Squaresoft or as it is now known Square-Enix is by all rights one of the gaming industry’s most legendary developers. Taking a chance on Hironobu Sakaguchi’s fledging concept that would go on to spawn a seemingly unending number of sequels, spin-offs and tie-ins, Final Fantasy single-handedly resurrected Squaresoft from certain doom.
From then on Squaresoft have become synonymous with quality RPG’s and to this day when people think JRPG’s, Square-Enix is the first thing that comes to mind. For years they were a force to be reckoned with in the Gaming industry, their biggest coming in the form of Enix prior to their merger in 2003.
Indeed some of the greatest RPG’s to grace our consoles were made by Squaresoft during the 90s and early 00s. Particularly the Final Fantasy series; Final Fantasy IV, V, VI and VII, are widely regarded as some of the best games to be created.
There was a time when the release of a new Squaresoft game would excite me in ways I have deemed inappropriate to describe in this article. Now though, it seems my most consistent response to the mention of a new Square-Enix game is “Meh” followed by a shrug of the shoulders.
So what happened? How did the company known for such greats as Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy VII to name but a few start to fade into irrelevancy? Some might cite that the merger with Enix removed their biggest competitor and thus they no longer had to try as hard. You could also say that after Director Hironobu Sakaguchi left the company in 2004 they simply lost their most creative spark and have struggled to find their feet since. In truth it could be any number of factors.
My main concern though is not the cause of the company’s slow decline but the future of the company as a whole. I love Square-Enix, A good portion of my favourite games of all time were made by them. I fear that they are in danger of following the same path as Rare and becoming little more than a memory of better times.
At the moment it seems everyone has tired of Final Fantasy, I know I personally played Final Fantasy XIII for about 10 hours and got distracted by something more interesting. Can’t quite remember what that something was now thinking about it but quite possibly it was a dog with a fluffy tail. Their online efforts I won’t touch as I’m generally not an MMORPG kind of person and the last Final Fantasy I can remember truly enjoying was Final Fantasy XII but even that started to frustrate me with the constant Gambit changing so I never did finish it.
One of the main problems as I see it is once they put out Final Fantasy VII and saw what they could do with cut-scenes they decided that was the way to go and never turned back. Simply put it seems Square-Enix’s focus has become graphics first, everything else can be an afterthought. There is no denying that Final Fantasy XIII is a gorgeous game but did I care about the characters? Truthfully I can’t remember their names so that’s a fairly good indicator that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘NO’.
Looking at the company as it is now I think it desperately needs to re-examine its roots, maybe give the Final Fantasy series a break and bring back some of its other franchises. So under the assumption Square-Enix were to use this strategy I’ll discuss what I believe would be some key titles that need to be brought back to the fore and how it could be done for today’s audience.
Secret of Mana
Now this series hasn’t necessarily been left for dead but it certainly has seen a drop in quality with its last few titles appearing on the Nintendo DS to lukewarm reception from fans and critics alike. Now I haven’t played the handhelds based solely on what I’d read about the game mechanics and I have very fond memories of playing the SNES game Secret Of Mana and (unreleased outside of Japan) Seiken Densetsu 3.
I never finished the Secret of Mana (SoM) but what I remember of it was amazing. The stunning, colourful graphics, the beautiful music and an excellent gameplay mechanic that played like a cross between Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy, it integrated real-time combat with an Active Time Bar (ATB System) which limited the frequency with which you could attack.
What made this game so unique for its time was the way it managed to cram in so many RPG staples whilst maintaining a more action-heavy combat system. It gave us the menu ring system that is still seen in games today.
Three characters able to equip eight different classes of weapons, each with eight different levels of attack along with elementally aligned spells, not to mention the ability to customize your teammate’s behaviour. Alternately you could allow up to 2 other players to take the controls for some three player questing (allowing players to drop in or out as they pleased).
Its sequel went ahead and upped the ante allowing you to select three party members from a roster of six at the outset of your journey, each with their own storylines to follow and depending on your main character, three different paths through the world culminating in three different final dungeons/boss battles.
It maintained the action-heavy/active time battle (ATB) system but allowed you to string together combos. Such as being able to together a series of attacks and wait longer for your bar to regenerate or take quick swipes at the enemy which saw you having to wait less time for your next attack.
The alternate weapons were removed this time around but in their place each character had a separate class tree that gave them the option of four separate classes each catering to the individual player’s play-style. This gave the game a ridiculous amount of replay value. I’m sure there is a finite number of character/class combinations to but maths is not my strong point so I won’t bother trying to figure it out.
Like its prequel before it once again provided us with amazing graphics, music and gameplay but expanded upon the original with its separate storylines which were far more compelling this time around. The characters were fantastic and given far more depth this time around and by the game’s conclusion you really cared about each of party members.
These games have never moved beyond 2D sprite-based settings and if Square-Enix were to bring the series back for our era I suggest it should remain that way. Logically speaking a handheld would be the best platform to bring the series onto but with 2D graphics slowly working their way back into the limelight and the retro revolution going the way it has there is no reason it couldn’t be done on a current gen console.
Looking at a game like Rayman Origins as an example can you imagine how beautiful the backdrops that could be created for this series could be? If however polygons are absolutely necessary, I think it should be done in a Diablo-esque manner and speaking of Diablo these games could delve into that realm a little with online play enabled.
The drop in and out multiplayer was always a strong selling point of the original SoM so why not bring that function into today with online play. It may not work well but you could potentially create a co-op mode where progress cannot be made unless all three players are logged in and thus it becomes a mission for you as a team to complete the story together.
The mechanics of the game wouldn’t have to change much from the original, possibly employ some kind of combo mechanic integrated with the ATB system. Maintain the ring system but do it in a way that does not allow the action to be paused.
This game is something that I feel is generally overlooked by a lot of people which is odd because back in May 2000 this was the fifth best-selling game on the Playstation yet any time I mention it not many people have heard of it. But hey that’s why I want to see it brought back so it can get its time in the sun.
I’ll start off by saying that Vagrant Story was a masterpiece of its time. It eschewed away from the rapid increase in popularity of pre-rendered cut scenes by delivering its entire story with in game graphics and comic-style dialogue boxes.
The game begins as the player takes control of Risk Breaker Ashley Riot investigating a Duke due to his involvement with a cult. During the investigation he comes across a mysterious character named Sydney Lostarott who proceeds to summon a Wyvern to take care of you. Upon crashing through the glass ceiling of the cathedral you start off exploring you make short work of it through a brief tutorial. This sets you on your path to follow Sydney into a mysterious city named Lea Monde to learn the truth behind the Dukes involvement and all the whacky-happenings of this particular game world.
What ensues is essentially a solo dungeon-crawler set against a backdrop of a city designed around the French architecture of Saint-Emillion. It involved a few platforming elements and various push/pull cube type puzzles that never got tedious yet did their best to challenge the players’ brain. The action played out through a pausable real-time combat system where a wire frame sphere would appear around Ashley once the attack button was pressed.
Within the range of this sphere the player could target an enemy’s various body parts thus affecting the targets abilities and stats. Attacks could be chained together using very precise timing however as more and more attacks were chained Ashley’s accuracy would start to fall ever more rapidly along with his defence dropping (represented by a bar beneath the characters HP dubbed the Risk Meter). This created a rather interesting risk/reward based battle system whereby you can potentially take down an enemy in single chain never stopping to allow them to attack however if you fail to time the next attack you ran the risk of receiving a possible instant kill counter-attack.
On top of this the game also allowed you to learn magic and certain weapon based special attacks that didn’t affect your Risk but they did take a decent chunk out of your MP.
How to bring it back you ask? I think this game simply needs to be remade in a similar vein as the Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube. Bring the graphics up to the current generation and add some voice-acting (GOOD VOICE ACTING! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE! GOOD VOICE ACTING!). Throw in some additional areas to explore and I think this could become a decent seller.
Also, it may pave the way for the sequel it deserves considering [SPOILER ALERT] the way the game ends. The one crucial factor in making this game successful though will lie in the marketing/advertising side of it. If the promotion is handled poorly the game will go unnoticed in light of the next grey/brown generic FPS.
The brainchild of Squaresoft’s “Dream Team” which consisted of Final Fantasy series creator and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest series creator and director Yuji Horii and creator of the Dragon Ball series Akira Toriyama, it is widely regarded as the best RPG of the 16-bit era, it frequently ranks in near the top (if not on top) of countless top whatever lists. I really don’t know what I can say about this game that hasn’t been said so many, many times before…
Anyone who considers themselves a game enthusiast needs to play this game, if only to experience what Square-Enix can be at their absolute best.
Chrono Trigger kicks off pretty lightly as the protagonist Chrono wakes up on the day of a fair. He ventures onto the fair meets a girl and before you know it he’s jumping back and forth through time recruiting allies in an effort to the save the world from impending doom. I know that’s a fairly vague synopsis but truthfully I just don’t want to say anymore for as I stated earlier any game enthusiast must play this game.
It combined a lovable cast of characters and an engaging plot that had you sucked in before you’d even paid for the game. The presentation was top notch and each environment showed a painstaking attention to detail along with some unforgettable character design. The music which I consider to be one of the best soundtracks of all time was composed by Yasunori Matsuda (interesting fact: this was actually the first game he ever did the score for) with some help from Final Fantasy veteran Nobuo Uematsu after falling ill.
The battle system was an off-shoot of Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system that also introduced the concept of combo attacks where once the characters had learnt certain Techs (this games equivakent of magic/spells) they could combine them with another characters Techs to perform some astonighing looking spells that occasionally healed or buffed your team but mostly just decimated the enemy. Battles were also widely optional as they took place on the same screens that you were currently exploring.
How to bring it back? This series is long overdue for another sequel since the PlayStation game Chrono Cross (I’ve only played the first few hours of this game so I can’t comment much on it). How should the sequel be done? I don’t know but just make sure that they have the best damned team they can muster working on it and if they can bring back the “Dream Team” as they were called to work on the game that would be amazing.
I can’t fathom where the series should be taken next but considering it hinges on time travel and parallel dimensions the possibilities seem infinite really. If I can say anything it would be simply to bring the series back to a core cast of characters (Cross had 45 playable characters, Trigger had seven). It would also be nice to see the double and triple techs return as Chrono Cross featured a very limited selection of these combo attacks compared to the original.
As used in the later Dragon Quest games I’d say the graphics should be cel-shaded to retain Akira Toriyama’s design aesthetics and is it’s essentially standard now for games to be voiced please Square-Enix make sure you bring you’re A-Game to this department.
So there you have it. My thoughts on what Square-Enix could do to pull itself out of this current design slump they’re stuck in the middle of. I really do worry that Square-Enix have lost their way and bogged themselves down in graphical presentation as opposed to those things that really drive an RPG home which is an engaging world and a cast of characters that you can come to care of. Everything else is just a bonus after that.
So please Square-Enix, just give Final Fantasy the break it needs and revisit some old friends that must be feeling fairly neglected nowadays.
Your fans will love you for it.