1996-1997

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‘Arc the Lad II’ 1996
The original ‘Arc the Lad’ title was one of the first RPGs (debatably THE first) to appear on the Playstation. Although only roughly 10 hours long, the game was greatly expanded by the presence of an optional dungeon that needed to be descended through and back again in one sitting and constituted a hundred tactical battles in all. This dungeon gave the game staying power because players had to fill the gap between the release of Arc I and II due to the fact that the game unexpectedly finishes on a massive cliff-hanger with the villains ruling the known world and our heroes on the run. Cleared game data could be saved after taking out the final boss and imported into Arc the Lad II, which followed soon-after.

Status bars tell you everything you need to know on the fly.

Status bars tell you everything you need to know on the fly.

Developed by ARC Entertainment (a subsidiary group of SCEI) and published in collaboration with Working Designs, the sequel built upon everything found in the original title and more than tripled the content. Although the game picks up less than a year after the original and immediately continues its story, the title bravely makes the decision not to pick up with the original games cast, but rather to shift the focus onto a new group living inside this evil-dominated world. People on the whole are oblivious to the sinister nature of their government and the original cast, Arc included, are painted as terrorists making hit and run attacks on a lawful leadership. The player, having experienced the previous title, knows this is not the case, but the characters do not and clashes between the two groups and misunderstandings emerge that make for an extremely well written narrative. Eventually in the games third act the two groups do unite into one force, and those who have imported game data will find a wealth of items and character levels safely kept saved into the new title. Saved data from Arc II could also be ported into the next title in the series, ‘Arc the Lad III’ which took the series fully 3D from its sprite-based roots.

Combat is deep but feels light and breezy.

Combat is deep but feels light and breezy.

A Tactical RPG in genre, much like ‘Shining Force’ the game encourages exploration and story elements through encounters with NPCs that are more akin to ‘Final Fantasy’ in tone. Optional quests are offered through a ‘Hunter’ system where jobs are taken on and cashed in for rewards, and monster catching and training is introduced early to further bulk out an army of powerful characters in addition to the two casts available. Arc the Lad II was received so well in Japan that it quickly spawned a spin-off title for the Wonderswan (Arc the Lad: Resurrection of the Machine God) and a bonus disc ‘Arc Arena: Monster Tournament’ which allowed saved data to be ported in and out of Arc II and focused much more tightly on monster training and mini-games, with levels and items able to be sent back to the main game. The only other occurrence of this kind of bonus disc treatment was for ‘Shining Force III’ on the Sega Saturn, and required that players had already completed all three individual scenarios across three game releases.

Elc makes for a great protagonist.

Elc makes for a great protagonist.

Sadly neither Arc the Lad nor Arc II or III were made available outside of Japan, leaving Playstation 2 title ‘Arc: Twilight of the Spirits’ to carry the torch in the west alone. In 2002 a limited run of the first three games in the Arc series and the Arena disc were included in an official ‘Arc the Lad Collection’ set which also featured a documentary disc on the making of the series, a 150 page leather bound instruction book, Omake box and ‘standees’ of all 22 main characters, analogue stick covers and a custom memory card. The price for the collection was extremely high, but the game sold out almost immediately and the consensus was that the content justified the price of admission. In 2013 Working Designs placed Arc I-III and Arena onto the Playstation Network as a part of their PSOne classics range, allowing everyone to enjoy the series for the first time at a reduced price and keeping the games inter-functionality intact.

Bahamut Lagoon ‘1996’
Released only in Japan (although unofficially translated for emulation by DeJap Translations Group), Bahamut Lagoon is a Tactical RPG developed by Square for the SNES, showing that continued sales for the console alongside the newer Playstation and Saturn systems was possible.

With a production staff consisting of key members from the ‘Final Fantasy’ series, including Hironobu Sakaguchi in a supervising role, Kazushige Nojima as directior and Motomu Toriyama as the story planner, Square spared no expense on turning this strategy title into a work of art. Composer Noriko Matsueda scored the game alone and its graphical style was unique on the system in a period where Nintendo were pushing for 3D rendered sprites in an effort to compete with the other consoles on the market graphically, as can be seen in ‘Donkey Kong Country’.

Characters are rendered in a different art style for Square.

Characters are rendered in a different art style for Square.

Unlike other Tactical RPGs, Bahamut Lagoon features not movement of individual characters on the battlefield but squads selected by the player which when engaged in combat battle in traditional turn-based fashion. Party composition plays a large part in deciding how a squad operates in the field, with buffs granted for grouping units of a similar class but an overall lack of diversity and group weakness impeding them in the field. Dragons take the centre stage of most skirmishes however, with them acting as computer controlled variables on the field that the player can give rough commands to but never outright control. More powerful than anything else in the game, their stats can be guided by feeding them items outside of battle and each has a massive tree of possible forms based on where you specialise them. Other small features include elemental effects on the maps themselves, with lakes capable of being frozen with ice magic or melted again with fire (which also burns trees) and dwellings serving as health regeneration points if a turn is ended on one.

Maps are complex and feature additional challenges.

Maps are complex and feature additional challenges.

Selling 474,860 copies on launch in 1996 and becoming the 17th best-selling game of the year, Bahamut Lagoon would later see release on the Virtual Console in Japan in 2009, and on the Wii U in 2014. However, despite multiple announcements that it would see a release abroad, it has never received an official translation into English. The ‘Bahamut’ title has been used on other Square games, though none have been directly linked to Lagoon.

‘Pokémon (Original Generation)’ 1996
Developed for the Game Boy by Satoshi Tajiri, who has stated that he intended to recapture the popular pastime of insect collecting that he enjoyed as a child, Pokémon takes direct influence from ‘The Final Fantasy Legend’ series, which proved that titles other than action games would work on Nintendo’s handheld platform. Working for a company called Game Freak, who had collaborated with Nintendo on games in the past, Tajiri pitched the concept.

Eevee, the best Pokemon ever!

Eevee, the best Pokemon ever!

A small team was dedicated to the project, consisting of just 10 people who would be responsible for creating the game as well as conceiving all 151 Pokémon that would appear in the game. Tajiri then gave the final go ahead to each and drew them from multiple angles to help in the process of turning them into in-game sprites. Music for the game was the work of composer Junichi Masuda, who utilized the four sound channels the Game Boy possessed to create the soundtrack and effects. In particular the Pokémon ‘cries’ that could be heard upon encountering them. He has stated that the game’s opening theme (‘Monster’) was produced with the image of battle scenes in mind, using white noise to sound like marching music and imitate a snare drum.

Originally titled Capsule Monsters, which echoed the system used in Lufia II, the game went through several alternate titles before settling on Pocket Monsters, abbreviated quickly to Pokémon. Tajiri believed that Nintendo would ultimately reject the game, an opinion brought about by a series of misunderstandings between the two companies when discussing it, and believed that they didn’t really ‘get’ what he was trying to accomplish with it. However declining sales of the Game Boy and the quality of the product (which used all of the various functions of the Game Boy at the time) led to it seeing release and quickly becoming a success. Miyamoto, aware of the games popularity and collection-themed concept, suggested splitting the Pokémon in the game between two/three different carts to capitalise on the trading aspect.

Pocket Monsters: Red and Green were the versions released initially in Japan, with a Blue version made available by mail-order only. The games trading aspect, which used the Game Boy link cables and also allowed for 2 player battling between teams of Pokémon, was a massive success and the character of Mew, who had initially been a prank on the part of Shigeki Morimoto, was made available from special rode-show events. Game Freak admits that dropping hints about a hidden character in the game and occasionally releasing images of Mew kept interest in the game higher than it otherwise would have been, and the early attention that the internet was receiving allowed crazy theories on how to collect him to go viral.

Towns are named after colours so you can tell where you are based on the shades on-screen.

Towns are named after colours so you can tell where you are based on the shades on-screen.

For release in the west the source code from Blue had to be re-written from scratch due to an error which prevented the successful integration of English text into the game. Nintendo of America suggested that Game Freak take this opportunity to ‘beef up’ the designs for the Pokémon and make them look more fierce and adult for the western market, however the president of Nintendo at the time (Hiroshi Yamauchi) refused this idea and when the Red and Blue versions were released abroad they were met with critical success. Sales of the Game Boy increased as people brought the hand held to play it, with many purchasing two copies of the game. An advanced ‘Yellow’ edition would later follow with additional graphics and more story related content.

Although the concept of monster catching had been used before in RPGs, the lasting legacy of the Pokémon series is that fundamentally each iteration of the concept as of the games release has been inspired directly by the series. A glut of ‘Pokémon clones’ hit the market soon after, with the sub-genre quickly becoming the largest form of mobile RPG.

‘Star Ocean’ 1996
In 1994 Wolf Team signed a deal with Namco to release Tales of Phantasia, which later saw release on the SNES in 1995 in Japan. The development cycle for Tales was however plagued with in-fighting and creative differences between the publisher and developers led to much of the team leaving to form a new company which they named Tri-Ace.

Tri-Ace would jump back into the RPG genre almost immediately, producing a second 48 megabit game with a real-time battle system, however unlike Tales, Star Ocean would also have access to the S-DD1 Chip to aid in graphical compression and allow for a larger title. This freed the team to experiment with the compression of sound, which they had been pioneering on their last game, and enabled them to include more examples of spoken dialogue than they has accomplished in the past. For the first time different voice clips could be played depending on the scenario, allowing for taunts to weaker enemies and frantic delivery when overpowered or outmatched.

Locations are full of small details.

Locations are full of small details.

The games key draw was an unexpected rug-pull in the first hour of play. Initially led the believe that the game was a traditional fantasy setting as experienced before and was common for the time, the player party climbed to the top of a mountain to cure a mysterious disease that was turning their families to stone and were greeted by the crew of a starship. This sudden and immediate shift in tone, seen through the eyes of the fantasy characters and employing culture shock, immediately grabbed players at the time. Shades of ‘Star Trek’ are evident in the games science fiction elements and this was capitalised upon for the games packaging design.

Released in 1996 and despite having been featured in American publications at the time, Star Ocean wouldn’t see an official release outside of Japan. Enix America ceased to publish games in America by the end of 1995 and the game would require re-recording a substantial amount of dialogue in addition to translating the text. Nintendo meanwhile had already passed on publishing Tales outside of Japan and was putting the focus onto their new Nintendo 64 console, which was launching at the time. This treatment led to the series jumping to the Playstation for its second instalment, where it was received far more favourably and subsequently saw western release.

Combat takes place in real-time.

Combat takes place in real-time.

A second sequel for the Playstation 2, ‘Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’ was also well received and Sony saw fit to re-release the original two titles on their PSP handheld. Retitled ‘Star Ocean: First Departure’ and ‘Star Ocean: Second Evolution’, these re-released featured upgrades to a new engine that elevated the original title into the same graphical field as its sequel and allowed for players in the west to finally experience it for themselves. A third sequel on the Playstation 3 and X-Box 360 entitled ‘Star Ocean: The Last Hope’ was received with mixed reviews, however an announcement of ‘Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness’ has been made for the Playstation 4 in 2016.

‘The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’ 1996
Prior to working on the Elder Scrolls series, publisher Bethesda had an established track record working on sports games. Beginning tentative development on ‘The Elder Scrolls: Arena’, Bethesda was openly mocked by Sir-Tech, who were working on ‘Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant’ at the time. Designer Ted Peterson recalls “I remember talking to the guys at Sir-Tech who were doing Wizardry VII at the time, and them literally laughing at us for thinking we could do it.” Peterson would work alongside Vijay Lakshman and Julian Lefay to create the game, in part fuelled to prove them wrong.

Even in a massive game, sex still sells.

Even in a massive game, sex still sells.

Although missing their 1993 deadline, the game released early in 1994 and slowly became a cult hit. Work began immediately on a sequel entitled ‘The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’ and Ted Peterson was assigned to role of lead game designer based on the quality of his work on the original. Focussing on a less clichéd fantasy plot than the original title and allowing for multiple conclusions based on in-game choices made by the player, the creative team behind the original were reunited to being its sequel to life.

An improved character generation engine that included a class creation system influenced by the popular pen and paper system ‘GURPS’ was implemented and offered players the opportunity to select the skills they wanted and be given their class based upon their choices, rather than be restricted to the skill tree of a pre-existing class. One of the first fully 3D games, Daggerfall worked using the XnGine and proudly promoted itself as having an in game “world as large as Great Britain” populated with 15,000 towns and 750,000 NPCs. The games narrative took reference from Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ and pen and paper RPG ‘Vampire: The Masquerade’, which were being read and played at the time by Julian LeFay and was played in the office.

Break the law in a town and the guard will be merciless.

Break the law in a town and the guard will be merciless.

Experience points were awarded in game for ‘roleplaying the character’, encouraging players to make decisions that fit their in-game avatar and swiftly punishing those who went out of their way to flaunt the laws of the fictional world. A player can travel almost anywhere inside the fictional world with little hand-holding from the game itself, encouraging exploration of the vast environment that was created.

Released in August of 1996, the initial version of the game suffered from bugs and anomalies that left reviews average, but a quick fix for later versions and the release of a patch led to word of mouth increasing sales. Later games in the series would benefit from a longer testing period before launch, with LeFay stating that “all the stupid patches we had for Daggerfall led to a more cautious release schedule in the future.” Although Ted Peterson would leave Bethesda after Daggerfall’s release, community support by mod makers devoting time to fixing remaining bugs and producing additional content has kept the games popularity high. Additional quests, graphics and gameplay features have all been created using mod-built tools as the game has no official modding tools (as would be incorporated into later games).

‘Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars’ 1996
Considered by some to be Square’s love-letter to Nintendo before jumping ship to the new Playstation console due to the defaulted promise of a CD based add on to the SNES and the announcement of a cart based Nintendo 64 system on the horizon, Yoshio Hongo of Nintendo explains the game’s origins as “Square’s RPGs sold well in Japan but not overseas. There have been calls from all ages, and from young girls, for another character to which they could become attached. Mario was the best, but had not been in an RPG. Nintendo’s director, Mr. Miyamoto also wanted to do an RPG using Mario. There happened to be a chance for both companies to talk, which went well.”

Faux-3D gives the game a more advanced tone than most SNES titles.

Faux-3D gives the game a more advanced tone than most SNES titles.

Not unlike the later alliance with Disney to create the ‘Kingdom Hearts’ franshise, Square and Nintendo would work closely on Super Mario RPG with the game being unveiled by Mario creator Miyamoto and the games co-director Chihiro Fujioka at the 1995 V-Jump festival in Japan. Production was ultimately led by Miyamoto, who incorporated teams from both Nintendo and Square and spent over a year developing the graphics. These would be rendered in a style similar to ‘Donkey Kong Country’ using 3D models and turned into sprite animations, giving the impression of a 3D world actually realised in 2D. The games story, which takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom, focuses on established elements of Mario lore and adds new concepts and characters devised by Square to fit the setting.

Once design and art assets were complete Square devised the games systems and set about making the game work as a functional RPG, combining roleplaying aspects as seen in ‘Final Fantasy VI’ with action orientated elements to keep the franchise’s platforming roots intact. A running joke was made in-game about the character’s ability to jump, a key feature of a character once known as ‘Jumpman’ but hardly ever implemented in RPGs to this day. Eight direction movement was implemented to give a greater sense of freedom in movement and a three-quarter perspective allowed for a larger range of motion. Yoko Shimomura, of Street Fighter II fame, would work on the games music and incorporated various pre-existing tunes from the Mario series into new arrangements. Three tracks were also written for the game by ‘Final Fantasy’ veteran composer Nobuo Uematsu.

Combat makes use of real-time button input on a turn based system.

Combat makes use of real-time button input on a turn based system.

When Nintendo received a 60% complete version of the game in November the staff were surprised by the inclusion of a turn-based battle system with equippable weapons for characters, however clever timing based prompts and the use of items already prevalent throughout the Mario franchise kept the flow of the game remarkably fast and encouraged players to accept it without question. The game would be the only SNES game released outside of Japan to use the Nintendo SA-1 chip which increased the performance speed of the SNES as well as allowing for greater graphical compression and piracy protection. Sadly a PAL version of the game was never made due to the difficulty in optimising the games chip for PAL TV and multiple languages.

Despite favourable sales and positive reviews, no direct sequel to Super Mario RPG exists due to the split between Square and Nintendo after its launch. Nintendo have continued to use the Mario franchise in an RPG setting however, through titles such as ‘Paper Mario’ and ‘Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga’. New characters and the ‘RPG’ title featured in the original game are the property of Square however and no direct links have been made for legal reasons (although a background doll in Superstar Saga resembles one character and Square Enix are credited in the end roll). In 2015 Super Mario RPG was released onto the Virtual Console in Japan, but no announcement of a similar release for English speaking countries has been made despite a translation already existing.

‘Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together’ 1996
The ‘Ogre Battle’ series of Tactical RPGs serves as a precursor to the ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’ series, using similar systems and featuring a similarly dark and adult tone uncommon in the RPGs of the time. Developed by Quest and published on the Sega Saturn by Riverhillsoft and Atlus on the Playstation and SNES, ‘Let us Cling Together’ is in fact the second game in the series, with the terms Tactics Ogre and Ogre Battle used to differentiate between different gameplay systems in later sequels.

Tactics Ogre aims for a serious and adult tone.

Tactics Ogre aims for a serious and adult tone.

Directed, designed and written by Yasumi Matsuno aided by Hiroshi Minagawa, with a score from Hitishi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, the games distinct visual look would be the work of artists Hiroshi Minagawa and Akihiko Yoshida. The title was conceived as the seventh episode in the Ogre Battle saga, and was originally titled Lancelot: Somebody to Love before settling on ‘Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together’, maintaining the motif of naming games in the series after Queen songs and distancing itself from the Ogre Battle title’s more action orientated game style. Matsuno made a concentrated effort to add a sense of reality and lore to his dark fantasy world, claiming that the original “lacked reality” and basing it on a Middle Ages Europe for a more grounded setting.

Tactics Ogre is most notable for its non-linear branching plotline, which was inspired by game books such as ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ at the time. In this manner decisions made by the player determine the path of the story at all times, rather than just setting a course toward one of several intended endings, and these choices can occur out of sequence. Multiple endings are included with radically different outcomes to the games narrative and the game expands to encompass three types of player alignment. Lawful, Neutral and Chaos, which are never portrayed as good/evil in game but rather serve to show the player’s actions and choices. Powerful classes are also locked behind sacrifices in-game that impact the story heavily and may not be the goal of every player.

Combat is turn based and tactical in nature.

Combat is turn based and tactical in nature.

Ports of the game for the Playstation and PSP were made by the games original staff. Though the Playstation port is considered inferior and used the SNES quality soundtrack, the PSP remake brought back the entire team to develop an upgraded edition and revisit key elements of the games design. A ‘World’ system included in the PSP edition allows for a player to jump back into the game and decide to make different choices, experiencing the full scope of the narrative.

The later PSP remake was extremely well received.

The later PSP remake was extremely well received.

‘Wild Arms’ 1996
Developed by Japanese software company Media Vision and released in Japan in 1996 before making it out to the west in December of the same year, Wild Arms as a series uses a relatively rare cowboy western theme, uncommon in a predominantly fantasy based market with shades of science fiction. With a history of producing run and gun style shooters such as ‘Rapid Reload’ for the Playstation, the original Wild Arms was the first RPG Media Vision developed.

Produced by Takashi Fukushima and designed by Akifumi Kaneko, the decision to give the game a distinctly Japanese anime feel was made early in order to smooth over the acceptance of the western setting. To this end artist Yoshihiko Ito was hired to produce all character designs and the animation studio Madhouse was contracted to create an opening sequence accompanying a theme written by composer Michiko Naruke titled ‘Into the Wilderness’. This song, along with the rest of the games soundtrack, was heavily inspired by spaghetti westerns and featured unusual instrument choices such as mandolins and whistling to reproduce the old west sound.

At the time these 3D graphics were cutting edge for an RPG.

At the time these 3D graphics were cutting edge for an RPG.

Alternating between 2D sprite-based exploration segments and fully 3D battle sequences, the game uses an interesting mechanic where each of the three principle characters has their own introduction campaign and access to an item or ability that aids in exploration. Called ‘Tools’ they range from bombs to grappling hooks and are largely tied to story progression. Combat meanwhile gives each character a ‘force bar’ that is divided into four levels and gives each character access to special abilities that helps to set them apart in battle, for example the ‘Mystic’ ability allows the character of Cecilia to use healing items on all characters instead of just one whilst Jack can act first in combat, gaining a tactical advantage.

Exploration took on a more traditional sprite-based look.

Exploration took on a more traditional sprite-based look.

On launch the title received criticism for containing too many puzzles and mini-games, feeling tonally more like an Action RPG than the turn based system it actually employed and relying on player reflexes in key sequences to avoid damage or death. This was felt to punish gamers who had been drawn to the title’s turn based systems and more tactical thinking. It did however receive overall positive reviews and quickly built up a fan following before the release of ‘Final Fantasy VII’ five months later impacted long-term sales. Despite this however the game went on to spawn a series of five more games spread across the Playstation, Playstation 2 and PSP consoles, and received a remake on the PSP under the title ‘Wild Arms: Alter Code F’. This version adds additional character to the existing three and is fully 3D throughout the whole game, switching out the original graphics entirely. The original edition of the game was released onto the Playstation Network as a part of its classics range.

‘Diablo’ 1996
Heavily influenced by the 1982 dungeon crawler ‘Telendard’ from Avalon Hill, Diablo is an Action RPG (sometimes referred to as a hack-and-slash) developed by Blizzard North and released by Blizzard Entertainment on the PC and Macintosh in 1996. Set in the fictional fantasy kingdom of Khanduras in a world known only as Sanctuary, the player is tasked with exploring the dungeons beneath the town of Tristram and entering hell itself to face Diablo.

Loot was a key part of the game.

Loot was a key part of the game.

Designed by Erich Schaefer, David Brevik and Eric Sexton, Diablo started production as a turn-based RogueLike before the team decided that real-time combat made the game more frantic and gave the action of clicking on objects and characters on-screen more drive. Allen Adham, an executive at Blizzard at the time, was adamant that the game should be played in real-time in a similar manner to their previous success ‘Warcraft: Orcs & Humans’ and although they were reluctant to stray too far from their original intentions for the title, the whole team agreed. The action and timing element of the game would go on to be a key reason for the games success and made the game stand out at the time of release. Plans to render the games world in Claymation in a manner similar to fighting title ‘Clay Fighter’ were scrapped early into development and a 3D isometric viewpoint was used instead. Music for the game was composed by Matt Uelmen and consisted of just six tracks.

In a novel piece of self-advertisement the game requires its CD to play, but a smaller version of the game titled ‘Diablo Spawn’ could be installed onto any computer and run alone. Featuring the first two areas of the dungeon and locking many aspects of the game (including character classes and NPC townfolk) It was however playable in single or multiplayer and could be downloaded online. This handy built-in demo helped word of mouth spread about the game and quickly saw installation on a wide range of computers.

Things quickly got hectic when combat began.

Things quickly got hectic when combat began.

In 1998 a Playstation version of the game was published by EA. Though the game lacked online play it did however feature a local co-op mode for two players and an option to learn the story through narration rather than gathering the various scraps from books the developers had hidden in-game. The game became infamous due to its requiring 10 out of 15 blocks of available memory on a Playstation memory card, which was unheard of at the time. An official expansion pack titled ‘Hellfire’ was also released in 1997 and included a new story, two additional dungeon segments, a fourth class (Monk) and a range of new items and spells.

Diablo received massive critical acclaim and the random nature of many of the games elements (in particular the dropping of loot) lent it great replayability. In 2013 it was awarded the title of number 1 best PC game by GameSpot and was chosen for its ‘Greatest Games of All Time’ list in 2005. As of August 29, 2001, Diablo had sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. A sequel, ‘Diablo II’ was released in 2000 and had its own expansion pack labeled ‘Lords of Destruction’. Spiritual successor ‘Hellgate: London’ moved the action to a more modern real-world setting but was poorly received, and ‘Diablo III’ was launched in 2012.

‘Final Fantasy VII’ 1997
Before 1997 it was largely assumed by the Japanese market that people in the west, in particular English speaking countries, didn’t like RPGs. To this end only occasional releases made their way over as developers didn’t want to risk translating pages of dialogue which may never make the cost back. The reality, that the WRPG was alive and well, wasn’t considered. Regardless, all of that changed with the release of Final Fantasy VII, which drew almost universal acclaim and opened the flood gates to hundreds of JRPGs being released abroad.

Combat is classic ATB

Combat is classic ATB

Planning sessions for Final Fantasy VII began in 1994 immediately after the release of ‘Final Fantasy VI’. At that time the game was intended to be a 2D experience on the SNES as its previous three predecessors had been, with Sakaguchi planning a story that would take place in a future version of New York. The parallel production work on ‘Chrono Trigger’ pulled key members of staff away from the project however, and many aspects of the planned story were used in that title instead, with the city setting and sorceress character of Edea shelved for the later production of ‘Parasite Eve’ and ‘Final Fantasy VIII’.

Development resumed in the latter half of 1995 with the production of an experimental tech demo dubbed ‘Final Fantasy SGI’ which featured characters from ‘Final Fantasy VI’ rendered in 3D and in a real-time battle scenario. As a result of the high memory storage required by such graphics the CD-ROM format was the only suitable one to house the project. When Nintendo announced that the Nintendo 64 would use cartridges as previous systems had done in the past a dispute between Nintendo and Square erupted that ended when Square ceased production of any games for Nintendo and moved all future production to Sony’s Playstation, which was beginning to make a name for itself with titles such as ‘Arc the Lad’ and ‘Suikoden’.

For the first time Sakaguchi made gameplay systems a priority in a Final Fantasy title over the narrative, as development in 3D was proving difficult and the team didn’t want to produce a technically inferior product to those already on the market. Pre-rendered backgrounds with 3D characters were used to alleviate the workload and produce a more realistic presentation, with 3D models unable to render realistic textures at the time. Full Motion Video (FMV) was also incorporated to give the game cinematic scope and to reduce development of particularly difficult assets. Amano, who had developed character art for the series since its inception, was in the process of opening art workshops and exhibitions in France and New York, which limited his involvement with the project and as a result relative newcomer Tetsuya Nomura was appointed to the position of character designer whilst Amano designed the games world map.

Nobuo Uematsu returned to record music and sound effects for the game, using sequenced Playstation format audio similar to the desktop MIDI format that would function at a high level with the internal sound chip on the Playstation. Digitized voices were also recorded for certain tracks to add what Uematsu referred to as ‘realism’.

A three-month long marketing campaign was launched in America before the games launch, including television commercials on major networks and a theatrical trailer showing in cinemas. A cross-promotion with Pepsi, printed adverts in magazines and comics published by DC and Marvel all added to a media frenzy building to the games release. Final Fantasy VII was released without a title change for the first time abroad since the original instalment, and immediately prompted western gamers to start asking where the other entries had been hidden. A PC port of the title was also released at the time, featuring higher resolution graphics, fixed translation issues and removal of several glitches. Its soundtrack, released a month prior to the games launch, was produced as a 4-disc set and sold extremely well.

Locations are memorable

Locations are memorable

Final Fantasy VII was both a critical and commercial success, and set several sales records at launch. Within three days of its release in Japan, the game had sold 2.3 million copies. In the game’s debut weekend in America, it sold 330,000 copies, and reached sales of 500,000 units in less than three weeks. The momentum established in the game’s opening weeks continued for several months and Sony announced the game had sold one million copies in America by early December. Critics praised the games graphics, music and game design, although the story was debatably weaker than previous entries in the series. Winning the award for Game of the Year in 1997, it also won the Origins Award for best RPG, Reader’s Choice and best Console Adventure Game of the Year. Since 1997 it has regularly topped Playstation top 10 lists and is featured in the top 10 games of all time at featured in Time.

Not only did Final Fantasy VII secure the release abroad of future installments in the Final Fantasy series, it also started Square retrospectively re-releasing older titles in the series onto the Playstation, some of which had never been seen outside of Japan. A tie-in film was produced some time later entitled ‘Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children’ and started a series of smaller game releases that all tied into the games narrative. In 2015 it was announced that Final Fantasy VII would be having a HD Remake for the Playstation 4.

‘Ultima Online’ 1997
The product of Richard Garriott’s desire to create a fantasy game where thousands of people can play simultaneously in a shared world, Ultima Online is not the first online game to offer a shared experience, but it does raise the bar significantly from the few hundred people able to play ‘The Realm Online’ or ‘Neverwinter Nights’ and legitimately introduce the term ‘massive’ into the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) genre. Designed to be a significant improvement over the previously stated examples, Garriott began work on the project in 1995 and gathered together a team including Starr Long, Rick Delashmit, Scott Phillips and Raph Koster.

Crowded scenes pain a picture of an inhabited world.

Crowded scenes pain a picture of an inhabited world.

Drawing inspiration from the online games of the time, Koster went by the nick-name ‘Designer Dragon’ and frequently released public letters from the team to maintain interest for Ultima fans over the course of the project’s development, eventually becoming lead designer on the title. Unveiled ad E3 in 1995 as ‘Ultima Online: Shattered Legacy’ the development cost of the title turned out to be much greater than initially anticipated, although the game did manage to incorporate persistent player housing, a skill based progression method free from level and classes and a crafting economy driven by the products created by the players themselves. Player versus Player (PVP) was also introduced in an unrestricted fashion, which would later lead to the character of ‘Lord British’, Garriott’s own in-game avatar being famously killed during an in-game appearance. One of the most memorable MMORPG events in history.

Some elements of the game failed to make the cut, with the world being developed based on the concept of mirroring the food chains and population of our own a system was designed to increase and lower animal populations based on how many specific types players hunted in an environment. This fell apart quickly in the beta however because overzealous players hunted deer into extinction and the whole system broke. Starr Long explained this artificial life system as “Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. The ‘virtual ecology’ affects nearly every aspect of the game world, from the very small to the very large. If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources (e.g., deer). When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.” Whilst later Richard Garriott explained “We thought it was fantastic. We’d spent an enormous amount of time and effort on it. But what happened was all the players went in and just killed everything; so fast that the game couldn’t spawn them fast enough to make the simulation even begin. And so, this thing that we’d spent all this time on, literally no-one ever noticed – ever – and we eventually just ripped it out of the game, you know, with some sadness.”

For many Ultima Online is the only MMORPG they will ever play.

For many Ultima Online is the only MMORPG they will ever play.

Upon launch the game proved extremely popular and quickly amassed 100,000 paying subscribers within the first six months of release. This caused slight lag problems as subscriptions continued to grow and before the years end 250,000 paid accounts existed. In 1998 the game expanded to include a world-wide audience in Europe and later Japan and South Korea by the end of 1999.

In 2000 Richard Garriott resigned from Origin, largely due to the treatment of the company since its new owner EA and their handling of ‘Ultima IX: Ascension’. Due to this his in game avatar vanished. Expansions and special events including an undead invasion that had to be fought off by the players continued to draw a wide audience and official conventions for players began to be arranged in the real-world. Over the course of its run (which continues to this day) the servers and upkeep of Ultima Online have been maintained by Origin, Electronic Arts, Mythic Entertainment and Broadsword, who own the rights and maintain the game at this time.

‘Grandia’ 1997
Developed by Game Arts over a period of over two years, following on from the successful release of ‘Lunar: Eternal Blue’ for the Sega CD, Grandia was a game aimed at bringing the fun and thrill of adventure back into the genre in a market predominantly becoming flooded with brooding protagonists seeking to match the emotionally distant tone of Cloud Strife in ‘Final Fantasy VII’.

I figure this isn't a spoiler since the game has been around for 3 console generations now.

I figure this isn’t a spoiler since the game has been around for 3 console generations now.

Headed by Yoichi Miyaji and directed by Takeshi Miyaji and Toshiaki Hontani, the game was originally intended for release onto the Sega CD, but eventually released onto the Saturn console after Sega abandoned the hardware in favour of their latest release. A spokesperson at Game Arts stated that Grandia was created as a part of the company’s “on-going effort to provide consumers with good games rather than try to follow market trends.” And focuses on a product that would please their existing Lunar inspired fanbase. The Saturn version released in 1997 exclusively in Japan and a limited edition version of the game came with a cloth map of its world in a manner similar to early ‘Ultima’ or ‘Gold Box’ titles as well as a radio drama CD that acted out some of the games key scenes. A second print dubbed the ‘Memorial Package’ was released at a reduced price shortly afterward.

Although Game Arts stated that they had no plans to release Grandia outside of Japan, an online petition was started by roleplaying fansite LunarNET to alert the company to player interest in the wider world. Despite gaining several thousand signatures in a short period of time the game was never release in its Saturn format internationally, however in 1999 a Playstation version of Grandia was showcased at the Tokyo Game Show and there was confirmation that this new edition would be released in English. New features in the Playstation edition would include support for the DualShock analogue stick and vibration functions, as well as connectivity with the Pocketstation (a Japan only peripheral). Ultimately it wasn’t until early 2000 when English speakers finally got their hands on the game.

Combat runs smoothly and is constantly engaging.

Combat runs smoothly and is constantly engaging.

Whilst the Saturn version launched to near-universal acclaim in Japan the Playstation port was greeted with lower sales than the competing RPGs on the console at the time. This was in part due to a terrible English voice cast whose performances were functional but hardly impressive. Still, reviews were favourable with GameSpot rating it higher than the eagerly anticipated ‘Final Fantasy VIII’. In a retrospective in 2007, Eurogamer called the game ‘Fantastic’ and praised the title’s battle system and music, which was written by Noriyuki Iwadare (composer for the Lunar series) and recorded at Skywalker Sound.

10 years after its Playstation release, Game Arts announced that Grandia would be added to Playstation Network as a part of Sony’s classics range. Ultimatly Grandia would prove popular enough to spawn two sequels on the Playstation 2 (Grandia II and III) as well as a number of spin-off games including a bonus disc for the original game labelled a ‘Digital Museum’ an online MMORPG and a Game Boy Colour title set after the events of the game called ‘Grandia: Parrallel Trippers’.

‘Fallout’ 1997
A post-apocalyptic WRPG set in an expansive open world, Fallout was published by Interplay Entertainment in 1997 and saw the player taking on the role of an inhabitant of a long-term shelter known as a Vault who is tasked with saving his friends and family by venturing outside into the wasteland to procure a Water Chip. In many ways Fallout is the spiritual successor to ‘Wasteland’.

Fallout 2

Your character’s clothing would go on to be an icon in the sequels.

Originally intending to use Steve Jackson’s system GURPS as a foundation for Fallout, the development team at interplay (lead by director Feargus Urqyhart) eventually settled on using an internally developed system they dubbed ‘SPECIAL’. This new system, which stood for ‘Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck’ was based around seven attributes and adds bonuses to skills, of which 18 were implemented and could be mastered in a range from 0 to 200%. Moral choices also played a large role in the character’s actions and a statistic called ‘karma’ was implemented to track the depth to which a character had sunk or how loved they were. All of these factors directly impacted the game.

Tim Cain created the game engine and most of the games design and mechanics. Cain stated that ‘we all loved X-COM’ referring to the popular 1994 game ‘’UFO: Enemy Unknown’ which was released in some regions as ‘X-Com’, and set about recreating a combat system for Fallout that was similar in style. Although the game was budgeted at 3 million dollars, Cain worked alone for no pay for a period of 6 months with ‘time’ being his only resource and gathering the expertise of other Interplay employees in their break periods. Once a working model was created however he oversaw the assembly of a team of 30 who worked on the game for another 3 years. Almost cancelled when Interplay acquired the licenses for popular pen and paper RPG settings ‘Forgotten Realms’ and ‘Planescape Dungeons & Dragons’, Cain managed to convince Interplay to let him finish his project and after the success of Diablo fought hard to maintain the games solo-play mechanic in the face of pressure to make the game multiplayer and real-time.

Ron Perlman would later be contracted to provide the narration for the games prologue and recorded the series’ most iconic phrase ‘War. War never changes’ so successfully that he was re-invited to narrate all subsequent titles in the series. Other actors to voice roles included Richard Dean Anderson, David Warner and Tony Shalhoub. At one point Interplay attempted to use the song ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire’ as the theme but were unable to acquire the license. The song was later used instead by Bethesda for ‘Fallout 3’ and the song ‘Maybe’ was used instead.

Fallout 1

Picking a fight with outfitted soldiers takes courage.

Fallout was met with an extremely favorable reception on launch and Computer Gaming World stated that it “was clearly a labor of love.” It won the RPG of the Year award from GameSpot in 1997 and the same from Computer Gaming World in 1998. Nominated into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences’ first annual Interactive Achievement Awards in the categories for ‘Computer Role Playing Game of the Year’ and ‘Outstanding Achievement in Sound and Music’. To date 4 main-line titles have been released in the Fallout series (as of 2015) and 4 spin-off games in the same setting have been distributed.

Overview
The arrival of ‘Final Fantasy VII’ threw open the flood gates and heralded an immense amount of JRPGs streaming onto consoles in the tail-end of the 90s. Releases such as ‘Grandia’ certainly owe their appearance on the Playstation to its success and although a massive amount of JRPGs streamed onto the market, many of them maintained a high level of quality.

WRPGs for the period began to experience something of a renaissance, having pushed themselves harder and expanded upon their initial briefs in ways that would have been unimaginable only five years previously. ‘Daggerfall’ featured a huge world that likely most players never even saw half of before the games narrative concluded and no-two players experienced it in the same way, whilst ‘Ultima Online’ birthed the modern MMORPG and ‘Diablo’ showed that dungeon crawling and loot collecting not only wasn’t dead but was better with friends.

Sega and Nintendo are beginning to fade into the background as PC and Playstation take the forefront in RPG development over this period of the 90s, and although both still feature solid games that have aged exceptionally well, neither lays claim to as much originality or scope. Soon Sega would begin work on the final console on the market, and Nintendo would look into focusing on their existing IPs to see them through the next few years.

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