By 1998, Squaresoft was rolling in the cash generated by Final Fantasy VII and essentially became the most powerful third-party developer in the world. The genuine and supreme EA/Activision/Ubisoft of its day.
The only difference between the powers-that-be in the modern world and those back then was that the budget of video games in general remained relatively small. Squaresoft could sink a ton of money into its major hits like Final Fantasy VIII and IX and yet still have enough staff and resources left over to get really crazy in between the cracks. Because of this, the late-90’s are somewhat defined by Squaresoft’s multi-faced and absolutely batty approach to game development, in that the company wasn’t afraid to try anything, impede on anyone’s turf, or just crank out crazy, experimental games you’d never expect the AAA developers of today to make.
For example, Chocobo Racing was an obvious move to steal some of Nintendo’s success with Mario Kart, and the greatest achievement of this movement was Parasite Eve, a survival horror RPG obviously created to counter Capcom’s success with Resident Evil. Squaresoft tried its hand at fighting games with Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring, SHMUPs with Einhander, and even more realistic racing games with Driving Emotion Type-S once the PlayStation 2 rolled around.
Aside from Parasite Eve of course, no game stands out better in my memory than our Guess the Game selection today. Squaresoft had no intention of taking second place in the action/adventure genre and clearly had The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time directly in its sights when creating this title. Needless to say, Nintendo’s seminal classic trounced all over it, but nobody can say there is any shame in coming up shy against one of the most revolutionary titles of all time.
Instead, this game stands the test of time well enough on its own, not needing the success its competitor saw to remain a cult-classic in the hearts of those who love it. Squaresoft had all the basics for a solid Zelda-clone in place, but it exceeded them with the exceptional development and production value it was known for at the time, making it so much more than just an afterthought that loomed in the shadow.
Everything about this game was ahead of its time from the voice-acted dialogue (not a guarantee in 1998), the night/day system in which townsfolk have genuine schedules to keep (take that Bethesda!), to the challenging boss fights that almost tapped into the spirit of the NES era!
On the English release front, Squaresoft absolutely killed it with the voice acting and created a world with lovable characters and stupidly charming food puns everywhere. Dungeons were laid out nicely, power-ups flowed with excellent pacing, our blue haired hero could steal the abilities of his foes, and my favorite mechanic of the lot was rescuing the castle staff members who were held captive throughout the world.
Each rescued hostage granted our hero a new ability, added to the background music at the castle, or any other random little tidbits, giving more reason to seek out these people than just for the sake of being a completionist.
In that regards though, I have no shame in admitting I bought all of the in-game action figures every time I fired up a new playthrough.
Squaresoft’s marvelous little action game first crawled into my life through a demo disc tucked into Final Fantasy VIII, and I ended up loving it so much more in the long run. It still holds up today, and one of the great crimes of the gaming world is that it hasn’t been given a second chance on digital distribution channels. My guess is voice acting contacts are holding it back, so unless Square Enix follows in the footsteps of Capcom and settles those, we’ll likely never see this criminally underrated cult-classic pop up in any official capacity ever again.