A Brief History
Square created games for Nintendo starting in the mid 80’s. While its games experienced little to modest success throughout the 8-bit era, Square achieved critical success with its Final Fantasy trilogy, Chrono Trigger, and numerous other titles on the Super NES/Super Famicom in the early to mid 90’s. It seemed that Nintendo and Square shared a bright future. They collaborated to create Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, which released in the first half of 1996. Square even revealed a CG-based interactive demo using Final Fantasy VI characters to illustrate what the series would look like on the upcoming Nintendo 64 system.
Ultimately, however, Square found Sony’s PlayStation a more appealing option for their ambitious new Final Fantasy game. Nintendo made the controversial decision to stick with the cartridge format for the Nintendo 64. Its competitors (including Sony) had moved to the CD-ROM format for games, which allowed developers to pack in much more game data (including full-motion video!) for a fraction of the cost of cartridges. In later 1996, Square announced it no longer supported Nintendo and jumped ship to Sony. Additionally, Square’s and Nintendo’s presidents leveled criticism at each other, which only added to the hostility between the two companies.
Square had decisively washed its hands of Nintendo, however, and appeared determined to not cast a backwards glance. The meteoric success and cultural impact Final Fantasy VII had on Western culture upon its 1997 release continued to assure Square that Sony was the way to go. They rode the wave of success ushered in by Cloud Strife and company and milked the Final Fantasy brand for every cent it was worth. Throughout the remainder of the 90’s and early 00’s, Square not only released two additional numeric Final Fantasy games but also spin-off series such as Final Fantasy Tactics and bold one-off games such as Vagrant Story. Any product with Square’s name on it meant big money. Square’s financial future seemed safe and profitable.
However, Square’s financial security came to a swift and decisive end in the summer of 2001. In July of that year, Square released Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a computer-animated film that cost around 130 million dollars (making it the most expensive video game-related movie to date). Despite stunning CGI and A-list talent, the film received mixed reviews and grossed approximately 85 million dollars. Which, if you’re keeping up with the math, equates to a loss of about 45 million dollars. That was significant enough of a loss for fellow game-developing company Enix to reconsider its upcoming merger with Square. It was a dire situation for Square. In 2002, newly-appointed president Yoichi Wada realized one step towards regaining financial stability would be to make amends with Nintendo and produce games for the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance.
Sony, who owned 19% of Square’s shares, was fine with Square developing games for Nintendo again as long as it didn’t influence the development of their PlayStation 2 games. (More specific details of the agreement can be read here.) For the first time since 1994, Final Fantasy would be playable on Nintendo hardware again, albeit in the form of a spin-off series. Furthermore, the upcoming Final Fantasy title would be designed specifically for the Gamecube and its connectivity functionality with Game Boy Advance systems.
After much anticipation and speculation, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was released in Japan in August 2003 and in America and Europe in the first quarter of 2004. Much like other games on the Gamecube, it was an offbeat take of a game from a popular series that nonetheless garnered lots of positive attention. How does it play? Read on!
One of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles’ (henceforth referred to as FFCC) most notable gameplay aspects, aside from the cooperative multiplayer, is the presence of “miasma.” Miasma plays both important functional and narrative roles. It is a mysterious gaseous substance that can harm (or even kill with prolonged exposure) all living things other than monsters. The only things that provide safety from miasa are crystals and crystal shards. Towns and cities are protected by huge crystals, but the playable party (referred to as a “caravan” in-game) must rely on a small, portable crystal shard which provides only a small circle of protection.
In addition, the protection provided by the crystals is not indefinite, as crystals are powered by the liquid substance “myrrh”. Myrrh, in turn, is only found in Myrrh Trees. These Myrrh Trees are usually found in inconvenient dungeons and are heavily guarded by swarms of monsters. The entire motivation of the game (at least at the beginning) is to simply gather enough myrrh for the caravan’s home village to survive another year.
In order to collect myrrh, the caravan totes around a device called a “chalice” that resembles a fish bowl with a crystal shard attached to it. Because the chalice provides both protection from miasma and a means for collecting myrrh, it is brought into dungeons as the caravanners explore. This adds a layer of challenge to the majority of the game. The chalice cannot move by itself, so one caravanner is forced to carry it in order to make progress through dungeons. This leaves chalice carriers prone as they can do nothing other than move slower than usual. The circle of protection the chalice provides is very small and forces the party members to stick close together to avoid taking unnecessary damage from the miasma. This mechanic appears to have been implemented to discourage players from splitting off from the group and venturing around on their own.
The chalice makes monster encounters more difficult because it restricts player mobility and/or combat options. While the chalice can be set down in order to allow its carrier to engage in battle, this makes the circle of protection immobile and can be problematic when monsters assault the caravan with ranged attacks from far away. Granted, the game generally seems to have been designed with this restriction in mind, as the number of monsters on-screen only tends to get overwhelming late into the game. Ultimately, the chalice feels a little too restrictive and is a hassle to keep up with.
Combat, perhaps in an effort to accommodate the claustrophobic environment, is fairly straightforward. Player characters can attack, defend, use items, or cast magic. The four races within the game each have different strengths and weaknesses in combat. The humanlike Clavats are the most well-rounded; the little Lilties are physically powerful but take longer to cast spells; the ragged Selkies are quick but lack solid defenses; and the birdlike Yukes can quickly fire off spells at the cost of low physical strength.
An ideal four-player caravan will consist of one member of every race in order to handle the diverse challenges the game throws at the party (e.g. monsters that can only be damaged by weapons after first being struck by magic). That said, the game is still able to be completed with any combination and/or number of party members. This really speaks to how well the monsters and combat have been designed. Even a single player won’t be left completely alone: they will be accompanied by Mog the Moogle in what is arguably his cutest appearance in a game to date.
Dungeoneering’s only half the fun! As caravans travel, they will encounter new villages, cities, and even other caravaners searching for myrrh. Each new encounter results in the creation of a memory, which can then be reviewed as a journal entry written by one of the player characters. Caravaners also have family members residing in their hometown. Upon creating a new character, players get to choose choose a family trade (shopkeeper, blacksmith, farmer, etc.). As the game progresses, each caravan member’s family will support the caravan with services and items that would be far more difficult or expensive to obtain in other parts of the game. Having a blacksmith family is definitely a boon, as collecting materials and crafting in FFCC is…not fun, to be completely honest.
Square Enix borrowed a trope from MMORPGs for FFCC: the need to grind through dungeons over and over again to collect materials from fallen enemies. This is where the pacing in the game comes to a screeching halt. The issue is not so much related to gameplay challenge, despite even early dungeons increasing in difficulty as the in-game years pass. See, while in a MMORPG a dungeon can be explored from the comfort of your own home with a group of friends and/or strangers online, FFCC requires 2-4 people present in the same room. These people must each have access to one Gameboy Advance and one GBA-Gamecube link cable to be able to participate. And quite frankly, if my friends and I are going to go to all that trouble, I would rather not spend the entire session re-exploring dungeons to find a rare item for one party member. Even if one member goes spelunking alone with Mog, that leaves the other player characters behind.
FFCC is a time commitment, to be sure. I’ve started a game with my brother and good friend that has been continuing for the better part of the last 10 years. We got to the last dungeon a few years ago, were defeated, and haven’t picked it back up since. Again, this is after hours and hours of grinding our way through the Mushroom Forest to farm Ochus for mythril or somesuch. To be sure, our caravan is an extreme example, but don’t expect to beat this game with 3 friends on a single night.
Despite all its flaws, FFCC is an enjoyable game. I certainly wouldn’t put hours upon hours of my time into a game I disliked! And its popularity has stood the test of time. A Crystal Chronicles sub-series spawned over the second half of the aughts from this first entry. These games have appeared on the Nintendo DS and Wii; two are even featured on the WiiWare service (and you should grab them before the Wii Shop Channel shuts down within the next year). While we haven’t seen a new Crystal Chronicles game in the 2010’s, you can visit the original that started it all…as long as you have some spare Gameboy Advance systems lying around.
This article is part of a larger collaboration exploring and reminiscing on the Final Fantasy series. Read more at Final Fantasy: A Crystal Compendium.