In recent years, the series has featured several males with androgynous or effeminate characteristics. Character names are another recurring theme. Since the release of Final Fantasy II, including subsequent remakes of the original Final Fantasy, a character named Cid has appeared in different capacities: a non-playable ally, party member, and villain. Though Cid's appearance and personality differ between titles, the character is normally related to the in-game airships. Biggs and Wedge, inspired by two Star Wars characters by the same name, appear in titles as minor characters, sometimes as comic relief. Recurring creatures include Chocobos and Moogles. Chocobos are large, often flightless birds that appear in several installments as a means of long-distance travel for characters. Moogles, on the other hand, are white, stout creatures resembling teddy bears with wings and a single antenna. They serve different capacities in games including mail delivery, weaponsmiths, party members, and saving the game. Chocobo and Moogle appearances are often accompanied by specific themes that have been arranged differently for separate titles.
In Final Fantasy games, players command a party of characters as they progress through the game's story by exploring the game world and defeating opponents. Enemies are typically encountered randomly through exploring, a trend which changed in Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XII. The player issues combat orders—like "Fight", "Magic", and "Item"—to individual characters via a menu-driven interface while engaging in battles. Throughout the series, the games have used different battle systems. Prior to Final Fantasy XI, battles were turn-based with the protagonists and antagonists on different sides of the battlefield. Final Fantasy IV introduced the "Active Time Battle System" that augmented the turn-based nature with a perpetual time-keeping system. Designed by Hiroyuki Ito, it injected urgency and excitement into combat by requiring the player to act before an enemy attacks, and was used until Final Fantasy X, which implemented the Conditional Turn-Based system. The new system returned to the previous turn-based system, but added nuances to offer players more challenge. Final Fantasy XI adopted a real-time battle system where characters continuously act depending on the issued command. Final Fantasy XII continued this gameplay with the "Active Dimension Battle" system.
Like most RPGs, the Final Fantasy installments use an experience level system for character advancement, in which experience points are accumulated by killing enemies. Character classes, specific jobs that enable unique abilities for characters, are another recurring theme. Introduced in the first game, character classes have been used differently in each title. Some restrict a character to a single job to integrate it into the story, while other games feature dynamic job systems that allow the player to choose from multiple classes and switch throughout the game. Though used heavily in many games, such systems have become less prevalent in favor of characters that are more versatile; characters still match an archetype, but are able to learn skills outside their class.
Magic is another common RPG element in the series. It is generally divided into classes, which are organized by color: "White magic", which focuses on spells that assist teammates; "Black magic", which focuses on harming enemies; "Red magic", which is a combination of white and black magic, "Blue magic", which mimics enemy attacks; and "green magic" which focuses on 'buffing' allies or 'debuffing' the enemy. Other magic includes summoning legendary creatures to aid in battle, and has persisted since Final Fantasy III. These creatures, often referred to as "Summons", have been inspired by mythologies from Arabic, Hindu, Norse, and Greek cultures. Different means of transportation have appeared through the series. The most common is the airship for long range travel, accompanied by chocobos for travelling short distances, but others include sea and land vessels. Following Final Fantasy VII, more modern and futuristic vehicle designs have been included.
In the mid 1980s, Square entered the Japanese video game industry with simple RPGs, racing games, and platformers for Nintendo's Famicom Disk System. Though a couple of games were successful in North America, most were not popular and the company faced bankruptcy. In 1987, Square designer Hironobu Sakaguchi headed development of a game to prevent the company's financial ruin. Sakaguchi chose to create a new fantasy role-playing game for the cartridge-based NES, and drew inspiration from popular fantasy games: Enix's Dragon Quest, Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda, and Origin Systems's Ultima series. As Sakaguchi planned to retire after completing the project, he named it Final Fantasy. Despite his explanation, publications have also attributed the name to the company's hopes that the project would solve its financial troubles.
The game indeed reversed Square's lagging fortunes, and it became the company's flagship franchise. Following the success, Square immediately developed a second installment. Because Sakaguchi assumed Final Fantasy would be a stand-alone title, its story was not designed to be expanded by a sequel. The developers instead chose to carry over only thematic similarities from its predecessor, and some of the gameplay elements, such as the character advancement system, were overhauled. This approach has continued throughout the series; each major Final Fantasy game features a new setting, a new cast of characters, and an upgraded battle system.
For the original Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi required a larger production team than Square's previous titles. He began crafting the game's story while experimenting with gameplay ideas. Once the gameplay system and game world size was established, Sakaguchi integrated his story ideas into the available resources. A different approach has been taken for subsequent titles; the story is completed first and the game built around it. Designers have never been restricted by consistency, though most feel each title should have a minimum number of common elements. The development teams strive to create completely new worlds for each title, and avoid making new games too similar to previous ones. Game locations are conceptualized early in development and design details like building parts are fleshed out as a base for entire structures.
The first five games were directed by Sakaguchi, who also provided the original concepts. He served as a producer for subsequent games until he left Square in 2001. Yoshinori Kitase took over directing the games until Final Fantasy VIII, and has been followed by a new director for each new title. Hiroyuki Ito designed several gameplay systems, including Final Fantasy V's Job System, Final Fantasy VIII's Junction System and the Active Time Battle concept, which was used from Final Fantasy IV until Final Fantasy IX. Ito also co-directed Final Fantasy VI with Kitase. Kenji Terada was the scenario writer for the first four games; Kitase took over as scenario writer for Final Fantasy V through Final Fantasy VII. Kazushige Nojima became the series' primary scenario writer from Final Fantasy VII until his resignation in October 2003; he has since formed his own company, Stellavista. Nojima partially or completely wrote the stories for Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy X-2. He also worked as the scenario writer for the spin off series, Kingdom Hearts.
Artistic design, including character and monster creations, was handled by Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano from Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy VI. Amano also handled title logo designs for all of the main series and the image illustrations from Final Fantasy VII onward. Tetsuya Nomura was chosen to replace Amano because Nomura's designs were more adaptable to 3D graphics. He worked with the series from Final Fantasy VII through Final Fantasy X; for Final Fantasy IX, however, character designs were handled by Shukou Murase, Toshiyuki Itahana, and Shin Nagasawa. Nomura is also the character designer of the Kingdom Hearts series, Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, and the Fabula Nova Crystallis: Final Fantasy XIII. Other designers include Nobuyoshi Mihara and Akihiko Yoshida. Mihara was the character designer for Final Fantasy XI, and Yoshida served as character designer for Final Fantasy Tactics, the Square-produced Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy XII.
Graphics and technology
The first titles on the NES feature small sprite representations of the leading party members on the main world screen because of graphical limitations. Battle screens use more detailed, full versions of characters in a side-view perspective. This practice was used until Final Fantasy VI, which uses detailed versions for both screens. The NES sprites are 26 pixels high and use a color palette of 4 colors. 6 frames of animation are used to depict different character statuses like "healthy" and "fatigued". The SNES installments use updated graphics and effects, as well as higher quality audio than in previous games, but are otherwise similar to their predecessors in basic design. The SNES sprites are 2 pixels shorter, but have larger palettes and feature more animation frames: 11 colors and 40 frames respectively. The upgrade allowed designers to have characters be more detailed in appearance and express more emotions. The first title includes non-player characters (NPCs) the player could interact with, but are mostly static in-game objects. Beginning with the second title, Square used predetermined pathways for NPCs to create more dynamic scenes that include comedy and drama.
In 1995, Square showed an interactive SGI technical demonstration of Final Fantasy for the then next generation of consoles. The demonstration used Silicon Graphics's prototype Nintendo 64 workstations to create 3D graphics. Fans believed the demo was of a new Final Fantasy title for the Nintendo 64 console; however, 1997 saw the release of Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation. The switch was due to a dispute with Nintendo over its use of faster and more expensive cartridges, as opposed to the slower, cheaper, and much higher capacity compact discs used on rival systems. Final Fantasy VII introduced 3D graphics with fully pre-rendered backgrounds. It was because of this switch to 3D that a CD-ROM format was chosen over a cartridge format. The switch also led to increased production costs and a greater subdivision of the creative staff for Final Fantasy VII and subsequent 3D titles in the series.
Starting with Final Fantasy VIII, the series adopted a more photo-realistic look. Like Final Fantasy VII, full motion video (FMV) sequences would have video playing in the background, with the polygonal characters composited on top. Final Fantasy IX returned briefly to the more stylized design of earlier games in the series. It still maintained, and in many cases slightly upgraded, most of the graphical techniques used in the previous two games in the series. Final Fantasy X was released on the PlayStation 2, and used the more powerful hardware to render graphics in real-time instead of using pre-rendered material to obtain a more dynamic look; the game features full 3D environments, rather than have 3D character models move about pre-rendered backgrounds. It is also the first Final Fantasy game to introduce voice acting, occurring throughout the majority of the game, even with many minor characters. This aspect added a whole new dimension of depth to the character's reactions, emotions, and development.
Taking a temporary divergence, Final Fantasy XI used the PlayStation 2's online capabilities as an MMORPG. Initially released for the PlayStation 2 with a PC port arriving six months later, Final Fantasy XI was also released on the Xbox 360 nearly four years after its original release in Japan. This was the first Final Fantasy game to use a free rotating camera. Final Fantasy XII was released in 2006 for the PlayStation 2 and uses only half as many polygons as Final Fantasy X in exchange for more advanced textures and lighting. It also retains the freely rotating camera from Final Fantasy XI. Final Fantasy XIII was shown at E3 2006 and will make use of Crystal Tools, a middleware engine developed by Square Enix.