Square, Circled

On January 29, 2002, Square USA Inc. announced that it would cease operations on March 29 of this year. As a resident of Hawaii, I am saddened by this; as a lover of anime, I am appalled. Square has long been a powerhouse in the world of video games. Their Final Fantasy series has been a consistent best-seller in Japan for years, and with each new edition the stories have become deeper, the characters more memorable, and the graphics more dazzling.

In 1997 Square took a bold step by bringing their newest number, Final Fantasy VII, to North America. Conventional Japanese wisdom said "Americans don't like role- playing games", but Square proved them wrong. FFVII was a huge success in the U.S., enhanced by what gamers already knew about Square, and the inclusion of scenes that weren't in the Japanese version.

Also in 1997, Square set itself up here in Honolulu and began seeking animation and computer talent to produce the Final Fantasy movie. Lured by the location and its proximity to Japan, that talent came. At its peak, there were 225 programmers, technicians and artists at the Square studio; two entire floors were devoted to computers.

I, and so many others, waited eagerly for the July 2001 release of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Although I saw the film more than once, and I bought the DVD, the movie's technical brilliance was not enough to conceal the fact that the story was... deficient. The film played unintentional homage to Alien, Escape from New York and Starship Troopers, but couldn't stand on its own. Like millions around the world, I associate Square with its famous RPG series. Watching the movie, I could only conclude: too much final, and not enough fantasy.

Earlier that year, Square had announced that they would not support any hint books for Final Fantasy IX. They claimed the sales of such books reduced one's enjoyment of the game. The fans responded by not buying the game either, and sales suffered. Square changed their minds for Final Fantasy X.

During this same period, there were other hits and misses: Xenogears, an RPG with a mystery and robot combat, was a success, while the stylish RPG fighter The Bouncer was not. Xenogears was for the PlayStation, and The Bouncer for PlayStation 2; yet the huge increase in processing power again failed to compensate for the lack of a good story.

I hold Square president Hisashi Suzuki responsible for this. He wanted to make a CG movie, he wanted to do it his way, and he hired some top-drawer talent to do it. But Square's publicity machine talked mostly to business or professional magazines, and very little to those who were actually going to pay $6.50 to see it. There was no input whatever from gamers or anime fans (often one and the same), nor did Square attempt to determine just who they wanted their audience to be, or just what kind of story they wanted to tell. Even in Japan the film did poorly, and the experience has humbled both Suzuki (who resigned last December) and the company, who welcomed Sony buying a large share of their stock.

What does PIXAR know that Square doesn't? For one thing, don't mess with an established property. When I hear the name "Final Fantasy" I think of lovely, lively women, handsome heroes with extraordinary weapons, locations that remind me of Earth but definitely are not, and lots of magic spells flying about. Imagine if the movie had been, say, an FFVII "side story". Cloud and Tifa have immediate visual appeal. The city of Midgard and Cyd Highwind's ship were dazzling enough in the game; imagine how impressive they'd look on an 80-foot screen! All of them are familiar to millions who have seen the game. But I'm afraid "imagine" is all we'll ever be able to do, now. Square's move into Hollywood's territory has fizzled out.

It's been reported that some of Square's animators left work on the movie to concentrate on games again. FFX shows that it was the right thing to do--that game is what the movie should have been! The word is that sales are strong, and I'm sure it will rival hits like Metal Gear Solid 2. But an all-CG drama--as opposed to comedies such as Toy Story and Shrek--has yet to succeed.

And most regrettable of all--it won't be made in Hawaii.