FEATURE: Active Time Birthday, Part Two: Celebrating 25 Years of Final Fantasy!

25 years of spin-offs, side stories, adaptations, and the surprisingly rare direct sequel

Yesterday, we took a long, loving look back at Final Fantasy--all fourteen games' worth of adventure, great characters, and some of the best moments we've ever had playing (or even just watching) video games.


One of the great things about Final Fantasy is that it's not just the main series' straight track of epic adventures featuring Chocobos, Moogles and some random people named Cid, Biggs, and Wedge, but a large tree of branching spin-offs and side stories that help make the series feel so much bigger and more varied.


Final Fantasy Adventure and the Mana Series


Having already proven themselves on the NES, Square decided to adjust the Final Fantasy formula for Nintendo's revolutionary portable, the Game Boy. In 1991, they released Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, which was released in the US as Final Fantasy Adventure. The second game in the series, Seiken Densetsu II, was released Stateside as Secret of Mana.


What eventually became known as the Mana Series was a somewhat drastic departure from Final Fantasy series norms: instead of a turn-based RPG, Final Fantasy Adventure and its sequels were more action-oriented affairs, adventures in the vein of Nintendo's Legend of Zelda games featuring a top-down view and real-time combat.


While Seiken Densetsu 3 never saw a US release on the Super Nintendo, the Mana series eventually returned with Legend of Mana (PS1) and Children of Mana (DS), and the original Final Fantasy Adventure/Seiken Densetsu was remade for the Game Boy Advance and released Stateside as Sword of Mana.


The Final Fantasy Legend and the SaGa Series


Square seemed to use the Game Boy as a testing ground for unique and otherwise unconventional game design, as evidenced by the SaGa games getting their start on Nintendo's monochrome handheld. The first SaGa title, Makai Toushi SaGa, made its way to North America as The Final Fantasy Legend, and in an unexpected move for the conservative Square of that era, all three original SaGa titles were ported over as Final Fantasy Legend installments.


Eventually, the SaGa series' open, non-linear gameplay and multi-character storylines made their way to the Japan-exclusive Romancing SaGa trilogy, and the franchise's rebirth in the West with the PS1's SaGa Frontier. The most recent title, the PS2's Unlimited SaGa, was a beautiful VanillaWare-looking game with a stupidly obtuse and complex battle system, but it's definitely worth a shot.


The Mystic Quest


Standing out as the first Final Fantasy title developed with Western gamers in mind, Square released Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest on the SNES specifically for younger players, or those with less experience with RPGs. The straightforward story guides players along, and an automatic battle system chooses the "best" commands based on the situation, effectively teaching players by holding their hand and showing them the ropes. Much like how Super Mario Bros. 2 (the one with Birdo and rocket ships, not the one with poison mushrooms) was released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA, Mystic Quest was brought over to Japan as Final Fantasy USA: The Mystic Quest, probably telling all of Japan that we sucked at JRPGs during the fourth console generation.


The Ivalice Alliance


Until the Ivalice Alliance, developers weren't given superstar status for spin-off games. However, when Square had Ogre Battle design maestro Yasumi Matsuno and illustrator Akihiko Yoshida work on a Final Fantasy title, they stuck to their guns and delivered an Ogre Battle-inspired turn-based strategy game for the PS1: Final Fantasy Tactics. Continuing with the main series' original high-fantasy inspirations, Tactics brought smart, strategic gameplay and a complex story of medieval intrigue to the table. With the popularity of Advance Wars and Fire Emblem on the GBA, Square put its own hat in the GBA strategy ring with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and later Tactics Advance A2 on the DS.


Matsuno and Yoshida accidentally returned to Ivalice in PS1 dungeon crawler Vagrant Story, which for all intents and purposes is Medieval Gear Solid (Matsuno has gone on record saying that he never actually intended to set Vagrant Story in Ivalice, but Square advertising might disagree). As I mentioned in Part One, Final Fantasy XII is also part of the Ivalice Alliance, as well as its DS-exclusive sequel, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings. Square has promised more for the Ivalice Alliance, but hasn't announced any actual titles yet.


The Chocobo Stable


Chocobos--first introduced in Final Fantasy II--are large, mostly-flightless, friendly birds that are the de facto mascot of the Final Fantasy series. In the games, they usually serve as transportation, letting the player get through areas that are otherwise impassable, or used in place of horses for cavalry as seen in Final Fantasy X, Tactics, and XII.


Chocobos also appear in a series of light, fun adventures, from dungeon-crawling in the sometimes surprisingly ruthless Chocobo's Dungeon to mini-game and board-game collections to go-kart-based mascot racing in Chocobo Racing. With all this moonlighting, it makes you wonder why you didn't have a playable Chocobo in...


Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring and Dissidia Final Fantasy


Usually, the genre jump goes the other way around: fighting games get RPGs or RPG-alikes to further flesh out their world and characters. But in 1998, Square, partnered with Tekken and Soul series developer Namco and Tobal developer Dream Factory, put together an arena-based 3D fighter titled Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring. While not even remotely related to Final Fantasy, the game had several guest stars from PS1 juggernaut Final Fantasy VII: main characters Cloud and Tifa, side characters Vincent and Yuffie, leading villain Sephiroth, and flashback hero Zack Fair. Unfortunately, even with this impressive guest line-up, Square's clunky attempt at a fighting game was quickly forgotten.


Over a decade later, Square again tried its hand at making a fighting game, and this time they didn't disappoint. While far from a competitive, tournament-worthy fighting experience, the PSP's Dissidia Final Fantasy brought in characters from the entire series up to that point with flashy combat and unique mechanics that built off the series' RPG roots.


Kingdom Hearts


I'm a big Disney fan, but I was honestly kind of worried when Kingdom Hearts arrived in 2002. A combination of Square's Final Fantasy series and Disney's classic films and animation, Kingdom Hearts has since grown into its own story, where a young hero named Sora faces off against the mysterious Heartless, and later the fearsome Organization XIII and their leader, Xenahort.


In addition to Disney heroes and villains from the animation legend's entire history, Final Fantasy characters from main-series games VII-X (and a surprise appearance from VI's Setzer) show up to either help Sora during the story (like Cloud and Squall Leon) or smash him into paste (like VII's Sephiroth). Instead of a straight RPG, the Kingdom Hearts games are fast-paced action games with RPG-like character and ability development.

One of the series' biggest contributions was probably the introduction of Japanese pop star Utada Hikaru to Western audiences with her music playing a key part in Kingdom Hearts and its sequels. I think her popularity in the US had a lot more to do with these very well-made songs and a lot less to do with her being "easy, breezy and Japanese-y." Ugh.


The Direct Sequels and Follow-Ups


A major theme of Final Fantasy is that no two titles are exactly alike. Oh, they may borrow from each other, sometimes liberally, but the idea is that in each new installment, you're going to be taken to a different world and told a different story with different characters. Ignoring fan's outcries for a sequel to Final Fantasy VII, Square instead released Final Fantasy X-2, which I'm just going to come right out and say was a really good game that was unfairly maligned for being an insipid Charlie's Angels-inspired clusterf**k.

Okay, yes, it was kind of stupid in how nice and sweet and demure leading lady Yuna suddenly became the pandering Final Fantasy equivalent of Kate Beckinsale in Underworld, but the game reintroduced the Jobs System as Dresspheres and became the precursor to Final Fantasy XIII's Paradigm Shifts. Also, Kumi Koda's single "Real Emotion" helped give the game some promotional legs.


In addition to the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, which we'll get to in a minute, several other games have received honest-to-God sequels in the series. Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings follows a far-less irritating Vaan in his quest to become an air pirate, accompanied by classy British Han Solo Balthier and sexy bunny Chewbacca Fran. Final Fantasy: The 4 Warriors of Light revisited the original FF on the DS, and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years completed Cecil and Rydia's story on mobile phones, and later WiiWare and the PSP.


Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles


Most fans may not realize it, but Square is one of the indisputed masters of making co-op games, because by the time you're done with a session of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles or any of its sequels, you will want to commit bloody murder on anyone you've been playing the game with. Starting on the GameCube and using Game Boy Advance connectivity, the Crystal Chronicles games focus on cooperative multiplayer adventuring as you travel the world defeating monsters and saving towns. Crystal Chronicles has exclusively stayed with Nintendo hardware, with Ring of Fates on the DS and several genre-tweaked sequels on the Wii, the most recent being The Crystal Bearers. Just a hint: playing these games solo is like ringing a dinner bell for in-game monsters.


Compilation of Final Fantasy VII


Back when Final Fantasy VIII was released, people unfamiliar with the series were confused as to why it featured a completely different cast and world from Final Fantasy VII. However, in 2004 Square started what would become the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, featuring prequels and sequels to the PS1 megahit, starting with the mobile phone game Before Crisis, detailing the stories of FFVII sorta-villains The Turks and actual villain Sephiroth.


Former side character Vincent Valentine got a chance to play leading man in pretty-but-clumsy PS2 shooter Dirge of Cerberus -Final Fantasy VII-, with PSP action-RPG Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII- being the shining high point of the Compilation. Crisis Core presented a strong balance of story and game design, taking place seven years before Final Fantasy VII and focusing on and developing Zack Fair, a character we only really got to see in flashbacks.


Fabula Nova Crystallis: Final Fantasy


I wish I could say more about Fabula Nova Crystallis. So far, the only title in this "series" of sorts is Final Fantasy XIII, but we'll soon get more at the end of the month with Final Fantasy XIII-2. PSP strategy title Final Fantasy Type-0, originally titled Final Fantasy Agito XIII, is slowly revealing details and there's quite a bit of hype for side-story Final Fantasy Versus XIII even though we barely know anything about it. I'm gonna crack up if Versus XIII ends up being that Final Fantasy FPS that Yoshinori Kitase joked about.


Final Fantasy in Film


Surprisingly, despite the heavy anime influence of later games, Final Fantasy has remained almost exclusively a series of video games with few adaptations to animation. Anime OAV Legend of the Crystals, directed by the legendary Rintaro, took place 200 years after Final Fantasy V and featured a brief cameo from the original FFV cast as spirits. It was licensed and released in the US by now-defunct Urban Vision.


The first attempt at an actual Final Fantasy movie was such a critical and commercial flop that it nearly killed Square. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a not-half-bad CGI-animated sci-fi movie that was hobbled by its ties to the game series. Fans came in expecting stylized, high-energy combat and left with a slow-paced, tree-hugging story with flat voice acting from Ming-Na and Alec Baldwin (but not the awesome 30 Rock Alec Baldwin).


Square played it safe for the next go-around--Final Fantasy: Unlimited was a full-length series originally planned for 52 episodes, but the series was reduced to 26 episodes and rushed to an ending due to budget cuts. Not taking place in any particular game universe, it instead told a Final Fantasy-like story about (surprise!) rebels taking on an evil empire, along with familiar series elements like Chocobos and magic.


The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII included more than games--in fact, it was built around the release of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a CGI movie taking place two years after Final Fantasy VII. While it's a very, very pretty movie that you can use to show off how awesome your home theater and HDTV are, it's basically the HD CGI equivalent of a Dragonball Z movie: one long running action sequence with some dialogue thrown between fights. It's an exhibition, but a damn gorgeous one.


Finishing up the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII and answering fans' wishes since 1997 for a Final Fantasy VII anime, Madhouse-produced OAV Last Order -Final Fantasy VII- retells the Nibelheim flashback from the original FFVII, including characters from Before Crisis and featuring Crisis Core's Zack.


Looking back on 25 years of Final Fantasy, both its main series and everything it's brought to us (and I'm not even counting other Square RPGs!), there's a lot of entertainment history both good and bad. Once again, thanks for taking this ride with me!


What were some of your favorite Final Fantasy spin-off titles and adaptations? Do you have any favorite FF guest appearances, like Culex showing up in Super Mario RPG? What Final Fantasy main series titles do you think deserve a full-on sequel? Let us know in the comments!


Images via Final Fantasy Wiki

A big thank-you goes to YellowJacketGuy, who I could not have done this retrospective without. Although honestly most of Part Two was just me, because he was playing my copy of Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, but he still deserves credit anyways.

Also another thank you to coolworlds for more info on Crystal Chronicles!

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