Final Fantasy XIV x Chan Luu Job Bracelets: For The Ethically-Conscious Warrior of Light

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On November 9th the social media channels for Final Fantasy XIV announced a new partnership with fashion and accessory designer Chan Luu. The collaboration will produce a line of the designer’s popular hand-made beaded bracelets with a Final Fantasy XIV twist; each piece will be themed after a job class from the popular MMORPG and decorated with a charm depicting the logo of each job’s respective soul crystal. These charm bracelets are a way to subtley show off pride for your chosen class and look good doing it.

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Chan Luu may not be a household name for most Final Fantasy fans but her work has been worn by Lady Gaga, Brittney Spears, Emma Watson, and Tom Hanks just to name a few. It might seem odd to some RPG fans for Square to be partnering with a designer whose work you’re more likely to find at Saks Fifth Avenue than GameStop, but it’s certainly not the only time Final Fantasy and fashion have crossed paths. Characters from Final Fantasy XIII  were featured models for Prada in 2012 and Lightning returned to the fashion world as a model for Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 collection. Final Fantasy XV’s fashion connection is even more a part of it’s DNA – Japanese designer Roen worked on the costumes for the main cast and the mother of punk herself, Vivienne Westwood, designed Lunafreya’s wedding dress.

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Vivienne Westwood canonically exists in the world of XV. Does that mean the Sex Pistols do too?

The XIV charm bracelets are certainly more subtle than, say, Prompto’s asymmetrical studded leather vest and plaid half-skirt thing, but they speak to the series’ appreciation of distinct design. That design comes with a cost however and for many players of XIV commenting on social media the $139.99USD price tag attached to these bracelets is a cost they’re not willing to pay.

I was expecting $50 at max but then again this is square enix. Should known better”, “$140?????? At least price them a standard gamer’s wage!”,
I can make these for a fraction of $140. I’ll pass on this rip off

Comments like these are common in the facebook thread announcing the collaboration. Similar sentiments can be found in many of the replies to the twitter counterpart. It’s easy to jump to a conclusion like some of these commenters but there’s more to this price tag than just a well-known fashion designer and a videogame license adding up to a prohibitive cost for the average ‘gamer’. It’s unfair to pass this off as just an attempt to gouge fans of the game (that’s what the Mogstation is for anyway (I joke, I joke)) without considering the larger business ecosystem at play.

Chan Luu is known particularly for her devotion to ethical practices in her factories. In an industry where mass-production and sweatshops are common, Chan Luu’s accessories are hand-made and her workers are paid fair wages that ensure a decent standard of living. Originally from Vietnam, Chan Luu later lived in LA and began designing jewelry in the 90s. As her business grew she hand-picked a factory in Vietnam that she trusted for it’s ethical labour practices. She also established a factory in Nairobi, Kenya, employing women who were experts at hand-crafted beaded jewelry as part of an initiative to create sustainable jobs around the world. She has employed 782 people in Kenya alone and Chan Luu Inc’s partnership with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative should continue to provide safe, well-payed, sustainable work to more and more people every year.

So is $140 too much for a bracelet? In an article for Boston University Luu says “It’s up to you to decide whether you support what I do or you don’t… The people who make this get paid fairly and have a safe place to work. And some people buy my jewelry only because they love it, but other people do care about those things…”

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After a long journey, four young warriors arrive, each holding some BLING

The game industry is no stranger to controversy about working conditions. Consumers are being confronted more and more about how to ethically consume and it can be uncomfortable to think about how an individual’s spending can impact the lives of the people making a product. It’s important to not always make the number one priority be “spending as little as possible for a product” when the other side of that transaction could be exploitative and damaging. I won’t profess to being an expert on economics but even I can appreciate when a big name publisher like Square Enix is willing to form a partnership that has its roots in the fair and ethical treatment of its workers.

That said, I’m totally broke if someone wants to spot me $140. I play NIN or MCH. tfp o/

The Final Fantasy x Chan Luu Job Bracelet line is accepting orders until December 11th 2018 for North America and December 13th 2018 for Europe. Items will be made to order and can be pre-ordered here.

Timed Hits List 002 – Promised Grace (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles)

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I won’t even pretend that I’m not excited about Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered. I’ve spent the majority of my spending money over the past year or so optimizing my audio/video setup for my Gamecube — the primary purpose being to play Crystal Chronicles with the highest fidelity possible. And now, on the cusp of making that dream a reality, it has all been rendered moot with the announcement of a Switch version. I’m not even a little bit mad; the more chances people get to play this tragically overlooked Final Fantasy the better. Especially if it means more people experiencing the soundtrack that proved Nobuo Uematsu wasn’t the only game in town.
Kumi Tanioka, who at this point in time was co-composer for Final Fantasy XI, masterfully scores the world of Crystal Chronicles with a band composed of traditional instruments from all over the world. We’re talking all kinds of lutes, recorders, bagpipes, crumhorns, and medieval instruments.

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Now that’s what I call a crumhorn!

There are ton of highlights in the Crystal Chronicles OST; Departure, the game’s first dungeon theme sets the melancholy tone of a world full of adventurers not seeking glory, but the means to keep their villages alive. Sad Monster and Unite, Descent provide a backdrop for an uneasy and wholly unique final boss battle. Tanioka even provides two different takes on Uematsu’s Moogle Theme from Final Fantasy V, Cripper Tripper Fritter. That melody won’t see that much love again until Masayoshi Soken’s Danny Elfman-inspired rendition in Final Fantasy XIV a decade later.

The track that I want to highlight today is from around the midway point of the main story – Promised Grace, the theme of Veo Lu Sluice.

One thing that really can’t be captured by listening to just the OST track is the stage introductions that accompany entering an area for the first time. Every level begins with a brief but outrageously charming monologue narrated by a northern English dialect that would make even the citiest of slickers yearn for the rolling emerald hills and grey skies of some kind of ‘–shire’. It also features one of the best sound design details in the series. Check out the video below to around the 1:30 mark:

Leaving only the barest of instrumentation during the spoken intro and then firing up the melody right as the stage name is introduced is such an excellent touch. Crystal Chronicles is also not a particularly lore-heavy game so these drip-fed bits of detail about the world (also the only part of the original release of Crystal Chronicles to be fully voiced) are a welcome moment of appreciation.

The song itself is just a blast. The instrumentation and Renaissance flair are reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX’s more traditional tunes — Rose of May meets Vamo alla Flamenco – but with a nuance that only Tanioka’s live band can provide. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that Final Fantasy IX character designer Toshiyuki Itahana’s involvement in the look of Crystal Chronicles could have influenced Tanioka in the same way it influenced Uematsu’s score for IX.

This really is one of the best examples in Crystal Chronicles of Tanioka’s commitment to a traditional sound. It’s not hard to imagine this playing in the background of any period film where everyone dances in a circle mid-high-five — I went to a Shakespeare festival or two; I know what’s up. In fact the return of Promised Grace’s melody is in nearly that exact kind of setting. Veo Lu Sluice’s theme returns in 2008’s spin-off of a spin-off, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers where it provides the music for one of the title’s several rhythm mini-games. Take a listen to it and some other further listening down below, including a piece from Tanioka’s beautiful stand-alone piano album, Sky’s The Limit and a piece from her iconic work on Final Fantasy XI.

Who knows if/when Tanioka will return to game composition but in the meantime she has left a unique footprint on the Final Fantasy series that deserves to be remembered fondly.

Further Listening:

Review – Star Soldier R

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Star Soldier R

Developer: Hudson Soft
Platform: Wii (WiiWare)
Price: 800 Wii Points (Wii Points unavailable for purchase at the time of this writing)

With the Wii Shop set to completely shutdown in early 2019 and users being locked out of the ability to add more points to their accounts, this review couldn’t have come at a more pointless time. But if, like me, you have a few hundred extra points burning a hole in your digital pocket then this review might just help you decide which ‘Buy’ button to point your Wii Remote at. Especially if you’re looking for experiences that as of this writing are exclusive to WiiWare.

I don’t profess to being an expert of the shoot ‘em up genre but it has always been a part of my palate – an R-Type machine was right across the street from one of my usual summertime haunts and Space Megaforce was a staple of sleepover game rotations. But it wasn’t until the Virtual Console began releasing shooter after shooter after shooter than I understood the breadth and variety of the genre. The Star Soldier series, primarily released for the Turbografx-16, was particularly beyond my purview. Luckily my desire to grab just about anything from the WiiWare service that seemed remotely interesting led me to Star Soldier R and subsequently to the rest of the Star Soldier series.

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Star Soldier R also has what looks like a moon, so bonus points from me

Even within the Star Soldier canon R is an atypical game – gameplay revolves primarily around a short main game designed to be played many times for a high score. The game is even split up into “2-Minute” and “5-Minute” campaigns. And yes, they are quite literally 2-minutes and 5-minutes long; regardless of where you are in the game’s two stages, when the timer runs out it’s game over. This length lends itself incredibly well to return sessions every few months or even years. Players are meant to spend the first few plays memorizing and then the next thousand plays optimizing. For people who find other “full length” shooters to be too intimidating or too much of a time commitment, Star Soldier R offers a bite-sized experience that begs to be replayed over and over.

For a game this slight of content, the amount of time devoted to story is kind of amazing. Waiting on the title screen long enough will trigger a series of still images and text that explain Star Soldier R’s place in the greater Star Soldier timeline and give context this ship’s particular mission. This is so wholly unnecessary that I can’t help by find it outrageously charming. The earnestness with which Star Soldier R presents its story perfectly captures the feeling of an arcade cabinet attract mode. Each stage is also bookended by short cutscenes showing the player’s ship taking off or moving on to its next destination.

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I tried to find more screenshots but Hudson’s old URL is now owned by an ENT in New York. So here’s this guy.

Mechanically Star Soldier R is pretty basic; there are two kinds of power-ups that operate linearly and simultaneously. Blue capsules create satellites around your ship that can be sent of to automatically target enemy spacecraft, while pink capsules enhance your main ship’s shot. There are no branching weapon types or alternate types of fire (beyond the aforementioned satellites). Taking a hit will knock the player down a weapon-level and destroy the player’s ship if at the base weapon-level. This combined with the fact that there are no lives and infinite continues means that anyone can get through a round of Star Soldier R provided the death count hasn’t led to too much lost time, particularly when fighting one of the bosses.

Star Soldier R is a difficult game to recommend logistically speaking – I can recommend it all I want but the chance that anyone is in a position to purchase it is incredibly slim. If you happen to be one of the five people left on the planet with 800 Wii Points to spare and a desire to pick up a short score-attack space shooter exclusive to WiiWare, then by all means, Star Soldier R is the way to go. There are dozens of other games that will give you more content for 800 points on the service but Star Soldier R is fun little revival of a series that is unlikely to resurface anytime soon. Give it a shot if you have to ability to do so.

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The Best Place 001 – Luna (Tales of Phantasia)

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The Best Place is a series about the Moon in videogames. Because the Moon has done a great job so far and it deserves it.

I don’t need to tell you why the Moon is the best place but I will. Without the tides, life may not have evolved the way it did. Tidal pools and the movement of the ocean facilitate some of the most complex and important eco systems in the world. Human society’s most important stories were inspired by it. Cultures all over the world have used it to justify weird gender stuff, sometimes empowering and sometimes subjugating women. That same weird gender stuff has been co-opted to justify new age philosophy and religion. Your aunt probably has a lot to say about the Moon. A race to it determined the political landscape of the latter half of the 20th century. Dogs bark at it maybe. The Moon has gravity. It has a pull so powerful that people confuse it for a lot things it isn’t.

Because it’s just the Moon. It’s perfect and just there. Quiet and mostly empty and sometimes light and sometimes not and it doesn’t care what you think it means. It doesn’t anything because it’s just the Moon. Your aunt is wrong.

Videogames do a lot with the Moon. And that makes sense because The Moon is the best. I hope this series will help you understand that.

The first videogame moon we’re going to look at is the personification of The Moon from 1995’s Tales of Phantasia for Super Famicom, Luna.

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That’s her up there. She’s a moon girl about to laser some ghosts.

Luna is the name of the Greek Goddess of the Moon. She is often depicted with horns on her head obviously because of the crescent moon, you see? The studio behind Tales of Phantasia, Wolfteam (wolves also are very much into the moon), decided this was dumb and instead made her into what appears to be some kind of child’s mobile. If you can find a gif or video you’ll see in her idle animation that the stars and moon around her swing slightly as if suspended from above by an unseen thread. This is super cute and Luna would already be great if this was all there was to her. But there’s so much more.

Tales of Phantasia was re-released several times and with those re-released came updated sprite art and character designs. None were more important than Luna’s.

In Phantasia’s lore there is a long-lost ancient city called Thor. While most of the locations the player visits are the usual fantasy JRPG fare, Thor is a decidedly modern-looking place with skyscrapers, computers, and robots. It’s completely abandoned when the player arrives but I like to imagine that Luna, with her “Eat-At-Luna’s”-style love for noble gas, was familiar with the city during it’s active period.

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Just look at her though. She’s having a blast. What a fun moon. The fact that her little neon sign WITH HER OWN NAME ON IT changes to announce the firing of her laser is about as charming as it gets. It’s not up for debate; Tales of Phantasia, you have given us a wonderful moon, full of life, love, and laughter.

 

I know we started things off with a real bang here — Luna is a treat and we’re gonna have a hard time following up this excellent moon, but please stick with me as we journey through the many many moons that videogames have to offer us. And please, remember…

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Every Pixel Perfect Review: FF DOT. – The Pixel Art of Final Fantasy –

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Kazuko Shibuya is one of the most influential artists in game design and an unsung hero of the ‘videogame’ aesthetic. She created and refined many of the visual elements that have come to define the look of JRPGs . Her artwork for Final Fantasy on the Famicom captured the perfect proportions for expressive and detailed, but uncluttered character design. The default character sprites for the Warriors of Light are timeless and continue to be riffed upon, referenced, parodied, and pastiched in and outside of videogames. Much like coins or ‘? Blocks’ or a HI SCORE leaderboard, Shibuya’s 16×24 pixel figures are cultural shorthand for not just adventure games of a certain vintage, but videogames as the world sees them.

It’s fitting then that for the 30th anniversary of Final Fantasy, Square Enix has released a 288-page love letter to Shibuya, the pixel artists of the 8- and 16-bit era of Final Fantasy, and to an art style that continues to shape pop culture.

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FF DOT. is absolutely a book that you can judge by it’s cover – minimalist, deliberate, clean, and a little bit whimsical. The content is exactly what you would expect. Blown up pixel art from Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, V, and VI in chronological order with plain, often white or black, backgrounds to better highlight the sharp edges and bright colours of the art.

The NES/Famicom trilogy gets the most even representation across it’s three titles. Each section starts out with a detailed look at the playable characters sprites, often breaking down select sprites with both a grid to show the exact dimensions and a colour palette to show just how limited a colour range the artist had to work within. The character section for Final Fantasy III is predictably robust – being the first game in the series to have a job-change system a lot of real estate is taken up by showing off the dozens of different sprites created for each class. Having these character sprites from these three titles in such close proximity makes for a really interesting look at what changes were made to each class as the series progressed; I had never appreciated the subtle differences between Warrior(FFI), Firion(FFII), and Warrior(FFIII) until I compared their dedicated pages in FF DOT.

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WARNING: Book contains a lot of guys that look like this.

But Final Fantasy is more than just the Warriors of Light. Each game also has pages dedicated to enemy sprites, battle backgrounds, items, towns (often breaking them down tile by tile), menus, and bosses. The layout does an excellent job at emphasizing key battle sequences by featuring certain bosses in two-page spreads, sometimes with key dialogue helpfully presented in both Japanese and English. In fact an interesting thing to note is that while this is a Japanese import book, all text is presented not only in Japanese and English, but localized names are provided alongside the Romanized Japanese originals. It’s a nice touch that shows this book was made with love and care for an international audience. It’s also a startling reminder that while Sabin is a bit of a goofy name, it’s infinitely more believable than Mash.

Speaking of Final Fantasy VI, the SNES/Super Famicom era is where FF DOT. falls on it’s face a little. Let’s talk first about where it succeeds. First of all the quality of the art itself is incredible. Any Final Fantasy fan can tell you that, sure, but to see the Phantom Train, Neo Exdeath, and the Four Fiends given the full page treatment really shows of the skill and artistry that went into these games. Two pages are given to the opera scene; one page shows the perspective from the audience, while the other shows the view from onstage as well as Celes throwing her bouquet from atop the set. These story moments captured in time are where the 16-bit trilogy section truly excels.

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I love this layout so much. Someone had to sign off on this. This is brilliant.

Unfortunately the same care that went into meticulously presenting the character sprites of the 8-bit era seems to have been thrown out the window a bit for the 16-bit titles. Final Fantasy V, being the job-based game of this era, is the exception and ends up being represented exceptionally well. All five main characters get full spreads with all of their job-classes present (sans the jobs introduced in the GBA version). Much like the evolution of job design in the NES/Famicom games, comparing the minor differences in the way each FFV character interprets traditional jobs is a real treat – Bartz’ adherence to classic Final Fantasy style, Faris’ balance between masculine and feminine, and Krile’s upending of convention for the sake of cuteness. The casts of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI however don’t get the same level of attention.

Throughout FF DOT. each major character is given a new idle sprite created by Kazuko Shibuya to reflect the evolution of her art. These new pieces are called the ‘2018 Version’ and they show up in each game’s character section to sort of show off what Shibuya’s interpretation of these characters might be today. They are a wonderful addition and wonderful way to show Shibuya’s passion for the series and the characters she helped to create. For whatever reason the character sections of Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI only show these 2018 reinterpretations. Some of the original sprites for these characters can be seen on other pages as parts of larger scenes but not all of them and often not in their standard idle battle pose. Relm, Strago, Rydia and Rosa are just a few examples of characters whose original battle sprites are nowhere to be seen. It’s a baffling decision especially considering I, II, III, and V all have sections dedicated to this very thing. An odd choice and the only thing that mars an otherwise brilliant collection of artwork. Luckily there are a couple extra sections that help make up for this oversight and really push FF DOT. into must-have territory.

The ‘2018 version’ treatment isn’t just limited to the two Nintendo trilogies – every main title in the series up to Final Fantasy XV gets a pixel art makeover. While this isn’t the first time all of these characters have been reinterpreted this way (Final Fantasy XV has pixel art versions of the main four cast members in-game, and Final Fantasy Record Keeper is a mobile game solely about presenting Final Fantasy characters from across the series in a retro style), it is the first time that Kazuko Shibuya has rendered many of them herself. Some entries in the series get more love than others (Kiros and Ward, really?) and there are some important characters left out of the action (XIV doesn’t have any representation beyond A Realm Reborn and even then, no Merlwyb!) but it makes for a fun look at an alternate dimension where the series never left the Super Nintendo. Ever.

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Things have uh… changed for the cast of XIV since then.

And the finale of FF DOT. is almost worth price of admission itself; a ten-page interview with Kazuko Shibuya herself. Accompanied by black and white photos of her and her workspace, it’s a charming and insightful interview that I implore people read if they have any interest in the early days of Square and pioneer women of the games industry. It’s the perfect way to end such a great tribute to her work and the work of everyone who helped make the iconic visuals of such a ubiquitous franchise.

FF DOT. is the kind of book that I wish there were more of. Publishers like Dark Horse and Udon do a great job of localizing beautiful artbooks for all kinds of games with amazing illustrations and they deserve tons of credit for doing so, but these books are often physically large and dense with the same kinds of content. They are ultimately treated like any other merch that lines the shelves of comic shops and Gamestops for a fan to put on their bookshelf with a dozen other books just like it. FF DOT. takes a decidedly different approach to appreciating videogame art; it curates and recontextualizes in-game assets to create a compelling and well-paced journey through a revolutionary movement of digital art.

I highly recommend FF DOT. for anyone with an interest in pixel art, the history of Final Fantasy, and granular visual studies of videogame art and aesthetic.

FF DOT. is available now on the Square Enix official online store for $43.99 USD + shipping, Amazon.com for $52.99 + shipping, or from Amazon.co.jp for 3,780 JPY + shipping. Amazon Japan worked out to be the best price for me.

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Every Pixel Perfect 001 – The Evolution of Cecil

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The evolution of dot/pixel/sprite art in the Final Fantasy series is a topic that I plan on returning to plenty of times throughout this series – there’s 30 years worth of material there to work with after all. Particularly relevant to my interest is the work of artist Kazuko Shibuya. She’s been with Square since the very beginning and is responsible for such designs as the iconic job sprites from Final Fantasy I as well as the enemy sprites she transposed from Yoshitaka Amano’s original concept art. She’s one of Square’s unsung heroes and continues to oversee art and design elements for Final Fantasy to this day.

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I’ve decided to start my analysis of the evolution of Final Fantasy sprite art with everyone’s favourite good boy, Final Fantasy IV’s Cecil Harvey. Since 1991 Cecil has appeared in spin-offs, sequels, remakes, ports, mobile games, etc., and continues to be the poster-boy for the paladin job class. Though Cecil’s original in-game sprite wasn’t designed by Shibuya herself, she did create the artwork that inspired it. You may recognize the trademark chibi style from the covers of the Japanese version of the game:

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From this illustration came the in-game battle sprite for Cecil that everyone knows and loves. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to pin down exactly who on the FFIV team made this sprite; the titles of the staff members in the credits are vague. Even Shibuya was only mentioned in the SPECIAL THANKS category. The best bets for the original artist are Hiromi Nakada, Ryoko Tanaka, (both listed under MAIN GRAPHIC) or Tetsuya Takahashi (with the equally vague title of BATTLE GRAPHIC). Masanori Hoshino is also listed under BATTLE GRAPHIC but when he is encountered as an easter egg in the Developer’s Room he asks the party if the monster designs were to their liking. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have had a hand in designing the characters, but at the very least his focus was enemy design. Curiously, even recent entries like Record Keeper haven’t gotten much better at making their credits known.

With that in mind let’s take a look at how Cecil has changed through the years.

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Final Fantasy IV – SNES – 1991

Here’s the OG. After shedding his Dark Knight armour Cecil becomes the first Final Fantasy character to take on the job title of Paladin. Here we see the debut of elements that would become synonymous with the job throughout the series: the suit of knightly armour, the saintly diadem. Cecil looks virtually nothing like his Amano concept art but is still distinct and colorful. Of particular note is how the sprite stands; legs and face in side profile, but with the chest in a ¾ view where both shoulders can be seen. Though Shibuya herself didn’t create these first 16-bit battle sprites, this stance with the single visible leg, distinct from Final Fantasy VI’s full ¾ view, would influence her style later on, particularly in 2008 with her work on The After Years following a ten-year hiatus. Also of note is that much like Link in A Link to the Past, Cecil’s hair colour is a radical departure from any of his other appearances. Those crazy 90s kids.

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Final Fantasy Chronicles – PS1 – 2001

Cecil and several other characters were given re-drawn sprites during the loading screens of the PS1 port included in the Final Fantasy Chronicles compilation. It’s the only time these specific sprites make an appearance and they feature some unique poses like Cecil running, Kain holding his lance, and Rosa kneeling in prayer. It’s only marginally different from the SNES original on the surface, but the subtle changes are interesting. Notably it’s the only sprite that softens the outline of the character’s features – the face, hair, body, and hands are still distinct but with more subtle shading than the cartoony black outline of in-game battle sprite. With all the tiny differences in shape and outline I can’t help but think that perhaps the artist whose job it was to redraw these sprites didn’t have any reference to work from other than looking at the game on a CRT screen. They may have adapted it as closely as they reasonable could without a pixel-by-pixel example and understandably created some discrepancies. You end up with a sprite that for all intents and purposes would have looked the same on a blurry 90s television. That’s just my theory though.

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Final Fantasy Record Keeper – Mobile – 2014

I’m jumping a bit in the chronology with this one but I think it’s fun to look at next to the SNES original. Final Fantasy Record Keeper is a free-to-play mobile game that has survived almost purely on the novelty of seeing characters old and new in the 16-bit style. To the average player it may seem that the sprites were ripped directly from the original but side-by-side you can see a distinct difference. Record Keeper’s sprites actually crib their style from Final Fantasy VI – note that the face is still in profile, but both the chest AND the legs are in ¾ view. This was standard for Terra and friends but they were the exception in a series that refused to show us anyone’s upstage leg. This sprite economizes space a little better as well; Cecil’s face is one less pixel tall and wide. This gives more freedom to detail things like the hair and pauldrons. His left and right fist use three pixels and one pixel fewer respectively. This may not sound like much on paper but when you’re working with a 16×24 canvas it can make a world of difference. All the visual information of the original is still conveyed here but in a more efficient way. Seeing the upstage leg doesn’t just help the viewer get a better sense of depth by matching the perspective of his torso, but it helps Cecil appear balanced – the original’s slightly larger head and fists make him appear top heavy and pitched forward.

This style that embraces a ¾ chest and leg view only appeared in the main series for Final Fantasy VI and wouldn’t see a return until All The Bravest and Record Keeper used it from 2013 onward.

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Final Fantasy IV The After Years – Mobile – 2008

Before Square discovered the gacha model could be used to milk nostalgia for all it’s worth, Final Fantasy came to mobile phones in the much-maligned FFIV sequel, The After Years. This was Shibuya’s first pixel art in ten years after working on UI and other graphic design elements for the series. This Cecil is thirteen years older than in FFIV and bears little resemblance to his younger self. What’s interesting here is again the stance he’s in. Shibuya returns to the simpler body shape of the single-leg view with the ¾ chest. Remember that FFVI had expanded on this over a decade earlier and was praised endlessly for being the zenith of pixel art for the time. It could be argued that this was done to preserve the look and feel of IV’s style but I’m not convinced. Just look at the drastic difference in proportions between The After Years and FFIV — nearly half the pixels that were used for SNES Cecil’s face are used here, the shoulders are dropped to give the figure a more human silhouette, the arms are extended further and at different lengths, and the hands are smaller. It seems less like an insistence on a return to the SNES style and more Shibuya finding a style that appealed to her the most, consciously disregarding the changes that had been made for VI.
This is also the first time we see Cecil’s headwear represented as it is in his concept art – a single blue pixel gives us all the visual information we need to infer his kingly circlet. Another version of this sprite exists on the cover of the album FINAL FANTASY TRIBUTE ~THANKS~ from 2012 with a few single-pixel alterations and a decidedly more angry facial expression. Shibuya herself drew all the sprites for the cover and there’s an incredible interview with her around the time of the album’s release at shmuplations.

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FF DOT. CALENDAR 2018 – 2018

A little out of chronological order again but this one is interesting to look at next to After Years Cecil. This sprite was created by Shibuya for a 2018 pixel art calendar sold on Square Enix’s Japanese online store and is the most recent interpretation of the character. Because no bitmap of this sprite is available I created one myself using images of the calendar as a reference.

Here Cecil is depicted as his younger self and more closely resembles his concept art than ever before. The yellow lining of his cape, the pauldron spikes, and his purple circlet show us the essence of Amano’s paladin. It also bears the distinction of being the angriest Cecil of the bunch. In fact many of Shibuya’s recent work has depicted a large number of Final Fantasy protagonists with the American Kirby angry eyes. Maybe she’s going through something.

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Final Fantasy Record Keeper – Mobile – 2014

The “Cosmic Paladin” costume from Record Keeper is meant to depict Cecil as he was seen in Dissidia which in turn was meant to evoke the feeling of Amano’s original concept art. Like Shibuya’s calendar piece this Cecil tries to portray his white flowing tresses, his purple and ivory palette, and the intricacies of his armour. Unfortunately it tries to be a bit too literal with some of the representation and winds up being a bit muddy. Without prior knowledge of Cecil’s Dissidia outfit there’s just not enough space in the 16×24 pixel canvas to translate the design this literally. It was ambitious though and I’m glad this little piece exists.

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Pictlogica Final Fantasy – Mobile – 2013

I admit that the Pictlogica design for Cecil was not my favourite at first, but I’ve warmed up to the slightly vacant expression and less intricate colours. Despite having a similar palette it’s hard to find anything distinctly ‘Cecil’ about this sprite. The elements are there but he feels the most generic of the bunch.

Comparing the in-house styles of Pictlogica and Record Keeper is one of my favourite things when it comes to Final Fantasy sprite work. Both are mobile games that feature constantly updating rosters of Final Fantasy characters old and new, but that’s where their design similarities end. Where Record Keeper’s sprites carry on the visual elements of Final Fantasy VI, Pictlogica seems to be doing it’s own thing entirely, for better or worse. It still gives us the upstage leg for added depth but it also opts for much simpler colour palettes and bolder outlines. Lighter colours are used to give the black outlines a higher contrast than the more visually complex Record Keeper sprites. Go search for your favourite Final Fantasy protagonist from both games and you’ll see just how differently their design can be interpreted. It’s especially interesting for characters from IV and V; comparing the originals, their VI-inspired Record Keeper counterparts, and their Pictlogica versions is an interesting study.

The fact that Shibuya didn’t create a sprite based on his concept art until 2017 shows that the skill required to interpret Amano’s art into such minimal real estate is an incredibly difficult undertaking. That’s almost certainly one of the reasons that so many liberties were taken when he first appeared in 16-bits with his short purple hair and golden armour.

It can be easy to take excellent pixel art for granted when game stores are lousy with throwback merchandise and each week sees a new retro-inspired platformer. With Final Fantasy having recently celebrated it’s 30th birthday there are plenty of avenues for Square to capitalize on series nostalgia. But even taken out of context it’s easy to see what makes these designs so evergreen. It’s the limitation of resources that forces an artist to make bold choices about how visual information is presented. This isn’t a new idea to anyone familiar with pixel art, but to see how many different artists (or even the same artist over many years) can interpret a character using the same limitations is endlessly exciting. And Cecil, as the white knight that introduced RPGs to a significant audience in the west, is a perfect example of how varied these interpretations can be.

Licensed Repro Carts Could Breathe New Life Into the Retro Market

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It’s no secret that SNES nostalgia is strong; The SNES Classic was one of the hottest items of the past holiday season and it doesn’t show much sign of slowing down. The inclusion of the Star Fox 2 turned the plug-and-play mini-console into more than just a totem of consumer nostalgia; it’s the only way to play an officially licensed version of one of the most famous unreleased games of all time. And being a physical release means that it will more or less be available to the people that absolutely need to have it. Nintendo’s previous venture into unreleased game territory was Earthbound Beginnings for the WiiU Virtual Console and as such is subject to the unpredictable whims of digital platforms – and judging by how quickly the WiiU has been abandoned it’s not hard to imagine that the digital storefront won’t be around much longer.
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On the side of physical releases Retro-bit recently revealed the next two pieces in their line of licensed reproduction carts — Holy Diver for NES and R-Type Returns (containing the duology of Super R-Type and R-Type III) on SNES. Retro-bit’s line has already released several game compilation cartridges like the Jaleco Brawler’s Pack and the Data East Classic Collection. The latter featurs a translation of Magical Drop 2 originally made by prolific fan-translator Aeon Genesis. But this is the first time they’ve given individual games the full-package treatment and in the case of Holy Diver this is the first time that title has been officially released outside of Japan.

The combination of ‘releasing physical copies of games for legacy consoles’, ‘releasing games that were previously unreleased’, and ‘licensing fan-translations’ is setting a precedent that could easily lead to a golden age for fans and collectors of physical media that have grown tired of the increasingly frustrating retro market. There’s only so many retro game expos one can attend before the “$1000 CIB Earthbound and Friends” get tiring.
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In 2017 Iam8bit brought reproduction cartridges of Street Fighter II into the world and they’ve already become a sought after collector’s item. The packaging is lovingly crafted, it contains a full-color manual with a foreward by Seth Killian, and even comes with a voucher for a free fanny-pack to really hit the 90s nostalgia on the head. It’s still vanilla Street Fighter II however so the odds of it getting a lot of play when better versions of the game are available on every system under the sun are slim. But again, it shows that there is still a market for physical media in an industry where licenses can expire and games can disappear from digital storefronts with little to no warning. It’s a rejection of the service platform model and all the trappings that come with it. There’s comfort in knowing that a piece of media can be owned, not just licensed from a provider, and companies like Retro-bit and Iam8bit are embracing that.