All Around Me Are Such Chibi Faces

Final Fantasies from Famicom to DS

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution and development of graphics in media. Today we’ll be examining the graphical “upgrades” in the remakes of Final Fantasy III, IV, and V, and the remastering of VIII and XII.


The Final Fantasy series has held a place in the hearts of RPG fans for decades. The original title on the Nintendo Entertainment System was an amazing showcase of what was possible with both art and programming in the 8-bit era of video games. Its success brought SquareSoft (now Square-Enix) back from its perceived end of bankruptcy, and the company turned that single game into its longest-running franchise. The strange relationship with exporting into the world markets meant that several of these games would not actually see play outside of Japan for many years. Two of the games we’ll be covering here, FFIII and FFV, did not see a western release until 2008 and 1998 respectively. Longtime fans will be familiar with the incorrect numbering of the series in the west, with FFIV and FFVI being numbered II and III in their original, U.S. releases.

Odd numbering aside, we did eventually see an English-language version of every Final Fantasy title released. However, these Western releases did not maintain the original art styles of their first iterations. They were updated in both game engine and graphics for, presumably, smoother play. Some longtime fans, however, might find the new graphics of these games distasteful, and even an affront to the original art designs of the games. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as they say, and while I have my own thoughts on this, it is clear enough that not every Final Fantasy fan will agree. There is also something to be said here about preservation of game history, which we will touch on. With that said, we’re going to take a look at these three remastered games and see what has changed.

Final Fantasy III (Not 6!)

As mentioned earlier, this FF title didn’t see a release outside of Japan until 2008, and only in its remake form [ 1 ]. It was possible before then to get a ROM of it, but whether or not you could get a good fan translation was kind of up in the air, so apart from being able to read Japanese, you’d likely be out of luck. In the modern-day, however, it’s quite simple to get an English translation of FFIII, so we can make our comparisons rather easily.

Project Final Fantasy 6 is a conceptual blog proposing Square-Enix finally address fan demand for a proper remake of the game with judicious use of classic and HD assets per Octopath Traveler or the Pixel Remasters, instead of the 3-D Chibi outings of the Nintendo DS.

The first and most obvious change is, as you might expect, the graphic and art style of the game. The original Famicom game was, obviously, 8-bit, and thus could not exactly provide breathtaking visuals. Even so, with the refinement of techniques learned from the previous two games, Square managed to create several highly detailed sprites for the main characters and monsters. Just looking over the collection of monster sprites we can see a level of complexity not expected from typical 8-bit games [ 2 ][ 3 ]. Something as simple as a skeleton or mummy has a great number of fine details put into it, and boss monsters have an extra level of detail and attention paid to them in order to convey their power and importance. In the remake, the main character’s graphics are re-imagined in a chibi form, which has the side effect (or direct effect if it’s a big deal for you) of making the heroes look a lot less threatening [ 4 ]. This effect is not seen, for the most part, in the monsters of the game, who look roughly like a 3-D model of their old school sprites. The bosses in particular look quite menacing and pays proper homage to their previous incarnations. One clear advantage the remake has over its predecessor is animations, which while they are simple, are much nicer to look at than the even simpler ones found on the old 8-bit version. 

The last round of changes in the remake is mostly for streamlining the game itself. The original Famicom release had serious balance issues with its Job system, which, in a nutshell, is the system that is used to power up your heroes. The Jobs have gotten a re-balance in the new version, some of them containing new abilities. The new version also changes several sequences to accommodate the now canon names of the four heroes (previously you just named them whatever you like). Naturally, old bugs that would have popped in the Famicom version have been worked out of the newer version, making for an overall less annoying play experience. A comprehensive list of the changes can be found in the links [ 5 ].

While a lot of the changes made to FFIII can be clearly seen as good, the complete change in graphics and art style may put off some fans of the old-school games. I personally don’t find the change to be that big of a deal. Even if I was a hardcore fan of the original 8-bit graphics, the trade-off for smoother game play that flows more nicely and has better special effects is more than worth it. Additionally, since the plot is mostly conserved (with the opening slightly changing), you won’t lose out on very much by playing the remake.

Even so, an argument can be made from the perspective of wanting to preserve the original game or at least being true to the original experience. It’s a theme we hit often in this series when a game or movie is re-released as a remaster or enhanced version of the original. Sometimes a remaster means taking what you had and making it look better and run smoother, maybe correcting old bugs that you never had the chance to find and fix the first time around. Most people would call these positive changes to a classic game. However, a complete replacement of graphics and art style, rather than an homage or a direct upgrade to the medium of that art, can go over very poorly and threatens to replace the original in a way that could distort the historical record of the game, if not for the work of preservationists online. It’s something we should always be careful about when we talk about remasters or remakes of older games. 

Final Fantasy IV (U.S. 2)

The first Final Fantasy to be released on the Super Nintendo (also released in the same year in Japan and the U.S., though with different numbers), Final Fantasy IV was a landmark game for Square [ 6 ]. Being the first 16-bit title in the franchise, there were a lot of new technological advancements that Square could take advantage of. This game also set up a lot of standards for RPGs to follow, making great use of the new system’s tech, was the first RPG to feature a complex, character-driven plot, and introduced the concept of Active Time Battles [ 7 ].

ii. Final Fantasy IV DS “In an instance of traveling full circle, the DS port of Final Fantasy IV – known in the US as Final Fantasy II – would mark a return for the franchise to Nintendo consoles.”
Source: “Final Fantasy IV – Nintendo DS.” GameStop, www.gamestop.com/video-games/nds/products/final-fantasy-iv—nintendo-ds/919665.html?condition=Pre-Owned.

The original artwork and sprites of the game are again high quality, as we might expect from Square [ 8 ]. This time around, the hero sprites have better definition to them, both due to the better graphics and the more focused, single-class heroes that replaced the previous Job system. While boss monsters maintain their high levels of detail, even the lowly world monsters receive a good amount of attention to their art, creating a more vibrant and fearsome menagerie. The remake of the game, as with the previous entry, chibi-fies the heroes, changing the perception of their in-game proportions. Where in the original game we could imagine that Cecil was a big, strong knight, in the remake his sprite is incredibly skinny [ 9 ]. There are also many dialogue changes made to the remake, as shown in the referenced video, and voice acting has been added. The original opening sequence has been redone to be more dramatic, almost like a full-motion video (FMV), but still using in-game graphics. The enemies, for the most part, maintain the ferociousness in their looks.

One of the noted issues with the original U.S. release of the game was its censorship. References to anything religious, such as prayer, were removed or changed, like the spell “Holy” being renamed to “White” [ 8 ]. The game also had several spells and items removed completely, which constitutes a massive change to the overall gameplay [ 10 ]. Still, other items had their names changed, such as the “Phoenix Down” being renamed “Life.” In these ways, the remake is superior to the original U.S. release. Items, item names, spells, and religious references are all returned to their previous states, as they were in the original Japanese version. It says a great deal about the censorship of video games in the U.S. to be so religiously centered, and while residents of the U.S. might expect something like this in the 1980s and ’90s, this amount of religious censorship is otherwise uncommon in the rest of the world, excluding certain regions that might be considered dictatorial.

While fans of the original might scoff at the changes in graphics, which look a bit like a toned-up Final Fantasy VII, the newer releases for Europe and the U.S. no doubt have a superior translation and game play that is more faithful to the original Japanese release. You may or may not consider the graphics an improvement but being able to play out the game with its original items and spells, and including a more complete version of the story, you’d have a hard time convincing me that the remake isn’t superior overall.

Still, we have to touch once more on the perspective of preservation. While there is no love lost for the quality-of-life improvements, the complete change in art style represents the same sort of possible historical replacement of the original work. While the characters and monsters are not unrecognizable from their original art, they are quite distinctly different. Some might see this as an attempt to normalize an art style change by couching it inside quality-of-life changes for the game overall. I’m personally not that pessimistic but looking at big game companies like Square and not seeing the most basic capitalist motivations controlling the work is hard to do. When that brand of thinking is coupled with stereotypical unfeeling corporate suits who dictate art direction, less than optimal things can happen, at least for the fanbase. I don’t think that is the full story, particularly with Square, but it is probably part of it.

Final Fantasy V 

A game that did not see a western release until 1998, six years after its original release, Final Fantasy V was a game that nearly made the cut for localization but was ultimately scrapped by Nintendo of America [ 11 ]. This news angered fans of the franchise, and so FFV was one of the first games to receive a fan translation [ 11 ]. This game took up the mantle of its franchise with gusto, keeping the graphic fidelity expected in the series, and introducing a much more complicated (but in my opinion quite fun) Job system. With this new system, the character level and job level are now separated, and you can mix and match abilities from different jobs together (anyone who has played Final Fantasy Tactics will be very familiar with this).

The popularity of the Nintendo DS 3-D styles led to quite a few more ports and custom titles for the platform, for a different audience than originally intended.

Once more, we see great attention to detail in the game’s 16-bit sprites [ 12 ]. As each of the heroes can once more change jobs and take on multiple roles, the artists designed each hero to keep their original face and hair (when applicable) so that they could be differentiated immediately. The detail of the summons, regular monsters, and boss monsters maintains a quality expected of Square’s art team, and even improves in some cases, if only slightly.

In this particular remake, we have a departure from the previous style of complete art and graphics overhaul. Instead, the remastering takes on the spirit of the original by using hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds to emulate, and improve, the 16-bit art of the past. Hard edges are smoothed out, colors are more vibrant, and animations remain simple. A more noticeable change in the gameplay is that conversations have character portraits attached to them, adding a layer of art style to the game that previously did not exist. So, for fans of the original games and the artwork of those sprites, this game does take the minimalist approach that they would appreciate, updating the existing art with slight improvements, and otherwise keeping things the same.

There are some minor differences in the remake to be noted. I already mentioned the dialogue window portraits, but other features include optimized background music, a bestiary, four new Jobs, a bonus dungeon, and more [ 13 ]. Overall, the changes aren’t too extreme here, and I would guess that most fans of the franchise would be just as happy playing the remastered versions as they would the original, if not more so thanks to the smoother rate of play on the newer technologies. Again, touching on our theme of remasters and preservation, this game actually takes a step in the right direction artistically by taking the original art and re-drawing it in the same style, while improving its overall fidelity. For purists, this is probably as good as it gets when it comes to a video game remaster. Add to this the quality-of-life improvements to the game, and you have a faithful, but still different in its own way, recreation of the game.

Final Fantasy VIII (Whatever)

The game that had to follow the massively successful Final Fantasy VII naturally had to bring back what made that game great but also spice things up with its own flavor of RPG entertainment. Final Fantasy VIII was able to deliver on most of the promises of its predecessor while improving things in several ways and falling short in others [ 14 ]. It became another fondly remembered Final Fantasy title, despite its flaws. The story and characters were engaging, and the game world itself was an interesting combination of fantasy and technology elements that, while seeming to borrow from VII, didn’t directly copy its portrayal, making for its own experience. Being a PlayStation 1 title, Final Fantasy VII had a decent set of hardware behind it, and a development team now experienced with what could be done on that hardware. While the amount of fine detail is still limited, this game pushed the boundaries of what might be expected for any game of the same era. Character sprites looked like actual people with correct proportions. Spell effects and summons, called Guardian Forces in this game, improved slightly upon what was displayed in VII, adding in a more artistically pleasing look to the combat of the game. Integrated FMV sequences that came to life in the same foreground as the regular game action added another layer to the impressiveness of this game.

This game getting a remaster seemed low on the list of priorities for Square, who continued to develop game after game in the Final Fantasy franchise, but happy fans did see a release of a remastered version of the game in September 2019. This particular remaster doesn’t replace everything, but it does deliver several graphic upgrades appropriate for the newer hardware of the latest generation of consoles and the PC. We can see, even without direct comparisons, that the character sprites have been given a massive upgrade in detail compared to the original [ 15 ]. While the FMV sequences have not been completely replaced, they have gotten a smoothing filter applied to them, so they look a bit cleaner than they did on the PS1 [ 16 ]. There have been adjustments made to the backgrounds, scaling them up to 1080p, reducing the artifacting that would have occurred with the original presentation of the game. Since the environments are not replaced or more upgraded than this, you end up with very nicely rendered characters juxtaposed over a much less detailed game world. It’s not ideal but having the nicer combat sprites for the characters and monsters still adds something to the game. There is still, unfortunately, frame rate caps in this game, which is very disappointing considering how much more the modern consoles and PCs could handle but aren’t allowed to.

The lack of blanket improvement on the graphics is not necessarily a bad thing, since some improvement is better than none. There is, however, a large difference between this game and the original, that being the built-in “cheat” codes. This remaster comes with the ability to increase game speed times three, turn off random encounters, increase hit points, and make limit breaks easier to get [ 15 ]. These cheats definitely change how the game is played. Funnily enough, increasing the time pass to x3 does not increase the passage of time when it comes to timed segments, such as the first portion of your SeeD test, going into the Fire Cavern to capture Ifrit. Purists will see these built-in cheats as an affront to the spirit of the games. Personally, I don’t find them to be completely unwelcome. I’ve played this game many times, and given how much busier my life is now, the ability to zip around the game world with encounters turned off at triple speed isn’t the worst thing in the world. I personally wouldn’t use the HP or Limit Break cheats, but others might want to, and that’s fine for them.

So, in this particular remaster, we see again an attempt at improvement, rather than a replacement of the art that was originally present in the game. Being able to see the minute details of Squall’s face and clothing is quite nice, and the upgraded sprites for the enemies make their designs stand out a lot more. While not everything was improved, I can say, in my own opinion, that this is a better version of the game, and I won’t miss the very pixelated faces of my party members.

Final Fantasy XII–Basch lives!

Moving into the era of the PlayStation 2 (or PS2), we come to a game that I honestly didn’t expect would see a remaster or remake in my lifetime. The world-changing game of Final Fantasy XII brought us into the new era of single-player RPGs from Square [ 17 ]. What’s new? Well, the entire combat system, among other things, changes from a turn-based to a real-time system. You can still pause the game to give individual commands, but part of the challenge of the game is to pre-program your allies to act the in the ways you want them to without the micromanagement, save for emergencies. This change in the combat system represents a change in the format of the interface as well, which is well handled, in my opinion. And of course, being on the PS2, this game features much more detailed graphics than the previous titles. This game’s change in how combat is approached is the biggest change since going 3-D. All subsequent franchise titles have followed this format, for good or ill, and its art style has had at least a passing influence on future Final Fantasy titles.

So, why was I surprised that this game got a remaster? Well for one, its original release was in 2006, and while that is ages ago in terms of console technology, it’s not really that long ago when it comes to game titles to be taken up for a remaster. At the time of writing, we’re just now experiencing the long-awaited remake of Final Fantasy VII, originally published in 1997. More than 20 years is a long wait for something that fans have been clamoring for since at least the mid-2010s. Hell, Final Fantasy VIII came out in 1999, and got a remaster just last year, another 20-year gap. So for a game barely 10 years old to have a remastered version announced in 2016, and delivered in 2017, it seems as though someone at Square had some different priorities when it came to new game versions [ 18 ].

So, with the release of Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, we have a relatively young game that has gotten quite the visual update. The textures and effects of the game have been reworked, increasing the overall detail, which lines up with the improved console and PC technology. While the original game sprites didn’t look bad by any means, we can see that extra bit of smoothing and attention that we enjoy from most modern graphically intensive titles [ 19 ][ 20 ]. The sharper images of characters, backgrounds, and magic spells closely match what was originally presented in 2006, but with that much more graphic fidelity that is possible in modern day graphic hardware and software. Even the game menus benefit from clearer and sharper fonts, so you know that almost no small detail was overlooked. There are also interface improvements, such as allowing the minimap to appear in a transparent overlay, whereas in the original game you had to go to a separate screen to view the whole map [ 19 ]. Other quality-of-life improvements exist, such as auto-saving between areas and shortened load times. This game also has a speed-up option, similar to the one discussed in FFVIII, and since this remaster actually came out before that one, it seems to be the one setting the trend.

The biggest change in this game isn’t actually in the graphic department, but in its job system. In the original, there was no job system to speak of, but each character could move their progression along the License Board, unlocking basic abilities, which then allow the unlocking of adjacent abilities that are related to the original. Each character could, in theory, unlock the entire license board in the original game [ 21 ]. The change with the job system limits the license board. In this version, each character can choose two of the 12 available jobs to specialize in, though only one at first. Each job offers its own unique benefits and drawbacks, and this specialization adds a level of strategy to the game that was not entirely present in the original. Yes, your characters will be less powerful overall, but the game difficulty has been adjusted for this change. While such a big overhaul to one of the central systems of the game can be jarring, I find this particular change to be welcome. While it might be fun to create godly-powerful characters that have every ability, it certainly takes away the challenge of the game once you get there. Having a system where you need to specialize your party members for particular roles makes each one more important individually, and allows them to have stand-out traits, rather than being mechanical copies with different skins.

How Dare You Like the Thing I Don’t Like!

Okay so you read through this whole thing, and you found out I don’t hate the chibi-fied remakes of III and IV, and that I’m perfectly happy with the implemented cheats in VIII, and even the new, more limited job system of XII. You’re ready to write a stern post about why I’m wrong, or a moron or something else. I ask you to take into account the following:

A: I’m not emotionally attached to the original games. They were games I never got to play or had little interest in playing. I’m more of a come-lately player in Final Fantasy, with VII being my first. I like the franchise a lot, but I’m not the most hardcore obsessive person about it. 

B: We can disagree on this, and it won’t bother me at all. I happen to think that game-play improvements that lead to a smoother experience are preferable to an absolute devotion to the original art style. I can and do appreciate all the work that went into the originals, and as demonstrated, I would also argue that they should be preserved alongside the greatest video games of the past (in fact I have a whole section of a different article dedicated to video game preservation). I think there is room for both the originals and the remakes, and that we can enjoy both incarnations of the respective games, appreciating what was originally achieved and what they have been transformed into. Coming to the defense of some piece of your childhood that you have dear memories of is a natural thing and I wouldn’t fault anyone for it, but I would ask anyone doing so to consider why. What is it about these old games specifically that makes you want to defend them? Remember, as much as we might love these games, they are a product. They were made to be sold to us, to appeal to our ideas of a good RPG video game, and to call back to familiar feelings from the previous games in the series. Developers do have passion for the games they make, but they are still ultimately answerable to their corporate bosses and have to please them as much as us.

C: I left out the FFVII Remake for a good reason: it was being developed during the writing of this article. Much can be said about it, but it’s well beyond the scope of this article! So save your angry emails.

What should be carefully watched here, and in other remakes and remasters of video games, is the preservation of the originals. Nostalgia is as easily marketed as anything else; offering up a remastered game to loyal fans can seem like a godsend to those who want a newer, better version of the thing they used to love. You know you aren’t getting the exact same thing, and that’s not what you wanted anyway, but just how different it can end up being might make you turn away in sadness and disappointment. Despite these classic games being mass-produced products, there is still art within them. It is in the story, in the visuals, even in the emotional attachment you might have.

Images

  1. “In an instance of traveling full circle, the DS port of Final Fantasy IV – known in the U.S. as Final Fantasy II—would mark a return for the franchise to Nintendo consoles.” “Final Fantasy IV – Nintendo DS.” GameStop, www.gamestop.com/video-games/nds/products/final-fantasy-iv—nintendo-ds/919665.html?condition=Pre-Owned
  2. “Project Final Fantasy 6 is a conceptual blog proposing Square-Enix finally address fan demand for a proper remake of the game with judicious use of classic and HD assets per Octopath Traveler or the Pixel Remasters, instead of the 3D Chibi outings of the Nintendo DS.” Firestream. “Project Final Fantasy 6: The Remake We Deserve.” Switch RPG, 29 Mar. 2021, switchrpg.com/side-quest/project-final-fantasy-6-the-remake-we-deserve
  3. “The popularity of the Nintendo DS 3-D styles led to quite a few more ports and custom titles for the platform, for a different audience than originally intended.” Jumpers 1998. “Final Fantasy Games for DS.” YouTube, 28 June 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSAKF9eZKvs

A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.

Resources

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  11. Resonant Arc. “Final Fantasy V Review (Plot Spoilers).” YouTube, 9 February, 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=kHBK3qAPpH0&list=PLJCH8faf6Gax19N4lYQbPrK-is-4m8Kzw&index=5.
  12. “SNES – Final Fantasy 5 (JPN).” The Spriters Resource, The VG Resource, spriters-resource.com/snes/ff5/. Accessed 31 January, 2020.
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  14. “Final Fantasy VIII.” Final Fantasy Wiki, finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Final_Fantasy_VIII. Accessed 17 May, 2020.
  15. “FINAL FANTASY VIII Remastered.” FINAL FANTASY VIII Remastered, ffviiiremastered.square-enix-games.com/en-us. Accessed 17 May, 2020.
  16. Morgan, Thomas. “Final Fantasy 8 Remastered: the Upgrades Are Sparse but the Game Still Shines.” Eurogamer.net, Eurogamer.net, 7 Sept. 2019, eurogamer.net/articles/digitalfoundry-2019-final-fantasy-8-remaster-analysis.
  17. “Final Fantasy XII.” Final Fantasy Wiki, finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Final_Fantasy_XII. Accessed May 17, 2020.
  18. “Final Fantasy XII.” Final Fantasy Wiki, finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Final_Fantasy_XII#Final_Fantasy_XII_The_Zodiac_Age. Accessed May 17, 2020.
  19. “New Features and Differences in Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age – Final Fantasy XII Wiki Guide.” IGN, 18 July 2017. ign.com/wikis/final-fantasy-xii/New_Features_and_Differences_in_Final_Fantasy_XII:_The_Zodiac_Age. Accessed May 17, 2020.
  20. Candyland. “4K UHD | Final Fantasy XII – PS2 Original vs. The Zodiac Age Remaster on PS4 Pro Graphics Comparison.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 July 2017. youtube.com/watch?v=1EmUvuf20Ao. Accessed May 17, 2020.
  21. “License Board/Original.” Final Fantasy Wiki, finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/License_Board/Original. Accessed May 17, 2020.