The Den Of Wolves
Our story begins with a single team, Wolf Team to be specific. Formed in 1986 by Masahiro Akishino as an internal development team within Telenet Japan, a recent and budding video game publisher, Wolf Team was built to help expand Telenet’s library of titles, as most of them were mediocre at best. Several months after their formation, Wolf Team had kickstarted Telenet’s first successful series, Valis. Valis: The Fantasm Soldier, releasing in 1986 for the MSX and PC-88 home computers, was yet another side-scrolling platformer, a popular genre at the time. However its setup was unapologetically Japanese in its execution. Playing as Yuko Asou, a schoolgirl in 1980’s Japan, players wield her sword Valis to protect the three realms of Earth, spirit, and dreams from the demon lord Rogles using classic platforming and sword swinging gameplay. It was certainly simple for the time but critics and fans to a liking to the game turning Valis into a franchise of its own, spawning three more sequels of varying value. With these victories on their shoulders, Akishino thought it was high time for Wolf Team to go independent even though they had only just started. But Telenet, for now, was fine with this and decided to let the team spread its wings.
On it’s own now, with Telenet Japan’s backing, Wolf Team continued to crank out hit after hit. There was Sol-Feace, a classic space shoot’em up, Zan, their very own franchise and a strategy game where you fought as three different armies, the noble yasha, humanity, or the demonic horde, Arcus Odyssey, an isometric, co-op hack in slash game that followed four heroes trying to thwart the return of an evil sorceress, and so much more. For years, they continuously pumped out game after game, trying to one up themselves in the process. But, as with all businesses, mergers regularly happen. In 1990 Wolf Team was folded back into Telenet in anticipation of their merger with another team, Laser Soft. As time went on Wolf Team stayed persistent with its own development, trying their make the very best video games that they could. Telenet liked their work so much that they decided to fold all of their teams into one singular unit, Wolf Team. To many this would seem like a boon. More people working on their projects should equal a better product in the long run. Nevertheless the man who created Wolf Team, Masahiro Akishino, and the director of many of their past projects, Masaaki Uno, departed from the company with several other members in tow.
The people who started the company had all but disappeared, however, throughout this debacle one man still had a plan. A lowly programmer who had only just gotten his start at the company, Yoshiharu Gotanda, had been writing a novel of his own in his free time. This novel was called Tale Phantasia and was unlike many fantasy stories of its time. It was told through three very different viewpoints. The first of these presents the story of Winona Pickford, a woman who meets Dhaos, a tragic figure and main antagonist of the story, as she follows him to learn his true intentions. The second viewpoint follows Rhea Scarlet, as she experiences the madness of Dhaos firsthand. In the final phase of the plot, the viewpoint would be picked up by Cress Albane, whose goal wass to get revenge on Dhaos for the death of his parents and loved ones. Other then this there were around 6 main protagonists planned with a setting that drew heavily from Norse mythology. It had the potential to become of the most unique novels of its time but as soon as Wolf Team and Telenet saw Gotanda’s efforts they just had to beg him to use it for their next project. Luckily enough he agreed and soon they began shopping around for a major publisher, as Telenet Japan’s sales at the time had been quite meager. The team brought it to anyone who would listen including several famous Japanese publishers such as the then Square-less Enix. But they wouldn’t even dare touch the project, in fear of making more competition for themselves, so they had to look elsewhere for their creation. Only when they pitched the property to Namco did they finally find someone who took interest in their efforts.
With the support of Namco behind their backs they could rest comfortably and get to work. But who would lead and make up the team? Gotanda would of course write the scripts and program like he always had, however, a friend in the company who had been helping him with character designs, Yoshiaki Inagaki, would continue his work. On the other side of things Joe Asanuma would direct their new effort, Masaki Norimoto was brought on as a lead designer, and Motoi Sakuraba along with his team of composers would make an unforgettable score. All was set to make Tale Phantasia a game for the ages but there was a problem in their way, Namco itself. As soon as production began, Namco took a more hands on approach and kept insisting on a numerous edits to Gotanda’s original story. Whole characters had to be scrapped; the original character designs were completely thrown out the window, an entire chunk of crucial story was canned along with the three differing viewpoints. And to put the nail in the coffin the name was changed to Tales of Phantasia. A simple change to be sure but Namco’s iron grip on the production was beginning to take its toll.
After being delayed by a year due to all the editions people began to quit, fed up with Namco’s lack of understanding. Director Joe Asanuma and lead designer Masaki Norimoto were let go around the same time with many others following in their footsteps. Dissatisfied with the changes made to his work, Gotanda also soon left, not wanting to see his creation twisted and contorted any longer as much as it already was. His passion for RPG’s hadn’t died, however, as soon after he, Asanuma, and Norimoto left to found tri-Ace, a company that would soon rival his original creation with their popular Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile franchises. With the making of this fledgling studio, former developers from Wolf Team began to flock to it, hoping to work at a better place outside of the watchful eyes of Namco. Only Motoi Sakuraba, the games composer, stayed on albeit in a freelancer role, as he no longer wished to be connected to the company. Wolf Team had been ripped to shreds with only tiny strands of its original being left intact. To keep Tales of Phantasia afloat after Asanuma’s departure they put Eiji Kikuchi in the director’s seat while hiring legendary Japanese manga artist Kōsuke Fujishima to redesign Inagaki’s characters from the ground up to replace their unique representations with designs that emulated the anime and manga mediums.
Tales of Phantasia
Even without the original creators the show, as they say, had to go on, eventually resulting in a release. Tales of Phantasia, releasing in 1995 on the Super Famicom, still resembled what Gotanda had envisioned somewhat. Taking place on the planet Aselia, the game starts off with four heroes fighting off the sorcerer king Dhaos. Before they can defeat him, Dhaos uses magic to travel years into the future where he meets his end by the warrior’s descendants who are waiting for him. 12 years later, two young men named Cress and Chester live a peaceful life in their village, free of any kind of war or conflict, until one day when a dark knight named Mars razes the village to the ground in the name of Dhaos, hoping to set him free. Fueled by revenge, the two chase after Mars, meeting a young priestess named Mint along the way. Eventually Dhaos breaks free of his prison with no one being able to stop him. The only solution they see is to send Cress and Mint back in time to find a way to defeat the sorcerer once and for all. What follows is a time hoping adventure from the past to the future, as Cress and his merry band try to fix Dhaos’s misdoings and find out what he truly aims to do with the world. Tales of Phantasia proved to be its own unique undertaking. Its storytelling was dark yet could prove to have plenty of levity to it when the time called. But what truly set it apart from the rest of its competitors were its characters who at first seemed like stock archetypes that many others use but had their own motivations, dreams, and other conflicts driving them forward. This was all thanks, in part, to the absolutely stellar writing of Gotanda and unparalleled design of Kosuke Fujishima that brought them to life.
Tales of Phantasia playing out to be an interesting edition to the RPG formula although it was not only because of story but also its gameplay. Using a never before seen system that blew many of its contemporaries out of the water, the Linear Motion Battle System or LMBS was unlike anything anyone had seen before. Taking inspiration from fighting games such as Street Fighter, the Linear Motion Battle System smashed the fighting and RPG genres into one unique concoction. Fights are played out on a two-dimensional terrain with enemies and your party members moving in real time. To attack you can swing your sword at your foes or use artes, special techniques that use up your TP or technical points, the replacement for MP. As the only playable character is Cress, the main protagonist, your allies operate on their own and are the general spell casters of the group. Alongside this never before seen battle system came graphics that pushed the Super Famicom to its uttermost limits due to its expansive world and use of 3D effects. Tales of Phantasia was also one of the very few titles on the system to even have voice acting or voice actors but since they could only fit so much in the cartridge they could only have ever so much of it. But it was big enough that they could fit the consoles first vocal song, The Dream Will Never Die, making the intro all the more memorable.
A Beginning And An Ending
With a revolutionary combat system, story, and innumerable other things, Tales of Phantasia seemed set for success. But reality was much harsher then that on the fledgling franchise. Not only did it barely make the production worth it after selling over 400,000 copies but it also struggled to find a critical foothold, receiving a thrashing that you wouldn’t ‘t expect on its surface. In all honesty, comparing it to many other Namco properties such as Pac-Man or Soul Edge, Tales of Phantasia seemed like a losing bet. Its development was divisive throughout its entire lifespan. At first it was a simple project, a single solitary vision from a creator who wished to craft a fantasy world of his own that told a story unlike many of the day. However, the world is a cruel one that, at times, crushes dreams with abandon, and Gotanda’s tale was just another one of its victims. Was it corporate greed? An uncompromising creator? Or just something in the middle of the two? No one could tell you that. The story of Namco’s deconstruction of the beginning of this unending tale has been lost to time, potentially forever. However, even in the darkest of times some light can shine in and the finalized version of Tales of Phantasia was no different. A landmark game that pushed the RPG genre forth in new and exciting directions, and helped to create the Star Ocean and Valkyria Profile franchises to boot, the series fascinating combination of role playing mechanics and fighting game staples made for an interesting concoction unlike anything anyone had seen before. Its revelations and inner dilemmas challenged players as well, asking whether or not their actions were truly justified. But above all us, amongst the clutter there was something here, something that hadn’t quite been seen before. It seemed their destiny was to capitalize on this fact.