing the Dragon Quest games, as well as other RPGs such as Act Raiser, Star Ocean and as you mentioned Illusion of Gaia. Hope you enjoy the next few articles!

  2. As I recall, Final Fantasy sort of saved the company, no? Not just because of retirement, but I think square itself was struggling pretty bad financially when the first one came out. I absolutely loved Final Fantasy when I played it on the NES. As soon as I beat it the first time I went right back in and played through it again with new class combinations.

    • That’s right, it was Sakaguchi (who was only a regular employee at the time) that had planned to retire if his latest game was not a hit, he has stated thats why he called it Final Fantasy. The company itself (Square) was struggling financially and if Final Fantasy was not a success they would have probabaly gone out of business. Final Fantasy’s success both saved the company and kickstarted Sakaguchi’s career in the industry.

      Lucky you for being able to play Final Fantasy when it first came out. I was a bit too young and only played it in later years. Thanks for the comment!

      • I was pretty fortunate on that front. Final Fantasy was probably my 3rd RPG on the NES console back when I was younger. Ultima: Exodus and Dragon Warrior came first (I suppose one could argue Hylide was one and it did come out first, but it was godawful so I’d like to pretend I never played it).

        Still, while I enjoyed Ultima and Dragon Warrior, none of them stayed with me the way Final Fantasy did. I played the sequels of those games as well, but again the later Final Fantasy games were far more defining to me and my love of RPG games.

        • Thanks for the insight! It would be interesting to know what made Final Fantasy special to you compared to the other RPGs and if the the greater emphasis on storytelling in the later installments was a defining feature. It’s great to see that you have stayed with the series since the start and I look forward to anymore comments you add in the following articles. Thanks!

  3. Pingback: The Rise of SquareSoft (Part 2) – The Golden Age | The RPG Square

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