The Final Fantasy series is a little known project from the mind of Japanese game designer Hironobu Sakaguchi. Working with Japanese developer/publisher hybrid Square, (who would later go on to dramatically reinvent themselves as Square… Enix) they have produced approximately six million games in the series, although no one has ever played the first six. You may have heard of the seventh one, known to most as Final Fantasy VII, known to others as the first Final Fantasy game they played.
I could take you through all of the Final Fantasy games, but I belong in the ‘others’ category. Wikipedia is the place to go if you want an encyclopaedic guide to the series. I’d rather focus on what made the games so enthralling and why they still have that magical atmosphere. Before we start it’s important to note that throughout the nineties, turn-based party building RPG games were all the rage. Xenogears, Kingdom Hearts and Grandia are some classic examples. For a series to be recognised above those just mentioned it takes something special, all of these games are excellent. Why was it Final Fantasy at the forefront?
When the first Final Fantasy was created in 1987, 200,000 copies were planned but Sakaguchi talked Square into producing 400,000 copies. Soon after release, 400,000 had been sold. The series made an immediate impact in Japan, receiving critical acclaim as well as generating maximum sales. But don’t be fooled into thinking it was the first of its kind. Another game had already set up a similar style.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest in Japan) was released a year earlier, published by Enix (Who would later go on to dramatically reinvent themselves as Square… Enix). Both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were successful in Japan and set the standard for storytelling and music in games. As the video games industry continued to grow, success in one country ceased to be a marker for success. Final Fantasy was re-released in the USA in 1990 generating more high sales and receiving more positive reviews. I went back to play it, didn’t really like it, but no one cares what I think.
After the success of the first game, the sequels reached similar levels of success despite some of the early games being released only in Japan. Something about the series’ core mechanics made it so enjoyable. They are games that you start playing at two in the afternoon, and at 3am you’re wondering why the dog has died of dehydration. Final Fantasy kills dogs.
That’s the brief history. I’d rather talk about Final Fantasy on a personal level. Unlike most games Series, Final Fantasy changes the plot, characters and world in every game. ‘But Tom,’ you cry in righteous indignation, ‘you criticised sequels that ride a brand name!’ That is true, but I did mention Final Fantasy. The series is kept intact through the very unique game mechanics. The turn-based combat was pretty original and continues to develop as newer games are made. Many creatures and items return and the interfaces used in the games remain consistent (an open world to run on, small detailed exploration areas and battle screens).
I wouldn’t pick out any one of these mechanics and say this is why the games are so successful. It’s a very holistic build, all of these mechanics and features add up to create a smooth, enjoyable experience. Both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest accomplish this. As the two series have progressed, Dragon Quest has stuck to its turn-based RPG roots whereas Final Fantasy has become a lot flashier (and self-indulgent). These near-perfect game designs have led to countless hours being poured into the games by dedicated fans and casual players alike.
My advice would be to play as least one of the classic Final Fantasy games, just for the experience. A lot of time, passion and panic went into making each game and it shows. The work on show ranges from beautifully drawn (and rendered) characters to expertly composed soundtracks (the composers were given a lot of freedom). Final Fantasy VII is my personal nostalgic choice, but any of them will give you that immersive experience. And if you don’t fancy that, play Dragon Quest instead!