The First Final Fantasy: A Desperate Gamble On An Opened Door
When you think of what encapsulates Japanese role-playing games, what comes to mind? Certainly there have been thousands, and many of them have been good in their own way, but what defines them? What franchise is guiding hand by which you know and identify the genre when you see it? Many might say Dragon Quest, as the original is essentially the grandfather of most all JRPGs, but we’d be willing to bet that many more would go to the Final Fantasy series. After all, Final Fantasy is the franchise that has revolutionized the way we think of RPGs in general, time after time, and it was on this day in 1990 that North America invited the original Final Fantasy onto its shelves and gave us the first taste of what would be a long and bountiful series.
Back in the late 1980s, Square Enix (then simply Square) was hardly the developmental and publishing giant that it is today. In fact, the company was facing hard times following several products for the Nintendo Famicom that had failed to garner public affection or sales. The company was circling the drain and bankruptcy seemed imminent. Likewise, Square head director Hironobu Sakaguchi had been unable to produce a game that would turn the company’s luck around. When Sakaguchi first conceived his idea for a role-playing game inspired by Ultima and Wizardry, the heads of Square initially turned him down, believing that such a product couldn’t produce the sales the company would need to survive.
Things changed with the release and success of Enix’s original Dragon Quest. The popularity of this new groundbreaking game prompted executives to reconsider Sakaguchi’s idea. Originally, the title for the game was to be Fighting Fantasy. This was changed to Final Fantasy for a number of reasons, the most popular of which was that if Final Fantasy did not succeed, Square would finally have to file for Bankruptcy and fold up. Another popular rumor is that Sakaguchi, having come off of several failed projects, would give up on his career in the gaming industry if Final Fantasy could not succeed. The only certain thing is that Sakaguchi himself would reveal in 2015 that Fighting Fantasy could not be used because of trademark reasons regarding a series of gamebooks that carried the same title, but the development team wanted a game that would be abbreviated to “FF” for aesthetics’ sake.
Final Fantasy was a first for a lot of concepts in JRPGs. It deeply embraced an inspiration coming from popular RPGs like Wizardry and Dungeons & Dragons. It nixed the single hero in favor of giving players a party to play with and utilized elemental skills in order to allow players to target enemies’ weaknesses and circumvent their strengths. Up until Final Fantasy, there were no Japanese RPGs that factored in things like increased fire damage or ice damage to monsters that were weak against those elements. Additionally, the party composition was left up to the player because the designers felt that that kind of choice in creation of characters was part of games like D&D and wanted to bring it into their game.
Final Fantasy tells a somewhat straightforward story of a fantasy world that has fallen into calamity as the elements of wind, fire, ice, and earth have fallen out of balance. In the midst of the chaos, four young heroes of light appear who are destined to bring the world out of the darkness. Each carrying a crystal of the four elements, the warriors travel the world to restore order. The game featured one of the first battle systems in a video game in which players could see their characters, rather than in a first-person view and also featured numerous abilities and magic exclusive to one class or another, combining with the player’s choice of hero classes to create a journey that was ostensibly their own.
Square and Sakaguchi’s gamble would pay off in the end. Final Fantasy succeeded exactly the way they needed it to. It became a stellar success in Japan and would follow Dragon Quest’s example, becoming localized for North America consumers and finding success in the United States as well. Dragon Quest laid the groundwork and opened the doors. That is unmistakable, but Final Fantasy expanded upon the formula in a unique and universally beloved way that has carried the series through decades and generations on its own path. It may have started as a last ditch attempt, but it has become a lasting legacy in our industry.