OPINION: Why Square Enix Is Losing Money—An Indictment

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

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Gratuitous Musical Embellishments

Music has always been another one of Squaresoft and Square Enix’s strong points. However, its arrangers exhibit, in my opinion, an extremely irritating tendency to needlessly embellish past compositions when arranging for remakes of 8-bit games. More often than not, they graft new introductory and transitional passages and extra instrumentation onto existing melodies. They may think they’re enhancing the old compositions, but they’re really wrecking their simple beauty by adding too much.

The new passages are extremely unwelcome intrusions into the compositions, drawing undue attention to themselves and away from the main melody or disrupting and ruining the original’s emotional effect. The extra instrumentation is gratuitous, making the compositions sound busier than they need to. Both detract rather than contribute. The original compositions were brilliant examples of less being more—a quality the arrangers tend to be deaf to.

Furthermore, half the time, Square Enix’s “enhanced” remakes of 8- and 16-bit soundtracks sound worse than the original because of thoughtlessly chosen instruments and low-quality, low-fidelity, and low-subtlety instrument samples. Nothing ruins a classic composition—or the player’s memories and feelings associated with it—like out-of-place instruments and lousy-sounding instrument samples. Between this and the gratuitous embellishments, I feel the old compositions would have been better off left in their original forms in the remakes. How can the technology exist to improve the audio quality of a composition, yet the arranger makes it sound even worse?

Let me demonstrate. Below is one of the most powerful and moving compositions of Final Fantasy Legend II (SaGa 2), “Wipe Your Tears Away.” Please listen to it.

Now, compare it with the DS arrangement below:

In addition to adapting the original’s 8-bit instruments to more realistic-sounding instrument samples, the DS arrangement also adds a new introduction, percussion, and some more backup instruments. In my opinion, these additions are not only gratuitous, they get in the way. The intro sounds hastily composed and emotionally insincere. Even worse, it prevents the composition from getting to the point. The additional instruments muddy the melody, greatly reducing its emotional impact. But worst of all, the main instrument the arranger has chosen—some kind of chime, I think—completely lacks the raw emotive power of its 8-bit counterpart!

The original composition works because of how empty it sounds. The lonely melody, only sparsely complemented by two other instruments, seems to cry out in mourning, stopping occasionally to punctuate how empty and broken the affected character in the story is feeling—and to evoke the same feelings in the listener. It is because it is simple and uncomplicated that it is able to convey these feelings so powerfully and profoundly. The violin or erhu (Chinese fiddle), I feel, would have made apt substitutes for the original 8-bit instrument in the melody, since both are capable of producing a similarly mournful sound. Yet, the DS arranger completely misses the point, grafting fancy-sounding noises onto the composition and assigning an insultingly lighthearted chime to the melody, cheapening a heartrending outpouring of grief into a forgettable and ineffectual tune.

Music, unlike words, needs no translation or embellishment. Classic game music only needs, at most, a faithful adaptation. Square Enix has proven its arrogance many times in this regard. It is like an overly self-loving celebrity who feels the need to overact in public to prove to everybody how great he or she is. If it’s going to be too proud to approach its past music with the reverence it deserves when creating a remake, why should longtime fans buy it? Their gaming memories are tied strongly to the music as they remember it—to trample upon the music would be to trample upon the fans themselves.

Boring, Frustrating Gameplay

Even if Square Enix’s character models and translations stagnate and its arrangements of past soundtracks fall flat on their faces, its game design, at least, should not. Alas, even here, it blunders. I feel many of Square Enix’s games lately have been either boring or too frustrating. Where once Squaresoft and Square Enix RPGs defined what an RPG should be, they now demonstrate what an RPG shouldn’t do.

Final Fantasy XI and XIV drop players into impractically, boringly, and mind-numbingly massive cities and environments that take forever to traverse. Final Fantasy XIII forcibly funnels them through blatantly uncreative linear environments that not only bore them with their functional monotony, but also restrict their sense of freedom. Final Fantasy XI is far too difficult, with hard enemies, paltry experience gains, stratospheric level-up requirements, and experience penalties for lower-level players in parties, which makes playing with friends who have been playing for some time practically impossible.

Furthermore, Final Fantasy XIII’s overreliance on the stagger system toward the end of the game makes battles very frustrating and betrays an inability to design reasonable challenges. The game’s inability to stop the action in a battle menu or pause in battle without obscuring the entire screen makes the slow, methodical, relaxed playstyle possible in past Final Fantasy games impossible, which takes control away from the players. The in-game camera feels far too loose, making players feel even less in control.

Put simply, these games are more exasperating than fun. A game that is no fun is worthless. And yet, that’s what Square Enix insists on producing: games that either bore or frustrate.

Preposterous Mobile Prices

Unreasonable prices—specifically, the prices of Square Enix’s mobile offerings—can be an even bigger player deterrent than all the aforementioned deterrents. The company must be out of its corporate mind to price some of its games as high as it does. How deluded does the management have to be to believe iPhone gamers would gladly pay $9.99 USD for Chrono Trigger, $15.99 USD for Final Fantasy III, $17.99 USD for The World Ends with You, or $38.98 USD for the complete Final Fantasy Dimensions? How senseless do they have to be to demand $39.99 USD for a mere rhythm game like Theatrythm? No sane gamer would ever pay such exorbitant prices. They’re surely driving gamers away, regardless of the games’ quality, and they make Square Enix look very, very greedy. If Square Enix wants to succeed in today’s mobile gaming world, it needs to slash its prices hard.

Publishing: Square Enix’s Double-edged Sword

As a publisher, however, Square Enix has been fantastic lately. It’s been backing some truly fresh projects like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Sleeping Dogs, as well as well-done standard fare like Chaos Rings. Square Enix’s success as a publisher, however, could further undermine its reputation as a developer.

The three aforementioned games all outdo Square Enix’s own games in some way. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Sleeping Dogs aren’t RPGs, but I find their art direction and stories much more interesting than those of half the games Square Enix has produced over the last ten years. Chaos Rings looked, sounded, and felt so much like a good Square Enix RPG to me, I assumed that’s what it was for at least a week before discovering it had actually been developed by Media.Vision. In other words, Media.Vision did Square Enix better than Square Enix. When a game company is publishing games more interesting than its own, something is seriously wrong. No wonder it’s bleeding money.

Three Square Enix-published games that are more interesting than Square Enix’s own games.
Chaos Rings, in particular, is one of the best Square Enix RPGs not made by Square Enix.

For far too long, Square Enix has been stagnating as a game developer. Its character designs haven’t changed since the late 1990s. Its writing has been bloated and dry for many years. It can’t arrange its own classic soundtracks without clumsily overdoing it. It can no longer design games skillfully or thoughtfully. It demands too much money in the mobile realm. And the games it publishes for other developers are turning out to be better than its own games. This company is slowly fracturing under the weight of its many inadequacies.

Square Enix needs to slap itself and all its employees hard. The entire company is in a stupor, and it needs to wake up now.

Thanks to Steve Baltimore, Jodie Langford, Ceruleath Noreleth, and Rose Weitz for their valuable assistance with this article.


About Oscar Tong

Oscar joined oprainfall late September 2012 in response to a recruitment drive. He quickly discovered his job was much harder than he had anticipated. Despite the constant challenge, he has come to enjoy his responsibilities.

When he is not scrambling to meet a deadline, Oscar enjoys story-driven games with a strong narrative. He is especially fond of computer adventure games, role-playing games, and visual novels. He hopes the world will one day awaken to the power of video games as a storytelling medium.

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