The lights are on
When I talk about the glory days of Japanese RPGs, or how companies “just don’t make them like they used to,” what I’m really saying is that I miss Square. During the original PlayStation era, the company was the unquestioned master of role-playing, building a following of loyal devotees by releasing a string of amazing and successful games. Regardless of what you think about the company today, Square was absolutely on fire at the turn of the millennium.
Of course, I still enjoy Square Enix titles today…but I certainly have my reservations. Before the merger with Enix and the high-profile flop of the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (which I dutifully saw on opening night), Square could do no wrong. Between 1997 and 2001, the company produced a downright improbable number of my favorite games. I’m not just talking about Final Fantasy, either, though that is certainly a major part of it.
Final Fantasy VII released in 1997, followed by VIII in 1999, IX in 2000, and X in 2001. That’s four mainline, numbered Final Fantasy games in five years. That isn’t all; they were good. The idea of consistent, quality Final Fantasies may seem like a dream today, but that was the reality for RPG fans for several years. Three of those four games make my personal top five for the entire series. I played each one of them multiple times, adding up to well over 400 hours logged in that series alone.
My love of Final Fantasy inspired me to branch out and check out other RPGs, and I actively looked for Square’s logo. I had never been loyal to a particular publisher or developer before, but Square just kept steering me in the right direction. First, I checked out Xenogears. I loved it, so I tried Vagrant Story, which was another hit. I bought Chrono Cross sight unseen; the idea of buying a game without reading any impressions or playing a demo seems ridiculous to me today, but in the year 2000, my trust in the Square name was absolute. I didn’t need to do any research, because I knew it would be awesome. And I was right.
Square’s internal studios weren’t just churning out RPGs, either. Einhänder appealed to my fondness for old-school, side-scrolling shooters. I loved both of the Bushido Blade titles for their craziness combined with uncompromising brutality. Parasite Eve gave me a taste of survival horror – a genre that was a huge blind spot for me since I had never played Resident Evil. I kept betting on Square and winning, which inspired a kind of trust that no company has earned from me since.
I don’t know what exactly went wrong once the Square Enix merger happened. Maybe it was Final Fantasy XI. Maybe it was Kingdom Hearts. Whatever the case, I’m not interested in dwelling on it. No good thing lasts forever. I’m just happy that I was a gamer with the particular tastes that lined up exactly with what Square was producing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, because it led to the some of the best and most memorable years of my gaming career.
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