My name is Aron J. Brent. On many video games I was credited as Aron B. Gutierrez before I shortened it so it fit better on the covers of books that I write. I am proud to say I worked for Square Enix from 1999-2004.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was along for the ride on what would be the landmark period for Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPG’s for short). I certainly didn’t think they would be combed over so carefully or become part of pop culture nearly 20 years later. As someone who was in the Square offices, I can promise you that “posterity” was the furthest thing from everyone’s mind working on them. What I will say for certain is that Square believed in fully living each game in the moment it was being produced. We called each other the character’s names and quoted each other’s dialogue to each other constantly. There were arguments on who was Biggs or Wedge and every day was a contest for who won the “shiny nickel,” which was given to whoever contributed the most to the game by the end of the day. It may seem silly, but–in retrospect–it was how we made sure every line was punchy, cool and believed if it resonated with us it would resonate with the public. We saw Final Fantasy as a party and everyone was invited to share it on equal terms, eye-to-eye. There was never an attitude of, “What does the public want?” or “Let’s put this in for the fanboys.” We WERE the fanboys, and we didn’t place ourselves on a high place to look down at our consumers, we wanted them at the table, and hoped maybe one day they might come to work at Square and continue where we left off.
This was the attitude that I encountered when I came to Square for the first time. They wanted to see what I could contribute. They tested me to see what I was good at. I could spell, I could write catchy, funny things, and I could read Japanese, so I was doing dialogue as priority one. I was also great at beating bosses and boss mechanics, so I was in charge of making sure bosses were: A) Beatable, B) Challenging. I still remember the first day I ever saw Final Fantasy IX. It was a hot, dry summer afternoon and I had to sign a pile of misspelled non-disclosure agreements, and after I was finished Jonathan Williams, who had oversaw Quality Assurance on Final Fantasy VII, led me to a door, took a deep breath, and pushed it open where my ears were filled with the familiar battle music of the game and the bright colored screens were filled with action. The Project Leads were playing an early ROM of the game. Jonathan introduced me and I was sat down with a controller to try it out and see the game opening. My job that day: play Final Fantasy IX in Japanese. I watched the intro and was blown away by the FMV graphics. I had never seen anything like it before on the PlayStation One.
Contrary to public belief, not all JRPG’s come out in Japan and then are hastily translated into English with a sloppy patch. Final Fantasy IX had not come out in Japan when it arrived at the California offices as they wanted an “all hands on deck” approach to the game. After Square Soft’s venture into the post apocalyptic worlds of Midgar and Balamb Garden offered in Final Fantasy VII and VIII, they wanted to give the PlayStation One a proper send-off for all the good fortune it had brought the company by making a return to the Nintendo cartridge days of job systems, mages, magic casting, and medievalism. Although these themes were back, being able to select jobs or have a long list of characters was scrapped for a more linear based system in order to focus on the art work and keep a more cinematic feel. The job systems were relegated to the “Tactics” games, and the main line of games was given the more cinematic style with Full Motion Video (FMV), which was popular in 1999-2000 (the time table of FFIX’s development).
As Final Fantasy IX had the audio mixed at Skywalker Sound, the Director, Hiroyuki Ito, insisted on using quotes from Star Wars Episode I with the “Fear leads to anger,” diatribe. This was not a coincidence, it was absolutely added to quote Star Wars as it had long been a part of the series in terms of themes, dialogue and names like Biggs and Wedge, which were even added to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
After my first day working on the bug-filled first ROM, SEGA showed up to the Square offices and pitched the idea of bringing Final Fantasy IX to the Dreamcast. A ROM was burned to test it out and a system was set up at my workstation and I was asked to try out the game. Little did I realize this was a historical moment as I would be the first and only person to ever play Final Fantasy IX on the SEGA Dreamcast. It looked good! It played well and the system looked compact next to the PlayStation One. Several of the lead developers came to sit and watch me play the game and asked what I thought. I thought it played fine, it looked good, but the controller was awkward compared to SONY. I was asked to play the Dreamcast version alongside the SONY version for 3 days. On the third day they came to take the Dreamcast and said the deal wouldn’t work out and that SONY wanted an exclusive and Square wasn’t ready for any kind of fight, no matter what SEGA offered. Final Fantasy IX was meant as a send off for the PlayStation One as SONY was about to introduce the PlayStation 2, where SEGA would see Final Fantasy IX as just another title on the floundering Dreamcast.
After a week a large team consisting of recent high school graduates, with myself among them, was assembled to finish development on Final Fantasy IX. The way it would work was like this: A) Find any bugs, B) Change any text you want and the leads would decide if the changes were needed, C) Tune the game by making sure the hit points were adding correctly, D) Fix all the menus, E) Make sure the sound effects and music synced and played. The first round of English text was flat. It was like the game had been dumped in whatever amounted to Google Translate for the time and a mess of garbled text came out. It was clear Square wanted “hip kids” to figure out what the characters should say. Nearly the entire new staff found text writing to be the most boring way to spend the summer and quit. I would continually come into the office and find less and less people. People would go on lunch and never came back. Keep in mind nearly all the hires were 18 to 19 years old, including myself. Eventually the staff got very small, with just a few people and no one wanted to tackle the huge amounts of soulless dialogue. We had a meeting with Richard Amtower (of Zelda: Breath of the Wild), who asked flat-out who wanted to tackle the dialogue and would find it fun. I raised my hand along with two others. He said to go to work that day and he would read the changes and see how we did.
I was a big fan of Ranma 1/2 at the time and I felt Zidane would be more interesting as a pervert than his Japanese Yankii (Yankee) gangster dialogue of nonstop “Ora! Ora! Ora!” and “Oi! Oi! Oi!” Can you imagine what the current translation looked like? “Goddamn! Goddamn! Goddamn!” and “Hey! Hey! Hey!” It didn’t make any sense. So, the ladies-man aspect of Zidane was born. We began inserting anything we could think of into the dialogue to make it lively. After a few months the game had taken on a personality and the characters were divided into more specific paths. I was assigned Eiko Carol with the job of making her funny. Square felt I had a gift for humor and my love of Manga and Anime gave me an insight into Japanese humor. After a full pass at Eiko I was assigned to Zidane and Freya. By this point the staff was sick and tired of playing Final Fantasy IX nonstop. Sure I had played the game a lot, but there was something about it that I loved. I felt very proud of that game’s look and the I felt the dialogue was getting very tight. By this point the staff was more than happy to work on mini games and let me make any and all changes I wanted to the dialogue. I really liked puns, so I inserted them wherever I could. I began to view Zidane as a combination of Han Solo and Ranma and wanted to give him moments where it showed he really did know how to talk to women. Where the Japanese text was about how Princess Garnet falls for a gangster Yankii pirate, I wanted to show how Zidane wins her with his wit and relentless verbal pursuit of her. It’s highly possible that if I hadn’t been at Square at that time Zidane would sound more like The Fonz from Happy Days.
Square Japan liked the changes I made to Final Fantasy IX so much that I was given a character appearance with Sailor Erin, who is supposed to be the best Tetra Master card player in Treno. Sadly, I my name was spelled “Erin” and the character was a girl. I got an apology for this, but I’m still glad it’s in there.
The game didn’t suffer from too many major issues at any point in development. Three times a ROM was sent to us that crashed to a blank screen after an event and after swapping to a different disc. There’s a lot I could say about Final Fantasy IX’s mechanics and its influence on the series today, but I remember it in a very personal way because it was my test to see whether or not I would remain at Square. The Leads had let me run wild across the game and I had dramatically affected its tone. At the end of development the Leads played through the game with Marketing and gave it a thumbs up after the first play through. My Lead, David Carillo, told me he didn’t think it was a good game and wouldn’t sell. He said he was hoping for the best, but that the tone of the dialogue was so different from VII and VIII that it felt like an Anime and wouldn’t be embraced by Final Fantasy fans. My response was instant: “I think the game will attract new fans. Not every Final Fantasy needs to be dark and depressing.” This exchange would become a bone of contention between the two of us for years to come.
As the project ended I was let go, along with all the other junior hires, as Square wasn’t sure if the game would do well or not. They had lots of plans, but David along with Marketing didn’t think Final Fantasy IX would hit the way VII had because it was a radical departure. I started my last semester of college and hoped the game did well so I could be given another chance to return to Square. I told other students about my time working at Square, but most had never heard of the company or Final Fantasy. In a few months the game was released in English and did $11.5 million in global sales. It was a different kind of game, and was popular with both men and women. It had a much broader appeal because of its story book approach and relatable characters. Also, the streamlined gameplay and Active Time Events made it easier to play than previous installments. Although Final Fantasy IX bid farewell to the PlayStation One of the past, its streamlined gameplay, linear path and story book style would influence the games that would come later. And, yes, after the success of the game I did receive a phone call to return to Square. But that’s a story for another time.
-Aron J. Brent
***This post is part of a larger undertaking. Final Fantasy: a Crystal Compendium is a community project bringing together over two dozen writers to create quality work on games from all across this beloved franchise. Check out more at this hub article.***