Final Fantasy: A Short History

In 1987, Square was on the verge of a complete and utter breakdown, bankruptcy from a slew of failed games. It was with this that they decided to throw everything they had into one last ditch effort, aptly titled Final Fantasy. The game was a monstrous success, utilizing cutting edge technology to tell the first of many epic tales in the newly minted Japanese RPG format.

The next two games didn't see immediate release in the United State, but grew the brand name and popularity of the series in Japan, leading up to the release of Final Fantasy IV in 1991, released later in 1992 in the US as Final Fantasy II. It was the first of three releases for the SNES and single handedly blew away the entire genre. It was an epic tale of deception and betrayal and the quest of a disgraced Knight to uncover and destroy the conspiracy that promises to ruin his nation.

The next game was similarly skipped in the US, a more numbers and level oriented affair much like earlier entry III. It was a growth in the series but nothing revolutionary, merely an extension of the brand name to bridge the gap until the next blockbuster in Final Fantasy VI.

Final Fantasy VI was released in the US as Final Fantasy III and proved to be the kick in the pants that many American gamers needed to truly fall in love with the series. Even now, it's considered by many to be the best of the series. Terra, Kefka, intensely fun boss battles and a story line to rival any since then, Final Fantasy VI had it all and stands even now as one of the most often played of my classic game collection.

And it was with this game that Square brought to an end the 16 bit era of Final Fantasy. The inclusion of offshoots, Mystic Quest for the SNES and Legends for the Game Boy should be noted as attempts by Square to extend the popularity of the franchise to a mainstream audience. Most will note the failure of the endeavor, as none of these titles were true Final Fantasies relying on the brand name more than the game play to sell copies.

It would take a technological revolution and the abandoning of a classic partnership for Square's key franchise to make the jump to mainstream popularity. That came in 1997 with the PlayStation release of Final Fantasy VII. The decision to abandon Nintendo was made for multiple reasons, not the least of which was the inability of Nintendo to develop a platform capable of the technical capacity Square wanted to introduce. Staying true to the classic cartridge format, Nintendo alienated the desire for video and orchestrated music inclusion, something Sony's new CD format game console handled beautifully.

And it was this new technology and openness to innovation that brought Final Fantasy VII to the market. It was the first in the series to jump to 3d. Also, the first to use FMVs, the videos played during emotionally climactic moments of the game. Whether the story or game play were revolutionary has always been hotly debated by fans and dissenters, but the impact of VII on the genre has been felt ever since. It reinvented, as the series did 10 years earlier how the RPG genre was viewed, and today remains one of the most popular games of all time.

A year and a half later saw the release of Final Fantasy VIII, step two of Square's PlayStation trilogy of games. It took the advances of Final Fantasy VII and built on them admirably, introducing a new format for magic and leveling that some saw as too easy, but also added entirely new levels of strategy to the experience.

Final Fantasy IX sought to return the series to the medieval roots from which it grew. By reverting from the nearly realistic approach of the eighth entry, we saw the reintroduction of the super-deformed cartoonish style of earlier games. The plot retroacts to the medieval formats of the earlier games as well, away from the science fiction elements of the previous three games. It was received well but overlooked because of the simultaneous release of Sony's new PlayStation 2 and the introduction of new highs in graphical output.

Enter the next generation. Final Fantasy X was a step forward in the ways VII was five years before. It introduced true 3D, voice acting, astounding graphics, and one of the most compelling stories in the series, unabashedly harsh and unforgiving to its characters, so powerful it bred a sequel, the first in Final Fantasy history. Of course, the sequel didn't quite live up to it's predecessor and Final Fantasy X-2 has never received the respect of its brethren, but the game itself is fun and full of innovation that no main series game could pull off.

Except, Square decided to go for it, and in Final Fantasy XI they didn't even create a standard RPG. Instead, the RPG giant brought to us their entry in the MMORPG realm, a sprawling, technically wonderful internet RPG, which now boasts one of the second largest internet populations (World of Warcraft destroys all of its competition). Some found it too hard, and more didn't appreciate the use of brand name just to sell a completely new product, especially as it pushed the release of a new console game to almost 5 years later. XI has been around for a little while now and is in need of a sequel, and it's yet to be seen if Square-Enix will go to the trouble.

Yup that's right, Square Enix. The two giants merged shortly after XI's release and things took a sure change. Final Fantasy XII was indefinitely delayed for years because of the merger. But it finally released earlier this last year to critical acclaim. The game took the more efficient elements of XI's battle system and introduced a more mature, involving story, revolving around all of its characters. As a game, XII succeeds on multiple levels because of its willingness to change from the "formula" that the other games created. And this is the story of Final Fantasy as a franchise. Through innovation, Square Enix has managed to always craft something incredible worth playing and lasting. I still have all of my original Final Fantasies intact on a shelf hidden away for safety, something only Zelda also enjoys as a game franchise. Everything else tends to disappear.

As PlayStation 3 arrives, the newest entry is probably only a year or two away and we'll see what Square Enix does with it, but you can count on one thing. It will be innovative and top notch.

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