Final Fantasy Graphics: A Look Back
Visions of Fantasy From 8-Bit to Realtime CGI
Final Fantasy video games have long dazzled us with their state-of-the-art computer graphics. Back in the 8-bit days of pixelated sprites, they charmed us. So here's a fun look back at Final Fantasy graphics, a celebration of how far computer graphics have come in the past 20 years.
In the graphics survey below, I've neglected Final Fantasy spin-offs and sequels on hand-held consoles and phones, because there's so many FF releases that by the time I'd finished reviewing them all, a new Final Fantasy would be released.
Note: All Final Fantasy games are © Square-Enix (or, originally, Squaresoft). Screencaps from games on this page are believed to be Fair Use for purposes of commentary and critique.
Final Fantasy I: 1987
A long time ago on Famicon and NES: adorable pixelated sprites!
I remember the tedium of having to program sprites in binary, when there were only white, black, red, green, and purple in hi-res graphics. I think by this time we were up to a whopping 128 colors -- woo hoo! -- and something like 640x480 resolution for a standard computer screen. It looks primitive now, but these were about the best graphics you could get back then.
Battle formation for about the next ten years: Everybody stand in a line... say cheese!
This is getting a little ahead of myself, but I finally had a chance to play Final Fantasy I remade for iOS in 2013. Someone did a great job of playing homage to the original while spiffing up the retro graphics:
Final Fantasy I: iOS Remake
Trivia note: did you know that Square actually patented the Active Time Battle system and menu layout? Here's the diagram for Final Fantasy's ATB patent. Cool!
Below is a video clip showing the 1990 Nintendo (NES) port, the first Final Fantasy game available in English. The graphics are identical to the original Famicon version. For more screencaps from the original Final Fantasy game, see this fantastic Final Fantasy I Shrine / Walkthrough with lots of screencaps.
Also notice the Main Theme of Final Fantasy, present from the beginning. Nobuo Uematsu has made Final Fantasy sing for 25 years.
Final Fantasy I Playthrough
Final Fantasy II Graphics: 1988 - Only Released in Japan
Confusingly, Final Fantasy II and III were only released in Japan until recent remakes. Final Fantasy IV and VI were originally released as Final Fantasy II and III in the U.S.
The original Final Fantasy II stars the main character of Firion, whom I call Mr. Cardboard since all his friends and most of the NPCs have more personality.
I think that Final Fantasy II really established the series, not least in the unusual premise that the numbered releases are not actually sequels of one another: they simply carry over, reinvent, and ring changes on the game system, building up a stock of recurring whoosiwhatsits like chocobos, black mages, summons, dragoons, -aga spells, and so on. More importantly, Final Fantasy II had PCs and NPCs with basic personalities and plot. (There's a lot of FFII in FFXII, from Princess Hilda/Princess Ashe to Leon/Gabranth).
Below are the original 1988 graphics compared to the iOS/Android remaster (which I loved). Also see this commentary/playthrough of the original FFII hacked with a fan translation, so you can see original gameplay.
The Onion Kids
Final Fantasy III (1990)
Four generic Warriors of Light, young orphans, bump into a glowing crystal that sends them off on a quest to save the world. The 2006 Final Fantasy III remake for Nintendo DS gives the four heroes a lot more personality (and names) and offers better gameplay with fun 3D retro graphics, but the original game of course followed closely on the previous two: stand in a line and say cheese!
See my own Let's Play Final Fantasy III for a video of the original FF3 plus my own "revenge of the cute!" screencaps of the 3D remake, which was upgraded for iOS and converted the soundtrack from fun to fantastic.
Final Fantasy IV (1991)
With Final Fantasy IV, Square began experimenting with more realistic ways to represent the setting and world. They tried different angles, different views depending on the needs of the scene, and more elaborate backgrounds. Character sprites in Final Fantasy II had shown some individuality, but now they began to wear costumes (III had job class sprites, but not unique PCs) that represented character and personality.
Battle formation: Standing in a line was now old school. We're going to stand in a ZIG ZAG! (And have five party members fighting at once... I don't think we've seen that since.)
As I noted above, Japan's Final Fantasy IV was originally released in the U.S. as Final Fantasy II, easily recognizable by Rydia's green hair. FFIV received a dramatic 3D remake on Game Boy Advance in 2004, recently ported to iOS, using the original storyline while improving graphics and gameplay, fleshing out characters with thought balloons and motivations, and adding voice acting.
Below is another video walkthrough of original FFIV (English version, FFII) by HC Bailey. Skip ahead to about 2:00 for an example in-game battle scene.
Final Fantasy V (1992)
The English localization now calls the main character of Final Fantasy V Bartz, but the earliest translations called the poor guy "Butz".
Following the trend, FFV was re-released on Game Boy Advance in 2006 (with VASTLY better translation than the PS1 "Final Fantasy Anthology" version).
Slowly but surely, the game environments and characters were becoming more detailed, with more head-scratching, finger-wagging, eye-popping and other body language. This game also added even more special effects like shimmering forcefields, shooting sparks, walls (or at least tufts) of flame.
The iOS remake has clearer graphics and the zany GBA translation, but unfortunately, everyone's been stretched vertically like Fisher-Price people. There's also a surreal mismatch between the in-game sprites and Amano's concept art portraits on dialogue boxes.
Here's the final boss battle for FFV with the original graphics. Yes, obligatory cracktastic landscapes for the ultimate showdown are a Final Fantasy tradition!
Final Fantasy VI (1994)
FFVI came out a year after photo-surrealistic MYST was released: but then MYST was basically a glorified (and marvelous) slideshow stitched together, whereas RPGs like Final Fantasy were doing things realtime. This is why pre-rendered FMVs look so much better than in-game graphics. But FFVI hadn't gone the pre-rendered route yet (at least, prior to the 2007 Final Fantasy VI: Game Boy Advance Remake).
However, in-game graphics were going along by leaps and bounds. Final Fantasy VI was the last of the "old school" Final Final Fantasy, pixellated sprites placed against a background with as many effects and gestures as possible. Riding chocobos, the opening cutscene, and a few other cutscenes experimented with a kind of bird's eye 3D perspective also seen in FF5's closing FMV.
The original intro to FFVI is quite epic even without the remake's CGI. Note the faint echoes of FFVI in FFX: it's almost the anti-FFVI, as far as "1000 years ago, magic, no, wait, machina, was abolished."
Final Fantasy VII: (1997)
Old-school gamers hated it. A new generation of gamers fell in love with it. Twenty years later, Square-Enix is still milking the wildly popular game and world Final Fantasy VII.
For the first time, physical 3-D models of characters were being rendered on the fly, so that you saw different sides of their heads, limbs, arms as they turned and gestured. Backgrounds were somewhat 3D as well.
As this demanded a lot more of the game engine, the graphics almost look simpler than the pre-drawn pixellated sprite predecessors of old school games. It was a start.
There's an odd mix of graphics here: in battle, the characters are fairly realistic, while the field map (wandering around exploring) and in-game cutscenes use large-headed small-bodied chibis, and then the FMVs do a more realistic, pre-rendered version that's closer to the battle models.
From Final Fantasy VII onwards, lengthy and over-the top summons and "limit break/overdrive" animations also became obligatory.
Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
Final Fantasy VIII is one of my favorites, although a lot of folks hate it. The graphics were like the battle scenes for Final Fantasy VII: realistically-proportioned polygon people. However, the details on clothing and faces were better.
There was an interesting juxtaposition between real-time rendered 3D polygon characters and lavishly drawn backgrounds which were 3D images, but like the background cells of a good animated movie.
Animation was now becoming a major part of Final Fantasy. It was already there in bits and snatches in FFVII, with Cloud imitating Zack's push-ups and various characters snapping fingers, exhaling in relief, or wiggling with laughter, or chocobos dancing. But in FFVIII, characters really had physical mannerisms, to the point that Rinoa could drive Squall nuts by mimicking his mopey body language. Even Sorceress Edea's window treatment seemed to have a mind of its own (the flapping veils suspended from an odd frame behind her shoulders).
And of course the FMVs had by now become quite epic, although the gulf between pre-rendered cutscenes and in-game graphics was as wide as it would ever be.
Final Fantasy IX (2000)
After two games of dystopic urban grunge, old Final Fantasy fans were buzzing like hornets over the move away from FF's sword-and-sorcery D&D roots. Squaresoft heard and delivered an old-school style Final Fantasy game with the latest 3D graphics, complete with oversized heads: Final Fantasy IX.
Predictably, the attempt to give the fans exactly what they wanted met mixed reviews, although I think in recent years, it's been embraced more by fans.
It was also the swansong for the PS1. It pushed that old graphics engine to the max, with floating camera angles, excellent animations, and about as much visual detail as you could cram into a realtime, traditional Playstation I game. Zidane's tail punctuates the fact that animation and movement had become integral to FF graphics.
Final Fantasy X Graphics: (2000)
The Playstation 2 game engine was the first built to handle realtime 3D graphics of the type dimly attempted in Final Fantasy VII.
Final Fantasy X blew us away. To underscore the fact that 3D, realtime graphics were now possible, the opening cutscene dispensed with the usual pre-rendered FMV, and dropped us into actual in-game graphics. "Low polgyon" models were used for regular gameplay and most cutscenes, but for key moments when emotion and facial expression were important, the in-game graphics would jump to "high poly" for closeups.
There were some casualties, too. With old bit graphics, it was cheap and easy to tile a vast world map and let you run around on the map with a representative icon of your airship, chocobo, or character sprite. Now we lost the overhead world map and just chose destinations from a static map with a menu. However, on the ground, we had a 3D character running in actual 3-D, fully rendered environments. Camera angles were pre-set and could not be changed, but changed in battle.
In 2014, Square-Enix released a long-awaited HD remaster of Final Fantasy X, with models and textures rebuilt. On the one hand, the HD backgrounds are gorgeous. If you remember how fuzzy the game looked back when we were stuck using fuzzy old CRT televisions, before the days of LCD screens or emulators, it's an astounding change.
On the other hand, the character faces suffered. I think they started with the "low poly" models and upscaled them, to be consistent across the board— after all, none of the npcs had "high poly" models. However, I preferred the "high poly" models of the original game. Worse, the facial expressions lost some emotion in the FFX remaster.
[Below: go to 4:35 to see Yuna's "high poly" model of the original vs. the remaster.]
Final Fantasy X Original vs. Remaster Graphics
Final Fantasy XI (2002)
At long last, Square and Final Fantasy XI joined the world of online gaming, going up against Everquest and WoW. It had decades of game mechanics, design, and details like chocobos and summons to draw on.
It also had the PS2 game engine. This was just powerful enough to let it take Final Fantasy X style graphics (improved, as ever, with each new FF iteration) and let the realtime engine interact with other people's characters and AI monsters, summons, and a rich 3D environment.
Also at long last, "Everybody stand in a row and say CHEESE!" battle had disappeared for good (or had it?)
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
All the 3D, realtime, free-range-of-movement, camera-controlling goodness of FFXI was brought to bear in this the most visually complex of the Final Fantasy games on Playstation 2: Final Fantasy XII.
Square had spent years refining and pushing every ounce of graphical detail out of the game engine, and had reached a Byzantine level of ornamentation, hair, fabric, motion capture, facial expressions, weather, and lots and lots of moving parts on the screen at the same time. (Now and then in the Necrohol of Nabudis you can get too many bogywhatsists and spell animations going off, and the game engine begins to struggle.)
Like the old PS1 games before it, the mastering of graphics allowed Square to indulge in copious amounts of worldbuilding: you can literally take hours to have your character run from one side of the continent to the other, with shops, cities, caves, and lots of nooks and crannies to explore. This came at a cost: unlike old-style bit graphics, every room and area required hours of development and rendering.
The only complaint I have about the graphics of this game is that critters that were beautiful in previous games (coeurls, chocobos) suddenly got hit with an ugly stick.
Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
22 years after the first whimsical sprites first appeared under the Final Fantasy moniker, Square-Enix -- now with very few of the original crew left -- launched into the brave new world of Playstation 3 and XBox360 with Final Fantasy XIII.
Lordie lordie, how far we've come. Fabric that moves naturally, weather and water and motion capture that's getting close to realistic, photo-realistic fabric and skin textures, tons of animation going at the same time: we take it all for granted, but just a few years ago, this was the kind of animation where you'd do a rough skeleton of the animation on your work station, plug in all the textures and lighting parameters and other variables, and then leave your state-of-the-art renderer to crunch the numbers all night long and deliver you a finished animation (you hoped) the next morning. That's how animations like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films were done. The PS3 is doing it as you're playing, and doesn't break a sweat.
The only problem is that this does come at a premium: a gazillion hours of graphics design and testing. Therefore, while it's extremely well disguised, we're back to "everybody pick a spot to stand during the battle and say CHEESE!" (but not in a line, at least). More importantly, since it takes enormous amounts of work to design the graphics and 3D environments, they are only there for plot and movement... there are no side quests until late in the game, almost no shops or rooms to putter around in, and no recurring npcs: you'll never be able to go back to a town and see how the resident barfly is getting on, e.g. You are playing a role in a movie. A gorgeous, Avatar-rich 3D environment and movie, but still. It's a different kind of gameplay.
As a graphics aficionado, I adore it. But I can understand those who want more freedom to chart their characters' choices and explore the world.
Tip: this game is best played with good cover-the-ear sound-reducing headphones. It takes immersion to a whole new level.
Final Fantasy XIV (2010)
FFXIII looked great. The next challenge was creating graphics of that quality for an MMO, where there may be dozens of characters on screen all performing complex attacks, spells, and gestures controlled by players around the world. Final Fantasy XIV had a rocky beginning, enough that Square-Enix revamped it extensively and put a ton of work into addressing early criticism. The version people are now playing is almost an entirely new game.
From everything I have heard and seen, Squeenix has more than redeemed FFXIV, making a rich, vibrant world, with intricate 3D landscapes, well-crafted arms & armor and costumes to suit player tastes, plenty of gestures, fantastic special effects. I gaze at screencaps from Tumblr friends (mostly Livvy) with awe, and I'm afraid to play it lest I never get anything done. About the only complaint I can see is that people look a bit plastic, due to simplified skin textures (streamlining, I assume, to speed up rendering when lots of characters are onscreen).
[Below: go to about 3:00 for close-ups of a few races of characters.]
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