How did this happen? Is Motomu Toriyama the one to blame for the state of Final Fantasy today? Yes and no. He has been directing the flagship Final Fantasy titles at Square since he became director for Final Fantasy X, right when Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series' founder, left Square in 1998-1999. A lot has changed culturally in Japan since then, such as the internet revolution and the rise of Japan's own flavor of weirdness. Mr. Toriyama is living and working in that culture, and I believe that the culture affected everyone working at Square, and since it is a gaming company whose focus is a younger generation, Square changed with the culture as it grew apart from Western culture. It doesn't take long to dig into popular manga and anime to see the change in Japanese culture as it attempts to find its own identity again on the world stage. Allow me to explain what I know. I think it is right, but I am not certain since a lot of the following comes from things that I am recalling and for which I do not have specific references.
Japan has been fascinated by Western culture ever since the 1800s when we first made contact. A couple years back, I helped a foreign student with his English as he was reading a paper about the recent Japanese identity crisis and what caused it. In short, the paper said that older Japanese culture considered the land mass of Japan to be the mortal plane, and anything from outside Japan was from the plane of the gods and therefore should be considered with great interest and probably incorporated into their culture. When the West made contact with Japan, they gobbled up whatever Western items and philosophies that they could, but the great differences in cultures caused internal clashes that led to civil wars and the fall of the Japanese feudal system. The emperor system replaced it and gave rise to Japan's industrial age, but in the process much of Japan's previous identity had been lost under the giant piles of imported Western technology and philosophies. After World War II, America became the dominant Western presence in Japan, but since the old adoption of foreign things was still heavily ingrained in the culture, Japan began to culturally assimilate American culture and economics into itself. I then remembered reading older news headlines about a culture revolution in Japan. I surmised that, in the 1990's, the older American idea of cultural independence began to take root in Japan and give rise to what was then a troubling youthful rebellion reminiscent of America's 1960's and 70's. Being Japan, their youthful rebellion was about as organized as an American engineering firm, but it was very troubling for the older Japanese culture, if I am remembering my headlines correctly.
In the new millennium, this youthful generation became adults and started taking their place in Japanese culture, and the seeds out doubt were planted for the Japanese identity crisis that followed. For what may have been the first time in Japanese history, the entire country did not have a unified identity, and for a 2000+ old culture, that is quite a shock. The most popular anime and manga were about identity and the monster within, and about giving oneself to another and the consequences of identity loss. I don't know they were intentionally considering the cultural identity crisis, but they definitely incorporated elements of it, which probably contributed to their success. Consider the manga and anime Bleach, which revolves around the powers and consequences of souls and those in charge of them, the duality of the physical and the soul realms, and the sacrifices made by a physical being in order to take charge of his own soul. There is a lot of sword fighting and impressive feats of strength involved, but I hope you can see the underlying theme. The animes and mangas Claymore and Full Metal Alchemist considered concepts of 'the beast within', and the video game series Metal Gear Solid considered the consequences of identity loss for a soldier who was merely a tool for his government (ancient feudal and emperor servant, anyone?).
Now consider how this culture change affected Square, which was catering to this young generation and incorporated many of them into its ranks. All of a sudden there is a shift from fighting evil to fighting the consequences of a system that their culture created. Final Fantasy X has main characters fighting an incarnation of the world's sin. In Kingdom Hearts the protagonists fight against the Heartless, beings that have lost all identity and will and mindlessly serve their master. Final Fantasy X-2 appeared to be developed by people who really like the idea of really girly girls in skimpy outfits who hunted for treasure with swords and guns. This wasn't the result of an identity crisis. Move along. In Final Fantasy XII the main characters fight to prevent the world from tearing itself apart in civil war. In Kingdom Hearts II the focus is on beings that have lost their soul and become mere shells of their former selves called Nobodies. Final Fantasy XIII deals with the concept of having free will forcefully removed by putting the victims in a state where they must obey or morph into horrific creatures (the downside of the implementation in this case was bad guys who couldn't actually cause any damage, making them lame), making the protagonists into their own antagonists. In Final Fantasy XIII-2, the characters are searching for each other to strengthen one another in difficult times. After considering this, please don't judge Mr. Toriyama too harshly.
That being said, Mr. Toriyama is still in charge of the tip of Square's 'business spear', if you will, and as such he is responsible for overseeing the development of a product that will make the company successful. As much as he may have wanted to draw attention to certain cultural things, those cultural things don't necessarily set the basis for an excellent story. Thus I conclude that he is responsible for the state of Final Fantasy as it stands now, but he is not responsible for the cultural changes in which he is immersed. Japan largely praised the same games that the West criticized, but also consider that Western games have their own cultural slant that doesn't always go over well in the East either. The West likes games about (read the following in Don LaFontaine's voice) the world at risk, and only one man with his team stands in the way of total destruction. The implementation of a cultural element can be a very good basis for a story, but that doesn't mean that another culture will understand the draw of it at all. The happy medium for jrpg's seems to be about the world under threat and only one man an odd group of people can band together to save it and heal it.
Now I ask if there is hope for the Final Fantasy series moving forward. I put this question forward because many fans feel the need to cry out that Final Fantasy is old and not what it once was and how they don't see it improving. There is some truth to that. Final Fantasy at this time is indeed not what it once was, and the golden games of VI, VII, and VIII were developed during a time that saw, in my opinion, the magical relationship between ideas and technical limitations. The technical limitations of the time required that the developer distill his creation down to the purest elements that were necessary to deliver the world and story to the player's mind, and the rest would take place in the player's imagination, which in some ways makes it more real to us than any graphics engine could ever make a game. I believe that the original PlayStation was at that golden moment for Sony, and the Nintendo 64 at that golden moment for Nintendo. But just because that particular golden moment has passed does NOT mean that there are no golden moments for the future. It is certainly possible to make incredible games with today's hardware, but while many of the technical limitations of old are gone, they require a new set of skills to handle the giant new scale of development staff.
What can Square do to make its Final Fantasy games better? I propose, first of all, that the head director and writer be switched up with each flagship title. They can work on the project, but they should not be allowed to be in a major authority position. They need to give their minds a break whether they want to or not. Final Fantasy has a particular musical style (a classical theme, for example), some classic monster styles, and classic leveling and battle elements, so those directors can remain the same, but don't let the people who are in charge of the overall world creation be in charge of consecutive projects. Additionally, the head writer should be the head director as well so that a single mind's world is created without compromise. I say that the head director and writer should be switched out from project to project because the fans of Square's flagship series have come to expect something special, and it is difficult to make something special when you have to make it or when you are on a time crunch. Let someone who has put a lot of thought into their world direct and write the game, and then give them a break so that they can spend as much time as necessary to create their world. Just because the development team is tired of building a particular type of game doesn't mean that the fans are tired of the result! They only get to see it every 2-3 years.
Motomu Toriyama has been directing the flagship Final Fantasy games since Final Fantasy X (except XII), and I think that he needs a break. Let Tetsuya Nomura, who has spent the last several years designing and building the world of Final Fantasy XIII Versus with a small team, be the head director for now. Once that is done, switch to someone else, then back to Tetsuya Nomura again, or maybe Motomu Toriyama again once his bearings are straightened out and he knows for certain what he wants to do. Maybe even let Tetsuya Takahashi, the director of Xenogears, take a crack at it, or someone else from a different company who think that they have what it takes to make a Final Fantasy title worthy of the name. Regardless of whoever is chosen, they need to work as if it was their final project, because it might be their final project depending on their performance. The position of flagship Final Fantasy director should be a contract position, in my opinion. Just as the series started as an act of desperation in which the development team poured everything they had into it with the assumption that they would be jobless after it was over, so should the director of the flagship Final Fantasy act.
Also consider the music of Final Fantasy, which has become synonymous with greatness since the beginning. Since Nubuo Uematsu left Square for independent work after Final Fantasy X except for a brief return to create Final Fantasy XII's rendition of the traditional crystal theme, the music, in my opinion, has ranged from a few excellent pieces to so-so to not good. The last two titles in particular (XIII and XIII-2) were heavy on the J-pop and light on the epic themes that series' fans have come to expect. The crystal theme was mysteriously absent too, much to my dismay as I booted up Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 to discover that the epic crystal theme rendition for the title menu in XII had been replaced by a sappy J-pop song and somber music, respectively. Granted, the somber music for the XIII-2 title menu was a major step up from XIII's title menu music, but it still didn't hold a candle to Nubuo Uematsu's full orchestra crystal theme in XII. Please find composers who can make epic themes themselves, who know the different in utilization between a full orchestra and a lone piano or violin or flute, who can look at a scene and make the perfect accompanying music that doesn't distract from the scene but adds to it. The last few games have had largely disappointing soundtracks, in my opinion. The music of VI, VII, VIII, and X are highlights in the series, but I think Square can do better.
I conclude by saying that I believe that Final Fantasy has a lot of life left in it. One of the great things about the Final Fantasy universe is that there are no regulations aside from being fantasy, so the games' creators can make just about whatever they want. I have noticed though that Final Fantasy has been Final Technofantasy since VII, and although this is not a bad thing, I would like to see a return to a high-fantasy-only Final Fantasy. I don't want to see a clash between magic and technology, but instead a clash between magic and sword, or at the very most steampunk like IV and VI. It would be a nice change if made well.
P.S. Tetsuya Nomura, please make XIII Versus one of the most excellent games in the series.