Wiretap: Will the Cube be Squared?

   Nintendo fanboys scoff at the idea. Sony fanboys scoff at the idea. Square fanboys scoff at the idea. But reports that Square is planning to develop and publish games for Nintendo systems are building up and making what is frequently the subjects of jokes and sarcasm into a very plausible scenario.

   The most frequently-cited news comes from German gaming site GameFront, which on Saturday posted an unconfirmed report (translated by Nintendojo) that Square would soon hold a press conference announcing its return to Nintendo platforms. (GameFront has been the first to break several key stories, such as the GameCube logo, in the past.) GameFront's version of the tale states that Square's planned support may range anywhere from simply a port of Final Fantasy XI to several exclusive titles. Meanwhile, the Nintendo GameCube news page also reported a rumor that Square plans to next week announce the Final Fantasy VII remake, an FF XI port, and an exclusive new game for the GameCube. Others have speculated that, based on comments by Tetsuya Nomura (below), Kingdom Hearts may jump ship and become a GameCube title.

   Surprisingly, however, there has been little buzz about possible Game Boy Advance development, a system that seems to be begging for Square support. Square's portable games are currently released only on Bandai's WonderSwan Color, a system not as popular as the Game Boy Advance in Japan and not available elsewhere in the world. Beginning Game Boy Advance development would appear to be an easy way to greatly expand the number of potential customers for Square's portable titles. Indeed, at a strategy conference last January, Square's Hironobu Sakaguchi stated that he'd like to remake Final Fantasies IV, V, VI, but that they wouldn't be possible on the WonderSwan Color and he'd like to see them on the Game Boy Advance. The company also announced a new spin-off FF game for a "next-generation portable system," which many fans assumed was the Game Boy Advance.

   Since the strategy conference, however, there's been nary a word about any possible GBA games. Square recently announced it has six WonderSwan Color games in the works, indicating that - for now, at least - it still plans heavy support of Bandai's system. While plans can and do change - Resident Evil 4, for example, was in development for the PlayStation 2 before becoming a GameCube exclusive - it's extremely improbable that Square would go out of its way to publicly announce so many titles for the WonderSwan Color if it planned on officially moving them to GBA a week later. Of course, it's still possible that Square has even more projects - such as the aforementioned "new Final Fantasy title" - in development as GBA exclusives.

   But while the scale and specifics of Square's potential support for Nintendo systems are open to debate, more and more evidence is pointing to the fact that the two companies may be working together soon. Square has openly stated that it would like to release Final Fantasy XI on several console platforms - in June, Sakaguchi told GameSpot VG that while Final Fantasy XI would initially be released for the PlayStation 2 and PC, "in order to gain as broad an audience as possible, [Square] will release it across other consoles in the future."

   Other big names at Square also seem to be warming to the prospect of working on Nintendo platforms. In an interview with Electronic Gaming Monthly, Final Fantasy character designer and Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuya Nomura spoke enthusiastically about both of Nintendo's current consoles. "I offer huge praise for both the Gamecube and Game Boy Advance," Nomura said. "If there is any chance to work on them, I may go for it. As far as Xbox is concerned... it's quite big, isn't it?" When combined with his flippant jab at Microsoft's Xbox, Nomura's comments cannot be taken as mere PR-speak, but rather as a genuine interest in Nintendo's systems.

   Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi, however, seems less interested in reconciliation. Yamauchi has frequently criticized Square's business practices in the past - at a meeting for stock analysts last September, Yamauchi lambasted companies that "keep on making IIs, IIIs, even VIIs, VIIIs and IXs." And in a January interview with Bloomberg Japan, Yamauchi stated that "We [Nintendo] do not have a contract with Square, and do not plan to even consider a contract in the future." However, as vocal as Yamauchi is in his criticism of Square, he's been president of Nintendo for over fifty years, masterminded the success of the NES and Super NES, and surely most know a good business opportunity when one arrives. And Yamauchi's rhetoric does not always match up to Nintendo's actions - Yamauchi has attacked remakes and sequels, but that didn't prevent Capcom from announcing remakes of all the Resident Evil games for the GameCube.

   Indeed, Capcom's surprise announcement that the Resident Evil series would become exclusive to the GameCube certainly proved that Nintendo's courting of developers is having an effect - and silenced many of the critics who claimed that the GameCube would have no third party support. Indeed, what is happening now may be the reverse of what happened between Sony and Nintendo in the previous generation. The PlayStation was the clear platform of choice for third-parties in the previous generation, just as the Super NES was before that. In the case of the Super NES, Nintendo arrogantly assumed that developers would return for its next console and adopted developer-unfriendly policies that led many of them to sign with Sony instead. Now, as the current leader, Sony may have also let its success go to its head and failed to offer developers a deal that matched Nintendo's.

   Certainly one of the reasons Square signed with Sony was that Square's plans for an FMV-heavy Final Fantasy VII would be difficult to implement on a cartridge-based system. (While Angel Studios' port of Resident Evil 2 proved that such a feat was possible, that title came three years after the Nintendo 64 was released, giving developers time to find ways to cram more onto a cartridge.) With all three current consoles using dense optical discs, media size is much less of an issue. Indeed, the GameCube would offer several technical advantages over the PlayStation 2: difficult-to-pirate game discs and the prospect of connections between GameCube and Game Boy Advance titles.

   An announcement from Square of GameCube would probably still come as a surprise to most gamers, but the announcement that Square would be releasing Final Fantasy VII on the PlayStation instead of the Nintendo 64 was also unexpected. (Scan courtesy of John Ricciardi.) Square and Nintendo, of course, have remained silent on the issue, as both companies are wont to do. Most of the rumors suggest that the official announcement will come very soon - September 24th is the most frequently pegged date - so speculation and sarcasm should soon be put to rest.

Column by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA
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