Foundation: Episode IV - The Top 25 Square Games
By Kevin Leung, December 3rd, 2002
Even before it hit retail, your mind was already made up: one way or another, you had to have Final Fantasy X.
At the Square Millennium Conference of January 2000, we didn't get a single preview of Final Fantasy - we got three. Square's campaign gave us a window into the digital future and it could not have been better calculated. Attendees of the conference could not stop staring at the official unveiling of Final Fantasy X footage stretched like a canvas across the wall. Meanwhile, an anonymous video camera that had been stolen into the show was recording everything we wanted to see. Millions gathered in front of their monitor to squint at some out-of-focus movie files that were uploaded to the Internet that very same day. There could only be one word to describe what fans saw onscreen: potential...vast potential. But more important than showing off a pre-Tidus rendered action figure (amusingly stuck in running-man mode), the early demo of Final Fantasy X displayed a fraction of what we could expect from a next-generation RPG. Twenty seconds of footage was more powerful than any amount of marketing could hope to achieve.
In short, Square sold us on the Playstation 2 console.
Onboard the wildly anticipated platform, Final Fantasy X would solidify Square's foothold in the newest era of interactive entertainment along with what analysts today estimate as a 63% global market penetration; it's Sony's world, we just live in it. If you thought Final Fantasy VII was swell back in the day, Final Fantasy X took those benchmarks and punted them into the stratosphere. The game boasts fluidly animated characters, strong voice acting, full 3D environments, and oh-my-gawd graphics. Two years after the Millennium Conference, gamers were playing a bonafide hit while Square's competitors were playing catch-up.
Plays like: The real reason why you bought a shiny new PS2.
"The journey of Tidus and Yuna was a story that was truly unforgettable...told in such a beautiful, powerful way, I was quite taken by it. Very emotional and at the end, even depressing in a sense. The characters felt so real...for me, this brought much more attachment to the story. I just loved every bit of it."
Sometimes I think Japanese game developers are going crazy. How long does it take for them to acknowledge that we want sequels to our favourite games? Scratch that. How long does it take for them to realize that they could be, oh I dunno, making money? Let's imagine a typical day at the office:
President: "Alright, bring us up to speed on today's meeting."
Producer: "Certainly, President-san. It seems that the masses have been demanding the next Final Fantasy Tactics and Chrono Trigger for some time now."
President (in deep thought): "No, not this year, I'm afraid. I think we're in the market for something a little different. Producer-san, I'd like to you make me a gardening simulator, another mahjong-dating game, and a ham sandwich, please."
As you can see, whoever pushed for Chrono Cross, Serge's fantastic voyage through dreamscapes and cross-dimensional travel, finally answered our pleas. The game is loosely based on the Super Famicom Satellaview interactive-novel entitled Radical Dreamers that was (say it with me) only released in Japan. I don't know about you but I would have been perfectly content with a shameless clone of Chrono Trigger. Then again, rehashed Castlevania games make me cuckoo for cocoa-puffs so what do I know? I certainly wasn't expecting a tour-de-force labour of love redefining the synergy between graphics, music, and gameplay. Like most of you, I was sleepwalking through the bridge of the plot until those last few minutes imploded with enough revelation and exposition to pummel Alfred Hitchcock into the ground. There's so much to handle it's plum crazy.
While the game has enough merit to stand on its own, there's a strange but undeniable paradox that exists between the enjoyment of playing Trigger versus the excitement of playing Cross. It's true that you have to experience Trigger in order to pick up the references and subtle nuances scattered throughout Cross. Playing the predecessor certainly enhances your appreciation of its kin and explains a lot of things, not to mention why this pedigree is such a sacred cow to begin with. At the same time, doing so might actually degrade your opinion of Cross altogether. Having finally received the follow-up game they had been pining for, ardent Trigger fans were so happy that they ostracized Cross from having any direct relationship because, in their minds, the game was far too unorthodox to be a Chrono game. This all-around excellent sequel did not live up to its predecessor and would have to carry that burden even before leaving the starting gate. A friend of mine tried to explain the logic in first principles: "Playing Chrono Trigger makes Chrono Cross better which causes it to be worse." Clear as mud, I nodded. Back to what I was saying before about Japanese game companies going crazy: when it comes to producing sequels, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. So would everyone have been better off to receive Chrono Trigger version 2.0? Serge says, "..."
Plays like: Tropical Island Quantum Leap.
"I was glad I wasn't weaned on Chrono Trigger, otherwise I would've never appreciated Chrono Cross for what it really is: a beautiful game that tells a beautiful story if it's just taken as itself...'take me by my own content and I'll bring you to a land that you'll remember in your dreams.' "
"They're selling it online for...how much?"
And so begins the tale of how Final Fantasy Tactics, possibly the most underrated strategy RPG (featuring the world's finest Japlish translation), was lifted out of obscurity. Drafted into the Playstation's Greatest Hits collection, the game eventually picked up momentum through word of mouth and garnered acceptance through a continually growing fan base. So supportive was this community that Yasumi Matsuno is now ready to give us Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on the GBA. I'm sure there is a poignant lesson behind all this to be learned by both consumer and publisher in the game industry but I can't quite put my finger on it. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone and sold on e-Bay...(forgive me, Joni Mitchell!)
For as long as anyone can remember, there has always been bloodshed in the kingdom of Ivalice. The devastating Fifty Year War has ravaged the countryside leaving its citizens in turmoil and poverty. The fair Princess Ovelia is abducted by an unknown band which eventually promotes contention between the Gallione and Zeltennia families. This feud would later become known as "The Lion War" named after the opposing family crests of lions. Compounding the issue is who would be the throne's rightful successor after the King has passed away. Prince Larg is the Queen's older brother while Prince Goltana is the King's youngest cousin. Neither party is willing to back down in the prospect of power.
According to the archives of history, it is a young soldier named Delita Hyral who puts an end to the Lion War and ascends to throne as Ivalice's ruler. He brings about an era of peace and restoration that lasts for many years. However, there is another mysterious hero whose contributions had a greater influence. His name will never appear in any history books for the church had branded him a heretic and enemy to the spiritual truth. The hero we know and love is Ramza Beoulve.
One fundamental element that distinguishes strategy RPGs from their traditional brethren is that of level design. Much like Tactics Ogre, the 'other' strategy game by Quest, environments in Final Fantasy Tactics are meticulously crafted including trees, swamps, rocky paths, castles, and towns - throw in your own army and it's everything you need to stage a coup d'état. More importantly, you interact realistically with all of these things. Climbing a hill puts Ramza in an elevated position while taking cover behind a house provides temporary relief from archers. It's not unlike playing the Games Workshop miniature hobby games of Warhammer or Warhammer 40K. This may all sound very trivial but, as my favourite saying goes, the devil is in the details. Paying attention to things that no one else pays attention to can separate a hit seller from a bargain bin failure. But what I like most is that the characters in Final Fantasy Tactics seem like they actually lived in their environments. This is because the rotating 3/4 viewpoint situates the player like a deity, an omnipotent god hovering over his mortal ants. Observe closely the next time a monarch sits on his throne and delegates orders. Really pay attention to the peasants as they go about their morning business in the market square. You'll notice a hidden beauty that you may have taken for granted the first time around. It's very surreal to watch a 'day-in-the-life' of some fictional characters and find yourself wanting to know more. What does he do for a living? Did she have a happy childhood growing up? You form attachments with the story's participants which, when you think about it, makes it that much harder to watch them suffer. As the truth is unraveled, you slowly realize that neither side gains anything from the futile Lion War. Ramza pities Delita for his misguided beliefs and Delita submits that Ramza ultimately achieved nothing despite his sacrifices. Afterall, what is peace but a momentary intermission; a fleeting objective for people who are forever discontent with what they have. Will we ever stop killing each other? Are we forced to live in vain? The game winds down, the credits roll, and the final scene lingers in our mind until the screen fades to black. There are no victories in war. In a post-9/11 reality, we must never forget the real casualties are often the poor and innocent caught in the crossfire.
One of these days, pass this game along to your children.
Plays like: Full contact chess.
"Sometimes a game comes along that just picks you up, beats you, and throws you back in your seat leaving you saying 'Please sir, may I have another?'...It doesn't get any better than this..."
Antagonizing zealots from the Church of Xenos is like hanging yourself by your eyelids - you don't want do that. Urban legend has it that anyone who speaks unfavourably of Xenogears should expect to incur a wrath of inbox attacks. So it really all comes down to the following. The parable of Xenogears: a brilliant examination of theological ideals or pretentious philosophical masturbation? My colleagues champion every sacrosanct word of Masato Kato's dialogue. They assure me that I'll eventually come to my senses; I'll see the light ("Dude, there's a pink rat nailed to the cross..."). Though perhaps I am missing something; maybe I just didn't get it and there was something valid beyond the unabashed style over substance abuse. Employing rhetoric party favourites like
-MESSIAH- and -LAMB OF GOD- are a surefire way to make the most profound B-movies. Self-importance seems to be a part our postmodern idiom these days, anyway.
Much charity is required to endure Xenogear's paper-thin play sets and Super Evangelion Bros. level design but being tossed back and forth between character and Gear battles is another matter entirely. When piloting your massive steel Gear, the tiniest mutant is capable of putting up a good fight. Stepping out of the Gear leaves you vulnerable to robotic goliaths capable of crushing you underfoot before you even make your first move. Walls and buildings obstruct camera angles, bosses are ludicrously unbalanced, and game mechanics often feel entirely out of whack. Why can't I heal and restore fuel to other Gears during combat? Why are some of them more stubborn about reaching Infinity Level than others? What is the point of those vanilla-flavour mechs (angel wings, that's clever) when they seem to add nothing but another layer of gameplay aggravation? Two mediocre battle systems don't make a better game. And for the love of Jebus, somebody fix those animé cut scenes - the voice synching is embarrassing. Xenogears is a textbook example of ambitious ideas rushed through the production grinder in order to form some semblance of artistic value. In my sophomore year, my fine arts professor would look at my painting, stare for a minute, and go back to marking his papers. "It's too complicated," he finally declares, "Learn to simplify." And he was right.
Before you hit the Send button, try to see it from my point of view for a second. Don't think I didn't make an effort to like the game because, believe it or not, I actually offered up my Famicom and all its games to get this rare gem into my possession. I don't play with the Famicom very much and I am very much satisfied with the trade. I even have the wonderful soundtrack. But any way you slice it, Xenogears needs some serious rethinking. Obviously, I'm of the minority report because the game has a large cult following and earned a respectable position in the top ten bracket. The game dared to push the envelope of what our culture defined as 'appropriate content' for adolescents. I can't remember the last time a game allowed their protagonists to get buck naked and just let it all hang. When all is said and done, I can positively say that any gamer worth his or her salt would be remiss not to try Xenogears at least once. I may regard it as a triumphant mess but I still feel fortunate to own a copy. Director/Writer Tetsuya Takahashi admitted to the press that production of Xenogears was inevitably rushed and there was not enough time to incorporate everything planned. Omissions had to be made in the presence of pressuring deadlines. Not completely happy with the final cut, Takahashi put off the idea of a remake and revealed plans for his magnum opus instead: an epic series set in the same universe planned for sequential release under the new Monolith banner. Beginning with Xenosaga Episode I, the story would take place thousands of years prior to the events of Xenogears and promised to carry even beyond that. In the grand scheme of things, Xenogears is identified as Episode V and will apparently undergo reincarnation on a next-gen system in order to reconcile every flaw of the 1998 version. At this point, it is much too early to tell what kind of changes will take place but a new and improved model of Xenogears is something I, along with the die-hard fans, could look forward to.
Plays like: The Gospel according to Mecha.
"If you take this game at face value, not reading into its heavy religious gibberish and minor plot deficiencies, you have a story to rival any novel. I didn't know anything about the religious tripe in the game and just saw it for what it was: an engrossing story about the history of a planet and the destiny of a fractured anti-hero."
"I do not worship this game. I'm not the type who goes all 'oooh, the Xenogears story is so deep and all and blah blah blah' because, honestly, until now, I still haven't quite fully understood everything that goes on in this game. And you know what? It's what made this game great."
You spoony bard.
Okay, there, I said it.
I don't think it would be a stretch to think of Final Fantasy IV as the first popular game of the series. It's the game that helped make me the kind of person I am today. The production gap between Final Fantasy on the NES and "Final Fantasy II" on the SNES must have seemed like the size of the Grand Canyon. Here I am, 11 years-old, and I'm thinking to myself, "This is just too good to be a sequel..." Now that I know better, I just blame my entire youthful naiveté on subscriptions to Nintendo Power. You should try it sometime, it's quite cathartic.
The well-known legend of Final Fantasy IV is to RPG enthusiasts what Tolkien is to readers of fantasy and science-fiction. A fleet of Red Wing airships sail in perfect formation above the blue ocean. Cecil Harvey is a Dark Knight in service to the King of Baron. He is returning from his mission of plundering the innocent scholars of Mysidia. The King is after the Water Crystal who decrees that such a strange and powerful artifact poses a threat to the sovereignty of the kingdom. Right away, we sense that Cecil is having second thoughts about the King's orders. Although he has slain many men in battle, the Dark Knight cannot justify harming the lives of innocent people, especially those that cannot defend themselves. But the King demands absolute loyalty from his subjects; anything less is to invite serious reprecussions. This is where our story begins...
I can see all the old-schoolers have got that warm, fuzzy feeling on their faces while the rest of you are heaving a collective 'so what?' I guess you sort of had to be there at the time. Keep in mind that this kind of narrative was considered fresh and exciting back then. In 1991, videogames were just graduating from their Link-is-good-Ganon-is-bad faculty of thinking. Back then, our game heroes were virtuous, straight as arrows, and differing shades of grey were unheard of. So playing Final Fantasy IV for the first time was an extraordinarily engaging experience. I mean, let's pause for a moment and think about this. By assuming the character of Cecil Harvey, were we not, in actual fact, playing the part of a villain with a conscience? Rawk! Believe me, that was enough to turn our paradigms upside down.
Concerning Final Fantasy IV, there is something else of worthy note that surprisingly gets mentioned very little. Final Fantasy IV, from a historical context, represents a culmination of the entire 8-bit generation of console sword and sorcery - it's the last of its kind. Gone are the days when characters would bring their own unique novelty to the party. You all know what I'm talking about: Kain and Cecil kick seven kinds of ass, Rosa's usefulness doesn't extend beyond healing, Tellah is the magic user, Rydia is the caller, guys in the front and girls in the back. Yes, true-believers, that kind of mentality nowadays is about as popular as the dodo. Every future Final Fantasy developed later on would emphasize a system of character control and customization whether it came in the form of Jobs, Materia, or Spheres. But don't get me wrong; there are times when I wish our contempary and sophisticated role-playing games didn't have so much flexibility (read: I'm lazy, level-up yourself). Final Fantasy IV really is the gamer's Lord of the Rings because it is responsible for so many of the standards and clichés we've come to expect today. Suikoden, Grandia, Star Ocean, Wild Arms...all of these games, at some point or another, are firmly rooted and in-debt to Final Fantasy IV for being such a major influence in the past.
Plays like: An RPG Pioneer
"I think it's safe to say that all RPGs on consoles today have in some way or another tried to emulate what FF4 achieved 10 years ago...In fact, this game as a whole still stacks up well against what is out there today...there's always a bit of FF4 to be found in them wherever you go."
Squaresoft Hidden Gems:
Romancing SaGa 3
In North America, the SaGa games are perhaps the least talked about RPG franchise despite its illustrious and high profile career. But what it lacks in recognition, the series more than makes up for in excellence and Romancing SaGa 3, released in 1995 on the Super Famicom, is no exception. Hailed unanimously by fans as the best of the series, Romancing SaGa 3 is a successful marriage of involved, non-linear gameplay with mainstream appeal. There is a very refined sprite-based palette at work and an unusual maturity that is seldom seen from games of that era. It's hard not to look at the style of presentation and draw comparisons to Final Fantasy VI but that's certainly not a bad thing.
Another Death Eclipse comes to snuff out the newborns of the planet. This heinous event occurs every 500 years and usually claims the lives of all human offspring except for one. It is then decided that this child will either become the wicked Devil King or the righteous Holy King. Ten years elapse after the last Eclipse and you begin the game by choosing one of eight individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Depending who you choose as your protagonist, the story will differ slightly.
Much like Chrono Trigger, there are no random encounters with enemies. You see their icons in the overworld and decide whether your party should engage them or not. However, that's where the similarities end. Instead of traditional commands such as 'Attack,' characters have Weapon/Magic Abilities where earning Techs, the different skills of your chosen discipline, expand your fighting repertoire. Techs are mastered over the course of repeated use and can later be distributed to other party members. Eventually, a deep intensity of micro-management will become evident.
I know what you're thinking and no, that's not all. Enter Commander Mode: a unique mode of play whereby the talents of up to six of your comrades combine to form strategic attack formations and devastating combos. Your main character, however, stands aside and gives orders in the background. Remember all those hard-earned Weapon and Magic Techs you've mastered for your party? Now they come into play here as you arrange who you want in the frontlines and who should stay in the back all the while maintaining the logistics of the attack formation you have chosen. Powerful Multi-Techs are learned in this manner and, in certain situations, are absolutely necessary in the face of the game's more challenging enemies. After everything is set to your liking, stand back and watch your party go nuts. Evaluating their performance afterwards is essential - you will most likely need to fine-tune or make adjustments in order to keep your battle plan airtight when you confront your next enemy.
Sound interesting? That's because it is. The SaGa series has always been about putting good dynamic combat at the forefront, something that should be compulsory for any successful RPG. Anyone who has even been remotely curious would do well to start their journey of discovery with Romancing SaGa 3.
Countdown to the finale begins...
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