or RPG fans of the early 1990s, Square practically had their own branch on the Nintendo family tree. This held especially true on the Super NES, where Square came into its own with Final Fantasy IV and VI, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and wealth of Japan-only releases that loomed just out of reach for Americans. By the end of 1995, the union seemed solid. Nintendo’s long-awaited Nintendo 64 system was on its way, and would be home to Square’s next Final Fantasy.
There seemed no reason to worry until the spring of 1996, when those same RPG fans opened game magazines and learned that Final Fantasy VII wouldn’t release in the form of a Nintendo 64 cartridge. It was now headed for the Sony PlayStation, as with every other game Square planned to make for the latest generation of consoles. By the end of the year, Square sewed up a publishing agreement with Sony, and their first PlayStation release, the fighter Tobal No. 1, sat on store shelves. It came as quite a surprise to players who’d effectively grown up with RPGs on Nintendo systems.
Final Fantasy VII didn’t just amount to a critical PlayStation success; it was also instrumental in establishing the Japanese RPG in North America’s mainstream game industry.
“It’s like Square cheated on Nintendo with Sony behind its back!” wrote one particularly shattered fan in the letters page of GameFan Magazine’s January 1997 issue.
Final Fantasy VII didn’t just amount to a critical PlayStation success; it was also instrumental in establishing the Japanese RPG in North America’s mainstream game industry. Sony advertised the game heavily, and it drew in PlayStation owners who perhaps didn’t even known what “Role Playing Game” really meant. Square and other game companies followed this up with a steady tide of RPGs on the PlayStation, and localized more and more of them for Western audiences. Final Fantasy VII remains Square’s biggest property to this day, and not a week goes by without someone clamoring for a glitzy modern remake of the game.
Had Square stuck with Nintendo, though, things would’ve been quite different. And not just for one game.
Final Fantasy VII
Rumors of corporate disputes arose after Square and Nintendo parted, but the real cause of their falling-out was the Nintendo 64 itself. While the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation adopted CDs as a storage medium, the Nintendo stood by the cartridge format, which offered less memory and demanded higher manufacturing costs. It clashed with Square’s vision for Final Fantasy VII, which employed extensive pre-rendered backgrounds and frequent video cutscenes. Both features drove the game’s memory well past the 64 megabytes that the largest Nintendo 64 cartridge would have afforded; even a proposed Nintendo 64 disk drive attachment fell short (and didn’t even arrive until 1999). The game needed a CD-based system, and Square opted for the PlayStation.
Square was hardly the only developer to shun Nintendo’s new console and its storage capabilities. Capcom, Namco, and numerous other developers across the globe were unimpressed with the system’s cartridge commitment. In a September 1996 interview with GameFan Magazine, Naughty Dog’s Jason Rubin likened each of the leading consoles to rockets: “The Nintendo 64 has the biggest engine. It can do the most graphically?But the N64 has a small tank. Very small. A sixteen-meg cartridge is less than two-point-five percent the size of a CD. The 64DD is only ten percent the size of a CD. So we believe that Nintendo 64 software will burn the brightest, but burn very shortly.”
If Square had made Final Fantasy VII for the Nintendo 64, it would not have been the same game that the PlayStation saw. In place of the rendered backgrounds and video clips, there would be a graphics engine that required less memory?and that would mean a game made with extensive polygons or 2-D sprites. Neither would satisfy Square’s plans for the game. Sprites would appear dated, lacking the technological leap that players and the gaming press expected from Nintendo’s newest system. A Final Fantasy VII with entirely polygonal environments would fit the bill, though the Nintendo 64′s 3D visual prowess often came up short on detail. The simplistically designed characters themselves might not suffer so much, but Final Fantasy VII also calls for a diverse array of environments, from the dilapidated underground of the city of Midgar to a pseudo-Japanese village. Most of the finer backgrounds would be lost with the limited storage of the Nintendo 64.
It’s hard to precisely recreate a Nintendo 64 version of Final Fantasy VII, as the only possible preview of it came from a tech demo that Square crafted for a SIGGRAPH conference in 1995. Often mistaken for a genuine Nintendo 64 project, the demo actually ran on a high-end Silicon Graphics computer, and it merely depicts three Final Fantasy VI characters in battle. While a Nintendo 64 game could never look quite as impressive, the demo is nonetheless a good example of where Square might have taken the game: to a land of big-headed characters, sparsely detailed environment, and cinematically staged polygons.
The approach had its advantages. Aside from eliminating loading times, an all-polygon Final Fantasy VII would dodge the PlayStation version’s incongruous character models. The Final Fantasy VII that we know today uses squat, super-deformed polygon people during general gameplay, while battles and cutscenes depict more realistically proportioned characters. A Nintendo 64 version would likely use the same engine for everything, resulting in a game that looked more coherent, albeit less impressive.
Final Fantasy VII might have changed beyond appearances as well. The game’s storyline spans 40 hours and three CDs of diverse locations, and it’s doubtful that a Nintendo 64 cartridge could hold all of that. That storyline also contains violence, profanity, and sexual innuendo well beyond any of Square’s Super NES efforts, and it all conflicts with the early Nintendo 64 library’s overall tone. By 1997, Nintendo’s stance on violence had softened enough to allow for bloodshed aplenty, but scenes like Final Fantasy VII’s suggestively all-male bathhouse club would be another matter entirely.
Beyond One Game
Square didn’t ditch Nintendo for a single game, of course. Upon Final Fantasy VII’s first unveiling, series creator (and then Square USA President) Hironobu Sakaguchi stated that the company planned to release 20 PlayStation games by the end of 1997. Square didn’t quite meet that quota, but the company expanded its library past the RPGs that typified its Super NES lineup. Fighting games, racers, shooters, and action-adventure titles joined familiar Square properties like SaGa Frontier and Front Mission 2. Many of these games relied on rendered backgrounds, video cutscenes, lush soundtracks, and other things that didn’t favor Nintendo 64 cartridges.
Had Square confined its games to the Nintendo 64, there would’ve been fewer experiments. Nintendo’s cartridges were more expensive to license and produce than CDs, and the higher price kept them beyond the realm of impulse purchases (in Japan, Final Fantasy VII retailed for half of what the cartridge-based Final Fantasy VI cost). This would impede Square’s new Digicube distribution label, which put the company’s PlayStation games in convenience stores and vending machines. More importantly, a pricier game format made each project more of a risk. Square would shun unfamiliar genres: the Tobal series, Bushido Blade, Einhander, Ehrgeiz, Internal Section, Soukaigi, Cyber Org, Racing Lagoon, and any side project that wasn’t tied to Final Fantasy. Even ambitious RPGs like Xenogears and Vagrant Story might be in jeopardy.
On the Nintendo 64, Square’s catalog would likely fall in line with their Super NES offerings: RPGs, strategy-RPGs, action-RPGs, and the occasional venture outside that favored genre. Yet any games that Square made would at least benefit from the system’s four controller ports. Legend of Mana, an action-RPG limited to two players on the PlayStation, could’ve had a multiplayer experience better than its acclaimed Super NES predecessor, Secret of Mana. Chocobo Racing, a spin-off in the style of Mario Kart, would benefit similarly from letting four players on board.
The Big Picture
The PlayStation boosted Square more than any Nintendo console had in North America. There, Final Fantasy VII’s initial success had as much to do with Sony’s backing as it did with any brand name. Sony’s TV spots hyped the game’s production values and pre-rendered cutscenes, rarely showing any actual gameplay. Nintendo could’ve pitched the game along the same lines, but a Nintendo 64 take on Final Fantasy VII would’ve lacked the visual punch necessary to entice new players to the fold. And the same would likely go for any other Square games on the Nintendo 64.
“An N64 exclusive Final Fantasy VII would have held Square back,” states Gaijinworks’ Victor Ireland, who localized many an RPG while running Working Designs in the 1990s and early 2000s. “The game itself would have been severely limited by the size of the media. It would have been a radically different experience and had less of a cultural impact than the PlayStation version did.”
Square still mattered more in Japan. Pretty as it was, Final Fantasy VII was merely another feather in the PlayStation’s cap when it came to North American audiences. Even without Square, the system still had Metal Gear Solid, Tekken, Tomb Raider, Crash Bandicoot, Street Fighter, and other properties that the Nintendo 64 never would. In japan, Square’s allegiance to Nintendo would’ve been a much more drastic advantage, and Sony’s only valid counterattack would be to keep Enix’s Dragon Quest series loyal to the PlayStation.
History often credits Square with sparking an explosion of RPGs on the PlayStation. After Final Fantasy VII’s success, publishers were more likely to translate RPGs from Japan, whether they were Tales titles or lesser-knowns like Guardian’s Crusade and Thousand Arms. Even THQ, a company rarely interested in RPGs, bought the North American rights to Sony and Shade’s The Granstream Saga.
Yet Square’s influence may be a touch overstated. The U.S. PlayStation hosted RPG successes before Final Fantasy VII arrived; Konami’s Suikoden topped EB Games’ sales charts upon release, and Sony did well with Wild Arms and the oft-derided Beyond the Beyond. The genre had slowly amassed a cult following throughout the Super NES area, and RPG localizations became more and more feasible with the PlayStation’s success.
“The swell of support for the PlayStation and CD media was growing during that time substantially,” Ireland recalls. “Final Fantasy VII missing would have slowed the swell somewhat, possibly cresting a little lower, but it would have grown with or without Square, because other studios and Sony themselves were ramping up their RPG output to meet player demand.”
The Nintendo 64 would have a decent RPG library with Square aboard, but it certainly wouldn’t be the clear winner in that category. With Suikoden, Lunar, Grandia, Star Ocean Second Story, Dragon Quest VII, Valkyrie Profile, and a round of B-list RPGs on the PlayStation, fans of the genre wouldn’t ignore the system?even if they already had a Nintendo 64.
To The Present Day
Would a muted success on the Nintendo 64 benefit Square in the long run? Final Fantasy’s popularity on the PlayStation doubtless fueled the company’s foray into motion pictures with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Conceived and directed by Sakaguchi, the all-CGI film was an expensive blunder that shut down Square’s Honolulu-based animation studio and led to Sakaguchi resigning. Reeling from the financial blow, Square later agreed to a 2003 merger with Enix. On the other hand, working on the Nintendo 64 might’ve pushed Square to overcompensate even more when it came to pricey film ventures.
If Nintendo 64 owners were stung by Square’s defection, they had other diversions. Despite a lack of third-party support, the Nintendo 64 survived most efficiently on familiar Nintendo brands, and it enjoyed a long, profitable lifespan. Still, it never had any real answer to the PlayStation’s big-budget Square RPGs. Late-stage releases like Paper Mario and Ogre Battle 64 were enjoyable, but they weren’t quite the same as a Final Fantasy.
Contributor Todd Ciolek was sad that the Nintendo 64 went without Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, but at least it had Paladin’s Quest 64, Legend of the Ghost Lion 64, and Super Bubsy RPG.”
If history were changed and Square stayed at Nintendo’s side, it might not matter so much here and now. After spending a generation apart from Nintendo, Square returned in 2003 with various Final Fantasy games for the GameCube and GameBoy Advance. Had they never left, perhaps there’d be less gushing over Final Fantasy VII today. Perhaps there’d be no Einhander or Vagrant Story for hardcore fans to champion. Yet in the grand workings of the game industry, Square and Nintendo?s split didn’t last for that long.