You can find the first part of "A Neverending Final Fantasy" here.
It wasn't until late in 1995 the time had come to finish up Final Fantasy VII, but times had changed and games were no longer synonomous with colourful mascots and quick adventures. Video games were big business. Sony had gone to war with Nintendo following a collapsed collaboration over a CD-addon for Super Nintendo, and that device evolved into the first Playstation.
But even if Sony as a brand was as strong as any at this time, it was far from a certainty that Playstation would be a success story. Sony needed games. Capcom, who are in the habit of embracing new platforms early on had shown off Resident Evil. A mature horror game that looked like nothing we'd seen before. The early test version Square had shown of the game on prototype Nintendo 64 hardware was not nearly as graphically impressive and Square made a drastic decision.
The cartridge based Nintendo 64 was not the right platform for developers who were looking for as much space as possible for their ambitious game. Nintendo did not want to listen to the critics and felt that cartridges held several advantages over discs. A few months later the love story between Nintendo and Square was over. In 1996 it was announced that Final Fantasy VII would be released exclusively on Playstation.
The fans were outraged, and it was labelled a massive betrayal as the pre-orders for Nintendo 64 took a massive dive. It was front page news in leading financial newspaper in Japan - Nippon Keizai Shinbun. The former Nintendo boss Hiroshi Yamauchi was infurioated and was quoted saying that RPG players were "depressed gamers who like to sit alone in their dark rooms and play slow games". Not exactly what RPG fans wanted to hear from Nintendo.
Square were naturally concerned with the switch. Playstation was not off to a particularly strong start, and it the console failed it could mean the end of the Final Fantasy series as they had burnt their bridges with Nintendo. Square had no experience with 3D graphics and Hironobu Sakaguchi has revealed that the development was chaotic and how they prioritised playability over story to make it work.
Longtime designer Yoshitaka Amano was busy with other tasks, so it was up to Tetsuya Nomura to fill his shoes. Sony knew the importance of Final Fantasy VII and put unheard of amounts of marketing behind it with commercials running on both TV and at the cinema as well as mainstream publications such as Playboy and Rolling Stone.
Final Fantasy VII wasn't a particularly striking game at first glance. The characters appeared to be made of single digit polygons, and the animations were jerky at best. No character was blessed with hands and they had a tendency to get stuck on their surroundings. But even with these flaws there was no cause for concern. Square's most expensive production to date, backed by Sony's marketing, left no player disappointed.
What made Final Fantasy VII stand out was the dystopic story that revolved around current issue such as preserving the environment. Cloud Strife wasn't you typical hero, but a bit of a scatter brain and you soon realised everything wasn't right. And still it was the adorable Aeris who stole most of the thunder.
Since Final Fantasy VII was the first game many gamers played in the series (especially in Europe) - there was a massive outcry as Aeris died. People cried, and Square received threatening letters from fans demanding she'd be brought back to life, while others spent considerable money and effort to bring her back from the dead with various cheats and hacks. It remains one of the most surprising moments in video game history and marks an important milestone in the evolution of the medium.
Final Fantasy VII was simply put a small miracle, and it is often credited with being the main reason behind a surge in Playstation sales. It routinely makes lists with the best games of all time, and it was definitely worth all the hard work. After ten years and seven main series games - Square had risen to one of the most influential and important developers in the industry. There was an animé based on Final Fantasy, there was manga, there were spin off titles, and the demand for more Final Fantasy games was high. The only problem was that Square weren't quite ready to manage their success, and difficult times were approaching.
Development on Final Fantasy VIII started well before number seven had been translated and released in Western markets. But Hironobu Sakaguchi didn't have time to work on it, instead he was focused on the most outrageous and prestigious project Square had ever undertaken - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. This computer rendered feature film was meant to show off true photo realism, while expanding the Final Fantasy concept beyond its audience of gamers. In order to pull this off he started up Square Pictures, and in a seldom seen case of hubris four years and countless millions were spent on the film. And with those kind of expenses it mattered little that Final Fantasy VII would go on to sell 10 million copies. Which still makes it the best selling game in franchise history.
Someone should have pulled the emergency break, and with a more conservative management Square would probably been around today. When Spirits Within finally hit cinemas it wasn't a very good movie, and it bombed at the box office. Four years had passed with Sakaguchi working on everything but the games.
No surprise then that Final Fantasy VIII turned out very different from previous games in the series. The environments were inspired by Mediterranean countries, the design reminded us of the bright and sterile look of Star Trek, while the main characters were humans designed by Tetsuya Nomura. His love for the weird resulted in a strange comboweapon called Gunblade handled by the main character Squall, an androgynous cowboy, and clothes Lady Gaga wouldn't be caught dead in.
Final Fantasy VIII was criticised for its drawn out, illogical story, and the strange magic system, but it was still celebrated by critics and a big success. What particularly stood out was the prerendered cutscenes that were some of the most stunning seen anywhere at this point in time. But Square had now split their fanbase in two, as some preferred the earlier more fantasy based concepts, while others loved the more spaced out science fiction themes.
That's where Final Fantasy IX fits in. Development started early on the game that was meant to bring the series back to its roots. It was developed on Hawaii and was long rumoured to be a spin-off. There was even speculation the game was heading to Sega's Dreamcast. Square finally ended up naming it IX, and once again we were given further proof of how each episode was its own separate game. Much like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates you never knew what the next Final Fantasy might bring.
Final Fantasy IX is creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's favourite game, and it is also the highest rated Final Fantasy title on Metacritic. And it is easy to see why. Final Fantasy IX struck a chord with those who grew up with the series. It contained some of the best elements from the first five instalments fused into one game. It had likeable main characters and a beautifully told fantasy story. In hindsight it may be seen as a farewell of sorts to this kind of concept as it didn't prove as popular as Final Fantasy VII and VIII, and subsequently we've seen no pure fantasy effort in the franchise.
Square took the opportunity to cash in on the success with more spin-offs than ever before. Where each new Final Fantasy had been a major event we were spoon fed Final Fantasy related games in the late 90's - including Choboco Racing, Choboco's Mysterious Dungeon, and Final Fantasy Tactics - as well as re-releases of older titles that had not previously been translated and released in Europe and North America. For the most part there was nothing wrong with these games, but it did dilute the brand somewhat, and when Hironobu Sakaguchi finally finished work on the insanely expensive film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within it had reached its breaking point.
It was one of the most brutal box office busts of all time, and the budget of $137 million was never recouped. Square Pictures didn't survive the crash and was closed down, and it also meant the end of Hironobu Sakaguchi's involvement and the end of an independent Square. Sakaguchi left Square to found Mistwalker and he brought Nobyo Uematsu with him. Together they created several inspired games such as Blue Dragon, but nothing reached the popularity of Final Fantasy. As far as Square was concerned Final Fantasy X came around the same time as Spirits Within and helped ease the blow somewhat. This was still the beginning of the end for Square.
The transitions in between console generations had always presented Square and the Final Fantasy series with problems and Final Fantasy X was no exception. The new power housed in Playstation 2 meant that the world map, a staple since the first game was done away with. And mute heroes was no longer enough as Tetsuya Nomura was given free reign to mould his characters without limitations.
Final Fantasy X was another chapter that divided fans as those who had loved Final Fantasy IX found it hard to like the new main character Tidus. The story felt more Western than Japanese, and instead of fantasy and epic events it was a sport called Blitzball that took centre stage. The black mages, the worn down old villages and the humour found in number nine felt very distant as loud mouth Tidus ran around and said one weird thing after another. Nevertheless the game found a large audience and in fact it was so successful that it was the first game in the franchise to spawn a direct sequel (Final Fantasy X-2).
Square's financial difficulties were brought on largely by The Spirits Within, but they were still a game developer to reckon and their chief competitor in the domestic RPG space, Enix, saw the potential there. Enix had continued to focus on their core focus with the Dragon Quest series, and never spent a yen on lofty Hollywood projects. So it was Enix who really swallowed up Square when the merge to form Square Enix in 2003.
Square had dabbled in online functionality with both Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X, but it was with Final Fantasy XI that they went all in with online, much to the distain of their fans. The franchise had undergone many changes over the years, but this was too much for many. Development on the game started in the late 90's and the core team was made up of the people behind Chrono Cross. The idea was for the game to come to all platforms imaginable, and it was meant to be played cross-platform. For a longtime it was called Final Fantasy Online, but in a somewhat peculiar move it was given a number.
Development dragged out, and once it came out it was only on Playstation 2 and PC. The limited storage on the Xbox harddrive was to blame for this. Final Fantasy XI was loosely based on Final Fantasy III and an old school MMORPG predating the landscape changing World of Warcraft. The complex game system, and the high difficulty level saw many players give up on Final Fantasy XI and the game didn't climb the charts like the other main entries in the franchise.
You may think that Final Fantasy XI was a failure, but that's far from the truth. In fact it garnered its fair share of fans who played on and on, picking up new expansions as they were released. Ten years later and Final Fantasy XI stands as the biggest revenue earner in the franchise, and for Square Enix as a company. The decision to make a successor, the game that would later be known as Final Fantasy XIV was therefore easy to make. Final Fantasy XI was actually also released on Xbox 360 as it came with a larger harddrive, and with that Final Fantasy finally made its debut on Microsoft's platform.
Another milestone happened in 2004. Square Enix published another spin-off Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles on Gamecube, and with that the ten year boycott of Nintendo platforms was over. Square Enix were now working with all major platform holders as well as PC, and Final Fantasy was a true multiplatform franchise. But there was one more exclusive main series Final Fantasy title due out on Playstation 2 - Final Fantasy XII.
Development on chapter 12 started as early as 2001 and was passed on between various directors for various reasons. There was a lot of varying opinions on how to build the game, how it should look and resources were constantly taken from the project as other games needed help. Given the chaotic development it wasn't until 2006 that the game finally saw release.
With five years of continuous development Final Fantasy XII made it into the Guiness Book of World Records as the game with the longest development time. But it was worth the wait. It was highly rated on release and received full marks from Famitsu (first ever PS2 title to achieve this). And much like Final Fantasy X the popularity resulted in a sequel that was later released on Nintendo DS.
As history tells us generational shift have always presented Square with problems, and this shift was no exception. Work on Final Fantasy XIII had begun in 2004 and the idea at the time was for it to be released on Playstation 2. It wasn't until E3 2006 that it was shown and now the platform was Playstation 3 - in addition to Final Fantasy XIII another game called Final Fantasy Versus XIII was also shown. But they were only presented with prerendered video. There was no game to show, and Square Enix had a plan to develop the technology for the game in parallel with the development of the game.
It proved to be an ill-advised move, and it wasn't until 2010 after six years in development that Final Fantasy XIII finally saw the light of day and by then the landscape of video games had changed once more. Japanese roleplaying games were no longer at the top of the food chain, and Western gamers were more into open world RPG's such as Elder Scrolls.
To add insult to injury Sony had fallen victim of their own success, and Square's former partners Nintendo were back on top. In order to broaden the appeal of Final Fantasy XIII an Xbox 360 version was commissioned. And even with a mixed critical reception it was a massive success. In fact it became the fastest selling game in the franchise, something that would spawn direct sequels.
There has always been three main instalments in the franchise per generation, but there has only been one main series game on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. A worrying sign. After the successful Final Fantasy XI, Square Enix started talking about a MMORPG called Rapture as far back as in 2005. In 2010 it was released as Final Fantasy XIV on PC with promises of a Playstation 3 version that was supposed to follow soon thereafter.
We haven't seen anything of that version, and unlike Final Fantasy XI the game failed to attract any substantial player numbers even as Square Enix decided not to charge players for subscriptions. Yet another drastic decision was made as they decided to remake the game and relaunch it next year as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Producer Hiromichi Tanaka resigned his position and handed the responsibility over to Naoki Yoshida. And apparently a Playstation 3 version is still on the cards.
The only problem with that is that we expect the next generation to kick off in 2013. And these transition periods have always presented Square Enix with issues. This is when Square has typically shown off fancy demos, but then later struggled to get their first Final Fantasy game to market. Even with no official word on Final Fantasy XV one has to think that Square Enix are wrestling with the dilemma of releasing the game on the current generation of consoles or to take a gamble and head straight to next gen.
Fingers crossed Square Enix will hold off on Final Fantasy XV until the next generation of consoles, and after instalment of massively multiplayer and science fiction themes, many believe it's time for a proper fantasy adventure again. Regardless of the theme we can be sure of one thing - it won't be like any other Final Fantasy game. That's been the one thing we've known for sure throughout these 25 years. Nothing remains the same as eras, mechanics, environments, and just about everything else is switched out between games.
The 14 main entries in the franchise have never lacked imagination and innovation. In an ironic twist the Final Fantasy was just beginning, and there is nothing to indicate we'll ever see an end to the most successful RPG franchise of all time.