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Characters from The Bouncer (2000) dressed in contemporary fashions, with cropped leather jackets and oversized jumpers Illustration: Christine Lee for Polygon

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Tetsuya Nomura’s designs embraced Y2K fashion and never let go

Real-life trends inspired some of the most memorable outfits in games

Over the past three decades, Tetsuya Nomura has become an immediately recognizable name thanks, in part, to his contributions to the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series. Nomura isn’t just known as a game designer and director — he’s also famous, and sometimes infamous, for his fashion designs. His works have given the gaming scene standout protagonists and ensemble casts wearing a plethora of belts and zippers. These outlandish outfits tend to have something in common: They’re inspired by real-life street fashion trends.

In 1997, with Final Fantasy VII, Tetsuya Nomura created some of his most famous character designs to date. But it wasn’t until Final Fantasy VIII and The Bouncer, released in 1999 and 2000 respectively, that the influence of real-life trends became undeniable in Nomura’s work. One of Square’s lesser-known titles, The Bouncer was chock-full of eclectic character designs; the PlayStation 2 beat-’em-up remains one of Nomura’s standout projects, at least from a fashion point of view. It propelled players into the modern city of Edge, populated by people dressed in some of the strangest and most popular fashion trends of the early 2000s: high-waisted camo pants, cropped leather jackets, and oversized yellow jumpers scrawled over with “gothic” text.

In a 2000 interview with IGN about The Bouncer, Nomura disclosed his inspiration for the game’s character designs, and the answer was surprisingly simple: “Basically, most of my ideas come from movies and magazines, or I just create them in my head.” Nomura’s mix of real-life trends and his own imagination in The Bouncer results in some of his most visually striking work, like Volt Krueger’s infamous denim jeans and Kou Leifoh’s faux tribal tattoos and loose-fitting camo pants. Final Fantasy VIII, which came out the year before The Bouncer, feels similarly ripped right from the 2000s, with Zell Dincht’s high-waisted jean shorts and Rinoa Heartilly’s bike shorts and denim skirt combination. These designs perfectly reflect the era when the game was developed.

Squall and Rinoa approach each other against a sunset for an embrace in this screenshot from Final Fantasy 8 Remastered Image: Square Enix

Bits and pieces of contemporary design through the years are found in Nomura’s work at large, which samples from various different styles of Japanese or international fashion. While using those real-life inspirations, Nomura would then try to pick in-character outfits. In an interview with Bloomberg in 2016, Nomura stated that “there are various ways to show an individual’s uniqueness in the real world, but within the limited world of a video game, clothing is one of the most important elements that express and define a character’s individuality.” This feels especially true with the younger members of any Final Fantasy ensemble cast that Nomura has had a hand in designing. Squall Leonhart is an excellent example of this: Clad in black leather pants and a cropped, fur-lined leather jacket, he looks cool and rebellious at a glance. It gives the player an immediate idea of what he is like, and how “modern” the world of Final Fantasy VIII is in comparison to the likes of Final Fantasy III or IV.

Tidus stands in the ocean while holding a sword in a piece of Final Fantasy 10 artwork Image: Square Enix

Final Fantasy X, released in 2001, is another example of that practice set into motion, with its characters taking clear influence from Y2K-era styles. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy X, Famitsu interviewed several key members of the development team, including Nomura, who described the process of designing Tidus and Yuna, the dual protagonists of the game. Tidus’ design went through various iterations, according to Nomura, evolving from a plumber to the Blitzball player fans are familiar with by incorporating more late-’90s athletic wear elements into his outfit.

Nomura then went on to create character designs for the divisive 2003 sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, which saw Yuna return alongside the spunky Al-Bhed alchemist, Rikku. The updated designs feel even more contemporary than the characters’ fashion choices in Final Fantasy X. Yuna wears a lace-lined halter top and low-rise shorts, both hallmark fashion trends at that specific point in time. Rikku’s redesign stands out in particular; her attire feels deeply inspired by various elements of Y2K fashion, down to her miniskirt and calf-high cowboy boots, which feel apt considering popular trends just years before the game’s release.

Throughout Nomura’s storied career as a character designer and art director, he’s inched closer and closer towards more overt inspirations from popular fashion trends or notable designers. This included a collaboration with fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood and Hiromu Takahara for Final Fantasy XV. Takahara ended up creating the final outfits worn by Noctis, Gladio, Prompto, and Ignis. Close to the eventual release of Final Fantasy XV, an official clothing line was released by Takahara’s clothing brand, Roen. This consisted of replicas of the outfits Takahara had created.

Sora and Kairi look at the vast sky together in Kingdom Hearts 3 Image: Square Enix

It feels like a natural progression, as Nomura’s designs have remained some of the most influential and recognizable designs within the past two decades of gaming. Even as fashion pivoted away from these louder, more eye-catching designs and shifted to normcore dominating the fashion scene for the past some-odd eight years, Nomura held fast onto the silhouettes and patterns of the Y2K era. He never moved beyond this specific aesthetic, and it can be keenly felt through the designs in Final Fantasy XV and to some extent Kingdom Hearts 3, especially when factoring in the plethora of post-grunge, late-’90s plaid that has made its way into the designs. And while Nomura didn’t necessarily oversee the Super Groupies collaboration that would appear in 2018, there are still some subtle notes from the resurgence of Y2K fashion alongside the clear nods to the more subdued stylings of normcore.

Although Nomura’s work may have felt embarrassing or out of style for the past couple of decades, the Y2K revival has arrived in 2021 and 2022, with Nomura’s designs coming back en vogue once again. It shows that time is something of a flat circle when it comes to fashion trends, for better or worse. Watching Nomura weather that storm and commit to what he does best has resulted in some fascinating work, including the most stand-out designs in gaming. Whether you think his coolness is real or not, Nomura has undoubtedly left his mark on the genre.

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