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.
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.
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.
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.
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.