Like most people in the gaming community, I’ve been thinking a lot about Final Fantasy VII lately.
I guess it’s only natural. After all, the game that changed virtually everything we thought we knew about role-playing games — and to some extent, even video games themselves — just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The Final Fantasy VII anniversary celebration came with all the fanfare we expect from video game development companies: new game announcements, trailers for mobile games, exclusive anniversary merchandise, and more.
Over the years, Final Fantasy VII has snowballed. At this point, Final Fantasy VII is almost as big as the franchise it’s a part of.
But back in February 1996, when Square announced Final Fantasy VII, the developer was making quite a gamble. After the first six installments of Final Fantasy — and many side games — were successful on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the Super Nintendo, and the GameBoy, Square was taking a risk and moving their biggest game to date to Sony’s untested system, the disc-based PlayStation.
Today, it’s easy to see why people would want a PlayStation. The system was an unequivocal success, but back then, Sony was untested as a console manufacturer. And many other well-known brands had tried and failed.
Not to mention, the PlayStation launched with a premium price tag. In 1995, a new PlayStation sold for $299. The Nintendo 64, on the other hand, launched at $199.99.
Would the Final Fantasy fanbase stick with Square? Could they convince long-time Nintendo fans to take a chance on the Sony PlayStation?
And so, Square’s Final Fantasy VII marketing push began.
In the mid-nineties, traditional JRPGs didn’t have a firm foothold in the West yet. They hadn’t gone mainstream. Square saw Final Fantasy VII as its chance to establish Japanese role-playing games in the West. At the time, Square even opened a sales and marketing office in the United States to help promote the game.
After the disappointing sales of Final Fantasy VI outside of Japan, it wasn’t just Square that needed a huge hit with Final Fantasy VII internationally — Sony did, too.
To legitimize the PlayStation and help it compete with the Nintendo 64 and the Sega Saturn, Sony agreed to co-promote Final Fantasy VII, spending its own marketing dollars to give the PlayStation a shot at having a headline game that would push console sales and force the market to take Sony seriously.
According to Square’s president and chief executive officer at the time, Tomoyuki Takechi, just in the North American market, Square alone spent more than $20 million on marketing.
Square’s Final Fantasy VII marketing plan outlined a plan to push the game through print ads, television spots, in-store promotions, general press, and even ‘90s-era digital marketing to target SquareSoft enthusiasts and lapsed 16-bit RPG gamers and convince them to make the jump to Sony’s PlayStation for Final Fantasy VII.
Today, it’s clear that Square and Sony’s concentrated marketing push was a smart move. Together, the hardware manufacturer and the software developer brought Final Fantasy VII — and Japanese role-playing games more broadly — to the mainstream.
And over the last 25 years, Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and the Avalanche gang have solidified their position in Western pop culture.
Hell, even my non-gamer mom would probably recognize Cloud’s spiky hair and his Buster Sword.
Even though it was hard to see it happening in the mid-nineties, when I think about Square’s release of Final Fantasy VII and Sony’s introduction to the console market, it’s clear that Final Fantasy VII had a moment. The stars aligned and the game caught fire: From a gameplay perspective, it was the perfect game. From a technical perspective, it was on the capable console. And from a business perspective, it had the right marketing muscle.
It was the “Final Fantasy VII Moment.”
And I think it’s possible that we’re living through Xenoblade Chronicles’ Final Fantasy VII moment.
Here’s what I mean.
Some Background on the Xeno History
If you haven’t been playing RPGs for the past 25 years, you might be surprised to learn that the Xeno metaseries has been around for quite a while. (In fact, ironically, the first game in the metaseries, Xenogears, was originally proposed as the story for Final Fantasy VII.)
The point is, Xeno has had a cult following since 1998’s Xenogears. And despite the critical acclaim for the Xenosaga series for the PlayStation 2, Xeno games haven’t gone mainstream. Arguably, the Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 have come the closest to mainstream success, but even their appeal has been limited.
Xenoblade just isn’t a household name. Yet.
It probably came closest to being a household name when Sakurai put Pyra and Mytha into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
But Monolith Soft’s newest addition to the Xeno metaseries — and Nintendo’s focused marketing push — might be just what the series needs to move beyond its hardcore JRPG fanbase and reach new (and perhaps more casual) audiences.
While it might not have the cultural and industry-wide significance of Final Fantasy VII — an impossibly tall order — Xenoblade Chronicles 3 could be the title that breaks through. And with more than 107 million Nintendo Switches sold around the globe, this could be Xenoblade’s best chance of breaking through and becoming more than just another JRPG.
Betting Big on Xenoblade
Earlier in the month, Sony and Microsoft had huge presentations that showed off a huge number of games. Sony’s State of Play event featured looks at Resident Evil 4, Street Fighter 6, Final Fantasy XVI, The Callisto Protocol, and many more. The Microsoft & Bethesda Games Showcase gave us glimpses at Starfield, Forza Motorsport, Naraka: Bladepoint, and Redfall.
And while everyone was expecting Nintendo to announce an E3-worthy Direct with information on upcoming first-party games like Breath of the Wild 2, Metroid Prime 4, or maybe even a sequel to Super Mario Odyssey, Nintendo pulled a Nintendo.
Nintendo’s response to Sony and Microsoft’s presentations wasn’t a roadmap for the next year: It was a 20-minute preview of a game that’s coming in a few weeks: Xenoblade Chronicles 3, a niche JRPG title with a limited audience.
But Nintendo went all out with it. The Direct felt more like a Pokémon Presents than a typical Nintendo Direct. And no matter how you feel about Xenoblade Chronicles, giving it the Pokémon treatment is a big gamble.
But it’s not just Nintendo’s decision to focus solely on Xenoblade Chronicles 3 that makes that presentation so unique — it’s the actual Direct itself. In the Direct, Nintendo appears to be actively trying to make the Xenoblade series more accessible to casual players.
If a casual player knows anything about the Xenoblade Chronicles series, they know a few things:
These Games are Long
Xenoblade games don’t just ask for small amounts of time — they require a significant time commitment.
These games are excruciatingly long. We expect RPGs to be long games, and games you can finish in 40-60 hours are definitely a commitment, but it’s expected. But with Xenoblade, a single playthrough can run upwards of 60 hours or more. And that’s just to complete the main story. For new players, though, who don’t know where to go, what to do, or how to navigate the map, their playtime could be upwards of 100 hours.
Just the thought of spending dozens of hours on a game and barely scratching the surface is intimidating.
The Combat is Weird
For many new players, the Xenoblade combat system feels so unnatural for a video game.
Unlike traditional turn-based RPGs, your characters battle in real-time. But unlike action RPGs, you don’t actually control what your characters do. Until you get used to it, the combat feels really passive. The auto-attacks make you feel like you’re watching a game more than playing it. And unfortunately, it takes too long for the combat to really take off. By the time you start to unlock new Arts and are able to use combos, you’re already more than 10 hours in.
That’s a huge drag.
A Little Too Much Anime
Look, a little anime never killed anyone. (Right…?) But the anime tropes in Xenoblade can be off-putting.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has much more of an anime aesthetic than the first game, and its over-the-top characters and… interesting… character designs can give new players the wrong impression about the series, especially if they only see the character models.
And for many people, these things are intimidating. They’re enough to scare new players away from the series without ever trying them. Or worse, new players try a Xenoblade game, get frustrated a few hours in, and swear off the series.
(I’m all too familiar with being frustrated with Xenoblade. I played through the entire first game being frustrated, having a few short hours of gameplay between much longer periods of grinding, running aimlessly around huge empty areas, getting hopelessly lost, and grinding some more. I feel like I spent a ton of my playthrough just waiting for the game to be fun. Thankfully, I gave Xenoblade Chronicles 2 a shot and loved it.)
The Xenoblade Chronicles 3 Direct
For this Xenoblade Direct, though, it seems like Nintendo was making a point to make Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feel more approachable.
In the Direct, Nintendo appeared to acknowledge the things that create barriers between new players and the Xenoblade series.
After the short intro sequence, one of the first things you hear is a voice, explaining what seems to be the core conflict in Xenoblade Chronicles 3: the juxtaposition of a never-ending war with the brevity of an individual life.
We each have a lifespan of ten years. We call them terms. Life begins with our first term and ends at the close of our tenth. And over the course of those years, we fight continually.
From there, we’re introduced to the war between Keves and Agnus and the concept of killing to sustain yourself and survive.
It feels like a clean slate. New players don’t need to know anything about Xenoblade Chronicles or Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to get into this game. At this point, new players know just as much — and probably have many of the same questions — as seasoned Xenoblade players.
This kind of level-setting is crucial for bringing new players to the franchise.
Next, the Direct introduces a new cast of characters: Noah, Eunie, Lanz, Mio, Taion, and Sena. Again, none of these characters are from previous games — although there are some clear callbacks to other characters. Compared to the previous game, the art style and character designs are much more mature.
At this point, the Direct makes a bit of a turn and gets straight to gameplay. There’s a section on the world of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and new quality-of-life improvements to help you navigate it. There’s another section on the battle system, explaining in detail how the auto-attack works, how to use arts, how to string together combos, and how each class plays.
This attention to detail and almost granular explanation of the core mechanics of a Xenoblade game that makes this Direct so important, so different. While Nintendo did release the Nintendo Direct Mini Partner Showcase, there hasn’t been any confirmation of any new first-party titles coming this year. That means that Nintendo is betting big on Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and Splatoon 3 for the remainder of 2022.
So could this be Xenoblade’s Final Fantasy VII moment?
I think right now, the Switch’s huge install base, Nintendo’s focused marketing push, and the game’s apparent polish give Xenoblade a really good chance of breaking into the mainstream — whatever that means anymore — and outselling the first two games in the series.
We’ll find out soon.