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Square Enix: Irrelevant Dinosaur or Rightful Market Leader?

Bryan Boulette


Square Enix: Irrelevant Dinosaur
by Bryan Boulette

Square and Enix. At one time these two giants were the absolute lords of RPG gaming. Their flagship, genre-defining series, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest respectively, essentially created the entire market of RPG development in Japan, and with the exception of Nintendo's Pokemon series, have consistently remained the top sellers within the industry. These companies weren't just game-makers: they were cultural icons that heralded virtually every refinement and innovation within the genre.

Then came The Spirits Within. Like the world-threatening aliens which plagued humanity in Hironobu Sakaguchi's Biblically-sized disaster of a film, The Spirits Within left Square a shattered and broken husk of its former self. In swooped Enix to purchase up the weakened competitor, and voila -- before we knew it, the two giants of industry had become one mega-giant called Square Enix. And while many had hoped that the buyout/merger would serve as a harbinger of a new age of RPG nirvana, the exact opposite has come to pass: the world has been left with a single company, left soft and stagnant by the lack of robust competition; creatively rudderless and bereft of a vision for the future of RPG gaming, the unified company was led not by game-oriented idea-men, but by penny-pinching businessmen like Yoichi Wada.

What was once the two greatest innovators, creating games of consistently overwhelming quality, was now a dinosaur, irrelevant to the future of RPGs and driven only by the next quick buck as those with a finer taste look elsewhere for their RPG needs. Need proof? Let's look at the record, first at the Square side.

Final Fantasy has always been Square's flagship, without doubt. It was their most popular and successful franchise, the most critically-acclaimed, the most pioneering. But though it was the symbol of the company, never before has it so completely dominated every facet of Square's development. Square has truly become a Final Fantasy Factory, pumping one out after another -- all FF, all the time. In previous generations, there was an unspoken rule that limited the Final Fantasy games to three main titles per system, with the very rare spinoff. The SNES had only four in total (IV, V, VI, and Mystic Quest), while the PSX had an identical number (VII, VIII, IX, and Tactics) plus three port collections to allow newer gamers to experience the series in all its retro glory.

By contrast, the PS2 has seen a whopping twelve, while the GameCube got one, and the Game Boy Advance got five (including re-ports of the already ported earlier games!), and a new Final Fantasy movie. It gets even worse next-gen, with the NDS already slated for two Final Fantasies, the PSP one, the Wii one, a FFXI port to the 360, and two already in development for the PS3. At the most recent E3 press conference, Yoichi Wada proclaimed that Square Enix fully intends to "exploit" (his word) the Final Fantasy series, continuing the misbegotten Compilation of Final Fantasy VII and beginning a new saga of numerous Final Fantasy XIII games (thus continuing to kick the still warm corpse of the three-per-console rule). Is this constant gorging of the Final Fantasy name indicative of continued design creativity?

As bad as it is for gamers to be given nothing but an endless string of games bearing the Final Fantasy name, they might be more forgiving if the quality Square was always lauded for in the past were still present today. Alas, it is not. While the quantity has gone way up, a game named Final Fantasy can no longer be counted on the way it once was. Dirge of Cerberus has been almost unanimously panned as the pinnacle of pretty style over substance, blending a mishmash of gaming "ideas" into a trainwreck of appalling proportions. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is rightly recognized as one of the most disappointing follow-ups in the history of RPGs, abandoning every concept that made its predecessor the most successful and popular SRPG of all time. Crystal Chronicles was a gimmick-laden annoyance filled with the worst nightmares that nutty designer Akitoshi Kawazu could come up with. X-2 was loathed by story purists, and XI and its many expansions have been roundly avoided by the non-MMO-playing majority RPG population. FFXI is less a game than it is an addiction for obsessive-compulsives with too much free time and too little a desire for actual skill-based gaming. And FFXII? It departs from every convention that has defined the series to date, abolishing the traditional turn-based, menu-driven battles of classic RPGing (already widely under assault from other quarters within the industry) and replacing them with non-interactive snoozefests.

In the process of becoming the Final Fantasy Factory, Square tossed aside most of the other great Old Guard franchises that defined its success during the SNES and PSX days. Despite long percolating rumors, hopes, and dreams, a new Chrono game has never materialized, signifying the likely demise of this fan favorite franchise. Mana and SaGa have both been all but left by the wayside -- the former seeing only outsourced games and, finally, its fourth installment at the end of the PS2's life, where it will likely be ignored; the latter seeing only a single new game (its worst yet) on the PS2, with a remake of an older game following post-merger. Only Front Mission, of Square's old franchises, has continued to thrive on the PS2 -- but this, too, was not without some cost, as Square Enix has apparently given the mech-warfare series up for dead in the US, the fifth entry still unannounced for a Western release.

And where Square was once amongst the greatest innovators in creating fresh and exciting new Intellectual Properties -- new brand names and franchises, the lifeblood of a continually evolving RPG market -- this tendency has evaporated in the current generation. The SNES saw the creation of Chrono, Front Mission, Evermore, Alcahest, Treasure Hunter G, Treasure of the Rudras, Live a Live, Bahamut; the PSX saw critical darlings like Vagrant Story and Xenogears, along with popular and endearing games like Parasite Eve, Tobal, Chocobo's Dungeon, and Threads of Fate. But what have we got to show for ourselves this time around? Kingdom Hearts, and that's it -- and that game, too, relies upon Final Fantasy for its success, littered as it is with cameos from characters across the many different games in the series.

And what of Enix? Still sterling after all these years? Hardly. The aggressor in the merger has been far from immune to the downturn that has afflicted its acquisition. Enix was, in its heyday, an even greater sponsor of new IPs than Square, through its well-recognized publishing prowess and its close affiliation with small but talented independent development studios like Chunsoft, Artepiazza, tri-Ace, Quintet, and Asmik. It's almost impossible to list out all the new franchises borne from this -- Illusion of Gaia, Soul Blazer, Star Ocean, Terranigma, Torneko's Dungeon, Paladin's Quest, Seventh Saga, Valkyrie Profile, ActRaiser and on and on and on the list would go.

But Quintet and Asmik are gone, and in their stead is the mediocre Cavia who offered gamers the near-reviled Drakengard series. The only other new IPs to emerge from Enix have been tri-Ace's Radiata Stories, which failed to live up to either the Star Ocean or Valkyrie Profile series, and the manga-tie ins (Fullmetal Alchemist, Heavy Metal Thunder, and Code Age Commanders), all of which were eviscerated by critics and gamers alike, the latter two complete financial bombs. And one needs be seriously concerned about tri-Ace, as it would appear the company's exclusivity arrangement has ended, with the company developing a game that is to be, for the first time ever, published by a company other than Enix or Square Enix (in this case, Microsoft).

But look beyond the dearth of new franchises or the flagship series rehashes -- the irrelevance and creative void of the company goes deeper. If one looks at the handheld DS, for instance, this trait is illuminated in crystal clarity. The system has its dual screen, one of which doubles as a touch screen, and these features allow for plenty of potential innovations. But these new ideas won't be found in Square Enix's offerings, not at all. The company's biggest title, Final Fantasy III, actually eschews one of the two screens for nearly all of the gameplay -- in order to conserve processing power to squeeze out extra graphical oomph (processing power that, it must be noted, would be readily available in spades on the PSP). Other games, such as Dragon Quest Heroes, Children of Mana, and Egg Monster Hero, follow a similar course and run far, far away from anything that could be considered new or untraditional. If one wants to see innovation on the DS, they'll need to look elsewhere -- to companies such as Garakuda Studio (of Lost Magic and, formerly, Magic Pengel fame), or HAL Laboratory (with its touch screen reliant Pokemon Ranger), or Brownie Brown or Nintendo EAD or Grasshopper Manufacture or Atlus. One can look forward to a similar absence of creative vision on the equally innovative Wii, where Square Enix promises a game that allows the player to slash a sword by waving a remote. Gee. Now THAT's original.

Are there new gameplay ideas being experimented with on the home consoles though? Again, sadly, no. Can you think of more than, to be generous, three to five genuinely new, interesting, and quality gameplay innovations Square Enix has pioneered on a home console? I can't. Instead, I can only think of companies like Capcom with its Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, or Level 5 and its Dark Cloud 2, or Namco with Venus & Braves or Atlus with Persona 3 and Shin Megami Tensei 3 or Success with Metal Saga or Nautilus with Shadow Hearts or Konami with Suikoden III. Eclipsed indeed, Square Enix.

As we move into the next console generation, there's not much room for optimistic hopes. Square Enix promises an exploitative, neverending parade of one new Final Fantasy title after another and a continued lack of true innovation (replaced by gorgeous graphics) while other companies pick up the slack for determining the creative direction of the RPGs of the future. With bigger and bigger budgets for the most cutting edge of graphical achievement, Square Enix has bet its future on steadily dwindling sales and interests, relying upon the blockbuster success of a machine priced obscenely outside the mainstream of affordability. And where are the ideas? Where is the compelling vision being presented? The best the company can come up with is Yoichi Wada's cheapskate prattlings about cutting costs by limiting bug-testing in favor of downloadable patches, or recouping costs for their colossal interactive movies by inserting in-game advertisements.

Truly, we're watching unfold before our eyes the twilight days of a stumbling dinosaur, unaware of its own marginalization and irrelevance.

Square Enix: Rightful Market Leader
by Bryan Boulette

Square and Final Fantasy, Enix and Dragon Quest. These two have been the greatest rivals for decades, ever since their two franchises were born at the start of the Japanese RPG development industry post-Ultima. Though many others shortly followed -- Sega's Phantasy Star on the Master System, or other Famicom titles like Nintendo's Mother and Fire Emblem, Falcom's Ys and CreaTech's Metal Max and Koei's Uncharted Waters -- none caught on with a hungry gaming public the way Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest did. Now, twenty years later, these series are still going, as strong as ever. But there's a difference.

Where these were once two competing series by two antagonistic companies, now Square and Enix have become one. No longer rivals, now Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are in tandem the banner games of the largest and most successful RPG company ever, and one which is growing stronger all the time. Far from being an irrelevance, Square Enix continues to define the RPG landscape -- they are, above any other developer and publisher, the standard-bearers of "mainstream," but the company has yet to grow so large that it refuses to take groundbreaking risks or publish games destined to commercially flop yet rack up critical plaudits.

It's impossible not to recognize the continuing influence the company has over RPGs, its continued wild popularity with the gamers that make all of this possible. While a nominal RPG like Pokemon does consistently win out the sales battles in Japan and RPG, when it comes to everything else, no other game comes close to the persevering and persistent dominance demonstrated by Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy X has pulled in well over five million in worldwide sales, while its sequel has racked up an impressive three and a half million in just Japan and America. Dragon Quest VIII, meanwhile, has pulled an equally staggering four and a half million (and rising daily!) in worldwide sales.

What other game series can come close? Suikoden, perhaps? Its third installment couldn't crack half a million in Japan and the US. Nintendo? Its RPGs are too spotty, too infrequent, and never the central focus of the company -- and even then, Pokemon aside, they've nowhere near the popularity (Fire Emblem only wishes it could achieve sales like Final Fantasy Tactics, and only on Mother's best day could it measure up to a B-tier Square Enix franchise like Mana). Sega, perhaps? With the Phantasy Star series in stuck in an evolutionary quandary (a less generous man might term this a "demise"), Sega has achieved atrocious sales for its once sterling Shining Force series, and its last Great New Thing, Skies of Arcadia, barely made a dent beyond the hardest of the core. Will Atlus save us? Call me when a single one of their games can crack a million.

And far from being in a decline of some sort, Square Enix is actually expanding its roster of hits. In Kingdom Hearts, Square Enix has actually managed to do what few companies manage achieve -- they've added yet another megahit, multimillion-selling series to their already impressive roster. The original game has sold around four and a half million worldwide, and its first spinoff pulled over one and a half. Three enormously successful, blockbuster franchises and a literal stable full of smaller hit series -- is this the sign of a company that's falling out of favor with consumers?

Sales aside, there's no denying the quality of the games Square Enix has created this generation. From the much praised Final Fantasy X (which was as instrumental to the PS2's early successes as the landmark Final Fantasy VII was for the system's predecessor) to Final Fantasy XII, to Valkyrie Profile 2 and Front Mission 5 to Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song and Crystal Chronicles, this is a company that yields consistent quality. And then there's Dragon Quest VIII. The same original development team as always -- Yuji Horii on game design and scenario, Akira Toriyama on character and monster designs, and Koichi Sugiyama on music -- returned to create one of the most groundbreaking RPGs this entire generation, all while remaining religiously true to the series' old school roots. In presenting this magical experience of a game, for the first time ever the team created something that allowed the user to become fully immersed in the world he was exploring, visiting every hidden nook and cranny, finding mysterious puzzles and ancient ruins that were there simply for the sake of being there and establishing a world with a quieter, more subtly realistic (yet still wondrous) history. It was also the first time that Toriyama's unique artistic style could really be properly emulated within a game itself, and that, too, served as a remarkable step forward.

Beyond being yet another financial success, Kingdom Hearts stands as a living, breathing testament to Square Enix's dedication to continuing to create new viable franchises. Multiphasic properties -- new brand names that spread across multiple forms of media, from manga to anime to games -- were a brilliant idea, and though the games created under that title (including the Fullmetal Alchemist and Code Age Commander lines) have so far struggled, it doesn't mitigate the value of the idea itself and the truth of Square Enix's desire to continue establishing new IPs. Meanwhile, though Crystal Chronicles does marginally bear the Final Fantasy name, it practically stands on its own as a new series -- developed by a new studio formed with Square Enix employees led by the talented Akitoshi Kawazu, the game brought an innovative approach to multiplayer RPGing, combining both competitive and cooperative gameplay to create a frenetic, visually and aurally beautiful hit.

Kawazu's name bears repeating. The slander of "fails to innovate" simply cannot be tossed at any company that not only employs this man, but gives him a position of high power (he's currently a top executive producer in addition to retaining duties directing games at will). In executive producing Crystal Chronicles, Kawazu reiterated what was already well known about him -- the guy's a nutty visionary. Nowhere is this clearer than in the games he makes personally. Unlimited SaGa was the sort of incredibly difficult, incredibly different game that was destined to face popular revulsion... and yet, even so, it got a greenlight and Kawazu got to continue making his dreams reality. Through Unlimited and Romancing SaGa, the director continues to persevere in favor of extreme difficulty and non-linearity in his games, two traits seldom seen in Japanese RPGs these days. And working right alongside Kawazu is he who is beloved of all critics near and far, Yasumi Matsuno, the creator of such highly praised niche classics as Ogre Battle, Tactics Ogre, and Vagrant Story. He, too, received the opportunity at Square Enix to continue creating his visions, and for his efforts (and Square Enix's funding of his ambitious Final Fantasy XII), Matsuno became only the second director in history to receive two perfect scores in the prestigious Famitsu magazine as FFXII was inducted as the sixth game with that 40/40 honor.

Then, when producer Yoshinori Kitase went to the executives at Square Enix with his desire to make a first-person shooter -- a genre scorned and avoided by the Japanese public, despite being one of Kitase's favorite genres -- he, too, got the greenlight, and Dirge of Cerberus was born. If you're noticing a trend here, it's this: when Square Enix's talented and creative directors and producers come up with an idea, the company seems more than willing to bankroll it, even if it's a riskier venture that faces an uncertain public welcome. If plastering the Final Fantasy name on the product to help such a shaky new idea sell, so as not to be immediately rejected by a hive-minded conservative culture, then what's the harm? The name doesn't in any serious way degrade the product, and it allows Square Enix to make such innovative new games while mitigating their potential to financially damage the company. Where's the harm in that?

It's easy to look at the games once identified as "Enix properties" and use them as evidence to say that Square Enix no longer has the publishing acumen that Enix once did. But this, too, would be incorrect. In fact, Square Enix has simply integrated Enix's ability to seek out fresh talent amongst independent developers with the prime real estate of Square's stable of franchise names. The company's willingness to rely upon skilled second parties like Brownie Brown (Sword of Mana), Next Entertainment (Children of Mana), Jupiter Corporation (Chain of Memories), and so on, has freed up its internal development teams to focus on the larger, more critical projects -- the sort of games that take many months and many millions to make. And while it's true that the company has largely broken its ties with old school Dragon Quest developers like Heartbeat, Artepiazza, and Chunsoft, Level 5 is most assuredly not an inadequate replacement. tri-Ace, a staple of Enix's glory days in the PSX and SNES eras, remains a staple of the company's publishing portfolio -- just on the PS2, the ever-reliable developer has provided the third Star Ocean game, a Director's Cut to same, a sequel to cult classic Valkyrie Profile, and the fresh and funny new Radiata Stories.

This continued growth and expansion is largely thanks to the teams of talented developers within the company, but it's also in large part due to the work of Yoichi Wada, who seldom receives the credit he deserves. While some have maliciously put him down as a mere businessman lacking in creative ideas or a hands-on understanding of game-making, it's his skills at business that have in many ways allowed the company to prosper. While some of his ideas may seem odious to the ridiculously fainthearted purists, it's worth bearing in mind that Wada has consistently pursued opportunities for the company in new fields -- Square Enix helped to drive the success (still growing!) of the mobile gaming market in Japan through its episodic Before Crisis, and Square Enix will continue profiting through future Final Fantasy releases such as Final Fantasy XIII Agito and Dirge of Cerberus' Lost Episode. Additionally, Square Enix saw the value in online gaming well before most companies did, and thus put a large emphasis on its PlayOnline network; and while PlayOnline hasn't yielded quite the dividends that the company hoped, its Final Fantasy XI (which, when first announced, prompted an enormous negative response at the idea of turning a main numbered Final Fantasy game into a MMORPG) has been an incredible success. Wada looks to further continue Square Enix's growth in online gaming, as he looks at PCs as an extremely important, though frequently overlooked, medium, as well as having offered extensive praise to Nintendo for its free online service, which Wada promised to make heavy use of. And third, Square Enix saw the promise offered by the Nintendo DS well before most third party publishers in Japan -- while most of them expected the PSP to slaughter the DS, and arrayed their development costs accordingly, Wada saw the opposite, and most of Square Enix's handheld development has gone to the (now overwhelmingly) successful DS, whose successes have been carried back to Square Enix as well.

As we move into the next console generation, there can be little question that Square Enix remains at the very top of its game and is every bit as important to the RPG market as a whole as well as to both critics and gamers themselves. This is a company that will create not just one, but TWO must-own RPG consoles next-gen. While the Wii possesses a follow-up to Crystal Chronicles (one which appears to be absolutely breathtaking, as well as much darker than its predecessor) as well as a new Dragon Quest game -- one which, for the first time ever, has series creator Yuji Horii so excited that he's involved himself in his main series capacity on this spinoff. And then there's Final Fantasy XIII, which looks amazing beyond words -- and if there's one thing I've heard since E3, it's "While the PS3 is back-breaking expensive, Final Fantasy XIII is the game that can make me spend 600$." Words like that bespeak of the company's continued allure to consumers.

With its unmatchable production values, a dedication to innovation, and the unwavering allegiance of millions of fans, there's no question that Square Enix will, when the dust of the next-gen war settles, still be right on top, where it's always belonged.

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