Category Archives: Mana Series

The Rise of SquareSoft (Part 3) – It’s Hip to Be Square

Following their success on the Super Nintendo, Square had originally planned to continue to develop for Nintendo systems. They even created a tech demo rendering some of the Final Fantasy VI characters in 3D for which many thought would be a preview of what Final Fantasy might look like on the Nintendo 64. These plans would soon change though, when a partnership between Nintendo and Sony fell through which ended with Nintendo staying with cartridges for its new system and Sony deciding to enter the video game market with its CD enabled PlayStation. With Sakaguchi and his team looking to push themselves with the expanded storage space offered by the CD format, Square controversially announced they would develop Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation.

PlayStation Logo

Yoshinori Kitase was concerned that the franchise would be left behind unless it embraced 3D graphics like other new games at the time and so Square made many advances with the new technology and Final Fantasy VII was the first in the series to feature a 3D world map, 2D pre-rendered backgrounds and character models rendered with polygons. Most famously though was the introduction of higher quality Full Motion Videos (FMV’s) that became a staple of the series.

Final Fantasy VII Cloud Midgar

Square didn’t just focus on graphics though, as the fantastic story of Final Fantasy VII was a joint effort written by Kazushige Nojima, Kitase and Masato Kato, based off an original draft by Sakaguchi. Previous Final Fantasy series artist Yoshitaka Amano was limited during the production due to other commitments and so Tetsuya Nomura, who previously had worked on Final Fantasy V and VI as a monster designer, was promoted to lead character designer. Even composer Nobuo Uematsu utilised the PlayStation’s internal sound chip to create songs with digitized voice tracks.

Final Fantasy VII Aeris Death

Final Fantasy VII was one of the most expensive games of its time and Sony advertised it heavily, especially in North America. It was also the first mainline title in the series to be released in Europe. The game was met with critical and commercial success upon its release and went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide. Final Fantasy VII is often regarded as one of the greatest games ever made and is recognised as the catalyst for popularising RPGs outside of Japan.

Final Fantasy VIII Squall

Final Fantasy VIII followed soon after VII and expanded on its foundations, presenting a more modern and futuristic world, as well as realistic and highly detailed characters again designed by Nomura. With Square’s experience with 3D graphics growing, Final Fantasy VIIIs presentation was much more consistent and it allowed the designers to make more experimental game play mechanics, such as the junction system and the addictive card mini game Triple Triad.

Final Fantasy IX Zidane Moogle

Final Fantasy IX was the last main installment to be developed for the PlayStation and returned the series briefly to its medieval, fantasy roots. Hiroyuki Ito returned as director while the character designs were handled by Hideo Minaba and were made more cartoonish to reflect the older games in the series, it also included black mages, crystals and lots of moogles . Sakaguchi has stated that Final Fantasy IX is his favourite in the series and that it most closely resembles what he initially visioned Final Fantasy to be. The soundtrack is also said to be Uematsu’s favourite composition.

Chrono Cross Kid Artwork

Square seemed to be on roll with the PlayStation and as their popularity grew overseas more of their other games found success as well. Masato Kato was handed directorial duties on Chrono Cross and with returning composer Yasunori Mitsuda they created a bright and wonderful game that dealt with parallel dimensions and featured a cast of 45 different characters to recruit. The action RPG Legend of Mana released with some of the most beautiful art work ever seen in a video game and highlighted the talent of up and coming composer Yoko Shimomura who would go on to score the two Parasite Eve games and many other big name franchises in the years to come. Showing the enormous depth of talent at Square, Tetsuya Takahashi, who had smaller roles on games like Final Fantasy VI directed the amazing Xenogears. It featured one of the most intricate and fascinating stories ever conceived and utilised a battle system that incorporated game play mechanics like combos found in a fighting game. It seemed like Square could do nothing wrong.

Xenogears Combos

Sakaguchi was also a big fan of a small development studio known as Quest who made the Ogre Battle games and he convinced the director Yasumi Matsuno and his team to join Square. Their partnership created more mature and complex games such as the classic strategy RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics and the dark and cinematic Vagrant Story.

Vagrant Story Title

With a whole new legion of fans from around the world, SquareSoft re-released some of their classic games to a new audience and PlayStation ports of Final Fantasy I and II, Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy V and VI were given new life and their quality was appreciated all over again. Square was now a household name and Final Fantasy was one of the biggest video game series ever, could anything stop their seemingly endless supply of talent and creativity…?

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Filed under Chrono Series, Editorial, Final Fantasy Series, Mana Series, Music, Parasite Eve Series, Vagrant Story, Xenogears

The Rise of SquareSoft (Part 2) – The Golden Age

The first article recounted how a small Japanese games company named Square had gone from being on the verge of closing down, to finding a hit with the original Final Fantasy and continuing to grow in popularity. Squaresoft had originally planned to release Final Fantasy II in English, but these plans were cancelled as they looked towards the new generation of game consoles with the international release of the Super Nintendo.

During the early 1990’s, Final Fantasy evolved with new hardware adding better graphics, a more detailed and featured storyline and more complex soundtracks. Final Fantasy IV, V and VI would be created in Japan but only IV and VI would be localised in North America and they were released as Final Fantasy II and III respectively. A major update to the series was the removal of the purely turn-based battle system and the implementation of the Active-Time-Battle system by game designer Hiroyuki Ito. Envisioning Formula One racing cars passing each, Ito designed the combat system where each character had a speed gauge that determined when they could act in the battle. The revolutionary new system stayed mostly unchanged up until the ninth instalment in the series.

Final Fantasy IV offered one of the most dramatic and compelling narratives seen in a video game at the time and Cecil, the main character was one of the first heroes to be shown with redemption as his motive. Final Fantasy V instead put game play back at the forefront updating the job system used in the third game, leading to an incredible amount of character customisation. This would be the last time the story would be put in the background as Final Fantasy VI featured one of the best RPG tales ever, combined with a large cast of deep and memorable characters. Hironobu Sakaguchi had directed all of the instalments in the series up until the sixth game when he moved to the watchful role of Producer and handed over the directorial duties to Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito. Final Fantasy VI is often regarded as one the best games in the series and featured Nobuo Uematsu’s greatest soundtrack at that point in his career.

“They say that technologically, it’s good to keep going, and each time, we give it our all and expend out skills and energy until we can go no further; this is what I consider to be the “final fantasy”. – Hironobu Sakaguchi

Square was not content with creating just one masterpiece on the Super Nintendo and in 1995 they released Chrono Trigger, which was designed by a “Dream Team” of developers. Sakaguchi combined with Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii and Dragon Ball manga artist Akira Toriyama to create one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Bringing together designers at the top of their field seemed to allow the creativity to flow, as Chrono Trigger revolutionised RPGs. It removed random battles, allowed characters to combine their special abilities into team attacks and featured a time travel narrative that showed the outcome of player’s actions in the past and how they affected the future. Most notably though it was one of the earliest games to have multiple endings (13) and have a new game plus mode. Chrono Trigger also saw the rise of other great designers at Square such as writer Masato Kato and the brilliant composer Yasunori Mitsuda.

Other franchises from Square were also hitting their stride on the Super Nintendo, such as the Seiken Densetsu series which produced the magical action- RPG classic that was released in English as Secret of Mana. Showing its versatility, Square also teamed up with Nintendo to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars which had some of the best graphics ever made for the console. SquareSoft was now localising a lot of RPGs for the North American market and even translated and released Capcom’s original Breath of Fire game as well as creating Secret of Evermore themselves. Unfortunately a lot of games were not released outside of Japan during this period and the English speaking world missed out on RPGs such as the fantastic sequel to Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, as well as the Romancing SaGa games, Live a Life, Bahamut Lagoon and the tactical- RPG Front Mission.

With some of the most creative and best video game designers and composers at their disposal Square were releasing some of the greatest games ever made. Still, RPGs were not the most popular genre at the time and Square’s success outside of Japan was still limited, but with the next generation of video game consoles fast approaching and the arrival of the new Sony PlayStation that was all about to change…

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

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

2D RPGs and Rayman Origins

I love a good platformer as much as I love a good RPG. I recently played through Rayman Origins and I was hooked. It finds a good balance between the precision platforming of the older Mario games and the speed and adrenaline of the classic Sonic titles. The other thing that really grabbed my attention was the fantastic art direction, including extremely detailed hand-drawn 2D character sprites and backgrounds. The game in motion looks unbelievable.

Soon my mind wondered to the times when epic RPGs of the past such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI and Secret of Mana where all 2D based. You don’t see many games made these days like that on consoles, but after seeing the success of Rayman Origins, wouldn’t it be great to see an original RPG with the same amount of detail and beauty in 2D. It could show off massive environments such as lush jungles, eerie caves, towering mountains or futuristic cities all in glorious high definition 2D art. Character models could be charming, without the need to make them too realistic.

Not only that, but instead of remaking older RPGs with 3D character models, imagine a beautiful remake of Final Fantasy VI featuring the same level of detail as found in Rayman Origins. It could keep the same feel and atmosphere as the Super Nintendo classic while showing off Terra and Kefka in a new light. I could only dream…

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Filed under Chrono Series, Editorial, Final Fantasy Series, Mana Series

Which Console Had The Best RPGs? (Part 2)

While the Super Nintendo is home to some of the true classics of the genre, the original PlayStation offers a huge variety of RPGs with more mature storylines, deeper mechanics and the introduction of mesmerising FMVs. The PS1 allowed developers more freedom to enhance the way they could present their stories which provided many new features to the genre.

Sony PlayStation (PS1)

With the extra power provided by the PlayStation hardware, RPGs such as the magnificent Final Fantasy VII amazed players with Full Motion Videos (FMVs) that helped depict important moments in the game in a more impressive way. Coming from 2D sprites, to seeing worlds realised in 3D was exciting for players at the time. Watching an emotional scene or intense action in more detail was something to look forward too, rather than a chore as in many modern games.

Stories became more ambitious too, involving more mature and complex plotlines, as well as adding more depth to characters. PS1 RPGs delved into themes unexplored by video games at the time and games such as Xenogears featured memorable characters, dealing with real issues that players could relate to. While Final Fantasy Tactics offered a plot filled with political intrigue, murder and heresy. More detailed character models and environments added to the sense of atmosphere and made the narratives more compelling to the player.

Art design and game mechanics were diverse, resulting in RPGs that provided unique experiences. Valkyrie Profile was willing to innovate on traditional mechanics, while Vagrant Story included a battle system and complexity unlike any other RPG before it. Worlds were bigger and more captivating and with the use of pre-rendered backgrounds they were full of detail and life. Designers explored different settings ranging from futuristic and modern, to medieval and even outer space. Experimentation was at its highest and it rewarded players with some the greatest RPGs ever made.

With the use of CD as storage media, RPG music was of higher quality and even vocal pieces were utilised. With voice acting still not common place, music was imperative to the experience and soundtracks such as Chrono Cross featured some of the best orchestral music ever to grace a video game.

RPGs on the PS1 were philosophical and ambitious, leaving players with stories they would never forget. It has a massive number of titles with the best of the best including: Final Fantasy VII, VII and IX, Chrono Cross, Xenogears, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, Legend of Mana, Parasite Eve, Valkyrie Profile, Grandia, Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, The Legend of Dragoon, Suikoden 1 and 2, Wild Arms, Star Ocean: The Second Story and many more.

The next article will explore the great RPGs developed on the PlayStation 2.

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Filed under Chrono Series, Editorial, Final Fantasy Series, Mana Series, Parasite Eve Series, Vagrant Story, Xenogears

Which Console Had The Best RPGs? (Part 1)

Throughout the years there have been many video game consoles that were home to some fantastic RPG experiences. All of them told incredible stories featuring memorable characters, had fun game play mechanics and immersed you in their wonderful worlds. Now, while there are still great RPGs found on modern consoles and handhelds, there are three systems from the past that will always be remembered as the best.

The following articles will discuss why the Super Nintendo, PlayStation and PlayStation 2 are home to the greatest collection of RPGs. From the child-like innocence and fun from the SNES era, to the coming of age and philosophical PS1 games, to finally the mature and polished PS2 selection, RPGs have changed over the years but still managed to capture the imagination of players around the world.

The Super Nintendo (SNES)

The greatest attribute of RPGs on the SNES was the fact designers needed to use the full extent of their creativity to get around hardware limitations and as such the players were free to use their own imagination to heighten the experience. Designers were challenged, but never restricted and the result was some of the most simple and ingenious game design, such as Chrono Trigger.

The art style and use of sprites gave the RPGs of this era an endearing personality. They felt like whimsical storybooks, set in enchanting fantasy castles, steam punk cities or desolate futures. Look at the magical world created in Secret of Mana. Without the use of voice acting, characters personalities were shown through their actions, usually with comical exaggerated expressions, adding to the charm.

Without the need to create realistic graphics and presentation, more effort could be focused on making the game play deep and fun. Worlds were enormous and exploration was high, battle systems were intuitive and innovative and playing never felt like a chore. It allowed RPGs to be epic adventures in their purest form, without the need for convoluted extras.

Lastly, the music was built around strong melodies and was imperative to the experience. It was needed to add depth to the characters and enhance important scenes. This meant many soundtracks were full of creative arrangements, catchy melodies and memorable songs. Despite their simplistic nature, soundtracks such as Final Fantasy VI have yet to be surpassed.

RPGs on the SNES featured some of the most impressive and masterful adventures. The best of the best include: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV, V and VI, Secret of Mana, Super Mario RPG, Terranigma, Star Ocean, Breath of Fire II, and many more.

There is more to come as the next articles will present the case for why the original PlayStation or PlayStation 2 was the king of RPGs.

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Filed under Chrono Series, Editorial, Final Fantasy Series, Mana Series, Terranigma

Top 5 RPG Soundtracks By Yoko Shimomura

Shimomura has produced many fascinating RPG soundtracks over the years. She is known for her alibility to portray colourful worlds with her music as well as produce diverse themes. These are my top 5 Soundtracks from Yoko Shimomura:

1. -Legend of Mana-

The music in Legend of Mana perfectly paints a whimsical dream world. Shimomura created magical town themes, fast battle music, peaceful and beautiful piano tracks and a fantastic vocal piece to bring the magical world to life.

Best Compositions: “Song of Mana”, “Earth Painting”, “Cliff Town Gato”

2. -Radiant Historia-

The soundtrack of Radiant Historia is relatively small, but includes a lot of quality. Like the game itself, the music evokes memories of past RPG classics. It features mysterious piano and violin tracks as well as frantic battle themes that enhance emotional parts of the narrative.

Best Compositions: “Edge of Green”, “Memories of the World”, “Blue Radiance”

3. -Kingdom Hearts-

Kingdom Hearts soundtrack is an impressive achievement as it manages to blend the themes of Disney’s motion pictures with Square’s RPGs. Shimomura created careful arrangements of iconic Disney compositions as well as memorable original pieces.

Best Composition: “Simple and Clean”, “Dearly Beloved”, “End of the World”

4. -Xenoblade Chronicles-

Recently released, Xenoblade’s soundtrack is a collaboration between many composers including Shimomura and Yasunori Mitsuda. Shimomura contributes a magnificent main theme, stirring town music and energetic battle themes.

Best Compositions: “Main Theme”, “Colony 9”, “Time to Fight”

5. -Parasite Eve-

The oldest soundtrack on this list, but it really shows Shimomura’s diversity. The music of Parasite Eve is experimental and wonderfully combines beautiful piano melodies with techno electronic sounds. It creates the perfect haunting atmosphere for the more intense parts of the game.

Best Compositions: “Primal Eyes”, “Theme of Aya”, “Urban Noise”

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Filed under Kingdom Hearts Series, Mana Series, Music, Parasite Eve Series, Radiant Historia, Top 5 Lists, Xenoblade Chronicles