Released last month in North America, Final Fantasy VII prequel Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII immediately became the sixth biggest selling title there across all formats for the whole of March.
Yet despite a return to the much-loved world of Final Fantasy VII and characters such as Cloud, Tifa, Sephiroth and of course Aeris, the addition of real-time combat, one central character - soldier Zack Fair - and a new part-skill, part-luck combat system, this fourth entry in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII series is surprisingly different to what's gone before it.
In preparation for the game coming out in the UK - Square Enix will announce the release date any day now - we had the opportunity to attend the joint press conference with producer, Hideki Imaizumi and executive producer, Yoshinori Kitase.
Amongst other things, they explained how the game's somewhat controversial combat system was inspired by their love of Japanese slot machines and why they chose PSP over DS.
How did Crisis Core come to be made?
The concept of the game really came about four years ago - that was when the idea was formed to make a story about Zack. The gist of the story though has existed since FFVII was created. At that point, Zack was a rather minor character but there was an art design in place that was created by Mr Nomuru (the game's character designer) and Mr Nojima (the writer) with a basic concept of his story. So you could say the idea has been cooking for ten years. But in terms of the product, that came about four years ago.
And now the game is complete, do you look back and think there's anything you would change?
Gameplay-wise we're very satisfied. We think it is a very complete product and have no complaints. If we were to be selfish though and add certain things because of time or memory concerns, maybe we'd have used the ad-hoc system to create a multiplayer experience on the PSP.
Looking back on it half a year after the Japanese release though, everything from the story to the gameplay to the graphics meld together into this grand finale. I still look back on it and am very moved by the entire story, especially the ending.
The original Final Fantasy VII had a story many regarded as the best in the series. Was it a lot of pressure creating a prequel to such a well-loved story?
Well, obviously as part of a beloved series and part of a popular world there's immense pressure. We hope that this time around by making this game we kind of betray the fans expectations - in a good way! To go above what they expected. It wasn't even about paying tribute to the original but about creating a connection between the original and all the other Compilation titles as well. [Crisis Core] was in a unique position in that it takes place in the past that it connects to all of the titles from the beginning.
The game's battle system is radically different to FFVII's. Was there a point in development when you thought you were taking a big risk in diverting so much from the original?
[This title is] fundamentally different because this is a story about Zack and Zack alone and that means you control one character instead of the party of characters that you might have had in FFVII.
When you conceive a battle system that involves one character and you try to implement the old turn-based command system it may seem a little old. It might seem a little dated and may not work quite as well, just because you have the one character and you're waiting for that one character's turn to come up and keep pressing attack for each enemy on screen and the flow just does not work as well.
So something new needed to be done, not just to match the story but to match the times. Players tastes have changed as well. Because of the new additional difficulty level - in the European version there's this whole different level of playing where you can get away with simpler controls like attacking and attacking again if you want to - that's for the lighter users. For the more advanced users there are various things you can do too; you can block and evade and cast spells and come up with new combinations. We believe the new battle system has opened this wide menu of how you can play the game and we believe it works for this game.
Did you experiment with different combat systems before coming up with the Digital Mind Wave?
The short answer is no. This is the system we had initially planned from the beginning. The key concept was action role-playing with an element of luck. So the reels to a degree control your destiny within battle. And we drew some influence from this Japanese entertainment called Pachinko slots which are a rather large phenomenon in Japan. We're very enthusiastic [laughs] about the whole phenomenon and we discussed, is there any element of this that we can put into the game? Which we did with the DMV system so we're very happy we were able to meld them into the game itself.
Why did you develop Crisis Core for the PSP?
There were two things. The first reason is the launch of the PSP in Japan coincided with when we were deciding to make a new Compilation title. So the timing was there for it to be on PSP - we wanted to make something for the new hardware.
The second reason was: when we originally came up with the concept it wasn't supposed to be what it has become. It was supposed to have been a much more compact, light experience in general, so you were able to just pick it up and play for a few minutes. But then it just kept getting bigger and bigger and then it just came to be this size. Initially you were meant to be able to play these chapters for thirty minutes and they would never take longer than that, but when you considered the magnitude of the story it became not enough to do it that way. It just turned into a much larger project than expected
As we were developing, we just discovered more and more potential for the PSP - we were able to do a lot more than we thought so that's why we decided to add all this extra content and make it larger than we were expecting.
If you'd known the DS was going to be as popular as it is, would you have chosen to make Crisis Core for it instead?
The DS was already out at the time we came up with the concept of Crisis Core. It really wasn't an option to begin with and it wasn't something we regretted later because whereas, yes, there are a lot of DSs out there - but does that mean that our products sell in relation to that? That our sales grow with how many DSs or PSPs there are out there?
It's not really the case. How much the product sells really depends on the game itself, who it's targeted to and all sorts of different factors. It's not really always about the hardware. Especially in terms of this game where the demographic was higher teens to young adults as opposed to small children. The PSP seemed closer to that demographic than DS in general. So we feel we really made the right choice.
We'll make a DS game called Brain Age: Final Fantasy for DS [laughs].
On the subject of Brain Age, what do you think of the accusations that Nintendo are only making games for the casual market now?
Initially I understood this sentiment you are talking about. Especially from the point of view of working for a company that doesn't make these sorts of titles I thought it wasn't right. But now I've come to accept it because part of gaming is innovation to incorporate genres as you go along and say this is another way to enjoy - this is another form of entertainment. You can't just limit games to things we make or things Nintendo used to make. So right now I'm completely okay with it. When I first played Sim City I wouldn't have considered it a game but I played it and it was a lot of fun. So if it's fun and you play it, how can you say it's not a game in the end?
Over the course of development did you pay much attention to fans' thoughts and opinions?
It would be too much to say we reference fan opinions and such. Obviously as a creator you need to have your own voice but of course we look at fan responses to certain parts of the stories and characters.
Have you been pleased so far with the response from Japanese and US gamers who have played the game?
We're very pleased with the reactions. We've heard many people were very moved by the story and that's really what we were after. It hasn't been that long since the US release so we're not so sure about the reactions from North American users yet but we're very hopeful it will be good.
What plans do you have now for the Compilation of FFVII series? Do you know how many games will be in it or what its finale will be?
We don't have any concrete plans as of right now. The teams that work on the Compilation are all currently working on large titles such as Final Fantasy XIII and right now it's hard to come up with any solid projects for them to work on during this time. As the same time we can't really say that it's over. We don't want to say that as we would like to keep a window of opportunity open for future titles.
Finally, how involved are the people who worked on the original Final Fantasy VII? And how is the Final Fantasy universe and its stories managed?
It's kind of hard to put anyone at the top really. Anything related to the stories Mr Nojima - who's actually no longer with Square Enix, he's with a different organisation - he's really still the top authority in that matter. Anything relating to characters and a little of the back story, that's Mr Nomura, the character designer's domain. There are four major people involved in the FFVII universe. If one of those people died it might disrupt the balance..!
Fingers crossed that doesn't happen then. Especially not before FFVII's story is resolved once and for all. Our thanks to Hideki Imaizumi and Yoshinori Kitase for their time.