Flight of Fantasy - Part 2

The Sony Years.

You can read the first part of our history of the Final Fantasy series elsewhere on the site. Stay tuned for our review of Final Fantasy XII tomorrow.

Final Fantasy VII

  • Original System: Sony PlayStation
  • Original release: January 31st, 1997
  • Other versions: Microsoft Windows

Writing about Final Fantasy VII is a bit like pissing in a river. No matter how lengthy, colourful, perspicacious or novel your contribution, it will never make much difference to such a free-flowing stream.

The reason for the flood of appraisal and interminable revisiting the game enjoys (unprecedented for a videogame not yet 10-years-old) is easily quantifiable by its record-breaking statistics: 10 million sales to date across all continents (this was the first true Final Fantasy game to be released in Europe) make this the best selling game in the series. It was delivered on three CDs stuffed with 330 CG maps and 40 minutes of Full Motion Video representing over two years work by over 100 full-time team members at a cost of over $45 million. This was a game on an unimagined scale for the toddling PlayStation generation.

From the opening movie's zoom out from a flower-selling girl's melancholy eyes up to a phoenix-eye view of the puffing cityscape of Midgar unfurling below, through to the first playable scenes in which the player becomes complicit in a terrorist attack to bring down the corporation Shinra, its ambition is still apparent today. The CGI backgrounds, polygonal characters and FMV cut-scenes seemed at the time to be as evolutionarily advanced from sprites and parallax scrolling as men are to eels.

Of course, today, with the benefit of hindsight we were too perhaps swift in our hyperbole. The awkward shifts from in-game graphics to FMV - many of which were disastrously inconsistent in their representation of the characters - were jarring and the game lacks some of the coherency and expression of the earlier games' more refined but simpler graphics.

But the strength of the narrative maintained the series' advancing curve of maturity and revolved around various juicy ethical and ecological dilemmas. Crucially for the success of the game, this plot topography was filled by what were undoubtedly some of the most iconic videogame characters yet seen. From Cloud to Aeris to Barret to Sephiroth each protagonist fitted perfectly with its adjacent antagonist in what was, looking back on it today, a triumph of ensemble jigsaw cast creation. That many of these characters went on to feature in other Squaresoft games says much.

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Final Fantasy VII.

But the game's true legacy is arguably even more important than its creative detail. Late in the 16-bit generation Squaresoft showcased an interactive SGI tech demo of their new polygonal Final Fantasy game to fans. It was assumed that the series would continue happily on Nintendo hardware but from the work that followed this demo it quickly transpired that Squaresoft's CGI ambition outstripped traditional cartridge-based media. Nintendo's refusal to move away from carts (they argued at the time that disc loading times ruined the flow of a gamer's experience - an line of reasoning still fighting fit in today's handheld wars) forced Squaresoft into Sony's open arms. Final Fantasy VII's ensuing high-profile success (and that of all the Squaresoft games that followed) had huge significance in the 32-bit console wars and it's certainly not beyond the realms of reason that the game was pivotal in shaping the industry we see today.

Fans have long cried for a re-release on more able hardware and at the 2005 E3 show a tech demo showing the opening FMV rendered fully in a PS3 engine made fan's jaws hang loose. However, a swift press statement from Squaresoft that no remake was in development dampened hopes while not exactly extinguishing them.

Final Fantasy VIII

  • Original System: Sony PlayStation
  • Original release: February 11th, 1999
  • Other versions: Microsoft Windows

It's something most genres of videogames have tried at some point when the technology eventually allowed for it. Final Fantasy VIII was the series' first attempt at realism in the form of traditionally proportioned characters, a real-world setting of a high-school and an obvious and calculating targeting of the Japanese teen demographic with an emo teenage lead, Squall Leonhart, his frat-esque companion Zell Dincht and a raft of flanking simpering girls. Perhaps as a result of this canny character design, setting and development, the game was an enormous financial success, especially in America where it earned Squaresoft over $50 million in just 13 weeks.

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Final Fantasy VIII.

Underneath the cosmetic surgery the game stuck to the series' traditional themes with the team of protagonists (some of whom are orphans) on a course to rid their world of the threat from the evil and politically dominant sorceress Edea. A controversial new levelling system was implemented which had the player link characters to summon monsters (here called Guardian Forces) in order to open up moves. Revisiting the game today the system quickly reveals itself to be horribly over-complicated and inaccessible, a fact testified by the swift removal of all its inventions from subsequent titles in the series.

Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi took a back seat for this game as he began to focus his attention on Hollywood and the creation of Squaresoft's ill-fated feature film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Meanwhile, the game's team chased their sky-high ambitions, trying to outdo the prior game in scope by, at one point, literally taking the characters into space.

Despite this the game received mixed reviews from fans and critics alike ranging from those displeased with the over-complex battle system to those transfixed by what they saw as the second coming of the JRPG saviour. One element that did enjoy universal appraisal was the FMV sections, which ironed out many of the quirks of inconsistency present in Final Fantasy VII's equivalent sections. Indeed, these sequences were a real showcase for Squaresoft's CG talent and were regarded as some of the most impressive examples of this kind of work in any medium coming out of Japan at the time.

Nevertheless, the test of time - that one test under which hyperbole and infatuation crumble - has shown the eighth game in the series to be far less iconic and enduring than its predecessor. While casual fans would be able to list most of the former game's characters, most would struggle to name check Quitsis, Selhpie and Irvine so fast; a testament to how difficult creating enduring characters can be. The game's legacy of more realistic character design and J-pop teenage dramatics would reappear in Final Fantasy X, but it's telling that there has been no mass petition for a remake of this game.

Eurogamer review (PC version)

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