Hironubu Sakaguchi is more than just the creator of the Final Fantasy series, even though that is the series that will forever cement him as a visionary in the field of game design. Sakaguchi is a storyteller: his tales, worlds and characters have touched the hearts of both adults and children throughout the world and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Sakaguchi also worked on other Square series such as the Chrono Trigger games and Vagrant Story, but it was the Final Fantasy series that was the most successful and which will always be the title most closely-associated with his name.
As of June 2016, the Final Fantasy series has sold over 118 million units, making it one of the most popular video game franchises of all time and helping to define the Japanese role-playing game genre. We take a look at the visionary game designer behind the series:
Hironobu Sakaguchi was born on 25 November 1962 in Hitachi, Japan. He studied electrical engineering at Yokohama National University and it was here that his appetite for game development was stimulated.
As well as being a hardcore musician during his student years, Sakaguchi spent a lot of time playing games on his Apple II. He began learning about game content and wanted to understand every aspect of game development so he could use his own imagination to re-create something similar to the games he enjoyed playing.
After meeting Hiromichi Tanaka, he dropped out of university in 1983 and found part-time work at the video game software company, Square.
Sakaguchi’s Early Failures and First Success
During his early days at Square, Sakaguchi’s first two titles were failures. Having endured two flops, Sakaguchi started work on a new project titled “Final Fantasy,” working alongside a team of trusted friends and staff members, including series composer Nobuo Uematsu, who worked at a cassette rental store close to the studio.
The name hardly seems fitting given the huge success of the series, but back then, coupled with Square’s financial woes and the threat of bankruptcy, Sakaguchi believed it would be his final video game; if it flopped, he would return to University to continue studying.
Sakaguchi worked on the game with a team of seven core staff members. Final Fantasy was released in Japan for the Famicom in 1987, and later for USA in 1990. The game was a commercial success, and sparked the beginning of a worldwide takeover for the Final Fantasy series.
Designer, Writer, Producer, Storyteller, Visionary
The rising popularity of Final Fantasy saw Hironubu Sakaguchi quickly climb the career ladder at Square, becoming Executive Vice President in 1991, and later becoming the President of Square’s North American Division in 1995. During the development of the first Final Fantasy, Sakaguchi took on many roles, and continued to do so as the series continued.
He worked as the director on earlier Final Fantasy titles, but after the release of Final Fantasy V, Sakaguchi became interested in the technological advancements of new consoles, which presented whole new opportunities for him to explore.
Sakaguchi describes himself as a story creator and storyteller at heart. As the power of the available hardware at the time continued to grow, Sakaguchi’s role shifted from director to producer. He believes the story, game-system and art concepts are the most important elements of game design in the pre-production stage, and he would focus most of his attention working with the game-system, particularly during the transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional worlds with the release of the PlayStation and Final Fantasy VII.
He wanted to use his interest in cinema to build emotional full motion videos (in-game cutscenes), as the team’s knowledge on computer generated movie implementation was next to nothing, meaning a lot of work had to be done.
The Success of Final Fantasy
Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) are categorized by strong storylines, relatable characters and everyday themes. Sakaguchi describes sources of inspiration for the series as being the ordinary events of our lives: encounters, discoveries, disputes, compromises, betrayals and love. These everyday themes are what make the Final Fantasy series to accessible to its audience. Despite their extraordinary appearances, the characters of Final Fantasy have very real issues at their core.
Sakaguchi has revealed that his proudest creation is the first Final Fantasy game. His favourite is Final Fantasy IX, as he believes it’s the closest to his ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be. Final Fantasy IX was the last of the series to be released for the PlayStation and marked the end of an era; it was developed with the reflection of all previous entries in mind.
Sakaguchi was also strongly opposed to sequels. Despite the number of entries in the series, up until Sakaguchi’s departure from the company, there were no direct sequels to any of his games. This changed after the release of Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy movie plunged Square into severe financial difficulties.
The Final Fantasy Movie and Sakaguchi’s Departure From Square
Sakaguchi was always interested in drawing raw emotion from his audience. In 1997, Square Pictures was set up in Hawaii, teaming up a year later with Columbia Pictures with the aim of turning one of the world’s most popular video game franchises into a hit blockbuster movie. Square’s goals to unite video games and movies coupled with Sakaguchi’s desire to explore new worlds of entertainment were ambitious, and the project began to rack up a huge budget.
The final cost of the movie was $137 million – a phenomenal amount. The movie bombed and seriously injured Square’s reputation; losing approximately $94 million and placing Square in financial difficulty in the process.
Sakaguchi, presumably under pressure from the losses of his movie, stepped down from his position of Vice President in 2001. A few months later he registered a domain name for a new company, Mistwalker, and left Square for good in 2003. Since his departure, there have been numerous sequels and spin-offs to Final Fantasy entries.
Mistwalker and Life After Final Fantasy
Shortly after his departure from Square, Hironubu Sakaguchi entered a relationship with Microsoft to bring two new exclusive titles to the Xbox 360: Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey; the latter of which is considered to be the true spiritual successor the Final Fantasy series. Mistwalker went on to develop The Last Story for the Nintendo Wii, and Sakaguchi continued to work alongside Nobuo Uematsu, allowing him to score the music for all three releases.
Sakaguchi’s legacy was truly recognized when he received a lifetime achievement award at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards in 2015. Sakaguchi’s latest work was mobile RPG Terra Battle, released on iOS and Android devices in 2014. He is currently working on an unannounced title, which is rumored to be reminiscent of his work on the Final Fantasy series.
Outside of video game development, Sakaguchi lives in Hawaii, where he enjoys his time windsurfing. Although the Final Fantasy series will forever be attached to his name, he seems tired of the legacy that’s attached to him. For a man that strived to push the boundaries of the technology he was working with and put every ounce of his energy into creating new projects, it’s unfortunate that his latest games haven’t shared the same success as Final Fantasy.
As a parody video that preceded his appearance at the GDC awards hilariously shows, Hironubu Sakaguchi seems trapped by the success of Final Fantasy series.
Failure to escape that success threatens to hold his future projects to unreachable stardom, but despite all of this, Sakaguchi will continue to approach each new project of his with all the energy that it may be his last; his true Final Fantasy.
Check out our previous installment of Know Your Game Designers about Hideo Kojima here.
- Lead image: Alpha Coders