As Janet Hetherington discovers, the groundbreaking videogame franchise, Final Fantasy, is far from final -- and there's a party going on, too.
For some of us, 1987 doesn't seem that long ago. Women wore big hair and bigger shoulder pads while guys, then as now, were getting addicted to videogames. One game in particular caught on like wildfire -- Final Fantasy, which launched 20 years ago.
"So much has changed within the video game industry since the first console was launched, and Final Fantasy has always pushed the envelope, creating the most advanced graphics and immersive storylines possible," says exec producer Shinji Hashimoto.
Originally released in Japan in 1987, Final Fantasy has been hailed by gamers and critics alike as one of the first role-playing games to create a fantasy world to capture the imagination of players around the globe. Its subsequent sequels and spin-offs have brought new worlds and characters together with impressive graphics and storylines, leading to more than 75 million units in worldwide shipments.
In addition, the Final Fantasy series has generated its own subculture with the release of 28 console, online and handheld games, two CG-animated films and 49 music soundtracks worldwide.
Final Fantasy came in at #7 of the top 10 fads for last year, according to Lycos' annual list of its top 50 search terms for 2006.
Refreshing the Franchise
In 2007, the franchise is celebrating its birthday by returning to its roots -- refreshed, and on a new platform. Square Enix Inc. will be releasing completely re-mastered anniversary editions of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II, exclusively for the PSP system. Final Fantasy will ship to retailers across North America on June 26, 2007, and Final Fantasy II will ship to retailers on July 24, 2007. Both of the classic titles, each with a suggested retail price of $29.99, contain entirely new content.
The anniversary editions feature all-new character art, updated graphics, new dungeons, full 16:9 wide-screen presentation and an updated camera view that gives players a renewed vantage point.
The game has 20 years' worth of stories to tell, but it all began with the first Final Fantasy. That video game follows four young warriors, each possessing a Crystal, who are summoned to bring the world back to a harmonious elemental balance. During their voyages, the young warriors discover that a nefarious entity has created turmoil in the structure of time in order to take control of the world, causing the heroes to travel to places they never imagined possible.
Part of Final Fantasy's appeal is that while characters may appear in sequels, subsequent games are not direct retreads of the original concept. In Final Fantasy II, a malevolent emperor calls up monsters from a demonic realm to take over the world. Children become orphaned during the attacks, and four young survivors take it upon themselves to stop the merciless ruler and avenge the death of their parents.
The first two Final Fantasy adventures are not the only ones getting repackaged treatment. Last November, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XI Vana'diel Collection 2007, containing the stand-alone game and the Rise of the Zilart, Chains of Promathia and Treasures of Aht Urhgan expansion packs, plus a fold-out Quick Manual with a world map and a starter's guide, combined in one $29.99 package.
In Final Fantasy XI, players embark on numerous adventures through vast environments in Vana'diel, a world with over a hundred areas to explore, including mountains, forests, glaciers, deserts, oceans, rivers, castles and dungeons. The expansion packs add new jobs, areas, monsters, items and quests while continuing the storyline.
Final Fantasy XI also offers direct fan connection; it's a multiplayer online role-playing game capable of simultaneous multi-play across three different platforms, allowing players to take up arms together on the PlayStation 2 computer entertainment system, Windows, or Xbox 360 videogame and entertainment system from Microsoft -- whether they are in North America, Europe or Japan. In 2006, Final Fantasy XI boasted more than 500,000 active subscribers and more than 1.7 million player characters from around the world.
Mechanics of the Game
Another way that Square Enix has been able to keep Final Fantasy players enamored for some 20 years is by tapping the best of emerging technology. In January 2007, the company announced a licensing agreement with Epic Games to introduce Epic's Unreal Engine 3 middleware into its next-generation game development process.
In games, such as Final Fantasy, Square Enix pushed game consoles to their limits through the company's proprietary technologies, which were mostly optimized for each game -- given the limited resources of game consoles. However, to ensure game quality and development efficiency for next-generation game systems -- including consoles, PCs and network titles -- Square Enix is now building a technology platform to be used throughout the company utilizing both proprietary technologies and third-party solutions like Unreal Engine 3.
According to Epic Games, Unreal Engine 3's new toolset is designed specifically to accelerate developers' productivity for ultra-complex, next-generation content.
Unreal Engine 3 offers cutting-edge graphics while adding world support, multi-processor support and next-generation console optimizations and an industry-mature tool pipeline.
"The technology platform for game development is becoming more important than ever," comments Taku Murata, gm, research and development division, Square Enix, Co. Ltd. "The complexity of next-generation game systems featuring HD graphics and multi-core parallel processing poses a number of technological challenges to our game development. However, we can expedite our game development process significantly while allowing extra time and resources to be spent on game design and mechanics by establishing an effective technology platform."
Final Fantasy Parties On
The distinctive anime art style and music of Final Fantasy also play strong roles in fueling game players and fans' devotion. Numerous online sites and message boards are dedicated to Final Fantasy, and devotees regularly post fan art as well as the latest news and gossip.
The game's music has proven so popular that AOL Radio featured a Final Fantasy station -- a mainstay from November 2003 to April 2004 -- offering tracks from legendary composers such as Nobuo Uematsu. When the specialty station was dropped, an outpouring of fan support caused Final Fantasy radio to be reinstated in July 2006.
"Based on literally hundreds of passionate emails, we knew Final Fantasy radio was sorely missed," says Jack Isquith, exec director of AOL Music. AOL Radio's Final Fantasy station is independent from AOL Radio's Video Game Scores station, which was launched in large part due to the original Final Fantasy station's popularity.
Final Fantasy aficionados will be able to celebrate their passion in style at the two-day Square Enix Party being held from May 12 to 13, 2007, at the Makuhari Messe Convention Center in Chiba prefecture, Japan. A similar party held in July 2005 drew a crowd of nearly 47,000 visitors and this year's event -- open to the public with free admission -- promises its attendees a chance to experience the newest Square Enix games and other products like mobile content, manga, merchandise, music and more.
Exec producer Hashimoto comments, "It is amazing to see how far Final Fantasy has come in the past 20 years, and we cannot wait to continue bringing fans more Final Fantasy titles in the next 20 years."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.