The biggest game at E3 this year was a remake of an old one. The much-anticipated, long-in-development remake of Final Fantasy VII seemed like it was everywhere. Fans were able to play it for the first time, Square Enix finally unveiled the release date, and it even turned its show floor booth into a life-sized re-creation of the gritty cyberpunk metropolis Midgar. Fittingly, the massive presence of FFVII Remake largely overshadowed another major announcement: the original game’s successor, Final Fantasy VIII, was being remastered for modern consoles.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Ever since its debut on the original PlayStation in 1999, FFVIII has always felt like the black sheep of the franchise. Today, it’s getting something of a second chance, thanks to a remastered edition launching on the Switch, PC, PS4, and Xbox One. “With the remastered version, I’m hoping people will rediscover the fun from a brand-new perspective,” FFVIII director Yoshinori Kitase tells The Verge.
As a remaster, the new iteration of FFVIII doesn’t change things too much. It still takes place in a sci-fi world where you take control of Squall, a solitary student at a military academy who slowly develops a romantic relationship with Rinoa, the daughter of a high-ranking general. Amid this budding young love, the pair and their friends are drawn into a complex war involving, among other things, a time-traveling sorceress. It’s a winding, often confusing journey, as is so often the case with Final Fantasy stories. But it also resonated with fans, thanks to its almost single-minded focus on telling a story about love, which was a rarity in games at the time. This, coupled with some, let’s say, controversial game design choices, resulted in a title that always felt somewhat removed from the rest of the franchise.
The remaster doesn’t change any of this. The main difference is how it looks. The graphics have been cleaned up significantly, with new, more detailed character models that fit better with the pre-rendered backgrounds. It still doesn’t exactly look modern (the backgrounds remain low-res), but it’s a big jump from the chunky, meme-inspiring visuals from the original game. According to Kitase, this level of update wasn’t always the plan.
“It was challenging. But in the end, we feel it was a good decision.”
“In our initial plan, we were going to keep the graphics as-is for the most part, and simply release it for the modern hardware,” he says. “But it’s been 20 years since the release of the original game, and televisions have evolved from CRTs to SDTVs and onto LCD high-definition TVs, so we decided that we needed to update the quality of the character renders. So even though development was very close to mastering the build, we had to pivot at the last minute and started work on refining the characters.” He adds that a number of key members from the original team worked on this, including character modeler Tomohiro Kayano, designer Tetsuya Nomura, and Hiroshi Harata, who was a battle programmer on the 1999 release but served as game director on the remaster. “It was challenging,” he says of the rebooted development process. “But in the end, we feel it was a good decision.”
Aside from that, there have been a few changes designed to make it easier to get into the game. You can speed things up and breeze past battles with a fast-forward option or you can skip enemy encounters altogether. But the core of the game remains the same, and that includes somewhat complex elements like the junction system, which involves assigning magical spells to various attributes like strength or health to improve your character, and the pokémon-like Guardian Force beings that aid you in battle. Kitase believes that, much like what happened to Final Fantasy XII, elements of FFVIII that proved controversial at first have become more appreciated over the years, thanks in large part to the internet.
“The gameplay elements of Final Fantasy VIII that we were unable to convey properly at the time have started to become more understood through fans interacting with each other online,” he explains. “I feel that this may have led to more people reevaluating and appreciating the title.” And given how different the game was from past entries in the series, that initial controversy wasn’t entirely unexpected. “During the development, we did anticipate there being mixed reactions,” he says. “But we are satisfied with what we accomplished, especially since we took on the challenge.”
“We decided to take on the challenge to focus on ‘love.’”
In many ways, the team behind FFVIII was up against an impossible task. The game’s predecessor was a watershed for Japanese role-playing games, ushering them into the world of 3D and opening the genre up to a massive new audience, particularly in the West. But FFVII was also something of a strange game, one that, at times, felt caught between two generations of technology. Though it was in 3D and featured plentiful CG cutscenes, the game also depicted its cast as both proportionate 3D models and super deformed anime-style characters at various points. When it came time for the sequel, the team wanted to build on that and make something that looked and felt more cohesive, while at the same time moving in a more mature narrative direction.
“The Final Fantasy series always placed emphasis on drama, and with Final Fantasy VII, from a broad perspective, I believe we reached the pinnacle of depicting a story where ‘protagonists face a large force of evil,’” Kitase says. “On the flip side, the series has evolved on a more granular level since Final Fantasy IV, as it began to include narratives that focused on characters’ emotions. With the advancement of CG technology allowing for a more delicate expression of characters’ emotions, we decided to take on the challenge to focus on ‘love,’ which delves deeper into the internal aspect of humankind, as our theme.”
Role-playing games tend to age poorly, with older titles often seeming clunky and slow compared to more modern releases. But with the advance of time and a new perspective, Kitase believes that the elements of Final Fantasy VIII that once made it misunderstood — from the gameplay systems to the shift to romance — could help it gain a new level of appreciation two decades later. “Because of unique elements like these, I believe even now players can enjoy the game,” he says.