[In its twenty years of publication the Weekly Famitsu has given out only six perfect review scores. It should be noted that two of the six, Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII, are the work of Yasumi Matsuno, an under recognized master of game design This week's 'Game Collector's Melancholy' column looks at Matsuno's history in the game biz, highlighting each of his major games.]

The Final Fantasy?

plain6.jpgFinal Fantasy XII was a long time coming. Five grueling years of production had left the development team fractured and depleted. Halfway through, Yasumi Matsuno, the game’s director and writer was forced to step down from his duties because of alleged poor health. There were rumors of internal strife at SquareEnix and in 2005 Matsuno left the company for good. Things did not look promising for Final Fantasy XII...

The March of the Black Queen

Matsuno’s first major work was Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, developed for the Quest Corporation. Joining Matsuno on Ogre Battle were music composer Hitoshi Sakamoto and character designer Akihiko Yoshida, who would remain constant partners with Matsuno throughout his career. Released in Japan on the Super Famicom in 1993, Ogre Battle was a hybrid of turn-based and real-time strategy that was unusual for the complexity of its game play and story. Set in a high fantasy world of wizards and dragons the game followed the rise of a young knight who becomes an emperor. Along the way he must make a great number of practical and moral choices while micromanaging a growing army and ruling over a conquered population. All of these choices have consequences down the line and it is this aspect of the game’s design that seems to most define Matsuno’s aesthetic.

Enix brought the game to America in 1995 but in limited quantities, making it quite difficult to find. Expect to pay at least $50. In 1997 Atlus re-released the game as Ogre Battle: Limited Edition for the Playstation. The conversion was handled by Artdink who put some extra effort into upgrading the graphics although not so much that it could considered a remake. This version sells for as much as $60 and comes with memory card stickers and a fold-out chart.

[Click through for more of Matsuno's major titles.]

Let Us Cling Together

Matsuno followed Ogre Battle in 1995 with a sequel called Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. This time he dropped the strategic real-time elements and went with a turn by turn tactical game which played out on a lovingly detailed 2D isometric battlefield. The game pioneered many of the design elements that have made the genre what it is today and anyone who enjoys Nippon Ichi’s games will feel right at home with Tactics Ogre.

Although the Super Famicom version never made it to America, Atlus published Tactics Ogre for the Playstation in 1997. The conversion was again done by Artdink; however, unlike Ogre Battle: Limited Edition, it is a straight port with no enhancements. As with many of Atlus’ esoteric releases the value on Tactics Ogre has skyrocketed, leaving collectors with little choice but to go online and pay out $85 or more.

Final Fantasy Tactics

fft-1.jpgAfter finishing Tactics Ogre, Matsuno and the core of his development team left Quest and joined Squaresoft. There they set to work on Final Fantasy Tactics, a game that would refine the ideas first put forth in rough form by Tactics Ogre. Matsuno put particular emphasis on the story line of Tactics, creating a dense (some might say incomprehensible) narrative of conspiracy and betrayal. Accompanying the complicated story was a deep game system that took the idea of Jobs from earlier Final Fantasy games and ran with it, resulting in a mind-boggling number character classes and abilities that could be mastered. Because the game is composed of a number of complex, interconnected systems it encourages players of a certain mindset to work out elaborate game-breaking strategies. Surprisingly, the out-of-print strategy guide is now selling for around $30, which is more than the game itself is worth.

Tactics was released in America in early 1998 only a few months after Final Fantasy VII. It was considered somewhat art-house and sold in far fewer numbers compared with the blockbuster Final Fantasy VII. After fading from retail Tactics’ reputation and value grew. Responding to the demand, Square arranged to have Tactics re-released in 2001 as a budget priced Greatest Hits even though it had not sold the initial 200,000 copies required to qualify. Now Tactics can easily be found for about $25 or about $10 more for the first non-Greatest Hits print run.

Vagrant Story

bgs-2.jpgIn many ways Final Fantasy Tactics was the apex of the genre and some might argue that subsequent tactical RPGs have just been variations on its themes. Perhaps sensing this, Matsuno to decided to leave tactical play behind and instead looked to the dungeon-crawl for inspiration. The resulting game, Vagrant Story, turned out to be a radical reinvention of an old-fashioned genre. Packed to the brim with intricate game systems, Vagrant Story is a tinkerer’s dream, providing many hours of methodical play. Always the thinking-person’s fantasist, Matsuno again crafted a deliciously convoluted story of intrigue and deception in which the main character, Ashley Riot, comes across as a sort of medieval Solid Snake. The game is further enhanced in English by translator Alexander O. Smith’s elevated, literary tone.

Despite great reviews, Vagrant Story was a hard sell and most game buyers passed it by in 2000. Even now it only fetches about $25, making it an easy acquisition for collectors.

Person of Lordly Caliber

Even though Matsuno had left for Squaresoft, Quest continued the Ogre Battle series, creating Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber for the Nintendo 64 in 1999 and Ogre Battle: Legend of the Zenobian Prince for the Neo-Geo Pocket Color in 2000. Of the two, Atlus picked up Ogre Battle 64 to publish for America in 2000. It is a fine game in its own right, with a smart story and gorgeous 2D art. Those of you who still have a Nintendo 64 tucked away in the closet should make the effort to dust it off and acquire Ogre Battle 64 which can be found for around $45. Quest also made Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis for the Game Boy Advance which was published by Atlus in 2002. The Knight of Lodis is considered alongside Matsuno’s own Final Fantasy Tactics Advance to be one of the best tactical RPGs for the hand-held system. Now out of print, it sells for around $30. In an interesting twist, SquareEnix bought out Quest in 2002.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

ffta_img2.jpgMatsuno went small with his next game, returning to the style he invented with Tactics Ogre. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance had a bright, simple graphic style and a much lighter tone than his previous work. His penchant for layered systems was scaled back as well, making for a game well suited to the on-the-go play of the Game Boy Advance. Although no longer available new, used copies should still be easy to find for around $20.

Two Aspirin Please

Of course Final Fantasy XII is out in America now and everyone pretty much agrees that it is a triumph. Still, as I play it I feel a little sad. The game carries the unmistakable trace of Matsuno and with that comes a weird mix of emotions. Something that was once small and private has become huge and popular.

In the fall of 1998 I was obsessed with two games. One was the wargame Advanced Squad Leader and the other was Final Fantasy Tactics. They were incredibly complicated and I remember making the mistake of playing them both in one day. I started in the early afternoon with ASL, squaring off against a friend who was much better at it than myself. Soon my squads were all Broken or KIA and the defense of Velikiye Luki was in ruins. I felt frustrated and dumb. Making it worse, my opponent had the annoying habit of exploiting every little detail of the rules to his advantage even though he knew that I was still struggling with the basics.

Back at home in the evening, I turned to Final Fantasy Tactics. Again I was tormented by failure. Those cute little enemy characters would chain saw through my hapless party as I fumbled around, trying to come up with a coherent strategy. Archers would charge for an attack only to be sliced down by the computer before they could get a shot off. As my Black Mages chanted their incantations, the game’s ruthless AI unerringly triangulated in and eliminated them. By the end of the night I had developed a ferocious headache, my neurons turning to spun glass by the sheer exertion of thinking. I can’t help but wonder if Yasumi Matsuno fell victim to a similar condition, his nerves frayed and exhausted by the complexity of his own vision.

[Jeffrey Fleming is a Bay Area book dealer and writer. More of his writing on video games can be found at Tales of the Future.]

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