Most Final Fantasy installments are independent stories (the numbers after the title refers more to volumes than sequels); however, they feature common elements that define the franchise. Such elements include recurring creatures, character names, airships and character classes. The series has popularized many features that are now widely used in console RPGs, and it is well known for its visuals, music, and innovation, such as the inclusion of full motion videos, photo-realistic character models, and orchestrated music by Nobuo Uematsu. The series has been commercially and critically successful; it is the fourth-best-selling video game franchise, only bested by Mario, Pokemon, and The Sims (series), and Square Enix's best selling series, with more than 85 million units sold as of July 7, 2008. Many individual titles in the series have garnered extra attention and their own positive reception. In addition, the series was awarded a star on the Walk of Game in 2006, and holds seven Guinness World Records in the Guinness World Records Gamer's Edition 2008.
"Field screens" are enclosed and interconnected areas—towns, caves, fields, and other environments—through which the player can navigate the playable characters. Most of the character dialogue and exploration occurs on the field screens. In the first ten titles (except Final Fantasy VIII, where other characters follow the main character when you are not on the world map), players can navigate the main character, which represents the whole party, around the environment. Since Final Fantasy XI, multiple playable characters have been shown on the Field screen, and battles have been incorporated into the Field screen.
"Battle screens" facilitate battles in an arena, usually with a change of scale and a background that represents where the battle is occurring. For example, a random battle in a desert will have a desert backdrop. Battles are normally either plot-relevant or random encounters. In Final Fantasy XI and XII, battles screens were omitted by having battle sequences occur on the main field screen; the change was influenced by a desire to remove random encounters.
The "World screen" is a low-scale map of the game world used to symbolize traveling great distances that would otherwise slow the plot progression. The party can often traverse this screen via airships, Chocobos, and other modes of transportation. "Menu Screens" are used for character and game management; typical menu screens include items, character status, equipment, abilities, and game options. This screen is usually presented in a very simple table layout. "Cutscenes" are non-interactive playbacks that provide instructions for the player or advance the plot. They can either be pre-rendered video, also known as full motion video, or they can be executed with the same engine as any of the first three modes. "Minigames" are small activities that generally serve as diversions from the story.
With Final Fantasy IV, the turn-based battle system was replaced by the Active Time Battle (ATB) system designed by Hiroyuki Ito. Square Co., Ltd. filed a United States patent application for the ATB system on March 16, 1992, under the title "Video game apparatus, method and device for controlling same" and was awarded the patent on February 21, 1995. On the battle screen, a status summary of each character is displayed. These encompass HP levels, MP levels (where applicable), and an ATB gauge. The ATB gauge determines when a character can take action. When the gauge is filled completely, the player can issue an order to that character. Also, the player has the option to issue commands at the same time as when something else is happening. Not to be confused with a real-time battle system, this is simply an implement to help make things move along at a quicker pace.
The ATB system was replaced in Final Fantasy X by the Conditional Turn-Based Battle (CTB) system, or Count Time Battle, created by Toshiro Tsuchida. This system returns to a turn-based format, but character and enemy actions heavily affect the order of future battle turns. A graphical timeline along the upper-right side of the screen details who will be receiving turns next, as well as how various actions taken (such as using the Slow spell on an enemy) will affect the subsequent order of turns.
The Real Time Battle (RTB) system—introduced in Final Fantasy XI—replaced the random encounter game mechanic that has featured in past Final Fantasy games. Instead, it allows players to view the location of nearby enemies on the game map, therefore allowing one to move around the landscape during battles, or to avoid battles altogether. Characters start attacking automatically once they are in combat with an enemy, and special commands and magic can be inputted by the player at any time. Contrary to the system's name it is not totally in real-time; with the exception of items, moving, certain special abilities and the first physical attack, all actions have a "charge" time before they are executed. Square Enix presented a short demo of Final Fantasy XIII at the 2006 E3 conference, in which a menu at the bottom of the screen was used for inputting battle commands; the system was barely noticed because of the cinematic nature of the battles.
The Active Dimension Battle (ADB) system featured in Final Fantasy XII was a cross between the RTB system and the ATB's time meter. This system was inspired by the Final Fantasy XII developers' experience working on Ogre Battle and Vagrant Story (the latter was originally planned to have a two-player battle system).
Most installments use an experience level system for character advancement, in which experience points are accumulated by killing enemies—however, defeating bosses in some titles did not provide experience points. Battles also use a points-based system for casting magical spells. Since Final Fantasy III, most titles have featured a variety of "special commands", such as stealing items from enemies or performing more powerful attacks. These abilities are sometimes integrated into the job system, which has appeared in several installments.
Nobuo Uematsu was the critically acclaimed chief music composer of the Final Fantasy series until his resignation from Square Enix in November 2004. Uematsu is also involved with the rock group The Black Mages, which has released three albums of arranged Final Fantasy tunes. Other composers who have contributed to the series include Masashi Hamauzu and Hitoshi Sakimoto.
Although each game offers a variety of music, there are some frequently reused themes. Most of the games open with a piece called "Prelude", which has evolved from a simple, 2-voice, arpeggiated theme in the early games to a complex melodic arrangement in recent installments. Battle victories in the first ten installments of the series were accompanied by a victory fanfare; this theme has become one of the most recognized pieces of music in the series. The basic theme for Chocobos is rearranged in a different musical style for each installment. A piece called "Prologue" or "Final Fantasy", originally featured in Final Fantasy I, is often played during the ending credits. Although leitmotifs are often used in the more character-driven installments, theme music is typically reserved for main characters and recurring plot elements.
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at:1987 text:"Final Fantasy"
at:1988 text:"Final Fantasy II"
at:1990 text:"Final Fantasy III"
at:1991 text:"Final Fantasy IV"
at:1992 text:"Final Fantasy V"
at:1994 text:"Final Fantasy VI"
at:1997 text:"Final Fantasy VII"
at:1999 text:"Final Fantasy VIII"
at:2000 text:"Final Fantasy IX"
at:2001 text:"Final Fantasy X"
at:2002 text:"Final Fantasy XI"
at:2006 text:"Final Fantasy XII"
In the mid 1980s, Square entered the Japanese video game industry with a string of simple RPGs, racing games, and platformers for Nintendo's Famicom Disk System (FDS). In 1987, Square designer Hironobu Sakaguchi began work on a new fantasy role-playing game for the cartridge-based Famicom, inspired in part by Enix's popular Dragon Quest. As Sakaguchi planned to retire after completing the project, it was named Final Fantasy. Despite Sakaguchi's explanation, the name of the game has also been attributed by various sources to the company's hopes that the project would solve its financial troubles. Final Fantasy indeed reversed Square's lagging fortunes, and it became its flagship franchise.
Following the success of the first game, Square immediately developed a second installment. Unlike a typical sequel, Final Fantasy II features a world bearing only thematic similarities to its predecessor. Some of the gameplay elements, such as the character advancement system, were also overhauled. This approach has continued throughout the series; each major Final Fantasy game features a new setting, cast of characters, and battle system.
Kenji Terada was the scenario writer for the first four games; Kitase took over as scenario writer for Final Fantasy V through Final Fantasy VII. Kazushige Nojima became the series' primary scenario writer from Final Fantasy VII until his resignation in October 2003; he has since formed his own company, Stellavista. Nojima partially or completely wrote the stories for Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy X-2. He has also worked as the scenario writer for the spin off series, Kingdom Hearts. Square Enix continues to contract story and scenario work to Nojima and Stellavista.
Artistic design, including character and monster creations, was handled by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano from Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy VI. Amano also handled title logo designs for all of the main series and all of the image illustrations from Final Fantasy VII onward. Following Amano's departure, he was replaced by Tetsuya Nomura, who worked with the series through Final Fantasy X; for Final Fantasy IX, however, character designs were handled by Shukou Murase, Toshiyuki Itahana, and Shin Nagasawa. Nomura is also the character designer of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, and all three installments of the upcoming Fabula Nova Crystallis: Final Fantasy XIII. Other designers include Nobuyoshi Mihara and Akihiko Yoshida. Mihara was the character designer for Final Fantasy XI, and Yoshida served as character designer for Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, the Square-produced Vagrant Story, and the Final Fantasy III remake.
In August 1995, Square showed an interactive SGI technical demonstration of Final Fantasy for the next generation. Articles in video game magazines GameFan and Nintendo Power led fans to believe the demo was of a new Final Fantasy title for the Nintendo 64 video game console. However, 1997 saw the release of Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation and not the Nintendo 64 as many had originally anticipated. This was due to a dispute with Nintendo over its use of faster and more expensive cartridges, as opposed to the slower, cheaper, and much higher capacity compact discs used on rival systems. Final Fantasy VII introduced 3-dimensional graphics with fully pre-rendered backgrounds. It was because of this switch to 3D that a CD-ROM format was chosen over a cartridge format.
Starting with Final Fantasy VIII, the series adopted a more photo-realistic look. Like Final Fantasy VII, some full motion video (FMV) sequences would have video playing in the background, with the polygonal characters composited on top. Final Fantasy IX returned briefly to the more stylized design of earlier games in the series. It still maintained, and in many cases slightly upgraded, most of the graphical techniques utilized in the previous two games in the series. Final Fantasy X was released on the PlayStation 2, and made use of the much more powerful hardware to render many cutscenes in real-time, rather than in pre-rendered FMV sequences. Rather than having 3D models moving about in pre-rendered backgrounds, the game featured full 3D environments, giving it a more dynamic look, though the camera angle was fixed. It was also the first Final Fantasy game to introduce voice acting, occurring throughout the majority of the game, even with many minor characters. This aspect added a whole new dimension of depth to the character's reactions, emotions, and development.
Taking a temporary divergence, Final Fantasy XI used the PlayStation 2's online capabilities as an MMORPG. Initially released for PlayStation 2 with a PC port arriving 6 months later, Final Fantasy XI was also released on the Xbox 360 nearly four years after its first release in Japan. This was the first Final Fantasy game to use a free rotating camera. Final Fantasy XII was released in 2006 for the PlayStation 2 and utilizes only half as many polygons as Final Fantasy X in exchange for more advanced textures and lighting. It also retains the freely rotating camera from Final Fantasy XI. Final Fantasy XIII was shown at E3 2006 and will make use of Crystal Tools, a middleware engine developed by Square Enix.
There have been several anime and CGI films produced that are based either directly on individual Final Fantasy games or on the series as a whole. The first was an OVA titled Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals and was based on Final Fantasy V. The story was set on the same world as the game though 200 years in the future. It was released as four 30-minute episodes first in Japan in 1994 and later released in the United States by Urban Vision in 1998. In 2001, Square Pictures released its first feature film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The story was set on a future-Earth that had been invaded by alien life forms. The Spirits Within was the first animated feature to seriously attempt to portray photorealistic CGI humans, but was considered a box office bomb. One reviewer points out that the environmentally-themed plot may have been ahead of its time. 2001 also saw the release of Final Fantasy: Unlimited, a 25 episode anime series based on the common elements of the Final Fantasy series. It was broadcast in Japan by TV Tokyo and released in North America by ADV Films. In 2005, Final Fantasy VII Advent Children and Last Order: Final Fantasy VII were released as part of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII. Advent Children was a CGI film directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Last Order was a short OVA directed by Morio Asaka.
Many Final Fantasy games have been included in various lists of top games. Two games were listed on GameFAQs' "The 10 Best Games Ever" contest in Fall 2005, with Final Fantasy VII voted as the "Best Game Ever." Six other Final Fantasy titles were included in the additional 90 games listed. GameFAQs has also held a contest for the best video game series ever, with Final Fantasy being the runner-up to The Legend of Zelda. Several games have been listed on multiple IGN "Top Games" lists. Eleven games were listed on Famitsu's 2006 "Top 100 Favorite Games of All Time", four of which were in the top ten, with Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy VII being first and second, respectively. Many Final Fantasy characters have been included in GameFAQs' "Character Battle" contests. Final Fantasy VIIs Cloud Strife and Sephiroth have both won once and have been listed as the runner-up multiple times. In ScrewAttack's list of "Top Ten Coolest Characters", Cloud was rated the number two "coolest" character; Sephiroth was also considered but the list stipulated one character per franchise.
Several individual Final Fantasy titles have garnered extra attention; some for their positive reception and others for their negative reception. Final Fantasy VII won GameFAQs' "Best. Game. Ever." tournament in 2004. Despite the success of Final Fantasy VII, it is sometimes criticized as being overrated. In 2003, GameSpy listed it as the 7th most overrated game of all time. Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII shipped 392,000 units in its first week of release, but received review scores that were much lower than that of other Final Fantasy games. A delayed, negative review after the Japanese release of Dirge of Cerberus from Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu hinted at a controversy between the magazine and Square Enix. The MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI, reached over 200,000 active daily players in March 2006 and had reached over half a million subscribers by July 2007. Though Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was praised for its visuals, the plot was criticized and was considered a box office bomb. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for the GameCube received overall positive review scores, but reviews stated that the use of Game Boy Advances as controllers was a big detractor.