JRPG legend Hironobu Sakaguchi - interview
The man who defined the Japanese RPG genre describes his latest mould-breaking opus, The Last Story
In the earliest days of games development, there was a Gold Rush vibe - pretty much every game invented a new genre. Then games developed and matured, settling into a fixed set of genres.
In their earliest days, video games were a blank book - pretty much every one that came out was different to what had gone before. But they quickly settled down into a familiar collection of genres (some of which, like point-and-click adventures, fell by the wayside).
One venerable genre which remains hugely popular is the Japanese RPG, characterised by stunning, anime-influenced artwork, strong storylines and turn-based battling, and exemplified by Square-Enix's Final Fantasy franchise. The man who created the Final Fantasy games, Hironobu Sakaguchi, can claim to be the man who wrote the book on JRPGs, and we caught up with him on a rare visit to London.
Sakaguchi was in London to demo his latest game, The Last Story, to no less an august establishment than Bafta, before fielding a question-and-answer session. In a typically wry manner, he says: "There's a Japanese saying: I'm a koi carp in the kitchen, waiting to be cooked."
Why the Wii?
Sakaguchi's breakthrough game was the first Final Fantasy in 1987, and he explains that it got its name because he had endured two flops and decided that if his third attempt hadn't been a hit, he would have gone back to university.
Now he can point to a quarter of a century's-worth of experience at crafting games. So it seems a bit strange that The Last Story should be coming out on the Wii, a console at the end of its life-cycle whose replacement, the Wii U, is already looming.
It's especially considering that when Sakaguchi split from what was then Square in 2003, and handed over the Final Fantasy reins, he formed his new developer, Mistwalker, with very public backing from Microsoft. His next two games - 2006's Blue Dragon and 2007's Lost Odyssey - were Xbox 360 exclusives, and the former was a rare Sakaguchi flop.
Counter-intuitively, Sakaguchi explains that The Last Story is a Wii game because he wanted to step outside of his comfort zone and experiment with it.
"I have a formula from the 25 years experience I have in the industry - an RPG formula," he says. "Which is a turn-based, orthodox JRPG. But for The Last Story, I wanted to completely change that formula and come up with something new.
"Around that time, Shinji Hatano at Nintendo, who is high up in the ranks there, said: 'Why don't we try this new type of RPG together?' When creating new things, there are always risks - you never know whether it will be accepted by gamers.
"So I was extremely thankful that he offered to collaborate. So the game was born not from the feeling that I wanted to create a game for the Wii, but rather from the trust that I have for Hatano-san."
Telling The Last Story
So, how does The Last Story differ from the rest of Sakaguchi's oeuvre? It ditches the turn-based battle system, for a start, in favour of a real-time one which, he explains, is unique: "The battle system is probably the most important aspect of the game. We had an experimental phase of about a year, in which we had so many ideas, and the best have been incorporated in the final game.
"For example, the protagonist uses a move called 'gathering'. This attracts the enemies' attention towards the protagonist. So, the concept is that on a chaotic battlefield, by using this move, the player can bring order to the battlefield. Or, conversely, by attracting their attention can cause chaos on the enemy side. So that brings strategic elements."
In practice, gathering works pretty well making boss-battles, for example, a matter of leading your attackers towards your Mage and archers, before going in close to finish the job yourself.
The Mage is clearly the key member of your party in The Last Story: "When your party's Mage fires a magic attack, it leaves a magic circle. When the protagonist diffuses this with his move called 'gale'; this causes a secondary effect.
"So, for example, if the Mage attack is an ice attack, it leaves an ice circle, and when the protagonist diffuses that, it creates an effect called 'slip', where the enemies slip over. We experimented with different ideas and, in the end, I believe we've been able to create a new type of battle system."
Sakaguchi is keen to highlight other aspects of the game: "We should give credit to Kimihiko Fujisaka, who was in charge of the character design, as well as the design of the whole environment.
"Of course, in my games, I always place much emphasis on the graphics, so I did ask Fujisaka-san to put a lot of effort into that area."
And he teamed up once more with Nobuo Uematsu, the composer who is as feted as Sakaguchi and with whom he has collaborated for 25 years - leading them to be likened to a married couple, as Sakaguchi acknowledges.
"When it came to requesting music for the game, due to the change in the battle system, the general flow had changed," he says. "So I wanted him to change the direction of the music accordingly. But when I passed on the story-plot to him and asked him to compose the music, the three pieces of music I received were all rejected, because they didn't really match.
"There was no contact from Uematsu for about a month - I was worried that, if we were like a married couple, there was a danger of getting divorced. But after a month, he sent over three new pieces of music, which were used in the game."
Not just single-player
The other unexpected aspect of The Last Story is that it can be played online - players can take part in free-for-all Deathmatches, collaborative Team Deathmatches or co-operatively take on boss-battles.
Sakaguchi elaborates: "The biggest difference between the online game and single-player is that the player can't use the Gathering system online. One thing that I personally dislike about online gaming is that there will always be people who use dirty words, and therefore, for Last Story's online play, I came up with the idea of players communicating with each other using the script that is actually used in the single-player game.
"In the game, a lot of small-talk goes on between the characters. So using these scripts, players can have decent conversations with each other. Also, I felt that gives a different experience from just simple voice-chat. One thing that is fun is attacking with bananas - making the other players slip with banana skins."
No escape from Final Fantasy
Sakaguchi confesses that he is heartily fed up with people asking him about Final Fantasy - but he did create the franchise, and will forever be identified with it.
Recently, Final Fantasy's veneer of quality has accumulated some unsightly chips: Final Fantasy XIII was criticised for being too linear and predictable, while the MMO Final Fantasy XIV was hideously unplayable, although Square-Enix has worked hard to fix it.
Sakaguchi, predictably, is diplomatic: "I still go out drinking with Yoshinori Kitase, the current producer of Final Fantasy, once in a while, and on those occasions he does tell me that it's all fine. Sometimes, I personally complain a little bit about certain things about the franchise.
"But when I left Square, I left the franchise in Kitase's hands, and he promised me he would protect and progress the Final Fantasy brand. He has been my right-hand man since round about the middle of Final Fantasy III, and therefore I have a lot of trust in him."
Nor, having made a real-time RPG, will he take the opportunity to declare the anachronistic, at least in Western eyes, turn-based RPG moribund.
"Of course, games are a form of entertainment, so new things will always be more exciting than old things," he says. "Turn-based RPGs are an established form of entertainment, and just like puzzle games never died out, I believe that turn-based RPGs will continue to exist."
At Bafta, Sakaguchi's demo and Q&A session was rapturously received. The Last Story is clearly up there with his best work, so it constitutes something of a last hurrah for the Wii.
He remains tight-lipped about what we can expect from him in the future, beyond three games for Apple's iOS: "I am a big fan of Apple's products. They are small projects and fun for me. The first one is a surfing game".
But, with the benefit of 25 years' experience in the industry, he offers some advice to aspiring developers: "Looking back, my pre-Final Fantasy games failed because I kept copying what was on the market. So free yourself, and do what is good for the game."