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14 Features

History Lesson: Final Fantasy - the Nintendo years

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 18th May 2014 at 8:00 AM UTC

2011's Wii game Mario Sports Mix had Nintendo's best-loved characters mixing with Final Fantasy's finest in a bit of healthily competitive sporting action.

Sure, Peach may have got the odd dodgeball in the face from a Cactuar, but there was a friendly feel to the action. It was clear this lot could happily go for an elixir or two once they were done on court.

It wasn't always thus. Square and Nintendo had a big falling out when it turned out Final Fantasy VII was just a bit too hefty to squeeze into an N64 cart. Some Nintendo fans would argue the game could have afforded to lose some of the bloat, but that just sounds like sour grapes on their part. But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

Prior to the seventh game in the series, the two companies got along famously. Indeed, the original NES release of Final Fantasy in Japan in 1987 was Square's saviour. Back then, 'Final Fantasy' was almost an accurate name: the game represented a last throw of the dice for the near-bankrupt firm.

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As series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi explained to Famitsu magazine, "the name 'Final Fantasy' was a display of my feeling that if this didn't sell, I was going to quit the games industry and go back to university."

In Japan, Final Fantasy went on to sell 400,000 copies, after Sakaguchi convinced Square to double the initial shipment. "I pleaded, 'If we only make [200,000] there's no chance of a sequel - please make it 400,000'," he remembers.

"But the costs were high, so as a company all they could think was 'that's a lot of money!' despite having this great game. The reason it became such a hit was thanks to Square's management taking a chance."

Overseas, Nintendo of America took over publishing duties, localising the game (though not until 1990) and throwing its weight behind a big marketing campaign. RPGs were hardly big in the west at the time - certainly the Japanese approach wasn't - but Nintendo's promotional efforts paid off and the game was a moderate success in the US.

It was a small but significant victory, establishing the Final Fantasy name outside Japan. In the meantime, and buoyed by the unexpected success of the first game, Square set to work on a sequel, making the bold decision to set the game in an entirely new world with a fresh cast of characters.

Even the levelling system was tweaked, as characters developed according to their approach to combat. This flew in the face of RPG convention, but helped set Final Fantasy apart from the traditionalist approach of the other big RPG of the time, Dragon Quest.

Unfortunately, Square struggled with its first attempt to translate the sequel for the west and abandoned it. And that's where things get confusing.

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By the time the original game had launched in the US, Final Fantasy III (the first to introduce the job-change mechanic) was in Japanese stores. Final Fantasy IV (which introduced the pioneering Active Time Battle system) emerged in 1991 and was retitled Final Fantasy II for its western debut a few months later.

Final Fantasy V - whose key new feature was a revamped version of FFIII's job system - also stayed in Japan upon its 1992 release, meaning FFVI had magically transformed into Final Fantasy III when it reached the US in October of 1994. Still with us? To recap:

Final Fantasy (Japan) - Final Fantasy (US)
Final Fantasy II (Japan) - Unreleased in US
Final Fantasy III (Japan) - Unreleased in US
Final Fantasy IV (Japan) - Final Fantasy II (US)
Final Fantasy V (Japan) - Unreleased in US
Final Fantasy VI (Japan) - Final Fantasy III (US)

The sixth game was the last in the main series to be released on a Nintendo console, and is still regarded by many as the franchise high point. It was also the first Final Fantasy not to be directed by Sakaguchi.

Its industrial setting was a world away from the more traditional fantasy trappings of other RPGs, and for our money it featured the series' best villain (come on - Kefka could have Sephiroth any day of the week). A surprisingly mature story and some welcome revisions to the Active Time Battle system helped it become a huge success at home and abroad.

Yet with PlayStation and N64 on the horizon, FFVI also represented the last of the old guard, and the last time we'd see a Final Fantasy game on a Nintendo console for nine years as Square took its ball and went to play at Sony's house.

Square and Nintendo finally made up when Nintendo agreed a publishing deal for a number of Square titles. September 2003 saw the western release of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on GBA, by which time Square had merged with Dragon Quest publisher Enix to form Square Enix. Over the next few years Nintendo handhelds were treated to remakes of five of the first six FF titles, with III making its western bow on DS in 2006.

Since then, Nintendo consoles have hosted the Crystal Chronicles spin-offs, but the main series remains limited to other formats. Though perhaps, in Nintendo's eyes, that's for the best. Final Fantasy XIII was the game equivalent of Megan Fox - swoonsome looks, but rather shallow and dull - while Square Enix had to issue an apology and go back to the drawing board after the parlous state of MMO Final Fantasy XIV.

If the franchise seems to have reached an evolutionary dead-end for the time being, its rich Nintendo heritage is well worth rediscovering.


Final Recipe

Although each Final Fantasy game tends to feature a completely new storyline with brand new characters, there are some constants that tend to show up in most entries in the series.

For a game to have that true Final Fantasy feel, it has to have as many of these elements as possible.