Final Fantasy XV will be in stores next week, undoubtedly the largest RPG franchise debut of any role-playing series in years. It’s been one of the genre defining series of my generation since the debut of Final Fantasy I on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1987. Roleplaying games have definitely changed since then.
Graphical enhancements in subsequent entries, game play improvements and in-depth storytelling have helped the genre in a positive way. FFXV carries on its shoulders the burden of having to be everything to every role-playing gamer. Somehow, it must reinvigorate its old time players like myself and also gather new players alike. While poised to inevitably excite and disappoint, past Final Fantasy games are not the only source of gaming inspiration FFXV will have to tap from.
Released by Sega on the Sega Master System in 1987, Phantasy Star introduced us to a unique blend of fantasy and high-tech roleplaying unlike its competitor, the original Final Fantasy. The game took your party of heroes across planets in a classic story against an evil omnipotent being. The first person dungeon design of the game was impressive at the time. However, as sequels spawned from the original, Sega would quickly do away with that style, going to the more prominent over-world random encounter approach seen in contemporary RPG’s.
The original Phantasy Star series bucked the Final Fantasy tradition of starting completely anew and independent from game to game, regarding plot. Although each Phantasy Star game introduced us to new protagonists and conflicts, they all served to weave together a satisfying tale centered around a common enemy. Playing Phantasy Star II while at a young age, I remember certain events in the game feeling so much more mature at the time than what I’d seen before. I enjoyed the third entry in the series, Generations of Doom, despite being somewhat a departure from the franchise. Playing through Phantasy IV, I was reminded of how great a rivalry it once had with Final Fantasy. Phantasy Star would live on in an online MMORPG format after IV wrapped up a story spawning the first four games.
In 1992, Lunar: A Silver Star Story was released on the Sega CD. Due to the limited audience who actually owned the system, it proved a modest success. What became endearing were the characters, the simple and whimsical plot and the then state of the art animated cut scenes. Lunar didn’t necessarily share the bigger spotlight surrounding SquareEnix and Sega back in their earlier RPG heyday’s. Even still, its simpler story with equal emotional weight forged lasting memories for many gamers. It’s evidenced in the innumerable ports on subsequent systems it enjoyed. The direct sequel, Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, found similar success initially on the Sega CD, providing a maturer storyline but keeping it equally as captivating. Gamers of other series will find themselves hard pressed to match those characters with the memorable heroes and villains from the Lunar universe.
In the mid to late nineties, Square Enix solidified its presence on the RPG landscape by producing some of their most loved titles. Final Fantasy VI on the Super NES ushered in an entirely new experience for the genre, disrupting expected stereotypes while reinforcing traditional aspects of the franchise. Final Fantasy VII would later be released on the Playstation, pushing forward the graphics in RPG’s and producing its own memorable cinematic cut scenes. Despite the rise of competing franchises, Square Enix still produced some of the most iconic moments in all of video game history. I would argue, before becoming Square Enix, this was absolutely Square’s golden age.
Chrono Trigger released by Square Enix would follow Final Fantasy VI on the Super NES as one of the last epic RPG’s to be released on the system. The time travel component in the game allowed for a diverse way of presenting the narrative. Potentially an area of confusion, the multiple possibilities in the main story became one of the most memorable features. It was sorely missed in its follow-up, Chrono Cross on the Playstation. Though that game had several issues, it proved a great title in its own right. Xenogears, released on the Playstation by Square Enix as well, was also a bit different from its contemporary RPG family. Heavy themes regarding religion, reincarnation and love were dealt with a care not yet seen in a Japanese RPG, stateside at least. It strove for a complex narrative, not always effectively hitting its mark, but developed well fleshed out characters motivated by real struggle.
The long wait for the next entry of the Final Fantasy series will soon be over. Square Enix has proven time and time again they still have what it takes to produce solid and memorable RPG gaming. Looking back at older games with their iconic moments, it’s reasonable to assume FFXV can still create new ones for us. Gone is the familiar artwork of Amano or Uematsu’s sweeping score. However, looking forward it’s important for FFXV to have its own voice.
There were many games not even mentioned here. Games like Shinning Force, Star Ocean and the Tales series who have a massive following and provided their own contribution to the genre. Final Fantasy has weathered a waning interest in Japanese style RPG’s and changing executive heads much more effectively than most. While we can debate which series may or may not have been better at some point or another, no one can deny the intense anticipation Final Fantasy can still command. If FFXV can manage to invigorate the genre by tapping into the qualities of past games, it stands to make a bigger impact than any other entry in the series. Either way it falls, for Square Enix and Japanese RPG gamers alike, it will be a defining moment once released on November 29, 2016.