In The Beginning…
The JRPG genre has been a divisive sort over the years. The general dissatisfaction of the genre’s followers in the west has become somewhat of a trope in an of itself. From its very inception, players have feared the varied side effects of localization. Culturally mistranslated, recursively-imported, watered down products were sadly the norm and seen time and time again with only the ever-complaining customers to show for it. No one would step up to the plate to combat this issue, not until Sony and their PlayStation brand of systems joined the console fray. Over the years they would come dominate the very genre, improving and strengthening the titles within it, until they had gained a near monopoly overnight. If you wanted to play the latest popular releases from Japan the answer was just one word, PlayStation. In the intervening years only a handful of games landed releases on their competitors, with nary a few of them having iconic studios attached. It was only natural that someone would become fed up with this very system and try to challenge its overlords for dominance. And there was one new yet established name that they would use to fight it, Mistwalker.
Microsoft And RPG’s
The Xbox, a console synonymous with shooters, open worlds, and action based titles. Microsoft had always been at the forefront of these genres for the past decade and a half but as one console generation was taking its final bow and another was rising to the occasion the company started to seek out new ventures in other genres, more specifically the RPG. Their Xbox system had dipped its feet lightly into the genre before with offerings from the Elder Scrolls series and others but never had they seen a Japanese RPG on their platform, Sony had always swiped them up at the last second. Final Fantasy, Tales, Shin Megami Tensei, Xenogears, all of these classics had found their home on the Sony PlayStation and weren’t willing to part with the console in any shape or form. Final Fantasy, in particular, was one that they desired the most, yet, was always outside their grasp. All that would change soon enough…
Walking Through The Mists
…But hold on. To truly know how deep this rabbit hole goes we must understand the past before we can truly comprehend the future. A past that involves one man’s last ditch stand in an unforgiving industry. Hironobu Sakaguchi, a college dropout and unprofitable game designer, had climbed up the corporate ladder of the then dwindling Square, all the way from a lowly part time game designer to Director of Planning and Development. This was a position that anyone would be proud to be in, however, he instead found himself frustrated both creatively and emotionally, teetering on the edge of quitting the entire industry for good. And he would have if not for one final game, the last that he would put his all into. That game would end up becoming Final Fantasy, releasing in 1987, etching Sakaguchi’s name into the annals of video game history as one of the forefathers of the RPG genre, even though its relative impact was minimal at the time. As successive entries in the series became the norm he would use them to test all manner of ideas and concepts. with many of them becoming commonplace in the genre going forward. As time went on he would come to perfect his craft to a tee, creating some of the most memorable experiences in video game history. Alas perfection, to some, invites boredom and Sakaguchi was no different.
Circa 2004 he had become troubled with his company, the newly merged Square Enix. Sakaguchi was creatively frustrated with their bog standard corporate mentality, one that focused solely on churning out new titles for their old and trusted IPs rather then going in bold new directions with exciting original properties. Years before he could have had a voice in the matter and may have been able to turn the tables on his supervisors but with his failure to deliver with his directorial debut in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, one that nearly destroyed the entire company, no one would listen to anything he had to say. Seeing this, he saw no other choice then to found his own video game studio, one that would take those profound leaps of faith for themselves. Sakaguchi, the man who founded the empire that was Final Fantasy, had left it all behind just to satisfy his own curiosity, to walk where no game studio would dare tread. A fitting name was needed for this new venture; Mistwalker seemed like a good enough candidate. However an indie studio in those days just couldn’t survive on its own, they would need some heavy financial backing to survive. Seeing the perfect opportunity, Microsoft swooped in to support the studio from the get-go. The company wanted to shake off the Xbox’s status as an inherent non-factor in the Japanese market and felt that Sakaguchi was the right man for the job.
But why would he settle for Microsoft’s device over their ever-apparent competitor? Trustworthy people were in short supply at Square Enix so a company that would finance and trust in him to create a fantastic product was a must. Their new consoles capabilities when it came to image quality and physics engines also intrigued Sakaguchi very much, giving him many ideas for possible stories that could be crafted. This was what he felt on the surface but what Sakaguchi really was wasn’t a flabbergasted tech geek, no he was a storyteller. All he needed was the right tools to get the job done, and Microsoft had them in spades. So, the two had a deal. Sakaguchi was given free rein to make whatever two projects he desired so long as they were exclusively for Microsoft’s soon to be announced Xbox 360. A mutual commitment that would serve both parties well to be sure, it would not only serve as enough reason for many to become early adopters of the console but also provided Sakaguchi with the means to pursue what he’d been craving for over a decade: his very own New Game +.
The Video Game A-Team
And a new game such as this deserved a dream team to play it to perfection. This dream team wouldn’t be any ordinary dream team, however, as Sakaguchi would bring his A-Team from back in the day, the ones that helped him bring his last truly creative endeavor to light, Chrono Trigger. Nobuo Uematsu and Akira Toriyama, these two creators were legendary in their own right. Each a master of his own craft, Uematsu had composed nearly every iconic piece of music used in the Final Fantasy series from the beginning and Toriyama’s greatest accomplishment was his seminal work, Dragon Ball. When the three of them came together the only result would be sheer artistry, and Microsoft understood this, giving him their utmost support. It also helped that former Square Enix co-workers, Yoshihiro Maruyama and Shiro Kawai, were on hand at Microsoft Studios, making the process all the more manageable.
This new partnership provided Sakaguchi with a place that contained an atmosphere of mutual applause and admiration, a place that provided him with absolute control over every facet of the development of his new project. His partners in crime, Uematsu and Toriyama, worked closely with him to fill in the blanks for this new effort. Sakaguchi and Toriyama, together, struggled on the core idea of the project. Each had very different ideas of what the story should be with Sakaguchi considering something more attuned to Final Fantasy. But he had broken away from Square Enix to forge a different path, so that route just wouldn’t be possible. Thankfully Toriyama had a fantastic premise in mind, a story in which the main character would control a unique monster, one casted from his own shadow. This gave Toriyama much room to work with as he could shape the world and characters to his own liking, injecting them with a certain energetic vibe, one fitting for the charming and picturesque game he was intending on making. Uematsu would complement Toriyama’s ideas exceedingly well; offering a more sentimental soundtrack then his usual work yet with its own lively attitude. He even used this opportunity to experiment a little by layering in some rock music to the mix courtesy of English singer Ian Gillian.
With Sakaguchi fully satisfied with the disclosed aspects, Mistwalker finally finished with pre-production and gave the go ahead to greenlight the project for actual video game development. However, as Mistwalker was such a new and relatively small studio they couldn’t possible develop a game worthy of being a mainstream Xbox title. No, they would have to outsource the software development to someone else to make it a reality. They found that someone else in Artoon, a third party developer. Formed by the designer of classic SEGA characters Sonic The Hedgehog and Dr. Eggman Naoto Ohshima, his studio, Artoon, would develop the bulk of the game with Mistwalker overseeing their work to make sure that it was up to standards of quality they had come to expect over the years. But there was one slight problem to worry about; Artoon had no idea how to develop an RPG. Known for developing action oriented titles such as Blinx The Cat and Yoshi’s Island DS; Mistwalker’s project was an entirely new venture for the company, a prospect that horrified them at first. As time went on, they soon learned that their fears were actually unfounded as their talents in action games proved to be a boon for the games design. A classic turn based RPG is what Sakaguchi desired for but Artoon decided they had to add in their own unique twists to certain classical elements, upping the battle systems speed and responsiveness while giving it a sort of tempo and rhythm to it all. Mistwalker’s first project was shaping up to be a homage to everything Sakaguchi had created up until this point, a nostalgic take on the genre that he helped to craft, honed to its finest edge.
Releasing on December 7th, 2006, their efforts culminated in Blue Dragon, a striking breath of fresh air in a genre that had become convoluted by its overarching storylines and brooding main protagonists. This was all due to the fact that Blue Dragon’s story was very simple in nature. It starts out like many RPG’s do with a brash and impetuous main character, Shu, who lives a quiet life in his hometown of Talta Village. This peace, as always, is shattered when a monster attacks the village, one that has been terrorizing them for years, the Land Shark. While the rest of the villagers cower in fear of the menace Shu, and his childhood friends Jiro and Kluke, decide to take action and capture the beast. Things don’t go as planned, as usual, as they find themselves swept up by the Land Shark and whisked away, eventually ending up in the throne room of its evil master Nene. As they are merely children Nene defeats them with easy, throwing them out of his castle like trash only to be saved by a mysterious light commanding to eat three sphere’s of power. Doing so unleashes their shadows, beasts with unimaginable powers, giving them the only fighting chance to put a stop to Nene’s evil plans for world domination. What follows is a globetrotting journey to fight against evil and solve everyone’s problems along the way. A simple plot to be sure, Blue Dragon had a straightforward idea of good versus evil, and that added to its charm, a conscientious choice on behalf of Sakaguchi and Toriyama. They had longed for their golden years in the medium and the fantastical titles they had crafted throughout that time period. It was an ode to the days of yold, a love letter to the beginnings of the very genre with a few modern twists and sensibilities added in. This fact would become even more apparent when looking into the titles battle system.
A classic JRPG in every meaning of the word, Blue Dragon’s battle system was a traditional turn based strategy affair, one fans of the genre had grown to expect over the years. Every party member, monster, or enemy combatant took their turns attacking one by one until either side was defeated, with each of your shadows having access to a wide swath of classic skills and spells to get the job done. Boss fights, status ailments, a sort of elemental rock-paper-scissors mechanic, and so many more staples of the genre were readily apparent. But that was its core, what about the outer layer? This is where Artoon’s action heavy talents came into play. Character’s turn order was determined by speed rather then having the whole party go at once. A faster enemy could wipe out your comrades quickly if you weren’t too careful. Tempo was another important aspect of combat too. Whenever you attacked a charging meter would appear. The longer you let the attack charge the more powerful and effective it would be, changing the tide of battle in one fell swoop. But Artoon wasn’t the only one to add in some unique elements, Sakaguchi sought to further update some of his more outdated systems. The job system that began its rounds in Final Fantasy 3 was of particular note to him. To give the shadows added variety then just standard powerups for the protagonists, each was given individual classes to differentiate themselves from one another. From Assassin’s to White Mages each had their own appeal and usefulness on the battlefield. On top of this, their classes could be switched up on the fly with party members retaining skills they’ve learned from previous classes, encouraging players to mix and match each shadow until they’ve created one to their own liking. But a good battle system is only as great as its enemies and Blue Dragon was no exception to this.
Eschewing genre norms, the game breaks away from the random encounters that had dominated RPG’s for so long and places its enemies within the world itself. This allowed battles to play out as they naturally would with players being able to avoid battle altogether or even lure multiple foes close to one another for a greater challenge. Some enemy types may even end up fighting each other instead of you, attacking their natural rivals right off the bat. This offered Blue Dragon a greater emphasis on exploration then its worldly brethren, imploring players to investigate every single inch of the world and uncover its hidden secrets. But your enemies wouldn’t make it so easy as some could block a path that you must pass to progress through the game or end up pursuing your character relentlessly. All in all, Blue Dragon’s gameplay was of two worlds, one that honored its past and one that looked towards the future with a certain curiosity towards it. A bold reimagining of a genre with a sentimental slant, Blue Dragon seemed like it was just the thing that Microsoft needed, a classic.
A Trip To The Past
But would the world think as much? Possibly. In its home country of Japan, things seemed bright, as it dominated the console’s sales charts by selling over 200,000 copies, a feat that no Xbox 360 title would ever come to match. As it eventually made its way over to the west in mid 2007 it tripled that, selling over 900,000 copies, propelling it to become one of Microsoft’s best-selling titles at the time. This was no small victory for Mistwalker studios. A studio that had just come into existence a few years ago was now headlining the Xbox 360 as one of its flagship developers, something unheard of in the industry. This, of course, was all due to the geniuses behind the scenes. Creatively exhausted and frustrated with an industry unwilling to change and a company that was just beginning to stagnate, Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team left it all behind to change the status quo. With the help of Microsoft, a company that immensely respected the man for his work ethic, they were provided a place that supported them in any endeavor they wished to seek, whether it went against the mold or conformed to the standards of the time. Paying homage to everything that he had created up until this point, Sakaguchi created his opus, Blue Dragon. Sentimental to a fault yet contemporary in its execution, Blue Dragon was something much needed in a genre that had become a sea of mediocrity and melancholia, a bright light to lead the way and open up avenues of storytelling that other franchises weren’t even considering at the time. A lighthearted romp could prove to be just as compelling as one that is dark and foreboding. But reverence of the past could only take Mistwalker so far as studio. Something more daring, more original, and more unique than anything else then Sakaguchi had thought of before was needed. Their journey through the mists was far from over.