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August 15, 2011 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Twelve or so years ago, if you asked me who made my favourite games, I would answer within a heartbeat: “Squaresoft”.

The poster-child of Japanese game development during the ‘90s, Square were responsible for countless titles which defined the precedent for big budget videogames and made an unforgettable imprint upon an entire generation of gamers. As a young videogame enthusiast, their successive releases containing deep, addictive game design and consistently fantastic art and sound direction filled me with wonder and kept me glued to the cathode-ray tube television, occupying many more hours of my time than any tale of a boy wizard could hope to. These days, however, things have changed. I can’t remember the last time I was excited by the onset of a Square-developed game, and the thought of Japanese videogames only brings to mind empty, dull characters and walls of obtuse, incomprehensible text. My Japan-hungry younger self would be in disbelief.

My unwavering appreciation of Squaresoft’s creative output was all part of a wider picture. In the mid to late ‘90s existed the golden age of the original Playstation, the glory of which can mostly be attributed to Japan. Games like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy stood as serious contenders to any western release industry-wide, and also as the most celebrated games on the Playstation itself. At the same time, Nintendo was quietly doing its own thing (as always) and being incredibly successful in it’s development and release of new additions to its then relatively youthful franchises, in particular The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. These games were more than just fun to play, they cemented Nintendo’s key intellectual properties as relevant cultural icons in a time where the transition from 2D to 3D was changing everything. In short, it was a booming period of artistry in electronic entertainment for Japan, and audiences and critics alike were loving it.

Unfortunately for people like me, something went wrong. On April 1, 2003, Squaresoft merged with Enix Corporation, best known for the popular Dragon Quest series. This marriage of two Japanese industry giants seemed like a positive thing at first, but as history tells us time and time again, once decisions start being made in the larger interest of financial gains, creativity is tossed aside. From that time until now, Square-Enix have become a big, bloated corporation, with fingers in all sorts of industry pies worldwide. They have spread to Europe and are annexing talented developers there, as well as buying up the rights to whatever intellectual property they can get their hands on. This would be all well and good if it were not so seemingly concurrent with the detriment of their artistic output. Since 2003, SE have released two World of Warcraft clones, two heavily-criticised additions to the Final Fantasy series, and absolutely desecrated their prior intellectual properties to the utmost extent, where once popular games have been expanded into sequels, prequels, films, cellphone games, et cetera, most of which are derivative and ultimately disappointing. According to Yoichi Wada, the current president of SE, “it’s very difficult to hit the jackpot, as it were. Once we’ve hit it, we have to get all the juice possible out of it”. In Squaresoft’s 1997 opus, Final Fantasy VII (one of said intellectual properties to be later “juiced” by SE), you play an environmental terrorist locked in an ongoing struggle with a powerful corporation.

Thematically, the entire game has an overarching anti-corporate tone. Doesn’t the fact that they would take the success of that idea and years later effectively pimp it out for cash say a little something about their change in focus?

Nowadays, the western world is not so excited about Japanese videogames. The continual release and success of a new Call of Duty game each year is much more indicative of what the larger gaming audience wants. But I miss those days when I could eagerly await a new epic tale from Squaresoft, a world rich in artistic design to be utterly consumed by, not some cheap, lazy cash-in that doesn’t dare tread new ground. Perhaps, one day Square-Enix will surprise me. Or, you know, maybe not.

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  1. Trisha says:

    IJWTS wow! Why can’t I think of tihgns like that?

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