A Final Fantasy Retrospective: The Coda

WE STARTED with a Prelude: here’s the Coda, in which Dan finally, mercifully, concludes this three-year project.

In 1987, Hironobu Sakaguchi and a ragtag band of scrappy developers inadvertently created a monster. This bizarre, time-hopping chimera became known as Final Fantasy, and it would birth a gaming institution that’s well into its third decade. It’s what I’ve spent around three years and 49,000 words discussing in often excruciating detail. Now, as we kick and scream our way into the next decade, it only seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect on everything that has transpired to bring the series to this point, especially as the FFVII Remake creeps ever closer.

What even is Final Fantasy at this point? The Mario series, for all its mechanical innovations, has largely retained the core premise and creative personnel from its inception; Metal Gearat least until 2015 – was much the same. Even Dragon QuestFinal Fantasy’s eternal rival – had Yuji Horii at its helm and survived, even thrived, as its parent company merged with the former Square. But Final Fantasy has seen a bevy of creative leaders come and go as the years progressed, and the general consistency that defined its peers has fluctuated ever since Sakaguchi’s departure in 2002.

Since then, we’ve had two botched expanded universes; record-breaking losses; a rumoured mental breakdown of a top creative lead; a uniformly disastrous MMO launch, and the belated release of a game that was never even intended to be a part of the mainline series. For the sake of comparison, without counting spin-offs, observe the release schedule for Final Fantasy IXI. Between 1987 and 2001, in a 14-year timespan, Square were putting out critically acclaimed and ground-breaking JRPGs on an almost annual basis. Eleven games in 14 years. Now, look at the release schedule for FFX-2XV. Between 2003 and 2019, they released seven games in 16 years.

This doesn’t seem like an enormous disparity on face value. Factoring in the spiralling development costs of more recent console generations, it almost seems standard for the industry (compare the 2008 release of Metal Gear Solid 4 and 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V, for instance). However, three of those seven games are direct sequels, something that pre-2002 Square had famously avoided. In effect, only four of these games were built from the ground up, without relying on previous assets. Four games in 16 years, all of which suffered extensive delays and shifts to different consoles, none more infamously than FFXV’s torturous 10-year cycle.

These exorbitant development cycles have at least been passively acknowledged by what is now known as Square Enix, but the fact remains that the latter-day titles have all faced their share of absurd and self-destructive agendas, propagated by a management that has struggled to adapt to an ever-changing industrial landscape. In a post-Witcher 3 era, the astounding graphical prowess of FFXV can only amount to so much when its side-quests and world(s) are so stark in comparison. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Square was at the head of the pack, changing the game before its peers could scramble to catch up. In the late 2000s and 2010s, Square Enix was archaic, clinging to a failing business model and design philosophy that paled in the face of both its western and eastern counterparts.

Once heralded as an innovation machine that single-handedly legitimised an entire sub-genre of videogames (in the West), the company – and Final Fantasy as a whole – became increasingly characterised as a sluggish and bloated relic of a bygone age, peaking with the double-whammy of FFXIII and the horrific launch of FFXIV. The key creative figures that characterised the series’ rise to prominence – Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu, Yoshitaka Amano, Yoshinori Kitase, Hiroyuki Ito – have either left altogether or taken a back seat. An uncertain future began to hover over the series as a whole, and its decline from relevance only steepened as disappointing sequels and exploitative mobile spin-offs flopped onto the market.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. The re-launched FFXIV: A Realm Reborn, instrumental in rescuing Square Enix from a severe financial deficit, has been going from strength to strength on the back of meaty expansions, constant support and a steadily-increasing player-base. Despite the questionable release strategy for FFXV, and its studio, Luminous Productions, accruing an “extraordinary loss” of $33 million, it proved to be the fastest-selling entry in the series and has (at least up to October 2019) sold almost nine million units total, cancelled DLC or no. Updated ports of older titles, especially on the Nintendo Switch, have also managed to make some headway, making the classics readily accessible for the next generation.

And then there’s the sacred cow: the Final Fantasy VII Remake. Despite inexplicably farming out development to CyberConnect2, the game has been steadily regaining the ungodly hype generated from its 2015 E3 reveal and looks, frankly, incredible. Whether you agree with the episodic release structure or not – or whether the remake is even necessary – it promises to be a triumphant and unambiguous return to form for the mainline series after years of uncertainty and false starts, and will no doubt sell shedloads on name recognition alone.

But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? The only way that Square Enix can guarantee a return on their investment is by hacking apart their most treasured intellectual property and selling each lump at a premium. What makes it all the sadder is a now-forgotten 2012 shareholders’ meeting, wherein former company CEO, Yoichi Wada, declared [paraphrased]: “We will not remake Final Fantasy VII until we believe that we have made a better game than Final Fantasy VII.” He went on to stress: “If the remake is made before we have achieved this, then Final Fantasy would be done with.”

Irrespective of the fact that FFIX has been around for 20 years – and ignoring the fact Wada’s quote is now eight years old and he stepped down in 2013 – it’s a rather candid sentiment for an executive to express. Remake director, Tetsuya Nomura, gave a similar statement around the same time: “The new Final Fantasy must overcome the Final Fantasy of the past.” Given that there’s been no sign of a possible FFXVI, the Remake is, for all intents and purposes, the flagship release in the series’, and the company’s, immediate future. With the episodic structure in mind, that’s potentially another five years dedicated to a single instalment, and not even a new one at that. In 2025, the original FFVII will be 28 years old. Sobering.

That won’t stop me buying the Remake upon release, like the helpless stooge that I am, but it nonetheless paints a very uncertain future for the series as the next generation looms on the horizon. Will the inevitable success of the Remake lead to other remakes? Will the company drag Hiroyuki Ito out of the cupboard he’s been hiding in for the past 15 years and put him in charge of FFXVI? Will the next retrospective cover every single entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series? Probably none of these things will happen, and possibly all of them will happen. Who can say? Nothing is written, and nothing ever ends.

At least we’ll always have the Ultima Weapon Fork.

Until next time.

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