Not exactly “final”. A brilliant video game saga that began over three decades ago

Michael Forest
6 min readSep 23, 2019

From the year 1987 till now, Final Fantasy series was sold in more than 144 million copies on many platforms. It’s one of the best and most popular video game franchises in history. What’s the secret behind the Hironobu Sakaguchi’s famous series?

The sound of success

From the beginning, Hironobu Sakaguchi never could have dreamed of becoming a game designer. When he was born on 25 November 1962 in Hitachi, Ibaraki (eastern Japan) such profession didn’t even exist. As a student of electrical engineering at Yokohama National University, Sakaguchi had two main dreams — he wanted to be a musician, and he craved for a new expensive Apple II computer at his desk. Both dreams seamed hard to realize at the beginning of the 80-ties…

Hironobu Sakaguchi at Japan Expo 2007 (wikimedia commons)
Hironobu Sakaguchi at Japan Expo 2007 (wikimedia commons)

So to support himself financially, he became a part-time employee of emerging software company — Square. The job was much more interesting and engaging than Sakaguchi could anticipate. Not only he became a full-time employee as the Director of Planning and Development, but he really liked developing video games for a new console — Nintendo Entertaining System (NES). It was also the time, when he could work with talented friends, like Hiromichi Tanaka (they were both drop-outs from Yokohama University) and composer Nobuo Uematsu.

After working on a few not very successful games, in 1987 he decided to begin his new project — an RPG title set in a fantasy world. He told his superior, Masafumi Miyamoto, that if he fails with this title, it will truly be his “final fantasy”. He could not have been further from the truth. RPG game released by Square on NES console was a huge success and spawned over 14 sequels and many spin-offs. The career of a would-be musician was set for another three decades.

What is the secret of Final Fantasy series? What makes it so lasting even after Sakaguchi left the franchise in 2003 ad Square Soft became Square Enix a year later? Some may say, it’s the game playability — easy interface and dynamic random encounter fights. Others will point out great graphics and score, always ahead of its time. Lastly, we cannot forget about compelling, multilayered stories, still not so common in video game media. But, in a fact, all of those features play important roles in creating this video game behemoth. Let’s just see the first ten of FF games.

Final Fantasy (1987)

It’s hard to exactly rate the first installment of the series. What can we even compare it to? It’s like trying to rate first part of the Zelda series or… George Washington’s presidency. It was first, and being a pioneer is its own reward. Final Fantasy introduced in 1987 the qualities future fans of the series began to associate with. An open, magical world, interesting story, a company of heroes with different classes and abilities, and finally — the universal good vs evil fight theme.

Final Fantasy I title screen (all rights and designs belong to Square Enix)

Final Fantasy II (1988)

This game is somewhat a problem for me. Although it gave NES gamers even more than the first part — for example, a set of characters in main roles instead of just classes representing them — it remains one of the weakest links in the Final Fantasy chain. Mainly because of the flawed battle and experience gaining system. Luckily that was changed in the future reboots of the game.

Final Fantasy III (1990)

After a somewhat lukewarm reception of the second game, the third part of the series was in development a little longer. The fantasy-based world was even richer than in previous installments, but characters were again just classes. Nonetheless, the game was very warmly received by gamers and critics alike. And the new 16 bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System console looming on the horizon seemed to hold a great promise for upcoming Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy IV (1991)

Advertised as number II in the USA. New 16 bit system with 2D a 3D elements gave Sakaguchi plenty of opportunities for using his rich imagination. Many characters using different skills and the classic hero’s journey theme made this game memorable for all Final Fantasy series. I have a huge sentiment towards it — first game from the series I finished from the top to bottom.

SNES Cover of FFIV (all rights and designs belong to Square Enix)

Final Fantasy V (1992)

I have a problem with this one. I know a few people who like the fifth installment of the series because of the unique class system. But actually, it’s one of my least favorite Final Fantasy games. I found it boring at times, worst of all it had only a few characters in the gamers party, and that’s always a minus for me. Still, Final Fantasy V was a huge success. After that, Hironobu Sakaguchi left the director’s chair of the series and focused on producing.

Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Number III in the USA. Yes, I didn’t like the fifth FF game, but another part of the series was a huge reward for me. It featured graphics that only few SNES games could compete with in 1994. A huge set of playable characters (14 — the largest group in the series) and a dark, steampunk world set in two time zones really stole my heart. I loved characters like Terra, Celes or Locke, who evolved through the story. It was a goodbye for Nintendo from Square, but a goodbye in a beautiful style.

Promo art for FFVII (all rights and designs belong to Square Enix)

Final Fantasy VII (1997)

For many fans (including myself) this was the high watermark of the series. No wonder Square Enix is making a reboot soon… The game had a huge budget (over 70 million dollars) and was the series debut on young 32 bit Sony Playstation platform. Let’s just say it nailed every possible game department. The story was brilliant, and the characters memorable to the point I really missed them when I finished the game. FF VII was also introduced on PC, but here its reception was far less enthusiastic.

Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

After the success of the previous installment, another title on PSX platform was just a matter of time. It was a visual treat, but still… I found some things lacking. Again, only six playable characters (not counting episodic ones) was a little too few for me. The battle system based mainly on summoning magical creatures also proved to be somewhat disappointing. But, that being said, it was still a fun game to tackle with. And the ending was — very striking, to say the least.

FFIX PSX cover (all rights and designs belong to Square Enix)

Final Fantasy IX (2000)

Another year, another goodbye. In the year 2000 everybody knew that Playstation 2 console is just around the corner. So Final Fantasy IX was supposed to be the last part of the series for good old PSX. Maybe that’s why it was very nostalgic. Its fantasy world resembled those from the first five parts of the series. Damn, I have to say — this installment grows on me (and other fans) every year. When I played it for the first time, It was great, but now — I think It was pure storytelling genius.

Final Fantasy X (2001)

Another great part, although some people didn’t like the game’s main protagonist, Tidus. I’ve had no bad feelings for him, although his laughter was a little haunting. FFX had a great story about fighting with past mistakes and trying to fix the world. It had one of the best scores in the entire series and for the first time, we could hear the voices of the main characters. Sadly, It’s the last game from Final Fantasy saga that Hironobu Sakaguchi had something to do with.

Following the feud with Square, mainly because of his feature movie “Final Fantasy: Spirits within” becoming a box office bomb in cinemas, Sakaguchi left the studio. For many gamers, this marked the end of an era in Final Fantasy series. After that, some things changed for the best, and others (sadly, it’s a larger group) for worse. Yet, this is a tale for another story…