I didn’t know it, but Final Fantasy Tactics Advance would be one of my final projects at Square Enix. I started at the company when it was still called “Square Soft” and was only known by casual gamers for the “quirky” Final Fantasy VII game that had begun the process of bringing the JRPG to the mainstream of gaming. When I had joined Square Soft, the offices were small, the Silicon Graphics computers were dated and the SNES cartridge station was still in the center of the main room. I was riding the eye of the storm, and Square Enix did not know that Final Fantasy might go on indefinitely, hence why so many other titles like Chrono Cross, Xenogears, The Bouncer and Vagrant Story were made during this period of 1999 to 2004.
When Final Fantasy IX was nearing completion, the staff was told it might be our last in the series because there was more story and text than gameplay and Square Soft didn’t trust the motley crew that had written its English adaptation since we were such greenhorns. Whereas FFVII and FFVIII were essentially translated, roughly edited text dumps, the gameplay detracted from the general “sameness” the dialogue had. Square’s dismissive attitude with Final Fantasy IX and focus on other projects like Driving Emotion Type S allowed me to give verbal ticks to characters and play up Zidane’s ecchi attitude to the extreme. In some ways, it may have even been over the top, but I felt it was needed to make him stand out. Besides, spending 8 hours a day on the game in various revisions 5 days a week made me bored, as well as the rest of the staff, and I needed something to do. At first the general localization staff was strict, but after a few weeks, they could care less what changes were being made to what the characters said.
Fortunately, Final Fantasy IX was a big hit and has continued to be–much to my surprise–enjoying HD revisions (for which I am not paid a penny) as are the many other Square projects I was part of. This brings us back to my relationship with Square and the eventual Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I was a teenager when I started at Square and wasn’t particularly savvy. My contribution to the localization of Final Fantasy IX was not unnoticed and my proficiency in speaking, reading and writing Japanese was useful. My knowledge of the language is what opened the venerable doors of Square to me and now became what drew me from the American Square offices to Tokyo, Japan.
By 2003, Final Fantasy had become the flagship of Square on the 3rd generation of game consoles–not an easy feat–and Square had restored its relationship with Nintendo when they had a falling out from moving to the PlayStation One. Nintendo now wanted a game for their handheld device, the Gameboy Advance, and Square didn’t want to get deep into developing something from the ground up because we were working diligently on Final Fantasy XI and were late on the project. As it stood we were a year behind on releasing it and the graphics had become dated and couldn’t be fixed. I was taken off Final Fantasy XI along with a few others to do the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance game with a new Japanese company called LEVEL 5, which is now widely known for Yo-kai Watch on the current Nintendo handheld 3DS.
I was not a part of the early meetings for Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, so I received an incomplete revision (game developers always call these “Revs” for short, regardless of the stage of development). What we were NOT told coming into the project was that we would have to do the entire game on the minuscule Gameboy Advance itself without the aid of a computer monitor (Gameboy dev kits have appeared with SCSI cables to connect to computer and perhaps LEVEL 5 secretly had them, but the Square kits did not. We did have a GBA player for the GameCube, but it was only useful to check colors and text running off the screen). This surprise came from Nintendo. They felt Gameboy Advance developers should have to use their dev machines in the same way the public would. Immediately, our small staff had people visiting their sick grandmothers, seeking work at other companies or plain refusing to be part of the game. We are talking about a ground up development on a tiny screen, playing it in development mode for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week! We complained to Nintendo that it was too much to ask for to which they responded with an email stating: “After getting a severe headache from looking at the GBA screen, focus on an object in the room. Stare at it for 5 minutes until the headache goes away. Try getting up to go for a walk. If this fails to fix the headache or strain repeat the procedure.” I had worked on several Nintendo projects for GameCube, such as Crystal Chronicles, Hunter the Reckoning/Wayward and Baldur’s Gate and this was typical behavior for them. They responded to development issues by treating you as a consumer and often belittling developers for issues that could easily be fixed. Give us a software kit to attach the GBA to a computer, not consumer grade GBA systems that played unlocked/flashed ROM cartridges, Nintendo.
Personally, I didn’t mind staring at the minuscule screen for hours on end. I didn’t own a GBA, but in hindsight I can tell you some differences in a development GBA to a regular consumer model. 1. They are backlit. 2. They have superior sound. 3. Although SCSI cable models exist, we did not have them. Yup, that’s it. The development crew quickly shrunk to just me, and I was happy because that meant I could do whatever I wanted with the game on account that working on it caused blindness. LEVEL 5 was relatively untested and full of young staff eager to make any changes I wanted with extreme speed and professionalism. I decided to embellish Monteblanc’s whistle sound effect and make it almost constant when interacting with him and even have a “pathetic” version of the sound effect when he met an untimely end during battle. The judges were given more personality by adding a Soccer referee bend to them complete with blowing a whistle with a cartoonish animation and issuing penalty cards and various comical punishments.
The story was basic in that the troubled kids discover a book about Final Fantasy and are sucked into the world and returned after the character’s trite troubles are resolved via combat. Although this was an indirect follow up to Final Fantasy Tactics from the PlayStation One, we didn’t go back to look at it for guidance. We were after a feel that felt childish yet had the sophistication and humor of a Final Fantasy game. By focusing on the humor between Marche and Monteblanc, it made them the stars of the game and relegated the kids from the opening of the game to the background. This wasn’t intentional, but it did end up being the result of the basic design we had to work with. Not a lot about the kids was presented at the beginning of the game to have any stake in their story line, and they didn’t return to the plot until near the end of the middle plot. The story really ended up being that Marche was a kid who could survive on his own in a strange world and could easily find new friends to fight by his side. As this fit with the earliest themes of Final Fantasy loner/orphans, I didn’t see this as a problem. The GBA was a handheld solo affair, so the player probably would prefer the theme of independence and perseverance.
One of my favorite aspects of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance were the naming conventions that often were left intentionally lazy like “Children’s Bread” and “Adult Bread.” Ultimately, LEVEL 5 really pulled through and was the best 3rd party developer I had ever worked with (with High Voltage Software being the worst). We even got appearances from myself “Aron” in the game as well as “Biggs” and “Wedge” in the form of random enemies.
When we were ready for submission, Nintendo immediately rejected our game as they are known to do. They didn’t like that Mewt’s father was an alcoholic and wanted all references to drugs taken orally removed, but the whole “Children’s Bread” and “Adult Bread” thing was fine. Also, they wanted us to add a tutorial at the beginning of the game as they didn’t believe westerners would know how to play a Tactics game. As was typical of Nintendo, they put our backs to the wall and the tutorial would add programming, new dialogue and other design changes. We had some animation of the school from the introduction, so we decided in an hour after Nintendo’s edicts to add a tactics snowball fight and play up Ritz’s tsundere personality by having her boss you through the tutorial. We slapped it together in an afternoon and had it installed into the game two days later, but this meant I had to play the entire game from start to finish to be 100% sure the new tutorial didn’t crash the game. We enlisted a few others to run through the game and they ended up getting into the game credits as Testers for their minimal effort. We made it through without a hiccup and submitted it to Nintendo who didn’t get back to us for two days and accepted the game. I made Mewt’s father “lazy,” but left him staggering around with a bottle in his pixelated hand anyway. Nintendo probably didn’t like it, but I would have said the bottle was a soda he picked up if they had asked.
As per usual, Nintendo released the game without any promotion on their part (which remains a big reason many developers refuse to publish for them), leaving Square to make a terrible commercial for the game that probably 5 people saw. Although the game wasn’t an instant success, it has grown into a fan favorite for the GBA and was published on the Wii U virtual console rather than the 3DS, which I still find a bit strange. I guess Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was always intended for the big screen! I hope it continues its life through various iterations of Nintendo hardware, and people continue to wonder where they can find a large Final Fantasy novel to fall into.
-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.***