What makes a Square game a Square game?
It’s not an easy a question to answer: This productive pre-Square-Enix period – something that now feels like an eternity ago – reaches as far back as 1984 and runs all the way through to 2003, with games on systems as diverse as the PC-88, Game Boy, and PlayStation 2 – there’s no single unifying format or era to neatly pigeonhole the company in to. So what about the games themselves, do they share some sort of distinctive theme or graphical style that binds them together as distinctly “Square”? At this point we turn to the always-reliable Final Fantasy in the hopes of grasping some common thread; but even the series mascots – those fluffy moogles and feathered chocobos – change their appearances and abilities at the whims of whoever’s in charge at the time. Known to all, loved by many, and seen as a relatively “safe” mainstream series virtually guaranteed to hit the top of the charts no matter what they release, it’s still an unpredictable patchwork of wildly disparate styles, famous for striking gold with a cast of popular characters only to abandon them one game later, for risking it all on new and unproven hardware, for making an MMO for a console that didn’t come equipped with the hard drive or modem required to run it.
And they should be applauded for that, even if it doesn’t help answer my opening question – it takes real guts to create a much-loved international bestseller and follow that up with a string of unrelated not-sequels, gambling the fate of the series… heck, the entire company, in uncharted waters. But how do these different games feel so homely and familiar when they share almost nothing between them? Final Fantasy IV and X may not look or play anything like each other but nobody would ever question either game’s legitimacy to their title. Even XI and XIV are accepted (begrudgingly, by some) as “real” Final Fantasy games. So perhaps we have to dig a little deeper: beyond that famous series or any other game Square have ever made and consider the character of a company that would dare to take such an apparently haphazard approach to game development when it’s so obvious that there are more straightforward and budget-friendly ways to run a business. This is a company happy to make a brand new series that lasts for all of one game and still throw absolutely everything they have behind it, after all. A company content to make spin-offs of B-tier series in completely different genres yet still treat them with all the care and attention of their next surefire hit. A company that’s supported SaGa for decades even though it always feels as if they don’t sell or review especially well and the general games-buying public seem to struggle with them. They’ve developed or published shmups, survival horror adventures, and even two swordfighting sorta-simulations (and put a gun in them). They set up their own movie studio in Hawaii just because they could (and made a movie, of course) and allowed some of their best members of staff to whip up a few oddball WonderSwan exclusives. It would be ridiculous to pretend everything Square produced were indisputable classics – some of these more off-the-beaten-path titles don’t quite hit the mark and a few are really plain average by anyone’s standards – but nobody can ever accuse the company of being afraid to give a new idea an honest go.
It’s this bravery and confidence in their own staff, in their ability to willingly trip up so publicly and still think “Let’s have another go and do a better job of it next time”, that makes all of these very different experiences feel so definitively “Square”. Much like a certain ex-hardware company that saw the writing on the wall and decided the only reasonable response was to try and kick it down, Square had (and even in their post-merger form, still have) a long history of doing their own dance to a tune they’ve made up all by themselves, happily turning their talented hand to everything from the biggest blockbusters gaming had ever seen to some of the most niche experimental pieces you could imagine – no genre or style was too different or too outside the box, because they refused to be put in one in the first place. To many they’ll always be “The RPG people” and that’s not an undeserved label, but even a quick look through their release history reveals a company that thought if they stood a chance of making a good game out of any idea they had then they’d try to do it, investor and player expectations be damned.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to Bahamut Lagoon, a game from the distant past that is 1996 (I know) and a wonderful example of Square’s commitment to giving whatever the heck they feel like a serious go. It’s a shockingly beautiful release in the special sort of overly excessive way only a game with the tools and the talent to back up a director’s vision could ever hope to be, with huge detailed sprites that look gorgeous in screenshots and even better in motion (yes, they move!). This feast for the eyeballs is more than a plain flexing of technical muscle: there’s real artistry at work here, imbuing Bahamut Lagoon with dreamy pastel shades and soft transparencies, rainbow hued gradients and coloured mists, high fantasy locations that appear to be illuminated through cut glass – everything’s basking in an ethereal glow. Normally a game blessed with this sort of graphical splendour wouldn’t be allowed to exist in any sort of commercial capacity, and on the rare occasion something looking this good would squeak through there’d be a very real chance it’d end up “all mouth and no trousers” as we say around these parts – a game with so much attention poured into creating luscious pixels they either forgot to make a good game to go with them or never knew how to in the first place. Bahamut Lagoon isn’t like that and for all the graphical prowess on display there’s never any doubt that the rest of the game wasn’t lavished with just as much attention. A quiet confidence underpins the work here, as if this high bar of expertise is nothing more than business as usual for Square even if other developers would be shouting from the rooftops if they had managed to create something this beautiful. But neither being pretty nor being good is enough to make a Square game so very Square – the magic lies in the way these two individual elements interact with and enhance each other.
You’ll find a good example of this special synergy in the very first battle: Whenever your team of human characters go to make an attack there’s a chance the dragon tied to that group will charge in and attack first, landing a heavy blow or sometimes even wiping out the enemy before you’ve laid a finger on them. Extra damage is always welcome even if it can’t be guaranteed, but it’s the presentation that turns this simple addition into something memorable – seeing your team’s dragon (already an impressive sight thanks to the game’s incredible sprite work) swoop in and unleash a screen-filling spell before flying off again without any warning feels incredibly dramatic, which is exactly the sort of tingly experience you should be having when you’re playing as a dragon-taming resistance force battling against an evil empire. Neither of these actions on their own are really anything to write home about – a single extra hit, a large sprite disappearing almost as quickly as it appears – but together they create a bespoke mini event: “Remember that time Salamander swooped in and toasted a tough boss with Hellfire before Byuu’s team could land the final blow?” you won’t, because it didn’t happen to you – but it happened to me. This blurring between tactical number-crunching and superb graphics keeps popping up throughout the game in lots of small ways: Spells actually look more powerful as they level up – not just increasing in size or duration but morphing into something new – so you can tell your team’s stronger and doing much more damage because you can see it happening, even without checking if the numbers back it up. These magically mauled adversaries will then burn away, crumble into icy dust, or obligingly perform another suitable element-aligned death animation that only strengthens the illusion that you’re really seeing events play out as they happen, that you’re doing more than passively observing a disjointed digital abstraction.
Magic serves a dual purpose in Bahamut Lagoon, and when used out on the field spells aren’t only used to batter distant groups of enemies (not that doing so isn’t helpful) but also destroy roads, blast through cave walls, set fire to long grass, freeze rivers and even purify poisonous swamps. As with everything else this detail isn’t there just to give your eyeballs a treat but serves the gameplay too: Grass fires will spread far and wide if not put out with an ice spell, damaging any unit unlucky enough to be found standing in them at the start of the next turn. Seeing the landscape scorched and bruised by your own actions really lends some weight to idea that there’s some force behind your spellcasting, but even more significant than that is the way this scenery-changing behaviour – as rare as it still is in videogames – makes perfect sense without any explanation or guidance from a tutorial. A bundle of enemies squeezed onto a narrow bridge makes for an easy target, but when your lightning spell obliterates not only them but the ground they were standing on – what do you do next? Do you try to find another route, or do you freeze the surrounding water with an ice spell and walk across the frozen water instead? We’re so used to this sort of thing not happening we don’t question it when another game allows us to devastate an enemy with flames only for the flowers beneath our feet to remain untouched, but this “small” common sense detail makes a huge difference – to the sense of immersion and your tactics too. Your team aren’t little figures moving around the surface of a painted map in Bahamut Lagoon, they’re a party within the world around them who can directly alter the ground they walk on without asking the game’s permission first.
Bahamut Lagoon also employs other less screenshot-worthy but still very important methods to keep up the strategic fun without spoiling the game’s magical mood, and the one I want to focus on is the way it greatly simplifies all of your back-of-house party management. Four people and one dragon makes up a single unit, and as there are up to six of these groups in your party at any one time it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realise how quickly this vital bit of traditional RPG’ing could become a thankless equipment shuffling task. So to avoid a great deal of all that potential fuss this game gives each character just one weapon and one armour slot to worry about, completely eliminating the misery of equipping twenty-four different people with a fresh set of bangles, boots, and bucklers every time they gain access to a new tier of weaponry. Naturally there are times when you want to get utterly crushed by page after page of stats, fretting over how much someone’s gloves weigh or how their star sign interacts with the terrain (is there a game like that? There probably is), but Bahamut Lagoon’s relative lack of complexity when compared to some of the better-known alternatives out there works entirely in the game’s favour, drawing attention to your own decisions and strategies, and highlighting how winning or losing is more down to the choices you made in the heat of the moment than a party member’s gear or your companion dragon’s current form. Commanding an army backed up by literal dragons in a land so high in the sky there’s nothing but endless clouds above and below should feel like a breathlessly exciting adventure, like something that should keep moving forwards at every possible moment, and Bahamut Lagoon’s streamlined and simplified nature enables you to feel that for yourself instead of having to be told about someone else feeling like that in a dialogue box.
Not that characters would say things like that even if they wanted to – they haven’t got the time. Within the first half hour you’ll have had at least one fight, seen a king killed and had an assortment of evil people laugh in your face, fed your squadron of dragons a few spare items, gained another dragon and some fresh recruits to go with it, and set off for a princess-rescuing scuffle on a dragon-carrier that looks in the best possible way like it’s been stolen from Laputa. Obviously it all gets more complicated the deeper you go but the brevity of the game’s neatly divided chapters, consisting of a fun battle and the next chunk of plot, and the almost complete absence of any aimless wandering mean you’re always on your way somewhere you’ve not been before and for a specific purpose, making the story feel tight and focused even when leading lady Yoyo’s dreaming of dragons again or you’re wondering if a thorough re-jig of your teams and everything they’re wearing is in order. The story backs up the game, the game backs up the graphics, and the graphics back up the story. You can rearrange that previous sentence any way you choose and it still remains true because everything in Bahamut Lagoon is designed entirely with nothing but Bahamut Lagoon in mind: It’s not got the depth of Tactics Ogre, or the difficulty of Thracia 776, or the dazzling straight-to-the-point punchiness of Shining Force, and that’s because Bahamut Lagoon is Bahamut Lagoon. And Bahamut Lagoon is Square.