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Final Fantasy Series
by Noel Brady


Take a 10-year time warp with us (1987 through 1997), by reading our in-depth feature on the Final Fantasy series (through Final Fantasy VII).

Developed by Squaresoft, the Final Fantasy series is quite possible the greatest RPG series ever to be made. This feature currently covers the first seven games, but we will be adding the newer games as they become retro.

 


Remember that time when you spent a
whole day trying to get a gold Chocobo?
Those were good times, eh?!


Final Fantasy

Back in 1987, there was a small software company called Square. At that time it was known for a nifty arcade game called Rad Racer, which had been a hit on Nintendo's cutting-edge NES console. Then the company released its first role-playi



The familiar fight screen.
 


Ouch! That's gotta burn...


The boffins at Square had packed an entire world on a 2Mb NES cartridge. Players were transported to a mystical land where the powers of the four elements were bound and controlled by four crystal orbs. However, the orbs were fading and an evil darkness was spreading across the globe. Vicious pirates ruled the seas, evil creatures crept through the shadows and demons stirred in the depths of the earth. The ancient prophecy of Lukahn was coming to pass, and only the coming of the four heroes he foretold, known as the light warriors, could save the world from the evil forces. When the mysterious Garland kidnapped the daughter of the King of Coneria, the dream city, four warriors were summoned to his court. Each young hero held a strange orb they had owned since childhood.

Although primitive by today's standards, at the time of it's release Final Fantasy was a revelation. The graphics were stunning, the music incredible and it was awesome to play. Resplendent with a richly-detailed plot, a clever game system, a vast gaming world, and hundreds of monsters, spells, weapons, armors and other special items, Final Fantasy was a big hit in Japan.

The game system was different to the subsequent Final Fantasy titles. Rather than having fixed characters, the players chose from six classes- Fighter, Thief, Black Belt or White, Red and Black mages-to create a party of four heroes. However, many other elements of the game made it to FFVII.

 

It took three years for Final Fantasy to make it to the U.S., but eventually it appeared in 1990 and enjoyed significant, if not incredible, success. Square had no idea what they had started.

 

Final Fantasy II



After the critical success and acclaim of Final Fantasy, it seemed inevitable that a sequel would appear. Final Fantasy II arrived in 1988. In what was to become the norm for Final Fantasy games, though, FFII wasn't a sequel in the normal sense of the word. Rather, it was a unique game in it's own right, linked to its predecessor by common elements in the game system and gameworld.

Another 2Mb SNES cartridge, Final Fantasy II was a story of rebellion against a dark, oppresive ruling power, foreshadowing the themes of Final Fantasy VI and VII. The power-hungry Emperor of the Paramekian Empire had turned to dark magic to summon evil monsters in his bid to rule the world. The Kingdom of Phin struggled against these hordes, but was eventully overrun. In the aftermath of Phin's defeat, four warriors are trying to escape the carnage when they are attacked by Imperial Horsemen and cut down. Saved from death by the healer Minh, three of the companions find themselves caught up in the rebellion been organised by Princess Hilda of Phin.

Graphically and musically similar to Final Fantasy, FFII boasted an even more complex and intriguing plot, together with a similarly huge range of weapons, armour, spells, monsters and all the other bits and peices that have since come to be expected from a Final Fantasy game. Although not as much of a shock to Japanese gamers-- Final Fantasy, after all, had demonstrated Square's enviable talent for designing role-playing games-- it was another hit.




"I've had enough fighting for one day... Hope this town is safe!"
 


Looks like we're in for bad weather

The most significant change from Final Fantasy was that there were no character classes or experience levels. Instead, the characters improved in various areas by doing things connected to them--hitting monsters with a sword gained fighting abilities, for example, while taking lots of damage in a fight lead to increases in hit points.

FFII put you in charge of a group of four characters, like before, but this time there were three fixed heroes (Frionel, Maria and Guy), all tied into the plot. There was one slot for an extra member, which was filled by different characters as the game progressed--a concept used in most of the following Final Fantasy games.

In addition to sharing many spells, weapons and monsters with it's predecessor, Final Fantasy II introduced new ones to the series. Chocobos made their first appearence, as did the huge sea monster, Leviathan. As with the dragon Bahamut in Final Fantasy, though, Leviathan was present as an actual monster-- one that had a habit of eating your ship-- rather than as a summon spell. Likewise, Bombs and Behemoths made their debut in FFII. In addition to introducing some of the spells that have since become regular features of Final Fantasy games--including Ultima, Meteor, Toad and Mini--this was also the first game in the series to introduce the Magic Points system for casting spells. FFII was only released in Japan and was a massive hit like Final Fantasy.

 

Final Fantasy III


It was another two years before the third Final Fantasy game arrived, and by this time it was one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of it's time. Final Fantasy III, released in Japan in 1990, was the last game in the series to appear on the NES, which was beginning to look a little dated in the face's of a new wave 16-Bit consoles. Nonetheless, it was another excellent title, and very well received among fans.

The nearest thing to a true sequel in the Final Fantasy series, FFIII shared many elements with of the original game. The plot concerned an ancient evil, long-contained but now seeking to escape it's bonds and lay waste to the world. Once more, only the four Light Warriors of legend could defeat this dark force and restore balance to the world. The game began with four young orphans exploring a mysterious cave. Once inside, they are attacked by beasts, and forced to fight through. Eventually, in a crystalline chamber, they discover the lost Wind Crystal, which explains the danger facing the world. Proclaiming them to be the chosen ones, the Crystal grants each of the four a special power, and sends them out on a quest to find and destroy the malignant power threatening their world.



Gargoyles everywhere
 



FFIII was a 4Mb NES cartridge, and Square put the extra capacity to great use. As well as pushing the humble NES to it's graphical and sonic limits, the third Final Fantasy game was also far more complex and detailed. The system was similar to that in the original, allowing players to choose the names and character classes for the four main heroes. But this time there were more classes on offer, and the game featured more locations, monsters, weapons, equipment and spells.



As usual, your characters are tiny
compared to the monsters you must fight.

Amongst the new features were several new additions that have since become trademarks of the Final Fantasy line. Chocobos were back, and this time there were two different times. The cutesey Moogles also made their first appearance, together with several more monsters and weapons that are now standard features. FFIII also introduced several new classes, including Dragoon and the Caller, together with a new set of summoning spells. Although their names were different these spells are still recognizable as the same ones that appeared in FFVII--Chocobo, Shiva, Ramuh, Ifrit and the rest. Despite it's impressive sales in Japan, Final Fantasy III never appeared outside it's home country.


Final Fantasy IV


By 1991, Square had gone from being just another small games company to one of the most respected software houses in Japan. The Final Fantasy series had already become one of the most popular game lines in the country, and the release of the original Final Fantasy in America in the previous year had begun to pave the way for the international fame that was to follow.

Perhaps the most important step the company ever made though (at least until the release of FFVII on the Playstation) was with Final Fantasy VI.

The fourth game in the series was the first RPG to be released on Nintendo's new console, the Super Famicon (or SNES as we know it). A 16-bit machine with an impressive array of custom graphics and sound chips, the SNES was an impressive piece of kit at the time, and the Japanese gaming world was eager to see what Square could do with the machine's greater power. They certainly weren't disappointed.


Graphics improved greatly for the
first SNES Final Fantasy game.
 




Even the battle screen
backgrounds improved.

FFIV was an 8Mb cartridge, and put the vastly more impressive sound and graphics of the SNES to good use. The characters and monsters were larger, more colourful and much more detailed than before, the look of the game's magic was improved, and the summon spells were awesome.

The extra capacity of the SNES cartridge, and the machine's greater processing speed and memory, were put to great use to provide gamers with one of the most complex and imaginative storylines ever to appear in a videogame.

FFVII returned to the fixed character concept first used by Square in FFII, casting the player as Cecil, a Dark Knight and captain of the Red Wings, an elite force of military airships in the Kingdom of Baron. As the game began, though, Cecil questioned the desire of his King to capture the Elemental Crystals, and was sent to deliver a strange package to a nearby town. When the package exploded, destroying the town and nearly killing him, Cecil and his friend Kain vowed to fight against the King's power-mad ambitions. As the pair made their way through the game, they befriended nine other characters.

After it's massive success in Japan it was unsurprising that FFIV was translated into English and released in America, where it enjoyed more healthy success and critical acclaim. However, due to the fact that FFII and FFIII had not been released in the States, it was renamed FFII, beginning a confusing number policy that was only stopped when Square released Final Fantasy VII, as, well, Final Fantasy VII.


The 8Mb cartridge capacity allowed
Square to make a much larger game
than they were able to on regular
NES hardware.
 


Building interiors
became more elaborate

There were two versions of FFIV released in Japan-the standard game, and FFIV Easytype. This Easytype edition was intended for younger players, and had many items, monsters, spells and skills removed. It was also the version on which the American FFII was based, so there's never been an English language edition of the complete FFIV.


Final Fantasy V


Eighteen months after unveiling FFIV, and irrevocably changing what Japanese gamers expected from a console RPG, Square was back again with a new chapter in the series. With it's seemingly unbeatable track record, some people were beginning to wonder if Square could maintain the same level of quality and imagination. As Final Fantasy V proved, the answer was yes.

Probably the darkest of the FF games to date, FFV was set in a world where the elemental Crystals which protect it from evil were breaking, and all hope seemed lost. The story began with the king of Tycoon, sensing something wrong, travelling to the shrine of the Wind Crystal. Only when he arrived, the Crystal shattered into a million pieces, and the wind died.

That, however, was only the start of the problems. FFV featured one of the most unpleasant villains ever to appear in a FF game-both devious and insane-and the result was a very downbeat story, with major characters getting killed throughout the game, the world exploding, and more. As the unfortunately named Butz, the hero of the story, it was up to the player to try to sort everything out across no less than three worlds.



This 16Mb game was even
more beautiful than its predecessor.
 




Battle screen

With FFV, Square upped the ante and filled up a 16Mb SNES cartridge with one of the best Final Fantasy games to date. The main link between this and the previous titles was the Final Fantasy name and many common elements in the gameworld. FFV combined many elements from the systems used in the previous releases, and added a few unique twists of it's own. Once more, the player controlled a party of four characters with fixed identities tied into the background story and plot .

This time, though, instead of each character having a fixed class, they could be switched around, allowing players to create a customized party. As the players moved throughout the game, they discovered special crystals containing the souls of dead heroes, each of which allowed access to new character classes-over 20 in all. At any time outside of combat, each character could be changed from one class to another, learning more skills and abilities from them. By mastering different classes, elements from each could be combined to form unique mixes of abilities.

This clever game system was a major pull for RPG fans, with the inevitable result that Square had another hit on it's hands. Sadly, though, FFV was never translated into English, and no US version was ever released.

 

Final Fantasy VI


Another 18 months later, the Final Fantasy series returned for what was to be it's last outing on the SNES. The scences upon it's release in Japan in 1994 were almost as chaotic as those three years later, when FFVII finally arrived , and for many long-term fans of the series, Final Fantasy VI remains their favorite so far.

One of the first 24Mb SNES cartridges, FFVI was a huge success in Japan. Square squeezed every last ounce of performance out of the machine, pushing it's graphics and sound to the limit. All the special effects that the SNES could manage were packed in, along with some of the best music ever to grace the machine.



SNES graphics and sound were pushed to the limit for FFVI.
 



Environments became much larger with the 24Mb cartridge capacity.

Complete with the most tortuous and involved plot in the series so far, FFVI was also the first to introduce the blend of magic and technology to the series that was used again to great effect in FFVII, and looks to be a central aspect of FFVIII. The game takes place in a world that was almost destroyed a thousand years previously, when evil powers created magical beings called Espers and pitted them against each other. Now a new civilisation has arisen, one based on technology and science, where magic is just an evil legend. As the game began, though, the rulers of the Empire had heard rumours of an Esper encased in ice, and sent some soldiers to investigate. When they found the Esper, a strange glow surrounded them, killing all but a woman called Terra. When she awoke, she discovered that the Empire had been controlling her thoughts, and that magic is once again been reported...

This was just the beginning of a story of epic proportions, which encompassed around 75 hours of gameplay. FFVI dropped the innovative class changing system for a simplified version similar to that used in FFVII, and instead concentrated on the narrative, atmosphere and multiple plot threads. Some hardcore players accused it of being too easy, but even they had to agree that it was a stunning achievement.



Character and monster animations improved greatly.
 




What kind of a monster is that?!

FFVI was released in the US to greater success than was expected. For the second time, it was decided to stick to the different numbering system, and the US version was called FFIII.

 

Final Fantasy VII



It was three years in the making, and the subject of more rumors, speculation and gossip than any previous game in Japan, but Square finally returned to it's most popular and successful series with Final Fantasy VII. A large part of the delay was due to changing formats-Square felt it had done as much as it could with SNES, and wanted to start developing for one of the next generation consoles. Of course, given the company's long-standing association with Nintendo, everyone expected them to plump for the N64.

Square, however, decided that the only way to create the kind of games it wanted was to use the massive storage space of CD-ROM, and once it became clear that Nintendo's wonder machine was going to stick to the cartridge format, the company looked for another platform. In one of the most significant endorsements of Sony's games machine ever, Square announced that Final Fantasy VII would be released on the Playstation.


Battle scenes were fully 3D in FF7.
 



Most of the backgrounds (except the world map) were beautifully pre-rendered and very detailed.

This, of course, is the game that we all know and love. Cloud Strife's struggle with the evil schemes of the oppressive Shinra Corporation and his own mysterious past is a simply astonishing achievement, and both it's techno-magical world and main characters have become icons for the PlayStation, rivaling such stars as Lara Croft for the limelight. Still probably the most stunning game available for Sony's little grey box of tricks, all three CD's of FFVII are packed to the gills with sumptuous graphics, intricate plotting and ridiculously addictive gameplay.



The game's lighting effects were superb.
PSX was definitely pushed to its limits with this game.

Even given the Playstation's 32-bit architecture and much-famed 3D capabilities, no-one ever expected an RPG to look this good. If you still have not got a copy, you really should slap yourself around the head for being a fool and rush down to your local store and get one- just be prepared to give up at least a couple of months of your free time.




A BIG thanks to Digital Fan for donating this article!





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