Some people have already joked that the February 9, 2022 Nintendo Direct was actually a Square Enix Direct. That’s because Square Enix revealed Chrono Cross: The Radical Dreamers Edition, the first-ever official English release of Live A Live, Front Mission 1st: Remake and Front Mission 2: Remake, and a new demo for Triangle Strategy, in addition to reiterating that Kingdom Hearts Integrum Masterpiece is now here. That’s a monstrous amount of content for one company at a different company’s event, yet it only even covers the “retro” portion of Square’s catalogue. There is just as much “modern” content coming, especially on PlayStation. Taken altogether, it feels like Square Enix has entered a new golden age, where it has fully embraced both the retro and modern ends of its game catalogue.
Bridging the retro and modern catalogues with Square Enix
Right now, long-lived game developers and publishers have the weird task of looking both forward and backward. Game developers must always be looking forward to the future, attempting to innovate and provide fresh experiences, lest their games become stale and irrelevant. But in the past decade, with the rising prominence of digital media, there is also an expectation that game developers must respect their past. Fans expect companies to treat their classic IPs with proper reverence and also to make their back catalogues available on modern platforms.
Square Enix has always made small efforts here and there to do things with its back catalogue, with varying degrees of success — Final Fantasy IV: The After Years on Wii, The 3rd Birthday and Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions on Sony PSP, the many Dragon Quest Nintendo DS / 3DS ports, the somewhat subdued Secret of Mana remake, the hideous Final Fantasy mobile ports that preceded the Pixel Remaster series — the list goes on. However, something most of these projects had in common was that they felt like “something extra” in the Square Enix catalogue as opposed to “the next thing.” There’s a reason most of the games I just described were not console releases, for instance.
In the past few years though, that has changed. Obviously, the most extreme example is Final Fantasy VII Remake, which is simultaneously a remake of a beloved classic and also the biggest modern blockbuster in the Square Enix library. There is also Final Fantasy XIV Online, the hottest MMO on the market that regularly draws from franchise history while crafting new, celebrated stories. But to me, the games that demonstrate how Square Enix has fully embraced both its past and its future are the Trials of Mana remake and Octopath Traveler.
The Trials of Mana remake didn’t need to exist, but it does. And it didn’t need to be a dramatic upgrade over what was done with the Secret of Mana remake, but it is. Square Enix chose to dedicate real budget, design sensibility, and PR to remaking this game, and the result is a definitively modern game that has surpassed 1 million units sold. (And for good measure, the original game is playable too in Collection of Mana.)
Conversely, Octopath Traveler is a completely new franchise, but it feels retro. It takes rich, PlayStation 1-like pixel art and a Final Fantasy VI-ish color palette and enhances it with Square’s proprietary HD-2D lightning and visual effects. The gameplay, meanwhile, takes some DNA from SaGa and Bravely Default, while also innovating a bit with character-specific adventure actions, such as challenging NPCs to a duel. It has gone on to sell more than 2.5 million units since launch — and Triangle Strategy seems poised to replicate this success.
From a PR perspective, Square Enix treated Trials of Mana and Octopath Traveler as if they were on at least vaguely similar footing with huge games like Final Fantasy VII Remake and Dragon Quest XI. This has since become the new normal for these retro-modern hybrids. The best evidence for this is the HD-2D remaster of Live A Live, which is being published by Nintendo, receiving a physical release (with a board game in Japan), and being priced at $49.99, meaning that Square Enix views this as a high-profile project on the level of Octopath Traveler.
Square Enix didn’t have to roll out the red carpet for a game it has barely touched in the nearly three decades since its Japanese release. But it is. And Dragon Quest III HD-2D Remake is receiving the same treatment, albeit for more obvious reasons. (Japan loves Dragon Quest III.)
And while Square Enix doesn’t have the resources to commit to large-scale redos of all its games, Romancing SaGa 2, 3, and Frontier have all received commendable remasters in recent years, as has Legend of Mana. There is even the bizarre and amazing outlier remake Actraiser Renaissance. Square could have just dumped clunky, untouched versions of all of these games onto mobile and PC and called it a day, as it essentially did with the hideous original Final Fantasy ports. But Square Enix has learned there is both more goodwill and more profit from treating its venerated franchises with the same respect that its fans already give them. Look no further than Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Series.
Square Enix has reached a point where its retro catalogue is no longer something “extra,” nor is it merely a way to exploit player nostalgia for profit. Rather, retro gaming has become its own lucrative, viable pillar of game development, as respectable as its modern gaming efforts.
And yes, Square Enix has a lot of modern blockbusters in the works. For starters, plenty more Final Fantasy VII Remake is on the way. Secondly, Final Fantasy XVI is coming. Series purists may be disheartened at its apparently Devil May Cry-like gameplay, but it might have the best story the franchise has seen in decades with Final Fantasy XIV’s Naoki Yoshida directing it. Then there’s Dragon Quest XII: The Flames of Fate, for which we know little, but it is practically guaranteed to be great. And the Final Fantasy XV team is currently finishing up Forspoken, which may not appeal to me personally but probably will entice a lot of FFXV fans. Meanwhile, Koei Tecmo and PlatinumGames are developing Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin and Babylon’s Fall respectively.
Square Enix is firing on all cylinders in all directions, and that’s without even getting into more niche content like Dungeon Encounters or Voice of Cards or its Western content like Life is Strange, Tomb Raider, and Outriders. It is catering to the entirety of its fanbase, regardless of when someone became a fan of the company and its offerings. Overall, this is the best Square Enix (or Square or Enix) that has ever existed.
Granted, I still have some niggles, like how the game narratives are lacking sometimes, but these are things that can be remedied. The bottom line is that Square Enix has worked its way to a really healthy place, and hopefully this new golden age will last for times to come.