I am Setsuna; The Spirit of Squaresoft

The memories evoked by a throwback JRPG

I’m 8 years old and I’m sitting in the front seat of my dad’s car. I didn’t always get to sit in the front, it was a spot that I shared with my brother. One ride up front for me, the next for my brother. We are driving down to a local video shop, Atlantic Video. A dusty, blue-carpeted floor greets me through the sliding door and walls of Super Nintendo boxes and Playstation One cases huddle around, jostling for my excited, childish eyes.

I pick up Final Fantasy VII on a whim. I haven’t heard much about it. I may have seen something about it in one of the late 90’s games magazines that populated the newsagent shelves. I can vaguely recall one of their covers showcasing the entire cast. I think I got it from a showbag at the Royal Adelaide Show.

We drive home and I’m sitting in front of the CRT Television, grey rectangular box at my feet, Final Fantasy VII spinning in the disc tray. I get lost in the game. Without a memory card, I can’t save and so I play through the initial stages of the game over and over again, over a matter of months. New Game. New Game. New Game. I get in and out of the reactor in record time, defeating the Guard Scorpion with ease. I rarely make it to Disc 2.

It’s the first time I’m introduced to JRPGs and I become enamoured with them. Random battles. ATBs. Bosses. Summons. Magic. Big ridiculous weapons. A hero who has to save the world. A style of RPG that I later learn is very distinctive to Squaresoft. A style of RPG that I seek out for the rest of my life.

I’m 11 years old and I’m sitting at a computer desk, birch wood. It has CD racks in it, because this is still a time when people need somewhere to store all their CD cases. The monitor hums a regular beat. The fan in the PC tower whirs. I’m sitting next to Billy, a boy the same age as me, in the same year at school. We’re making our own RPG on RPG Maker 2000. We are at my best friend’s house.

It starts like the RPGs we’ve been playing for years. Title screen. New Game. Continue. System of a Down’s “Chop Suey” plays in the background. If you select New Game, you awake in a castle, you wander around opening chests. There’s not much to do, yet. In our heads there’s a story about a hero who saves the world and a villain who tries to thwart him. We use Maker’s pre-loaded assets but we giggle at ourselves as we change the names of enemies to those of our primary school enemies. When we get into battle with them, another System of a Down song plays. We call the enemies the Poo Tribe.

It doesn’t make much sense, but I’m 11 and human faeces are hilarious. Beyond the excrement based humour, I am already trying to create an RPG that evokes the feelings I had when I first played Final Fantasy 7.

I’m 13 years old and I am at my best friend’s house again. I am sitting next to him watching him play through a game called Chrono Trigger, via an emulator, on his computer. He’s showing me the ins and outs of his playthrough, how he has various save states with different endings. He’s defeating Lavos, showing off a bit. I’ve never even played Chrono Trigger.

Later, he shows me the creators of Chrono Trigger coded in a secret set of rooms at the end of the game where you could interact with them. It blows my mind that this game, much older than Final Fantasy VII, has all these branching storylines — the way the story starts, the sidequests in the middle, the ending.

It’s deep winter and school is out. I emulate Chrono Trigger when I get home and devour it over the next few days as rain batters the windows.

I’m 16 years old and I’m sitting on the edge of my bed. It’s quarter past 9 in the morning and I’ve already visited the local EB games. Kingdom Hearts 2 is loading in my Playstation 2. It’s not a traditional RPG, but its predecessor has a place in the pantheon of Great Square Enix Titles. It’s distinctly different from the Final Fantasy titles that arrive before and after it. It’s my most anticipated game of the year.

I’m in my final year of high school and I should be going to school or studying but this week, we have the morning off. My girlfriend offers to come over and hang out before school and I decline. The opening cinematic, backed by Utada Hikaru’s ‘Sanctuary’ is like an otherworldly experience for me. I am overcome with excitement and eventually that translates into wet cheeks. I’m crying at the start of a video game.

I know I was 16, but I’ve never felt comfortable placing the blame for that on hormones.

I’m 26 and I am loading ‘I am Setsuna’ for the first time. I’ve seen enough press to know that it’s a return to ‘classic JRPGs,’ developed by a Square Enix offshoot, Tokyo RPG Factory. On their website, a black and white image of two children studying a lit TV screen is fronted by a mission statement, of sorts:

“Countless adventures captivated us when we were kids. Now, it’s time for us to return the favour with adventures of our own.”

I’m 26 and I am playing a JRPG plucked, it would seem, from a time capsule.

I am Setsuna doesn’t play altogether that differently from the classic JRPGs. It is inhabited by the ghost of Squaresoft. It is haunted, in some ways, by that ghost. The sleepy piano that backs the game is evocative, igniting a sense of nostalgia with its rhythm but differing just enough from the well-established songs of Square Enix’s past.

You can feel the ghostly hand of the classic JRPGs in the battle system too, the way the developers at Tokyo RPG Factory have taken elements from a number of games — Chrono Trigger, SNES-era Final Fantasys — and moulded this system into something they can call their own. It’s a necessary embrace of old traditions, fused with new ideas that demonstrate how the development team have aimed to create something that feels homely, kindling memories of old titles, and at the same time allows the genre to evolve in ways which allow new stories to be told.

It’s reserved too. The ghostly spirit of Square Enix glistens off the snow that blankets the world. The red that usually emblazons the company logo, grayscaled. The characters play their archetypal roles, but with minimal pomp and exaggeration. Setsuna doesn’t attempt to overwhelm the senses; it would rather linger within them and allow the player to be drawn into the melancholy that its story and world creates. The melancholy is refined by removing the bloat of big set pieces and explosive action sequences that more modern JRPGs embrace.

I am Setsuna is a game that mourns the death of the classic JRPG. A eulogy to Squaresoft’s past.

It feels like running into an old friend, someone that the immutable passage of time has changed, and coming to terms with the way they’ve grown. The way they’re different. The way that, perhaps, your passions and desires no longer align. It asks you to remember what shaped who you are in the first place.

Playing I am Setsuna reminds me of Billy. After primary school, Billy and I no longer saw each other. He went to a different high school and lived in a different part of town. In the days before Facebook, we couldn’t keep in touch.

I ran into Billy at a BarCraft event a couple of years ago — I recognised him at once, puberty had proportioned him more correctly, ensured stubble grew ragged on his chin. His voice, slightly deeper, but he laughed the same. He queried the games I was playing and what I was excited for. The StarCraft finals played behind us, on a projector screen on the wall of the bar. A cacophony of noise.

We discussed RPG Maker 2000 and that game we once tried to make as 11 year olds. We shared beers and went our separate ways. I assume he woke up with a headache as bad as I did, the next day.

When I was able to stare at my phone screen for longer than 5 seconds, I added him to Facebook.

Time had certainly worked on us, like it works on all things, wearing them away, breaking them down, building new things over the top of them, evolving them and changing them.

But, after all this time, we were friends again.