The story of Square Enix, and how two independent game publishers shaped early console history until they merged into the gaming juggernaut we know today.

Occasionally I engage in this little comedy routine where I walk into a game store, chance upon a Final Fantasy release on sale, and deadpan comment “Final Fantasy! Is that franchise still around?” I do this just to hear both patron and clerk alike respond in condescending chuckles as they assure me that FF will never die. Final Fantasy, I am repeatedly assured, has survivability on the scale of herpes, cockroaches, and the presidency of Donald Trump. It is indestructible.

Who knew, out of all the game titles kicking around on NES and SNES, that the FFs would live on for decades? Nintendo RPGs are a dime a dozen. RPGs for any platform are a dime a gross. And the FF series, when I first encountered it, didn’t seem all that special. It actually seemed generic, derivative of every other fantasy RPG franchise. I would later come to appreciate that it was actually the other way around; Final Fantasy originated big chunks of gameplay which every other RPG then copied.

Obligatory Final Fantasy Ranting

Just to address the juggernaut head on, here’s a complete history of the Final Fantasy series, itself an epic saga which influences everything about console RPGs to this day:

One could hardly be blamed for initially overlooking the FF franchise on Nintendo. On the SNES, one block sprite map looked pretty much like any other. Quick, look at this collage and tell me which one stands out:

mish-mosh of SNES RPGs

They tried their best, but there are only so many 2D sprite maps you can draw without repeating something. Oh look, another sewer maze I have to navigate! I wonder if there will be any giant rats I have to fight with my rusty 2-inch butterknife?

Not to mention, even after the FF series made the big leap to Playstation and popped into the 3D world, it still had its arguably derivative moments. Such as Kefka Palazzo from FFVI : Totally not the Joker, guys!

And then there’s the fandom. The FF series is among the best-selling video game franchises of all time, including holding numerous Guinness World Records, so we know that the vast majority of players are just regular fans who buy and enjoy the games without being big toxic derps online about it. Which leaves us with the special fan subsets, who have made their mark on the Internet…

FF7_Yaoi

Not that the male fandom is any more well-behaved…

thigh-high-chart

And beyond that, one of the most hyper-critical fanbases overall:

Hey, the FF series, if you count main games, spin-offs, and all, comes to about 101 game titles at this point. No one can make 101 of anything without having an off day once in awhile.

But let’s back up here, because there’s a lot more to the Square Enix story than just Final Fantasy.

The Square and the Enix square off…

Square Enix was formed from the merger of the two video game publishers. Up until that merger, they had been rivals.

Enix

Enix is the senior company of the two, founded in 1975. The catch is that Enix was originally a print publisher which didn’t break into video games until the 1980s. If that seems surprising, wait until you see the history of Nintendo before it broke into video games. Enix’s earliest breakthrough was the Dragon Quest series for the classic NES, starting in 1986. They continued shooting out games for the Nintendo NES, SNES, Game Boy, and N64, as well as the Sony PlayStation, for the next decade and a half.

The Dragon Quest series came out in North America as Dragon Warrior. Enix was more of a publishing partnership with other game studios. Most gamers in the Western world didn’t encounter Enix that often, unless it was to rent a game at Blockbuster that they mistook for a Square game. Probably the best-known Enix game on Nintendo was actually Illusion of Gaia on SNES, which many gamers to this day mis-remember as a Square game.

Enix puttered along with a few interesting titles here and there on the Nintendo platforms. They also landed contract deals to publish Riven (a game in the Myst series) on the PlayStation and Saturn, and Tomb Raider III on PlayStation. Remember that Enix also had the Japanese market, where they were a much bigger hit. So they also published within Japan-specific genres like the interactive-movie dating-sim Ø Story (AKA “Love Story”).

Enix-Love_Story-dating-sim

Square

Meanwhile, Square had the richer history in gaming culture on both sides of the pond. Square had even jumped into the desktop PC market earlier on, but quickly abandoned it to hitch their wagon to Nintendo. Square published titles at a ferocious clip for the Nintendo Famicon, NES, SNES, and Game Boy, until famously leaving Nintendo to jump the fence to Sony PlayStation, due to the PS’s roomier hardware to accommodate their Final Fantasy franchise.

Of course the Final Fantasy franchise was Square’s biggest hit, but Square never was one to keep eggs in one basket. Outside of the FF mega-franchise, two of Square’s best-remembered hits today are Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger, both SNES titles. We did give Secret of Mana some due in our mana write-up, but let’s just take one more minute to appreciate its fantastic and flavorful soundtrack:

That’s the theme to the land of Matango in Secret of Mana, which you mainly hear for the first time upon entering a dense forest populated by a tribe of mushroom people. That drum break is fire!

Chrono Trigger has the far greater cult following out of all Super Nintendo system titles to this day, perhaps second only to the almighty Earthbound. Its critical acclaim was thunderous when it came out, and it’s still rated on lists of greatest video games of all time. Aspects of Chrono Trigger that bowled gamers over included its well-developed graphics, sound, and music, its clean user interface and tidy battle system, and its innovative replayability, with multiple endings possible.

Here’s the story of how this game changed somebody’s life:

Yeah, deep stuff.

We could go on about Chrono Trigger all day, of course. We could also bring up more Square titles like Secret of Evermore, a name that slips through the cracks what with all the “secret of this” and “illusion of that” running around on the SNES. Or we could give a nod to Square’s RPG entry in the Mario universe, Super Mario RPG, itself fondly remembered.

But something was coming to a head in the gaming world by the turn of the century: the JRPG fad had at last run its course. Chrono Trigger was as good as its magnum opus, and there was nowhere for the style of game to go but downhill. Meanwhile, while Square had jumped ship to PlayStation, Enix vowed to remain open to any platform, and sure enough produced games for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, Sega Saturn, and even the odd Microsoft Windows PC game.

Both Enix and Square saw their fortunes dip in the early 2000s, with Square having suffered a loss from their gamble on the first Final Fantasy movie, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. But Square recovered enough that both companies felt comfortable with the merger in 2003.

Square Enix marches on

Square Enix today is a gaming juggernaut which is still producing titles well beyond its cash cow Final Fantasy. They publish for every platform imaginable. Their game series have encompassed media franchises such as Kingdom Hearts, Fullmetal Alchemist, SaGa, the MCU, the DCU, and continued entries in its various franchises originating from their hit titles on the NES and SNES.

You can’t throw a controller these days without hitting a Square Enix title, seriously. Both Enix and Square individually shaped gaming history during the early generations of consoles, and together they’ve since acquired Taito (another game company notable in the arcade era) and branched into Gangan, a manga imprint that is itself a hugely prolific publisher.

What do you know, Enix? You’re back to print publishing again! No sign yet whether Nintendo is going to pick up that card game thing again.

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.