The success and popularity of Square's games and series over the years has led to several games being consistently recognized as among the best games ever created by any company for any console. When writing these lists, I always start by identifying the must-have games from a company's library, and for Square, the must-have list went ahead and provided eight of the ten games that will be included here. The popularity of many of the company's products is so great that the only suspense in this list is the ordering of the games rather than the choices themselves.
That said, this tenth game is the list's surprise – Cruise Chaser Blassty is so unknown that I actually had to submit a box shot for this list myself. Released in 1986, the game is the only one on this list to pre-date the defining release in Square's history, Final Fantasy. Published only in Japan for a variety of PC-based systems, Cruise Chaser Blassty is actually the first RPG developed by Square, coming even before Final Fantasy. Despite its early release and relative lack of success, Cruise Chaser Blassty still foreshadowed the rest of Square's corporate history as a whole, from its genre to its outside-the-box battle system to its notable soundtrack. The game was one of the first to ever earn its own soundtrack release, which while surprising at the time, comes as no shock to modern fans given the name of the composer: Nobuo Uematsu.
Released in 1995 well after Square had asserted its dominance over the RPG genre, Seiken Densetsu 3 holds the rather dubious title of best game to never be released in the United States. Of course, such a title is up for debate, but in any debate over the best games to never see localization, Seiken Densetsu 3 finishes high on the list. That title comes for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the game is among the best-reviewed RPGs ever produced by Square; even with the absence of recognition from American audiences, it is still a frequently-cited game among lists of the company's best games, alongside the rest of Square's SNES and PlayStation golden age. Secondly, unlike many of Japan's other non-localized greats, the game actually had a series in which to enter had it been ported to the United States; the third game in the Mana series, the previous two games had found popularity in the United States under the titles Final Fantasy Adventure and Secret of Mana, both titles that would be among the top ten for almost any other company.
So why did Seiken Densetsu 3 never see an American release? A variety of issues contributed, and to this date fans argue over who deserves the most blame. Most notably, the game was too large for the smaller SNES cartridges used in the United States, and by the time technology stateside had caught up the genre had moved on to full-3D releases. The popularity of the game in Japan, combined with the general popularity in the United States of anything with the word 'Square' on it, though, made Seiken Densetsu 3 arguably the hottest import commodity ever.
If you were to ask a significant sample of video game fans what game is Square's best, every single one of the top eight on this list would likely receive a warm reception and significant support. Square created so many beloved hits in gaming's biggest genre during the 1990s that, as mentioned before, coming to a consensus on the best game the company has created is impossibility. Every single one of these top eight games would be the #1 game for nearly any other company.
Starting us off among these top eight is an early example of Square's willingness to collaborate; from its merger with chief competitor Enix to its production of the Kingdom Hearts series, Square has always shown a unique willingness to collaborate with other major players in the industry, and in many ways that can be traced back to this 1996 release. Super Mario RPG saw the union of two of gaming's biggest heavyweights: Mario, arguably the biggest franchise in video game history, would enter gaming's new biggest genre with the genre's most esteemed developer manning the development, overseen by one of the industry's greatest individuals, Shigeru Miyamoto. The game was so successful it spawned an entire series of Mario RPGs. What might be most interesting, though, is that the collaboration was so short-lived: Super Mario RPG was among the last games Square would release for a Nintendo console before jumping ship to Sony's PlayStation for the next console generation in one of the greatest coups in video game history. Had Square stuck with Nintendo, the RPG genre, the console developers, and the industry in general would likely be very different.
In video game development, the term 'killer game' refers to a game so good that it inspires people to buy the console for which the game is developed. Once purchased, the owner of the console will likely buy other games and make the console a general success, but the console needs a critical mass of killer games to get the fans to buy the console in the first place. Throughout its history, Square has demonstrated a unique ability to release killer games for several console generations, typically within the Final Fantasy series. After jumping to the PlayStation for the fifth console generation, Square continued its killer game-developing ways with its first major PlayStation 2 release, Final Fantasy X.
By the time Final Fantasy X came around, Square had been well ensconced as the industry's most popular developer of RPGs for quite some time. Oftentimes, with such high expectations, a company can see its fortunes suddenly reverse, but Square managed to handle them beautifully as Final Fantasy X has gone on to be seen by many as one of the best games ever created. The absence of a major hardware advancement (akin to the 2D to 3D jump between the third and fourth generation) forced Square to find other ways to blow its own past products out of the water and sell the new PlayStation 2 system, and the gorgeous visuals of the new game more than did the trick. Even among the game's detractors (which includes me), it is difficult to argue against Final Fantasy X as one of the most beautiful games of all time.
The type of collaboration that Square initiated with Super Mario RPG met its fruition, in many ways, with the release of Kingdom Hearts. Arguably Square's second-biggest PlayStation 2 release (after the aforementioned Final Fantasy X), Kingdom Hearts can easily claim one of the most bizarre premises in video game history. Partnering with Disney, Square made Disney's cast of otherwise-affable characters into legitimate RPG heroes, wielding weapons and engaging in combat in ways that would blow the mind of parents and grandparents worldwide that grew up with the classic cartoons based around these characters. I was only peripherally interested in the video game industry and RPGs in general at the time of Kingdom Hearts' release, but I desperately wish I could have seen the reaction it met when first announced, before our collective perception was clouded by how flawlessly Square executed the game.
Judging from the popularity of the game and the series that has ensued, it cannot be argued that Square did a masterful job of executing the bizarre game concept. Square even managed to mature the concept beyond that silly appeal; after several more (increasingly oddly-named) releases, Kingdom Hearts has a lore and universe that can rival nearly any franchise, while still remaining connected to its roots in the Disney universe. With Disney's recent acquisition of LucasFilm, I know I am now the only one desperately hoping to see Sephiroth and Darth Vader do battle against Cloud and Luke Skywalker in the next release.
The previous three entries have all built on Square's reputation as the greatest developer of Japanese-style RPGs of all time; but in order for those games to capitalize on that reputation, Square had to have achieved that reputation in the first place. How did they achieve that reputation? The top five games on this list are, in my opinion, the foundation of Square's wildly solid reputation in the industry. As stated before, these five games could be rearranged in any order; they are not only Square's five greatest games ever, but five of the greatest games ever developed by anyone.
First among these is the original, the game that started it all: Final Fantasy. When I first drafted this list, I actually placed Final Fantasy at #1 in order to use its historical significance to justify its top placement and avoid having to make a controversial choice as to Square's true top game. Final Fantasy was responsible for popularizing the Japanese RPG genre and giving Square enough of a foothold to dominate the industry for over ten years; in terms of historical significance, it holds a spot alongside Super Mario Bros., Pong, and The Legend of Zelda. The only knock against the game, and the reason why I list it down at #5, is that in many ways it was a rip-off of Dragon Quest. Most of the game's appeal had already been explored by Enix's franchise, and Final Fantasy was arguably just in the right place at the right time.
With a company as popular as Square, nearly every decision I make in this list is almost certain to meet some significant opposition; I would venture to guess, however, that putting Chrono Trigger "all the way down" at #4 will be the second most-criticized decision I make here. If one were to conduct a poll of the greatest games of all time by any developer (something I actually plan to do in the very near future), I would almost guarantee that Chrono Trigger would finish in the top three, alongside Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If it's one of the top three games of all time, how can it only be Square's fourth-best game?
Because, as mentioned before, with a library as good as Square's, a consensus opinion is impossible. Chrono Trigger was a great game, giving the video game industry one of its most intriguing plots, advanced graphical and battle systems, and unique overall structures. The time travel element of the game was a dramatic shift from the sometimes-stale RPG formula, and the dynamic battlefields and team-based attacks presented a much-needed variation on the classic RPG battle system without completely up-ending it (as Final Fantasy Tactics and the Mana series did). The only knock I, personally, have against the game is that, unlike Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy Tactics, the game has not (in my opinion) aged quite as well, with its plot lacking the maturity to keep it a relevant player. Now, someone pass me my flame shield.
The top eight games on this list are, in my opinion, the most inarguable must-haves for a list of Square games. The top five are the games that could all have a very legitimate claim to the top spot overall. The top three games, though, are the games I would describe as timeless. All these games are the all-time greats, but these top three are those games that are just as appealing today only for their internal merits without any disclaimer necessary regarding the time of release, console capabilities, or state of the industry. These three are gaming's Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello of the video game industry.
First among these is Final Fantasy VI, the game cursed to live in the shadow of the next game in the series for all eternity. I had the pleasure of waiting to experience Final Fantasy VI late in my gaming career, at an age when I had actually experienced enough of the RPG genre to appreciate just how ahead-of-its-time Final Fantasy VI was. Every single element, from the graphical immersion to the advanced battle and equipment system to the incredibly mature cast of characters, have remained almost unequalled in the modern industry. Above all of these things, though, the plot and score stand out. Final Fantasy VI told a story unlike anything the video game industry had ever seen, and to this day it remains responsible for what I would consider the best video game track in history, Aria di Mezzo Carattere.
Lest I hear cries of "fanboy!" for my #1 selection for this list, let me make this clear in no uncertain terms: my favorite video game of all time is Final Fantasy Tactics (and for the record, my favorite main-series Final Fantasy game is Final Fantasy IX, which isn't even on this list!). Like Final Fantasy VI, I had the pleasure of experiencing Final Fantasy Tactics relatively recently in my game-playing career, and it blew any nostalgia-tinged memories I had of older games out of the water.
Final Fantasy Tactics has so many strong elements that this short write-up cannot even start to do it justice, but the one element that stands out above all else is the game's plot. The plot of Final Fantasy Tactics is not simply notable among Square's releases, among strategy RPGs or the broader category of RPGs as a whole, or among the entire video game industry; I would venture to say that the plot of Final Fantasy Tactics is one of the greatest plots ever written in any medium. It singlehandedly proved to me that video games were capable of competing with literature, film, and theater in their ability to create compelling and moving stories, and what's more, that games could actually push past the limitations of those other mediums through their ability to more personally involve the viewer. To this day, Final Fantasy Tactics remains unequaled in my eyes, and it managed to accomplish all that in a somewhat opaque genre with arguably outdated graphics and a somewhat ripped-off game structure.
If you loaded this list, scrolled down to the number one entry, and started reading there, stop and go back. If you did that here, you'll likely miss many of the important elements referenced above regarding the order of these rankings. You also missed that Final Fantasy VII is neither my favorite game nor my favorite Final Fantasy game, relevant details if you intend to go accuse me of blind fanboyism. Done? Ok, good.
In the previous several entries, I described how Square games often meet various challenging roles. They are killer games, like Final Fantasy X and Chrono Trigger. They are timeless works of art, like Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy Tactics. They are wildly entertaining, like Super Mario RPG and Kingdom Hearts. They are revolutionary in changing the industry, like Final Fantasy. Only one game, though, manages to be all these things at once, and that game is Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII played an unquestionable role in revolutionizing the gaming industry, taking RPGs to the new 3D design layout. The plot of the game is internally solid, pulling in gamers today just as it did fifteen years ago. The story it tells and the characters it introduces are as timeless as any Square product, achieving a level of cultural penetration other entire franchises need dozens of releases to achieve. And, as an early PlayStation release, it is the very definition of a killer game, almost singlehandedly establishing the PlayStation as the go-to console for RPGs for an entire decade. Square has created many great games, but Final Fantasy VII is the best in nearly every category.
Honorable Mentions: Xenogears, Secret of Mana, Romancing SaGa, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy Legend, Final Fantasy Legend II, Final Fantasy Legend III, Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy Adventure, Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy XI, Romancing SaGa 2, 3-D WorldRunner, Apple Town Story, Hanjuku Hero, Secret of Evermore, Rudra no Hiho, Einhänder, Parasite Eve, Legend of Mana, Blue Wing Blitz.
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Square experienced a dominance of the industry that is nearly unrivaled by any other developer in gaming history; by my estimation, only Nintendo has ever experienced such a prolonged dominance, and even they did not deliver as many beloved titles in a short span of time as Square did throughout the 1990s. Through this period of dominance, Square established itself as one of gaming's most recognizable brands; stamping a game with the Square logo guaranteed a release with fanfare, significant sales, and a chance to compete with the biggest titles in the industry. As mentioned earlier in this list, I plan to soon compile a list of the best games of all time as voted by users, and I would almost guarantee that a significant and disproportionate portion of the upper end of that list will be Square products. Armed with that level of recognition, Square merged in 2003 with longtime competitor Square-Enix; although the merger was largely mutual, Square came out on the upper end, comprising the majority of the new company's employees and executives. The merger of two of the industry's largest and most successful companies (Square a developer and publisher, Enix almost exclusively a publisher) was expected to launch the corporation into an entire new echelon of success, but unfortunately, it seems the company's golden years are behind it – but that is a topic for another week. Next week, to be specific.
If you’d like to join in on the discussion of this list, I invite you to the Top 10 List discussion board, linked on this page. You’re also welcome to contact me directly via the information in my contributor profile, or to come by either of the web sites that co-host these lists, DDJGames.com or GamingSymmetry.com. If you have any suggestions for what company I should review next, please let me know!
List by DDJ (11/20/2012)
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