Square Enix, the studio behind Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, is no stranger when it comes to crafting monster-catching games. Though Nintendo’s Pokemon media empire will forever wear the crown as the most recognizable brand in that regard, Square Enix has made several Final Fantasy-related games recently that are almost identical to the pocket monster king. In fact, the studio’s made so many that it’s starting to look like Square Enix is poised for a full commitment to the critter-collecting genre.
Over the past few years, Square Enix has been blending the worlds of its Final Fantasy characters together in order to create ensemble experiences like Dissidia and Kingdom Hearts for their fans. As the series’s popularity rises and characters become more recognizable across the globe, it makes sense to keep them in the spotlight even after their debuts are over. Now, that same logic is being applied to Final Fantasy’s creatures, several of which are nearly as recognizable as their human protagonists. This might be a stretch for some Final Fantasy fans, but Square Enix has actually been flirting with monsters for a long time.
Most likely the first thing anyone will think of in relation to Squaresoft is Final Fantasy, and the first game that usually comes up is Final Fantasy VII. The obvious examples of creature-collecting in that game are the summon collecting and the chocobo breeding , where each new chick you raise brings you closer to a winning racer and that coveted gold chocobo. But before FFVII Square had a few other games that very lightly featured monster-collecting and Final Fantasy is only one side of the story, since back then the developers, Squaresoft and Enix, weren’t even married yet. While Squaresoft was busy crafting traditional fantasy RPGs that featured monsters to fight, Enix released Dragon Warrior: Monsters in 1998, featuring their iconic monsters as the leads just like Pokemon. Because Pokemon’s gameplay was drawn almost completely from the same turn-based RPGs that both Squaresoft and Enix had been making for years, it was easy for them to make their own. It was definitely a no-brainer for Enix, and the Monsters spinoff sees new releases to this day, but Squaresoft wouldn’t get to join Enix in making a pure Pokemon-styled game — where catching and fighting monsters is integral to winning — for another decade yet.
In 2003, Squaresoft merged with Enix to become Square Enix. Eight years later, the combined studio saw the release of Final Fantasy XIII-2, the first true monster-catching game from the Squaresoft side of the family. Though other Final Fantasy games had some monster-catching features built in, like Final Fantasy VIII’s GF Draw System, Final Fantasy XIII-2 was the first to make it imperative to playing the game. Sadly, FFXIII-2 was grossly overlooked because of its predecessor, but it actually fixed many of FFXIII’s problems, and exchanged your normal party members for the series monsters you had been fighting in every game. Each of these monsters could be caught and brought into your team exactly like Pokemon — all the way down to leveling them, raising their stats, learning new moves, and changing their names. And it was honestly really enjoyable and different! Imagine how happy I was running around with a Tonberry King in my party, just stabbing people to insta-death for me left and right! Pikachu couldn’t compare! It’s all because by the time FFXIII-2 had released, Final Fantasy had finally established their brand of monsters in a recognizable sense. Not only did they regularly appear as enemies in prior games, but they were also featured as recurring items, like Lulu’s Onion Knight and Cactuar dolls in Final Fantasy X and the Moogle and Tonberry costumes in Final Fantasy X-2. Series favorites like Cactaur and Moogles were becoming more recognizable and fans of the series were delighted to pair up with the critters they had grown to love over the years. And even more Pokemon-like games would follow.
One year later in 2012, the mega-hit series Kingdom Hearts hatched its own version of the monster catcher with Dream Drop Distance (which also just re-released in HD). In this game, you collect spirits to fight with you, and you would even have to go so far as to feed them, pet them, and play mini-games to unlock some abilities. And though it was only a minor part of the gameplay for Dream Drop Distance, it was clear that Square Enix was testing the waters even further than before. After Dream Drop Distance the company added another successful title in a long line of creature-collectors to the mobile market with a gashapon game, Brave Exvius, where you collect heroes from the Final Fantasy series in a similar fashion. And just last year we saw Square Enix finally go full Pokemon with World of Final Fantasy.
World of Final Fantasy is a bit more on the nose about its Pokemon influences — you literally have to recruit monsters by throwing a cube (not a ball) to capture them and then raise them to fight with you. And it absolutely works! Almost every monster you’ve ever encountered in a Final Fantasy game can be captured and developed in a similar way to the Pokemon formula. Not only can you name them and all of the other things, but many of them now evolve from tiny monsters into higher powered forms. And I’m sure you’re thinking, “Wow what a blatant copy,” and if they had left it at that, then you’d be right. But it’s in the combat where World of Final Fantasy shines, taking huge risks against the norm where Pokemon has remained stale. Instead of fighting with just your critters and characters, they’ve stacked them on top of each other where they have to fight as one. Together you combine abilities and traits as a stack, or you can unstack and use them as individuals, the former being usually a better choice. You are forced to strategize against shared weaknesses and creature sizes and that extra set of wrinkles makes all the difference. As their first full foray into the Pokemon business, World of Final Fantasy is definitely a win that will hopefully keep the monsters coming.
Square Enix has made a lot of games over the years, both before and since Squaresoft and Enix’s merger, but its main franchise titles like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy are still ripe for everything that makes monster-catching games fun. They have a huge range of diverse monsters to work with and many of them are highly recognizable mascots around the world. With all the love for Chocobos and Slimes out there, it’s easily a success story in merchandising waiting to happen. On top of that, most of Square Enix’s games span every playable system available — making accessibility a huge asset. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel to World of Final Fantasy and perhaps a crossover monster game between Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest very soon down the line. Either way, no matter what we get, Square Enix seems up to the challenge when it comes to delivering that monster-fighting adrenaline rush that comes with our need to catch ‘em all. And who doesn’t want their own Tonberry?