Although it’s not too prevalent in recent games, the Onion Knight job has a lot of history in Final Fantasy. Originally the default job in Final Fantasy III (the Famicom one, not the Super Nintendo one), it’s now mostly relegated to cameos and Easter eggs.
Its relative obscurity is probably why, when it does come up, people are left asking “Just what the heck IS an Onion Knight?!” There’s a lot of theories. For example, that there is a Japanese cultural concept of an onion knight, as evidenced by From Software’s Dark Souls featuring knights in onion-shaped armor. Cultural concepts not translating neatly is nothing new; just take a look at Xenogears‘ manzai routine, or the many iterations of maō across gaming history.
I’ve also seen it proposed that the concept comes from A Song of Ice and Fire‘s Ser Davos Seaworth, who is nicknamed “the onion knight” due to smuggling onions and fish to starving soldiers during a raid. That one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since FF3 released in 1990, and Davos first appeared in 1998’s A Clash of Kings.
I’ve even seen it said that the origin is impossible to discern, as the creator has supposedly stated in an interview that he’s forgotten himself. That one’s pretty funny, because in April of 2020, Kōichi Ishii (character designer of Final Fantasy III) gave an interview to Famitsu alongside Hiromichi Tanaka (game designer and director), where they talked about the origin of the name. Although neither work for Square Enix today, both had a lot to say about FF3‘s development for its 30th anniversary. Since the interview also had other interesting stories, and no one else seems to have an English version of it, I went ahead and translated the whole thing. Read on:
Note: The original Famitsu article occasionally features (parenthetical) notes to add context for readers, but even more context is necessary for Western readers. So, when I add something, it'll be in a separate box like this one, while Famitsu's notes will continue to use parentheses.
Famitsu: When talking about Final Fantasy III, people often bring up the length of the last dungeon; I’ve heard the reason it ended up that way is because the game’s debugger said “(As it is,) there’s no challenge.”
Kōichi Ishii: That’s right. Sakaguchi (Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the Final Fantasy series) got all worked up and said, “Then change it!” and the save point went away.
Hiromichi Tanaka: That debugger was Toshiaki Suzuki, who now works as a planner on the Final Fantasy XIV team, though, right? Back then, he was a high-schooler working part-time, so he was cocky. “This’s easy,” he said. (Laughs)
Famitsu: If you think about it, Seiken Densetsu 3 and Final Fantasy III were both being developed during a hardware transition period, weren’t they?
聖剣伝説3 (Seiken Densetsu 3) is a Super Famicom game eventually released in the West as Trials of Mana. You may be familiar with Secret of Mana, which is Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan. Tanaka served as the director for SD3, while Ishii not only created the Seiken Densetsu franchise, but also directed every entry with exception of SD3, on which he was an artist and designer.
Tanaka: It was challenging. I understood that the Super Famicom was coming (Note: The Super Famicom released on November 21, 1990). That being the case, I couldn’t slow down development. The one in charge of programming was Nasir Gebelli (in charge of unorthodox programming behind things like FF3‘s airship). But his visa expired in the middle of development, and he had to return to America all of a sudden. So, we brought our equipment to America to continue development, where Sakaguchi was actually detained by customs….
Famitsu: No way!
Tanaka: We were asked our purpose for entering the country, and I answered, “Business,” but Sakaguchi said “Sightseeing.” (Laughs) Even though he had so much development equipment! So, I waited around for an hour while he was taken into a separate room. (Laughs)
Famitsu notes FF3's airship as unusual, but since Gebelli also programmed FF1's airship, I think that may be an error. FF1 is more noteworthy as the first one, and it's been stated before that the team was particularly impressed with Gebelli's implementation of the 4x-speed screen scrolling of the FF1 airship.
Famitsu: Square would end up doing development in foreign countries in the future, but you were a pioneer, huh? Did Ishii also go to Sacramento?
Ishii: No, because during FF3‘s development, I joined Makai Tōshi SaGa‘s team.
魔界塔士 Sa·Ga (Makai Tōshi SaGa) was localized as The Final Fantasy Legend, though from the Japanese name it is obvious that it functions as the first game in the SaGa series. Square had a habit of doing this, as even the first Seiken Densetsu game, which was mentioned above, was released in the West as Final Fantasy Adventure. Treating these new franchises as Final Fantasy spinoffs was most likely expected to increase sales.
Tanaka: For FF3, Ishii’s involvement was limited to the character design.
Ishii: One day, Sakaguchi approached me and said, “Can you draw the job characters for me?” But I said “No way.” (Laughs) After that, he asked again, and I refused again, but then Sakaguchi said, “I want you to do it,” so… on the third time, I accepted the task, on one condition: “Leave the design and pixel art animation entirely up to me.”
Famitsu: That’s a considerable amount of work, isn’t it?
Ishii: At that time, the exact qualities of the jobs were not set in stone. What types of magic they could use, what kind of equipment they could put on… though there was an outline. So, when Sakaguchi and the others were discussing how to proceed, I said things like, “It would be good if—when playing as a knight or a thief—there were commands like Cover or Steal, wouldn’t it?” and Sakaguchi said, “That’s right.” That set the trajectory, and I wildly fantasized about the jobs and setting in my head. The rest I did while drawing the pixel art.
It may seem strange that Ishii doesn't directly respond to the Famitsu interviewer's question, but the interviewer is employing 相槌 (aidzuchi), which are just interjections that show they're paying attention. I want to write about them in more detail, someday, but for now you can understand that such interjections are considered polite when someone has been speaking for some time, so they know you're still interested in what they have to say.
Famitsu: Speaking of FF3’s pixel art, unlike FF2, you can see both eyes on the characters.
Ishii: Back then, I was thinking about how I wanted to make the characters into metal figures. If I turned (the characters’ heads) a little, it gave them a feeling of three-dimensionality, or at least I thought so. I also thought the Onion Knight would be a good proof-of-concept.
Famitsu: I see, you were making considerations for making a figure.
Ishii: I also revised the animation for each job. For example, when the Dark Knight gets knocked out, there’s nothing left but the armor. That’s because of the dark contract the Dark Knight gets their magical powers from. Their body vanishes because of the effect of the contract…due to the setting. Also, while many think the triangular pattern on the White Mage’s clothes is a dye, it’s actually embroidered, so there’s an impression of thickness. I imagined in my head that the thread was spun alongside an incantation, and incorporated it into the design.
Famitsu: You make use of your fastidiousness in world-building when designing characters.
Ishii: With that sort of care, people will pay a surprising amount of attention to even small details. What you try to convey comes across, I think. Come to think of it, the name “Onion Knight” was came from Tanaka.
Tanaka: The helmet, it looked as if an onion was sprouting out of it. So I said, “Isn’t Onion Knight fitting?” (Laughs)
Ishii: For the Onion Knight, I wanted an infantile feeling. A child clad in armor made from a cardboard box, wielding a wooden sword; that sort of impression. So, they wear a helmet with a fluffy decoration.
Tanaka: Speaking of cardboard boxes, when I resigned from Square Enix, I left a box behind that should have FF3 documents and data in it. Up through FF2, I was just making games without restraint or consideration, but Sakaguchi said, “If things go on this way, there won’t be anything left behind.” So, starting with FF3, I drafted a proper written proposal. For FF2, I even input the map straight into the game editor, but now there are drawings on graph paper that still remain. I think that that might be Yūji Horii’s influence.
Yūji Horii is best-known as the creator of the Dragon Quest/Dragon Warrior games. He also had a supervisory role on Chrono Trigger. Tanaka doesn't have any game credits with Horii, but they still likely interacted as they worked on prominent franchises at the same company.
Famitsu: Please, do whatever you can to unearth that treasure chest…!
So, there you have it. The Onion Knight’s plume was intended to make him seem more childish, and that led to the name coming up as a small joke. Originally, I was just going to post that alone to my Twitter, but the story about Sakaguchi getting detained at customs and the density of small details in the rest of the interview made me decide translating the whole thing was the way to go. Hopefully you found it interesting!
If you enjoy Final Fantasy trivia like the above interview, you might enjoy this article I wrote about Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children‘s “dilly-dally, shilly-shally” line.