Having the likes of Mario, Zelda, Mega Man and the numerous other figureheads of gaming to choose from, we felt that Final Fantasy was the perfect place for us to start our history series. Just as Mario can be considered the face of platforming (and of gaming in general), Final Fantasy is widely regarded as the benchmark of the role-playing genre. But before all the Materia, Eidolons, Chocobos, Moogles and oversized swords came into play, Square was on the brink of collapse. And the title "Final Fantasy" was originally intended to live up to its namesake as being Square's final fantasy-based title.
The end of the year usually revolves around reminiscing about the past, learning from prior mistakes, holding yourself to a new standard and moving forward. There is no other series that exhibits this concept as much as Final Fantasy. Hironobu Sakaguchi and the team at Square were on the verge of financial ruin. Much like the formulaic stories of the series' early entries, it took four warriors of the light to save everything.
Square: Beyond the Brink
Square, a development and publishing company, emerged in 1983 and was formed as the computer software division of the Denyusha electrical company (which could have been what Final Fantasy 7's Shinra company could have been paying tribute to). Square was created by Masashi Miyamoto as a means of him avoiding having to follow in his father's footsteps at the helm of the Denyusha company. Miyamoto thought that PC software creation should have story writers, graphic designers and programmers working in unison on one project as opposed to the previous standard of having a one-man-gang of game development. Eventually, Hiromichi Tanaka and Hironobu Sakaguchi each dropped out of college so that they could develop games at Square full-time. Tanaka and Sakaguchi would eventually become two of the most important names in Final Fantasy history.
From 1984 to 1987, Square released nearly two dozen lackluster titles. The only three games that warranted enough interest to be ported over to the United States were Rad Racer, King's Knight and 3D World Runner, and even those three titles' sales were abysmal compared to the peers of their respected genres. Hironobu Sakaguchi repeatedly tried to pitch a fantasy-based title for Square to develop, but it was always shot down. It wasn't until the widespread success of a certain Enix-based RPG that Square would even consider doing a fantasy title. Ironically, this game would go on to be Final Fantasy's number one rival throughout history -- Dragon Quest.
Final Fantasy: The First RPG?
Many younger RPG fans believe that the original Final Fantasy was the first role-playing game ever created. This is certainly untrue since the genre was well underway before Square's inception. There were already a handful of mainframe computer-based fantasy games being developed throughout the mid seventies, such as pedit5, Dungeon and dnd. Personal computer RPGs were also being developed by the early 1980s, such as Temple of Apshai, Dungeons & Dragons (PC) and Akalabeth: World of Doom (which would be the precursor to Ultima). Nearly all of these titles are a testament to the success of the original, tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons and were merely ways of capturing D&D's widespread popularity on a portable, personal level.
Ultima and the tabletop version of Dungeons & Dragons proved to be two of the largest influences on Hironobu Sakaguchi for him to want to create a fantasy title. And while most of the '70s and early '80s role-playing games borrow from previously-established mythologies from the likes of Conan the Cimmerian and The Lord of the Rings, Ultima and D&D left the most noticeable impressions on Sakaguchi, which we would later see manifest in Final Fantasy's mechanics. For example, in Ultima, magic spells had to be purchased from stores, with the number of spell uses corresponding to how many times you actually bought the spell. The long, dungeon-crawling segments of Dragon Quest can be attributed to D&D, which definitely trickled down to being an ongoing trend throughout most of the Final Fantasy series. Dragon Quest, like its contemporaries, boomed in Japan and had a relatively-small following on home consoles in the States. But Nintendo Power magazine kept it in its "Top 30" lists and was nominated for a handful of awards by the end of the year of its American release (known in the States as Dragon Warrior).
By the time Dragon Quest was released in Japan, Square's finances were at a critical stage. Most of the games Square released throughout the early '80s were met with underwhelming sales, often costing more than their actual revenue. With the sun setting on Square, Miyamoto and his cohorts decided to finally give the OK to Hironobu Sakaguchi to make his fantasy game due to the fast-paced profit Enix made with Dragon Quest. Dragon Quest proved that there were Japanese players who wanted to play D&D-based fantasy games (which were primarily a hit in the west).
Production: Assembling the Party
Sakaguchi and his team were given the green light to make Final Fantasy due to Dragon Quest's recent success, but they ran with many of its ideas. Dragon Quest's character design and game artwork were done by Akira Toriyama, who was starting to become a mainstream success due to his Dragon Ball manga. Similarly, Sakaguchi appointed Yoshitaka Amano to do the character designs and game artwork for Final Fantasy. Yoshitaka Amano was known for creating and drawing Gatchaman, Tekkaman and Casshan. The artwork he did for Final Fantasy became a staple of the franchise's promotional material and was much like the covers he previously did for the Vampire Hunter D book series. Amano's infamous watercolor style would go on to define the series' characters for the following 25 years.
Amano's iconic artwork of the franchise is only rivaled by its phenomenal melodies. This can be attributed to Nobuo Uematsu, who had already contributed music to 16 other video games prior to Final Fantasy (Dragon Quest was composed by Koichi Sugiyama, who previously created music for numerous movies, television shows and anime series). Uematsu's songs for Final Fantasy would go on be synonymous with the series, with Final Fantasy's opening song becoming the official theme of the entire series.
Story: Let's Do the Time Warp Again
(warning: spoilers for a 26 year old RPG)
Surprisingly, the overall plot of Final Fantasy was a lot more intricate than most people would have expected, especially when compared to its contemporaries. Like the first Ultima title, defeating Final Fantasy's main baddie attains immortality and your player must travel back into the past and slay him before his immortality is set (mind you, Ultima would already have been on its third title by the time Final Fantasy was released). Dragon Quest, on the other hand, is your run-of-the-mill save the girl/slay the dragon adventure.
Final Fantasy starts off with the four Light Warriors in a group, each bearing an orb. Unlike the ongoing crystal motif of its sequels, Final Fantasy revolved around four orbs which each embodied the full power of the elements 2,000 years prior. But now, the elements have died out and the crystals have faded. Your team must confront the four elemental fiends (much like the ones you encounter in Final Fantasy IV). After defeating these four demons, you find out that the fiends have created the super demon Chaos out of the body of the first boss you killed in the game, Garland, and sent it 2,000 years into the past. In the past, Chaos goes on to create the four elemental fiends (by siphoning the energies from the elemental crystals), which causes the world to be how it is at the beginning of the game. You find Chaos in the present, where he has already been living for 2,000 years. Defeating him there means nothing, since the fiends have already sent Garland's reincarnated body into the past where he becomes the demon, Chaos. This is an ongoing perpetual cycle of Chaos which doesn't break until the four Light Warriors travel back to the past to kill Chaos when he just arrived (and you thought the movie Primer was complicated).