There are still a few Final Fantasy games you can't buy on Steam. The original two are missing, for example. So are Final Fantasy Tactics and the Tactics Advance series. Then there are the spin-offs, like Crisis Core for the PSP or Revenant Wings for the DS. There's Kingdom Hearts. Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon. Brave Fencer Musashi. The point is, there are tons of back-catalog Square Enix games that could make for a great subscription service, which the company mentioned during E3 that it's looking into. "As far as our major titles go, most of those, we still have variations out that you can play now. The more classic titles that you might have played on NES, we are still working hard to make it so you can play those," said president Yosuke Matsuda.
The subscription space is getting crowded quickly, with Xbox Game Pass, UPlay+, Origin Access, and soon Google Stadia. But that quote from Matsuda got me thinking about what Square Enix could offer that none of these others could: a comprehensive archive of every version of its games, not just a single definitive one. A digital museum of rare Final Fantasy ports, along with supporting materials that add context to how those games were made and sold in their day. Basically, Square should look at the fantastic work Digital Eclipse did with the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection and build a subscription around that kind of reverence for its past works.
The SNK Collection, which developer and historian Frank Cifaldi likes to call a "playable documentary," contains all kinds of amazing art and design documents scanned at high resolution, along with touched-up emulated versions of a bunch of 80s games. One of my favorite things about the collection is you can play the arcade version of a game like Ikari Warriors and then switch over to the NES version, seeing how the technical capabilities of the hardware influenced the art, the color choices, the level design—everything. They're really different experiences!
It's a common story for videogames. The original Metal Gear for the MSX2 PC is famously different than the one ported to the NES. But Square has ported, remastered and remade Final Fantasy games so many times over the years, a subscription service compiling all those versions would be both fascinating and a boon to playable game history.
You can't get FF1 on Steam, but it *was* released on a PC 30 years ago...
Let's look at the very first Final Fantasy as an example. Here are all the platforms it's been released on since 1987: Famicom, MSX2, NES, WonderSwan Color, PlayStation (as part of Final Fantasy Origins), Game Boy Advance (as part of Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls), PlayStation Portable, mobile, Nintendo 3DS.
Every single one is different—many of them dramatically so, with complete graphical remakes, new dungeons, or even redesigned mechanics. Others make minor changes, like higher quality sound or a different interface. They use different scripts. How cool would it be to jump from one version of the game to another, comparing how the technology of that particular platform changed how the game was recreated?
There are examples of this across Square's entire history. In 2017 I went down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out why the characters in Final Fantasy 7's PC port had mouths, which weren't there on the PlayStation. That was just one of many changes between the two.
A library built to last
For most people, being able to play the WonderSwan Color version of Final Fantasy would not be a huge draw. Only obsessives would buy that game by itself on Steam, or seek out the original hardware and cartridge. It's a curiosity—the kind of curiosity that's perfect for filling out a subscription service, paired with the games people will happily shell out to play again.
With another console generation just a year away, much of Square's back catalog is going to be stuck on an old corner the PlayStation store two generations removed from current hardware. You can dig out the PS3 to download games like Threads of Fate, Parasite Eve, or Vagrant Story. But if you want to play Valkyrie Profile, well, too bad. You're going to need to play it on a smartphone, unless you want to track down a physical copy.
There are tons of those games that PC players would be willing to subscribe for, to replay or play for the first time. And they might stick around for a well-presented history of each game and its many releases. Just seeing high quality scans of the Japanese and American boxart for each Final Fantasy side-by-side would keep me entertained for awhile, especially once you add up all those ports over the years.
The versions of Square's PS1 classics languishing on PSN are all emulated, anyway—building out those emulators for PC would give Square a service that stayed relevant for years and would be easy to expand. They could also add tons of value to these games without having to remake them again. For instance, when Digital Eclipse made the Mega Man Legacy Collection, it created a challenge mode that remixed levels from the various games. You could end up playing a chunk of Mega Man 2 in a random order or hop between a level from Mega Man 3, and then a boss fight from Mega Man 4.
Imagine Square coming up with something like that for Final Fantasy games, or supporting community events like the FF5 Four Job Fiesta. Imagine an officially endorsed Final Fantasy 9 level 1 Ozma challenge! There's so much they could do to make a subscription worthwhile, beyond just making the games available. But that's a good place to start.
I know seeing all those weird ports preserved with good, official emulation will probably never happen—and we're even less likely to see Square Enix's obscure 80s deep cuts, even though Enix especially has a rich catalog of PC games to draw from. But I hope at the very least, we see some of its lesser-known and harder-to-find games available to download for the first time. If only so I can expose at least a few PC Gamer readers to the absolute, incomprehensible insanity of Unlimited Saga.