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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

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

Idea For a New Game In the Mana Series

The early games in the Mana series sent the player on whimsical journeys through colourful fantasy worlds. They were remembered for versatile action battle systems and the ability to play through the adventures with friends via multiplayer. After the World of Mana compilation failed to revive the series, no new Mana games have been made recently. After playing through Ys Seven I had an idea on how to make a new Mana game that would recapture the series’ magic.

Firstly, a return to style and game play systems from the legendary Secret of Mana and it’s Japan only sequel Seiken Densetsu 3, as well a touch of Legend of Mana. The SNES classics are some of the best action RPG’s ever created and while Legend of Mana changed some of it’s predecessors formulas, it kept the sense of adventure. The new Mana game should use 2D Sprites and backgrounds to allow similar navigation to Secret of Mana. Using today’s technology these could be intricate and fantastically detailed. Another option is 3D character models over pre-rendered backgrounds similar to Ys Seven as this is my favourite style for RPGs.

The battle system has been experimented with a lot in the more recent games, but after playing Ys Seven, I immediately thought it’s battle system would be a perfect fit for the Mana series. The flexibly of Secret of Mana was the use of a variety of different weapons and the ability to switch them on the fly to change strategies. Using Ys Seven’s system would allow a similar setup to Secret of Mana, with three characters that you could switch around as customise to your liking. It could also work to have other players be able to control the other characters allowing for multiplayer, which was a signature element of the classic games.

Ys Seven’s focus on game play and speed also reminded me of Secret of Mana’s intention to constantly keep the player in the action with minimal distractions. The “Ring Command” menu system would return to easily customise the party and equip magic and special techniques. They would then be executed in real-time like in Legend of Mana but without the delay.

To capture the spirit of the best Mana games the highlight should be the game play. The story should be focused on a carefree adventure revolving the Mana Tree and should not be slowed down with heavy narrative. The character of the series is from the people that populate the world, which was done fantastically in Legend of Mana and is important to keep in this new instalment. The game’s focus would be to create an interesting and imaginative world, filled with wonderful and memorable locations. To finish it off, the music should be a follow up effort to the Legend of Mana soundtrack, by Yoko Shimomura.

Using these ideas as a template, I think a successful new Mana could be made to cater to the fans as well as update the original formula to today’s standards.

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Filed under Editorial, Mana Series, Ys Series

Review: Why You Should Play Legend Of Mana

Legend of Mana is an action-RPG released on the original PlayStation and is must play for any RPG fan with a sense of carefree adventure.

The first thing you will notice is the fantastically drawn 2D artwork. First released when 3D was taking over game design, the background artwork is wonderfully detailed and colourful, while the character sprites are interesting and appealing. You will always be anticipating how the visual presentation of the next location on your journey will impress you, as you travel from the fiery depths of the Underworld to the mystic Bejeweled City. Special mention is needed for the colossal boss monsters that are articulately designed and often mesmerising.

The player is tasked with rebuilding the world after the Mana Tree was burned down centuries ago and the lands were stored in ancient artifacts. The main plot is non-linier and is broken up into small story arcs and side quests that the player can choose to complete at their freedom. This works to flesh out the busy world and makes best use of the large amount of characters introduced. It keeps the game fresh, as well as engaging.

The action-based battle system lets you attack in real time from a choice of a variety of different weapons, while also implementing special techniques and magic attacks. It keeps the gameplay moving along at a brisk pace as the enemies are fought on the same screen as exploring, with no random battle transitions. Similar to the multi-player in Secret of Mana a second player can control various characters that join your journey throughout different story arcs.

Legend of Mana is also graced with a lovely musical score that for what it lacks in quantity, more than makes up for in quality. The music is lively and fits the mood of the different settings well, coming to together with the art direction to create an amazing storybook-like world.

Legend of Mana is an intriguing RPG in many ways. If you daydream of escaping to an imaginative fantasy world, then you should play Legend of Mana.

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Filed under Mana Series, Reviews