Game Changers: Volume 23 – Final Fantasy Tactics

The RPG world as we know it is composed of several sub-genres, mostly focused on the difference in battle systems: menu-driven or traditional, action, tactical, hack and slash, roguelikes. The first three are, by far the broadest and most common categories with action RPGs being the ones most en vogue at present, and menu-driven RPGs being the oldest. But what about tactical RPGs? Perhaps not everyone knows this, but they do indeed have a long lineage and an impressive pedigree, one dating back to the NES era.

Yeah, I admit it... I tried the game because of the words 'final' and 'fantasy.' What of it?
Yeah, I admit it… I tried the game because of the words ‘final’ and ‘fantasy.’ What of it?

If I were in Japan right now, writing this article for a Japanese audience, it would be a very different beast. For one thing it would be written in Kana and Kanji, but aside from that, it would also begin with Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi (Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragons and the Blade of Light). Released in Japan back in 1990 for the NES, it can easily be considered the grandfather of tactical RPGs. Alas, it was never released outside of Japan until this year when a DS remake brought us Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon. In fact, it wasn’t until the seventh iteration of the series that gamers outside of Japan got a taste of Fire Emblem at all. Tragic really. For that reason, the history of the TRPG in North America is a rather different one than in Japan.

One of the earliest TRPGs to make it over here was Shining Force for the Sega Genesis in 1993. Nintendo still dominated that era of gaming, however, and the TRPG remained a mysterious entity to many a gamer. This was especially true as the Shining series remained on Sega systems until 2003 forward, by which point it had morphed primarily into an action RPG series. For most North Americans the era of the TRPG began in the prime of the PlayStation. Quite a few began making their way over during that period, including games such as Tactics Ogre (originally for the SNES but ported to the PS1 for North America) and the Vandal Hearts series, but for many the first TRPG took the form of Final Fantasy Tactics.

'So let me get this straight... I can change my black mage into an archer?' 'Yup. Lateral career moves are the rage these days.'
‘So let me get this straight… I can change my black mage into an archer?’ ‘Yup. Lateral career moves are the rage these days.’

Square Enix knows about branding and they know that the name “Final Fantasy” can move games. That being the case, they developed a tactical RPG set in a Final Fantasy world, complete with chocobos, summoners, and black mages in peaked straw hats. It graced North American shelves in January 1998 and went on to sell 950,000 copies. Not too shabby. For many gamers it was a first introduction to the sub-genre, one I, for one, found rather confusing. How did you level grind if you were getting your tail handed to you? How did you use all those job classes? Did you really need to recruit extra characters? These are, by now, familiar conventions of tactical RPGs, but for many they were, at the time, quite new.

It’s hard to trace the immediate effect of a game like Final Fantasy Tactics, but it’s certainly worth noting that after 1998 North America started seeing a rise in the localization of TRPGs. There were ports of earlier TRPGs that had never been localized, such as the Arc the Lad Collection, which included the first three games in the series. When the PlayStation 2 and the Game Boy Advance came around, there was an influx of tactical RPGs. Fire Emblem finally made it over in 2003. Nippon Ichi began bringing over games, Disgaea first and then La Pucelle Tactics which, in Japan, had preceded Disgaea. In 2006 the Super Robot Wars series made its debut in North America. In fact existing franchises took a stab at the genre with games like Fallout Tactics, Suikoden Tactics, and more recently Wild Arms XF, though with mixed results in many cases. Suffice it to say that a genre that had once been all but unknown on this side of the Pacific, suddenly became mainstream — at least as far as the RPG world was concerned. And for many a player, it all began with Final Fantasy Tactics.

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