How ‘Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles’ Experimented With the Franchise

Finally, after two years of waiting, this week sees the release of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Remastered Edition. Originally released on August 3, 2003 — that’s over 17 years ago just to make sure the millennials reading this feel old — on the GameCube, Crystal Chronicles was lauded at the time as Square Enix’s historic return to a Nintendo console for the first time since Final Fantasy VI on the Super SNES in 1994.

Crystal Chronicles was a different take on the Final Fantasy franchise, with some elements that were quite well received at the time and others that were a mixed bag – especially given the technology used. Let’s take a look back at Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and its path to its new Remastered Edition. 

The Refresher

Crystal Chronicles takes place in a provincial world where Miasma, a highly toxic mist, has taken over. The only way to survive is the use of crystals, which emit a shield that keeps Miasma out. All towns are equipped with large crystals, But of course, there is a snag: over time, these larger crystals decline in strength, and must be rejuvenated by feeding them a certain amount of Myrrh, a magical liquid collected from Myrrh Trees. The Myrrh Trees are only found in the heart of areas heavily populated by monsters. Thus, each town has the need to appoint caravanners, teams of young adventurers tasked to risk their lives to collect myrrh in their crystal chalices which also act as smaller and more portable miasma wards.

Unchristened with a roman numeral, Crystal Chronicles was set apart from other Final Fantasy games, both past and future, in some notable regards, including a focus on a set of races to make your silent avatar, as opposed to a character with their own personality and the hack-and-slash combat system as opposed to turn-based. This last point was brilliantly reflected by the soundtrack from Kumi Tanioka, whose work was a notable contrast to Nobuo Uematsu, the composer most closely associated with Final Fantasy.

The Reviews

Crystal Chronicles was reviewed well upon release, raking in scores in the 7.5 to 8.0 arena. Reviewers agreed that the music and gameplay concepts were worth interest to new and old fans alike. But there was also a consensus that the story was lacking, especially for a Final Fantasy title. Gamespot’s Brad Shoemaker said, “Crystal Chronicles’ story is novel but also very thin, and ultimately it serves more than anything as an impetus to get you traipsing and fighting through the game’s fanciful world.” Mary Jane Irwin at IGN declared, “While the spartan plot elements might not be a compelling reason to play through the game, at least there’s lots of combat to be had.” Stuart Reddick on Nintendo Life said, “the gameplay is just as addictive as past titles and the difficult curve is spot-on. While all these amazing things came at the cost of the story, it still proves to be somewhat decent.”

Of course, one aspect of Crystal Chronicles stood out above all others, for both positive and negative reasons…

The Multiplayer Experience

Practically every fan will remember that Crystal Chronicles was one of the handful of GameCube games that required players to utilize the notorious link-cable-to-Game Boy Advance controller gimmick to access multiplayer mode, much like The Legend Of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. It was only in single-player mode that gamers could use the standard GameCube controller. While Crystal Chronicles did utilize the GBA screen to give each player a sub-navigation role, like an enemy map, treasure map, etc., it is nearly unanimous among fans that this requirement was not worth the cost of admission. And most certainly not worth the fact that you could not access your GBA SP’s charge port if it was attached to a link cable.

One could argue that players could simply opt for single-player mode, but the game’s main selling point was playing with a team. There is truly little that can make Crystal Chronicles’s single-player campaign compelling since the story was obviously not made a priority, as mentioned by reviews. Irwin on IGN wrote: “There really is little debate in this matter — the only way to truly enjoy FFCC is by playing with friends.” Solo players do get a moogle companion and get to dye its fur, but that’s about it. The necessary teamwork and communication to combine spells and heal one another, all while staying within the range of your crystal chalice’s barrier, created an experience — albeit quite chaotic and challenging — unlike any other. The game is fun played with one other person, but the enjoyment truly reaches its full potential when played with a full party of four.

The one reason that could likely entice someone to play this game solo is the satisfaction of actually completing the game in a timely manner, unless you happened to be lucky enough to have lived in a household where you could easily find four relatively competent gamers to team up with regularly. But really, where is the fun in the ease of combining spells in your solo-campaign menu and taking all the best loot for yourself? Brad Shoemaker, in his GameSpot review stated, “this sort of game is really made to be played cooperatively with friends–not to mention there’s a raft of puzzles and areas you simply can’t access on your own.”

Also, there is a specific charm that solo players probably were able to intuit they were missing out on from the regular chill-out period after defeating a dungeon boss and collecting your Myrrh. Whether you are on single-player or multiplayer mode, the game will score your contributions during the dungeon run, which determines the order of claiming stat-upgrades. Then, a delivery moogle will hand a letter to each character from a respective family member. These are arguably the moments that really encapsulate the quintessential charm of Crystal Chronicles: this rewarding, adorable event of you and your companions sitting in a circle, writing replies to their loved ones under the Myrrh Tree you just fought tooth and nail to reach. But, again, this vibe is only felt in multiplayer mode. It’s like the game is literally saying to the solo-players “You could be having a great, unforgettable bonding moment with your friends right now… But no, it’s just you, a loner. Look at all of this space your friends could be taking up.”

The Legacy

Despite the game’s multiplayer hurdles, Square Enix was clearly onto something. Having sold over 1.3 million copies, per Famitsu, Crystal Chronicles’s success marked the beginning of its own subseries: Rings of Fates on the DS, Echos of Time on the Wii and DS, Crystal Bearers on the Wii, as well as My Life As A King and My Life As A Darklord, which were both part of the now discontinued WiiWare library. Each was met with okay to mediocre reviews. With the Wii’s Crystal Bearers’s release to rather unenthusiastic response, the series was effectively dead until this new Remastered Edition was announced.

Crystal Chronicles was but one of the many results of Square Enix’s tumultuous period of attempting to redefine and build upon the Final Fantasy brand, starting in 2002 with Final Fantasy XI, their first foray into the MMORPG genre, as well as a flurry of spin-offs like Final Fantasy X-2 (their first sequel to a mainline Final Fantasy game), Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus, Final Fantasy: Dissidia, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, and Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was an imperfect storm: the drive from Square Enix to innovate on the Final Fantasy name, the fresh musical approach from the talented Kumi Tanioka, the different art direction, the different combat system, the unexpected emphasis on multiplayer, and the then-historical return to Nintendo. In fact, it might only be in retrospect that one can see that the game was indeed able to achieve its own legacy despite being an unnumbered spinoff, rather than a core Final Fantasy game.

The Remaster

Square Enix seems to have also understood in the past few years that there was something special about the original Crystal Chronicles, however rough. That despite its flaws and ridiculous barriers for multiplayer, people gravitated towards the game and it left a lasting impression that survived for over a decade. This understanding is shown in certain choices in the Remastered Edition release. The extra coding effort of new character models for each race, added voice acting, timing UI for spell combos, and even bringing back Donna Burke, the singer of the original game’s iconic opening song “Morning Sky,” to narrate the trailer. But also, notice how liberal their plans appear to be in their attempt to make this game as accessible as possible. First, this game will support crossplay. Second, this game will be offered in a free lite version. This lite version acts not just as a demo, but as an avenue for anyone to play the game from beginning to end as long as one teammate has bought the full version of the remaster! This intentional choice to not require each person to have purchased an online non-MMO multiplayer crossplay experience is pretty unexpected of a triple-A Japanese company, to say the least.

Say what you will about remasters being easy cash-grabs, capitalizing on nostalgia. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles is nothing short of a blessing. This will be a second chance for the game to offer the multiplayer experience it promised over 15 years ago, unbowed by the wildly unpalatable link cable requirements of its original incarnation. Who knows? Perhaps the welcome adjustments will turn this then imperfect storm into simply a perfect one.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Remastered Edition is available for digital download on Nintendo Switch, PS4, iOS and Android on August 27, 2020.

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