This “History of Square” interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi was originally featured in a 1992 bonus edition of Dengeki Super Famicom. Square had only just released Final Fantasy V, so it’s really an account of the first 8 years of the company history, peppered with some humorous anecedotes from their early days. Please note that the italicized text is from the original article; I thought it made sense to leave it in for context and framing this time.

The interview is rounded out by brief commentaries from three of Square’s most famous illustrators: Yoshitaka Amano, Tomomi Kobayashi, and Katsutoshi Fujioka. Finally, Dengeki Super Famicom also issued a questionnaire to Square’s employees, the results of which I’ve appended at the bottom.

FF6 Developer Interviews
FF7 Developer Interviews
Chrono Trigger 1995 Interviews (1)
Chrono Trigger 1995 Interviews (2)

 

The History of Square – 1992 Developer Interview

originally featured in Dengeki SFC magazine

Square Timeline

10/83 – Established in Hiyoshi, Yokohama
09/84 – The Death Trap, Square’s first game for PC, is released
12/85 – Thexder, their first Famicom title, is released
04/86 – Office moved to Ginza, Tokyo
07/86 – Square establishes the DOG (Disk Original Group)
09/86 – Officially incorporated as Kabushiki Gaisha Square
12/86 – Square’s first Famicom Disk System game, Suisho no Dragon
09/87 – Office moved to Okachimachi, Tokyo
12/87 – Final Fantasy, the smash hit RPG is released
03/89 – SquareSoft, Square’s overseas sales headquarters, is established in Seattle. Square’s first Gameboy title, Makai Toushi Sa.Ga is released
02/90 – Office moved to Akasaka, Tokyo. Osaka Development Division created
07/91 – Final Fantasy IV, Square’s first SFC game is released
03/92 – Office moved to Ebisu, Tokyo

Hironobu Sakaguchi

Sakaguchi joined Square (then located in Hiyoshi, Yokohama) as a part-time employee. Today, he shares some of the little-known secrets from Square’s infancy!

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Hironobu Sakaguchi, 1992.

I first started off making computer games for Square in a single room of a 2DK condo. Back then, it was more of a summer-camp vibe with my student friends. Everyday was just us joking around and having fun while we worked.

I didn’t have a bath/shower in my own room at home, so I’d shower each day at the office. There was a lot of joking around: “Hey Sakaguchi, you left your pubes in the shower again!” … and I’d be like, “No way in hell was that me.” (laughs)

Also, in those days game centers were still open 24 hours a day, so after work we’d go get some food and then immediately head to the game center, where we’d play games till morning… we did that a lot.

Our very first game was an adventure game called Death Trap. It depicted a spy operating in an African country during a civil war. During that 2-year period we produced three games, so I think we were working at a pretty fast pace.

With their entry into Famicom development, moving the office to Ginza, and establishing the DOG software group, Square was starting to grow up. Yet this was also a marked period of experimentation for the young company…

One day, our President suddenly came in and told us “We’re going to make Famicom games now”—and with that, we were doing Famicom development. It was a simple start, but at Square, you see, the vibe is kind of like a sports team: once we decide we’re going to do something, everyone gives it their all and keeps their eyes 100% focused on whatever the goal is. That sense of momentum and excitement is really important to us—we always let it carry us along and guide us. It was the same whenever we moved offices too. We added a bunch more people to our staff then, too.

What changed when we moved to Ginza was the way we spent our free time. (laughs) We were young, and, well, it wasn’t just playtime, but in other ways we received a lot of stimulation from being in that location, and we learned a lot too.

For those early Famicom releases, we had a kind of defiant, fighting spirit about us, I think. We had heard that when making Famicom games, you needed to make sure it was marketable for grade-school kids, and that only shooting and action games would sell well, but those weren’t the type of games we thought were interesting. I guess you could say then, that this period of time (including the DOG era) was characterized by a lot of experimentation, trying to figure out what would work given the climate.

The latter years of the Ginza period were a big turning point for Square, marked by the fateful meeting with Nassir Gebelli and the release of their massive hit, Final Fantasy.

I believe our President met Nassir at a party overseas and invited him to come work with us, but when he brought him over, it was very sudden for us. He just dropped him off and was like, “Make games with this guy.” I wasn’t very good at English, so we were a little lost, and at first we couldn’t communicate very well. But Nassir had originally made games for the Apple system, and I loved that computer, so gradually I came to see him as a kindred spirit. It was my job to accompany him out for meals, and also to drink… it was kind of like being a tourist guide.

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Nassir Gebelli, the legendary programmer responsible for Final Fantasy I-III and Secret of Mana.

In terms of our work, I learned a lot from Nassir, on many fronts. After we had made a number of Disk System games with Nassir, we got started with Final Fantasy. While it’s true that we were excited and encouraged by the success of Dragon Quest, we all started as “adventure game” guys at Square, and we had a certain premonition with Final Fantasy—that it would finally be the game we had always wanted to make—and that we were finally going to be able to make what we ourselves thought was interesting.

Up to that point, the game industry was one where almost any game you put out would sell well, just by virtue of being out there… but that year was a big turning point, toward a market where only good games would sell. We wanted Final Fantasy to have the fun of Dragon Quest, “+1″—to be an epic game that would take your breath away the first time you saw it.

When we finished Final Fantasy, it was the very end of our tenure at the Ginza office, and it also marked a huge expansion in our staff. When I look back on it now, I can see that it was a turning point for us internally, as a company, as well.

Within the next two years, Square would move their offices three times from Okachimachi, to Akasaka, and finally to Ebisu. With the success of the Final Fantasy series, it was a time of great activity for Square.

Since the release of Final Fantasy, we’ve become unbounded by a lot of our old fears. In Final Fantasy, you see, we went “all-in” with making the game we wanted to make, full of things we love, and it became a hit… so that put wind in our sails, and our earlier defiant posture was replaced with confidence. In that sense, it was almost like a return to our early days of making computer games for fun, as a hobby.

With our most recent release, Final Fantasy V, management was worried that the game would be too hard for elementary and middle school students, but the responses we’ve seen from users so far don’t seem to show that.

We’ve recently added even more staff to our team, and we’ve moved around a lot in these last couple years. It’s not like we plan it this way or anything, but once we do decide to move, everyone gets into it. We’ve been here at Ebisu for 1 year now, and here we are again, before even two years have passed, getting ready to move our office again. (laughs)

Compared with movies, I think the level of presentation of games is still quite low. Movies, for example, can employ all manner of complex things through the camerawork and cinematography. For games, that’s still lacking. I watched the video presentation for Star Blade very closely, because I’m interested in polygons and 3D graphics, but at the present moment, I would say we’re still waiting for the software to “level up.”

Memories of Square – Yoshitaka Amano

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The Square Pro-Wrestling club (above) and the RC Car Racing club (below).

The first time I worked on Final Fantasy, I was very lost. I was supposed to create “game illustrations”, but I had no idea what to draw, or what style I should employ. I had honestly never even touched a Famicom, you see. Since Final Fantasy II, every game has been a marathon of trial-and-error. Each time, it’s a desperate search in the dark until I hit upon the right idea.

I’m not really conscious of the series as a whole when I’m drawing. That’s why I’ll sometimes draw the character with the same name different ways, from game to game. More than that, because I draw a great number of sketches and images for a single game, I pay close attention to whether my drawings look too similar to each other, and try to keep things balanced there. Personally, I really like drawing the crazy/anarchic style of monsters.

Recently, I’ve been having more and more experiences where people I work with tell me, “my kid is a big fans of yours.” I heard this in the past when I worked on anime series too, but it happens more often now with Final Fantasy!

Memories of Square – Tomomi Kobayashi

I’ve hardly played video games at all in my life. Before I got involved with Romancing SaGa, I played FFIII, and it was a huge culture shock to me. When I saw the map spread out before me on my TV, it was like, “Whoa! They can do this on a TV screen now…?!”

Similarly, this was also my first experience as a character designer. Normally, when I do illustrations for novels, I read the text and get an image in my head that way. With Romancing SaGa, however, they simply gave me a profile for each character, about 2 paragraphs long, and asked me to freely expand on that using my imagination. This was the opposite of how I had always worked, so it was half-terrifying, and half-exhilirating. I really enjoy drawing characters like Grey, Sif, and Hawk, they’re my favorites.

Memories of Square – Katsutoshi Fujioka

Starting with Hanjuku Hero on the Famicom, I’ve helped Square with the Game Boy SaGA series, Tom Sawyer, and Hanjuku 2. I had actually done a lot of work for different game companies before then, too… posters, cover art, things like that. I change my style up a lot from project to project though, so I don’t think many people have noticed. (laughs)

Of the work I did for Square, the Hanjuku series was particularly interesting. It’s sort of a parody of Final Fantasy. It was difficult to find the right degree of satire, so it was very hard, but it was also so much fun. They also let me do what I wanted, mostly. At the end of the project, they even let me draw a manga for the Hanjuku Hero strategy guide published by NTT! I hope to keep working with Square on more projects in the future.

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In 1992, there were six different development groups at Square. Group 1, headed by Sakaguchi, was responsible for the Final Fantasy series. Group 2 was run by Akitoshi Kawazu and worked on the Romancing SaGa series, among others. Hiromichi Tanaka headed up Group 3, which created Secret of Mana. Group 4, with Kazuhiko Aoki, created Hanjuku Hero and other “lighthearted” games. Less known is the “Research and Development” group, which was responsible for maintaining Square’s internal network and training new employees. Finally, the “Osaka Development” group, headed by Chihiro Fujioka, would later go on to create Super Mario RPG.

Square Stats!

For this feature, we sent a questionnaire to a random selection of employees at Square, who were kind enough to cooperate with us and fill them out. A total of 33 employees replied (our of 135 total employees at Square): 20 men and 13 women. In terms of position, the breakdown was 18 developers, 7 public relations/advertising, 5 general management, 2 business administration, and 1 finance employee.

Horoscope Sign and Blood Type

Aries is the decisive winner here. In terms of blood types, there’s an above average number of B types represented. “You’re a little weird, but you’re very creative and industrious” — a fortune teller’s reading that would seem to apply to many at Square!

Aries – 8
Virgo – 5
Gemini – 3
Pisces – 3
Cancer – 3
Aquarius – 3
Other – 8

A – 13
B – 11
O – 11
AB – 1
Unknown – 1

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This playful image shows a “stat screen” for the typical Square developer grunt. The abilities are listed as: !Final Spurt, !All-nighter, !It’s all over, and !Help Me. The “equipment” is: Mouse, Mithril Blanket, Genji Sleeping Bag, Deadline Bracers. The “stats” are: Strength 3, Stamina 65, Tenacity 90, Eyesight .1, Sleepiness 99%”

Favorite Magazines and TV Shows

SPA tops the list as everyone’s favorite magazine. We can’t accept Famicon Tsuushin being number 2, but hey, Dengeki is still fairly new right?! For TV, ugougoruuga’s explosive popularity is felt here too. All the Square employees watch it live when they get home from work.

1. SPA!
2. Famicon Tsuushin
3. 25ans

1. Ugougoruuga
2. News Stations
3. Pro-wrestling

Favorite Games (Square)

1. Final Fantasy V
2. Final Fantasy II
3. Final Fantasy IV

Favorite Games (Other Companies)

1. Star Fox
2. Dragon Quest series
3. Puyo Puyo

Weekly Time Spent Playing Games and Game Console Owned

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Unsurprisingly, the highest group here is the 10+ hours/week, but the highest single response we received was only 14 hours a week, which seems like a rather small amount for a game developer, right? It’s also surprising to see that four people said they played 2 hours or less.

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80% of the respondents own a Super Famicom. There were also 3 people who said they didn’t own any consoles. In contrast, many employees indicated that they played western computer games on their Macintosh or PC.

Hobbies

Movies – 10
Music – 8
Travel – 7
Drawing/Art – 6
Reading – 5
Cars – 5
Skiing – 5
Sleeping – 4
Other – 20

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A developer cubicle at Square circa 1992 (apologies for the seam in the image). At 180x180cm, these were considered very spacious for the time. Note the boom box and the Macintosh (one Mac was issued to all employees at Square, including non-devs—again, a luxury for the time).