Final Fantasy is one of the most widely recognizable Japanese role-playing games of all time. For over thirty-three years, Final Fantasy has helped define many aspects of the genre: deep storytelling, addictive combat, and quality content. Most recently, on April 10, 2020, Square-Enix released the Final Fantasy VII Remake exclusively for the Playstation 4.
Since its first release on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987, the art direction of Final Fantasy has been one of its key features that have attracted audiences. Now in modern-day, the graphics are far more advanced than the early days with pixel art. But Final Fantasy VII was the first title to shift the franchise from 2D to 3D.
Comparison image of Final Fantasy VII (1993) and Final Fantasy VII Remake (2020)
Quality aesthetics in design and art direction matters because it’s essential to attracting customers. The value of a product increases when time, careful planning, and effort is implemented during development. As designers, it’s necessary that users visually enjoy their experience, so every time they have a “Wow moment.”
Art direction in video games is no exception. Games are made to be fun, and art direction at its core is making games look fun. Every little detail placed within scenes needs to impact the audience. In some instances, long-running video game franchises have had to leap from 2D pixel art to 3D computer graphics to adapt to the ever-growing industry standards.
One of the greatest video games to take advantage of the new age of hardware was Final Fantasy VII.
Leaping its 2D pixel art to 3D computer graphics was no simple task. Noticing the necessity of adapting to industry standards and delivering quality content that the series is known for, Square Enix developed an art department. With Final Fantasy VII, the world would take a step closer into bringing the compelling storytelling of games and movies together.
Twenty-five-year-old Yusuke Naora would become the art director for the game and department. Scenes in FFVII would transition seamlessness between gameplay and cinematic cutscenes. One of the most iconic scenes is in the introduction.
The camera begins focused on one of the main protagonists, Aerith, in a dark alley. Slowly, the camera zooms out to show a sprawling metropolitan city before zooming in towards an on moving train. At the time, this form of storytelling wasn’t previously seen in video games.
Yusuke Naora had the challenging task of taking his 2D illustrations and adapt them to 3D art. Having little to no experience creating the art in 3D, Square Enix had to outsource professionals from outside of the company to help develop the computer graphics.
During development, Naora would improve his talents to successfully recreate his art in 3D to contribute to the final product. Nora mentions, “...creating 2D sprites is a skill to be able to portray pixels organized across a screen. As the advancements in technology improved, the requirements to display details became necessary to push the hardware to the limit.”
Final Fantasy 7 took the franchise in new directions for the better when transitioning from Nintendo to Sony. The PlayStation allowed Square’s flagship title to expand the scope of their project, with Final Fantasy VII being burned onto three separate discs. Along with the series veteran illustrator Yoshitaka Amano and Tetsuya Nomura, the game’s characters and environments were brought to life.
Characters of Final Fantasy VII from left to right: Cid Highwind, Cai Sith, Tifa Lockhart, Cloud Strife, Red XIII, Aerith Gainsborough, Barret Wallace, and Sephiroth.
When developing the art direction, Naora is inspired by his surroundings that impact his life. The series took a darker tone and a more action-themed tone. Instead of the typical medieval settings of stone castles, hi-tech buildings, and technology, reminiscent Japan’s architecture took center stage. What makes FFVII is its steampunk art style with traces of sci-fi while remaining true to the series humble origins.
The story of FFVII begins in Midgar, where a corporation known as Shinra is absorbing the planet’s life force to power electricity. The characters in 3D brought the story to life and made the characters much more relatable than in the previous entries. Outstanding character design gave each protagonist a unique personality that separates one from the other.
Fully pre-rendered backgrounds and blocky polygons were a technical achievement in graphics.
Battles looked larger than life and gave each new encounter depth and atmosphere.
The overworld took on a new perspective and gave players a vast look at what lays ahead.
3D animations would help take the storytelling of video games to a new level.
With every new release, the quality in craftsmanship as increased along with every other aspect that has made FF a renowned franchise. Final Fantasy continues to pave the way for other RPGs to take inspiration. Square Enix recently unveiled that Final Fantasy XVI is approaching for the Playstation 5. Even though Yusuke Naora no longer works at Square Enix, his style has remained a staple.
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