It used to be that Squaresoft and Enix couldn't go a year without releasing multiple award-winning JRPGs or JRPG spinoffs. In the SNES era alone, Squaresoft released the first Breath of Fire, multiple Final Fantasies, two Secret of Manas, several Romancing SaGas, Front Mission, Chrono Trigger, Bahamut Lagoon, and Super Mario RPG. And Enix hit the RPG scene heavily with Actraiser, Illusion of Gaia, two Dragon Quest games, and more. The two companies alone totally saturated the SNES market with high quality JRPGs that stand as classics even to this day and this continued to the PSOne and even PS2 era when they merged together to create Square-Enix.
However, what JRPGs can you remember coming out of Square-Enix in the past few years? Obviously we have Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, both of which had a mixed reception, along with Dragon Quest IX, which admittedly fared quite a bit better. Where is everything else though? Where are the quirky one-shot titles like Robotrek? Heck, even Square-Enix's bigger properties like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are straying from their roots and venturing into online territory, a move that has mostly been met with failure.
That's not to say that Square-Enix hasn't been successful in modern days, however. Remember, that Square-Enix is the publisher behind the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, Hitman: Absolution, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. It's just that these games are straying quite a bit from the old formula of spikey-haired adventurers venturing off to save the world from a horrible evil.
Why is this? Has the gaming world simply fallen out of love with the JRPG? Perhaps. However, this wasn't something that happened overnight. Remember, it only takes one bad game to kill a franchise, and it's actually quite hard to make every single game in an RPG series a hit. Series like Valkyrie Profile, Secret of Mana, and Romancing SaGa slowly started to fade from the public eye after poorly received installments. Once the fans don't particularly care anymore, you probably won't find a developer knocking down Square's door to revive a dying franchise. And even if you did, Square would probably be hesitant to green-light it unless they thought it had a big enough fan base to make back the development costs.
So why the change in Square's operating policy? Well, frankly put, Square has become successful. They are joining the ranks of other AAA publishers like Activision and EA who publish but don't actually develop most of their games. The upcoming blockbusters that Square-Enix is publishing are being developed by companies like Eidos, Crystal Dynamics, IO Interactive, and Obsidian. Even Square's own Final Fantasy series was co-developed by Tri-Ace for final Fantasy XIII-2.
So will Square-Enix ever return to the glory days when it was the king of RPGs? Well, that's a difficult question to answer. If what you mean by that question is "will Square ever redevelop the countless JRPGs that we knew and love from the SNES era," then no. Frankly, there just isn't as much money in developing games as there is in publishing them. Add to that the fact that the JRPG simply isn't a very popular genre right now and you can see why Square would be hesitant to suddenly begin working on something like a new Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest.
But, if there's anything that we have seen in our recent travels to conventions like E3 and PAX East, it's that indie games are the future of this industry. Titles like Fez and Journey are getting as much critical acclaim as titles like Call of Duty or God of War, if not more. Brilliant programmers with amazing ideas are finally taking a chance on creating their dream game. All that they need is a publisher to front the bill.
And Square-Enix, luckily enough, seems to be okay with that. Even now they are taking a chance on new company Airtight Games and their physics-based puzzler Quantum Conundrum. They are putting their support behind n-Space for Heroes of Ruin, and Ankama Studios for the tactical RPG/MMO Wakfu. It certainly does seem like Square-Enix is interested in seeing the little guy succeed and, of course, attaching their name to the next big indie hit.
So will Square-Enix develop the next big RPG? Probably not. But it's entirely possible that they'll publish the next big RPG. All it takes is a good idea from a small developer, and Square-Enix might just put their dollars behind it. If a great indie RPG comes out of the Square label, the market may take notice. Square-Enix is pretty much synonymous with the RPG, specifically the JRPG, and if they launch the next big indie RPG hit, then we may see another RPG renaissance yet.
Angelo M. D'Argenio
Date: May 22, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*