Was Final Fantasy X the beginning of a new era for Square, or the last gasp of what some might term "the good old days?" That's the question that pops into my head whenever I go back to Final Fantasy X. Final Fantasy's contributions to gaming are so significant that we have a tendency to define the original games by their place in history.
Final Fantasy was the game that saved Square and gave Japanese RPGs a toehold in the West. Final Fantasy IV gave us the Active Time Battle system and established many of the genre's conventions (or cliches, if you'd like). Final Fantasy VII, of course, brought the genre's golden era to a whole new level in the U.S.
But Final Fantasy X is an entirely different animal. There are many who would look back on it as the last instance in which Final Fantasy was still "good;" but many of the design trends that caused so much angst in Final Fanatsy XIII also got their start in Final Fantasy X.
So which is it? Is Final Fantasy X is last of the "Old" Square, or the beginning of the "New" one?
In 2001, changes were afoot at Square. The Square Enix merger had been in the works for sometimes; and that year also marked the disastrous failure of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi was on his way out, and long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu was soon to follow.
But before all that happened, they came together one last time to work on Final Fantasy X. As such, despite doing away series staples like the overworld and even the Active Time Battle system, it still felt very much like a traditional Final Fantasy game.
Look at the battle system. Despite losing the ATB, it still looks a great deal like Final Fantasy VII and VIII. The biggest difference is that summons can actually stay in battle as a sort of high-powered extra character; and that characters can now be swapped in at will. Both were excellent additions, but they weren't the kind of wholesale changes found in Final Fantasy XII or even Final Fantasy X-2.
And it felt like an extension of the original PlayStation games in other ways as well. The summoner Yuna had much in common with Rinoa, Aeris and Garnet; an archetype that more or less fell to the wayside in Final Fantasy XII and XIII. And lest we forget, this was the last mainline Final Fantasy to feature random battles.
Plug it in now, and it almost feels like going home. The soundtrack is a bit different compared to previous games in the series; but some of the tunes are still recognizably Uematsu (the battle theme comes to mind). Even Sin (the malevolent force tormenting Spira) brings to mind old antagonists like Chaos and Zeromus. Really, even if Final Fantasy X isn't quite a "classic" Final Fantasy, you could argue that it's closer than any of the games that followed.
But at the same time, looking at Final Fantasy X, I can't help but see many of the design tropes that defined the franchise going forward. Tidus, for example, is the prototypical protagonist of the modern Japanese RPG: young, badly dressed, and overloaded with daddy issues.
It's also difficult to underrate how similar Final Fantasy X is to Final Fantasy XIII in some respects. Look at the overworld (or the lack of one). Final Fantasy X wasn't quite the "corridor RPG" that Final Fantasy XIII was, but much of the exploration was still marked by running down a long, straightforward path. I still remember how disappointed I was to discover that flying the "airship" really meant choosing a location on the map.
It was also the first Final Fantasy to be fully voiced, which is a whole different can of worms.
And, for better or worse, Final Fantasy X will always be inextricably linked to Final Fantasy X-2. Now, I actually happen to like Final Fantasy X-2, but it's also the point in which Square began churning out "Disney sequels" (think Aladdin 2) for their games. If that's not the definition of "New Square," then I don't know what is.
In all honesty though, as much as I would like to neatly pigeonhole Final Fantasy X as either "New Square" or "Old Square," it's probably not that simple. Instead, It's pretty much the definition of a "transition game"--Uematsu was joined by two other composers; and much of the production was handled by the likes of Motomu Toriyama and Tetsuya Normua, both of whom had a large hand in the development of Final Fantasy XIII. There's a lot of old and new in this game.
Final Fantasy X was technically Sakaguchi's swan song with the mainline series; but the real end probably came with Final Fantasy IX. It is, after all, the game that Sakaguchi says is "the closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be." It's about as clean a break between the franchise's past and present as you can possibly find.
But even if Final Fantasy X isn't quite "the end of an era," it still feels like an extension of the nine games that came before it. It's a game that embodies both the franchise's history and its future; and that makes it well worth revisiting.