Foundation: Episode V - The Top 25 Square Games
By Kevin Leung, May 9th, 2003
Squaresoft Hidden Gems:
Treasure Hunter G
Imagine a game that had the trendy look of Nintendo's brilliant Donkey Kong Country coupled with the gameplay of grid-based Chrono Trigger. And imagine that this game plucked delightful, titillating aspects from every favourable RPG ever created and rolled it into one giant bouncing ball of fun. Well, you don't have to dream up such a thing because that game already exists in the form of Treasure Hunter G. Famed as the last Squaresoft title ever produced for the Super Famicom system, Treasure Hunter G shows off half a decade's worth of programming techniques spent on every graphical 16-bit trick in the book. It's all here in one neat package: transparencies, Mode7 rotation, CG rendering, smart interpolation. What does that mean in non-geek speak? It means Treasure Hunter G results in a splendid looking sum of its visual parts and squeezes every last bit of juice from the classic SFAM architecture.
Ever since their hotheaded disagreement, it has been years since Red G. spoke to his
Father, Brown. The last time they were together, Red's father was still a fearless treasure hunter searching for legendary relics called OPARTS ('Out-of-Place ARTifacts'). For now, Red G. and his sibling Blue G. reside in a tiny village with their trusty grandfather who teaches them the ancient art of treasure hunting. When a mysterious flying ship crash-lands in a remote area, grandpa leads the youngsters into a rollicking adventure of danger and mystery!
Those who like their RPG meals with a side of grit and angst would probably want to pass on Treasure Hunter G. For everyone else, do yourself a favour and check it out.
At no point are players expected to take things too seriously; from start to finish, the narrative is just pure fun. When you give it a try, you'll find that Treasure Hunter G would much rather joyride into your heart than hit you over the head. Now how could anyone say no to that?
A few years back, I had the opportunity to meet a very nice writer named Brian Glick. He had agreed to meet me at a popular hangout spot just outside university campus. He was a member of a gaming site that had a few interesting (and funny) stories to share. After the release of Final Fantasy VIII, Glick and his team had information concerning the artistic style of the next game in the series. Yes, the game was set in high-fantasy. Yes, it would have super-deformed characters. Yes, black mages in pointy-hats were back. All signs pointed to a triumphant return of classic Final Fantasy values. It was the greatest news to ever fall in their lap.
They just weren't allowed to tell anybody.
"Not that it would matter," Glick shrugged, sipping his milk-green tea with pearls. Armed with numerous images of character drawings and design documents, nobody would believe them anyway.
From the day that the first images appeared in the Japanese press, certain sections of the Final Fantasy fanbase were up in arms, filling message boards with accusations of "Kiddy!", based purely on the large-headed images of Zidane and Steiner that Square released. Far from being an indication of a change of direction to pander to a younger audience, Square's plans for FFIX had at its heart a desire to pay tribute to the people who pulled Square from financial disaster in the late 1980s by taking the name Final Fantasy to their collective hearts and helping to establish both the franchise and the company to the level that they enjoy today.
In contrast to Final Fantasy VIII's pre-release hype, the producers of Final Fantasy IX played their cards deliberately close to their chests with this installment, with practically nothing revealed until the day of release. And what a day it turned out to be for Square - according to their own official figures, first-day sales totaled 2.6 million copies making this title the fastest-selling game ever.
And when people sat down to play this game, they were treated by an incredible tribute to a great game series. Some of the best graphics to grace the Playstation, more references to previous games (both in terms of Final Fantasy and other Square titles) than you could shake a stick at, some of Final Fantasy's most memorable characters ever (once you meet Quina Quen, you don't forget her), gameplay that both draws on the past and innovates to great effect, all wrapped up in a dark fairytale plot that is truly magical.
A game that marked the end of an era for the Final Fantasy series in the most fitting and memorable way possible.
And it has swearing Dwarves in it - a plus in anyone's book, I'm sure you'll agree.
Plays like: Digital Deja vu with an existentialist midget.
"Taken as itself, Final Fantasy IX lives up to the expectations of being a Final Fantasy game. Awesome plot of life and death, and the question of one's existence, Final Fantasy IX deals on the philosophical while at the same time, maintaining that touch of innocence and fantasy which most of us lived in when we were still kids...And when you're a veteran FF player, the whole game takes on a different fun altogether. Finding references from the past FFs is, in itself, a mini-game to be undertaken, and the sense of nostalgia is enough to warrant this as one of the best FFs ever."
Overdue change was quietly taking place in the long-running Final Fantasy franchise with the arrival of Final Fantasy VIII. The story of Squall and Rinoa was grand. It felt fresh and exciting. It was pop-opera, the best that Square had ever conceived. This RPG of Spielbergian proportions is an undeniable, transitional piece of work that marks the passage of how we see and play modern Final Fantasy today. And that's very important. It should go without saying that Final Fantasy is not (and will never be) the same series you cut your teeth on years ago. In that time, a lot of changes have taken place and you need but one litmus test to reveal Final Fantasy VIII, Square's epic departure from the norm, as the point of revolution. Readers, you understandably remain skeptical; you say you need proof. Alright.
Pause for a moment, if you will and try to think of all the greatest triumphs of humankind: The invention of the automobile, penicillin, landing on the moon, cracking the genetic code of our DNA, the introduction of cloning. All of these accomplishments had at least one thing in common. Before and after its inception, all of these accomplishments were met with furious and scathing debate from people. Requisite of our human nature is to dispute and toil over everything that might advance our civilization. Cavemen discovered fire and probably complained about it. The point is that no other game in Square's catalogue polarized the community of fans as much as Final Fantasy VIII did. You either loved it with all your heart or hated it with every fiber of your being, but so help you god if you dared voice your opinion. You got your hands dirty or got out of the way - there are no part-time soldiers. Thus, fans went to war over virtually everything - the storyline, the art direction, the futuristic setting (you could drive a tripped out Cadillac) - and they still weren't finished. What about the cast of Final Fantasy VIII designed by the one and only Tetsuya Nomura? Move over MTV, you've got nothing on these kids: tattoos, hip-hop chains, black leather pants with matching tank tops, angel wings and bitch boots - apparently, even heroes of Final Fantasy go clubbing. Occasionally, the seething hate was directed at Squall. Most of the time, it was at Rinoa. Then there was the controversial Junction system which, for better or for worse, effectively gave the middle finger to many long-time staples established in the RPG universe. Weapon shops were obsolete, magic was woven into the fabric of your stats, and money no longer spilled out of dead carcasses. You had to wonder if Square was being intentionally difficult. All this drama and I haven't even gotten to 'Eyes On Me' yet.
Although no one can agree on the game's exact shortcomings, there are a few good things that should not go unrecognized. For example, I think the game's opening intro, which is driven by the overture of 'Liberi Fatali', is completely spellbinding and impossibly gorgeous; the best daydream ever to be committed on compact disc. Arresting me right away was Square's technique of blending the character models with lively produced FMV. This was skillful and quite effective for some of the otherwise subdued scenes. I fondly remember the part where Squall and Quistis exit the infirmary and walk to the next building. Quistis is supposed to be the instructor yet she vaguely understands her pupil. "Tell me more about yourself." Before the conversation finishes, the view magically converts from static background to animated canvas - everything is coming to life. We watch breathless as students cross the campus courtyard while the vibrant sights and sounds of Balamb Garden are instantly conveyed to the player with nary a spoken word. The game has been described as "a beautiful silent film" and I cannot agree more. Meanwhile, the now trendy techno-fantasy sheen of Final Fantasy VIII was rubbing off on other software, giving rise to many cheap Asian "cinematic-adventures" and shameless Korean RPG knock-offs available on the PC (you won't believe how many of their protagonists looked like Squall wannabes). Still, I surmise we spent most of 1999 building up and tearing down the accomplishments of Final Fantasy VIII. Why? Because we willed ourselves to remain indifferent. Or maybe we just weren't ready for a revolution. People remained steadfast to this debate of whether or not Final Fantasy VIII deserved to be called a 'good RPG.' But in the end, after the smoke cleared and the dust finally settled, the official verdict was-
You still care? It's 2003, get over it.
Plays like: Change for the RPG paradigm.
"Final Fantasy VIII is a groundbreaking and revolutionary RPG in a way no Square RPG has been since Final Fantasy IV. Final Fantasy VIII attempted to create a more realistic RPG setting in terms of character development, setting, visual style and monetary systems...This game is an oft-misunderstood masterpiece."
"The high point of Final Fantasy VIII is definitely the characters. As individuals they don't really develop much. It's the way they interact as a group that I love. Instead of being a band of completely different individuals joining together for a common goal, they actually seem like good friends, and grow stronger as a group..."
"Emotional. Beautiful. Captivating. Mesmerizing and stunning in every way imaginable. The moment I first heard the press describing this game as something on par with 'Titanic' or 'Gone With The Wind', I was immediately in anticipation of this title. I honestly don't know what it is about this game that I embrace like no other before it and don't know why I keep coming back to it, regarding it as my most cherished videogame ever."
Not content to rely on the old "princess with a pendant" formula that works wonders time and again in the fantasy universe, Square shook things up in 1995 by adding time-traveling juvenile delinquents and sword-wielding amphibians into the mix. The result: Chrono Trigger, a subtle yet surreal blend of dungeons, dragons and laser-mounted deathbots.
A science experiment gone awry strands dangerously mute teenager Crono deep in the past in an effort to save blonde tomboy Marle, an undercover royal whose unexpected encounter with her ancient ancestors almost alters the course of history completely. Emerging victorious with only a sword, sharp wits and sharper hair, Crono returns to the present only to find himself thrust into the future, where he and a band of unlikely allies uncover a threat to the planet that defies space and time.
Don't be fooled by the ho-hum "save the world from evil" premise; Chrono Trigger definitely isn't the standard "boy meets girl, girl disappears in time, boy, robot, and magic frog save girl from scythe-wielding maniac" story that we've seen time and again. Chrono Trigger broke the boundaries of traditional RPGs and thrust players into the fourth dimension, where every conquest in the past led to new problems in the future. Players explored the same expansive world in vastly different ages, from the fiery bedrock of 65,000,000 B.C. to the scorched earth of 1999 A.D. Crono and company explored floating castles high in the sky and fallen fortresses deep beneath the sea, never content to rest until they had altered history. With well over a dozen endings and a wide array of side quests, Chrono Trigger emphasized replay like no game before it.
On the surface, Chrono Trigger provided a light-hearted RPG in which players got a chance to correct the mistakes of the past and create a better future. Square created a world that dared players both explore and conquer, to just sit back and take in the detail and humor instead of rushing from one battle to the next. Chrono Trigger leapt from humor to heartbreak with a deftness lost on most games, providing a compelling story that never sank too low, too long, without pulling players back up.
On a deeper level, Chrono Trigger blurred the boundaries between good and evil, presenting players with ignoble antagonists, reluctant anti-heroes, and an ever-present evil whose effects on the past created both the idyllic life of Crono's present and the horrific nightmare of his future. Were we heroes trying to save the planet from the life-devouring Lavos? Perhaps we were just ungrateful brats, the spoiled children of a godlike entity with motives incompatible to our own. Every change we made in every time we visited created new winners and losers, jump-starting evolution and ensuring the survival of humanity over competing species.
Perhaps even the game's creators didn't realize the implications of Crono's actions until it was too late. Or perhaps they didn't want to bog down such a humorous, light-hearted game with deep ethical questions. Players had to wait five years for the game's darker follow-up, Chrono Cross, the daring sequel that embraced the ambiguity its predecessor ignored.
Plays like: Hopscotch in the time-space continuum.
"The greatest thing about Chrono Trigger is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. While it still had an excellent plot and great characters, it managed to stay lighthearted and fun the entire time."
"Chrono Trigger embodies all that which is good, right and flawless in console RPGs. In a truly amazing way, it manages to be more than the sum of its parts, seamlessly unfolding as the most enjoyable RPG experience ever made..."
A whole new direction...
Shockwaves ran through the videogaming community (both press and punters) when Square decided to end a long and fruitful relationship with Nintendo to produce the next installment of the Final Fantasy series for new-kid-on-the-block Sony's Playstation console. Square decided that with the PSX's CD-based technology that the space that optical discs offered over cartridges could allow for something very special indeed...
And they certainly didn't disappoint.
Early indications were a little strange, to say the least. Out went established Final Fantasy character designer Yoshitaka Amano in favor of Tetsuya Nomura (who also assisted with the story). Out went the traditional RPG medieval setting to be replaced by something leaning towards the Japanese Manga stylings of cyberpunk. And the only thing known of the storyline was that it was heavily influenced by the sad loss of Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi's mother (Aki, who he also pays tribute to in the Final Fantasy movie The Spirits Within), and his belief that Death leads to Life elsewhere...
Needless to say, the final result was nothing short of breathtaking. A world that truly felt more like a World than any game before it, cinematics that have in all honesty yet to be bettered in terms of impact and scale (the opening shot of Aerith/Aeris's face, sweeping out to show the whole of Midgar, then sweeping back in again to the station is one that most movie directors would give their eye teeth to be able to do), a depth of storyline that took both comedy and tragedy easily in its stride, and (more so than any game in existence) a villain who the player learns to dread before his face is even seen, just from the descriptions of his actions - Sephiroth is an absolute classic videogame character, and when gaming is truly accepted and embraced as an art form equal to the cinema, he will be remembered among such peers as Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz and The Usual Suspects' Keyser Soze.
But for all the above wonders, it'd all be for naught if the game itself didn't live up to its cinematics and story. It delivers, and in spades.
Never once does the player feel restricted by his/her environments, with the size of FFVII's world opening up at a pace to match the player's own sense of the scale of the game without ever once being daunting gives a feeling of progression through the story and accomplishment when the means of transport allows for wider exploration. The Active Time Battle system, refined from previous games was pretty much perfected here, bringing about a need for strategic thinking on the part of the gamer. And the Materia system is one that has yet to be bettered in any console Role-Playing game to date, giving an unparalleled amount of freedom to customize each character within their set (though never generic) traits.
One of the most perfectly crafted and best-loved videogames of all time. Experiences such as this come all too rarely.
Plays like: The first time you ever watched Star Wars Episode IV.
To many this is the game that brought them into the RPG fold and it's not very hard to see why. The storyline and setting are appealingly dark. The gameplay, though rather easy, is deep and fun, the soundtrack epic like no other and the world vast and interesting. The central tragedies of the game are achingly felt by the player. This game is a great example of what makes RPGs so appealing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once suggested that the making of a great mind is the capacity to embrace two opposing ideas at once. Final Fantasy VI embodies the spirit of this concept. There is no light without death, no order without chaos, no pain without love.
One of the great things about the Final Fantasy series as a whole is that it has always been allowed to evolve by bringing in new talent and allowing fresh faces to tinker with the franchise's formula to create something new. Throughout the series' long history, we have seen the "old guard" slowly replaced by new staff who have since gone on to become household names among the videogaming community (for example, if young Yasunori Mitsuda hadn't been given the opportunity to assist FF stalwart Kenji Ito with FFV's sound effects, then maybe the videogame music world would have been robbed of a genuine star), and this was probably never more true than with FFVI.
Hironobu Sakaguchi (who for many people, IS Final Fantasy) relinquished his traditional directorial role to allow Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Itou a chance to step up from their usual planning duties, as well as giving design staffers Tetsuya Nomura, Tetsuya Takahashi and Hideo Minaba far more important roles than they had previously been used to with FFVI's art and character direction. To industry insiders, such a large-scale reliance on hitherto-"Junior" staff suggested that maybe a "Final Fantasy-lite" game was in development to see how relatively inexperienced people would cope with a big-name franchise, before returning to a more traditional approach with the next, "proper" installment.
How wrong they were.
Final Fantasy VI brings in so many new elements to the way that Role-Playing Game narratives are presented, it's difficult to know where to start. Maybe it's the introduction of an entire set of characters with complete personalities, motives and histories as opposed to the usual "one or two main characters with a supporting cast of generic nobodies" that made it so special. Maybe it was the first time that a game's antagonist (the wonderful Kefka) was actually given reasons for his character and his actions, coupled with an almost casual, subtle approach to evil that had never been seen in a genre that up until then had preferred their bad guys to be simply "bad". Maybe it was the way that traditional RPG values were usurped (magic and technology in the same game? That'll never work, the detractors said) that made it feel so fresh. Maybe it was the excellent writing and scripting, that allowed for moments of genuine comedy and heartfelt tragedy that paved the way for a more cinematic, philosophical, subtle and above all, mature approach to the way that almost all RPGs are now made. Or maybe it's just a blend of everything about the game that makes it stand head and shoulders above all else in the genre as the most influential console Role-Playing Game of all time, and deserving winner of the Final Fantasy Online Members' favourite Squaresoft title.
Plays like: (Almost!) Everyone's favorite RPG. And rightly so.
As time goes on, it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to believe in the existence of chance circumstances.
As this edition of Looking Glass slowly draws to an end, it is rather timely that we pay tribute to more than a decade's worth of great Squaresoft games while it was recently announced that the makers themselves will soon be no more. Since April, they have dissolved and joined forces with long-time competitor, Enix, to form a new corporate entity collectively known as Square Enix Co., Ltd. I was shocked to say the least, as I'm sure millions of other fans were as well. What was going on? It's a sign of the times. With Japan's staggeringly dysfunctional economy at the moment, creativity is taking a backseat to commerciality with many big names and traditional enemies in the industry being forced to pool their collective resources or face extinction. And while this may come as a great surprise to many who have grown up with videogames over the past 10 or even 20 years - in the 16-bit days for example, if someone had said that Sonic the Hedgehog was to appear on a Nintendo console, they would have been placed in a room with no access to pointy objects for a very long time.
Yet surprises happen (for younger readers, it would be hard to picture the shockwaves that ran through the gaming press when Square announced FFVII for Sony's Playstation console rather than a Nintendo machine), and the longview has almost always shown that even the strangest-seeming moves of the major players have proved to be beneficial for gamers, developers, and the videogame entertainment industry as a whole. Yeah, the industry's pretty stale at the moment - everything is now seemingly a sequel (with even the Final Fantasy series recently succumbing) or a movie tie-in, both tactics being the only real guaranteed way of generating cash for the publishers at the moment. Not all the blame for "playing it safe" can be laid at the feet of publishers alone however, as the games-buying public have become more conservative in their tastes, with utter drivel such as Squaresoft's own All Star Pro Wrestling (a candidate for the Worst Game Ever Made) being given the sequel treatment while the rest of us wait in vain for the next installment of Vagrant Story. And why does this happen? Because more people buy wrestling games (apparently irrespective of any quality) than buy something truly mould-breaking. It's sad but true.
If this new move by Square allows them to create games the way that they want to (and the way that we want them to be created), and Enix's business acumen allows such creativity and originality to be rewarded by high sales and large profits, then it will be a great move for everyone concerned.
And if not? Well, as this and the previous 4 installments of this series have shown us, Square has left the videogaming community with a wonderful legacy and fond memories of some truly remarkable games. It may well be the case that the true "Golden Age of Videogaming" has been and gone. But at least we can say that we were there.
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