Kenji Terada was a writer who, in addition to his extensive work in 1980s anime series, also wrote the stories for Square’s first three Final Fantasy games, Dark Wizard, and Meremanoid, among others. This first interview is a candid chat with Namco luminary Masanobu Endou from 1988, just before the release of FFII. I’ve also added a shorter FFII interview with Terada and Sakaguchi from the GSLA, as well as an excerpt of a 2015 interview where Terada reminisces on his early experiences with Square and the game industry.

FFIII interview (1990)
FF Adventure interview (1991)
FFV Developer Interview (1992)
FFVI Developer Interviews (1994)

Kenji Terada – 1988 Developer Interview

originally featured in the 9/88 edition of Famicom Tsuushin

Masanobu Endou – After graduating from Chiba University, joined Namco in 1981. Left Namco in 1985 to found Game Studio. Known for Tower of Druaga, Xevious, and more.

Kenji Terada – Worked as an assistant director while attending Waseda University. Currently works as a freelance scenario writer. Script writer for Kinnikuman, Dirty Pair, Dancouga, Final Fantasy I, and many others.

Endou: I’ve only recently started playing Final Fantasy. It was after finishing the development of The Quest of Ki, so maybe after May 20th, I think? I suddenly had some free time on my hands, so I binged on Final Fantasy, Indra no Hikari, and Minelvaton Saga for about 10 days straight.

Terada: How was it?

Endou: I started with a Warrior, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage, but that felt too standard and boring, so I re-started with all Red Mages. But then I realized later that there are spells that only the White and Black mages can use. That really pissed me off. I actually yelled out “You idiots!”

Terada: Idiots, eh?

Endou: So I ended up restarting once more with new characters. This time, with a Warrior, Monk, White Mage, and Black Mage. But this Monk was totally useless. Even after I gave him nunchucks he was so weak! Like, you idiot, I’m just gonna let you die!

Terada: I keep hearing that word “idiot”. (laughs)

Endou: But then, the minute I removed his equipment, suddenly he became super powerful. What is he, Kenshiro now? I was laughing, but also mad. (laughs)

Terada: So was there anything good about the game…?

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Kenji Terada (top) and
Masanobu Endo (bottom)

Endou: The airship was great. That scrolling speed, top-class stuff there.

Terada: The high-speed scrolling with the airship has gotten really high marks, everyone says it feels great. That exhilaration is something we’re bringing back for FFII, of course.

Endou: The places you can land with the airship are limited though, right? I could sense a stubbornness on the part of the programmer there, in not changing that. Hovering with the airship over where I wanted to go, but then having to park it some ways off and just hoof it… yeah, I said “goddamn idiots!” again.

Terada: …um, to change the subject a bit, you know, I’ve actually never played Wizardry! (laughs)

Endou: We knew we were going to make a second Wizardry game as soon as we began the first one.

Terada: Before it went on sale, even?

Endou: Yeah. In the middle of making Wizardy I, we realized we could use the same engine for 2, so we organized all the data in a way that would allow for that. How about you, with Final Fantasy?

Terada: There was some talk about it, I guess, but we knew it wouldn’t be happening unless the game sold well.

Endou: When did you actually begin working on FFII? March, April?

Terada: No, much earlier than that, of course.

Endou: I should probably say this up front, though people who played the PC version may already know, but the Famicom port of Wizardry 2 is actually based on the original Wizardry 3.

Terada: So you skipped the story of 2 and went straight to 3?

Endou: Yeah. I’ve always felt that 2 was a little underwhelming in terms of content… I don’t like it personally. So we went with 3, thinking a unique, independent story would be best for a sequel.

Terada: Is it a complete port?

Endou: In the beginning we talked about using the original maps like in the first game, but the Famicom hardware wasn’t quite up to the task, so we dropped that idea. The Famicom version does allow you to transfer your saved characters from the first game, though, with the Turbo File external storage device.

Terada: What about kids who don’t own the Turbo File?

Endou: They can just make new characters, which is fine.

Terada: What would the difference be…?

Endou: Well, basically, with transferred characters you can use one of the Elite classes right away, like Ninja or Lord. Of course they are returned to Level 1. But having the Elite classes definitely makes things significantly easier for those players.

Terada: It seems unfair.

Endou: It is, but that’s ok. Players who persevered through the first Wizardry deserve some kind of reward for that. The big difference between 1 and 2, I’d say, would be the riddles and puzzles. The original Wizardry 3 had these sort of riddles on each floor of the labyrinth, and if you didn’t answer them you couldn’t pass the checkpoint. They’re kind of frustrating. We still haven’t decided, actually, how faithfully we’re going to reproduce that aspect for this port. In the original, if you don’t know a bit about tarot you’ll get stuck. I guess that’s fine for people overseas, but for Japanese players…

Terada: Ah, yeah. I guess for Japanese you’d need to make it… hanafuda? (laughs)

Endou: Riddles are hard to do with the Famicom’s controller as well. And having them be multiple choice is too easy. If it comes down to it, I guess we’ll have to go the Famicom Tantei: Kieta Koukeisha (Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir) route… those who know it will know what I’m talking about.

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While PC games like Wizardry didn’t have this problem, the limited ROM space of early console games made more complicated NPC interactions and literary aspirations very difficult. Above, there is the Famicom Tanteidan onscreen keyboard style Endou mentions; this somewhat unwieldy approach was used in later sound novel games as well. Square, who actually had their start developing text adventures for the PC-88, opted for a keyword approach in FFII which was a nice compromise for console limitations.

Terada: For Final Fantasy, the “final” part just means that the previous game’s story is fully concluded in that game. (laughs)

Endou: Hah, I see… hence “final”.

Terada: Yeah, that’s why FFII is a completely new game, a “Final Fantasy” in another world. I suppose the “II” may not really fit, for that reason. I think there was a lot of resistance at Square, as well, to making it a numbered sequel. People were asking me, why are we calling this FFII when it has no relation to the first game whatsoever…?

So I talked with the planners about this a bit, and they said that because people who saw the first game will likely buy this one too, we should try and carry over some of the popular elements from FFI in this game too. And I said, well, how about the crystals? Crystals are a general fantasy trope after all. I said having a keyword theme like that will be good for us down the road too, if this becomes a long-running series. For example, later games could build their drama around that keyword, or maybe one game could take that theme and subvert player’s expectations, and then a later game could return to the orthodox path… just lots of options. I thought this idea was really cool, and I suggested we build Final Fantasy as a series around that idea.

In the last game, the goal was to restore light to the crystals. This time, we’ve swapped it around, and they’re just a means to achieve your final goal… you can think of it that way.

Being a Final Fantasy game, you have certain things the players will want to see, such as the animations in the battles. We’ve largely overhauled the battle system for this game, though. For your weapons and armor, for instance, we’ve got the typical armor, helmet, and glove options, but we’re thinking about adding a distinction between left-hand and right-handedness. You could decide not to hold a shield in your right hand, for instance, and instead use two swords and get two attacks.

Endou: Wow. So this means characters will have a dominant right or left hand.

Terada: Yeah, I think so.

Endou: That sounds like it could be annoying!

Terada: We’re also adding something we call the “Word Memory System.” When you hear an important word in a conversation with an NPC, your character will automatically remember it. Then you can use that word in other conversations to get more information. There’s been a tendency in RPGs to have a very “one-way” flow of information, but this will make it feel more like a real conversation. I think players will enjoy the sense of presence, of being-there, that these more natural conversations lend to the experience. Please look forward to it.

In terms of the story, this actually came up in a conversation I had with one of Square’s younger employees, but… he said he wanted to make a game that would bring tears to players’ eyes.

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FFII is still primarily remembered in the West for its unusual battle/stat system, but Terada’s attempt at a deeper, more dramatic story presages the direction the series would ultimately take.

Endou: A real tear-jerker?!

Terada: Yeah. Something about that conversation then struck a chord in me. Because in this industry, as long as something is fun or interesting, anything goes. When I’m writing the story for a game, I always try to think that way. So what he said about a game that would players cry then, somehow it felt really fresh to me.

Endou: A video game story that makes people cry… that’s quite a challenge. Actually, our recent game The Quest of Ki features a tragic ending. That was a first for me. It would have been very difficult to make an ending like that if not for the fact that it sets up the plot of the prequel Tower of Druaga, where Gil sets out to rescue Ki.

Terada: It’s not just wanting people to cry—I’d like games to provoke a wider variety of emotions. Crying, laughing, being angry at the end… stories that move people are hard to make, but we have to try. That’s why when I write a story for a game, I write it as if I were writing a movie. I even write down stage directions sometimes, as if it were a screenplay. Of course, a story and script, those are just ingredients: ultimately it’s the creators—aka the programmers—who will do the cooking. But I include lots of elements in there, to make people cry, to make people laugh—all of it is meant to expand and enliven the experience. With Final Fantasy II, the first concept I had for it was to tell a story with more intricate, “entangled” human relationships. I wonder how it will come out?

Endou: Have you ever cried when reading a story you wrote yourself?

Terada: Ah, no. (laughs)

Endou: I did once. I was writing and thought about how nice it would be if everyone were moved by it.

Terada: I’ve got plenty of good stories kicking around in my head, but many of them can’t just be translated as-is into a video game. The other developers have to re-work the ideas a bit so they’ll fit. A good example would be in Dragon Quest III, where the Merchant character leaves the party.

Endou: Oh yeah, that part. I actually heard a rumor about that before starting the game, about someone who named their Merchant “Han” so that the town would get called “Hanburg”. I named my Merchant “Spiel”, for “Spielburg”. My friend came over one day, and he didn’t know anything about all this, so he was like… why the hell did you name your Merchant Spiel??? I laughed and said in a really foreboding tone, that it had a deep hidden significance. (laughs) The Momotaro Densetsu series is full of gags like this, too.

Terada: The game industry sure is becoming something amazing, isn’t it.

Endou: It is, and I think it’s starting to become established as a valid medium. Eventually TV, radio, and computer software will be seen as the same sort of mediums. Unfortunately, whenever a great new game is released, for the PC Engine, for example, there’s always a cheaper Famicom knock-off that comes out on its heels. I think the Famicom is holding the industry back in that sense, but it’s a situation we’ll just have to endure for the time being. Before long, I suspect there will be a new, cheap, powerful hardware, and if that’s a hit, the gaming world will once again undergo an expansion, I think.

Final Fantasy II – 1988 Developer Interview

with Hironobu Sakaguchi and Kenji Terada

Development Challenges

Sakaguchi: I’d say one of the biggest challenges was finding the right balance between the gameplay systems and the story. If you put too much emphasis on either of them, you won’t have a good game.

Terada: For me, the challenge was being given a rough outline from the rest of the staff explaining what they wanted to do with FFII, and then finding the space within that to write a story that felt like my own creation. Obviously, while I’m writing, discrepancies between my ideas and theirs would crop up. Trying to harmonize these things, and battling against the deeply-held “grudges” of the staff against certain ideas, was quite the hardship. (laughs)

Sakaguchi: With the story Terada then handed back to us, the question became how much of this could we incorporate into the game while maintaining a balance with the gameplay systems. For this game, we weren’t able to include everything, so we resolved to use the more problematic sections next time. As for what that next game will be… right now, it’s all just dreams and ideas, so I can’t say anything yet. I want people to be more focused on FFII right now anyway. (laughs)

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It may be hard to appreciate today, but the scrolling speed of the airship was a big “wow” factor when the first Final Fantasy came out in late 1987.

Programming FFII

Sakaguchi: The 4x scrolling speed of the airship, the hidden game on the overworld map, those things in FFI were added by our programmer Nasir Gebelli.

Terada: Was that speed technically difficult to program?

Sakaguchi: Yeah. He’s the kind of person who loves surprising you with stuff like that. He’s got that touch of genius to him. Nasir also did the programming for FFII, though the gameplay systems were done by our staff. There’s some secret extras in this game too, so please look forward to it.

The Stories of Final Fantasy

Terada: Next time, I’d like to write a story that portrays the psychology of the enemy side. That’s common enough in the world of fiction, but I don’t think it’s been done in a video game yet…?

Sakaguchi: Nice. Something with cinematic cuts, like “Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of…”

Terada: Yeah. If you can create a compelling enough villain, it can work. I’m actually writing a short story for a magazine right now. It’s kind of a prelude to FFII featuring the Leon character. I think this can be a cool way to bring more depth to things, too.

Kenji Terada – 2015 Interview Excerpt

originally featured at cakes.mu

—The Final Fantasy games have been the mostly widely covered work of your career, but how did you originally get involved in it?

Terada: One of the founders of Square was my high school classmate. Back in the Famicom era, working in game development was even more crazy than working in anime. These game developers at Square, who were all students and friends with each other, were all anime fans, and apparently they were ardent fans of some of the series I’d written for, like Space Cobra and Cat’s Eye.

So they said they wanted to meet me. I remember Hironobu Sakaguchi was there. There was also Hisashi Suzuki, who went on to found DigiCube, plus many other developers who were responsible for Square’s early hits. Anyway, the next day, Sakaguchi invited me to join the company. “I want to make a game that will make people cry,” he said. “Will you help us?”

—A game that will make people cry, eh?

Terada: To create something with the power to move people to tears, you have to create a setting with enough detail to allow for full-bodied characters who you can empathize with, and then you need a good drama. I had never written a game scenario before, and to be perfectly honest, I had my doubts whether that would be possible to do in a video game. And I didn’t play video games either. However, over the course of many meetings with the guys at Square, I started to think that this new medium could indeed be used to convey a cinematic emotional experience.

At the time I was writing for Kinnikuman, but rather than the manga-like gags and comedy that the original comic was famous for, I had been working on expanding the dramatic quality of it with sad, emotionally moving storylines. The producer and director used to jokingly call me “Tear-jerker Terada,” in fact, and for awhile there I was really getting into writing that kind of stuff. (laughs)

So yeah, riding on the wave of that encouragement (and I was one of those guys for whom flattery does wonders), many ideas and outlines for game scenarios started bubbling up in my head.

—The Final Fantasy games became such huge hits, how did your life change when comparing the before and after?

Terada: To be honest, as a writer, the bad probably outweighed the good. I was only involved with Final Fantasy up to FF3, yet forever after I became known as “Terada, from Final Fantasy” wherever I went. The anime industry saw me as a game guy, but on the other hand, people in the gaming industry thought I worked for Square. Then, when I was about 38, the anime work almost entirely stopped coming my way.

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Terada’s FFII novelization has never been translated into English, unfortunately. It’s too bad, as it contains a lot of nice illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano himself.

At the time I had already published several books, and I’d just signed a deal with a publisher named Tairiku Shobou for three fantasy books. So I didn’t care about the anime work drying up–I got this idea in my head that, with this work in tow, I could go live overseas now and write from there! So I moved to Seattle.

Despite being a writer there’s another side of me that can be very impulsive and quick to make rash decisions, once an idea pops into my head. I had a son, he was in third grade. And I’d always wanted to live overseas. But as fate would have it, once I got there, the publisher Tairiku Shobou went bankrupt. (laughs)

As they say though, when one doors closes, another opens, and I managed to get by and live in Seattle for another two years. In that sense, my involvement in Final Fantasy had both good and bad points, I suppose.