The History of Xenogears

Xenogears artwork

The History of Xenogears

25 years out since its original release on the PlayStation, Xenogears remains one of the most important and iconic RPGs of all-time. Arriving in 1998 hot on the heels of the release of Final Fantasy VII, Xenogears‘ story and gameplay are unlike any other RPG before it or since. It combines both on-foot action and combat in the titular Gears, giant humanoid mecha that call to mind the Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, and reaches for some incredibly ambitious heights in its complex and multi-layered narrative. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the history of Xenogears‘ development is one fraught with almost as much conflict and tension as the game itself.

After beginning as the early version of two separate projects at Square, the earliest and most primordial form of Xenogears received its own greenlight as a separate project. Heading up this new team was the game’s creator and director Tetsuya Takahashi, whose work on the Final Fantasy series would help him earn the opportunity to spearhead his own passion project. Joining him in the conceptualization and creation of Xenogears was Takahashi’s future wife Soraya Saga, and together the two would see a dream project given life thanks to Square’s faith in their vision.

Unfortunately, that same ambition and impressive scope of Xenogears would be its undoing, as it would also be the undoing of the duo’s future games until much later on in their careers. Now players can experience the game’s spiritual successors and the duo’s most successful games in the Xenoblade Chronicles series, but none of that would be possible without Monolith Soft’s genesis at Square and a little game called Xenogears.

Origins and Backstory

Tetsuya Takahashi and Soraya Saga

Although she now goes by the pen name Soraya Saga, it is under her birth name Kaori Tanaka that the writer of Xenogears gets her first important roles in the game industry. In 1994, shortly after getting the chance to work as a character designer on Final Fantasy VI (famously designing the appearance and abilities of the twin brothers Edgar and Sabin), Saga conceptualized an idea for a game using multiple personalities as a central theme. Concurrently, Tetsuya Takahashi was working on both Front Mission and Chrono Trigger for Square after also working on Final Fantasy VI as a designer, and his marriage to Soraya in 1995 would see the pair begin to piece together their dream project.

Takahashi joined Square as a graphic designer and, eventually, graphic director, initially working on the Final Fantasy series beginning with Final Fantasy IV. After experiencing some frustration with the rigid approach of Final Fantasy games (feeling that they were too limiting or constrictive in the subjects they approach or their settings), Takahashi began to envision a game that combined the initial story from Soraya Saga with his own interests in science fiction, religion, philosophy, and mecha. Takahashi and Saga pitched their initial idea to Square as the premise for Final Fantasy VII, but this would prove to be unsuccessful.

Feeling that Takahashi’s vision would be too dark and complex for the company’s flagship franchise, Square’s higher-ups instead proposed that Takahashi and Saga start their own project, greenlighting them a budget to develop their own team and see their idea come to fruition. Although Takahashi began as part of the Final Fantasy VII development team, he would leave to start work on the game that would become Xenogears.

Shifting Gears

Final Fantasy VII early gameplay

Takahashi’s work on Final Fantasy VII prior to his departure helps to explain why it and Xenogears share so many similarities, right down to the soldier protagonist suffering from mental health issues and an identity crisis. Regardless, both Takahashi and Saga’s invaluable contributions to the Final Fantasy franchise helped contribute to the duo receiving the go-ahead on their dream project, including being granted a budget and the opportunity to put together their ideal team to work on the game. Although it would not initially go by the name “Xenogears“, Takahashi and Saga would begin to flesh out their original concept and form it into what would become that game in 1995.

The year 1995 also saw the release of Chrono Trigger, which Takahashi holds credit on as the Graphic Director. Following the greenlight for his own sci-fi RPG, the same higher-ups at Square that were responsible for granting Takahashi his own project and team began to entertain the idea of it being the sequel to Chrono Trigger. Around this same time, both Takahashi and Saga significantly developed their initial story to also focus on an AI becoming the origin of mankind as a new scientific version of Eve from the Bible.

Combining the new religious and philosophical influences with the initial idea of a soldier who suffers from multiple personalities, the skeleton of Xenogears took form, including incorporating various influences of Takahashi’s such as the novel Childhood’s End and the works of renowned psychologists Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jacques Lacan, as well as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Shared among Takahashi and Saga was an interest in Gnosticism, which would go on to factor heavily into the game’s plot and themes.

Development Begins

Xenogears key art

Following a back-and-forth with Square’s leadership concerning whether Xenogears would be a sequel to Chrono Trigger, both Takahashi and Square came to the realization that the idea was incompatible. Thankfully, rather than scrapping the project, Square put the idea for a Chrono Trigger sequel on the back burner while allowing Takahashi and Saga the opportunity to continue work on the game that would become Xenogears. With a general outline for the story and a team in place, the first year of Xenogears‘ development would largely be spent on design and conceptualization.

The months between 1995 and 1996 proved to be critical for Xenogears, seeing Saga finalize the plot details for the game while Takahashi worked out the intricacies of the game’s general flow and structure. One of the notable decisions that would arise during this time is Takahashi’s desire to have the game be simply one episode of a longer saga, taking inspiration from how the first Star Wars film is actually Episode IV of a longer mythology. During the early stages of the game’s development, it would exist under the name “Project Noah”, and many disparate parts that were unused would actually end up in the eventual Chrono Trigger sequel, Chrono Cross.

1996 would see development on Xenogears truly begin, after a lengthy period of development and conceptualization that would see the game grow significantly in terms of its size and scope. Though it was not likely to have fit on a single disc, the continual expansion of Xenogears‘ world, story, mechanics, and characters lead to the game definitively being two discs, and its development kicked off in earnest right as Final Fantasy VII was in full-swing.

Realizing the Vision

Xenogears gameplay

One of the initial issues that Xenogears faced in beginning its development was the experience of the team members involved, with Takahashi recruiting several new Square employees to be part of the game’s team. Takahashi would note in later interviews that the inexperience of several of these team members would lead to extra time necessary for learning new techniques, as well as a general need to motivate and coach new talent who were working on Xenogears as their first game for Square.

One of the things that Takahashi was adamant about is the use of 3D. Indeed, the use of 3D environments over pre-rendered backgrounds was the hill that would cause Takahashi to depart the Final Fantasy VII team. Because working on 3D graphical assets was still a relatively new process at the time, the inexperience of the team was both a blessing and a curse. Rather than need to re-learn a whole new method of coding and designing in-game assets, the Xenogears team would have the benefit of coming up alongside the new technology.

Comparatively, this is something that helps Xenogears to visually stand the test of time against its contemporaries, utilizing 2D character sprites over full-3D backgrounds that are beautifully rendered. While Final Fantasy VII would undergo some growing pains as the series made its transition to 3D, Xenogears would stand as an example of how 3D envrionments enhance the immersive qualities of a game.

Budget and Time Constraints

Xenogears gameplay

Unfortunately for Xenogears, the game would prove to be simply too ambitious in its scope and intent, leading to Takahashi to repeatedly ask Square leadership for more money. Thanks to support from luminaries such as Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Takahashi’s team routinely saw these requests granted, but that still didn’t account for the time necessary to bring he and Saga’s vision to life. Thanks to Xenogears‘ two year allowance for development, the size and scope of the game resulted in Takahashi and his team having to make some significant sacrifices.

Approaching its two-year development deadline, Xenogears‘ existence as an unfinished game in 1997 resulted in Takahashi making a critical decision. Rather than push the game back and fail to meet deadlines, Xenogears would have much of its second disc content reduced to dialogue narration and in-game cut scenes that play out between boss battles. Takahashi would later state that his reasoning for this was to not release the game as a single disc and see the second half never come to light.

Still, for a game with such lofty ambition, it would prove to be a notorious sticking point for Xenogears that its second disc remains practically unfinished. Square had already begun to promote the game in 1997, putting pressure on the development team, and Takahashi’s worry regarding never getting to finish the game after simply shipping Disc 1 as the full Xenogears may have been more prophetic than he realized.

Shipping the Game

Xenogears gameplay

Xenogears was released in February 1998 in Japan, with a localization via the North American release arriving in October 1998. Despite the game’s sensitive religious symbolism and references, the North American release remains mostly faithful to its Japanese original, and it stands as the first localization project within Square to see the translator work directly with the development team to ensure that the game didn’t lose any important story details in translation.

In both Japan and North America, Xenogears received significant critical acclaim, with some outlets even going so far as to call it one of the best RPGs in Square’s library and claiming it as the best RPG of 1998. Despite the game featuring an incomplete second disc, both critics and fans found plenty to love about Xenogears, and it would even earn a gold certification (selling over 500,000 units) before the end of the year. Still, Xenogears doesn’t come close to the sales of Final Fantasy VII, which sold 10 times as many units and became a household name responsible for moving millions of PlayStation consoles. Comparatively, Xenogears remains a cult-classic.

With the game perfoming substantially well critically but relatively weakly commercially, Square eventually canceled the planned sequel to Xenogears in favor of focusing resources on the in-development Final Fantasy film (which would release as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). Unhappy with how Square was handling its IP and refusing to take risks on smaller projects, Takahashi and Saga left Square in 1999 to found their own company. Finding a home at Japanese publisher Namco, the duo found Monolith Soft that same year and begin work on the Xenosaga franchise.

Xenosaga and Beyond

Xenosaga trilogy artwork

Monolith Soft’s founding would end up being a blessing for Takahashi and Saga, granting them them freedom to see the multi-part saga the two originally envisioned for Xenogears come to light, at least partially. Although the two games are not explicitly connected, Monolith Soft’s first project Xenosaga shares many similarities with Xenogears in terms of its themes and design, though Takahashi himself is reticent regarding connecting the two properties thanks to one still belonging to Square.

Like the original plan for Xenogears (which both Takahashi and Saga envisioned as a multi-part saga taking place over several games), Monlith Soft released a trio of Xenosaga games that loosely take place in the same universe of Xenogears across multiple episodes. However, much like the difficulties that Xenogears would experience during its development, nearly every team working on the three Xenosaga titles would feature different personnel, resulting in a lack of cohesion across each entry and a protracted wait between each release. Matters only become more complicated when Namco founder Masaya Nakamura retired, who was Monolith Soft’s original champion for the publisher.

With Nakamura gone and diminishing returns on each entry, the Xenosaga franchise ended prematurely, with Monolift Soft leaving Namco for a new publisher. After landing at Nintendo of all places, Monolith Soft would spend the next several years between 2007 and 2010 working on its next major RPG saga, also going under the Xeno– moniker.

Xenogears’ Enduring Legacy

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 gameplay

Monolith Soft saw its greatest commercial success and widespread renewing of interest in the developer’s previous works thanks to the incredible Xenoblade Chronicles. With three games now having released in the Xenoblade Chronicles series (as well as a spin-off in Xenoblade Chronicles X), the studio has yet another trilogy of games loosely set in the same universe as Takahashi and Saga’s original dream project, Xenogears. Though the games share similar themes, the plots and scenarios of both IP do not share any direct connection outside of their creators.

Xenogears endures as one of the most influential and important RPGs of the PS1 era, even landing as the 16th “Best Video Game of All-Time” on a poll featuring in the Japanese gaming publication Famitsu. Similar honors exist across multiple other outlets, with the game often cited as having one of the best and most complex narratives in all of gaming. Since Xenogears‘ release, other games have notably touched on similar themes that were previously viewed as too taboo for the medium of video games.

Aside from elevating the art of storytelling in games and pushing the envelope regarding what could be part of a story in interactive media, Xenogears remains one of the greatest unfinished projects from any developer. Though it stands as a bit of a commercial disappointment in comparison to Final Fantasy VII and would fail to receive a sequel, the release of Xenogears is a definitive moment in the PlayStation’s life-cycle as well as a landmark release in Square’s legendary PS1 catalog.

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