Friday, 5 August 2011

So, what's the deal with 'Squenix'?

A marriage made in heaven? Only for the shareholders...and possibly those emo types

Ok, so this one is a bit of a rant.

During what I would consider to be gaming's 'golden age' (the 90's), there were many developers and publishers I greatly admired. The likes of Capcom, Konami, Namco and Rare etc, all treated the world to some pretty mind blowing titles. However, being a big RPG fan, there were two companies in particular that I held in the highest of regards: Square and Enix.

Purveyors of the two biggest RPG franchises in Japan (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest), these two behemoths of the role-playing scene could seemingly do very little wrong. Indeed a brief foray into the back catalogues of both is like pouring over a who’s who of the iconic Japanese RPG, and a list that includes the likes of Chrono Trigger, Valkyrie Profile, Illusion of Gaia, Xenogears, Secret of Mana, Ogre Battle and Bahamut a stark reminder of just how good things were.

A healthy rivalry between the two houses kept fans delirious, and the games fresh and innovative. Even differing approaches to developing games, fielded similarly dazzling results. Whereas Square would develop the majority of their titles in house, Enix would work closely with outsourced developers; these included the likes of Chun Soft (Dragon Quest), tri-Ace (Star Ocean) and, the mighty Quintet (Terranigma, ActRaiser, Soul Blazer). And even though their titles were often vastly different in execution, they were united by the fact they were usually of a very high quality.

As the 90's wore on, Square's determination to crack the US and European mainstream became more apparent. They eventually achieved this in 1997 with the resplendent landmark that was Final Fantasy VII; this was then followed up by an aggressive campaign, which saw the release of probably the biggest and finest batch of translated RPGs western gamers had ever seen (Square's 'Summer of Adventure' from 2000 for example).

The news was not however, all good, the culmination of this campaign was 2001's commercially suicidal 'Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within' CG movie (which I actually quite liked to be honest). The film cost a 'Shenmue-esque' amount of money to create and bombed horrifically. This mistake put a not insignificant dent in Square’s coffers, and put their film making exploits on a hiatus, until the release of 2005’s ‘Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children’.

Square’s blueprint was in complete contrast to Enix, who had employed a more 'Japan-centric' strategy throughout the 90's (and had actually decided to shut their North American offices between 1995 and 1999). However, big delays in 1999's flagship title; Dragon Quest VII meant the company's finances took a heavy beating, this, coupled with the purchase of Game Arts (of Grandia fame) also left Enix in pretty bad nick fiscally.

All this economic uncertainty eventually led to rumblings that a merger between the two companies could be on the cards. These rumblings eventually turned to roars and on 1st April 2003, the two companies did merge to form Square-Enix...which I have lovingly dubbed 'Squenix' (cute I know). Apparently this deal had been mooted since early 2001, seems abundantly clear to me though that it was mutual monetary woes that really forced them into bed together.

Being honest, this day should have been one of the greatest in the history of video gaming, and I for one was overjoyed at the time. Convinced that we would see some of the most monumental cross overs of talent since the immortalised Chrono Trigger 'Dream Team of Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball animator), Hinoboru Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy creator), Yuji Hori (Dragon Quest creator) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger soundtrack), I awaited the oncoming storm of brilliance with baited breath. It never really appeared though...

In the years that Square Enix has existed as a sole entity, they have undoubtedly released some great games on a variety of platforms, but for me it just seems like most of the magic has disappeared (especially in the past 3 years or so). In the home console market, the company appears to have become little more than a glorified publisher of mediocre offerings, aimed at a very Americanised market ('Nier' I’m looking at you). My other (and perhaps more serious) bone of contention is the business strategy that Squenix refers to as ‘polymorphic content’. This is explained (by them) as “getting all the juice possible from a jackpot”. I prefer to call it 'cash cowing', and it's a practice that pleases me not. I mean, just how many Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest remakes and add-ons can they actually throw at us?!

Having said all that, Squenix has still released some fantastic games, and the handheld world in particular has benefited immensely from this.

We saw a wonderful remake of Seiken Densetsu (aka Holy Sword Legend, aka Final Fantasy Adventure) called Sword of Mana on the Gameboy Advance. A gorgeous graphic and musical overhaul combined with some much-needed padding for the story really helped to bring this title alive. It was a wonderful reminder of just how great this terribly underrated little gem was (and still is).

The sublime 'The World Ends With You', which gives a modern day take on the action RPG genre, took everyone by surprise. With visuals supposedly inspired by the youth culture of Shibuya, it had the potential to be one of those cringe worthy attempts at making a game ‘trendy’. As it turned out, it was pretty refreshing, well executed and a genuine break from the castles, inns and mountains we often see in RPGs. It was also fitted the DS youth demographic perfectly and probably helped to introduce a whole raft of new gamers to the RPG genre.

Let us also not forget, the ever-graceful Final Fantasy Tactics series, which seems to have now found a perfect home, away from the glare of the brutally fought pixel power wars (PS3, Xbox 360). The series is now revelling in the cosseting RPG laden communities of the DS and PSP formats. It remains in my eyes, one of the few bright stars in the modern day Final Fantasy universe, with fantastic characters, story and battle system very rarely bettered (though much borrowed).

Straddling both the home and handheld console markets is Kingdom Hearts, a series that looked like nothing more than a cynical (albeit pretty) Disney tie in, has actually turned out to be rather special. It has that warmth to it that you don’t often experience these days, but will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has played earlier Square titles such as Legend of Mana or Dewprism. Imaginative use of well-known characters from both studios’ vaults makes it instantly appealing to younger players, but it also has an underlying challenge to it that will keep veteran gamers entertained in equal measure.

We then arrive at what was probably the finest title ever to grace the PS2…Dragon Quest VIII (Journey of the Cursed King); this glorious game somehow managed to capture everything that is or ever was good about Squenix. It boasted sumptuously cel-shaded visuals that surpassed even the likes of the gorgeous Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and, (dare I say it) the pioneering Jet Set Radio. It was easily one of the finest looking games of the entire 128-bit generation. Brilliant voice acting (for a change), fantastic story and 80 plus hours worth of game play make this one of the all time great RPG experiences…if you can, go and buy it immediately (seriously, it’s only about £10 these days)!!

Honourable mentions also go out to Dragon Quest IX (DS), Radiata Stories (PS2), Star Ocean: The Last Hope (PS3 and 360) and a brilliant (though slightly cynical) re-release of Chrono Trigger on the DS.

Once again though, I unfortunately find myself drawn to what are numerous and momentous disappointments and letdowns.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles…oh dear, a game that showed so much potential, and even the possibility of (finally) replacing the legendary Secret of Mana (in terms of being multi player action RPG at least). It actually ended up being nothing more than a cynical ploy from Squenix by attempting to appease Gamecube owners for the lack of a 'real' Final Fantasy title on the machine (PS2 owners were treated to Final Fantasy X). I can even imagine the board room discussions going on at the company at the time; "How can we extort some money out of those childish Nintendo owners? I know, a slow, sluggish and not very fun multi-player game will be just what they're waiting for" (well, kind of like that only more, you know, Japanese). This game even reached new levels of not being fun by requiring one member of your party to permanently carry an urn which was essential to your staying alive...seriously.

The shafting of Nintendo owners continued with Squenix publishing the unbelievably bad Major Minor's Majestic March. Now, for those (fortunate ones) who've not heard of this, it's a musical rhythm game from the creators of PaRappa the Rapper...sounds fine so far no? Well, as with many Wii games (this isn't just Squenix to be fair) it wasn't finished properly and as a result, the controls just don't work that well. Sure, it looks nice, and fans of PaRappa may actually be lured in...but honestly, you'd have more fun giving the money away instead.

This stream of awfulness doesn't just extend to Nintendo's fans, oh no, feast your eyes on this slew of mediocrity:
  • Quantum of Solace (PS3, 360)
  • The Last Remnant (360)
  • Gyromancer (360, PC)
  • Supreme Commander 2 (PC, 360)
  • Just Cause 2 (PS3, 360)
  • Mindjack (PS3, 360)
Now I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if you contrast that little list with the likes of Chrono Cross, Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Vagrant Story and Mystic doesn't really stack up too well.

There also seems to have been an inexplicable shying away from really well received and much loved franchises in recent years. Still no new Chrono game, no continuation of Xenogears (I know Xenosaga is a spiritual successor but it's not a direct follow up), no real successor to Seiken Densetsu 3 and, come to think of it, still no (official) English translation. You'd have thought that whilst pillaging the back catalogue, they'd have found time to sort this one out.

Then we have the rather depressing (in my eyes at least) acquisition of Eidos. Now I do understand that for a company to be truly multinational and have global appeal, it needs to cater to all audiences...but I'm sorry, Eidos were never more than pushers of over hyped and underwhelming (Championship Manager apart) titles in the first place. Little has changed since they became part of the Squenix family either and at the risk of sounding like a bit of a zealot here, I've no interest in seeing the company plough money (and lots of it) into the likes of Tomb Raider and Deus EX.

And finally, onto the one that hurts the most...just what has happened to the once glorious and infallible Final Fantasy series?

Ignoring the multitude of spin-offs and remakes, the series that is beloved by probably anyone who has ever enjoyed a console RPG has been going down hill since it’s 10th (X) instalment ended. In my opinion, the trouble started with the quite greedy release of Final Fantasy X-II. A direct sequel to a Final Fantasy game is something we hadn't seen before and it seems to have been what kicked off this idea of 'polymorphic-cash cowing-robbery' that has since plagued the series.

We were then treated to instalment MMORPG (which should be depressing enough), this never really worked on anything other than a PC, so that's a good way to treat loyal console fans. In fact, in Britain, I don't think there was even a network to play the PS2 version on, great stuff.

That entry was kind of a blueprint for XII, which did have a lot going for it, but it felt strangely like a PC game to me that had been dumbed down for console use. For all it’s glamour, the game left me feeling cold and uninterested. Unusual aspects such as not being able to talk to all the NPC's added to this cold feeling too, as did the updated battle system, which again felt like something lifted from a real time PC game (I realise that one does make me sound like I'm actually tied to the 90's).

This brings us neatly on to XIII, which I'm actually slightly embarrassed to say I've never even played, such has been my recent apathy for the series. Even a glowing recommendation from one of my great friends who is an RPG and Final Fantasy connoisseur couldn't help muster any enthusiasm for it's overly emo (seriously, those haircuts annoy me), and just plain moody lead characters. As it's now standard practice, this game is also due to spawn a sequel which, will no doubt be full of funky haired but very emotionally retarded teenagers who can't decide whether love is more important saving the world.

Strangely though, that little tirade isn't what annoys me most about the Final Fantasy series these days, it's this remake-itis that seems have gripped the whole of Square Enix. They're at it with most of the big franchises, Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, SaGa, but with Final Fantasy, they've taken it to another level. What's properly baffling to me though is that they've stopped at number 5 (V). Now, I'm sure Squenix will have some elaborate excuse ready as to why this is the case but lets be honest about this, the real and only reason why VI and VII haven’t yet been remade is because the company is scared…scared of messing them up.

When it comes to Final Fantasy VI and VII, we're talking about the two most revered games in Square's history, adored by millions, and immortalised by critics worldwide. It doesn't take a genius to imagine the uproar it would cause if they got these two wrong...we'd probably be talking about some sort of insurrection at Squenix HQ in Shibuya. It's not good enough though, they need to grow some balls, don't remake Romancing SaGa 3 on the DS, in fact, don't even make Final Fantasy XIV, just plough that money made from woeful American games into remaking VI and VII. And if they can't muster that, then at least VII should be given a proper translation (long overdue as it is).

Overall, I can't help but feel sad when I think of Square Enix these days, and bitter at the fact that it makes me feel sad.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on them though, because the cold fact is that these are troubling times for Japanese video game companies on the world wide stage. Nintendo no longer commands the respect of the third parties that it once did, and Sega has dropped out the home console market completely (and will probably never get back in). In addition to this, recent years have seen a huge shift in the power base from Japan to America. We now have a western population that is much happier shelling out it’s hard earned on the likes of Halo, Call of Duty and FIFA rather than Mario and Sonic et al. Realism and (more specifically) war are now the order of the day, and these two styles of video game are not something that Japanese producers are historically good at or interested in. The likes of Dragon Quest, King of Fighters and Ridge Racer will always do well in Japan, but perhaps no longer on western shores.

That said, I’d be much happier having a Squenix that was worth a lot less in yen and was producing games of real quality than one that rakes it in from peddling shite...alas, this romantic notion will never catch on I fear.

So, please forgive me if these are the ramblings of a grumpy old man, unhappily pining for things to be the way they once were (indeed, maybe it is). It does though seem certain to me, that there has been a considerable change in the landscape at Square Enix. Originality, boldness and creativity have given way to greed, monotony, caution and perhaps desperation. It is blindingly clear in my eyes that this marriage is one of convenience rather than love...and in these eyes that is what’s known as a sham.

If only I'd been present when they asked "if anyone objects to this union, let him speak now"...

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