So Many More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

Yesterday, we discussed Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X.  One game was a love-letter, the other the first steps of a series without its creator.  Today, we’re going to start wrapping this article series up, as we take a look at sequels and tie-ins.

As we’d discussed before, with the abysmal financial failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Hironobu Sakaguchi was being edged out of the company he’d helped to create and become such a power-house.  With newfound freedom, Squaresoft started seeing what else it could do with the brand, and one of the first things it did was create a direct sequel—Final Fantasy X-2.

Now, this was rather ground-breaking.  Sakaguchi never wanted the games to be really related to each other.  He wanted them to share themes, sure, and plenty of little nods to other series—names, some monsters, that sort of thing; as much winks to the players as anything else—but that was it.  However, again, he was being edged out of Squaresoft, and that combined with the fact that Final Fantasy X was received incredibly well all but assured that the company was going to take the brand in a different direction than what he’d originally envisioned.

If I may, I’d like to take a moment for a small digression.  To this day, you’ll find fans of Final Fantasy who staunchly hold to Sakaguchi’s original vision, and they sometimes say that the worst thing Squaresoft did was go against it, what with the merchandising everything they could possibly think of, creating as many tie-ins as humanly possible, and so on.

That sort of loyalty to a developer isn’t a bad thing, it really isn’t—but it denies one fundamental aspect of video games, perhaps the most fundamental: Video games are a business, first and foremost.  The medium isn’t like most others, where there’s the battle for balance between artistic creativity and profit-making.  All it takes is one poorly-received game for a company to start sliding downhill into obscurity, or, worse, financial ruin.  The larger the company, the less likely that is, but in, say, the medium of films, even a small-time director can get away with a stinker or two and still become rather well-renowned with later films, whereas in video games it’s usually not until you reach the levels of Square-Enix, Valve, or the like that you can make a financial flop and shrug it off.

As we gamers age, our tastes change, and as they change developers and publishers need to realize that and adapt.  Many companies adapt well, but sometimes that adaptation means leaving something, perhaps a key “something”, behind, for better or for worse.  It’s hard to call such an adaptation “good” or “bad”, since it really is just that—an adaptation.  The companies adapt to the changing tastes of the target gamers and try and publish games accordingly.

Alright, then, getting back to the matter at hand—due to the critical and financial success of Final Fantasy X, Squaresoft started work on the first direct sequel.  While that was in development, they focused on another game, one that was closer to Yoshinori Kitase’s personal vision of a battlefield that wasn’t separate from the “normal” game play, where gamers could play together in groups—and the rising popularity of M.M.O.s seemed like the perfect way to go about it.

In November of ‘Oh-Two, Final Fantasy XI hit Japan’s gamers.  It hit North America October of the next year, and it finally hit Europe in September of the year after that.  Even though it was in such a different format, it came as a surprise to absolutely no one when it was received rather well.

It can be argued that Final Fantasy XI succeeded in spite of itself, really, since beyond the “nods” and “winks” that are found in every other title, it doesn’t really have much that makes it “feel” like a Final Fantasy title.  By dint of being an M.M.O., you really can’t have just a small handful of characters saving the world—you either have to have no player saving the world, or every player saving the world.  Either option can take away from the “feel”, since in previous games it was, again, only a small handful of characters.  In an M.M.O., if you go with the second option, you have thousands of characters helping to save the world.

That said, like Final Fantasy VII it helped bridge a few gaps.  M.M.O. players who may never have even thought about playing a Final Fantasy title were exposed to the setting, and it’s hard to believe none tried other titles in the franchise.  In the opposite way, R.P.G. players who’d never tried an M.M.O. before were exposed to the format, and it’s similarly hard to believe they didn’t “branch out”, as it were, as well, trying other M.M.O.s.

That aside, again, Final Fantasy XI was a rather large success; so much so it’s still running to this day (which is almost laudable, really) and is still subscription-based, where many other M.M.O.s are turning toward free-to-play with fee-based additions.

So, yet again, Squaresoft had a winner on their hands.  They branched out in ways the series hadn’t yet seen.  The company was continuing the innovation and the sense of trying new and/or different things that had made the Final Fantasy brand as popular as it had become.  Their next game would also be different—the aforementioned sequel.

Final Fantasy X-2 was more than “just” a sequel.  It set a tone that would reverberate throughout the series from that point forward.  It was, in a vein that was similar yet not the same, as much a love-letter to the fans as Final Fantasy IX had been a few years previous.

Debuting in March of ‘Oh-Three in Japan (hitting North America that November, and Europe February of the next year), it was, above all else, a game of fan-service.  It was more or less a continuation of a story gamers had loved, with some of the characters that were the best-received.  It was also an example of efficiency at its finest.  Since they already had the characters, the game engine, and all the rest ready to go, they could use a smaller development team.  Even though the team was smaller, the game was finished in under a year (which was saying something for a Final Fantasy title).

They’d brought back the Job System, which at that point hadn’t been seen since Final Fantasy V, though it was more of a “dress-up” sort of deal, appropriately enough called the Dressphere, with the accompanying Garment Grid.  With the reappearance of New Game Plus, one could get basically everything for the characters.  Speaking of, another alteration was that this time around, instead of the usual large number of playable characters, there were only three—Rikku, Paine, and Yuna.

One of the more fundamental changes to the very brand itself was the first real “tie” to another game.  We’re not talking the obvious aspect of it being a direct sequel.  There was a character named Shinra, who was a more or less direct tie to Final Fantasy VII.

While it wasn’t as much of a financial success as its predecessors, it was received rather well; enough that, surely, Kitase et al. at Squaresoft knew they were on to something.  They could tie games directly to each other and the fans would enjoy them.  Thus came about the slew of titles revolving around Final Fantasy VII, one of the most popular titles in the series’ history.

So popular was every tie-in, it was pretty much a no-brainer that there would be a movie tie-in.  This time around, under the combined directorial control of Tetsuya Nomura and Takeshi Nozue, with Yoshinori Kitase producing, they wouldn’t try to go the same route as Sakaguchi had with Spirits Within.  This would be the ultimate in fan-service, a love-letter to the fans the likes of which even Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X-2 couldn’t match.

We are, of course, talking about Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.  The film has an interesting history all its own; originally it was going to be much shorter, but as word spread about it, the fans all rose up and nearly begged for a full-length film—so the team at what was now Square-Enix did just that.  They responded to the fans’ rallying, and retooled the original idea into something that would fit a feature-length film.

Now, in my Tuesday Top Ten for movies based on video games, I’d ranked it two spots lower than Spirits Within.  Part of the reason for that is while it was an enjoyable movie, it was, above all else, fan-service.  Everything else served that purpose.  As mentioned in that Top Ten entry, the character of Denzel was more or less shoe-horned in, but, further, characterization of a few characters—particularly Cloud himself—had been reworked.

For Cloud, because more fans knew him as the silent brooder of the first part of the game than the determined, even sometimes happy, man he’d been by the end of the game, the development team took him back to that mentality.  Though it was done well enough, there was something of a hand-wave about him no longer feeling that sense of purpose.  Sephiroth’s motivations were made a bit more simplistic, so he could be more of an “easy villain”; the guy people can look to and just want the “good guy” to soundly trounce.  It worked, though.  The story that the developers wanted to tell was told quite well.

(As an aside, in yet another attempt at fan-service, he was remodeled from his original “refined” appearance into more of a “bishie” look, which was one of the more–interesting–changes.)

The most difficult hurdle, also as mentioned in the Top Ten entry, was the concept of the “Remnants”.  The original concept of “shinentai” is so foreign in every sense of the word to Western concepts that it’s difficult to even define in ways that are succinct yet easy to understand.  The closest I’ve yet seen is this blog entry written, conveniently enough, about this very film.

Still, instead of trying to explain the concept of “shinentai” to an audience who didn’t pay ten dollars a ticket for a lecture on Japanese culture and history, tossing that aside and going with the idea of “Remnants” worked pretty well, really.  It got the basic idea—that the three antagonists were magically tied to Sephiroth—out there and understood, which was the important thing.  Ultimately, the movie did what it was intended to do—please the fans of the game, fans of the series in general, and tell a tale you wouldn’t mind sitting in a theater for almost two hours to watch.

And that brings us to the end of today’s discussion.  As you can see, though Sakaguchi had left the company he’d helped found, it was by no means floundering for the loss.  It only continued to pick up steam and build its fan-base, partly by doing something few other companies did to such an extent—listen to, and directly respond to, that very fan-base.  Join in Monday, where we’ll wrap the series up by discussing the post-XI games.  See you then!


2 Responses to “So Many More Thoughts on Final Fantasy

  1. Elisa Michelle Says:

    My goodness, Advent Children was (and still is) incredibly popular. My friends wouldn’t stop talking about it and they were super obsessive for at least two months. It was ridiculous. And amusing, haha. I own X-2 and knew it was more fan service than anything, mostly because everyone who’d liked the FF series was so shocked it was even created. Some even teased me for buying it. Fun stuff.

    • I can well imagine that they were shocked, since nothing like it had even been hinted at before. But, hey–you like it, and that’s the important thing.

      And yes, I agree that sometimes the fandom could get a little amusing in its, say, “devotion” to Final Fantasy VII and its tie-in film, heh.

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