Last week, Square Enix and Disney announced a partnership that would grant exclusive rights to the Final Fantasy publisher to Marvel’s Avengers and all of its characters. Aside from Star Wars and Madden NFL over at EA, this is probably the most lucrative exclusivity deal in the video game world at the moment, and Square Enix just happened to be hitting its stride when Disney started shopping.
Like my mother used to say, “‘luck’ is where “action’ meets ‘preparation.'” And in this sense, Square Enix got about as lucky as it could get.
Everyone knows I’m a fan of Square Enix, but it hasn’t always been so. For a while there, it was a rocky ride between the publisher and myself because I was one of those old timey JRPG fans who loved the company back in the Super Nintendo and PlayStation era. Back before Kingdom Hearts and Square Enix’s attempt to break into the Western market through its purchase of Eidos. Back when Square was at the front of game development with the likes defined by Final Fantasy, Mana, and Parasite Eve as opposed to Tomb Raider and Deus Ex.
Following the merger between Square and Enix, I had been critical of the company for not taking as many risks or creating the kind of classics it used to make. Following Final Fantasy X, the game yours truly believes to be its last classic, the Square Enix merger never seemed to reach those lofty heights again. Final Fantasy struggled with the soulless “Compilation of Final Fantasy VII,” and the Final Fantasy XIII “Nova Crystallis” series, two manufactured attempts to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the late-90s. The Ivalice project fell wayside, the “World of Mana” initiative failed to produce a good game, and I’m not even sure what happened to Kingdom Hearts. Meanwhile, duds like Project Silpheed, Infinite Undiscovery, and The Last Remnant littered the landscape.
Obviously, Square and Enix, as separate entities, provided each other enough with competition in the JRPG world to bring out their strengths and inspire one another to make brilliant video games. Together, meh, the competition dried up and it felt like the single Square Enix company was stuck in a rut. Risks were needed to finally shake things up, and one opportunity raised its head when Eidos went up for sale.
Square Enix, who has worked with Eidos before on PC ports of Final Fantasy and a few other projects, bought the company in 2009 and took it in for itself. For its part, Eidos wasn’t particularly known as a great publisher or developer. For every Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver it pushed out, it also squeezed an extra Fighting Force or a… ugh… Ninja: Shadow of Darkness. And even then, Tomb Raider got stale after two or three games, Soul Reaver never became a huge hit after the first title. Eidos had the IP to succeed, but not necessarily the talent to push its franchises to the next level.
Step in Square Enix to help get it there.
From the purchase of Eidos in 2009, it became even harder to continue being a Square Enix fan. Cynicism flew abound as it felt like those classic JRPGs I fell in love with in my youth were being pushed into the background while Square Enix preferred playing with its new toys. Instead of fixing Final Fantasy, which had train-wrecked under the lengthened development of Final Fantasy XIII, Square Enix was more than happy to give Hitman and Tomb Raider a facelift. Instead of SaGa or Secret of Mana, Square Enix became a house for the likes of Deus Ex, Thief and Just Cause.
You can see where I’m getting at. Of course, it was just a smaller part of the larger trend in gaming at the time, where Western developers had clearly stolen the limelight from Japanese developers, and even the mighty Square Enix, which was the king of Japanese development throughout the late 90s, wasn’t safe from this massive shift in power. AAA development became the standard, and Square Enix needed to keep up.
For its Japanese fans, it seemed pretty satisfied in putting out a few handheld remakes on the Nintendo 3DS and DS as well as some quality games on the PSP (a retroactive discovery for me since I never owned a PSP), but it became clear that expanding its classic library on the consoles beyond its Final Fantasy XIII project was not high on Square Enix’s priority list.
However, those that were willing to look past the fact that Square Enix was sort of losing its identity to the trending times discovered that a lot of its new AAA games were really solid. In fact, they were actually better than what the typical AAA giants like EA, Activision, and Ubisoft were putting out. Just Cause 2 is one of my favorite games of the decade, the Tomb Raider reboots have been nothing short of stellar if just a little cliche. Hitman’s and Deus Ex’s resurrection can’t be called anything other than a miracle, and even Thief, which was destroyed on the critics circle, found a cult following who love its open world design.
All those years the JRPG fans felt neglected, somehow, Square Enix had pumped enough resources into a mediocre Western publisher and made superstars out of them. Crystal Dynamics enjoys a success that it hasn’t seen since the mid-90s, Avalanche Studios is now one of the most celebrated studios in the world, and Eidos doesn’t need disgusting advertisements to sell you its games anymore. Its reputation alone can get the job done.
And somewhere along the line, Square Enix shook up its management, found that interest in the JRPG was still alive and well, apologized for ignoring that fact once Bravely Default sold a million copies worldwide, and started delivering on those promises as well. Final Fantasy XV turned out great last year, and I Am Setsuna and the Bravely Default series is just what nostalgic fans of the olden days needed.
Now, Square Enix is firing on both the Japanese and Western fronts thanks to taking the time to strengthen its IP, and it is a model for how to run a video game publisher on both sides of the Pacific. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided might not have sold well, but the quality of it and the games surrounding it were enough to secure it the Avengers license. Hopefully now, those that want to play their Captain America video games, especially the kids, will discover who Square Enix is, and maybe, just maybe, they will want to go digging through three decades of amazing legacy.
And maybe, just maybe, Square Enix can spare a few of those extra “Avengers dollars” and localized SaGa: Scarlet Grace… one for the old time fans, too.