Games | NES | Formative Fantasies: Square Before Final Fantasy

Article by Jake Alley? | August 19, 2010

"How can they make a sequel if it was the final' fantasy?"

Once upon a time, asking that question made a person sound witty. Then it got old. Then Final Fantasy became an international blockbuster, and the actual answer to that question came out in the hopes that people would quit asking already. The story goes that none of the other games Square brought to the NES did very well, and Final Fantasy was the company's last desperate shot to make something stick. Clearly it worked, and Square grew to be one of the most respected developers out there, reigning as a mighty prince of the industry for a number of hotly debated years.

As their star rose, however, no one really took the time to reflect on those early games which so famously failed to put them on the map. While the original Final Fantasy has been ported to a fair number of systems, and even the honestly horrible Final Fantasy II has had multiple revivals, their predecessors exist only on the NES.

Why? Well, basically it's because they're blatant knock-offs of better games that mainly add only frustration to the mix, but that's no reason not to delve into a quick retrospective.

Of Square's three pre-FF games to see release in America, Rad Racer was both the last and the least embarrassing, at least in the sense that it was a halfway decent game. More specifically, it was Pole Position. The cars are recognizable as particular brands, the backgrounds have some nice variety, and crashing fails to result in a giant fireball, but otherwise, it's Pole Position. Now, blatantly cloning Pole Position with improved graphics has been known to work out in the past -- Hang On!, for instance. Releasing such a clone in 1987, however, was arriving late to the party.

Before that came 3-D World Runner, a transparent and shabby looking clone of Space Harrier -- but only during boss fights against, predictably enough, multi-segmented fire-breathing dragons. Before reaching those boss fights ripped directly out of a more successful game, the protagonist of 3-D WorldRunner gets about by running, just like it says in the title. Essentially, it's a twitch platformer in faux-3D. Running forward at a speed of either fast or ridiculously fast, very short windows exist in which to leap open gorges, dodge left and right to avoid huge columns, and dodge or shoot monsters after grabbing the gun power-up.

Of course, between the speed and the criminally short draw distance, in practice it's just a bunch of panicked shooting and pure trial-and-error kludgery. Players succeed only by committing every turn and jump in the second half of the game to memory, as it begins to rely more and more on blind leaps of faith, using springboards to reach the tops of the ubiquitous columns, touching the tiny space on top for a quick foothold before jumping off again, altering speed in mid-air, and veering to the side at the last minute to hit the next springboard in the fraction of a second it appears for. True masochists can hit the Select button to make the graphics a flickery, blue-and-red mess which in theory achieves a 3D effect when wearing the packed-in glasses, but makes it that much harder to see what's happening. Of course, anyone who has ever played 3-D World Runner for themselves can tell you the single most evil aspect of the game is the music: a tune entirely too manic and cheerful to come off as genuinely happy, instead being more akin to the mocking laughter of horrible children, cackling with glee as the player fails again and again.

Finally, Square's first self-published title in the U.S. was the only one to hint at its creators ultimate success with RPGs. King's Knight is about a party of four characters traveling through a magical fantasy kingdom, delving into hidden caves to find elemental MacGuffins needed to defeat an evil dragon and rescue a princess. Many screenshots actually make it out to be a dead ringer for Final Fantasy, sharing the same flat green plains, and round-cornered masses of mountains. All of this adds together to make it extremely confusing when one actually starts playing. Surprise! It's a vertically scrolling shooter! Yes, all those RPG-looking mountain ranges are obstacles you must frantically shoot a path through before you crash into them as you... walk northward across the map. It isn't a very good shooter. Power-ups all stack and increase defense and speed stats several times, again confusing the RPG issue, but there are no spread guns or R-Type-style options to break up the monotony of lining up with targets and shooting like crazy. Vital power-ups also have a habit of being hidden within solid masses of mountain. Still, one can see how the developers got their feet wet in the trappings of RPGs here, right? Well, no. Square didn't actually develop King's Knight, only published it. It's simply an oddity in a vacuum.

Amazingly enough, these three games were the only Square titles deemed good enough for a U.S. release. The company produced plenty of others that never left Japan, a slate of absolute garbage for Famicom Disk System under the Disk Operating Group imprimatur. Never before had an acronym been more apt.

Square's final Japanese release before finally striking gold with Final Fantasy was a gem called JJ, a sequel to 3-D World Runner. That's right; such was Square's ineptitude that 3-D World Runner stood as enough of a high-water mark to warrant a sequel. Suddenly the desperation of that famous first RPG's title makes sense.

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