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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

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

Review: Why You Should Play The Last Story

The Last Story is an action RPG released on the Nintendo Wii that combines an exciting new battle system with a traditional story of swords and sorcery.

From the original creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi, The Last Story brings together the classic elements of the genre, such as an involving story, memorable cast of characters and in-depth customisation with a new way to engage in battles. The Last Story feels a lot like older RPGs, but the game play is something entirely modern.

The narrative follows the antics of a band of mercenaries living on the beautiful Lazulis Island, ranging from Zael, the hero who discovers a magic power, to Syrenne, a heavy drinking, short tempered rogue. It is the cast of characters that is The Last Story’s greatest strength. They all have a unique personality and the conversations between themselves are a highlight. The plot evolves into a love story between Zael and the mysterious princess Calista and involves confrontations, invasions and kidnapping. The story is fast paced, interesting and action packed, but it also takes the time to show some heart-felt moments that will keep the player coming back for more.

Battles are fought in real-time, with the player in control of Zael. He can block, run, dodge, hide behind walls and take cover from enemies as well as attack them with his sword or shoot at them with his crossbow. The game also features the ability to stop battles and issue commands to your allies, creating an added layer of depth to the battle system. Boss battles are strategic and challenging, demanding different tactics such as telling your allies to use fire magic to destroy a bridge. Unlike most RPGs, The Last Story also contains online multiplayer, where players can team up or verse each other in deathmatch modes. The game play is the most addictive of any recent RPG.

Teaming up again with Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack for The Last Story is amazing. It brings atmosphere and emotion to the narrative, from the majestic “Theme of The Last Story”, to the moody battle track “Order and Chaos”. The wonderful music adds that special element that all great RPGs possess to make them stand out from the crowd.

The Last Story has the heart and soul of classic RPGs, but brings forth one of most innovative new battle systems in recent games. If you wish to play an RPG full of charm and character, then you should play The Last Story.

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Filed under Reviews, The Last Story