The Definitive History Behind Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (2003)

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To Forgive And Forget

Forgiveness is a difficult feeling to obtain. If someone hurt you in the past you may never want to see them again, even if they themselves are willing to say they were in the wrong. The both of you will abandon all ties towards each other and move on to supposed greener pastures far, far away from the others existence. But somewhere, along the way, you’ll wish that you did forgive them and want to mend past transgressions. This was the same feeling felt by both Nintendo and Square Enix nearly a decade ago. Years prior, Square’s Final Fantasy series was a system seller for Nintendo, selling millions upon millions of copies year in and year out. But times were a changing and the winds of fate soon brought Square and their Final Fantasy series over to the new and more powerful PlayStation console in an exclusive fashion. Final Fantasy would no longer be a Nintendo based franchise and president Hiroshi Yamauchi was actually fine with this stating that the move couldn’t be helped. While Yamauchi accepted the circumstances, Square president Nao Suzuki rubbed salt in the wound by publicly bashing the Nintendo 64 and convincing the majority of publishers and developers to refocus their efforts on the PlayStation. This decision would irrevocably affect Nintendo’s future as a hardware developer who would go from being the industry’s leader in quality video game titles to second fiddle to the new kid on the block. The two presidents would go from close friends to fierce rivals for years to come.

A Creative Shell

That is until years later down the line. Suzuki had seen the error of his ways at the time and was ashamed of how much his pride as Japanese businessman had ruined the relationship between the two companies. He wanted to patch things up with Nintendo and was intent on releasing a new wave of exclusives for their consoles. But the grudge match they had prior still ran deep within the company so Nintendo refused to give them a license to make games on their consoles outright. Still, Suzuki persisted, and eventually won a deal between the two to create brand new Final Fantasy titles just for the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance. However, there was a problem. Square, now Square Enix, had an exclusivity deal with Sony and couldn’t produce any title for any other console. Fortunately, they did have a work around for this. They would have The Game Designers Studio craft the game, a “studio” was actually a shell corporation for the company. As Square Enix only held a 49% share in the company, whomever worked here could publish games for Nintendo systems free of worry. Thankfully the man behind it all was a veteran of their most well-known property. Akitoshi Kawazu, the main programmer behind the original Final Fantasy, was going to produce this new effort as he held a 51% stake in the company.

And Final Fantasy was a good place to start as it was the original cornerstone between the two companies. However, they couldn’t port any mainline titles over to the Nintendo Gamecube and others due to exclusivity deal so, instead, they choose to create an original take on the Final Fantasy formula. It would feel right at home with the franchise yet still be unique enough to stand on its own. But who would create such an experience? The Game Designers Studio wasn’t even a studio. No one worked there. There were no programmers, no writers, no nothing. Instead, Kawazu would have to bring together various individuals throughout Square Enix itself to form his own ragtag group of developers. First was the director, Kazuhiko Aoki, who had been a battle and event designer since Final Fantasy III. Second came their lead programmer, Mitsuru Kamiyama, a newcomer to the Final Fantasy scene. Third would be Toshiyuki Itahana, the art director and character designer who had also been responsible for introducing the chibi art style that Final Fantasy IX had come to be known for. Rounding them all out was Kumi Tanioka, a budding composer at the company who had just cut her teeth on the massive MMO Final Fantasy XI. This mishmash of both newcomers and veterans alike would all have to work in unison if this project was to become a reality. Their various experience levels and skillsets combined would certainly prove to be an interesting concoction at the very least.

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, releasing on August 8, 2003 in Japan and in 2004 in the rest of the world, was just the right game that the Gamecube was looking for. On the surface, it seems distinctly Final Fantasy, with crystals being a prevalent thematic device throughout its tale. The majority of the world, though, was highly unique. Covered in a poisonous miasma, the worlds citizens cower in their sparsely populated towns and cities under the protection of their crystals. If a crystals radiance was to ever dim the town it resided in would surely be destroyed. To prevent this, caravans travel throughout the countryside, searching for Myrrh deposits to help purify the crystal, with crystal chalices to protect them. You play as a leader of one of these caravans, tasked with going out to find more Myrrh year in and year out. However, this journey wasn’t a linear adventure, it was one of the most highly non-linear out there. You could take any path, if you were prepared for it, and essentially play the game endlessly. There was no set amount of years. Your adventure could last as long as you wanted to and, for some things in the game, it could take you ages to find them. But, as you move forward, the world reveals itself toward you with a plethora of intriguing characters, side plots, dramatic uptakes, and one compelling ending to it all. Still, you could take whatever pace you wanted to with Crystal Chronicles and that was the beauty of it all.

The world of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles certainly wasn’t lacking for charm especially with the variety of tribes that filled it. The Clavats, Lilities, Yukes, and Selkies all inhabit this inhospitable world together and were wildly different from anything any other game had before in many regards. Players had to choose between one of them at the start of every adventure, and the choice was made all the more difficult by their individual strengths and weaknesses. Clavats are the humans of this world, peaceful by nature yet strong with a sword and shield in hand. Lilities, in contrast, are a proud warrior race adept in spears yet inept in magic. Yukes are the opposite. Tall, slender creatures that hide behind helmets the majority of the time, Yukes are the most intelligent of all, proficient in the magic arts with a hammer just in case. Last, but not least, are the Selkies, the thieves of this merry bunch. Interested in themselves more than anyone else, these racket wielding people are not to be trifled with. The All-Rounder, The Warrior, The Mage, and The Thief. Each of these races are bound by these archetypes common to every RPG, yet, they could still use magic and fight with weapons even if one of the two was their weak point. These skills were a necessity in the world they lived in, and a beautiful world at that. Crystal Chronicles tried to make every area you entered into a wondrous experience. From derelict manors to mysterious temples and the various rivers path and swamps that were laden in between each had their own distinct feel that felt like nothing else. Many even had their own mini story arcs to them so running through multiple dungeons wouldn’t get boring. Even the towns and cities have this certain air about them that puts Crystal Chronicles above and beyond other RPGs on the GameCube of the time. However, this new RPG’s take on the genre would be even more intriguing.

Eschewing the standard Final Fantasy turn-based battle system, Crystal Chronicles instead goes for a more real time approach. Melee combat usually involved you stringing along combos with the weapon of your choice, blocking from impending attacks, or using focus attacks to quickly dispatch foes. Magic was just as important, with players initiating casting circles to either harm your foes or heal yourself. Spells can even be fused together to create a much more powerful attack which is often helped by Mog your traveling companion. He’s there mostly to carry the Crystal Chalice for you, the most essential item in the game. As the world is covered in miasma the chalice forms a protective barrier over you to keep it away. Wander too far outside that barrier and its game over for you so Mog is needed around at all times, unless you were playing the multiplayer version. Yes, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was one of the first in a growing trend of multiplayer RPG’s except not in the way you think. As part of a new initiative on behalf of Nintendo instead of controllers, everyone uses Gameboy Advances to play. As each of the four tribes were meant to work in one party in unison this was the “true” way to play. Players could think tactically with each other, combine spells to unleash devastating attacks, or even fool around with one another. You were traveling in a caravan so it just made sense that there would be a party of four. Unfortunately, this feature was hindered by the fact that you needed another console to use it, so people rarely did. Reassuringly, the game was still amazing without it, albeit slightly more arduous in the long run. Overall, the gameplay was the most fun aspect of Crystal Chronicles. Traversing the world and fighting off massive and intricate bosses alongside multitudes of classic Final Fantasy creatures was just a visual treat.

A Rustic World

But if this game was to be remembered for anything it would be its soundtrack. A sentimental, nostalgic, and utterly delightful work of art, not even Final Fantasy sounded quite like this. Kumi Tanioka did her best to differentiate it from similar works of her own. She wanted the music to sound ancient and medieval in nature. Instead of using digital or modern instruments, she sought out more classical ones from the era such as the crumhorn and the lute to bring the authenticity home. Using these and the illustrations designed by Toshiyuki Itahana, she painted the world with a rustic feel not limited to one single culture or country but in a much broader sense. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was a more laid back adventure then what modern Final Fantasy entailed so calmer and more light hearted tones took center stage with bombastic and festive ones coming in when needed. Tanioka’s soundtrack was a revelation inside this odd package of a game. A revelation many got to experience.

Undeniable Charm

Selling nearly 1.5 million copies worldwide, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was Nintendo’s latest knockout title for the GameCube. Created by a game development studio that truly didn’t exist, it’s a surprise that what we got is as fantastic as it is. A whole new fantasy, no longer tied down by its franchise’s formulaic ways yet still beholden to them in certain aspects. A compelling world with never before seen, impeccable designed characters, treacherous dungeons, and stunning vistas. A battle system that changed how you played and who you played with. A soundtrack unlike anything the industry had made yet. And a story you could complete at your own pace. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was all of these and more. Leading the way for a new generation of RPG’s and storytelling, this obscure title may never enter the halls of gaming’s greats but the memories of those who played it will stay with them forever more.

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2 thoughts on “The Definitive History Behind Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (2003)

  1. Wow, I had no idea so much administrative work had to be put behind the scenes to get this title to appear on Nintendo’s machine. I personally wasn’t a fan of the combat, but perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I experienced the multiplayer. Finding chums who owned a GBA was beyond me however.

  2. I played this entire game to the end in party of four people the whole way through. The fact that people who played Crystal Chronicles alone enjoyed it blows my mind a little.

    Of all the Gamecube games I’ve played, I’d consider this the second best cooperative four-player game (bested only by Four Swords Adventures) and the second worst single-player game (beating only Four Swords Adventures).

    This game had a lot of good ideas, my favorite of which was spell fusion; against some bosses we would have have two guys spam Curaga the whole way through so we didn’t have to dodge anything and the other two could focus on DPS. We would also have a player who normally didn’t cast spells ready with magnecite whenever we needed to cast Graviga. I also liked how you had to distribute the loot after killing a boss, so you would for example for your Yuke player all the +magic items and have a Lilty build more tanky. The crafted items were expensive so in a party of four it was beneficial to distribute your gold and crafting materials between each other.

    The closest comparable games on modern consoles would be Diablo 3 and Lara Croft: Temple of Osiris, but they have various problems and are inferior to Crystal Chronicles as far as local multiplayer is concerned. I’d like to call out Diablo’s terrible interface (during local co-op) as a reason that the whole GBA thing was a good feature and not just a scam to sell more GCN link cables.

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