At the end of March, Square Enix did a massive unveiling of Final Fantasy XV-related content. The unveiling included a tie-in CG movie, Kingsglaive, and a six-episode anime prequel, Brotherhood. Shortly after, director Hajime Tabata said the team put enough effort into the game that they hope it will sell 10 million copies. Fans and media were quick to note that only one other game hit that benchmark, and it’s the only other game that ever got film and anime tie-ins: Final Fantasy VII. A game that, perhaps not coincidentally, is now being remade for the PlayStation 4.
In the eyes of many, Final Fantasy VII is the definitive Final Fantasy experience. While some may argue it doesn’t deserve the level of recognition it has achieved, what is inarguable is the impact FFVII had on the series. Previous games in the series were set in medieval fantasy worlds; Final Fantasy VII was set in a science-fiction world. In the west, Final Fantasy IV and VI were marketed as fun adventures; Final Fantasy VII was marketed like a summer blockbuster film that happened to be a video game. It was also the first game to retain its numeral on its release in the west, and to be released in Europe. Final Fantasy VII changed the state of the series.
In a way, Final Fantasy VII was released at the perfect time. The ’90s were the height of anime’s popularity in North America with shows like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and later Pokémon. As anime was taking over television, computer animation was taking over Hollywood, with films like Jurassic Park, Toy Story, and The Matrix. It bled into television as well with Beast Wars and ReBoot. In the midst of it all came Final Fantasy VII, a 3D science fiction world of anime-esque characters and monsters for players to immerse themselves in. Perhaps it was the intent, perhaps it wasn’t, but it tapped into the trends of the time better than any other Final Fantasy had at the time.
In the wake of Final Fantasy VII, the series changed. Final Fantasy VIII and X had a much stronger science fiction element to them than games before VII. Between them was Final Fantasy IX, which was purposefully intended to be a throwback to the older games, as developers wanted to reconnect with older fans that grew up with the Nintendo-era games. Final Fantasy XIII also took place in a fantastic science fantasy environment, as did its two sequels, and Final Fantasy XV also takes place in a modern science fiction setting. The old medieval fantasy settings can still be found in spin-offs like Bravely Default and Final Fantasy Dimensions, but in the main numbered games, the series has largely abandoned its castles and knights for skyscrapers and robots.
Ever since Final Fantasy VII was released, Square Enix has been trying to recapture its success. Final Fantasy VII was expanded into a series of spin-offs called “The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII” in the 2000s, and that treatment has been repeated with other popular games. Final Fantasy IV got a 3D remake for Nintendo DS in 2007, followed by a smartphone release, a sequel, and eventually a PSP bundle of both titles. Final Fantasy XIII got two sequels and several tie-in novellas and crossovers with other games. Yet neither stuck with audiences as much as VII. Now with Final Fantasy XV, any pretenses to the contrary are impossible to deny. Square Enix is trying to make Final Fantasy XV the next Final Fantasy VII. No other Final Fantasy title has ever gotten this much attention before release. But if this all succeeds, Square Enix may have their biggest success in 20 years.
Why does Square Enix keep coming back to Final Fantasy VII as a mold for the series? Perhaps because every other Final Fantasy game, before and since, lives in the shadow of Final Fantasy VII. Oh, individual fans will point to titles they like better than VII. But on a larger scale, VII is considered the iconic title. Lists ranking the best games of all time regularly rank VII high; other Final Fantasy titles may rank as well, but very rarely above VII. For that matter, no other Final Fantasy title has sold as well, or had a remake as heavily demanded. Final Fantasy VII set a bar that no other entry in the series has ever reached.
The drive to try and recapture Final Fantasy VII’s success is only natural. From a business perspective, Final Fantasy VII made a lot of money, and its spinoffs made even more. From a creator’s perspective, of course we always want to outdo ourselves and create something better than our last work. Final Fantasy XV is Square Enix’s latest attempt to outdo the Final Fantasy flagship title. They look at all the praise and attention it’s gotten over the years and want to make a game good enough to be treated the same way.
Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi once said that each Final Fantasy title being a stand-alone product was a positive influence on development. There would be no remakes, no sequels; they had to put their heart and soul into the title to get it right the first time. In the modern world of video games, that simply isn’t feasible. A sprite artist could create a sprite sheet for a character in a day or two, while it could take a team of artists and programmers weeks to design, texture, and animate a computer model of the same character. Sequels and remakes that can recycle assets and cut down on development time are a reality that video game players have to accept, unless they want to wait through increasingly long between games (a trend Final Fantasy has fallen victim to itself).
Perhaps Square Enix and its staff have found another way to push themselves ever higher. The company obviously has a lot of faith in the success of Final Fantasy XV. Perhaps someone in the company remembered the spirit of Sakaguchi’s words; every title deserves nothing less than their very best effort. You cannot get lax because the last game was a success, because the next one will be its own entity. Maybe someone looked at all the effort put into VII and its expanded universe and realized every game should be good enough to deserve the same treatment and get the same recognition.
The Final Fantasy franchise has hit a bit of a slump in the past few years. The rising trend of mobile spin-offs titles, the addition of in-game purchases and DLC, the steadily declining returns of the Final Fantasy XIII saga, and the bungled release of Final Fantasy XIV, have all tarnished what was once a pillar of the JRPG genre. The company doesn’t just want Final Fantasy XV to be a huge success; they need it to be. They’ve put all their effort into their latest title to prove to fans and critics alike that the Final Fantasy brand is not dying, and it can be as strong as it ever was. And if purposefully designing the game to emulate the legacy of Final Fantasy VII is what it takes to do so, why should we mind? If Final Fantasy XV is actually good, it will reinvigorate the brand, restore its reputation, give us a great new game to talk about for years to come, and make Square Enix a lot of money. If there is a downside, it’s only going to be in hindsight, ten years from now, when we recognize the impact of Final Fantasy XV.
This September, Final Fantasy VII’s throne will be contested by a plucky new challenger. And, personally, I’m rooting for the new contender. If Final Fantasy XV wins, we all win.