Final Fantasy is Square Enix’s best-selling game franchises, and it’s the 12th best-selling game franchise in the world. In addition to the 15 main games in the series, the franchise has spawned dozens of spinoffs, three full-length movies, and a vaguely related soap opera. Final Fantasy characters and references appear in dozens of TV shows and other studios’ games. It is also one of the most influential games in the entire RPG genre, and has influenced nearly every RPG to come after it. But what contributed to this franchise’s success? What makes this series iconic?
If you go back and play the very first Final Fantasy game, you probably won’t be particularly impressed – both Final Fantasy and the RPG genre as a whole have advanced and improved considerably since then. However, when the game was released in 1987, it may have been one of the best RPGs to date. It may have even been the best.
One of Final Fantasy’s most important innovations was the four-man questing party. This is commonplace in modern RPGs, but prior to Final Fantasy, RPG battles were much simpler affairs: usually a single player character facing off against monsters from a first-person perspective. Final Fantasy changed that, moving the camera to the side so that the player could control multiple characters in turn-based combat. This deepened the strategy involved, making the game much more engaging.
Final Fantasy can also be considered a milestone in videogame storytelling. The story sends the main heroes all over the world on a quest to destroy four god-like fiends who now control the magic crystals that give the world life. The scope of the story and the detail with which it was told made Final Fantasy a meaningful experience, and not just a fun game.
Every Final Fantasy game is different, but there are a few key elements that keep players coming back – even when the world, the characters, and even the gameplay change drastically from one game to the next. These elements are:
- The Worlds. With the exception of Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII, none of the main-series games have direct sequels. Each game, I through XV, takes place on an entirely new world, and each one is beautiful. From steampunk dystopias to idyllic beaches and medieval castles to towering far-future cities, Final Fantasy has it all at one point or another. No matter what failings a game may have – such as FFXV’s completely garbled story – the world itself makes the game feel like a grand adventure.
- The Art Styles. Aesthetic beauty has always been a key part of FF games, for good reason: How can we be convinced that we’re in a strange, alien fantasy world if it doesn’t look like a fantasy world? Artwork for FF games I-VI was made by Yoshitaka Amano, who drew the ethereal, willowy characters that still appear as part of each game’s title card. Starting with FFVII, Amano was replaced by Tetsuya Nomura, as his spiky-haired, highly accessorized character designs translated better to 3D graphics.
- The Music. One of the early FF games’ greatest assets was Nobuo Uematsu, who is sometimes called “the Beethoven of videogame music.” He worked hard to write characters’ theme music to accurately reflect each character’s personality, and created memorable, emotional music despite the limitations posed by early game console technology. As those restraints lifted, his music continued be a selling point for Final Fantasy. “One Winged Angel” from FFVII is one of the most famous videogame songs of all time.
Final Fantasy VII
There are plenty of players that consider Final Fantasy VI to be the best of all the games, but FFVII brought the series to a new height of popularity. It had amazing graphics for the time, and its setting was a bold departure from previous games. Rather than taking place in a typical “swords and sorcery” type of fantasy setting, FFVII was set in a modern industrialized dystopia. Of course, it kept the swords and sorcery.
FFVII was a masterpiece for the time. It upgraded and improved everything players enjoyed about the previous games, and then added even more: an enormous world map, tons of minigames, and complex and extensive sidequests that sometimes took as long as the main game. It was one of the first 3D RPGs, and it guided the whole genre into the next console generation. To this day, it has sold more copies than any other Final Fantasy title.
In the last decade, Final Fantasy releases have seen mixed reviews. The Final Fantasy XIII trilogy (2009, 2011, 2013) was overall well-received, but the sales numbers showed a disappointing decline: FFXIII-2 sold about half of FFXIII, and FFXIII: Lightning Returns sold a third of what FFXIII-2 had. Lots of people enjoyed the games, but many longtime FF players criticizing the new action-focused gameplay, confusing plot, and flat characters.
The same issues were raised against FFXV when it was released in 2016. Characters were interesting but static, and some of the most important parts of the already disjointed story happened off-screen. By the end of 2018, even Square Enix had seemingly given up on their latest installment, cancelling future DLC plans and confirming that the game’s director had left the company. FFXV reportedly sold enough copies to break even, but the game’s spinoffs and tie-ins – several expansions and DLC packs, an anime series, a movie, three iOS and Android spinoff games, and a VR fishing spinoff, among others – added up to a $33 million dollar loss for Square Enix.
Fortunately, this isn’t the end for Final Fantasy. An eagerly-awaited Final Fantasy VII remake is in the works, and FFXVI, at least in some ways, promises a return to the series’ roots. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another ten years to see it.
Square Enix has made some missteps and strange decisions with Final Fantasy over the years, but there’s a reason the franchise is still a giant in the industry. This is a series of innovative, well-executed, highly refined RPGs that have altered the direction of the whole genre, and even the games that many players consider the worst in the series are still well-loved by millions of players. Every game in the series presents a new world and a new set of characters, and each game continues to create something new, fantastical, and exciting. When players want an adventure in a strange new land, they can always look to Final Fantasy.