Final Fantasy Pixel Artist Kazuko Shibuya Comments on Her Career and the JRPG Series’ Early Days

Final Fantasy Pixel Artist Kazuko Shibuya Comments on Her Career and the JRPG Series’ Early Days

Kazuko Shibuya held a panel and a live drawing at Japan Expo 2019, revealing neat details on Square's early days and Final Fantasy's history.

The 2019 edition of Japan Expo, held in Paris’ suburbs, was home to many prestigious guests, including Kazuko Shibuya, one of the biggest personalities of early Final Fantasy. Kazuko Shibuya is among the most important women in game history. She contributed greatly into making the FF franchise the behemoth it is nowadays,  by creating the series’ iconic pixel art.

In celebration of a new artbook retracing her work being released in France, Kazuko Shibuya held a panel and live drawing on July 5, the second day of Japan Expo 2019. She looked back on her career, revealed pretty funny anecdotes about the early days of Square, and spoke in detail about her work on the Final Fantasy franchise. At the end of the panel, Kazuko Shibuya also mentioned she’s currently on multiple new projects, but none can be officially announced yet, however.

Kazuko Shibuya told us about how she initially wished to become a mangaka and became an animator, and most notably worked on the first Transformers anime. Leaving animation behind, she joined Square in 1986, just a bit after Nobuo Uematsu had joined as well. At the time, Square occupied a super small office on one floor, akin to a university’s clubroom. It was so small that Square’s team of programmers were located in a separate small office, in a house further down the street. Shibuya would only see the programmers in the morning and at night when they had to check-in and check-out. Shibuya also mentioned how Square’s founder Masafumi Miyamoto was still a student at the time, so she funnily officially became an employee before the founder himself.

Next, Shibuya explained how back then, Square mostly released games on Japanese PCs: the MSX and the PC-98. At the time, Hironobu Sakaguchi didn’t have his recognizable mustache, and she explained how Sakaguchi and the other boys would often sleep at the office, lying down on chairs they lined up. Square really had no money back then, so their sole secretary would also take some time to tidy up the office a bit in the mornings. Each time she’d find Sakaguchi and the others sleeping, she would wake them up by literally using the vacuum cleaner on their faces.

When Hironobu Sakaguchi told everyone he wanted to make an RPG on NES, which would later turn out to be Final Fantasy I, no one was really interested at first, so Kazuko Shibuya decided to help him and became the project’s pixel artist. Rather than being biased about the NES, most at Square simply didn’t want to work on an RPG like Final Fantasy I, thinking it wouldn’t be popular. The game’s team, only a handful of people Shibuya included, didn’t really think it’d be a hit either, and they kinda were the unpopular group at Square.

Shibuya explained how she handled nearly all of Final Fantasy I and Final Fantasy II’s graphics: the characters’ pixel art, the menus, the battle backgrounds, the towns. Only the world map was drawn by the sole other artist on the games. Final Fantasy I to III were all released on NES, meaning there were no changes specs wise, however, each game looks better than the other as she steadily improved. She explained how you could only use 3 colors on NES, and how she’d make certain pixels transparent as a trick to use a 4th color. This is most notably used for the characters’ helmets and armors’ outlines.

Kazuko Shibuya also explained why Final Fantasy characters always have a similar and now iconic pose, with their arms on the side. She explained that this way, they had less animation to do. Characters already having their arms partially lifted up meant they didn’t need to make a “arms lift up” animation, subtracting one step needed when animating attacks and such. Plus, it looks cool and makes them seem appropriately ready for battle.

When she worked on Final Fantasy V on SNES, Shibuya could suddenly use not 4 but 16 different colors for her pixel art. She mentioned how back then she had no idea what to do with all these colors, but gradually got used to it, further refining her art. And starting Final Fantasy V, Shibuya focused solely on the pixel art for the characters. Seeing the game’s Job System required over 25 different pixel arts for each of the five main characters using each job, the game wouldn’t have been released on time if she had to draw other elements as well.

Kazuko Shibuya also expanded on her pixel art style. She focuses on efficiency and tries to be as concise as possible, despite the characters being limited to 16×24 pixels. She mentioned how she notably focuses on the characters’ head, which is almost half of their lengths, and their hair, making it one of their most distinctive features. Basically, she likes simple and efficient pixel art.

Kazuko Shibuya also spoke about she also handled non-pixel art illustrations for old pre-Final Fantasy Square games on PCs, but also the illustration which served as the base for the boxart of Final Fantasy IV. She mentioned how they obviously didn’t have photoshop back then, so she couldn’t directly make the boxart. Speaking of Final Fantasy IV, She didn’t work on it as she was instead on Final Fantasy Adventure, the first game of the Mana series, released on Gameboy in 1991. Only seven people at Square made the whole game by themselves, and she drew every single thing in the game. She was initially taken aback about going back to three colors but figured she could do it again if she already did in the past. She handled every single visual in the game from the characters, the monsters, the backgrounds, the maps, and the UI.

Lastly, Kazuko Shibuya mentioned how everyone at Square back then had no idea Final Fantasy would become this big and continue to this day. They weren’t particularly notified back when Final Fantasy I, IV and VI released outside Japan and became hits either. As game localization took much more time back then, by the times the games released outside Japan they were already working on something else. She mentioned how once when coming back from vacation, she was told that a Final Fantasy game just released in America and how she had no idea it was even being localized.

Kazuko Shibuya also mentioned other interesting facts during the rest of the panel and the Q&A, most notably:

  • While she only supervises the pixel art of Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, she personally handled the pixel art for Katy Perry’s character, made for her collaboration event with the game. Katy Perry was really happy about it.
  • She drew the monsters in battle more realistically than the characters simply because she could do so size-wise. Monsters weren’t limited to 16×24 pixels like the characters.
  • Yoshitaka Amano never ended up changing one of his illustrations so it could be more easily adapted into pixel art. In the contrary, he was always asked to keep his own distinct, realistic style, and she’d always manage to recreate it to pixel art.
  • The Black Mage might look a bit less human compared to all other Final Fantasy characters, but that wasn’t particularly intentional and it’s simply how Yoshitaka Amano and herself drew it. Plus, it’s cute.
  • She always think about all the players who will enjoy the game she’s drawing for when working, and this is what drives her.

Kazuko Shibuya thanked the audience and the panel ended after a last ovation.