The Evolution of Final Fantasy Battle Systems – Part 3: 3D Popularity

Following the release of Final Fantasy VI in 1994, Square Co. initially intended for Final Fantasy VII to be another 2D entry for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. However, much of the development staff that would be working on this next Final Fantasy game instead shifted to development for Chrono Trigger – which went on to become one of the most well-regarded video games ever made. So, Square instead looked to the future for their flagship franchise. In anticipation of the 3D era, they invested massive resources into a team of over 120 programmers, designers and artists to make their leap into the next generation – this would reportedly be the most expensive video game production of its time, costing upwards of $45 million to make.

In the first and second parts of our look into the battle and leveling systems of Final Fantasy, we focused on the NES and SNES games in the series. Here, we dive head-first into the world of 3D gaming and see how the Active Time Battle system introduced in Final Fantasy IV translated to the three unforgettable PlayStation games in the franchise. Because of memory constraints present in the Nintendo 64’s cartridges, Square Co. Jumped ship to Sony’s CD-based device, and they haven’t looked back since.


Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII was released for the PlayStation in Japan during January 1997, and hit western shores later that same year. It’s the first game in the series since the original to have the proper Roman numerals in the title outside of its home country, and for many, it was their first look into this ubiquitous genre. A shift to 3D wasn’t the only major change that Final Fantasy VII brought with it. Instead of the high fantasy focus with light-futuristic elements that the first six games in the series adhered to, Final Fantasy VII was set in a grittier, more modern world than ever before. It featured energy corporations, sprawling metropolitan cities, motor vehicles, space flight, genetic engineering and more. It was, in so many different ways, a completely new chapter for the franchise.

Final Fantasy VII revolved around a cast of nine characters: Cloud, a mercenary with a complicated past and troublesome memory, Barret, the leader of an eco-terrorist group looking to stop the Shinra Electric Power Company from destroying their planet Gaia, Tifa, Cloud’s childhood friend and an intensely strong martial artist, Aeris, a young woman descended from a nearly-extinct ancient race, Red XIII (Nanaki), an intelligent beast that had been experimented on by Shinra, Cait Sith, a talking cat who initially spies on AVALANCE for Shinra, Cid, a bitter pilot who was supposed to be the first man to reach space, the optional character Yuffie, a young ninja with a penchant for stealing Materia, and the second optional character Vincent, a former member of the Turks, Shinra’s personal muscle. However, Vincent switched sides after his love Lucrecia was experimented on and was forced to give birth to Sephiroth, who became a SOLDIER for Shinra that went mad and attempted to destroy Gaia after finding out about the genetic experiments that created him.

Though each of these characters were designed to reflect classic Final Fantasy classes (Cloud is a Knight, Aeris a White Mage, etc.,) none of their stats or growth forced them into any particular role. Instead, Final Fantasy VII introduced the Materia system. Materia were spheres produced by Gaia’s Lifestream that granted users magic-like abilities. There were five Materia types: Magic Materia could cast spells like thunder or cure, Summon Materia called upon powerful creatures like Ifrit or Bahamut, Command Materia added abilities like Steal or Double Cut, Support Materia enhanced the abilities of other Materia that they were combined with, and Independent Materia granted support abilities like Counter Attack or HP Plus. These Materia were equipped by members of the party by inserting them into weapons or bracelets – a third equipment type, accessories, weren’t compatible with Materia. Though this seemed limiting at first, the Materia system proved to be both accessible and complex to fans and first-timers alike.

Each weapon or piece of armor had a certain number of Materia slots. Some were single, disconnected slots, and some were joined together by a line. These conjoined slots allowed support Materia to combine their powers with others. For instance, if All Materia were slotted with the Cure Materia, the caster could target every party member with a curative spell instead of just one. Or if the “Steal as Well” Materia were combined with the Fire Materia, the caster would automatically steal from an enemy whenever they used a Fire spell. Materia leveled up independently from characters, with Ability Points gained from battles going towards their growth. Leveling up Materia improved their spells or functionality for the equipped character. If a Materia reached its max level, it spawned a new Materia of the same type, but that Materia would start at square one. Materia also changed character’s stats when equipped, but not by a large margin – the Restore Materia, for instance, improved magic and max MP, but lowered strength and max HP. Materia could be equipped and unequipped by any party member, allowing any character to become a healer, attacker, or anything in between with a few simple changes in their Materia line-up.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to bring the battle line-up down to three party members at a time. However, like Final Fantasy VI before it, party members could freely be selected to be part of the active line-up at any time in the overworld menu. If a character participated in a battle, they received full XP, but if they were in the reserves, they’d still receive half those points. FF7 also introduced Limit Breaks, an evolution of FF6’s Desperation Attacks. This time, however, instead of needing to be in critical health, characters had their own Limit Break meters right next to their ATB gauges, which filled up as they received damage. Once it filled, their Limit command replaced the Attack command, and the character could perform unique Limit techniques depending on what Limit Breaks they’ve unlocked, and which Limit Break levels they’ve equipped in the menu. Most characters had four Limit Break levels, with the first three typically granting two separate abilities, and the final giving one exceptionally powerful attack. These subsequent levels required characters to either use their Limit Breaks a certain number of times, or defeat a specific number of enemies to unlock. The final Limit Break for characters was learned by using a unique, difficult to obtain item.

Final Fantasy VII has become known for its endearing characters, grand and opulent plot, and (at the time) state-of-the-art graphic and cinematic qualities. There were roughly 40 minutes of CGI cut scenes in the game, combined with dynamic camera movement during battles. Though the character models outside of battle were oddly proportioned and didn’t match their in-battle or CGI counterparts, the game feelt like a complete thought, executed by some of the greatest talents in the industry. FF7 became one of the most famous video games ever made, selling over 11 million units worldwide and popularizing the JRPG genre outside of Japan. The series would never be quite the same after this juggernaut was released, and Square Co. had their work cut out for them in trying to deliver a worthy successor.

Final Fantasy VIII

Following the ubiquitous Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII had a lot to live up to. Instead of playing it safe, Square Co. introduced some extreme changes to this unique installment. Final Fantasy VIII was released during February 1999 in Japan and in the autumn of the same year for the west. Like its predecessor, FF8 took place somewhere between a modern and futuristic setting, with most of its cast coming from a high school-like background. The world of Final Fantasy VIII was pleat with automobiles, floating cities, firearms and more. It took risks nobody expected with the franchise, and though many feel it’s one of the weaker entries in the franchise, many find it to be one of the most exceptional Final Fantasy games ever made.

The story of Final Fantasy VIII began at Balamb Garden, a school mostly inhabited by orphans who were training to become mercenaries called SeeDs. FF8 featured six primary characters and five characters that were temporarily playable. The game’s protagonist, Squall, was a quiet and aloof SeeD operative who wielded a deadly gunblade. His love interest, Rinoa, was a member of the freedom fighter group the Forest Owls. Quistis was a blue mage of sorts and an instructor at Balamb Garden. Zell was a hot-headed SeeD who was trained in the martial arts. Selphie was a jovial young seed who always aimed to keep the party in a cheery mood. Irvine was a sharpshooter SeeD who was both girl-crazy and an unmatched talent. Though they initially didn’t know it, each of these characters shared a complicated past and knew each other intimately as children. Throughout the game, the player would switch to a smaller party comprised of three men: Laguna, Kiros and Ward. These three appeared in Squall’s dreams, though in reality Squall actually inhabited Laguna’s body in the past, a man who turned out to be Squall’s father. The whole story revolved around time travel, consciousness swapping, and all-in-all, it was an insanely convoluted tale, albeit one with a surprisingly heartfelt core.

Final Fantasy VIII continued to use the Active Time Battle system from the last four Final Fantasy games, but did away with many other series staples. For the first time since Final Fantasy II, FF8 had no Magic Points system, instead it adopted a new means of obtaining and casting magic called the Draw system. In this system, the player drew various spells like fire or poison from enemies, overworld draw points, and even produced spells using items. Once drawn, spells worked hand in hand with the Junction system. Here, characters joined with summoned creatures called Guardian Forces who augmented their stats and could be called upon for help in battle.

Each Guardian Force allowed for different drawn spells to be joined with particular character stats or abilities. For example, when a character joined with the thunderbird Quezacotl, they could augment their HP and Magic stats. So, if the player had 100 cure spells drawn, those could be joined with the HP stat and give a significant boost to the character’s health – more of a boost than an offensive spell junction would. If the player joined 50 sleep spells with the Magic stat, that would increase as well, but not as much as if it would have had the player used 100 sleep spells. Some GFs allowed the character to equip elemental attack and defense spells, so if a bunch of fire spells were joined with the elemental attack stat, that character’s normal attack would then be imbued with fire and could harm ice enemies significantly. If 100 poison spells were joined with an elemental defense, then that character would be 100% immune to poison attacks from enemies. Each GF also held a different affinity for each character – Selphie joined well with Carbuncle, Squall and Diablos were a wonderful pairing, etc. Battles also yielded Ability Points that went toward abilities and stat boosts that each GF was capable of granting upon mastering each specific ability or boost. It was a complex system, but it was an exceptionally deep one if players invested the time and energy required to fully utilize it.

Because this system so heavily impacted a character’s stats, there was no armor in the game, and the only item that could be equipped to the characters were their unique weapons. Squall’s gunblade, for instance, was capable of unleashing critical hits on command if the player pressed the R1 button just as Squall swung at enemies, mimicking his pulling of the gunblade’s trigger. Instead of simply purchasing new weapons at stores throughout the game, weapons were constructed by combining materials and using recipes found in magazines scattered across the world. These weapons were few and far between, however, and very little micromanaging of equipment was present in FF8. In fact, many systems were pushed to the side in favor of the complex Junction and GF systems. Rows were removed from the game entirely, traditional levels and Experience Points were still prevalent but offered relatively little stat growth, and Limit Breaks were much more like Final Fantasy VI’s Desperation Attacks, where each character had special moves that could only be unleashed if they were in critical health (which, if players were careful enough, rarely happened). Character classes disappeared, but GFs became essential to their growth. The only consistent battle command was Attack, and all others were dictated by the Junction system and GF growth. Treasure chests vanished from FF8 entirely, but it included a deceptively complex and addictive card game called Triple Triad. For every aspect that was slighted, another element of the game shone.

Final Fantasy VIII was an odd beast. It included an undeniably complex leveling and development system that polarized fans. It told a bizarre and largely nonsensical story that ultimately yielded a dramatic and fulfilling ending – though, many fans still think Squall was dead almost the whole game. It did away with numerous franchise staples and replaced them with controversial new mechanics. With Final Fantasy VIII, Square Co. proved they weren’t afraid to experiment wildly with their flagship franchise, and though opinions are still torn on the title to this day, it broke various sales records upon release. Square would soon return the franchise to its roots with resounding success, but they would continue this thread of experimentation well into the future.

Final Fantasy IX

In early 2000, less than a year after the release of Final Fantasy VIII, Square Co. held their Square Millennial Event, announcing not one, not two, but three numbered entries into the Final Fantasy series. First up was Final Fantasy IX, a last hurrah for the PlayStation that hearkened back to the classic, high-fantasy games prior to Final Fantasy VII. It was reportedly in a finished state prior to the event, but was postponed to release that summer to avoid competing with Enix’s Dragon Quest VII. They also announced Final Fantasy X for the PlayStation 2 for release in the Spring of 2001, and the MMO Final Fantasy XI for later that year. It was one of the biggest events in Square’s history, and kicked off the new millennium with style.

Final Fantasy IX was developed in Hawaii, built by a team comprised of Japanese and American designers. Because of this, most of its development team was different from the one which made Final Fantasy VIII – in fact, both games were being developed in tandem, and Final Fantasy IX was initially thought of as a side-story, and wasn’t even going to be given a proper Roman numeral. Many members of Final Fantasy teams from the NES and SNES games were given high-ranking positions in the making of FF9: the ATB designer Hiroyuki Ito became Director, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Shinji Hashimoto came on as Producers, and the character designer for Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Tetsuya Nomura, was busy working on Final Fantasy X, so other classic character designers stepped in.

The game was meant to be a culmination of the 2D Final Fantasy games, eschewing the futuristic settings of FF7 and FF8 and embracing a medieval world called Gaia. The cast of characters were designed to specifically hearken back to archetypal Final Fantasy classes: Zidane was a thief, Vivi a Black Mage, Dagger a White Mage, Steiner a Knight, Freya a Dragoon, Quina a Blue Mage, and Amarant a Monk. However, knowing these archetypes came with loaded assumptions about personalities and gameplay, the designers flipped the script and gave the characters deep and emotional stories. Zidane was a bit of a womanizer, but good at heart. Vivi was an artificial weapon of war with a limited lifespan. Dagger was a princess that desired to be free. Steiner was loyal to a fault but bumbled about from time to time. Freya was noble and desired nothing more than to be reunited with her love, Sir Fratley. Quina just wanted to eat everything in sight. Amarant was a brash bandit hungry for power. Unlike the two preceding games, these characters had set classes and roles to adhere to, but the ATB system from the both of them had returned.

Final Fantasy IX restored the row system absent from FF8, and brought the battling line-up count back to four. The Trance system mimicked the Limit Breaks from FF7, building up a Trance meter each time a character was attacked. Once the meter filled, the player could choose to enter a trance, which had different effects on different characters. Zidane used Dynes, eight powerful abilities that could be unleashed if he held the corresponding ability in his normal state (for instance, if he learned the ability Thievery, he could use the Dyne Grand Lethal, his most powerful attack), Vivi used Double Black, allowing him to use two consecutive spells in one turn while in a state of Trance, and so on.

Though many spells and abilities were inherent to these characters, many could be learned by the game’s new equipment-skill acquisition system. In Final Fantasy IX, each character could equip a weapon, piece of headwear, arm protection, body protection and accessory. Weapons (like Steiner’s swords) could typically only be wielded by a specific character, while most other equipment could be used by everybody, save some gender-specific items. Each piece of equipment taught one or more different abilities, and some items would only teach certain characters certain things. For instance, the Moonstone accessory could teach Dagger the Shell spell, but not the Beast Killer ability, and the Rubber Helm could teach Steiner the Minus Strike ability.

When they’re equipped, characters could automatically use the spells or abilities that any given weapon granted, but they required a certain amount of Ability Points gained during battle to teach the character that spell or ability permanently. If two or more pieces of equipment taught the same thing and were equipped at the same time, that skill would receive double, or even triple AP. Support abilities required magic stones drawn from a limited pool to be activated for each character, meaning the player had to decide if Amarant should use the Level Up ability that boosted the XP he gained, or if he should have Auto-Haste equipped and move that much faster on the field. These systems allowed players to put their own stamp on the game’s characters, even though they had highly defined jobs of their own, and mimicked FF6’s Magicite system in all the right ways.

Final Fantasy IX signaled the end of many eras. It was the last Final Fantasy for the original PlayStation and the final game in the mainline series to use the ATB system. It’s the last game in the series to lean heavily on European mythology and style, unless Final Fantasy XII leans far enough in that direction for some fans. Final Fantasy IX is still the highest rated game in the series, is beloved by fans both old and new, and remains series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s favorite Final Fantasy ever made. Though it has sold less than half the units that FF7 has, it became a popular beacon of what a Final Fantasy should be to gamers across the world. From this point on, the series would never be the same – constantly changing and striving towards the future.

That’s it for the three ATB Final Fantasy games for the PlayStation! Stay tuned for the fourth part of this feature, which will tackle the completely different battle systems present in the two PlayStation 2 mainline games, Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XII.