I have an oddly vivid memory. A Sunday night, one of the first with a TV in my own room, fighting off my tiredness and booting up Final Fantasy IX, keeping the volume low to trick my parents that I was sleeping. I came to the franchise on the PlayStation, and the jarring clash between its pre-rendered backgrounds and polygonal character models is an aesthetic that continues to resonate with me.
Mistwalker’s Fantasian, an Apple Arcade-exclusive JRPG sees Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi return to the genre he helped cement in the global consciousness. With a resolutely traditional narrative, turn-based battles employing the advantages of touchscreen controls, and music from Nobuo Uemastsu, it seems fine-tuned to make the most of nostalgia.
But I don’t think the DNA of the game is found in its mechanics or storytelling, but in the painterly, precise modelling used to create the game’s environments. Sakaguchi, an avid miniaturist, created the world of Fantasian through meticulous dioramas. They are intricately textured and evocative, with a tangible physicality that remains a struggle to replicate in multi-million-budget, triple-A titles.
One circumstance of using dioramas is when the in-game camera pans and zooms to show the full breadth of Fantasian’s landscapes, inevitably revealing blurry edges and the physical restrictions of working with scale models, exposed by refresh rates, Super Retina displays, and CSS pixel density.
I can’t help but find an immense, comforting charm in seeing the fuzzy edges and toy-like definition of Fantasian’s environments. In the occasional blurriness and the subtle contrast against the smooth, contemporary character models. I’m not stealing time to play Final Fantasy IX anymore, but if I can’t have pre-rendered backgrounds anymore, I’ll certainly take a miniature.