Number 4 – Hironobu Sakaguchi
Sakaguchi-san is probably the only J-RPG developer most people know about. This is mainly due to the fact that he is the creator of the Square’s mythic Final Fantasy series. What most people don’t know is that the he only led the development of episodes I till V, with the most popular games from the Square brand, like “Chrono Trigger” or the modern themed “Final Fantasies”, being developed by a different man [we’ll get to him later]. The truth is: Sakaguchi-san’s most important contribution to the genre is the genesis of the Final Fantasy series, and not the popularization of the series outside Japan. From FFVI and beyond, he merely served as an Executive Producer for the franchise, which basically means he was the suit in charge of development control. Though in tradition with Japanese management, the man in that position also serves as a form of spiritual leader and manager, he is not, by any means, the main artist behind the game. His legacy, from episode VI forward, is of a much more abstract and philosophical nature, it’s still rather important, but not as much as most people think. Believe me when I say: FFVII is not this man’s work; it’s got his influences, but it is not his artistic endeavor. This is clearly evidenced by the remarkably different styles FFVI, VII and VIII show when compared to older Final Fantasies (that were directed by him).
Besides being the lead developer in the first FF’s, he also had a major contribution in FFIX, by creating the original concept of the game, which basically tries (and succeeds) in recapturing much of the series’ more classic trademarks. After executive producing FFX-2, he departed Square (for non-spoken reasons) to form Mistwalker, a Microsoft funded developer, from which three RPG’s have surfaced: “Blue Dragon”, “Lost Odyssey” and “Archaic Sealed Heat” (unreleased outside Japan).
Throughout his long career, he laid down many of the foundations that all J-RPG’s follow. So, if he is one of the “de facto” creators of the genre, it probably seems strange to put him in the bottom tier of this list. This has to do with my personal view of his art, more than with his importance in the means (if this list was about that, he would definitely be on the first or second place). My problem with Sakaguchi’s games is that they usually portray the world with a rather “naife” and optimistic view, which despite being normal in the realm of fantasy-themed universes, is taken to a somewhat exaggerated extreme. “Good vs. Evil” is what his stories are all about; the very good, versus the very evil. This moral extreme tends to infantilize the narrative, by siding “pure” characters against evil doers that want to rule/destroy the world, for basically, no reason at all. Apart from the recent “Lost Odyssey”, that breaks the mold on some levels (emphasize *some*), all of Sakaguchi’s games can be easily fitted in the Monomyth theory perfectly. It’s a very, very traditional way of telling stories. Traditional is, in fact, the best adjective for Sakaguchi’s games. They follow traditional Japanese values; they regard the world in a traditional, classicist, moralistic way; the art therein used (whether its Yoshitaka Amano’s, or some other’s) depicts classic themes, and even the gameplay mechanics are extremely traditional, especially when seen according to today’s standards. He does tend to shake things up little by little, step by step, but he downright avoids abrupt innovation.
But, if I disliked him so much, why would he make it into this list… for name-sake only? Surely not. First, he is the man who placed story as the main focus of J-RPG’s; for that fact only he must be revered. By doing so, he completely changed the way the genre was explored, giving a much need complexity to the basic “Dragon Quest” themed story: little boy saves princess from evil dragon. Though his stories might seem simple and somewhat dull today, they were progressive and innovative by the time they first appeared, and most of all, they were actual stories that were told by videogames, something unthinkable back in the 80’s.
Sakaguchi saw in games a mean of translating the most basic and powerful human feelings: the bound of friendship and family, the love for one’s nation, its core values, culture and philosophies. These themes are always conveyed in some way in his games, and though in earlier ventures they are treated a bit childishly, they usually have a significant emotional impact on the player. Sakaguchi’s tales of undying friendship and love manage to turn text and pixels into touching characters, stories and worlds, where imagination, fantasy and dreams become reality. It‘s never very deep or complex when compared to a movie or book, but at the time that was already a huge step forward for narrative in videogames.
Of course, it helped that he had such great artists under his wings, like Nobuo Uematsu or Yoshitaka Amano. It’s also thanks to them that his stories have profound sentimental impact, and stimulate people’s imagination far beyond what crude abstract graphics could accomplish back in the day. Besides telling endearing stories, Sakaguchi also managed to go further in the ways of exploring narrative. Most likely influenced by Anime and Cinema, he became one of the fathers of in-game cutscenes, a concept far from being idealized by the time “Final Fantasy” appeared, let alone implemented in a game. These short story sequences, where characters would play out scenes like in a play, with appropriate music setting the tone, helped the story feel more like a fully fledged dramatic narrative, transmitting emotions and actions far more deep than the ones the player could interact with. Though not very important at the time of the first “Final Fantasies”, this ended up becoming a staple for every J-RPG.
Sakaguchi is as important to J-RPG’s as Tolkien is to fantasy novels; though there had been similar works before (“Dragon Quest”, “Ultima”), it took Sakaguchi to fully develop the potential of the genre. Its motifs, ideas and values are all consequence of this man’s thoughts and concepts. It is because of him that nowadays, nobody thinks of RPG’s as mere dungeon crawlers, but as larger than life fantasy adventures, filled with charming characters, deep plotlines and highly complex magical worlds. If games today can have narrative as its main driving force, then it’s probably because Sakaguchi’s made “Final Fantasy”; that’s his greatest legacy and the reason why he deserves all the praise the gaming world can give him.