Old Man Musings – Summer of Square

I’m sure it’s pretty apparent that I’m a giant Squaresoft fan. Having gotten really into gaming between 1997 and 2000, it’s pretty darn easy to be fond of the titles that Squaresoft put out. They formed a huge part of the Playstation library, and certainly over half of what I own on PSX discs are games that they put out. RPGs are my favourite genre of games, and during those years, Squaresoft seemed like they could do no wrong.

Obviously that couldn’t last forever (As the Play Online insert for FF9 reminded me (and Play Online itself was quite the disaster), Final Fantasy Spirits Within was just around the corner), but while it lasted, it was incredible. For me, the Squaresoft of those years was a massive inspiration, and their games forever impacted my tastes and interests. Lets go on a journey through that golden summer.

2000 saw a particularly interesting time with Squaresoft: they decided to do something called the Summer of Adventure. They put out three games in three months, and as if that wasn’t enough, had exclusive offers related to each. Though I wound up buying all of the games, I didn’t find out about the CDs (with a small selection of each game’s music) or the backpack (yeah, that’s right, a rad backpack to hold all of your Squaresoft stuff) until it was too late.

Even though I missed out on the fun, and the company has drastically changed since then, that time will always have a special place in my heart. At that point, I had already played a large number of Square games, and they had totally blown me away with Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, Secret of Mana, and the Final Fantasy series. My friends Nate and Brian really gave me the in to the exciting world of RPGs, and Square made sure that my shelves were stocked with amazing stories once I arrived.

The three games that came out during the Summer of Adventure each bring some interesting things to the table, and it’s worth taking a quick glance at each one of them. Sure, they made mistakes here and there, but they forged ahead and tried new things.

Chrono Cross was a direct sequel to Chrono Trigger, but unlike another game from this trio, feels pretty much nothing like its predecessor. All of the time travel fun times are gone, and the battle system feels not only unlike CT’s but unlike most other RPG battle systems out at the time. The stamina system allows characters to put themselves into stamina debt in order to use spells without losing their entire turn to casting. Spells themselves were interesting, they could generally only be used once per fight, and changed the field color of the battle (getting it all one color allowed use of very high-end spells).

The story incorporates elements of the Satellaview Radical Dreamers game, and explores some fascinating consequences of the tie hopping of the first game. It’s not a sequel in the sense that one would typically expect, but it really dives in to some interesting aspects of the world that CT set out. Just like Chrono Trigger, the music is rock solid, and is hands down some of the best music I’ve ever heard, let alone game music. If you don’t own the OST, you should fix that right now. Also, it gets bonus points for the main character using a weapon other than a sword.

Threads of Fate is not a sequel in spirit or setting, and differs heavily from the usual Squaresoft offerings. While CC is polygon characters on static backgrounds, and Legend of Mana is all hand drawn/sprited, ToF is a fully polygonal action game. The game starts by letting you pick to play as Rue or Mint, experiencing radically different stories and game mechanics.

While I played through this game once as each character, I must confess that it’s been ages (as in, since I first bought it), so I can’t speak much to the quality of the soundtrack or story. I do recall some really interesting combat and puzzle solving with Rue, as he could obtain monsters he defeated as forms he could transform into. You know, writing that out, it sounds like a brilliant mechanic with tons of opportunity, and I don’t know why we’ve never seen this idea revisited anywhere else. Some really cool ideas showed up in this game, but with the crazy year that Square was having (in addition to these three games we also saw FF9, Vagrant Story, Parasite Eve 2, and Front Mission 3), it largely flew under the radar. Without the backing of World of Mana, the Chronoverse, or the Final Fantasy title, it was just a one off that hid in the shadows of other titles (which is a shame, cause it was pretty darn cool).

Legend of Mana fills out the trio, and is my favourite of the three by far. Growing up without a SNES, I didn’t actually play Secret of Mana til much later (my first full playthrough was a single night LAN party networked three player emulation, and it was amazing, but it was after I had played Legend of Mana), and LoM stole my heart before SoM could get to me. The art was amazing, and as I discussed in a previous article, I was so enamored that I bought the strategy guide as much for the art as for the guidance. The game was drastically different from previous Mana entries (Final Fantasy Adventure and SoM, both of which I love), but still incorporates the elements that make it clearly a Mana game.

The storytelling style took a strange turn from the usual linear approach found in FFA and SoM (though, given the way the story is told in Seiken Densetsu 3 (Secret of Mana 2, if you will), it makes a lot of sense), and I found that it made for something that sat between a slice of life experience and a realist world where things happen when they happen. The game featured multiple major storylines, each with specific sequences or chapters, which could be played in pretty much any order. For a lot of people, that made it feel disjointed, but I loved bouncing from one adventure to the next, catching up with characters as I could and seeing their stories through piece by piece. Also, in a bizarre touch, you built the world map as you played, some events unlocking new locations that could be placed as desired. This, combined with a robust crafting system, pets, programmable golems, and insane amounts of optional content, made for an incredibly detailed and enjoyable world.

With each of these games, there was a lot to be excited about. It was a different time: a time before terrible voice acting, a time before the Squeenix merger, a time when we finally had polygons in our grasp and everything just kept looking better all the time. The PS2 had just come out, but the PSX was still receiving one excellent title after another. It was a golden age that stands out in my mind, and my rose-coloured nostalgia-glasses keep it looking good.

Those days are over, and Squaresoft is no longer anything more than a memory. But wow, is it a good memory.


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