The criteria is pretty self-explanatory on this: pick two pre-merger games from both Square & Enix, then pick two more from Square-Enix post-merger in a demonstration that many great things from this JRPG powerhouse are not from either of their headliners.
I also made a concentrated effort to stay away from the back up singers, like Star Ocean and Chrono Trigger. So while much of this list wouldn’t even dent the lowest rung of the most liberal “best of” list, keep in mind that “best” is not necessarily what this is about. Greatness seldom comes in a well-balanced package, and I have intentionally picked out some exceptionally “great” games you may have missed over the years.
Quick! To the Bouncer-mobile.
Despite Squaresoft’s many other departures from their traditional turn-based staple, The Bouncer was the seminal WTF release in their PS2 glory years. It plays as an arcade fighter/beat-em-up, with all the senseless plot and cut scenes that you would expect from a modern Square Enix franchise. The player selects one of three main characters, all of whom are bouncers at a dance club in a techno-punk industrial city (thus the game’s title, duh). After one of the barmaids gets kidnapped by the “it’s not Shin-Ra” corporation that runs the city; you set off as your selected character to save her. This is done via beating the crap out of mob after mob of enemies (in a series of inter-connected hallways and lobbies), and many, many, many cut scenes. So in a way this was actually the precursor to Square’s modern format of cinematic-laden releases.
I, like most everyone else, read a review and wrote the thing off without ever picking it up; that is, until I picked it up as a drunk weekend game. Despite the reviewers taking this game out back to crap all over it like a crackhead in an alley, The Bouncer is actually a brutal co-op button masher. Its main designer came from SEGA’s AM2 division, also the main designer of both Virtua Fighter & Tekken. So it actually had a pretty decent combat system underneath all of its button mashing. The story was bat-shit (as half way though the game “Miss Barmaid” turns out to be a runaway super-combat android), but it was the kind of bat-shit that sounds perfectly logical to a bunch of (drunk) guys hanging out on Sunday morning. Best of all, or worst if you didn’t have any friends, is that this game has absolutely no balancing done for a solo play-through; party hardy or GTFO. The icing on the cake was that you got alternate events and endings – in addition to sizable difficulty spikes – for each consecutive run through.
Secret of Evermore
You have no idea how hard it was to find a decent pic for this.
Chalk this one up to another as another Squaresoft title with “death by player ignorance & prejudice” on it’s tombstone. You see, there is a little title out there called Secret of Mana, and way back when (in the ’90s) it was sort of a big thing. So when Square announced that it wasn’t going to be releasing the sequel to Secret of Mana, but instead it was going to release Secret of Evermore in the same launch window, everyone shat themselves in rage.
However, Secret of Evermore was closer to what audiences would have actually wanted, and a much better spiritual sequel to Secret of Mana than Secret of Mana 2 was ever going to be. Mechanically speaking, that is; ’cause in setting and scale, Evermore is nothing like Mana. For starters, the game plays out as a young boy with an obsession for cheap, B-grade movies wanders into an abandoned laboratory, where his dog inadvertently reactivates an inter-dimensional transporter by chewing up some wires. This leads to the pair (boy and his dog) being stuck in a series of themed timepiece segments, coincidentally based on the movies he is obsessed with.
Everything outside of that was directly cloned from Secret of Mana, right down to the radial menu system; but “derivative” and “bad” are two entirely different flaming bags of poo on the doorstep, and this game has got the same sort of B-movie charm as the films it was inspired by. Ultimately, it was doomed to failure from the getgo, as its main redeeming feature was that it lifted the gameplay from Secret of Mana wholesale (IMO, that is one hell of a redeeming feature) to clone out a somewhat inexpensive title. It’s something Squaresoft majorly screwed the pooch on (pun intended) by not doing more of, as Secret of Mana has one of the best game systems, period.
But Chrono Trigger launched three months before Secret of Evermore, and thus most of the world has no clue that this game was ever shipped.
Sounds like a Dave Chappelle movie, hunh?
So the king of the world decides that he wants mo-money; naturally the most logical course of action to that end is to make a scientist build him a demon-summoning machine. Once his new dial-a-demon gets one on the line, the king makes a deal with it where the demon will give him 1 gold piece for each soul the king brings him; and not just the souls of humans – we are talking the soul of ANY-THING. Humans, dogs, flowers, I think there are a few talking rocks tossed about too; anything. So once the king manages to cough up the souls to every thing on the planet, animate or otherwise, it is naturally time for God to send an angel to fix things. The demon’s name is “Deathtoll,” your character is an angel sent from God, and “Soul Blazer” is your job description/name: it was 1992, and this shit sounded awesome on the back of the box. Soul Blazer was an action-RPG for the SNES, which is to say that it was an isometric 2D sprite game, because that’s what everything was.
It kinda played like a Zelda game, in that you only had one character instead of a party, and combat consisted of thwacking at things in real time as opposed to an instanced battle screen. Outside of that, it was nothing like Zelda; there was no world map, no epic narrative and about zero complexity. Dude, you’re on a quest from GOD to save the souls of rocks and shit: how much complexity do you really expect?
You start off in a dirt lot where a town used to be; there is a dungeon directly connected to the town, and inside the dungeon there are a number of easily slaughtered monsters. Once you have killed all the monsters in a section, you get to move farther in. Clear enough monsters and you “release” a captured soul. Each soul you free rebuilds a bit of the town, as each soul comes back with personal belongings in tow (because it appears in this world you CAN take “it” with you). Rebuild enough of the town and you get to take a swing at a boss; kill the boss and you get the keys to the next dirt lot of a town and the privilege to start over. The funny thing is when you add up hub towns, themed dungeons, incremental advancement, hack and slash combat, and the whole quest from God thing, this game was like the blueprint for Diablo 2.
Absolutely no overcompensation here …
Enix really did have sort of an obsession with religion, didn’t they? This time it is Norse, and you play a Valkyrie sent from Odin to recruit the souls of fallen warriors for the battle with Ragnarok. But oh no, not just any old soul will do; Odin needs the BEST! What is a chick in blue supposed to do when there are no prime cuts to be found? Grind her god-damned ass off, that’s what! If that didn’t make it clear, this game is a major grind parade. The game is highly distinctive in that it has non-linear progression, a unique combat system, and a wide cast; but you could also say that translates into a piss-poor plot, everything in it has no purpose beside getting you to grind more, and your party members equate to interchangeable special moves that occasionally talk.
The entire game is a series of mini-quests wherein you find the spirit of a fallen warrior, run around playing go-here-do-that to finish said spirit’s unfinished biz from before they kicked it; then you ship them off, with a score card on how well you prepared them FOR RAGNAROK! The reality is it’s just a cover up excuse to get you to grind your ass off, leveling up disposable equipment. The mechanics are something of a side scrolling platformer (and thus the “profile” in the title) with a turn-based battle system bolted on. You navigate maze dungeons built out of platforms and ladders by jumping and climbing, but it cuts to a battle screen when you run into a wandering monster. The battles are where this game gets most of it fame; instead of being your typical menu-based system, each character in your party is mapped to one of the face buttons on your controller and attacks are performed by pounding buttons to trigger chain attacks by your whole party. It’s an interesting set up, but the whole thing reeks of the developers having a good concept for a new battle system and nothing to go on when it came time to turn it into an actual game.
This is the Japanese version of chin down, eyes up.
There are so many ways to start this one, so I will begin with saying that I love this game. It is like one massive sarcastic comment on JRPG conventions, mixed with a bitch slap of awesomeness. Everyone has seen anti-heroes before, but rarely have we seen a main character that SO does not give a damn about being any kind of hero. At every step of the game, he’s mocking and dumping on every heroic trope in the book; he literally does not care about anything beyond making money and kicking people’s asses. You know you are in for a good time when your character can run up to anyone in the world, sissy kick them in the shins to start a fight, and then ridicules his defeated opponents for being weak.
The game only has one city, but it is easily three times the size of any other JRPG’s largest, and you spend the predominance of the game wandering its streets instead of dungeons. The game has two modes: in one you work though a linear mission on the instructions of an employer; in the other you are free to wander around the game world at will, picking fights and finding partners to use in mission mode. The entire game setting is also unique, in that while it is set to the over-used backdrop of human oppression of fairy creatures, Radiata Stories actually addresses it as real racism. Humanity in this game is a collective bag of dicks; everything that isn’t human is called a non-human and treated as a slave: the Dwarves are locked inside their mines and forced to produce goods for the humans, while the Elves have been reduced to shambles, and goblins are viewed as vermin. It is a near perfect mix between plot driven and open-world gameplay, allowing the players both a good storyline and the freedom to be the contemptuous asshole they wish they could be in other games.
Final Fantasy XIII
Yes, I said this list will not contain any Final Fantasy games. Let the implications of that sink in for just a sec.
Dude, we ran out of halls to run down.
The Final Fantasy series maintains zero convention between releases, but there is still a formula hiding behind the shifting plates of battle systems and worlds in each game; FF13 completely abandons that formula and runs off naked into the woods. Final Fantasy XIII is not a perfect game, but it is not a bad game either; it is, however, a horrible Final Fantasy game, and that is the main problem with it. People expect certain things from a series, and this game supplied none of them. It was hyper linear, with players having no freedom to explore or any kind of down time between battles; however, I don’t think that any of that was actually the result of bad design. Quite the opposite, actually; I think those issues were the result of Square Enix actually getting someone on the project with a grasp of logically relating game play to plot events.
Unfortunately, mixing logic & Final Fantasy is like mixing swift kick & Pitbull; if SE had simply whitewashed “Final Fantasy” from the box art, something that would have also saved FFXIV, none of the resulting consumer-rage-shit-storm would have erupted.
The biggest complaint about FF13 was that there were no towns or exploration and you just ran your ass off in one direction, killing anything that crosses you. However, bitching about those issues within the game’s plot was senseless; You live under a militant theocracy, your entire existence is so much of a threat to the government’s control that they are willing to slaughter an entire city to find you, and your own people view you as the Typhoid Mary responsible for their impending deaths. Where in all that is there logical room to wander into a weapons shop, banter with the shopkeeper about heavy armor giving you swamp ass, and then pick out something new to better murder national guardsmen with? IT MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE!
Sure, there were opportunities to fix up the game more by cramming a bit of town exploration into the flashback sequences, but my point isn’t that the game is perfect; just that people took issue with the wrong issues. For once SE put out a FF game with deep characters, a complex plot and mechanics that rationally reflected the characters situation; but what fans really wanted (or expected) when they picked up the box was androgynous emo kids, swords the size of a Buick, the emotional depth of Saran wrap … and TOWNS! Consumer expectations matter, and giving people preexisting expectations about what is in the box is the whole point of constructing an established brand name. Square Enix royally screwed themselves when they tried to milk that by sticking a brand name on something that had no relation to the expectations they themselves have been building for the last 30-ish years. What really makes Square Enix giving themselves the backwards Brazilian jackhammer so bizarre is that they already had a long and profitable history of stand-alone titles that didn’t need to be stuffed into a franchise name to be great.