Thursday, January 28, 2016

Let's Talk Final Fantasy


This Cracked article about how Final Fantasy is losing all of its fans sparked a discussion on Facebook. This discussion got me researching, and since I already did the research I figure I should probably write a blog about it.

In short: I think the problems with modern Final Fantasy games has to do with the people involved.


When you go back and track who was involved with each Final Fantasy game, you can pretty much mark the ends of eras by when people move on. Games don't exist in a vacuum, after all: the people involved influence the game each in their own way.

Two of the most obvious changes from one era to another has to do with the art and the music:

For some, Final Fantasy hit its peak with FFVI, not because it simply made the move to 3D, but because FFVI was the last Final Fantasy featuring art by Yoshitaka Amano. After Amano came Yusuke Naora, who served as art director for VII, VIII and X, and who is slated as art director for XV. After X, no two games seem to have the same art director in a row, which may contribute to the lack of consistency from game to game.

For music, of course, you probably can't name a Final Fantasy composer besides Nobuo Uematsu, who composed most of the music for every Final Fantasy game up to X. He also composed the music for the FFXIV but, as an MMO, the game has a pretty different audience than the classic Final Fantasies. Regardless, none of the other composers seem to have Uematsu's talent for strong, memorable melodies, which were so definitive of the classic Final Fantasy experience.

Arguably, though, the most important aspects of story-driven games like the Final Fantasy series is that the stories are engaging or, at least, understandable. The last Final Fantasy that really felt like a Final Fantasy game to me was VII which, not coincidentally, was the last Final Fantasy directly influenced by long-time Final Fantasy director Hironobu Sakaguchi.

As the creator of the series, it makes sense that something important would be lost when Sakaguchi left. Lots of other people who worked on the games continued to so do after he left, but without the original visionary to guide the series it naturally became more and more directionless over time, especially once he stopped supervising the series altogether after FFIX. In fact, his resignation from the company led directly to the merger of Squaresoft and Enix, as the loss of Sakaguchi caused many financial backers of Squaresoft to lose faith in the company. Given that, it's fair to say that until that point Sakaguchi was Squaresoft, and when he left it became a very different company.

In fact, any time Sakaguchi changed position in the company, Final Fantasy changed significantly as well. You can see dramatic changes to the series when he gave up the director's chair after FFV, stopped writing/designing for the series after VII, and stopped producing after IX.

Some other directors and designers from the series stand out as well:

Star Wars fanboy Yoshinori Kitase directed Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasies VI, VII, VIII, and X. So, if you wanted to know why those earlier games of his tended to feature Empires, Rebels, and conspicuous people named Biggs and Wedge, that's why. As the director of some of my favorite games ever, I have to thank Kitase for kicking off a golden age of RPGs, even if I was never a huge fan of VIII and never felt compelled to even try X.

Hiroyuki Ito is the hero who designed many of my favorite RPG battle systems, including Final Fantasies IV, V, VI, VIII, IX, XII, and Tactics(!!!). Ito really seemed to love the job systems introduced in the first Final Fantasies, and his expansion on that idea really made the games that included them compelling. Ito was also the director of FFIX, as well as the director of FFXII once Matsuno left. As his core, though, Hiroyuki Ito is a designer of gameplay, and lately he's just been doing odd jobs and production work for Square-Enix, mumbling now and then about how he'd be happy to work on another Final Fantasy game sometime if they'd like him to, no pressure or anything.

Finally, having mentioned Matsuno, the three-man tag-team of Yasumi Matsuno, Hiroshi Minagawa, and Akihito Yoshida were relative late-comers to Square (like, 1995ish), and their efforts basically created a Final Fantasy alternate universe that had a different theology than the others, but had a more consistent world. Their games include Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy XII, which all take place in that alternate, consistent world.

Anyway, all of the folks I've mentioned here have either left Square partially or altogether (Sakaguchi, Matsuno), have risen in the ranks to the point that they're no longer directly involved in the games (Kitase, Ito), or are doing their level best to do good things with the series as much as they can (Minagawa, as director of the FFIV reboot).

Unfortunately, none of the people who have replaced them have managed to stand out, but who knows where the series will go from here. Maybe a new rockstar director will emerge, or maybe Ito will finally get the chance to design a cool battle system again. I hear FFXIV is actually pretty good, too, and that's technically the latest Final Fantasy. Maybe things aren't as bad as people make it out to be?

(Correction: I note in this blog that the last Final Fantasy Sakaguchi was directly involved in was VII. This was incorrect: Sakaguchi was the primary writer for Final Fantasy IX. My apologies. Makes sense, though.)

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