RSS

Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 2: PlayStation for the Win

08 Dec

From the Seven Hills of Rome to the Seven Sages of China’s Bamboo Grove, from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to the Seven Heavens of Islam, from the Seven Final Sayings of Jesus to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the number seven has always struck us as a special one. Hironobu Sakaguchi and his crew at Square, the people behind the Final Fantasy series, were no exception. In the mid-1990s, when the time came to think about what the seventh entry in the series ought to be, they instinctively felt that this one had to be bigger and better than any that had come before. It had to double down on all of the series’s traditional strengths and tropes to become the ultimate Final Fantasy. Sakaguchi and company would achieve these goals; the seventh Final Fantasy game has remained to this day the best-selling, most iconic of them all. But the road to that seventh heaven was not an entirely smooth one.

The mid-1990s were a transformative period, both for Square as a studio and for the industry of which it was a part. For the former, it was “a perfect storm, when Square still acted like a small company but had the resources of a big one,” as Matt Leone of Polygon writes.  Meanwhile the videogames industry at large was feeling the ground shift under its feet, as the technologies that went into making and playing console-based games were undergoing their most dramatic shift since the Atari VCS had first turned the idea of a machine for playing games on the family television into a popular reality. CD-ROM drives were already available for Sega’s consoles, with a storage capacity two orders of magnitude greater than that of the most capacious cartridges. And 3D graphics hardware was on the horizon as well, promising to replace pixel graphics with embodied, immersive experiences in sprawling virtual worlds. Final Fantasy VII charged headlong into these changes like a starving man at a feast, sending great greasy globs of excitement — and also controversy — flying everywhere.

The controversy came in the form of one of the most shocking platform switches in the history of videogames. To fully appreciate the impact of Square’s announcement on January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy VII would run on the new Sony PlayStation rather than Nintendo’s next-generation console, we need to look a little closer at the state of the console landscape in the years immediately preceding it.


Through the first half of the 1990s, Nintendo was still the king of console gaming, but it was no longer the unchallenged supreme despot it had been during the 1980s. Nintendo had always been conservative in terms of hardware, placing its faith, like Apple Computer in an adjacent marketplace, in a holistic customer experience rather than raw performance statistics. As part and parcel of this approach, every game that Nintendo agreed to allow into its walled garden was tuned and polished to a fine sheen, having any jagged edges that might cause anyone any sort of offense whatsoever painstakingly sanded away. An upstart known as Sega had learned to live in the gaps this business philosophy opened up, deploying edgier games on more cutting-edge hardware. As early as December of 1991, Sega began offering its Japanese customers a CD-drive add-on for its current console, the Mega Drive (known as the Sega Genesis in North America, which received the CD add-on the following October). Although the three-year-old Mega Drive’s intrinsic limitations made this early experiment in multimedia gaming for the living room a somewhat underwhelming affair — there was only so much you could do with 61 colors at a resolution of 320 X 240 — it perfectly illustrated the differences in the two companies’ approaches. While Sega threw whatever it had to hand at the wall just to see what stuck, Nintendo held back like a Dana Carvey impression of George Herbert Walker Bush: “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture…”

Sony was all too well-acquainted with Nintendo’s innate caution. As the co-creator of the CD storage format, it had signed an agreement with Nintendo back in 1988 to make a CD drive for the upcoming Super Famicom console (which was to be known as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the West) as soon as the technology had matured enough for it to be cost-effective. By the time the Super Famicom was released in 1990, Sony was hard at work on the project. But on May 29, 1991, just three days before a joint Nintendo/Sony “Play Station” was to have been demonstrated to the world at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Nintendo suddenly backed out of the deal, announcing that it would instead be working on CD-ROM technology with the Dutch electronics giant Philips — ironically, Sony’s partner in the creation of the original CD standard.

This prototype of the Sony “Play Station” surfaced in 2015.

Nintendo’s reason for pulling out seems to have come down to the terms of the planned business relationship. Nintendo, whose instinct for micro-management and tough deal-making was legendary, had uncharacteristically promised Sony a veritable free hand, allowing it to publish whatever CD-based software it wanted without asking Nintendo’s permission or paying it any royalty whatsoever. In fact, given that a contract to that effect had already been signed long before the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony was, legally speaking, still free to continue with the Play Station on its own, piggybacking on the success of Nintendo’s console. And initially it seemed inclined to do just that. “Sony will throw open its doors to software makers to produce software using music and movie assets,” it announced at the show, promising games based on its wide range of media properties, from the music catalog of Michael Jackson to the upcoming blockbuster movie Hook. Even worse from Nintendo’s perspective, “in order to promote the Super Disc format, Sony intends to broadly license it to the software industry.” Nintendo’s walled garden, in other words, looked about to be trampled by a horde of unwashed, unvetted, unmonetized intruders charging through the gate Sony was ready and willing to open to them. The prospect must have sent the control freaks inside Nintendo’s executive wing into conniptions.

It was a strange situation any way you looked at it. The Super Famicom might soon become the host of not one but two competing CD-ROM solutions, an authorized one from Philips and an unauthorized one from Sony, each using different file formats for a different library of games and other software. (Want to play Super Mario on CD? Buy the Philips drive! Want Michael Jackson? Buy the Play Station!)

In the end, though, neither of the two came to be. Philips decided it wasn’t worth distracting consumers from its own stand-alone CD-based “multimedia box” for the home, the CD-i.[1]Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i. Sony likewise began to wonder in the aftermath of its defiant trade-show announcement whether it was really in its long-term interest to become an unwanted squatter on Nintendo’s real estate.

Still, the episode had given some at Sony a serious case of videogame jealousy. It was clear by now that this new industry wasn’t a fad. Why shouldn’t Sony be a part of it, just as it was an integral part of the music, movie, and television industries? On June 24, 1992, the company held an unusually long and heated senior-management debate. After much back and forth, CEO Norio Ohga pronounced his conclusion: Sony would turn the Play Station into the PlayStation, a standalone CD-based videogame console of its own, both a weapon with which to bludgeon Nintendo for its breach of trust and — and ultimately more importantly — an entrée to the fastest-growing entertainment sector in the world.

The project was handed to one Ken Kutaragi, who had also been in charge of the aborted Super Famicom CD add-on. He knew precisely what he wanted Sony’s first games console to be: a fusion of CD-ROM with another cutting-edge technology, hardware-enabled 3D graphics. “From the mid-1980s, I dreamed of the day when 3D computer graphics could be enjoyed at home,” he says. “What kind of graphics could we create if we combined a real-time, 3D computer-graphics engine with CD-ROM? Surely this would develop into a new form of entertainment.”

It took him and his engineers a little over two years to complete the PlayStation, which in addition to a CD drive and a 3D-graphics system sported a 32-bit MIPS microprocessor running at 34 MHz, 3 MB of memory (of which 1 MB was dedicated to graphics alone), audiophile-quality sound hardware, and a slot for 128 K memory cards that could be used for saving game state between sessions, ensuring that long-form games like JRPGs would no longer need to rely on tedious manual-entry codes or balky, unreliable cartridge-mounted battery packs for the purpose.

 

In contrast to the consoles of Nintendo, which seemed almost self-consciously crafted to look like toys, and those of Sega, which had a boy-racer quality about them, the Sony PlayStation looked stylish and adult — but not too adult. (The stylishness came through despite the occasionally mooted comparisons to a toilet.)

The first Sony PlayStations went on sale in Tokyo’s famed Akihabara electronics district on December 3, 1994. Thousands camped out in line in front of the shops the night before. “It’s so utterly different from traditional game machines that I didn’t even think about the price,” said one starry-eyed young man to a reporter on the scene. Most of the shops were sold out before noon. Norio Ohga was mobbed by family and friends in the days that followed, all begging him to secure them a PlayStation for their children before Christmas. It was only when that happened, he would later say, that he fully realized what a game changer (pun intended) his company had on its hands. Just like that, the fight between Nintendo and Sega — the latter had a new 32-bit CD-based console of its own, the Saturn, while the former was taking it slowly and cautiously, as usual — became a three-way battle royal.

The PlayStation was an impressive piece of kit for the price, but it was, as always, the games themselves that really sold it. Ken Kutaragi had made the rounds of Japanese and foreign studios, and found to his gratification that many of them were tired of being under the heavy thumb of Nintendo. Sony’s garden was to be walled just like Nintendo’s — you had to pay it a fee to sell games for its console as well — but it made a point of treating those who made games for its system as valued partners rather than pestering supplicants: the financial terms were better, the hardware was better, the development tools were better, the technical support was better, the overall vibe was better. Nintendo had its own home-grown line of games for its consoles to which it always gave priority in every sense of the word, a conflict of interest from which Sony was blessedly free.[2]Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world. Game cartridges were complicated and expensive to produce, and the factories that made them for Nintendo’s consoles were all controlled by that company. Nintendo was notoriously slow to approve new production runs of any but its own games, leaving many studios convinced that their smashing success had been throttled down to a mere qualified one by a shortage of actual games in stores at the critical instant. CDs, on the other hand, were quick and cheap to churn out from any of dozens of pressing plants all over the world. Citing advantages like these, Kutaragi found it was possible to tempt even as longstanding a Nintendo partner as Namco — the creator of the hallowed arcade classics Galaxian and Pac-Man — into committing itself “100 percent to the PlayStation.” The first fruit of this defection was Ridge Racer, a port of a stand-up arcade game that became the new console’s breakout early hit.

Square was also among the software houses that Ken Kutaragi approached, but he made no initial inroads there. For all the annoyances of dealing with Nintendo, it still owned the biggest player base in the world, one that had treated Final Fantasy very well indeed, to the tune of more than 9 million games sold to date in Japan alone. This was not a partner that one abandoned lightly — especially not with the Nintendo 64, said partner’s own next-generation console, due at last in 1996. It promised to be every bit as audiovisually capable as the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn, even as it was based around a 64-bit processor in place of the 32-bit units of the competition.

Indeed, in many ways the relationship between Nintendo and Square seemed closer than ever in the wake of the PlayStation’s launch. When Yoshihiro Maruyama joined Square in September of 1995 to run its North American operations, he was told that “Square will always be with Nintendo. As long as you work for us, it’s basically the same as working for Nintendo.” Which in a sense he literally was, given that Nintendo by now owned a substantial chunk of Square’s stock. In November of 1995, Nintendo’s president Hiroshi Yamauchi cited the Final Fantasy series as one of his consoles’ unsurpassed crown jewels — eat your heart out, Sony! — at Shoshinkai, Nintendo’s annual press shindig and trade show. As its farewell to the Super Famicom, Square had agreed to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, dropping Nintendo’s Italian plumber into a style of game completely different from his usual fare. Released in March of 1996, it was a predictably huge hit in Japan, while also, encouragingly, leveraging the little guy’s Stateside popularity to become the most successful JRPG since Final Fantasy I in those harsh foreign climes.

But Super Mario RPG wound up marking the end of an era in more ways than Nintendo had imagined: it was not just Square’s last Super Famicom RPG but its last major RPG for a Nintendo console, full stop. For just as it was in its last stages of development, there came the earthshaking announcement of January 12, 1996, that Final Fantasy was switching platforms to the PlayStation. Et tu, Square? “I was kind of shocked,” Yoshihiro Maruyama admits. As was everyone else.

The Nintendo 64, which looked like a toy — and an anachronistic one at that — next to the PlayStation.

Square’s decision was prompted by what seemed to have become an almost reactionary intransigence on the part of Nintendo when it came to the subject of CD-ROM. After the two abortive attempts to bring CDs to the Super Famicom, everyone had assumed as a matter of course that they would be the storage medium of the Nintendo 64. It was thus nothing short of baffling when the first prototypes of the console were unveiled in November of 1995 with no CD drive built-in and not even any option on the horizon for adding one. Nintendo’s latest and greatest was instead to live or die with old-school cartridges which had a capacity of just 64 MB, one-tenth that of a CD.

Why did Nintendo make such a counterintuitive choice? The one compelling technical argument for sticking with cartridges was the loading time of CDs, a mechanical storage medium rather than a solid-state one. Nintendo’s ethos of user-friendly accessibility had always insisted that a game come up instantly when you turned the console on and play without interruption thereafter. Nintendo believed, with considerable justification, that this quality had been the not-so-secret weapon in its first-generation console’s victorious battle against floppy-disk-based 8-bit American microcomputers that otherwise boasted similar audiovisual and processing capabilities, such as the Commodore 64. The PlayStation CD drive, which could transfer 300 K per second into memory, was many, many times faster than the Commodore 64’s infamously slow disk drive, but it wasn’t instant. A cartridge, on the other hand, for all practical purposes was.

Fair enough, as far as it went. Yet there were other, darker insinuations swirling around the games industry which had their own ring of truth. Nintendo, it was said, was loath to give up its stranglehold on the means of production of cartridges and embrace commodity CD-stamping facilities. Most of all, many sensed, the decision to stay with cartridges was bound up with Nintendo’s congenital need to be different, and to assert its idiosyncratic hegemony by making everyone else dance to its tune while it was at it. The question now was whether it had taken this arrogance too far, was about to dance itself into irrelevance while the makers of third-party games moved on to other, equally viable alternative platforms.

Exhibit Number One of same was the PlayStation, which seemed tailor-made for the kind of big, epic game that every Final Fantasy to date had strained to be. It was far easier to churn out huge quantities of 3D graphics than it was hand-drawn pixel art, while the staggering storage capacity of CD-ROM gave Square someplace to keep it all — with, it should not be forgotten, the possibility of finding even more space by the simple expedient of shipping a game on multiple CDs, another affordance that cartridges did not allow. And then there were those handy little memory cards for saving state. Those benefits were surely worth trading a little bit of loading time for.

But there was something else about the PlayStation as well that made it an ideal match for Hironobu Sakaguchi’s vision of gaming. Especially after the console arrived in North America and Europe in September of 1995, it fomented a sweeping change in the way the gaming hobby was perceived. “The legacy of the original Playstation is that it took gaming from a pastime that was for young people or maybe slightly geeky people,” says longtime Sony executive Jim Ryan, “and it turned it into a highly credible form of mass entertainment, really comparable with the music business and the movie business.” Veteran game designer Cliff Bleszinski concurs: “The PlayStation shifted the console from having an almost toy-like quality into consumer electronics that are just as desired by twelve-year-olds as they are by 35-year-olds.”

Rather than duking it out with Nintendo and Sega for the eight-to-seventeen age demographic, Sony shifted its marketing attention to young adults, positioning PlayStation gaming as something to be done before or after a night out at the clubs — or while actually at the clubs, for that matter: Sony paid to install the console in trendy nightspots all over the world, so that their patrons could enjoy a round or two of WipEout between trips to the dance floor. In effect, Sony told the people who had grown up with Nintendo and Sega that it was okay to keep on gaming, as long as they did it on a PlayStation from now on. Sony’s marketers understood that, if they could conquer this demographic, that success would automatically spill down into the high-school set that had previously been Sega’s bread and butter, since kids of that age are always aspiring to do whatever the university set is up to. Their logic was impeccable; the Sony PlayStation would destroy the Sega Saturn in due course.

For decades now, the hipster stoner gamer, slumped on the couch with controller in one hand and a bong in the other, has been a pop-culture staple. Sony created that stereotype in the space of a year or two in the 1990s. Whatever else you can say about it, it plays better with the masses than the older one of a pencil-necked nerd sitting bolt upright on his neatly made bed. David James, star goalkeeper for the Premier League football team Liverpool F.C., admitted that he had gotten “carried away” playing PlayStation the night before by way of explaining the three goals that he conceded in a match against Newcastle. It was hard to imagine substituting “Nintendo” or “Saturn” for “PlayStation” in that statement. In May of 1998, Sony would be able to announce triumphantly that, according to its latest survey, the average age of a PlayStation gamer was a positively grizzled 22. It had hit the demographic it was aiming for spot-on, with a spillover that reached both younger and older folks. David Ranyard, a member of Generation PlayStation who has had a varied and successful career in games since the millennium:

At the time of its launch, I was a student, and I’d always been into videogames, from the early days of arcades. I would hang around playing Space Invaders and Galaxian, and until the PlayStation came out, that kind of thing made me a geek. But this console changed all that. Suddenly videogames were cool — not just acceptable, but actually club-culture cool. With a soundtrack from the coolest techno and dance DJs, videogames became a part of [that] subculture. And it led to more mainstream acceptance of consoles in general.

The new PlayStation gamer stereotype dovetailed beautifully with the moody, angsty heroes that had been featuring prominently in Final Fantasy for quite some installments by now. Small wonder that Sakaguchi was more and more smitten with Sony.

Still, it was one hell of a bridge to burn; everyone at Square knew that there would be no going back if they signed on with Sony. Well aware of how high the stakes were for all parties, Sony declared its willingness to accept an extremely low per-unit royalty and to foot the bill for a lot of the next Final Fantasy game’s marketing, promising to work like the dickens to break it in the West. In the end, Sakaguchi allowed himself to be convinced. He had long run Final Fantasy as his own fiefdom at Square, and this didn’t change now: upper management rubber-stamped his decision to make Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation.

The announcement struck Japan’s games industry with all the force of one of Sakaguchi’s trademark Final Fantasy plot twists. For all the waves Sony had been making recently, nobody had seen this one coming. For its part, Nintendo had watched quite a number of studios defect to Sony already, but this one clearly hurt more than any of the others. It sold off all of its shares in Square and refused to take its calls for the next five years.

The raised stakes only gave Sakaguchi that much more motivation to make Final Fantasy VII amazing — so amazing that even the most stalwart Nintendo loyalists among the gaming population would be tempted to jump ship to the PlayStation in order to experience it. There had already been an unusually long delay after Final Fantasy VI, during which Square had made Super Mario RPG and another, earlier high-profile JRPG called Chrono Trigger, the fruit of a partnership between Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii of Dragon Quest fame. (This was roughly equivalent in the context of 1990s Western pop culture to Oasis and Blur making an album together.) Now the rush was on to get Final Fantasy VII out the door within a year, while the franchise and its new platform the PlayStation were still smoking hot.

In defiance of the wisdom found in The Mythical Man-Month, Sakaguchi decided to both make the game quickly and make it amazing by throwing lots and lots of personnel at the problem: 150 people in all, three times as many as had worked on Final Fantasy VI. Cost was no object, especially wherever yen could be traded for time. Square spent the equivalent of $40 million on Final Fantasy VII in the course of just one year, blowing up all preconceptions of how much it could cost to make a computer or console game. (The most expensive earlier game that I’m aware of is the 1996 American “interactive movie” Wing Commander IV, which its developer Origin Systems claimed to have cost $12 million.) By one Square executive’s estimate, almost half of Final Fantasy VII‘s budget went for the hundreds of high-end Silicon Graphics workstations that were purchased, tools for the unprecedented number of 3D artists and animators who attacked the game from all directions at once. Their output came to fill not just one PlayStation CD but three of them — almost two gigabytes of raw data in all, or 30 Nintendo 64 cartridges.

Somehow or other, it all came together. Square finished Final Fantasy VII on schedule, shipping it in Japan on January 31, 1997. It went on to sell over 3 million copies there, bettering Final Fantasy VI‘s numbers by about half a million and selling a goodly number of PlayStations in the process. But, as that fairly modest increase indicates, the Japanese domestic market was becoming saturated; there were only so many games you could sell in a country of 125 million people, most of them too old or too young or lacking the means or the willingness to acquire a PlayStation. There was only one condition in which it had ever made sense to spend $40 million on Final Fantasy VII: if it could finally break the Western market wide open. Encouraged by the relative success of Final Fantasy VI and Super Mario RPG in the United States, excited by the aura of hipster cool that clung to the PlayStation, Square — and also Sony, which lived up to its promise to go all-in on the game — were determined to make that happen, once again at almost any cost. After renumbering the earlier games in the series in the United States to conform with its habit of only releasing every other Final Fantasy title there, Square elected to call this game Final Fantasy VII all over the world. For the number seven was an auspicious one, and this was nothing if not an auspicious game.

Final Fantasy VII shipped on a suitably auspicious date in the United States: September 7, 1997. It sold its millionth unit that December.

In November of 1997, it came to Europe, which had never seen any of the previous six mainline Final Fantasy game before and therefore processed the title as even more of a non sequitur. No matter. Wherever the game went, the title and the marketing worked — worked not only for the game itself, but for the PlayStation. Coming hot on the heels of the hip mega-hit Tomb Raider, it sealed the deal for the console, relegating the Sega Saturn to oblivion and the Nintendo 64 to the status of a disappointing also-ran. Paul Davies was the editor-in-chief of Britain’s Computer and Video Games magazine at the time. He was a committed Sega loyalist, he says, but

I came to my senses when Square announced Final Fantasy VII as a PlayStation exclusive. We received sheets of concept artwork and screenshots at our editorial office, sketches and stills from the incredible cut scenes. I was smitten. I tried and failed to rally. This was a runaway train. [The] PlayStation took up residence in all walks of life, moved from bedrooms to front rooms. It gained — by hook or by crook — the kind of social standing that I’d always wanted for games. Sony stomped on my soul and broke my heart, but my God, that console was a phenomenon.

Final Fantasy VII wound up selling well over 10 million units in all, as many as all six previous entries in the series combined, divided this time almost equally between Japan, North America, and Europe. Along the way, it exploded millions of people’s notions of what games could do and be — people who weren’t among the technological elite who invested thousands of dollars into high-end rigs to play the latest computer games, who just wanted to sit down in front of their televisions after a busy day with a plug-it-in-and-go console and be entertained.

Of course, not everyone who bought the game was equally enamored. Retailers reported record numbers of returns to go along with the record sales, as some people found all the walking around and reading to be not at all what they were looking for in a videogame.

In a way, I share their pain. Despite all its exceptional qualities, Final Fantasy VII fell victim rather comprehensively to the standard Achilles heel of the JRPG in the West: the problem of translation. Its English version was completed in just a couple of months at Square’s American branch, reportedly by a single employee working without supervision, then sent out into the world without a second glance. I’m afraid there’s no way to say this kindly: it’s almost unbelievably terrible, full of sentences that literally make no sense punctuated by annoying ellipses that are supposed to represent… I don’t know what. Pauses… for… dramatic… effect, perhaps? To say it’s on the level of a fan translation would be to insult the many fans of Japanese videogames in the West, who more often than not do an extraordinary job when they tackle such a project. That a game so self-consciously pitched as the moment when console-based videogames would come into their own as a storytelling medium and as a form of mass-market entertainment to rival movies could have been allowed out the door with writing like this boggles the mind. It speaks to what a crossroads moment this truly was for games, when the old ways were still in the process of going over to the new. Although the novelty of the rest of the game was enough to keep the poor translation from damaging its commercial prospects overmuch, the backlash did serve as a much-needed wake-up call for Square. Going forward, they would take the details of “localization,” as such matters are called in industry speak, much more seriously.

Oh, my…

Writerly sort that I am, I’ll be unable to keep myself from harping further on the putrid translation in the third and final article in this series, when I’ll dive into the game itself. Right now, though, I’d like to return to the subject of what Final Fantasy VII meant for gaming writ large. In case I haven’t made it clear already, let me state it outright now: its arrival and reception in the West in particular marked one of the watershed moments in the entire history of gaming.

It cemented, first of all, the PlayStation’s status as the overwhelming victor in the late-1990s edition of the eternal Console Wars, as it did the Playstation’s claim to being the third socially revolutionary games console in history, after the Atari VCS and the original Nintendo Famicom. In the process of changing forevermore the way the world viewed videogames and the people who played them, the PlayStation eventually sold more than 100 million units, making it the best-selling games console of the twentieth century, dwarfing the numbers of the Sega Saturn (9 million units) and even the Nintendo 64 (33 million units), the latter of which was relegated to the status of the “kiddie console” on the playgrounds of the world. The underperformance of the Saturn followed by that of its successor the Dreamcast (again, just 9 million units sold) led Sega to abandon the console-hardware business entirely. Even more importantly, the PlayStation shattered the aura of remorseless, monopolistic inevitability that had clung to Nintendo since the mid-1980s; Nintendo would be for long stretches of the decades to come an also-ran in the very industry it had almost single-handedly resurrected. If the PlayStation was conceived partially as revenge for Nintendo’s jilting of Sony back in 1991, it was certainly a dish served cold — in fact, one that Nintendo is to some extent still eating to this day.

Then, too, it almost goes without saying that the JRPG, a sub-genre that had hitherto been a niche occupation of American gamers and virtually unknown to European ones, had its profile raised incalculably by Final Fantasy VII. The JRPG became almost overnight one of the hottest of all styles of game, as millions who had never imagined that a game could offer a compelling long-form narrative experience like this started looking for more of the same to play just as soon as its closing credits had rolled. Suddenly Western gamers were awaiting the latest JRPG releases with just as much impatience as Japanese gamers — releases not only in the Final Fantasy series but in many, many others as well. Their names, which tended to sound strange and awkward to English ears, were nevertheless unspeakably alluring to those who had caught the JRPG fever: Xenogears, Parasite Eve, Suikoden, Lunar, Star Ocean, Thousand Arms, Chrono Cross, Valkyrie Profile, Legend of Mana, Saiyuki. The whole landscape of console gaming changed; nowhere in the West in 1996, these games were everywhere in 1998 and 1999. It required a dedicated PlayStation gamer indeed just to keep up with the glut. At the risk of belaboring a point, I must note here that there were relatively few such games on the Nintendo 64, due to the limited storage capacity of its cartridges. Gamers go where the games they want to play are, and, for gamers in their preteens or older at least, those games were on the PlayStation.

From the computer-centric perspective that is this site’s usual stock in trade, perhaps the most important outcome of Final Fantasy VII was the dawning convergence it heralded between what had prior to this point been two separate worlds of gaming. Shortly before its Western release on the PlayStation, Square’s American subsidiary had asked the parent company for permission to port Final Fantasy VII to Windows-based desktop computers, perchance under the logic that, if American console gamers did still turn out to be nonplussed by the idea of a hundred-hour videogame despite marketing’s best efforts, American computer gamers would surely not be.

Square Japan agreed, but that was only the beginning of the challenge of getting Final Fantasy VII onto computer-software shelves. Square’s American arm called dozens of established computer publishers, including the heavy hitters like Electronic Arts. Rather incredibly, they couldn’t drum up any interest whatsoever in a game that was by now selling millions of copies on the most popular console in the world. At long last, they got a bite from the British developer and publisher Eidos, whose Tomb Raider had been 1996’s PlayStation game of the year whilst also — and unusually for the time — selling in big numbers on computers.

That example of cross-platform convergence notwithstanding, everyone involved remained a bit tentative about the Final Fantasy VII Windows port, regarding it more as a cautious experiment than the blockbuster-in-the-offing that the PlayStation version had always been treated as. Judged purely as a piece of Windows software, the end result left something to be desired, being faithful to the console game to a fault, to the extent of couching its saved states in separate fifteen-slot “files” that stood in for PlayStation memory cards.

The Windows version of Final Fantasy VII came out a year after the PlayStation version. “If you’re open to new experiences and perspectives in role-playing and can put up with idiosyncrasies from console-game design, then take a chance and experience some of the best storytelling ever found in an RPG,” concluded Computer Gaming World in its review, stamping the game “recommended, with caution.” Despite that less than rousing endorsement, it did reasonably well, selling somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million units by most reports.

They were baby steps to be sure, but Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy VII between them marked the start of a significant shift, albeit one that would take another half-decade or so to come to become obvious to everyone. The storage capacity of console CDs, the power of the latest console hardware, and the consoles’ newfound ability to easily save state from session to session had begun to elide if not yet erase the traditional barriers between “computer games” and “videogames.” Today the distinction is all but eliminated, as cross-platform development tools and the addition of networking capabilities to the consoles make it possible for everyone to play the same sorts of games at least, if not always precisely the same titles. This has been, it seems to me, greatly to the benefit of gaming in general: games on computers have became more friendly and approachable, even as games on consoles have become deeper and more ambitious.

So, that’s another of the trends we’ll need to keep an eye out for as we continue our journey down through the years. Next, though, it will be time to ask a more immediately relevant question: what is it like to actually play Final Fantasy VII, the game that changed so much for so many?



Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


Sources: the books Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World by Matt Alt, Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life by Chris Kohler, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher, Atari to Zelda: Japan’s Videogames in Global Contexts by Mia Consalvo, Revolutionaries at Sony: The Making of the Sony PlayStation by Reiji Asakura, and Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World by David Sheff. Retro Gamer 69, 96, 108, 137, 170, and 188; Computer Gaming World of September 1997, October 1997, May 1998, and November 1998.

Online sources include Polygon‘s authoritative Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History”, “The History of Final Fantasy VII at Nintendojo, “The Weird History of the Super NES CD-ROM, Nintendo’s Most Notorious Vaporware” by Chris Kohler at Kotaku, and “The History of PlayStation was Almost Very Different” by Blake Hester at Polygon.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Philips wasn’t, however, above exploiting the letter of its contract with Nintendo to make a Mario game and three substandard Legend of Zelda games available for the CD-i.
2 Sony did purchase the venerable British game developer and publisher Psygnosis well before its console’s launch to help prime the pump with some quality games, but it largely left it to manage its own affairs on the other side of the world.
 
 

Tags: , , , ,

58 Responses to Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 2: PlayStation for the Win

  1. IJMC

    December 8, 2023 at 6:28 pm

    Fascinating read, as always. I claim no real aesthetic sense, so I have to ask: why do you write that the PlayStation looks “stylish and adult” but the Nintendo 64 looks like an “anachronistic” toy? Is that assessment based on the technologies involved, or on contemporaneous reports, or is it a plain fact just ‘obvious’ in hindsight?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 8, 2023 at 6:39 pm

      Largely just my impression, although it’s a sentiment I have seen expressed in other places. The Nintendo 64 looks to me like something sold at Toy ‘R’ Us; the PlayStation like something at an up-market consumer-electronics boutique.

       
    • John

      December 8, 2023 at 7:32 pm

      For what it’s worth, the N64 controller is more conspicuously toy-like than the PlayStation controller, thanks largely to the more complex shape and the colorful buttons. I don’t think that the console itself is especially toy-like, but, given the curved lines, it is still more toy-like than the PlayStation, which looks a little more like an ordinary piece of consumer electronics.

       
      • Buck

        December 9, 2023 at 8:20 am

        The connectors on the console at least look like something from a junior electronics kit.

         
      • Ross

        December 11, 2023 at 12:25 pm

        It’s possibly relevant that the N64 was also available in candy-colors (Mine was the translucent neon green Donkey Kong edition, though I later traded with my dad to get the original basic gray, since I’m not a big fan of green), which the Playstation, as far as I know, was not.

         
  2. Dan V.

    December 8, 2023 at 7:20 pm

    I know this is a bit outside the scope of this blog, but another important confluence of history is how Final Fantasy 7 debuted at the same time as mass adoption of the World Wide Web. For many people of a certain age Final Fantasy 7 was their gateway to online fandom. Even with its mangled translation the characters and story of Final Fantasy 7 would propel thousands of people on the internet to create dedicated fan sites, create artwork, and write fanfiction. Obviously it’s not the first time something in media has generated fandom, but for a certain generation it was unlike anything else.

    Star Trek and Star Wars were big enough to generate printed fanzines, conventions, and so on. FF7 wasn’t that big, but the accessibility of the WWW (versus the dank depths of bulletin boards and usenet) gave the teeming hordes of teens and college students who were obsessed with this game a new outlet to connect. Instead of publishing fanzines people would make geocities and angelfire pages. Some of them still exist, and not just in archive.org. There’s the story of The Unofficial Squaresoft Homepage, which eventually transformed into square.net and then RPGamer.com.

    Today’s social media memes and fandoms dwarf this, but the web was crucial for FF7’s lasting appeal, both in the “fandom” sense and for general audiences. The PlayStation as a cultural phenomenon was important for FF7, but the web was just as important.

    I bring this up because I was knee deep in it as a fifteen year old with nothing better to do with his time in the summer of 1998. It’s very hard for me to separate my love for this game (and its flaws) from conversations and time spent with like-minded people across the globe. The kids today would call it cringe but that was a big sign that games were able to generate the kind of emotion and fandom that film and television could before it. As you say, it’s another way that the lines between computer and console games blurred in the 1990s.

     
  3. Josh T.

    December 8, 2023 at 7:59 pm

    Minor correction/nitpick to the first footnote: while that Zelda trilogy is the most infamous, they’re not the only “Nintendo” games on non-Nintendo hardware. There was also Hotel Mario for the Phillips CD-i, plus some educational/children’s software for DOS computers around that same time. (And to be really pedantic, there was also the ports of Nintendo’s arcade games on Atari systems and various computers throughout the 80s.)

    Really enjoyed this article. I remember a few years ago you mentioned doing a post like this but based around Sony’s purchase of Psygnosis, but I’m guessing that ended up not having enough material for a full article. I think it works better within the context of FF7’s release anyway.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 8, 2023 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks! I do have to do a bit more with Psygnosis at some point…

       
  4. John

    December 8, 2023 at 8:18 pm

    I blame the dialogue system commonly found in JRPGs (and also other console games) in which character portraits accompany lines of text for the heavy use of ellipses. In an era when storage and memory were at a premium, these portraits were by necessity static. If a character were to say, for example, “I’m fine”, then the developers couldn’t change the portrait to suggest that the character was perhaps not in fact fine. They could, however, change the text a little. Hence the ellipses, or so I suppose. A character who says “I’m . . . fine” instead of “I’m fine” is perhaps not in fact fine. I believe that there were probably better solutions to the problem, but I do have some sympathy for what I think the developers were trying to accomplish.

    I don’t really play JRPGs any more, so I don’t know whether or not the use of ellipses has persisted. My guess is that it hasn’t. There shouldn’t be any need for them now that games can support multiple character portraits, in-engine character animation, and voiced dialogue. If they’re still around, I’d expect them to be found in, say, indie games which don’t have the budget for the alternatives.

     
    • Alianora La Canta

      December 9, 2023 at 10:40 pm

      Ellipses have very much persisted in JRPGs, and have also spread to visual novels (both Japanese and Western-style). Ellipses are often used to denote a slight pause in the same way as a stage instruction of [beat] would be in a theatre/film/TV script. This works in retro-style games in particular because if the program is generating the text character-by-character (which some visual novels do – not sure how many JRPGs are like that), the extra time taken over generating those 6 extra silent characters (2 if using Unicode) creates the feeling of a pause, not just the visual rendering of one. Some of the effect is lost if selecting a non-timed-text display, or if the developers chose to default to displaying all text in one go (increasingly common because character-by-character text annoys people who can read a whole caption at a glance).

      Genre expectations created by decades of inertia have also fed this phonomenon. Some developers also use ellipses where a character speaks in a staccato fashion on a regular basis, despite this being irritating for some players.

      Accessibility considerations mean that voiced dialogue doesn’t change the need to also show expression in the text (to the extent intended). Multiple character portraits and character animation could obviate the need for expressive ellipses, at least in games where they are used to full effect (as AAA JRPGs would be expected to do these days). In the specific case of Ren’Py, self-voicing built into the system (that can be used instead of full voicing even if the game includes full voicing, to increase screen-reading compatibility) only works on text provided in the visible text area plus (in the latest version) limited instructions for alternate pronunciations. Any developer working with an engine that has a similar capacity to have a third-party reader (operating system-provided or otherwise) replace its full voicing might well include ellipses to help out that reader.

      Sometimes ellipses are also used to indicate there’s more text for this sentence on the next screen or that the previous screen had the earlier part of the sentence. This would not explain appearances of ellipses in the middle of a screen, though – those are expressive rather than instructive.

       
      • John

        December 10, 2023 at 2:14 pm

        I’m not too surprised to learn that ellipses are common in visual novels, since a visual novel is effectively a game consisting solely of a JRPG-like dialogue system. I’d have expected their use to be supplanted by alternate character portraits but perhaps it’s financial rather than technical constraints at work here. I have no idea what the budget of a typical visual novel is but I can easily imagine that it’s not large and that art takes up the bulk of it.

        Your points about voiced dialogue and accessibility are well-taken, though I have to wonder if that’s really been a serious consideration for many developers over the years. My impression is that game developers have really only started to take accessibility seriously in the last five years or so and that accessibility remains an afterthought in most games.

         
        • Alianora La Canta

          December 10, 2023 at 10:18 pm

          Alternate character portraits are quite often used in addition to ellipses (far from always due to financial reasons), but have not replaced them. Thus, even high-budget visual novels often use both together.

          The budgets can vary from hundreds of thousands of pounds, to nothing except time and pre-existing equipment.

           
    • stepped pyramids

      December 10, 2023 at 4:28 pm

      The problem with this theory in the current instance is that Final Fantasy VII doesn’t put character portraits beside dialogue.

       
      • John

        December 10, 2023 at 10:07 pm

        No? Well, then this is where I admit that the sum total of my FFVII experience comes from briefly watching somebody else play it a friend’s house a few decades ago. I think this must be where Alianora’s “genre expectations” argument (see above) comes into it.

         
    • Colin R

      December 11, 2023 at 4:47 pm

      Ellipses never seemed very mysterious to me when I started playing Final Fantasy games and other ‘JRPGs’. It’s punctuation; sometimes it’s expressing a beat between words, sometimes a stand-in for dialogue that the player was supposed to insert themselves, on behalf of the ‘Silent Protagonist.’ The heroes of Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest, and Breath of Fire rarely speak for themselves; like the Avatar of Ultima, the assumption is that you will fill in what they are saying in your head.

      I think the ‘dramatic pause’ effect in 90s-era games was a product of both the heightened drama the games started to reach for, and the way the animation was working. 2D characters had a fairly limited number of sprites (usually shared with combat animations) to work with; the 3D characters in Final Fantasy VII were blocky and emotionally unreadable. They had to work with very broad and very limited gestures along with dialogue and music to convey the emotions they were reaching for. So if a character stopped to think about something, or was too choked up or stunned to respond verbally, they might lower their head or make a gesture and simply say nothing, or ‘…’ The text box gave it sense time and space within the conversation that could otherwise be missed.

      As games like Final Fantasy moved to being fully voiced a few years later, the ‘…’ largely disappeared, but it remains in text-based games because both because it still serves a purpose in some games, and also because now it’s taken on a life and meaning of its own.

       
      • John

        December 12, 2023 at 11:54 pm

        There are some perfectly reasonable uses for ellipses, to be sure. I don’t consider them mysterious so much as used awkwardly and over-frequently. It’s probably for the best that I have never been permitted to proofread a JRPG script. I suppose I should add that I can’t stand it when a game prints text one character at a time at a speed well below the speed at which I can read. Whenever possible I turn the speed up, preferably to the point that the game prints entire lines or blocks all at once. I also can’t stand reading sentences full of ellipses. Otherwise, we seem to be thinking along similar lines.

         
  5. arthurdawg

    December 8, 2023 at 11:00 pm

    As… A person who loves to use too many ellipses… I don’t see anything wrong with the translation… At all, really!

    All your Final Fantasies are belong to us indeed!!!

     
  6. Knurek

    December 8, 2023 at 11:42 pm

    FWIW, N64 carts did came in 64 MB sizes, but that was towards the end of system’s life.
    At system’s launch, there were only 4 MB, 8 MB and possibly 12 MB ones available.
    Super Mario 64, the system launch title was using an 8 MB cart.

     
  7. Vince

    December 8, 2023 at 11:49 pm

    As a European computer gamer I should have had no business with FF7 at the time of its release… except that at about the same era the NES and SNES had already working PC emulators and even in those early WWW days you could find them relatively easily for download, together with the games themselves.

    Being more used to western style RPGs, I found the JRPGs bigger focus on narrative and characters very compelling, while I was never particularly interested in console games before discovering them (the PSX was the first console to give me some form of “platform envy” since a lot of the games looked more complex and mature than what I was used to think as “console games”).

    By the time the Windows port came out I had played all the previous games in the series released in English emulated on my trusty PC and I bought FF7 on release day, FF8 as well a couple of years later.

    The port was also one of the first games requiring a 3D graphics card and it was one of the main reasons for me to buy my first one (a 3dfx). It was one the first bad ports of a long series of console-PC bad ports. Cutscenes looked definitely worse than on PSX, the high-res characters contrasted heavily with the low-res backgrounds, and midi files were used for music instead of CD quality audio, if I remember correctly… but at least allowed us computer gamers to play it.

     
    • Knurek

      December 8, 2023 at 11:56 pm

      PS1 version of Final Fantasy 7 (and 8 and up to FF12) also used MIDI for music, it’s just that it had two sample banks paired to it (one used specifically for the final boss battle), while the PC version used an XG (Yamaha extension of General MIDI) synthesizer. Some samples were similar enough between them, but it did result in the final boss battle missing the vocals in the PC version.

       
    • Jason

      December 9, 2023 at 10:16 pm

      I don’t believe that the PC version of Final Fantasy VII required a 3D accelerator. I know that I didn’t have one when I played it. The game played fine. In fact, it looked better than it had on the PlayStation because it ran at a 640×480 resolution, giving it four times as many pixels. That really made a difference for the menus and character portraits.

      The General MIDI soundtracks for Final Fantasy VII and VIII are terrible, but FFVII came with a few SoundFonts that made the soundtrack considerably better. I had a Sound Blaster 64 Gold and was able to use the 4 MB SoundFont, which to me made the game sound pretty much identical to the PlayStation version although I never tested the two side by side. Having already finished the game on the PlayStation, though, I just played the PC version until I got bored and never did make it to the final battle.

      I’m not sure how they handled the PC release of FFVIII because I only played the PlayStation version of that one. I’ve read that Uematsu used much larger samples for FFVIII, so it might have been more difficult to duplicate that soundtrack with a SoundFont.

       
      • Vince

        December 11, 2023 at 5:47 am

        @Jason it seems you are correct about the 3D card, I’m probably mixing up different memories.

         
      • Jimmy Maher

        December 11, 2023 at 7:06 am

        The PC version did support both software and hardware rendering. If you install it today, however, you’ll almost certainly have to use the software engine, because very few modern video cards support the 8-bit textures Final Fantasy VII demands.

        The PC version did run at a higher resolution than the PlayStation version, but few would say it was aesthetically superior. The higher resolution and sharper screen drew attention to a lot of the limitation of the core 3D modeling that a blurrier analog television display obscured.

         
        • Lhexa

          December 17, 2023 at 10:21 am

          “The PC version did run at a higher resolution than the PlayStation version, but few would say it was aesthetically superior.”

          The PC version was superior to the PSX in every way, aesthetics included. Its text received an editing pass. Its load times were lower, its transitions to cinematics less stuttery. Its audio had a higher bitrate. Its renderer handled transparency effects better than the PSX. Its framerate and resolution were much higher, even if you’ve lost sight of why those quantities are key. Its packaging was more sumptuous. It supported both controller and keyboard and allowed remapping.

          “The higher resolution and sharper screen drew attention to a lot of the limitation of the core 3D modeling that a blurrier analog television display obscured.”

          You’re taking an argument that’s valid for pixel art and applying it to 3D art too. The result is nonsense. I, however was there. FFVII was the second most gorgeous game on my PC, after Thief.

           
          • John

            December 17, 2023 at 2:51 pm

            Even 3D art can suffer when it’s displayed at a higher resolution than originally intended. I played Disgaea 2, which I believe was originally a PS2 game, on my PC a few years ago. I found that the low-resolution textures for the 3D backgrounds actually suffered more from being displayed at 1080p on a 43-inch screen than the pixel art for the characters did. I’ve had similar experiences with older 3D PC games. Things that looked perfectly fine when I ran them at 800×600 way back when have me hunting for high-resolution texture mods before I run them now. Not having played it myself, I make no claims about the PC port of FFVII, but what Jimmy says sounds very reasonable to me.

             
            • Lhexa

              December 17, 2023 at 3:28 pm

              You’re looking at it through the eyes of a 2020s player. Accept what I am about to say as fact. I was there, I found it beautiful, and I delighted in my PC’s ability to play at a high resolution.

              By patching out random encounters, Maher showed himself unwilling to place himself in the perspective of a contemporary player. That’s entirely fine, given the game’s length. However, he should not pretend to have insight into contemporary play. Rereading, I am angered by this line:

              “Next, though, it will be time to ask a more immediately relevant question: what is it like to actually play Final Fantasy VII, the game that changed so much for so many?”

              For this game, Maher only knows what it’s like for Maher to play.

               
        • Lhexa

          December 17, 2023 at 3:21 pm

          I hope you didn’t play the PSX version. Either way, you will be interested in the link under my name, which documents the script changes between PSX and PC. Of particular note:
          Most (but from all) grammatical and spelling errors were caught.
          Barret’s dialogue was scrubbed of racist slang.
          Most ellipses were cut.

           
    • Josh T.

      December 11, 2023 at 2:46 pm

      “except that at about the same era the NES and SNES had already working PC emulators and even in those early WWW days you could find them relatively easily for download, together with the games themselves. ”

      Related to this, I was hoping Jimmy would write an article about console emulation at some point; I think it’s worth exploring the debates of piracy vs. preservation and how it opened up computer gamers to games they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Maybe in a couple years (in blog time) when the Bleem!-Sony lawsuits start happening (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bleem!#Sony_lawsuit).

       
      • Jimmy Maher

        December 11, 2023 at 3:10 pm

        I’ll add it to my list of possible articles. ;)

         
  8. John

    December 9, 2023 at 4:07 am

    Will be interested to hear your specific thoughts on the translation next time, as that’s a deep vein to mine for sure. You’ve got one of the famous lines in a shot here, but there’s just… so much of it. Just how bad it is will depend a little on the version, as a couple things were already fixed or at least tweaked even by the time of the Eidos PC release.

    Still my strongest memory of FF7’s translation issues is the dialogue over the first boss fight getting mangled such that it tells you do the opposite of what’s correct. Far from the only example of just straight instructions that are messed up to the point of being useless or even telling you to do the opposite of what you should. But it’s probably the story content that took the brunt of the damage, worse still because (beacause?) it’s not always as immediately apparent when dialogue is wrong.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 9, 2023 at 8:44 am

      Yes, I had that first boss fight — “Attack while it’s [sic] tail’s up!” — in this article, but cut it at the last minute and moved it to the next. It gave me all kinds of grief when I played recently — not a great first impression by any means.

       
  9. Squall Leonhart FFVIII

    December 9, 2023 at 4:41 am

    “…it’s almost unbelievably terrible, full of sentences that literally make no sense punctuated by annoying ellipses that are supposed to represent… I don’t know what. Pauses… for… dramatic… effect, perhaps?”

    …Whatever.

     
  10. Feldspar

    December 9, 2023 at 5:03 am

    Nice article as usual, and nice to finally hear some background about the possible reasons why Nintendo chose to end their partnership with Sony.

    Just to add my couple of two cents:
    “Their odd names, made awkward by translation or transcription into English, were nevertheless unspeakably alluring to those had caught the JRPG fever: Xenogears, Parasite Eve, etc…”
    I think it’s better to just say that the titles of the games “sound awkward to native English speakers”, since in most cases the game titles were already in English for the original Japanese releases and weren’t changed at all in localization.

    In general English is considered an “exotic” foreign language to Japanese people and they tend to prioritize choosing English words that sound cool to them personally or have certain meanings (sort of like how the title “Final Fantasy” doesn’t really mean anything and was chosen because it sounds cool), over being concerned whether they sound “natural” to English speakers. Of course the reverse is true where English speakers will arbitrarily write Japanese/Chinese characters for an “exotic” feel but the end result looks silly to native speakers.
    And sort of as you say, I think that the fact that the game titles often sound a little unusual to native English speakers makes them more memorable.

    Somebody also mentioned it in comments on the last article, but Square was personally burned by Nintendo’s sudden abandonment of the SNES CD hardware. At the time Square was developing Secret of Mana as an ambitious title to take full advantage of the CD storage capacity, and after the CD-based hardware was canceled they had to scrap a lot of content in order to fit the game into the relatively tiny size of cartridges. While the end result was a well-regarded game at the time, it feels rather like a rushed and unfinished product in the back half.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 9, 2023 at 8:39 am

      Thanks!

       
  11. Alex

    December 9, 2023 at 7:26 am

    Really interesting to read about the translation problems. Perhaps due to coming out later, my german PC-port was just fine, without a single moment of headscratching. From the technical point of view however, something stood out right from the beginning of the game: The high-resolutions textures used for the 3-D models did not fit at all into the low-resolution backgrounds. It always seemed like marionettes being moved in front of a background drawn with crayons. It didn´t help that at least my system wasn´t able to combine both resolutions on the spot during a cutscene within the game, meaning that the models were floating in the air and landed on the background when a cutscene was playing.

    Also, the video-cutscenes were in low resolution and the controlls were not adapted to a mouse support and were akward without a controller (I bought a MS Sideweinder just for this game). I didn´t mind all these quirks at all, but in hindsight I can understand everyone who ignored the port because of it. As far as I know, it was also something of a limited run (I never saw another copy beside of mine, and I never saw a single copy of FF VIII, which also got a port).

     
  12. Sniffnoy

    December 9, 2023 at 6:43 pm

    Given all the other bad business decisions Sega made with the Saturn, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me to attribute its failure to marketing to the wrong demographic? Maybe that made things worse, but compared to, say, how they alienated developers with its surprise release, was that really so big a factor?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 9, 2023 at 6:54 pm

      But I never made any such attribution. ;) They marketed to a traditional demographic that had done very well for them for many years. This was a perfectly defensible, perfectly reasonable approach. It was more a question of Sony’s vision to expand the videogame demographic than any dramatic failure on Sega’s part.

      You also want to remember that, while Sega certainly did themselves no favors in North America when launching the Saturn, North America was only about one-third of the global videogame market. If Sony hadn’t been so darn effective — one might even say brilliant — in selling the PlayStation, the Saturn could have overcome a botched launch in one part of the world. But Sony got everything just exactly perfect: the hardware, the software, the price, and most of all the media messaging. There’s a reason the PlayStation is still taken as a case study in so many business schools…

       
  13. arcanetrivia

    December 9, 2023 at 8:58 pm

    the consoles’ newfound ability to easily save state from session to session had begun to elide if not yet erase the traditional barriers between “computer games” and “videogames.” Today the distinction is all but eliminated

    Probably no one but me is interested to know this, but recently the Library of Congress removed the distinction between these two things in its thesaurus of subject headings. “Computer games” was subsumed into “Video games” and now acts as a “see” reference to the latter (a symlink or alias if you like). Statement of intent from June 2021:

    In addition, LCSH currently includes the headings Computer games, Electronic games, Internet games, and Video games. While there probably were distinctions among the headings when they were established (for example, Video games seems to have been intended for arcade games, and Computer games, for games played on home gaming consoles), the distinctions have been lost over time. It is also doubtful that the distinctions between the headings would be useful or intuitive going forward, even if they could be determined and contrasting scope notes provided. Therefore, on a future list the headings Computer games, Electronic games, and Internet games will be cancelled and become UF references to Video games, which seems to be the most common terminology.

    (“UF” means “Used For”, i.e. “Video games” is used in the place of “computer games” or any of the others.)

    …although I have to say that “home gaming consoles” is not what would come to mind for me from the term “Computer games”! Rather I would picture a literal desktop computer, and console games would have been “video games” in contrast.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 11, 2023 at 7:01 am

      That’s fascinating, although their historical understanding of “computer game” and “videogame” is indeed badly confused.

       
    • Ross

      December 11, 2023 at 12:40 pm

      I sort of vaguely recall that in the ’80s or so, you often saw marketing copy that seemed to be using the term “computer game” or broadly related language (“computerized gaming device” perhaps) to describe single-function luddic devices that incorporated embedded computer systems – ie “enhanced” board games. So, like, Electronic Battlership? Could potentially be called a “computer game” – it wasn’t a video game, because it didn’t have a video screen, but it did have some sort of electronic hardware running some sort of software on it (I think having some kind of microcontroller would be the distinction, in this terminology, between a “computer game” and an “electronic game”, which might, at its most broad, include any game with wiring and a battery.)

       
  14. David Simon

    December 9, 2023 at 9:20 pm

    It’s also interesting to note that the Nintendo 64 was arguably not a 64-bit system. Its CPU supported only 32-bit addresses and had a 32-bit data bus. The CPU did support some 64-bit arithmetic, and the GPU had a various 64-bit features, but in practice most games primarily used 32-bit operations, since they were faster!

    The line between 32-bit and 64-bit hardware is actually a bit fuzzy. And it got much fuzzier when “our system is X bits!” became part of video game marketing lexicon.

     
  15. Charles

    December 10, 2023 at 6:33 am

    >> …Ridge Racer, a port of a stand-up arcade game that became the new console’s breakout early hit.

    Not sure of the intended meaning of “stand-up” but there was a sit-down or Deluxe version of Ridge Racer as well, which was far more fun to play in my opinion. (There is also Ridge Racer Full Scale, but that’s another story…)

    Somewhat off topic but Sony Playstation chips were used in Namco arcade games for years thereafter, starting as I recall with System 11 games, including the early Tekken fighting game series, which has had numerous sequels to the present day. Cf. http://www.system16.com/museum.php?id=7

     
  16. Glorkvorn

    December 10, 2023 at 8:10 pm

    Fantastic article, thanks for writing this! You put your finger on something that I’ve been wondering for a while- why was there such a different *feel* to the different consoles, when they came out at the same time and were competing for the same market?

    As a kid I was a *huge* fan of all the final fantasy games on NES and SNES, to the point where I eventually learned about emulators so that I could play the Japanese-only ones. And yet, the Playstation just never appealed to me. Somehow I just unconsciously picked up on the marketing that it was meant for older, cooler people, not a nerdy kid like me.

    The irony is that the Playstation, with its library of JRPGs, became the console of choice for nerdy shut-in kids. A JRPG is perfect for whiling away the hours on summer vacation when you’ve got no school, no work, and no responsibilities. The N64 is way better for a social situation- plug in 4 controllers and 4 people can instantly have fun on its library of amazing multiplayer games. Goldeneye, MarioKart, and MarioParty feel like games that many adults can have fun playing at a party, even now, whereas I really can’t imagine hosting a party now and firing up FF7 for adults to enjoy, unless it’s just a nostalgia trip for people who played it as a kid. The N64 *looks* like a kid’s toy, but it runs like a high-quality consumer product. The Playstation looks cool, but runs more like a technology demonstrator.

    Nintendo might have been a stick-in-the-mud, but I find myself now, as an adult, nodding along with a lot of their design decisions. Loading scenes are *awful*, they completely ruin the immersion of entertainment. It would be like if a movie randomly paused for 30 seconds every time the scene changed- unwatchable. And cartridges are nice because they’re durable and look good on the shelf, whereas CDs have to be protected in their plastic case because even the slightest pressure can destroy your disc, and there goes $50. (Was Sony hoping to make extra money from gamers rebuying the games they broke? Instead it just incentivized us to learn how to mod the Playstations and play pirated copies of the discs) The walled garden is also nice because you can pick up any game from it and (in theory) know that it’s at least pretty good, as opposed to wading through thousands of amateur indie games looking for a diamond in the rough.

    Maybe Apple and Nintendo could join forces to make a gaming console… now that would be something.

     
    • Ross

      December 11, 2023 at 12:52 pm

      I recall a long period where it felt like a lot of the zeitgeist was basically “nerds” saying how backwards Nintendo was and how completely done and over it was, and lamenting that those fools at Nintendo kept pushing out new consoles no one wanted instead of just licensing their IP to Sony.

      Meanwhile, Nintendo kept selling something like four consoles (of each generation) for every man woman and child on the planet, raking in more total revenue than its competitors by a lot. Their strategy of “Make a fun console everyone will buy instead of a high end console for ‘serious gamers'” paying off basically every single time except for the WiiU.

       
      • Gnoman

        December 11, 2023 at 4:51 pm

        The situation you describe, of Nintendo deliberately selecting lower-end (and thus cheaper) hardware and selling lots and lots of units, was not a thing on the home-console side before the Wii. Meaning that it can only be applied to two of the seven home consoles Nintendo has released.

        The NES, SNES, N64, and GameCube were all intended to be “high-end consoles for serious gamers”, competing directly on raw power. Technically speaking, the hardware in the N64 is equal or greater than the PS1 in most metrics, the tiny cartridges are just a crippling limiter.

        Likewise, of the PS2-Xbox-GameCube trifecta the GameCube doesn’t come off badly at all, competing in raw power quite well.

        They also didn’t “selling something like four consoles (of each generation) for every man woman and child on the planet, raking in more total revenue than its competitors by a lot” in those generatons. The GameCube finished narrowly behind the Xbox in that generation, and between the two of them they sold almost as many units worldwide as Sony managed to sell PS2s… in Europe. Or, put another way, about seven PS2s were sold for every GameCube. The N64 fared a bit better than that, with the PS1 only outselling it by a factor of three.

        In the handheld market things hold closer to what you describe, with the caveat that the lower end hardware of the Game Boy/DS line compared to the competition has more to do with it allowing emphasis on battery life and compactness – things crucial to the success of a handheld console.

         
        • glorkvorn

          December 11, 2023 at 11:02 pm

          Wow, I did not realize the PS2 outsold the GameCube and Xbox so much. That’s amazing.

          But I have the same complaint about the PS2. I feel like it’s a console very “of its time,” with awkward technical issues and graphics that now look outdated. I mostly remember it for the terrible voice acting in FFX. The Gamecube feels like much more of a timeless classic. I just wish it didn’t look like a 6-year-old’s toy. (of course that’s all just my own subjective opinion)

           
          • Gnoman

            December 12, 2023 at 12:01 am

            The “terrible voice acting” in FFX was largely a translation issue – for technical reasons every voice clip had to fit into exactly the same amount of time as the original Japanese text. English tends to be longer than the equivalent in Japanese, and there’s only so much you can do with rewording. So you wind up with the very professional voice actors having to use odd diction to get the lines in.

             
  17. Keith

    December 11, 2023 at 5:07 pm

    “Notice the slick iconography used in place of words on the power and CD-eject buttons. That was not yet typical in the 1990s.”

    This stood out to me because I have a handful of Playstation 1’s, both North American and Japanese, sitting on my workbench, and all of their buttons are labeled with English text. A quick Google image search turns up a PS1 with those icons only very rarely, not counting the PSOne. Now I’m wondering which version/region of the Playstation had those. Not the right place to ask that question, I know. I’m just pointing out something that looked like an error to me in the article… but maybe isn’t?

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 12, 2023 at 3:48 pm

      It does look like the English text is more common. We’ll call that claim to coolness a bridge too far. ;) Thanks!

       
  18. Jason Dyer

    December 11, 2023 at 5:39 pm

    Regarding ellipses in Japanese games, I think Legends of Localization has a decent survey.

    https://legendsoflocalization.com/qa-japanese-ellipsis-usage-and-english-translation/

    The “Captain!” example is really good as to why “just cut them” makes for a translator’s dilemma.

     
  19. hcs

    December 11, 2023 at 11:03 pm

    Minor note, probably not worth more than this comment: Super Mario RPG was not the last Square Super Famicom RPG, there was at least Rudras no Hihou (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treasure_of_the_Rudras) later, though it was released before the US release of SMRPG, and only in Japan.

     
  20. mycophobia

    December 12, 2023 at 2:57 pm

    The paragraph ending “which had a capacity of just 64 MB, one-tenth that of a CD” appears to be missing a period.

    Have you checked out Tim Rogers’s “Let’s Mosey” series done for Kotaku on YouTube? It goes over translation particulars of the original PSX FFVII and is very compelling, as is most of his video essay stuff.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 12, 2023 at 3:40 pm

      Thanks!

      Yes, I watched the whole series in preparation for the next article. I found it informative and interesting, but also a little frustrating, in that he sometimes got a bit lost in the minutiae of Japanese grammar and the like at the expense of what I really wanted to know: whether and in what ways the story is more nuanced in Japanese, and to what extent its more eyebrow-raising aspects in English — Barret coming across as a racist caricature, the retrograde gender politics of Aerith and Tifa fawning over Cloud, the homophobia of the Wall Market sequence — are present in the original.

       
      • mycophobia

        December 12, 2023 at 5:05 pm

        At the very least I do remember the series emphasizing that Barret is “more Solid Snake than Mr. T” in the original Japanese and that his racially charged characterization was pretty much a whole cloth invention of the translator.

         
      • Lhexa

        December 17, 2023 at 10:28 am

        The Wall Market sequence is beloved among queer gamers who enjoyed FFVII, myself among them. We also appreciated that the remake, instead of brushing the sequence under the rug, doubled down on its celebration of transgression.

        I fondly remember being befuddled by the game regarding satin as superior to silk.

         
  21. Lhexa

    December 16, 2023 at 5:15 pm

    “Writerly sort that I am, I’ll be unable to keep myself from harping further on the putrid translation in the third and final article in this series, when I’ll dive into the game itself.”

    Writerly sort that I am, I’m frustrated by how often you default to hyperbolic words like putrid or histrionic.

    These interludes in which you revel in poor prose occur rather frequently. Personally, I find them unpleasant. It is a good thing to be a forgiving reader.

    I’m braced for part three. I doubt I’ll find your typical hasty (though engaging and well-informed) analysis pleasant for a game I’m passionate about. However, it does give me an opportunity to organize and maybe compose my own thoughts on the game, so part three will be a net positive however it turns out.

     
  22. Lhexa

    December 16, 2023 at 8:09 pm

    I feel I should write something less catty. The link under my name in this post leads to an analysis of Dragon Warrior, half of it written in a moment of pique. It demonstrates the depth of analysis that even the least complex of the genre’s masterpieces can sustain.

     
  23. Lhexa

    December 18, 2023 at 10:17 am

    I will gently insist on one of my points. Your screenshot indicates that you played a version using the PSX translation, not the PC translation. I know this because that very screenshot appears in a side-by-side comparison on the website I linked you. The website even calls it FF7’s most notorious grammatical error.

    The use of the inferior PSX translation is at odds with your website’s purpose as a history of computer gaming. I assume it’s an honest mistake, as nobody warned you about the difference. I myself didn’t know the difference was so huge until I revisited the resource.

    Of course it’s too late for another playthrough, but you can ameliorate this mistake by finding Youtube scene compilations and rewatching key scenes, like the Wall Street sequence, the corporate raid, the extended flashback, the date scene, the scenes before and after the famous cinematic, Cloud’s first and second psychotic episodes (one in the Temple, the other in the North), and his therapeutic intervention.

    When I tried to channel my anger into helpful forms you told me to go touch grass. Well, go touch text, Jimmy.

     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.