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A Neverending Final Fantasy Part 1

Final Fantasy is the unlikely story of how a game that was meant to be the swan song of a troubled company managed to turn things around and establish one of the most successful and lucrative gaming franchises of all time.

There are so many memories, and such strong ones. We'll never forget the sacrifice Cid made in Final Fantasy IV. We'll never forget Aeris, whose death sent us crying and had people go to extreme length to change the course of the game. Vivi's farewell at the end of Final Fantasy IX brought us more tears, and it's safe to say that the Final Fantasy series has given us more moments like these over the last 25 years, than any other video game franchise.

The story of Final Fantasy starts with a 21 year-old student who recently dropped out of university. Fate obviously wanted something else for Hironobu Sakaguchi than a degree from Yokohama National University, and he quickly found work at a small company called Square. During the early 80's the gaming landscape was ruled by arcade games with consoles struggling after the crash of Atari. However, with the introduction of NES (Famicom), things started to pick up.

A genre that was growing in importance at this time was the Western role-playing game, often very complex creations brought out of the pen and paper traditions of role playing games. They were not very accessible, and mechanics and systems were more important than storytelling.

Hironobu Sakaguchi is the creator of the Final Fantasy series. The last game he directed personally was Final Fantasy IX, but he continued to be part of the production all the way up until Final Fantasy XII.

This is when another Japanese company called Enix makes a Japanese take on the genre - a game called Dragon Quest. Square are still struggling to grow their business in spite of creating a NES classic like Rad Racer. The company is fighting to stay alive, and Hironobu Sakaguchi decides to go out with a bang. With closure looming he sets about to create a final epic farewell - Final Fantasy.

To this day Hironobu Sakaguchi often points out that the name was a bit of a mistake. Given that we've reached the fourteenth numbered sequel it was not really final. When Final Fantasy was finished the competition was brutal. Enix had already released a sequel to Dragon Quest and Sega released Phantasy Star the very same week as Final Fantasy hit store shelves. A lot was riding on Final Fantasy, and Sakaguchi had given it his very best.

Even if the first Final Fantasy was a very primitive game by today's standards it contained elements you still find in the series to this day.

It was a well crafted game with design by Vampire Hunter D's Yoshitaka Amano, and it had a masterful soundtrack composed by Nobou Uematsu who remains one of the most revered composers in the industry to date, but at the time he was completely unknown. But in spite of it's lofty budget, Final Fantasy wasn't the storming success you may think. It was however, successful enough to buy Square a bit of extra time, and there was enough interest to create a sequel.

It wasn't until a few years later when the series was released in America that the real breakthrough came. Final Fantasy outclassed the Japanese phenomenon Dragon Quest in the American market as well as Phantasy Star II on Mega Drive - and this success vaulted Square into an international force. Nintendo realised the importance of Square, and formed an alliance with the company that would last for many years to come.

For some reason the American success of the games passed us by in Europe. Nintendo was of the opinion that Europeans had no interest in this type of game, and we were kept out of the loop until 1996 when the alliance between Nintendo and Square finally came to an end. And it wasn't just European Final Fantasy fans who were made to suffer, we also missed out on Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG in this part of the world.

Chrono Trigger is often ranked among the finest games ever made, but Nintendo and Square still opted out of releasing it in Europe.

Not only did Nintendo effectively shut Europeans out of playing some of the best RPG's Japan had to offer, they also muddled the waters by renaming and renumbering games as they saw fit. The first game in the Secret of Mana series is one such example - in Japan it was called Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, the American market got Final Fantasy Adventure, while Nintendo decided that Mystic Quest would be a better title for Europe. Adding to the confusion even more was a simple RPG that was called Final Fantasy Mystic Quest and renamed Mystic Quest Legend in Europe. It wasn't easy to be a European Final Fantasy fan at the time as the only games to make it over was inferior spin-offs. And it was about to get worse.

After the original Final Fantasy, they failed to release Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III in America as a result of chaotic translation work. Therefore the decision was amde to rename Final Fantasy IV - Final Fantasy II in America, and as they skipped over the brilliant Final Fantasy V - the American version of Final Fantasy VI became Final Fantasy III.

Very confusing and as if these mistakes weren't enough translator Ted Woolsey took enormous liberties with the source material as he changed names of characters, locations and even currencies. Perhaps the liberties he took with the translation is a reflection on how low the status of video games were at the time. It would have been unthinkable to treat translations of films and books in a similar manner.

The American packshot says Final Fantasy II, but in reality what you got in the box was Final Fantasy IV. It was hard to keep track of what each game was called in an era when there was no internet to help you along.

But let's return to the original Final Fantasy for a bit. Even if it across as primitive and something of a crossover between Western and Japanese role-playing games it's definitely evident that Hironobu Sakaguchi was onto something big. Menu systems, combat, magic, airships were still there in many subsequent games, and we can still trace some of those origins in today's Final Fantasy games. It's easy to understand why people fell in love with the series as it came with a suitably epic storyline and a handy job system.

What the original Final Fantasy was missing was fully developed characters, something we associate with modern Japanese role-playing games. While we get to shape and create our heroes in games like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect from a lump of clay, the Japanese equivalents typically come with a fully developed main character. But in the first Final Fantasy we were playing as four unnamed character who refrained from saying a single word. It was with Final Fantasy II that story and characters became an integral part of the Final Fantasy concept.

Final Fantasy II was an incredibly challenging game in which Square tested out an all new combat system. It wasn't popular, but other concepts such as the recurring character Cid and Chocobos became mainstays of the series.

We were introduced to Firion, Mario, Guy and Leon who revolted against an unusually cruel ruler - a villain who at the time felt very different from what we faced in other video games. It felt like a more mature take on what a video game could be at a time where platformers tried to squeeze as many colours as possible into every screen. Final Fantasy II had other unique aspects and one such aspect was the fact that the main characters were switched out during the adventure.

You didn't play with the same group of characters throughout, and they could even die in the middle of the adventure. The fact that main characters could die without being miraculously saved, was something surprising and captivating, especially for a generation spoon fed happy endings served up by Hollywood.

All the way up to Final Fantasy VII it was more rule than exception that main characters dropped off or even died during the adventure, regardless of how you equipped or levelled up your favourite characters. In a similar move it was easy to miss out on having a particular character join your group. In Final Fantasy VI you could miss out on Umaro, while some who played Final Fantasy VII missed out on fan favourite Yuffie.

Twelve of the heroes from Final Fantasy VI, but there are two more as the secret characters Gogo and Umaro were meant to remain secrets until players discovered them.

It was in Final Fantasy II that we first met with Cid. A character that would appear in every subsequent main entry in the series, and he was even playable in Final Fantasy VII. Cid has often been cast as an elderly inventor, a role he reprised in the feature film Final Fantasy: Spirits Within where he was cast as the scientist Sid. Final Fantasy II also saw the birth of another Final Fantasy staple - the overgrown chickens known as Chocobos. On top of appearing in all subsequent Final Fantasy titles they've also starred in games of their own such as Chocobo Racing.

The final, and perhaps most surprising thing about Final Fantasy II was that it had nothing in common with the first game as far as story or world goes. This is a tradition that Square kept up as the story and world are switched out, while some themes may remain. This is perhaps the smartest single move Hironobu Sakaguchi is responsible for as far as Final Fantasy goes.

Given that there were no main characters or worlds to consider the developers were given plenty of freedom to surprise players and avoid stagnation. This way Final Fantasy IX had a sugar sweet fairy tale tone to its characters, while Final Fantasy X had a hefty dose of emo teenagers in latex outfits, while Final Fantasy XI was an online RPG with a hard and adult fantasy world.

Unlike what many may think Final Fantasy XI is the biggest single earner in the history of Square.

If the original Final Fantasy was a feeling out process, then Final Fantasy II was the true saviour for Square. The franchise had saved the company from the brink of extinction, and now the main characteristics were in place. The only problem was the level system created by Akitoshi Kawazu. It created a lot of frustration among gamers, and together with the localisation problems it is often blamed for the fact the Final Fantasy II didn't make it across to Western markets. Kawazu's levelling system was not popular with the rest of the team, and subsequently he left the team and went on to create the SaGa series. It wasn't until Final Fantasy XII that Kawazu was brought back to work on the series again.