Talking FINAL FANTASY pixel remaster with the legendary Kazuko Shibuya

The legendary artist who helped define FINAL FANTASY shares her thoughts about revisiting her iconic works for the pixel remaster series!
By Duncan Heaney

FINAL FANTASY wouldn’t be FINAL FANTASY without Kazuko Shibuya.

The talented artist has created some of the most memorable pixel art in the whole series, from series icons like the Black Mage, to beloved sprites like Kefka and the rest of FINAL FANTASY’s memorable cast.

She’s also the Art Director on the FINAL FANTASY Pixel Remaster project, which brings past and present together through a beautiful pixel art style that hearkens back to FINAL FANTASY through FINAL FANTASY VI, while updating it for modern displays.

Now that FINAL FANTASY I - VI have been released has been released on Switch and PS4, it seems the perfect time to look back over these amazing games with the woman who helped bring them to life.

Please enjoy our interview with Shibuya-san:

Hello Shibuya-san. How did you get your start in the games industry?

I’ve been drawing from a very young age, and by my teens already knew I wanted to work in art.

I spent my teenage years surrounded by animation and manga, which only made that desire even stronger. I also considered entering art school with that future in mind, so I regularly visited an atelier to study.

But shortly before graduating from high school, I struggled to decide on my next stage of education. At the time, in 1984, there was no information as to what I should do in order to work in the art profession. As I wanted to work at a company, rather than as a freelance illustrator or manga artist, I decided to go to an animation school thinking that I may be able to find work at a studio.

After studying at animation school for around two years and drawing for video animation as a part-time job, I realized that it wasn’t for me. I consulted with my teacher and told them that I wanted to find a job other than in animation. They told me that a video game company had a job opening so I should go for an interview.

That company was Squaresoft.

Terra from FINAL FANTASY VI pixel remaster standing on world map

It was around the time that the Famicom had started to become popular. Square was looking for somebody who could do animations in order to transition from PC games to Famicom game development.

I went to the interview, and despite knowing nothing about video games successfully joined the company. To be honest, I probably felt that I would be fine with anything as long as it wasn’t animation!

My parents were very worried that I joined Square - a small start-up company at the time - but they eventually reconsidered, thinking that I would probably quit after two or three years and get married.

However, surely nobody could have predicted that I would meet (FINAL FANTASY creator) Hironobu Sakaguchi-san and (FINAL FANTASY composer) Uematsu-san and continue working at the company for 35 years. I’m the most surprised!

Ultros at the FINAL FANTASY VI pixel remaster opera scene

You would soon play a very important role in the original FINAL FANTASY. How did you end up working on this title?

When Sakaguchi-san was looking for members to work on a new RPG title (before it even had the name FINAL FANTASY), I raised my hand. The graphics members were just me and one other woman...

What do you remember about working on the game?

For FINAL FANTASY, and FINAL FANTASY II, we worked on the graphics between the two of us. I mainly took care of the characters, battle backgrounds and opening screen.

Monsters were a shared effort. The world map was done by the other woman, and other map graphics, effects and text were drawn by whichever one of us was free!

You’d go on to work on the next games in the series too…

Yes, for FINAL FANTASY III, I pretty much worked on the monsters, battle backgrounds and maps, such as towns and dungeons. When my hands were free, I’d help others.

Also, for FINAL FANTASY I to III, any monster designs that were not assigned to (FINAL FANTASY concept art illustrator) Yoshitaka Amano were drawn by the graphics team at the time, including myself.

With FINAL FANTASY IV, I worked on the base images of character illustrations for the strategy guide and the Easy Type box art, although the actual images used were outsourced to external illustrators.

For FINAL FANTASY V, I worked on the pixel designs for the player characters’ field, battle, job designs (between the two of us), other NPCs, and anything else.

When it came to FINAL FANTASY VI, I worked on all the pixel designs for the player characters and main NPC characters.

Of course, bear in mind this is just how I remember it - it was more than 30 years ago, so my apologies if something is missing or different!

FINAL FANTASY VI pixel remaster battle scene

When did you first hear about the FINAL FANTASY pixel remaster series?

The producer who started this project is from the division that I’m currently in, so the opportunity naturally came to me.

I believe I was given the opportunity because I’ve stayed with SQUARE ENIX, so I feel I was fortunate to stay with the company for this long!

What did it feel like to return to these games again?

I’m grateful for the opportunity to revisit my work from 35 years ago - these titles were the origin of my career!

What is your process for creating such expressive pixel art?

First, I look at the illustration, grasp the characteristics, and then think about how I can effectively leverage them.

At that point, the pixel art is finalized in my mind, so I start placing the pixels one by one, heading towards the finalized image.

Airship from FINAL FANTASY VI pixel remaster

The games in the pixel remaster series now have a unified art style. How did you ensure each game kept the same spirit as the original release?

Fortunately, it seems I’m able to naturally distinguish the fine details in my drawings by always being conscious of the original’s spirit.

Which FINAL FANTASY characters or monsters are your favorites, and which are you most proud of working on?

One of my favorites would be Kefka, from FINAL FANTASY VI. He’s crazy and somewhat childish as well, and I feel that I was able to express that well, including through his animations.

In regard to which I am most proud of working one… I can’t choose just one. I pour my love into all of them!

Music select from FINAL FANTASY VI pixel remaster

You’ve worked on the series a long time now. Which characters do you think you’ve worked on or reworked most often?

The Black Mage and White Mage!

These two characters come up in various occasions, such as being the main characters for the FF brass band concert - fortunately, they’ve been refined to a point that no more redesigning would be necessary.

Are there any characters you had to redesign or rework for the pixel remaster series?

There weren’t any characters that were ‘redesigned’ as such. I do remember that in the original FINAL FANTASY III (not pixel remaster), Cloud of Darkness, the final boss in FINAL FANTASY III, didn’t have the “final boss” feel that’s in Amano-san’s original design art. As a result, extensive changes were made to portray the volume and punch suitable for a final boss.

So, in your expert opinion, what makes great pixel art?

It’s really about creating pixel art that makes the players who play the games - and those who see that art - smile.

Finally, why do you think pixel art has stood the test of time so well?

Unlike the latest computer graphics, which feel more “distant,” as something presented one-sidedly for your viewing pleasure, I believe the appeal of pixel art is that it feels familiar and close to you, like something you would be able to draw yourself.

After all, the first step in creating a pixel art is simply placing a single dot.

FINAL FANTASY VI pixel remaster world map

Many thanks to Shibuya-san for taking the time to speak with us. Of course, her work speaks for itself, and you can see every pixel of charm and personality in the FINAL FANTASY pixel remaster series.

All six games in the FINAL FANTASY pixel remaster series are now available to buy digitally on PS4 and Nintendo Switch. Each title can be bought individually or as a complete series in the FINAL FANTASY I - VI BUNDLE.

Purchase the game on Switch before May 25, 2023 to receive two themed Wallpapers for each individual game. Buy the complete series in the FINAL FANTASY I-VI BUNDLE to get all 12 themed Wallpapers.

Buy the games digitally on PlayStation 4 before May 25, 2023 to get a Theme and Avatar for each title purchased. Players who purchase the complete series in the FINAL FANTASY I-VI BUNDLE will receive every Theme and Avatar included with the individual games - a total of six Themes and six Avatars.

The FINAL FANTASY Pixel Remaster series is also available on PC via Steam, as well as iOS and Android:

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