Final Fantasy: A Story of Success Through Japanese Gaming History

  • The Final Fantasy franchise is one of the biggest in gaming. The franchises spans over 30 years and has 15 main entries, and a countless horde of related games and spin-offs. In total, the franchise has moved over 110 million units, that makes several billions of US dollars.

    But, this massive juggernaut had a much more humble beginning. The product of a cash-strapped company that was a vanity project of rich boy, and birthed from the mind of a designer that almost no one wanted to work with. Final Fantasy was thought to be a last ditch effort by all parties.

    Hironobu Sakaguchi and Squaresoft


    Creator of Final Fantasy, Hironobu Sakaguchi was born November 25th, 1962 in Hitachi, Ibaraki prefecture. He got into Yokohama National University and studied electrical engineering. But feeling that his destiny lay somewhere else, he soon dropped out ad secured a part-time position in the newly created game company Squaresoft. Squaresoft was the brainchild of Masashi Miyamoto. He dreamed of getting into the booming video game market, and he had the resources to do it; a rich daddy. After his graduation from Waseda university, Miyamoto’s father owned a successful power-line construction company. Square was originally a branch of the construction company. Miyamoto’s innovation was that his plans were create more fully rounded games. At the time most games were almost completely developed by one designer. But realizing that, as technology was quickly increasing, the ability to create more immersive games was increasing. Miyamoto had designers, graphic artists, and story writers work together on one common project. Square’s first two titles, Death Trap and it’s sequel were both designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi. Finding success in its first few games, Miyamoto was soon able to split away from his father’s company, bring on Sakaguchi as a full-time employee with the title of the Director of Planning and Development.

    The Dark Times


    Squares first games were released on the NEC PC 8801 (a PC based game platform) and had been successful. Miyamoto was initially worried about developing for Nintendo’s Famicom, due to Nintendo’s total stranglehold on every part of the industry. But realizing that Famicom had the largest user base it seemed like the wisest decision. But things did not bode well for the new company. Most of their new games were huge flops and quickly the small amount of capital they had was dried up. As Sakaguchi had been in charge of the development of many of the failures his career and future with the company seemed to be on rocky footing.

    A Fantasy…


    In 1986 Enix, another small game developer, released Dragon Quest (retitled Dragon Warrior in the US). It was a massive success. Graphical RPG’s had long been a staple of PC games, but these games were mainly just text and simple graphical versions of Dungeons and Dragons. Dragon Quest made the RPG genre much more accessible and it was famous worldwide. Sakaguchi had long wanted to develop a RPG but Miyamoto feared that it would be another failure. After Dragon Quest proved there was a large market for this type of game, Sakaguchi was given to go ahead to make a Dragon Quest style game. Sakaguchi titled the project Fighting Fantasy. He brought on the seven core staff members referred to inside Square as the “A-Team”. Included in this A-Team were Koichi Ishii, and Akitoshi Kawazu, who mainly developed the battle system. While much of the game was styled off of Dragon Quest, Kawazu improved many aspects of the battle system. He took it back to the RPG’s roots in tabletop math-based gaming. He also included the mechanic of enemies being weaker or stronger to a certian type of elemental attack, determined by what kind of creature they were (a first in gaming). Yoshitaka Amano was brought on as characters’ designer. At first, Amano was hesitant to join a project he had never heard of before, but eventually he was cajoled into working on it. The team was rounded out by Nobuo Uematsu, who would be doing the music.

    What’s in a name…


    Soon the project’s title was changed from Fighting Fantasy to Final Fantasy. Most gamers have heard the tale that it was named such because it was Square’s last hope. If the game failed the cash-strapped company would have crumpled. While Square’s money troubles were, no doubt, a part of the reason, the real story is a bit more twisted. As the project got underway, they realized there might be copyright issues with the name Fighting Fantasy (there was a role-playing book of the same name). The team all agreed that they wanted to keep the title with something that could keep the initials FF, and they started looking for words that began with F. Sakaguchi state that anything that started with an F would have been fine, but Final struck a cord with him for a few reasons. One was that Final was easy to say in Japanese. Another reason was the doubts that were wracking Sakaguchi on a nearly constant basis. He knew that his future in games ridden on this game, as well as the company. He later stated in an interview that he planned to give up gaming and go back to school if the game had been a failure.

    Fantasy Realized


    As the development neared completion, Sakaguchi took a ROM to the leading gaming magazine in Japan, the Famicom Tsushin. But they refused to review the game. At the time game magazine reviews were a main way of advertising your game, if no one would review the game the game was doomed to failure. Sakaguchi tried a smaller magazine Famitsu, and they reviewed the game and gave it a 38 out of 40 and gave the game extensive coverage that got a lot of people talking about it. Initially, Square was planning a smaller run of only 200,000 copies, but Sakaguchi convinced to increase it to 400,000, thereby doubling the risk of disaster. But the gamble paid off, and the game sold well. It was later translated and brought to the US and the rest is history.


    It is hard to overstate the importance of Final Fantasy in making the RPG genre even more accessible, and popularizing the Japanese RPG genre in the west. While the traditional Japanese RPG’s of my past seem to be a thing of the past today, they will always hold a special place in my heart, memories, and yes, even my fantasies.

    Featured image: