As Long As They Don't Call It SquEnix...
The recent Square/Enix merger probably hasn't affected most gamers one bit, but I'd imagine longtime RPG fans are no doubt drooling over the prospect of possibly seeing Yoshitaka Amano do Dragon Quest art, and Akira Toriyama designing Final Fantasy characters at some point. Personally, I'm more intrigued as to the future plans for some pretty varied and remarkable games by both companies that were never released stateside, some of which we'll cover (along with a tiny bit of history) in this month's column. Both companies have a large enough back catalog of titles that would be more than welcome in some sort of "classics" package on any home or portable console. Hopefully, if enough of you fine folks out there do a little e-mailing and letter writing to get the wheels in motion, FF won't be the only game out there millions are buying. With that, dear reader- onward we go...
In Japan, Enix had already released 2 Dragon Quest games long before Final Fantasy hit stores, and the series has had a deeply loyal following there ever since. During this period, the company also produced a few Famicom carts like the cute puzzle game Door Door, and another great RPG, Just Breed, along with a small number of Game Boy titles. While DQ was its big Famicom (and later Game Boy Color) series, the company really hit its creative stride producing and publishing some incredible Super Famicom games that make it worth a few Japanese classes just to experience them.
While Enix's US branch localized a number of excellent titles for the American market, we didn't get Westone's creepy Dark Half, the mech strategy game Jyutei Senki, or Mystic Ark, the sequel to Elnard (released here as The 7th Saga). Other titles of note are the fun RPG, Nekketsu Tairiku (Burning Heroes), or Wonder Project J, a sim where you train and raise an android boy. In addition to the above titles, the first 3 Dragon Quest games were reissued as SFC games while Dragon Quest V, and later, VI had thousands of Japanese gamers sleeping outside shops the night before both games were released. Nintendo Power would often run articles on some of these games, but neither Enix or Nintendo's US offices chose to pick up the publishing rights, partially due to the time and expense it would take to localize them fully.
Three of the most interesting Super Famicom titles by Enix never released here were Hamelin no Violin Tamaki (Violinist of Hamelin), Star Ocean, and Tenchi Souzou (also known as Terranigma in Europe). The company worked with different creative teams on each of these titles, and the results are two epic RPGs and one really funny platformer that stand the genre on its ear. Star Ocean's beautiful artwork, fast-paced battles, and amazing music score are among the best on the system, and Tenchi Souzou ranks just as high, with great character animation, and some wondrous visual effects. The anime-based Hamelin has an all-classical score, colorful visuals, and excellent gameplay (which can be misread as slightly misogynist, if you're easily offended).
Around 1995, Enix actually packed up its console division for a few years to concentrate on computer software in Japan, and there were at least two worldwide PC game design contests sponsored by the company. Then Sony came calling, and Enix responded with an even wider range of titles than before. As usual, we got some of the good stuff, like Bust-A-Move (localized as Bust-A-Groove through Sony's 989 Studios, of all places), Star Ocean: The Second Story, and Dragon Quest VII. But of course, games like Blade Arts, Rakugaki Showtime, Planet Laika, Mystic Ark Mabaroshi Gekijyo, a remade Dragon Quest IV, and Pop 'n Tanks (among others) stayed in Japan.
Actually, Blade Arts did show up in playable form at the 2000 E3 (it was later scrapped), and Treasure was supposed to be reworking Rakugaki Showtime's fun, fast paced gameplay into a GBA Tiny Toons game, but it's hard to see it being as much insane fun as the PS game. Fans of the Mystic Ark series definitely got a shock with the PS game, which threw out the RPG elements and sequel aspects in favor of stiff digital-only control, PC-style play mechanics, and the choice of two Victorian-era children as playable characters. The game does have some lovely art and color usage alongside a pretty piano score, but it's far too quirky to have seen a US release.
Mention Squaresoft, and most US gamers will more likely than not name one or more of the Final Fantasy series without a second thought. Square has also produced or published over 100 non-FF related titles covering a number of different genres, some on systems not very familiar to the casual player. From 1986 to 1997, the company produced games for Nintendo's Famicom and Famicom Disk System, Super Famicom, and Gameboy. Despite its ease of use and large number of quality titles, the Famicom Disk System was sadly, never released in the US. While a number of its games were converted to cartridge format, there's still a good amount of software that we never got to get our hands on. Square turned out at least 11 games for the unit, from a pinball game called Moon Ball Magic, to a few early RPGs like Karin no Ken (Sword of Kalin) and Deep Dungeon.
Of the Famicom titles released on cart, U.S. audiences never saw Deep Dungeon III, J.J., Hanjyuku Eiyuu, Thexder, and the truly bizarre Square's Tom Sawyer. This April, Final Fantasy II is showing up for the first time in English (along with the first FF game) featuring new visuals and bonuses for the PS One. With any luck, FF III will follow before the PS gives up the ghost (which is sooner than you think). In case you didn't know this already, here's one interesting note on the Game Boy "Final Fantasy" titles: NONE of them are FF games at all! In Japan, three of these are related to the Romancing Saga series (which never saw release here), and the other is the first part of the Seiken Densetsu trilogy. The 2nd game was released here as Secret of Mana, and the third part...well, you know the end to this sentence by now, right?
The relationship with Nintendo dissolved partly due to Squaresoft's wanting to expand into development and production of CD-ROM software, and partly due to Nintendo's decision to stay with the more restrictive cartridge format for its upcoming N64 system. By this time, Square had done all it could do with the format, publishing or producing games like Front Mission, Front Mission: Gun Hazard, Hanjuku Eiyuu, Live A Live, Treasure Hunter G, Rudra no Hihou, and Bahamut Lagoon. Each of these titles has a distinct graphic style (in the case of Live A Live, a number of different styles in the same game), and gameplay that's as fun as it is challenging. Of the above listed games, the two Front Mission titles are the easiest for non-native speakers to get into despite the story being told in all Japanese text. Both games have English in some or most of the menus, although it's possible to get stuck in Gun Hazard if you don't seek out a walkthrough for some of the later missions.
There were also at least 3 Square games done for Nintendo's Sattelaview peripheral in Japan, a satellite download gaming service that also never saw the light of day here. Dynami Tracer, Treasure Confix, and Radical Dreamers are their names, and if the latter title sounds familiar, it's because the game is the second of the Chrono series. If you're a diehard Chrono Trigger completist, know ye this before you start clicking away looking for a boxed complete original: the game is a text-based RPG and was never formally released as a stand-alone Super Famicom cartridge. In fact, running out and tracking down a boxed Sattelaview will net you nothing more than a really slick collectable- the games are no longer available in a legally downloadable format, last I heard.
The move to Sony helped the Playstation reach an even wider audience, including many RPG fans who associated Squaresoft games with Nintendo and thought the move was a bad idea. Final Fantasy VII far exceeded any of the other FF games in overall sales, and Square also reintroduced the 3 Super Famicom FF games to PS owners with new CG openings and endings. On the Playstation in Japan, Squaresoft took advantage of the more powerful hardware by not only buffing up its FF series, but also by teaming up with a number of developers and releasing some pretty cool games in other genres. Yuke's, know for its Japanese wrestling games, created Soukaigi, an ambitious 3-disc action/RPG with 8 playable characters, Fuzz Box's Cyber Org was a fast paced sci-fi action/adventure. Both of these games are flawed in their execution, but are still quite a bit of fun to see in action. Companies like Lightweight fared better, with its two Bushido Blade games, and Dream Factory took two steps forward with Tobal #1, and the even more amazing Tobal 2. Despite 210 playable characters, 60 frames per second gameplay, a fairly deep fighting system, and a long Quest mode, Square refused to release the game outside of the Asian market. We did get Ergheiz as a consolation prize, but it wasn't quite the same thing.
There were also forays into other genres US publishers fear to tread. Another Mind was a live-action "Dialog Adventure", and two other titles, Emmyrea, and Memories Off 2nd were geared more toward fans of dating sims than FF games. Square also had a sports division, Aques, which released also two baseball games, Digical League Super Live Stadium, and 3 Power Stakes games for the huge horse race simulation market in Japan. Enix dabbled a bit in sports games for the PS2 overseas, with 2 baseball games, both called Orega Kantoku Da!, and a soccer title with the unwieldy moniker of Nippon Daihyou Senshu Ninarou! Dramatic Soccer Game.
Both Square and Enix have had mixed results on the PS2 hardware, with Enix coming out ahead in terms of variety thanks to Super Gadelic Hour, Dance Summit 2001, O Story, and The Fear, among others, while Square lead in terms of overall volume. The two versions of Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts mostly made up for quirks like Driving Emotion Type-S, The Bouncer, and two All-Star Pro Wrestling games. I haven't seen Hanjyuku Eiyuu Tai 3D yet, but if it's anything like the silly but fun SFC game, maybe Square should consider localizing it for US audiences. Of all the non-FF RPGs on the PS2 by Square, its two baseball titles, Gekikuukan Pro Yakyuu: At the End of the Century 1999, and Nichibeikan Pro Baseball: Final League end up as the most impressive overall.
Also impressive is that Square managed to make it through the late 90's and into most of 2002 without a single Nintendo title. They did release enhanced versions of FF I-IV, Front Mission, and Romancing Saga on Bandai's recently deceased Wonderswan handheld (along with a number of exclusive WS titles), thumbing their noses at Nintendo, and making more than a few collectors do the Ebay scramble. Enix offered up two Nintendo 64 games, Wonder Project J2 (with a female android this time out), and Yuke Yuke Troublemakers (released here as Mischief Makers), a couple of Game Boy Color and currently, a few GBA titles. Curiously, only Enix has supported Sega, and only with 3 Saturn games in Japan. Of these, Nanatsu Kaze no Shima Monogatari, an adventure game with puzzle elements and really beautiful graphics, is the standout. Nin Penman Maru was the only other original title, and the third game was the Japanese port of the popular PC game Riven. Enix only handled the localization and publishing aspects for the latter release.
One common misconception among some of you out there is that Squaresoft and Enix program all their games in-house, when in fact they often work with other developers on many aspects of game design and production, a common practice in the industry. For example, Alchahest was a HAL Laboratories game, Front Mission was a G-Craft game, and Treasure Hunter G was by Sting. For Enix, Elnard, both Mystic Ark games and Tenchi Souzou were Produce! creations. Some of these folks have worked on a number of other great games. For example, G-Craft worked on the Arc the Lad series, and Sting did the two Evolution games on the Dreamcast and Baroque on the Saturn, HAL is known for its Kirby, Lolo, and Smash Bros. games, and so forth and so on...
The point I'm trying to make is that a developer and a publisher can be and are often two different entities. Part of my interest in import (and domestic) games is in discovering just who's behind the big logos on the title screen, so that I can track down other works that they've done. Thus endeth the lesson for this month- go track down some of this stuff if your curiosity is piqued, and let me know what you think of this month's column.
Most likely we'll be at war by the time you read this, so I'm torn between doing import strategy and shooting games or focusing on games with girls in swimsuits to take your minds off the latest news. Or maybe I'll just avoid controversy altogether and do a column on 2D Playstation shooters- fire away with your comments and suggestions, and I'll go with what wins.
P.S.- I didn't forget Squaresoft's fun RPG Racing Lagoon for the PS One. It's going in as part of the next batch of racers in a future installment of this column...