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Flight of Fantasy

A history of the recurring dream.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Occasionally a videogame so perfectly exemplifies a particular type of gameplay that its name becomes interchangeable with that of its genre. Mario is easy shorthand for the Platform game; Tetris, piece by piece epitomises the Puzzle genre; Dance Dance Revolution is foot sign language for Rhythm Action; and Street Fighter's Ryu and Ken, even today, bounce hunched as poster boys for Beat-‘em-ups everywhere.

And so it is with Final Fantasy, a brand so synonymous with the Japanese Role-Playing Game that your affection, indifference or dislike towards one is almost undeniably tied to that of the other. Indeed, surely the reason that Final Fantasy divides opinion perhaps more than any videogame series is because it has so typified an avenue of gaming that, perhaps more than any other, divides opinion.

Sceptics argue that the series has increasingly just dressed ancient mechanics in fanciful multi-million-dollar clothing; that tired narrative and battle conventions, created 20 years ago as a way to best construct an epic from rudimentary technological building blocks, have been left to age hidden and unattended under increasingly thick graphical make-up. They argue that those universal threads that tie the disparate worlds of each game together - the Chocobos and Phoenix Downs and Cids and orphans and airships - have weaved a prison of a template against which creativity strains; that underneath the curves and go-ever-faster stripes, a decrepit engine splutters ­- one that should have been long consigned to videogames' mechanical scrapheap.

Fans, meanwhile, talk in hit points: Four of the top ten slots in Famitsu's Greatest Videogames of all Time poll earlier this year (including the top two positions); over twenty games released, each one more successful and ambitious than the last; thousands of adults in tears over unseen plot twists, death and opera; tens of millions of units sold, each one further propelling the Final Fantasy brandwagon deeper into a mainstream consciousness that haters argued could never be penetrated by such nerdy carriage.

So, in the lead up to the US release of Final Fantasy XII - that will likely become the defining game of the series' Sony years and the title most likely to silence the genre's critics with its brilliance - Eurogamer takes a look back over an impressive and remarkable history and reassesses whether yesterday's fantasies might still titillate today.

The Nintendo years

Final Fantasy

The GBA's Final Fantasy I&2: Dawn of Souls.

It was an American expatriate, Henk Rogers, his head full of Tolkien, dragons and dungeons, who first laid down the JRPG template in 1985 with his Japanese MSX title Black Onyx.

The next year Japanese developer Enix married Roger's mechanics with anime sensibilities to create Dragon Quest and, in doing so, made sprite questing and random battling as popular as Pac-Man throughout Japan. But it was the following year that Hironobu Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy would turn his ailing company Square's fortunes around, make the JRPG name famous in the West, and kick-start the careers of artist Yoshitaka Amano and chip orchestra composer Nobuo Uematsu.

Named ‘Final' either because it was to be Sakaguchi's last game or because, if it failed commercially, it would be the last game Square could afford to create (he has claimed both in interviews), Final Fantasy defied the pessimism of its fatalistic naming. The game's team-based approach to fighting and the range of different world influences on its internal mythology was fresh and would establish the bold lines that so many subsequent clones would carefully trace.

Playing the game now is a mostly tortuous experience, despite the fact Famitsu readers voted the game the 63rd ‘Best Game of all Time' earlier this year. All but the most sentimentally minded retrogamer will baulk at the machine gun volley of random battles, the disorientating lack of world map and a plotline so rudimentary and linear it could be inscribed on a toothpick. In the late 1980s these basic collections of sprites might have fired our imaginations to fill out the unspoken colour, texture and subtlety of their worlds, but nowadays, as gamers used to having all of our visualisation work done for us by ten thousand perfectly choreographed dancing polygons, this stands as little more than a dusty museum exhibit of emergent gameplay.

Eurogamer review.

Final Fantasy II

Dawn of Souls, again.

Final Fantasy II is of historical significance, not only because it introduced series' stalwarts like Cid, chocobos (here coloured white not yellow) and orphans for lead protagonists, but also because it saw Akitoshi Kawazu promoted to lead producer on the game. The differences between Kawazu's Final Fantasy II and Sakaguchi's original title are so stark it's extraordinary they even share the same name.

In Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy, players selected and named four characters of six different classes and saw these characters develop chronologically and logically through successfully completing battles. Conversely, in Final Fantasy II, the player is stuck with four set pre-named characters (Firion, Maria, Guy and Leon) that level up their offensive and defensive statistics (such as weapon and magic proficiency) not by experience points but randomly though repetition of moves.

It's an intensely frustrating mechanic further broken by some shocking bugs that allowed the player to easily cheat the system. Although the idea was mercifully removed from all subsequent Final Fantasy games (along with Kawazu right up until his late and brave promotion to lead producer on Final Fantasy XII) it reappeared in and throughout the designer's subsequent and much-despised Romancing Saga* series.

Additionally in Final Fantasy II, enemy's statistics aren't preset (their power is exponentially determined in relation to the player's level), so it's possible to reach the final dungeon (where the four kids venture to the depths of hell) having leveled too much, forcing a restart from the very beginning of the game. These crippling design flaws ensure that this is widely regarded as the least favourite game in the (main) Final Fantasy lineage.

Nevertheless, at the time the title sold well thanks to a Japanese market newly enamoured by the genre and the popularity of the first game. Final Fantasy II was set for US release (indeed it was even advertised in several trade publications as the enticingly suffixed Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadow over Palakia). However, by this time (the first Final Fantasy game wasn't released in the US until 1990) the Super Nintendo system had already shoved its ageing parent into retirement's shadows and Square decided instead to catch up with the Japanese and begin work on translating Final Fantasy IV instead.

Eurogamer review.

(Incidentally, Kawazu's first Saga game, released on Game Boy, was confusingly released as Final Fantasy Legend in the US and Europe - although the games are in reality from completely separate families.)

Final Fantasy III

The eagerly awaited DS title, Final Fantasy III.

The third game in the series was Square's first real pioneering triumph. The relative financial success of its forefathers enabled a generous financial and temporal budget (over two years of development time) to create something altogether more intricate. With Sakaguchi back at the design helm the direction was more focused and the expanded team were able to create some of the best looking environments that would ever be seen on the now-creaking Famicom system.

Again focusing on the lives and quest of four young orphans charged with restoring balance to the world, the game also introduced to the series for the first time many of the themes and icons fans love and expect today: Moogles (originally called Moglies in Japan), summon creatures, the fat chocobo and his gyshall greens (named after a town in this game), auto-targeting, Dorga and Unne (two characters that would appear in many subsequent Final Fantasy games), floating hit points when characters dealt or received damage, the beloved job system (where characters could ascribe characters to branching ability forks) and the first special commands such as ‘Steal'. Indeed, much of what the modern player expects from a Final Fantasy game debuted in Final Fantasy III and its DNA can still be clearly seen informing even the most recent PS2 game.

The least remade of the early FF games (indeed, it has never been released in English officially), an eagerly anticipated enhanced version is soon to come to the western DS. You can expect a full appraisal from Eurogamer as soon as it does.