Content of the article: "Final Fantasy: A Company Reborn – How a Legendary Game Saved Square"
Hey everyone, I make shortish video-essays on topics that are interesting to me, my latest video covered how Final Fantasy saved Square from bankruptcy. If you want to watch the video, the link is here:
If you would prefer to just read, here's the story.
Today we’re going back to Japan, to 1987, to be specific, where Japanese company, Square, was quickly going bankrupt following a series of failed releases for the Famicom system. Between 1986 and 1987, Square had released 6 different games for the Famicom system, all of which you’ve probably never heard of such as Deep Dungeon, Apple town story and Cleopatra no Maho, all of which were Japanese only and never made it to the west. While Square was absolutely pumping out games, they were only of mediocre quality, receiving a poor critical reception and selling few copies on the already saturated Famicom market. Square and their contract to develop games for Nintendo, was on the ropes. At the time, Square was being pulled in all different directions. Some developers at the company wanted to continue making games, to keep trying, while others viewed Square as a software company firstly and wanted to return to commercial development. Square realized they had to hit it out of the park this time, they HAD to succeed.
Building the team
They started by hiring fresh college graduate, 21 year old Hironobu Sakaguchi to lead the development effort on this new project. Sakaguchi quickly melded into Square’s dev team and began to look outside of the company to find help for this hail mary of a game. He recruited Yoshitaka Amano, an upstart artist who was known for his fantasy drawings and illustration of the manga Vampire Hunter D, a now famous work in manga history. Sakaguchi also reached out to Nobuo Uematsu, a composer who had written the soundtracks of a number of Square’s earlier games, Uematsu’s music was quite well liked in the Square office and fans of Square especially had made frequent positive comments about his music, many of you here are likely familiar with his many works today as he has composed the majority of Final Fantasy music since. With the team assembled, Sakaguchi and co. set out about planning their swan song.
Just earlier in the year, Square’s rival company, another Nintendo contractor, called Enix, had released Dragon Quest to massive critical and sales success. Dragon Quest was beloved for its story, turn-based combat, catchy music and adventure themes, something Sakaguchi hoped to emulate with his own game. So it was decided, Square would make one last game, and a fantasy game at that. As this would likely be their final game, it was dubbed, Final Fantasy… a fitting name to send-off Square with. Square, with their backs against the wall, got to work pulling out all the stops.
Learning from the past
Just a year prior, Square had made their first attempt at an RPG in Cruise Chaser Blassty, a gundam/doom/turn-based RPG amalgamation that looked nice but was quite shallow with a simplistic combat system. Leaning on their software dev experience and what they had learned from Cruise Chaser, Sakaguchi managed to streamline graphics processing and get the most out of the Famicoms 8-bit system, allowing for more detailed art for the game, something that would prove to be revolutionary in the field. One can compare Final Fantasy's beautiful pixel art with others on the Famicom at the time and see a stark difference. This incredible artwork, alongside Uematsu’s beautiful score managed to take this game to new heights. Gone was the simple combat and few enemies of Cruise Chaser, gone was it’s narrow halls and bland textures. Sakaguchi had crafted a living, breathing world for gamers to explore and live in.
Creating a story and making the Final Fantasy combat system
Square took Dragon Quest’s revolutionary character-driven storyline idea and ran with it, giving each character purpose and reason, thoughts and feelings by expanding upon it. While Dragon Quest 1 comes in at about 8 hours, Final Fantasy would take nearly double that at 15 hours. To compensate for this, Final Fantasy, like Dragon Quest would also allow saving, something that wasn’t super common at this point in gaming. RPGs were still a relatively new genre, especially so to video-games, how they should handle combat was a really difficult question. The man tasked with designing this new system was Hiroyuki Ito. Ito had never played an RPG before and was at a loss on what to do. He took a break from work and caught an American football game on TV, the play style inspired him, there was an attacker and a defender, taking turns and planning out their plays before hand, this would become the basis for Final Fantasy combat.
But did it sell?
By combining industry changing graphics, incredible music, and a robust combat system into a living, breathing world with memorable characters Square had a real hit on their hands. On December 18th, 1987, Final Fantasy would take Japan by storm, receiving near universal praise from critics and fans alike. Square would ship some 520,000 copies for the NES in japan followed by another 600,000 on the Famicom and MSX totaling somewhere around 1.1 million copies sold in Japan, just behind the explosive Dragon Quest who was sure to become an RPG legend alongside the Legend of Zelda. Square’s celebration of their success would be short-lived as they would quickly get to work on pumping out a sequel, meanwhile, Nintendo localization teams worked quickly to get Final Fantasy released in the west some 3 years later where it would go on to sell 700,000 copies in America, beating out Dragon Quest.
Square had survived. This would not be their final fantasy, far from it. Final Fantasy breathed new life and more importantly, new money into the company revitalizing it and giving them a clear direction. They would make fantasy worlds for gamers to explore, live in and even occasionally save.
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