The 1980s were a good time for video games, a period of innovation when many of the medium’s biggest franchises were born. Mario Bros. introduced its iconic plumbing siblings to the world in 1983. In 1986 Legend of Zelda allowed gamers to adventure like never before.
Slightly less heralded but no less influential was Hironobu Sakaguchi’s role-playing game Final Fantasy, released in 1987. Over the years, the series has proved that video games can be a powerful, immersive tool for storytelling. With 14 main installments and millions of copies sold since its inception, a generation of gamers (and of game makers) has grown up with the richly detailed worlds that Sakaguchi and game design firm Square have created.
Yet in recent years, the series has lost much of its relevance. Several critics have declared the death of Final Fantasy. The release of a new game in the franchise no longer generates the fervor it once did, and the field of competitors is much stronger than it once was. But with a return to the franchise’s roots, Final Fantasy could regain its edge just when the gaming industry needs it most. And surprisingly, Lightning Returns: FFXIII, the lukewarmly received “triquel” to Final Fantasy XIII, could be the first step in turning things around.
In 2001, the gaming world that Final Fantasy had helped shape began to shift. Microsoft’s Xbox’s first-person-shooter launch title, Halo, sold one million copies in less than five months (and more than five million copies to date); the next two sequels sold more than eight million copies each. That same year, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto III, whose controversial adult content, although fantastical in its own way, took place in a grittier, more realistic world than Fantasy and gave players nigh unprecedented freedom. In the following years, the demand for first-person shooters and non-linear gameplay exploded.
Final Fantasy XIII came out in 2010, after years of buildup, and used a new game engine that seemed to focus more on visuals. Though reviews were fairly positive, the release was out of step with its times: Over the previous decade, gamers had become accustomed to open worlds—that is, environments that could be explored with an amount of freedom resembling how a person might explore a real-world city. The storyline in Final Fantasy, though, remained linear; you could still only travel the one path the game makers set.
Additionally, it just felt stale. In its early years, each successive Final Fantasy game tried new things and improved upon the last, until developers found a formula that sold well around the sixth installment. Gameplay tweaks and novel settings aside, the series’ basic tropes and story arcs persisted for game after game with few exceptions. It worked for many years, but the series grew stagnant and predictable. Fans were unhappy, the developers confused: Final Fantasy XIII was their low point and wake-up call.