Very few software companies spark such rabid debate as Squaresoft (now known as Square-Enix, but we’ll get to that later). One one side, you’ve got the loyal Square fanboys, who think every Final Fantasy title is “TEH BEST GAME EVAR!111!1!!!!” On the other, you’ve got the hardcore gamers who see through Square’s glitzy crap for what it really is. Those who are stuck in the middle tend to blink in confusion.
So why all the fanaticism? We’ll start towards the beginning, when Square was actually producing quality titles. The first Final Fantasy game was fantastic, and even FF-haters nowadays admit this. The original Game Boy had three cool Final Fantasy RPGs (though techinally, they’re part of the SaGa series, not FF). During the 16-bit era, we had games like Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, and Super Mario RPG. All classics. Moving into the 3D realm, there were such goodies as Brave Fencer Musashi, Chrono Cross, and Threads of Fate. But all was not well in 3D land…
Where did Square go wrong? Most of the blame can be placed on the later Final Fantasy titles. For many anti-Squarites, the series really should have stopped at FFIV (released as Final Fantasy II in the US). Personally, I also enjoyed FFV and FFVI. But once we get to the Playstation era, we run into trouble. Enter Final Fantasy VII, once of the most hotly anticipated titles of its time. I played it, thought it was interesting, but something never quite sat right with me. Fancy 3D graphics aside, I felt that something was very wrong…and it never clicked until I read this article by Brian Clevinger (of 8-bit Theater fame). He’s absolutely correct on his analysis of FFVII: “FFVI with a smaller cast and 3D graphics.” Plus, he’s dead on about the 3D not even being used in the game! You still walk around and interact with other characters in two dimensions. Even the battle scenes are two-dimensional, since you’re not actively using a third dimension! It’s just there to look pretty. As a result, the game suffers a distinct lack of innovation. This continued through FFVIII, FFIX, FFX, and the ridiculous FFX-2. Outstanding graphics, but the gameplay was neither special nor all that original.
A huge slap in the face was when Square merged with Enix, another RPG purveyor. Why was it such an insult? Enix is the creator of the amazing Dragon Warrior series (the seventh iteration of which is the highest-selling Playstation game of all time in Japan). One of Enix’s subcontractors, Tri-Ace, was responsible for developing fantastic RPG titles such as Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile, both of which make any FF title look like worm shit. Many hardcore gamers are worried that due to the merger, we’ll see even less RPG goodness and more graphical FF flash. I tend to agree; Final Fantasy X-2, anyone? Sheesh. Enix may have gotten the shaft in this merger.
Then there’s the recent slew of ports and rehashes. Sword of Mana for the GBA is an enhanced port of the first Seiken Densetsu game (known as Final Fantasy Adventure) in the US. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is the latest ripoff of Tactics Ogre (hell, the Ogre Team handled the original FFT!). There’s a tiny pinprick of light at the end of this pitch-black hell, however. Square teamed up to release Kingdom Hearts, a very well-designed action-RPG. Two sequels are in the works. It seems that Square’s action-RPGs far outshine its standard RPG mess.
Finally, what about the non-RPG genre titles Square has produced? I’ll just name three offhand: the good (Einhander), the bad (Ergheiz), and the ugly (The Bouncer). It may be tough, but I really think Square needs to broaden its horizons, as difficult as those growing pains may be. People say “stick to what you’re good at,” but Square’s not good at RPGs, nor have they been for quite some time.
So you, the gamer, is left with a choice. Flashy graphics and lack of innovation? Call up Square. Well-written RPGs? Look elsewhere. Me, I’ll be playing Dragon Warrior VII on my archaic Playstation console.