In the mid-'90s, Square and Nintendo, once the best of friends, parted as Square brought FF and other hits to the PlayStation. For years, it seemed like they’d never make up, but in 2002 (partially thanks to the total failure of the Final Fantasy film), Square came back to Nintendo to make games for the GameCube and Game Boy Advance. Or both, in the case of the first game to come out of their renewed partnership, the connectivity-fest that was Crystal Chronicles.
To be sure, Crystal Chronicles was an experimental title. With four GBAs connected to the GameCube, each player had their own sub-screen, neatly eliminating one of the biggest annoyances of playing RPGs with friends: interrupting the game so you can wait for the other players to organize their items and sift through menus. The action might have been simple, but if you could assemble four friends and four GBAs, taking on FFCC made for a great afternoon. Each adventure was hectic, requiring constant communication and teamwork, both of which kept players committed. Square repackaged the series multiple times, but we don’t think the series, or its adorable art design, have ever been any better than they were in the GC original.
Kingdom Hearts may be the ultimate definition of fan service, but we don’t care. How else are we going to see Aerith and Sephiroth in one place? Alive? This Disney/Square Enix collaboration (under the direction of famed character designer Tetsuya Nomura) came packed with a charming Disney-themed universe and well-dressed protagonists who sported numerous belt buckles. The journey is centered around young Keyblade wielder Sora (voiced by Haley Joel Osment), as he and Disney troopers Donald and Goofy search for their respective friends. In this magical kingdom of Disneyfied worlds, you never know who you’ll bump into next, whether it’s a cameo from a character in a Final Fantasy game, or a beloved Disney character that could potentially join your team as a summon.
The series kept fans happy between Final Fantasy releases, and boasts quite a celebrity voice cast, including musical talent from Japanese pop star Hikaru Utada. While we’re all clamoring away for any juicy tidbit on Kingdom Hearts 3, Kingdom Hearts has given us numerous spinoffs on various handhelds (which were quite good), but let’s face it, we’re ready for the next one.
Admittedly, Secret of Mana’s status as a Final Fantasy spinoff is debatable; in the US, the connection was never overt, unless you knew that Mana was the sequel to the semi-forgotten Final Fantasy Adventure for Game Boy (released in Japan as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden). In spite of not carrying the series’ name, though, the game’s ties to FF are still there – and as spinoffs go, it’s still one of the best.
Widely regarded as a 16-bit masterpiece, Secret of Mana is a huge departure from what we think of as “Final Fantasy” – and especially from what we thought those words meant in 1993. Instead of turn-based battles, it featured action-oriented, Zelda-style combat. Instead of a dozen or so heroes, it featured exactly three – a boy, a girl and a sprite, all of whom were playable at once. But all that stuff – combined with an unforgettable soundtrack, memorable characters and ridiculously satisfying power attacks – turned Secret of Mana into an amazing, uniquely fun experience.
Sure, it might look a little dated now, and there are critics out there who’ll tell you it was overrated even in its day. For those who’ve revived the Mana Sword, freed Santa from a hellish existence as a giant monster and seen Flammie grow from a tiny creature into a ridable dragon who could turn the game world into a vast, freely explorable wonder, however, few games are quite as special.