Final Fantasy VI
Based on: Introducing opera into an unsuspecting preteen populace in the form of gargling, combat-frenzied midgets.
You can't talk about Final Fantasy VI on the Internet without running the risk of getting your hide tanned by nostalgia-fueled flames. It was, after all, a very monumental game for many players; FFVI was the last 16-bit entry in the popular franchise, drawing a distinct chronological line in the sand that marked the end of a golden age where men were men and where Tetsuya Nomura was relegated to doing sprite artwork, therefore limiting the spread of his evil. Yes, in the distant land of 1994, all seemed right with the world. And for those who didn't mind paying upwards of eighty American dollars for their own copy of the game, Final Fantasy VI (trickily renamed Final Fantasy III for reasons too overexplained to discuss here) was an experience of proportions and scale never before seen on home consoles at the time.
Plus it had a little fuzzy mascot on the cover, so you knew it was fun, with the possibility of being sassy.
Now you'll have to excuse this frightful leap into the first-person, as it's impossible for this writer to not look at Final Fantasy VI from a childhood-tainted perspective. Like many adorable, obsessive-compulsive children of my day, I played the living hell out of Final Fantasy VI; when a game cost so much and happened to take a moderately long time to finish, it was in the best interest of a 1990s child to invest at least a year into the game -- and I spent more time on Final Fantasy VI than most people do getting their master's degrees. Time has yet to tell if I wasted my childhood.
This year's rerelease of Final Fantasy VI on the Game Boy Advance managed to put things into perspective for me and a whole lot of other people by letting us experience its offerings through the furrowed brow of adulthood rather than via the rosy, na´ve perspective of childhood. And you know what? It was still pretty good. But the process of aging into a bitter, cranky adult has made the flaws of Final Fantasy VI float to the surface like the ice cubes in my adult beverage. Still, going from "ZOMG BEST GAME EVER" to "a solid RPG" isn't too bad, especially from a serious, critical perspective.
The word "epic" is thrown around a lot in video game reviews these days, to the point where it's reached a level of banality beyond even the phrase "gaming goodness." But Final Fantasy VI, for all that it's essentially a 16-bit puppet show, brings some meaning back to this four-letter word. For example, in other RPGs, the main character's hometown gets destroyed. Standard, yawnable stuff. In Final Fantasy VI, the entire world gets destroyed. And for those gamers who were too dense to realize what "World of Ruin" meant on the included map (cough), the midpoint of Final Fantasy VI stood one of the biggest surprises in all of gaming. Forget about Aeris dying; this was the real shocker. Watching the planet rent asunder didn't garner quite as massive a reaction as Final Fantasy VII's Aeris-kebobs sequence, though; the strange, nebulous beast then known as the Information Superhighway didn't have quite the population as it would three years later when the death of everyone's favorite flower girl caused shockwaves of shut-in grief. Ripples which can still be felt to this day.
Think of the transition from the World of Balance to the World of Ruin in Final Fantasy VI as being on par with such awesomeness as the revelation of the reverse castle in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night?. You'll be glad you did.
Taking a look at the cast list of Final Fantasy VI reveals more evidence of authentic epic-ness. The game has fourteen playable characters, each with their own history and personal stories, all explored throughout both the first and second half of the game. Each character has an arc in which they each experience personal change -- except of course for the two "hidden" characters, who are basically butt-kicking joke fodder for players interested in recruiting them. Final Fantasy IV was certainly no slouch when it came to throwing playable character after playable character in your path, but Final Fantasy VI stepped things up by actually letting these characters stick around in your party, instead of having them leave at a moment's notice, die temporarily, or bail out whenever a betrayal provided the perfect excuse for excitement.
By the end of the game -- and even to some extent in the first half -- you're given quite a few characters to play around with, allowing for a great number of team combinations. This makes possible a chance for players to select their favorite characters and leave the losers waiting on the sidelines. The later Game Boy Advance port of Final Fantasy IV picked up on this idea and allowed you to do the same thing toward the end of the game, which finally gave a population of grateful gamers the chance to trade stinky ol' Edge for another far more useful party member. That's right, Edge. Nobody likes you.
And even now, Final Fantasy VI succeeds in the one area that should be an obvious shoo-in for any Square game: graphics and sound. Those who feel safe and secure with calling post-SNES-era Square employees "graphics whores" should take a serious look at the ambitious and sometimes amazing graphics of Final Fantasy VI. Square has always been, to some extent, about the graphics. And while the cute and expressive little sprites of the playable characters seem to betray this notion, the enemy sprites, the backgrounds, the incredible spell effects and other Super NES-specific trickery prove that the company was trying to milk the hardware for all it was worth. Chrono Trigger? would prove to be Square's best-looking 16-bit game just a year later, but Final Fantasy VI was downright pretty back in 1994.
The game's soundtrack, which probably needs no mention to anyone with even the slightest interest in video game music, is composer Nobuo Uematsu's most epic -- there's that word again -- work. Nobuo Uematsu took a sort of Peter and the Wolf approach to Final Fantasy VI's music by giving each of the fourteen characters their own leitmotif and later reprising these songs in new and interesting ways throughout the game. It's hard to disagree that this is Uematsu's best soundtrack; the variation, emotion, and memorability of Final Fantasy VI's music all culminate in an amazing twenty-minute piece which plays over the equally amazing ending credits sequence. It's not very nice to say that a still-living artist peaked almost fifteen years ago, but, then again, there's the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack. Make up your own minds on this one.
So, how does Final Fantasy VI hold up in 2007? The good points, as notable as they were in 1994, still manage to impress. The game still looks nice, sounds nice, and is a blast to play -- to a point. But after a modern-day playthrough, Final Fantasy VI ends up being one-half stellar and one-half mediocre.
Allow me to explain: The World of Ruin, part of Final Fantasy VI's ambitious nature, changes gameplay drastically by turning the typical linear nature of Final Fantasy on its ear and giving the player a sort of 16-bit RPG sandbox to tool around in. At the time, it was novel; now, it's kind of tedious. It is great fun to explore a destroyed world, and this also happens to further your emotional investment in the story and the characters. But after a certain point in the World of Ruin, there's really nothing left to do but grind for levels, items, rages, lores, and the errata that's hard to find interesting as an adult. At that certain point, Final Fantasy VI starts to feel like a single-player MMORPG in a very empty world. It's true that you can choose to enter the final dungeon very early in the World of Ruin, but most players are going to be more concerned with getting their dissipated team back together before storming the villainous Kefka's domain.
And, in a sort of utilitarian way, it's hard to really care about the characters once you get so far into the game. Until the World of Ruin, the characters are all distinct in some manner, each with their own skills and the little bit of magic they're able to learn. In what would become a major problem in Square games to come, the characters in Final Fantasy VI lack significant distinction as they all eventually become walking death-machines, each with the same magic. Their individual skills, so useful at the outset, are frankly useless in comparison. After a certain point, it's just hard to care about making a unique team anymore; all of the characters' original traits are soon destroyed by a broken magic system where anyone can learn anything. And in the end, it doesn't matter who you choose to take with you when you tackle the final boss -- so long as they know the spell Ultima, everything is hunki dori.
My own recent replay of Final Fantasy VI ended in the World of Ruin, where, after picking up all of the characters, I didn't have much of a reason to go on. Sure, I could have taken this soup of same-y souls and trotted them out on the battlefield until my digital pockets were bulging with trinkets and doodads, but I don't have time for that anymore. Maybe it's because I've gotten older, but I think it has more to do with the perfect pacing and direction of Final Fantasy VI's first half in comparison to the aimless and sometimes tedious World of Ruin.
Still, even saddled with an imperfect second half, Final Fantasy VI is excellent -- even for grown-ups.
Images taken from the Game Boy Advance port of the game.