With Square Enix’s recent self-proclamation of its 1997-2006 Golden Era at PAX (by the way, how did X-2 get on the list?), one has to ponder the announcement. I propose combining Square-Enix’s Old School Final Fantasy with the Golden Era into the Golden Age. First I go back and analyze the eras and how Square divided them up. I will analyze their Old School era, divided up into the class based Final Fantasies and then the more character-driven Final Fantasies, what basically defined Final Fantasy in its Golden Era. Then I will analyze what made the Playstation era of Final Fantasy the Golden Era.
Square Enix was initially founded as a Power Line company by Masashi Miyamoto in 1983; It eventually joined the video game software industry, developing for the Famicom. Part time developer, a relatively unknown Hironobu Sakaguchi was hired back then. I myself owned a lesser-known Square Enix title known as Rad Racer, which (like Amazon Trail) seemed to be a game I could never beat, but still insisted on playing again and again.
Eventually, Square would almost give up its video game division. After all, the founder wanted no part in the business. They would then create what was known as Final Fantasy, which was a hit. From the RPG elements that Japanese nerdom enjoyed from Enix’s Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy was for sure no doubt to be one, balancing parties based on Speed, Strength, Magic among each of the game’s classes. Some choose all white mages as a challenge. The game would do what many Final Fantasies do: create an on-screen protagonist prior to creating a large-scale overarching antagonist.
Americans may contend that this began their Golden Era of Final Fantasy, especially for the NES as there were no other Final Fantasies for the NES at the time. It began and continued the franchise from what could have been Square’s exit from the video game industry.
From here, I will discuss the two Final Fantasies that are closer to Final Fantasy (I) in gameplay and story:
THE CLASSIC GAMES.
In 1990, Final Fantasy III was made with a similar strategic gameplay mechanic: the player had four Onion Knights who could change classes, providing more flexibility as to how to get through the games’ enemies, mazes, and dungeons. I believe there was also a stage where you purposely had to run away from an enemy. In addition, redirecting your attack after an enemy was killed was finally implemented into the series. The story was be a copy and paste of Final Fantasy I. It was classic, both pun and non-pun related and showed that true sequels with slight innovations still worked.
In 1992, Final Fantasy V came out and even more classes were added to the game. The characters were given more depth, with Butz being the Luke Skywalker-like hero, Lenna the Leia-like Princess, the Pirate transvestite Han Solo-ish Faris, and the Obi Wan Kenobi goof Galuf. The tale of an old, sinister evil was done better than I or IV, possibly even VII. I felt with this Final Fantasy they really got the archvillain done right, possibly better than in any other Final Fantasy, including the Final Fantasy with the major storyline before it, Final Fantasy IV.
Final Fantasy II was quite innovative for its time (the story, the mechanics, the use of NPCs, which would later be implemented in VI with General Leo), and still holds up now. It stands as one of the greatest video games of 1988, if not all time. Curse you, Ninja Gaiden and Super Mario Bros 3! More about this in a later article.
Final Fantasy IV (II in US) was not as innovative as II. It tells the story of you, Cecil, the bad guy in the beginning of the game, tries to avenge himself for what he has done. It sort of slows down later. SPOILERS: everybody you think dies does not, and it is further ruined by the sequel. This game did, however, set characters to certain classes, which helped establish them, strengthening character depth and development, defining characters by their class.
Final Fantasy VI (III in US) is praised by many. By expanding upon details from Final Fantasy II and V and adding the Star Wars feel, it became one of the best products of the beloved Super Nintendo, a founding platform for RPGs. It has a great variety of characters and classes, which were artistically done better than V’s (although the mechanics were not as great variety-wise). Some fans consider this the best Final Fantasy ever made. So why is this not in the Golden Age as Kotaku mentions?
That brings us to other games made by Square during the Nintendo days: SAGA, Secret, and of course, 1995’s Chrono Trigger, a game that perhaps surpassed all of Final Fantasy as a franchise critically right after what many may consider to be Final Fantasy’s greatest game, a year after VI
In 1996, Shigeru Miyamoto released both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario RPG to spark the great debate on which was the best Super Mario game of that year? Do we choose one of the finest platformers of our generation or Square’s final collaboration with Nintendo for a while.
I actually agree with what Square Enix considered as their Golden Era–to a certain extent. The Playstation era continued the momentum begun after Final Fantasy VI, which made Final Fantasy Square Enix’s flagship, while still creating some notable spin-off games. In 1997-8, there was Saga Frontier, Bushido Blade, Tobal 2, extensions to the Super Nintendo game, Front Mission 2, Front Mission Alternative, Einhander, Final Fantasy 7, the second highest selling game for the Playstation 2,and a game some (including me) would debate is a better game than 7 – Final Fantasy Tactics.
However spinoffs technically began post-Final Fantasy VI, making things even more confusing as to where the Golden Age of Square-Enix technically started. There was no doubt at this time however that Squaresoft was a force to be reckoned with, especially when it came to Game of the Year.
Also in 1998, while major games such as Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid innovated, Square Enix still brought out some interesting games such as RPG Sci-Fi shooter Parasite Eve, the religious mech-based Xenogears, the fighting game that GameFAQS’ MAllen debated was better than Tekken, Ehrgeiz, Bushido Blade 2, Brave Fencer Musashi with a demo disc for Final Fantasy VIII, made because of the success of VII, more difficult, romantic and a woman’s story.
In 2000, Final Fantasy IX was released. While it was the most critically acclaimed Final Fantasy title on Metacritic, its sales were a disappointment compared to its predecessors. It also became eclipsed by great games such as Blizzard’s Starcraft and Diablo II, not to mention its predecessors. In addition, video game addicts were going to internet bars for a first person shooter, the infamous Counter-Strike. Critically, it was surpassed by the dedicated fanbase of the technically innovative Shenmue. Square Enix did not feel like a technically innovative company anymore, and felt more like a cash-in company with re-releases and unmotivated games that were nowhere close to game of the year. Sales of dwindled since the peak of Final Fantasy VII, being surpassed by games such as Grand Theft Auto and Gran Turismo.
This era, whatever the name, is no longer the era of Final Fantasy, although the company still has critical hits in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dissidia, Theatrhythm and Sleeping Dogs. I can also see retellings of games like VI, redone in a way so that they are told in such a masterful way such as VII. They did it with III. They created innovative games such as Kingdom Hearts.
Square Enix is also finally benefiting the medium of manga through its flagship title Full Metal Alchemist. Ha! Take that Advent Children!
Finally Square-Enix, don’t pretend to be Activision-Blizzard. As I stated before, Activision-Blizzard finally hit it big after the release of Starcraft and Diablo II. That’s great-it’s spilled milk. If you were bigger and better than them when it came to MMORPGs, it would be one thing- you’re not. Stop pretending you are.
Also, here’s my link to my top Final Fantasies of my Golden Age.