Written by Dragoon 5th November 2016

It’s safe to say that Final Fantasy is one of the most iconic game series to come out of Japan, having been a juggernaut in the gaming world since its inception almost thirty years ago. The name Final Fantasy is known by both the casual and hardcore gamer alike, many generations have had their hearts and minds enthralled by one of the plethora of titles the series has spawned. Every great legacy has its humble beginnings though and that’s what I’m going to explore today, where did this monster series actually come from?


The massive company known today as Square Enix hasn’t always enjoyed the success it does now, in fact way back in the mid 80’s it was struggling to stay afloat. Known then as just Square, the company had mainly focused on releasing small scale games for Nintendo’s Famicom but they just couldn’t get a solid foothold in the market. A young designer at Square by the name of Hironobu Sakaguchi had an idea for an ambitious RPG that drew inspiration from popular hits of the time such as Enix’s Dragon Quest series and Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda. This idea was Sakaguchi's last attempt at game design, if it hadn’t worked out he has stated he would have likely have quit and gone back to University. The name of this game reflected his sentiments at the time and the company's need for a hit, it was to be their Final Fantasy.


Interestingly though the name Final Fantasy wasn’t Sakaguchis first choice. In the conceptual stage the game was known and pitched as Fighting Fantasy but due to copyright issues with a series of popular role playing books of the same name they had to change it. They wanted the name to abbreviate to “FF” because it sounded cool in Japanese and “Final” was a popular English word in Japan so it became Final Fantasy. According to Sakaguchi any name that abbreviated to FF would have been fine, “Those days definitely seemed like end times, but honestly, any word that started with 'F' would’ve been fine".


Initially Square were reluctant to put faith in the proposal put forward by Sakaguchi. The RPG genre wasn’t seen as profitable at the time and Sakaguchi himself wasn’t exactly popular within the company, he was seen as a “rough boss” by his peers so only three of his colleagues volunteered to join his project at first. After the rampant success of the previously mentioned Dragon Quest though Square finally gave Sakaguchi their blessing to start development as they desperately needed a hit. This initial lack of faith served to drive Sakaguchi and his team to try their absolute best with this project.


Development began with a core of seven staff members who were known as the “A-Team”. Sakaguchi managed to convince fellow designers Akitoshi Kawazu and Koichi Ishii to join the project. Kawazu was mainly in charge of the battle system which he based heavily on the western tabletop RPG Dungeons and Dragons as well as the RPG Wizardry. Fundamental JRPG tropes such as elemental weaknesses for enemies and the ability to customise your character classes at the start had never been in a Japanese roleplaying games before so this was something Kawazu really wanted to incorporate from these western RPGs he admired so much. Koichi Ishii, who would later go on to develop Squares Mana series, focused more on the games setting and story. The game's scenario was penned by a freelancer called Kenji Terada but Ishii is the one who incorporated the long standing series motif of crystals. He later went on to conceptualise other series staples such as Chocobos and Moogles.


He was also the one who suggested Yoshitaka Amano as a character designer for the series to Sakaguchi who initially turned him down due to Amano being unknown. Sakaguchi later showed Ishii some magazine clippings saying that was the art style he wanted. Funnily enough it turned out that those clippings were of Amanos art so they decided to hire him after all. Amano has gone on to become an icon of the series and is still working on it to this day, it’s strange to think he almost wasn’t a part of the series. The music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu, who already had many other game scores under his belt at the time. He went on to compose music for the vast majority of the series going forward which helped solidify his position as a pioneer of gaming music. His compositions are now played by renowned orchestras all over the world and have earned him much acclaim among those outside of gaming.


To try and gain some buzz for the game Sakaguchi took an in-development ROM to the gaming magazine Famitsu, then known as Famicom Tsushin, to ask them to review it. They refused but they did write extensive coverage on the game which helped gain it some much needed traction before release. When it came time to ship the game Square originally only wanted to ship 200,000 copies due to the high cost of manufacturing games at the time but Sakaguchi pleaded with them to ship 400,000, mainly so that if it sold well there would be enough revenue to make a sequel and they eventually gave in. Final Fantasy sold all 400,000 copies in Japan on the Famicom and later sold another 200,000 on the MSX. It went on to sell 700,000 more copies on the NES in the US, in large part due to Nintendo’s aggressive marketing at the time. Interestingly the game didn’t get an official release in PAL territories until Final Fantasy Origins in 2003.


This success has led to the series we all know and love today, it’s interesting to look back and see that this insanely popular series was all the result of one man's last ditch effort to make a game he truly believed could be great. The rabid determination of Sakaguchi is the main reason the series is the success it is today and it’s amazing to see that many of the original staff members are still contributing to the series presently. While the series has stumbled a little in the last few years it seems to be on the up again, even if it did end up dying out, its legacy will without a doubt live on forever. The great hit RPGs of the time such as Dragon Quest may have paved the way for the Final Fantasy series but it’s Final Fantasy that has blazed a path for every JRPG that has come since.



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