Although the series is the man who brought Final Fantasy to life, it has yet to reflect Yoshitaka Amano’s style – and it’s time that changed.
Yoshitaka Amano is one of the most important names in video game art. Best known for character and concept designs for the Final Fantasy Series, the products of Amano’s decades of career have received worldwide recognition for their unmistakable, dreamlike quality. His work is as iconic for Square Enix’s flagship franchise as his Magic and Moggle, and it’s one of the show’s biggest charms, especially the older entries.
Despite the positive response to Amano’s art, no main Final Fantasy game has really reflected his work. From the beginning of the series there has always been a clear visual separation between what Amano drew and what the developers were able to represent on screen. That made sense in the 90s, but times have changed and the graphics are better than ever. Yet despite all of these advances, no Final Fantasy really looks like Amano’s work is coming to life – and it’s high time that changed.
Although Yoshitaka Amano has largely stepped down from his role as the character designer of Final Fantasy, he is still arguably the most iconic artist the series has ever had. His work is fantastic, sometimes interpretive and often extravagant in the best possible way. It strongly highlights the “fantasy” half of the franchise title, with its black-clad knights, long-bearded wizards, and beautiful virgins wreathed with power. It’s hard to call it realistic, but that’s exactly what sets it apart, especially at a time when the series has embraced photorealism for its core games.
That’s not to say that people like Tetusya Nomura and other artists have taken over the character designs of the series are bad at what they do – far from it. These YouTubers have their own pull and have clearly earned their fair share of fans. As such, they have been determining the visual direction of the series since the late 1990s. Although Amano is the first name in Final Fantasy art, he never received the same honor. Not only have newer games distanced themselves from his style, remakes of the titles he worked on are more faithful to the original sprites than his concept images.
It makes sense that the remasters stay true to their originals. Fandom’s mixed take on the iOS remake changes proves that the old sprites are still popular. Changing them again, even in honor of Amano, would likely be controversial. This very fact is probably why Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster looks a lot like these earlier games. However, this does not explain why the potential of Amano’s work is still being ignored after so long.
Final Fantasy games consistently do well critically and commercially, but all that success can’t hide the fact that they are no longer as visually unique as they once were. Each step towards realism removes the series from its magical origins and opts for a rougher artistic tone instead. While that makes sense for urban fantasy games like FFXV and FFVII remake that purposely conjure up a world much closer to the real thing technologically makes it a lot less for titles like Final Fantasy Origin.
In fact, Origin is arguably Square Enix’s biggest missed opportunity for an Amano-style game. Not only does it bring players back to an environment he has drawn, but his creepy-looking fiends and terrifyingly inhuman “Cloudsea Djinn” design for Garland would have fitted perfectly into a darker, horror-bordering Final Fantasy game. Instead, Origin throws photorealistic characters into a dark temple. While the brooding color palette and eye-catching effects make it look good by AAA video game standards, its lack of visual cohesion or creativity makes for a surprisingly uninspired game.
Origin still has time to free itself, but its nondescript first performance only exemplifies the need for a Final Fantasy game that truly represents Amano’s work. Although there have been some attempts to bring its characters to life in the current Square Enix graphic style, the combination of realistic people and its imaginative costumes has never looked completely natural.
It would be more appropriate to design an entire game like one of Amano’s paintings and create an aesthetic more akin to Okami than any of the modern day Final Fantasy games. Something like this could be a gamble, especially after so many years of realistic-looking titles, but Amano’s importance and the masterly beauty of his work make it a risk worth taking.
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Freelance writer and game designer with Masters degrees in Game Design and Creative Writing. Build your own games at @SamRowettGames