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State of Final Fantasy Today (March 2012) - part 3/3

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.

State of Final Fantasy Today (March 2012) - part 2/3

I just covered a lot of information, but even though it is a summary of the Final Fantasy history, I can see a pattern, and I show it in the following table:

Final Fantasy I:

Well-received, pulled Square from bankruptcy, invented jrpg

Final Fantasy II:

Well-received, but reviews mixed as jrpg formula was explored

Final Fantasy III

Well-received, but reviews mixed as jrpg formula was explored

Final Fantasy IV:

Very good, jrpg formula well-developed, called one of greatest games ever

Final Fantasy V:

Well-received, but reviews mixed as excellent gameplay overshadowed shallow story

Final Fantasy VI:

Extremely good, called one of greatest games ever

Final Fantasy VII:

Extremely good, called one of greatest games ever, possibly best ever, cult following

Xenogears:

Very good, very complex story, one of my favorite games ever, cult following

Final Fantasy VIII:

Extremely good, beginning and ending cutscenes considered to be among greatest in gaming

Final Fantasy IX:

Extremely good, nostalgic feel caused divide in East and West perceptions

Final Fantasy X:

Extremely good, but high linearity criticized by some

Kingdom Hearts:

Very good, unexpectedly brilliant combination of Final Fantasy and Disney

Final Fantasy X-2:

Well-made game, but generally considered by fans to not exist

Kingdom Hearts II:

Extremely good, more brilliant combinations of Final Fantasy and Disney

Final Fantasy XII:

Extremely good, but music and high linearity criticized by some

Final Fantasy XIII:

East good, West mixed; technically brilliant, high linearity, other elements poor compared to predecessors

Final Fantasy XIII-2:

East good, West mixed; 'repairs XIII', filler content shallow, high non-linearity; derided for stalling XIII Versus

Final Fantasy XIII Versus:

Extremely highly anticipated

From this list, it appears that major criticisms were first leveled at the series in Final Fantasy X. What happened there? Examine the following list for what I believe to be a significant series alteration:

Final Fantasy I:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy II:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy III

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy IV:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy V:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy VI:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy VII:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Xenogears:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy VIII:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy IX:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy X:

No world map, so no exploration of world with controllable airship

Kingdom Hearts:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy X-2:

No world map, so no exploration of world with controllable airship

Kingdom Hearts II:

World map allows exploration with controllable airship mid-story

Final Fantasy XII:

No world map, so no exploration of world with controllable airship

Final Fantasy XIII:

No world map, so no exploration of world with controllable airship

Final Fantasy XIII-2:

No world map, so no exploration of world with controllable airship

Final Fantasy XIII Versus:

World map and controllable airship rumored, but not certain

Do you see the pattern here? Highly-linear Final Fantasy titles arose at the precise time that an explorable world map was removed. I do not believe that this is coincidence. The purpose of the explorable world map was EXPLORATION. Looking into every little room and every little corner in a game is not exploration in my opinion; that is nit-picky and completionist. By 'exploration' I mean 'discovering entirely new areas of the world that are different than all the others and that you are not necessarily supposed to be at yet storywise'. Exploration allows discovery of something you don't expect at a time that even the developers did not foresee. It allows a sense of immersion in the world. Removing a connecting environment between important areas segments the world, removes immersion, and summarizes events. Some games are fine with this and work in a justification such as being at a central location and having to take an aircraft to each new location, but other games suffer. I think that Final Fantasy, as well as some notable Western rpgs (Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2), have all suffered from a delusion that interconnecting environments should be removed. I say that removing it compartmentalizes segments a game that prides itself on world immersion. Now I ask who is responsible for this decision. The high linearity has been justified in Final Fantasy because it allows the writers more control over the story. Thus I conclude that the decision for high linearity either lies with the head director, the head writer, or both. Consider the following list to pick out a pattern:

Final Fantasy I:

Director(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi

Writer(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi, Kenji Terada

Final Fantasy II:

Director(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi

Writer(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi, Kenji Terada

Final Fantasy III

Director(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi

Writer(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi, Kenji Terada

Final Fantasy IV:

Director(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi

Writer(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi, Takashi Tokita

Final Fantasy V:

Director(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi

Writer(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase

Final Fantasy VI:

Director(s): Yoshinori Kitase, Hiroyuki Ito

Writer(s): Hironobu Sakaguchi

Final Fantasy VII:

Director(s): Yoshinori Kitase

Writer(s): Yoshinori Kitase, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Kazushige Nojima, Tetsuya Nomura

Xenogears:

Director(s): Tetsuya Takahashi

Writer(s): Tetsuya Takahashi , Maori Tanak, Masato Kato

Final Fantasy VIII:

Director(s): Yoshinori Kitase

Writer(s): Yoshinori Kitase, Kazushige Nojima, Tetsuya Nomura

Final Fantasy IX:

Director(s): Hiroyuki Ito

Writer(s): Hiroyuki Ito , Hironobu Sakaguchi

Final Fantasy X:

Director(s): Motomu Toriyama, Takayoshi Nakazata, Toshiro Tsuchida

Writer(s): Kazuchige Nojima

Kingdom Hearts:

Director(s): Tetsuya Nomura

Writer(s): (unable to determine)

Final Fantasy X-2:

Director(s): Motomu Toriyama

Writer(s): Kazuchige Nojima, Daisuke Watanabe

Kingdom Hearts II:

Director(s): Tetsuya Nomura

Writer(s): Tetsuya Nomura , Kazuchige Nojima, Daisuke Watanabe

Final Fantasy XII:

Director(s): Hiroyuki Ito, Hiroshi Minigawa

Writer(s): Daisuke Watanabe, Miwa Shoda, Jun Akiyama, Yasumi Matsuno

Final Fantasy XIII:

Director(s): Motomu Toriyama

Writer(s): Daisuke Watanabe, Motomu Toriyama

Final Fantasy XIII-2:

Director(s): Motomu Toriyama

Writer(s): Daisuke Watanabe

Final Fantasy XIII Versus:

Director(s): Tetsuya Nomura

Writer(s): Tetsuya Nomura, Kazuchige Nojima

I conclude from this list that the best Final Fantasy games or side projects resulted from having a head writer also direct the game's development. In doing so, the person or persons who are creating the world in their heads and on paper can have control over how the world is created digitally. Although the disconnect between director and writer first occurred at Final Fantasy X, I personally liked the game, and it is my favorite Final Fantasy title just behind Final Fantasy VI. The disconnect between director and writer only worked well in this one example though, and in X-2, XII, XIII, and XIII-2, the disconnect becomes apparent to me and the story focus alters significantly. Consider the following list for clarification of what I mean by a disconnect in goal:

Final Fantasy I:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy II:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy III

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy IV:

Save world from empire and evil force

Final Fantasy V:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy VI:

Save world from empire and evil force

Final Fantasy VII:

Save world from evil force

Xenogears:

Save world from empire and evil force

Final Fantasy VIII:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy IX:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy X:

Save world from incarnation of man's sin (basically evil force)

Kingdom Hearts:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy X-2:

Hunt for treasure, dance, sing maybe, perhaps bring boyfriend back into existence

Kingdom Hearts II:

Save world from evil force

Final Fantasy XII:

Save world from empire

Final Fantasy XIII:

Save main characters' free will (maybe save a few million people while you're at it)

Final Fantasy XIII-2:

Find a main character from previous game (maybe save world by repairing space time)

Final Fantasy XIII Versus:

Save world from empires and (likely) evil force

I hope you can see the changes to game feel when a director and writer have to compromise on the goal of the game. I conclude that Motomu Toriyama and (possibly) writer Daisuke Watanabe are right in the middle of the Final Fantasy titles that have upset the Western gamer.

State of Final Fantasy Today (March 2012) - part 1/3

What is the state of the Final Fantasy series today? I am writing this in Early March 2012, and I was inspired to write this article after seeing my reaction and public reactions to the recent releases of Square's flagship video game (I know that it is technically Square Enix, but for the sake of brevity, I will simply call them Square). In particular, I was curious to see if there were any personnel changes in high-ranking game development positions at Square (head director, composer, writer, designer, etc.) that coincided with the changes in Final Fantasy flavor over the last decade. I concluded that, yes, there were indeed some notable personnel in the same positions during the time period that saw changes to the style and flavor that made Final Fantasy, and in particular some of its greatest entries (6, 7, and 8), famous in the first place, but there were also major changes in development team sizes, social changes in the country of origin, and a change in source elements. I will begin my article with an examination of the history of the flagship Final Fantasy games and a couple of other notable Square releases, then I will propose what may be responsible for the changes in the series, and I will end with a discussion of what I believe could be done better and my projection for the series' future. Please note that I will have many opinions that are entirely my own dispersed through this article, and much of my historical information came from Wikipedia and GameFaqs. If some of my information is correct, please let me know. I want to be right about my information because it may affect my conclusions.

First, I will give a brief history of the series and explain why some notable changes happened. The first Final Fantasy game, according to a Wired interview in 07-2009 with composer Nubuo Uematsu, was so called for two reasons: (1) head director Hironobu Sakaguchi was planning on quitting Square and going back to college, and (2) Square was on the path to bankruptcy (hence the desire to leave). For those of you who don't know, Square was one of those companies in the 1980' that churned out cheap action games every few months. This game business practice nearly crashed the video game industry before it started because very few people knew how to make a video game, and many business people saw it as the next bubble, so they made their companies crank out game after game with the justification that Video Game = $$$ regardless of quality. This practice wasn't working well for Square in particular because Mr. Sakaguchi didn't really like making action games and he wasn't too good at it either considering the faltering sales. The company was headed to bankruptcy, so Mr. Sakaguchi decided to leave the company, but not before he directed one last game in the way that he wanted to make it. Instead of action, it would be a story. It would be a fantasy game. In a decision that was brilliant in its simplicity, the game was simply called "Final Fantasy". There was a very small development team (unknown actual size), but they put their all into their last hurrah. To their surprise, after its release on the NES (or 'Famicon' as it was called) in Japan in 12-1987, the game was very-well received, and it bolstered the company's revenue enough that the development team decided to not quite and have another go at it and make a similar game, Final Fantasy II.

The team was still small (17 positions are listed on GameFaqs), but this game also well received, albeit with mixed opinions for some of the new gameplay elements, when it was released in Japan in 12-1988, only a year after the first was released. That sounds like a short time now, but this was actually a really long development for games at the time. The team grew to 22 positions (again, GameFaqs), for the Japan 04-1990 release of Final Fantasy III, which also received a mixed, but mostly good reaction from the public. A month later, Square decided to take a risk and introduce to the West to the original Final Fantasy. It was received very well since it shook up the game stereotype just as it had shaken them up in Japan in 1987.

The development team grew to 28 (GameFaqs) for Final Fantasy IV. Square moved the series from the NES to the SNES, and the result was very-well received in both the East (Japan 07-1991) and West (possibly 11-1991), eventually being called one of the greatest games ever made for its revolutionary storytelling techniques. The development team ballooned to 42 (GameFaqs) for Final Fantasy V, which was released in Japan in 12-1992 (unknown US release) to mixed reviews that praised the new jobs system but generally called the story, music, and colors flat. The development team grew to 44 (GameFaqs) for Final Fantasy VI, which was released in (unknown) in 04-1994 to extremely high praise, and many people still consider it one of the greatest games ever made, if not the greatest ever.

Square then went silent on Final Fantasy for three years as they migrated to a new gaming system, the Sony Playstation, not because of a fallout with Nintendo as I have heard rumored, but because Square wanted to do things that Nintendo's system could not do, in particular hold the quantity of visual information that they wanted to present in their next flagship title. The PlayStation's cd-rom disks could hold the information with only four disks, and Nintendo's cartridge-based system simply could not compete with that. Finally, in Japan in 01-1997 (US 10-1997), after three years development with a (then) massive team of 154 (GameFaqs), Final Fantasy VII was released to rave reviews. It still had a heavy following a decade after release, enough for Square to justify a prequel (Crisis Core) and a full-length feature film (Advent Children), and it is still regarded by many to be the greatest game ever. At this time, Square used what appeared to be a modified Final Fantasy VII engine to create a side project called Xenogears, which was released for the PlayStation in Japan in 02-1998 and the US in 10-1998. The development team was small and included none of the people from the flagship series, but it was very well received. Many thought the story was interesting but overly complex and convoluted, but many other greatly enjoyed it. I personally considered it one of my favorite games ever, and my favorite RPG title ever, although Final Fantasy VI and Golden Sun give it a run for its money.

The main Square development team began grew again for the next title, Final Fantasy VIII, which had 197 development positions (GameFaqs), and was released in Japan in 02-1999 and the US in 09-1999. It received extremely good reviews on the PlayStation (we don't speak of the PC version), being listed as having the third best game ending ever by IGN (year unknown) and the opening cutscene being among the top 10 video game cutscenes ever by Game Informer (year unknown). The development team grew again for Final Fantasy IX, with 266 development positions listed (GameFaqs). It was released in Japan in 07-2000 and the US in 11-2000 to extremely good reviews from most, in particular in the East, and was praised for its nostalgic Final Fantasy feel, harkening back to the story and visual style of earlier fantasy-only and fantasy-steampunk titles. The West's reactions were largely good, but I think that Western people did not understand the nostalgic feel, having been deprived of a few of the original titles to which it paid homage, and as a result the game did not fare as well as it did in the East.

One year later, after a massive development effort (372 development positions, 327 not including voice actors (GameFaqs)) to bring Final Fantasy to the PlayStation 2, Square released Final Fantasy X in Japan in 07-2001 and the US in 12-2001 to extremely good reviews. It was the first Final Fantasy with voice acting and the first with actively rendered environments instead of cleverly distributed sprite backgrounds. Some people did not like the extreme linearity of the game, and like the following Final Fantasy titles, an explorable world map was conspicuously absent (having a map with instant-transport to past locations doesn't count). During this time, another notable Square side project was in the works called Kingdom Hearts. It was being developed by long-time Final Fantasy monster and character designer Tetsuya Nomura (remember him), who began working at Square as a monster designer for Final Fantasy VII and eventually became a head monster and character director and designer for every flagship Final Fantasy since. The story goes that he was at an E3 conference, and one day he entered an elevator at a hotel at the same time as the head of Disney's game development studio, and before they got off the elevator they wanted to see what would happen if Disney and Final Fantasy were jammed together. Another story says that he had the idea of Kingdom Hearts in his head for awhile, and he ended up negotiating between Square and Disney and himself to try to get an idea that appealed to all of them. I like the first story better. Anyway, Mr. Nomura proposed the idea to Square and was given funding to start a side project, and in Japan in 03-2002 and the US in 09-2002, Kingdom Hearts was released to very good reviews for its unusual and unexpectedly brilliant combination of dark and hardcore fantasy and Disney whimsicalness (no one ever expected that Mickey Mouse could have a sword in the shape of a key and be all the more awesome for it, and Maleficent made a superb villain).

In the meantime, Square's flagship development team was working on a sequel to Final Fantasy X called Final Fantasy X-2, and it was released in Japan in 03-2003 and the US in 11-2003. Although it general received positive reviews from most professional reviewers, many Final Fantasy fans prefer to not acknowledge its existence, and Square even made a jab at it in the Final Fantasy spinoff Kingdom Hearts II. It was praised for its outstanding voice acting, but the disjointed story and "too bubbly" J-pop soundtrack dragged it down into mediocrity in the presence of its more successful predecessors. Skip Final Fantasy XI, since that was not a flagship title. At this point, Mr. Nomura decided to make a sequel to Kingdom Hearts, and he decided to work with more Disney material and make the game bigger and more refined than its experimental predecessor. The story goes that he and a couple other people came up with the story after some drinking at a bar. I don't know if that is true, but I like the story. He had a larger development team at his disposal this time, and in Japan in 12-2005 and the US in 03-2006, Kingdom Hearts II was released to extremely high praise. Once again, the unusual setting that combined dark and hard fantasy and delightful Disney whimsy made for a remarkable pair, and the story was new and brilliant, although if you dig into the it's existential baseline you can trace it to its sake origins. Meanwhile, the primary Final Fantasy development team shrunk to 337 (273 without voice actors (GameFAqs)) for Final Fantasy XII, the last Final Fantasy game on the PlayStation 2, which was release in Japan in 03-2006 and the US in 10-2006. Unlike the last title (X-2), XII was highly praised for its excellent story, environment, and voices, but its music, apart from the opening theme, was considered relatively weak.

Fast forward three years as Square migrates to the PlayStation 3, and after a troubled development with a monstrous team 433 strong (403 without voice actors), Final Fantasy XIII was released, Japan in 12-2009 and US in 03-2010, to mixed reviews. It was commonly praised for the technical brilliance of the Crystal Tools engine (previously dubbed 'White engine'), the new battle system was generally well-received despite a few who yearned for a more classic turn-based system, but the East and West differed heavily in their reception of the story and voices. The East highly praised the game in general, but the West heavily criticized the on-rails level of linearity, the West seemed to get the shaft for certain voice actors, in particular one whose voice could bore holes through steel, and the West did not generally like the very J-pop sound track. In my opinion, it felt like a tech demo with a story attempt, and indeed that was the perception of some at Square, who in a 10-17-2010 interview with Game Developer Magazine described some of the development problems. Square showed an announcement trailer at E3 2006 that showcased the technical bar they sought to achieve, but beyond the technical goal the development team did not have a shared vision. The problems that arose from this lack of direction were compounded by the technical hurdles necessary to create the multiplatform Crystal Tools game engine. Square had driven into a software development nightmare because the software's requirements could not be finalized until the game engine's capabilities were known, and the game engine could not be finalized until the engine team knew what was needed out of the engine. In addition, international player tests came too late to change anything that would have allowed Square to make the game more appealing to Western gamers. A ray of hope appeared though when Square told the team that they had to make a playable demo to be included with the Final Fantasy VII Advent Children Complete Blue-ray. Once the demo was demanded, the team pulled together to make a playable snapshot of the game, and it was only then that the entire team saw what the final product would be. At this point though, it was late in the Spring of 2009, and they had to scramble to put everything together for a December release. The end result, then, was a magnificent tech demo that was hastily assembled into a full-fledge game and given the title Final Fantasy. After this, Square sought to repair the reputation of Final Fantasy and worked on a sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2 (unknown development team size), which was released in Japan on 12-2011 and the US on 01-2012. Like its predecessor, it was highly praised in the East and had a mixed reception in the West, it generally received high technical and battle system praise, but unlike its predecessor it received generally high character praise. Despite its filler (non-narrative) content being considered shallow, it was popularly considered to have 'repaired XIII' and that it was what its predecessor should have been. Much of the hostility that was leveled at it from the West though came not from frustration with the game itself, but from frustration that Square kept trying to get the XIII title and story and characters to work when the West wanted to see development focus shifted to Final Fantasy XIII Versus, a non-related title that had been in development since near the beginning of XIII and that was significantly more anticipated than XIII-2, partially because XIII turned a lot of people off, and partially because it is (at the time of this writing, it is still in development) being developed by the same guy that developed the beloved Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II.