Art Director Kazuko Shibuya Discusses Bringing Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster to Life

One of the surprises from E3 2021 is that the first six Final Fantasy games would be getting remastered with all the pixel art redone from the ground up. We enjoyed revisiting the first three Final Fantasies, so when given the opportunity to talk to Kazuko Shibuya, the art director and original Final Fantasy pixel artist, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss bringing what would become one of the world’s most iconic RPG franchises to life.

[Hardcore Gamer] I’ve read that prior to your work in video game art you were an animator? What was animation work like and what made you want to switch to video games?

[Kazuko Shibuya] To be precise, I went to school to become an animator after graduating from high school, and during that time, I would sometimes do part-time jobs hand-drawing animated videos. Back then in 1984, there was no information on how one could find a job related to drawing. Becoming an illustrator or a manga artist may have been some options, but since I wanted to be part of a company, I decided to go to an animation school with the hope that I could find a position at a studio if I took the animation route.

However, after studying animation and doing animation-related part-time jobs for about two years, I realized this wasn’t for me.
That is when I consulted my teacher from back then, who advised me to apply for Squaresoft (which is what the company was called at that time) which was hiring. I went for an interview and got the position. I didn’t know anything about the gaming industry, but I was just happy to find a job related to drawing, outside of animation, no matter what the industry was.

I later heard that Square, which was creating PC games back then, decided to hire people from the animation field in light of their decision to break into the Famicom market. After joining the company, I had my fateful encounter with Mr. Hironobu Sakaguchi and Mr. Nobuo Uematsu!

What influences do you have in creating your artwork?

From childhood up to today, I’ve come in contact with countless manga, animation, drawings, and artwork. I’ve also traveled around the world, and during those trips, I saw many things, had various encounters, and felt many emotions. I believe all of these constitute who I am today. There is always inspiration in our daily lives around us.

Your earlier games, particularly the first three Final Fantasy games on Famicom and Nintendo Entertainment System, have detailed and memorable designs, especially with the hardware limitations. What sort of challenges did you experience in creating artistic designs for those games?

Since there were only three colors to work with, no matter what I was creating, I was thinking of how I could depict everything in the game, from characters to the background. Eventually, I was able to change my mindset from “I only have three colors” to “I do have three colors to work with, so I’ll create what I can with the three colors that I have.

When Super Famicom was released and the hardware was capable of better graphics, how did that change the process in Final Fantasy IV through Final Fantasy VI?

The process was pretty much the same, but with the fact that the data volume we were able to use for graphics increased, the workload increased exponentially as well. But more than anything, I was very glad that the number of colors we could use increased from 3 to 16.

Final Fantasy I, II and III Pixel Remaster look significantly upgraded from their original 8-bit artwork. What was it like as an artist to re-imagine your original artwork for these remastered versions? Were there any particular challenges with transitioning from the original style to the new look?

It was as if I was having a conversation with my past self, talking about in what way I had actually wanted to depict certain things that I had to portray in three colors back then. That being said, I may have gone too overboard and fleshed out the drawings too much, which ended up making them something completely different. I was just getting ahead of myself and things ended in failure. As such, I felt it was important to find a middle ground in order to retain the impression of the original and took that approach to create the artwork.

Final Fantasy III wasn’t released in America until 2006 and it was completely remade with 3D graphics. How does it feel now western Final Fantasy fans will finally get to play Final Fantasy III with your art?

I’m very happy. I know it’s been a long wait, but I hope everyone enjoys the game!

Looking at the work you’ve done for the first three Final Fantasy games, what particular things are you most proud of?

For FINAL FANTASY and FINAL FANTASY II, we split the workload between just two designers, including me, to create all the graphics. I’m proud of what we accomplished with just the two of us, and not to pat myself on the back, but it’s amazing how we were able to depict everything so well with three colors. Especially for the monsters that appear after the mid-boss in FINAL FANTASY III — I still love them to this day, as I believe we were able to properly portray Mr. Amano’s style.

With the advancements in CGI and 3D graphics, why was the decision made to use pixel art?

[Toshio Akiyama, Producer for Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster Series] Pixel art has its appeals that are unique to itself, and there are still many pixel art fans around the world to this day. FINAL FANTASY through FINAL FANTASY VI were pixel art titles, and even now when 3D graphics are mainstream for the FINAL FANTASY series, I believe pixel art is one of the iconic elements of this franchise. We felt this might be our last chance to preserve “pixel art FINAL FANTASY” for the future, which is why we decided to develop these titles.

Are there any memories you’d like to share about working on the first three Final Fantasy games?

[Kazuko Shibuya] To be honest, I can’t recall that many memories of hardship anymore. Those few years spent with Mr. Hironobu Sakaguchi, Mr. Nobuo Uematsu, Mr. Hiromichi Tanaka, and other amazing staff were very meaningful to my life.