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Creator of ‘Final Fantasy’ reflects on his last game, his career and the puppetry of his works

(The Washington Post illustration; Photo by Will Ireland/Edge Magazine/Future via Getty Images)

Hironobu Sakaguchi has released what is likely to be his final video game, capping off a career so long and busy, even he needs to check Wikipedia to remember what he’s done.

“In terms of reflecting on my career, I don’t really do it that much,” the creator of the Final Fantasy series said in an interview from his Honolulu home. “Very occasionally, I might go onto Wikipedia when I need to recall some information and wonder, ‘Hey when was “Final Fantasy VI” released?’ When I look up myself, it would just list everything that I’ve worked on in some capacity. That to me is kind of a wow moment. I really have developed a lot of things! But that’s the extent of the reflection that I do.”

Today, the Apple Arcade exclusive “Fantasian” receives its second and final update, essentially the second half of Sakaguchi’s return to form to the Japanese role-playing game genre. It’s developed by Mistwalker, the studio he created after departing Square, now known as Square Enix, where he created the Final Fantasy series.

Despite creating many games during the 1980s for Square, none were a success. “Final Fantasy” was pitched as Sakaguchi’s final game, as he considered leaving game development altogether. That’s why it’s called Final Fantasy.

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Sakaguchi would go on to direct and produce nine Final Fantasy games before starting Mistwalker. And he says he sees “Fantasian” as the final game and the final collaboration between him and legendary musician and composer Nobuo Uematsu, who scored the Final Fantasy series’ most memorable tracks.

“I feel both Uematsu and I went into this almost thinking to ourselves, ‘Hey, if this were to become our last project, we want to make sure we didn’t leave anything on the table,’” Sakaguchi said. “I’m certain Uematsu will compose music in a smaller capacity, but something on this scale, 60 tracks for a game is quite a huge task.”

Uematsu’s compositions in “Fantasian” are a mix of the classic, baroque-style melodies of his earliest work fused with synthesizer sounds to match the game’s flirtations with science fiction fantasy. Sakaguchi said that, throughout his career, he hasn’t given detailed directions to Uematsu. There’s usually just an early exchange about overarching concepts and story themes; Uematsu is then left to his own devices.

“We’ve had a very unique relationship. While we’re working, we’ll have these very long email exchanges,” Sakaguchi said, specifying that casual pleasantries and updates about their lives often ended up becoming long-winded philosophical debates about the nature of life and human interaction. Some of those thoughts would feed back into the game.

The seed for the “Fantasian” project was planted several years ago, when Sakaguchi was replaying “Final Fantasy VI.” In the past decade or so, since Sakaguchi’s departure, the Final Fantasy series has become an incubator for new ideas about evolving or changing the role-playing genre. But Sakaguchi is still fond of the classic, turn-based format of the older games.

“It reminded me how much I really like this style of gameplay, and I wanted to go back to my roots,” Sakaguchi said. “Let’s be honest, I’m nearing the end of my video game development career. So I thought, ‘I’m going to try to develop something in a style I know really, really well and personally like to play.’ ”

“Fantasian” is the marquee title for Apple Arcade’s recent resurgence. It’s been well-received by players, and at about 100 hours of story and gameplay, it’s a significant value add for Apple’s gaming subscription service.

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Aside from being a compelling game with an interesting battle system, all the backgrounds and settings in “Fantasian” are real-world, 3-D dioramas photographed to give the game a sense of place, which is evocative of the Renaissance-style painterly backgrounds of “Final Fantasy VI.” The 3-D video game characters, monsters and other items are then digitally superimposed over the dioramas.

I told Sakaguchi that since I was young, I always looked at Final Fantasy games as digital puppet shows. The limited expressions of the 2-D sprites would exaggerate emotion, much as they would in an old-time puppet show, or even Japanese Kabuki theater. This aesthetic comparison was only heightened during the memorable opera house scene of “Final Fantasy VI.”

“The diorama backdrop paired with 3-D models is not directly tied to ‘Final Fantasy V’ or ‘[Final Fantasy] VI’, but the puppet show element — there’s a strong connection you can draw there,” Sakaguchi said. “That was something I shared with the rest of the development team very early on as we were prototyping concepts. Yes, there are certain cut scenes and camera cuts where we get a little fancy, but the overall feeling or sensation is a puppet show. I’m really glad that you specifically chose the word ‘puppet show,’ because that is kind of what we were going for.”

Sakaguchi said Mistwalker was lucky that they completed much of the diorama work before the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, as the game’s development required staff to be together in a physical space. The second half of “Fantasian” was finished much sooner than anyone anticipated after the first part’s release in April since much of the programming and development of systems was completed as work-from-home projects.

“I think there was a lot more energy coming from the team members because they were able to work in their own environments,” he said.

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Even if Sakaguchi may be at the end of a long, storied career, it wasn’t until “Fantasian” that he was able to achieve a long-held goal: to make a tribute to the 1996 Hollywood blockbuster film “Independence Day.” He was captivated by the scene in which the alien spaceship blows up the White House, which was achieved using practical effects and explosives.

Sakaguchi’s staff created small indentations in one of the game’s final areas to present the image of a magical explosion happening from within the structure.

He said his team was initially reluctant to blow up the beautiful dioramas and asked him if he really wanted to do this.

Sakaguchi grinned from ear to ear as he recalled, “I said yes! This is something that’s been a long time in the making for me, knowing it’s one of the last opportunities I can do this.”

If “Fantasian” truly is his last game, Sakaguchi’s final fantasy ends not with a whimper, but with a bang.

“It’s been a dream of mine,” he said.

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