Category Archives: Anatomy of a Game

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 10 | Down the dolce vita

The other side of Mt. Kolts doesn’t offer many points of interest to choose from. Two or three hours in, FFVI is still very much in “linear” mode as the story’s premise continues to unfold.


The only point you can travel to here is the Returner hideout — which, if we’re still going with the Star Wars parallels for this one (and we should be!), is basically Yavin IV.


You have one task here, which is presented in fairly explicit terms by the Returners hanging out and blocking passages: Talk to a guy named Banon. You can wander around a little before doing so, but the base is small and mostly obstructed, and there’s nowhere else to go here but to Banon’s office.


Banon is a wild-haired old man who relays a healthy amount of exposition despite his unkempt appearance. His monologue brings all the disparate plot elements we’ve seen so far together into a single nexus of party objectives: The Empire is awful and mean, the Returners aren’t particularly happy about that fact, and they hope to capitalize on Terra’s inexplicable resonance with the creature in the ice caverns — an “Esper” — to give themselves a leg up on the bad guys.

Terra (and thus the player) is given a choice of whether or not to help the Returners’ cause.


The characters give this “choice” some nice lip service, admitting that forcing Terra’s compliance would make them as crappy as the Empire, but in practice it all works out the same. You the player can’t advance the game or go anywhere beyond the ground you’ve already covered unless you commit to the Returners; until you join the cause, all you can do is wander sadly through the world as a lonely Terra. While it might be interesting if you could make an active choice here and potentially march off to join the Imperial cause, that’s not really how Final Fantasy rolls. (Or should I say, “roles”? No, never mind.)


That being said, your decision here does count for something. Banon gives you a gift — a Relic — once you join his team. If you say “no” several times before acceding to the cause, you’ll receive a precious Genji Glove, which lets you dual-wield single-handed weapons. Sadly, I didn’t say “no” enough and only received the lesser reward, a Gauntlet, which does the opposite: It allows you to wield a single weapon in both hands for extra strength. But that’s OK, too: If you give a character a Gauntlet and a Knight’s Code, they essentially become a classic Final Fantasy Knight-class warrior. As I mentioned before, Relics represent about one-half of the game’s Job System substitute.


Whatever choice you make, narrative convenience asserts itself and this messenger collapses in the Returner hideout to announce that South Figaro has fallen to the Empire. Almost as though the city had a traitor in its midst. If only someone had caught wise to their plan….

At this point, the party divides up: Terra, Banon, and Edgar head back to Narshe to meet with the Returners there and hang out with the Esper, while Locke scurries off to run interference in South Figaro and hinder the Empire’s inevitable assault on Figaro Castle (and Narshe). This has the side effect of Locke leaving the party, which incidentally opens up a slot for a new companion to join…


Locke leaves the scene, and the game continues to follow Terra’s tale, further cementing the idea that she’s the main character of the piece. The party now consists of her, Edgar, Sabin, and new arrival Banon. You’ll notice that there was no rename prompt for Banon; he’s in the party, but he’s not a true member, taking part only in this portion of the game.

Before we discuss Banon, though, it’s worth looking at Sabin’s Blitz skill, to which we were so indelicately introduced at the end of the Mt. Kolts excursion. While Sabin’s Monk class is the first “standard” Final Fantasy character class we’ve seen in FFVI, his actual skill set is a decidedly unconventional take on the role. The Monks we’ve seen in previous games were defined by their raw physical power and inability to equip heavy armor or traditional weapons, which is largely true of Sabin as well. His weapon choices are largely limited to the Claws Yang used in FFIV… though unlike Yang’s Claws, Sabin’s tend to add to his attack power rather than simply adding an elemental or status modifier to his attacks.

But Blitz bears very little resemblance to Monk skills of yore. In previous games, the class’ special traits consisted of passive modifiers and buffs: The ability to double attack power at the expense of defense or vice versa, or simply stat modifiers that boosted that character’s health. Blitz’s, however, mostly consist of various special attacks, largely directed at single targets.


Raging Fist, for instance, allows Sabin to launch a vicious physical attack against a single foe. Aura Cannon lets you blast a single foe with a holy-element beam. Rising Phoenix hits the entire enemy party with a fire-based attack. All handy, but the only skill in the entire Blitz repertoire similar to those of FFV‘s Monk class is Chakra, which raises another party member’s HP to whatever Sabin’s current HP is. While powerful and free (in terms of mana cost), Sabin’s Blitzes have downsides; many of them are based not on his physical power but rather his spirit (magic) stat, which is terrible by default. Many of them hit only a single target, and in most cases this target is selected at random. That makes some skills practically useless in certain situations; for example, Meteor Strike doesn’t have any effect against certain foes (e.g. flying enemies), and there’s a chance the game could randomly select a null target like that if one is present in a battle.

The biggest drawback has to do with the way Blitzes are input, though. As discussed last time, you execute these actions by punching in memorized sequences of controller commands, similar to fighting game commands. It’s a clever little addition, given the nature of Sabin’s skills (Aura Cannon is essentially a Hadouken and the input is exactly the same), but it doesn’t feel very Final Fantasy-ish. The game can also be rather persnickety about timing these inputs, which can lead to this error message:


…at the worst possible times. A fumbled input equals a wasted turn for Sabin.

On the other hand, while Sabin’s skills don’t seem to have much to do with the Monk class as it existed before FFVI, he became the template for other Monk-type characters in subsequent games. Tifa, Zell, Amarant, and especially the Monk class in Tactics all use skills patterned around Sabin’s. So there’s that! Still, despite being a fairly amazing character at this early stage in the game, you really have to custom-build Sabin to make him a long-term contender… and given that he’s one of three mandatory characters in the end game, it’s important to understand how the advanced game systems work to maximize his potential. Something the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain, unfortunately.


Banon, on the other hand, is much easier to explain. His class is listed as Oracle, but his powers don’t really resemble the strange abilities that Oracles in FFV Advance or Tactics command. Since he only appears in this brief sequence on the Lete River and shortly after, his skill set consists of a single ability: Healing the entire party for free. Why have Terra waste her magic points on Cure when Banon can recover the entire party for more HP without cost?

And there’s really no reason not to have Banon use his healing skill on every turn. His physical power is laughable, and more to the point, you’re given a key condition for this raft ride at the very beginning: If Banon dies, it’s game over.


And since he’s super weak, it doesn’t take much to do him in. Of course, if you paid attention to how row positioning works, you can move him to the back to cut the physical damage he takes in half. This also halves the physical damage he deals, but since he’s basically your healbot, that shouldn’t matter.


It might be worth mentioning how Game Overs work in FFVI, because loss is handled differently here than in any other Final Fantasy: Namely, there’s no such thing as a Game Over. If your party falls, or you fail to meet a victory condition, you hear a sad little tune and your party leader collapses despondently… and then immediately respawns at the last save point, with all experience you’ve earned since that save point intact.


This is more a Dragon Quest approach than Final Fantasy but is even more generous than in DQ games, since you don’t lose half your gold for dying. It’s not a bad design choice, but it’s very unconventional in a Final Fantasy game.


As for the Lete River itself, this entire sequence is the first of several in the game where you have no control over your progress. Your team drifts down the river on the current, encountering random battles as usual but otherwise helpless to act (you can’t even access the menu screen while on the raft). Your only chances for interaction come at a handful of forks with decision points that allow you to pick the direction you’ll advance. Generally, one direction takes you forward, while the other sends you back up the river in a loop (which some people exploit to grind for gold and experience).


Eventually, you’ll make it far enough downstream to engage the interest of the game’s most memorable recurring boss, a weird octopus named Ultros.

While this fight works as you might expect, Ultros is considerably more powerful than previous bosses. He uses primarily physical attacks, generally hitting the entire party at once for moderate damage — something Banon can easily negate by using his Pray command.

However, he’ll occasionally turn his attention to a specific party member for a focused attack, which almost always hits hard enough to knock that character out of action. You can cheat this by putting the entire party in the back row and using only secondary commands (most of which ignore row modifiers), but even if you play it straight the game still gives you a fighting chance.


Ultros betrays his intentions with his combat banter, giving a hint of which character he’s about to target. You can act quickly and set this character to defend, which will minimize the damage they take from a single attack.

Also, it’s here we learn that Ultros is a gross pervert.



This is the message you really don’t want to see, since it means Banon is the next target. And even if you have Phoenix Down with which to revive him, the instant his HP hits zero you lose the fight.


His chattiness also betrays a certain weakness to fire: If Terra casts Fire on him, he responds with indignation and counterattacks. However, his counter is to squirt ink, which does light damage and potentially inflicts Blind status on Terra. But since spell accuracy isn’t affected by Blind, this doesn’t actually matter. You can keep hitting him with Fire to end the fight rather promptly.


You don’t really win, however. Ultros simply bails on the fight when he realizes he’s in trouble, and Sabin jumps in after him, only to be flung to parts unknown. Edgar, ever the loving brother, shrugs and heads along the river with the remaining party.


All of this has been a contrivance to introduce the next game mechanic: The split scenario system. Once again, you have multiple parties to control, but this time it doesn’t work like it did in the battle of the caves at Narshe. You can’t swap between parties here. Instead, you use Mog to pick a party, whose scenario you follow to its conclusion. In previous Final Fantasy games, the secondary scenarios probably would have simply played out in a cut scene, but here you’re given control over both each party and the order in which you experience their tale — adding a neat bit of player agency to what ultimately is an arbitrary narrative direction.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 9 | Martial law

There’s a lot to say about South Figaro, considering it’s a totally optional space in this portion of the game. However much time you spend there, though, all roads will eventually lead you to Mt. Kolts, the path leading to your next story objective: The base of the rebellious Returners. Coincidentally, a new party member happens to be hanging out along the way. It’s a small world.

Although, in fairness, Mt. Kolts makes the world somewhat larger than it has been until this point. Every area you’ve visited to here in Final Fantasy VI — Narshe, its caves, Figaro Castle, its caves, and South Figaro — are places to which you will eventually return. As such, every part of the game you’ve seen until now has an unusual amount of substance and a remarkable number of inaccessible features (such as, for example, pretty much the entirety of Narshe). With Mt. Kolts, however, this is it. Blink and you’ll miss it, because there’s no good reason to come back this way unless you really screw up with some of the one-way transit features within the world.


The theme of the caves of Mt. Kolts is “martial arts.” Several people in South Figaro mention the fact that local martial arts master Duncan likes to hang out in this area, and that probably accounts for the fact that most of the enemies in the interior portions of this region are kung fu dudes named Zaghrem. An interesting fact about these guys is that — although there’s no way for you to know this without hacking the game’s data — Zaghrems are always under Berserk status. (Though the fact that they have red faces could be meant as a tip-off; berserk status causes party members to become tinted with red.) This means they always use physical attacks rather than any of their special abilities, and they hit harder than their base stats would suggest. In practice, this is completely opaque to the player, though; enemies in this game almost always attack a target at random (one of the factors of the berserk condition), and since you never see any of their alternate techniques, it makes no nevermind anyway.


The other encounter inside the caves of Mt. Kolts are these mammoths called Gorgias, which use a powerful counterattack to physical strikes. Like Zaghrems, Gorgiases are much more powerful than enemies you’ve faced until this point. If you bought a Knight’s Code in South Figaro, it’ll probably get a workout here at some point or another. But the real point of these enemies is to help reinforce the importance of not just mashing “Attack” over and over again — special abilities like Tools and Magic aren’t simply powerful, they also don’t trigger counters.


The layout of Mt. Kolts is quite involved, though; in addition to the caves, it also consists of outdoor spaces that you need to traverse in order to advance. This allows the layout of the “dungeon” to be fairly complex without being too confusing; the caverns and hillsides alternate, creating visual variety that makes it much easier to keep track of your progress and not become lost. Compare Mt. Kolts to the previous dungeon, which was much smaller but more confusing due to its monotony. There’s only so much a game with 24Mb of data and so much ground to cover can provide in terms of visual variety, so the designers compensated here by mixing up the layouts between two different tile sets.

Also, a mysterious shadow appears a couple of times, vanishing into the background ahead of you. How strange!


And the mountain pass really does get intricate: You’ll spot inaccessible chests and out-of-the-way entrances along the route, prompting you to explore as much as possible. You can find the main path through the dungeon easily enough, but when you’re taunted by chests like this, you’re more likely to take the time to poke around for alternate routes and even backtrack if you miss something.


In the outdoor spaces, you won’t encounter any martial artists; instead, you’ll encounter much more varied creatures with some unique traits. Trilliums, the green-and-purple plants, introduce you to poison status: There’s a one-in-three chance Trilliums will use an attack that causes its target to become poisoned. You’ve potentially seen poison in action against bad guys thanks to Bio Beam and the Bio Blaster, but this is the first time it’s been directed at your party. Poison does the same thing to player characters as to bad guys, but there’s an important difference: It sticks. While poison basically just helps you kill bad guys faster, it’s a long-term irritant when used against you. Poison doesn’t disappear at the end of a battle, and any affected character will continue to have their health sapped as they walk outside of battle until you use an Antidote or Terra’s Poisona spell.

That’s something worth mentioning: As Terra levels up, she occasionally learns new spells. The first additional spell she gains beyond her starting point is Poisona, which clears up Poison status in one target either in or out of battle. It’s essentially an Antidote, but it operates on Magic Points rather than being a consumable item.


The enemies in Mt. Kolts’ outdoor areas tend to attack in fairly large numbers, which makes Edgar’s Noiseblaster useful; it inflicts confusion status, which causes enemies to attack one another. Against large groups of enemies, it offers a good, cheap way to minimize the number of attacks they direct toward the party. Edgar’s Auto Crossbow can’t kill the enemies here in a single hit, so it’s better to tie them up attacking one another… which has the double benefit of keeping them from damaging the party while chipping away at their hit points to soften them up for Edgar.

Noiseblaster has another interesting trait: It makes the bird enemies here, Cirpius, more likely to use their special attack Beak, which petrifies its target. Petrification is effectively like instant death: A petrified target is taken out of action, unable to attack or move, and if all members of a party become petrified it’s as good as them all being killed: You win if it happens to the enemy, and game over if it happens to your team. Anyway, when a Ciprius is confused, it’ll frequently use Beak and petrify a fellow enemy, which neatly takes that foe out of the battle for you in a single shot.


Near the exit from Mt. Kolts, a man stands in your way: The dungeon boss, Vargas.


This is a different battle than what’s come before, because Vargas himself is untouchable. He sends out a pair of trained bears (Ipoohs) as his frontline fighters, and they create an impenetrable wall between you and him. Physical attacks, magic, Tools, even Steal — it’s all intercepted by the Ipoohs.


Well, the Ipoohs aren’t entirely impenetrable. Vargas has no trouble blasting your party despite the meat wall standing in front of him. His physical strikes have plenty of power, but his Gale Strike is especially devastating; it hits all three of your party members to devastating effect. But you can’t do anything about it until both Ipoohs are down.


Thankfully, they take arrows quite well. Being boss-class characters, though, they’re immune to basically every kind of status effect (a standard state of affairs for bosses in RPGs not developed by Atlus), so you can’t do anything devious like Noiseblaster them to get them to turn on Vargas.


Once you have a clear shot at Vargas, you can dogpile him as you like. After he absorbs a few hundred hit points of damage, a cut scene begins. The mysterious shadow appears in the flesh, and — again, small game world — it turns out to be Edgar’s brother Sabin. This is what the hint about Edgar looking like Duncan’s pupil was about.


At this point, Vargas uses his Gale Strike to blast everyone but Sabin out of the party — in the middle of the fight, your playable team completely changes and you’re controlling a character you’ve never used before. That’s pretty bold! Unfortunately, this gambit isn’t pulled off quite as smoothly as it should be.

Incidentally, the trick Vargas pulls off here (blowing party members permanently out of combat) is something a number of enemies can perform throughout the game. It’s presented as a plot event here, but it actually is your first glimpse of one of the more devious mechanics you’ll face in FFVI.


Once Sabin and Vargas face off mano a mano, your foe immediately uses a special technique called Doom Fist which initiates a one-minute timer for Sabin. This is one minute he has to defeat Vargas; when the countdown hits zero, Sabin dies. Vargas is pretty tough and you probably couldn’t beat him in a straight fight (he has a ton of hit points), but it’s a moot point because there’s no way to grind down his health before Doom Fist takes out Sabin. And since you’ve been reduced to a single party member, once he dies, it’s game over.

So what’s the secret to victory? You need to read dialogue cues to figure it out. Vargas is bitter because he thinks Duncan selected Sabin as the heir to his school of martial arts rather than his own son (that would be Vargas). So the secret is to use Sabin’s techniques versus Vargas’.


At the moment, Sabin knows two skills: Aurablast and Raging Fist. Aurablast is basically a Street Fighter hadouken… literally. Blitz attacks aren’t typical RPG command selections where you pick an action from a menu and it happens. Instead, you choose Blitz, input a button combination, and then press select to execute the command. If you blow it, you waste a turn. If you perform the inputs correctly, though, you’ll perform a powerful martial arts move for no cost.

Aurablast uses a hadouken command: Down, down-forward, forward. However, that won’t do anything for you. It’ll hurt Vargas, but not enough to win the fight.


Instead, you need to use the technique Raging Fist (forward, backward, forward). This actually hits for less damage than Aurablast, but it destroy’s Vargas right in his self-esteem. Devastated that dear ol’ dad taught Sabin this move but not Vargas, he crumbles and you instantly win the battle.

OK, cool. Dramatic intro to a new character, and an interesting way to introduce a new mechanic. Unfortunately, Square sort of bungles it here. This is an opaque, unintuitive conclusion to the battle; even if you take out the Ipoohs and Vargas perfectly, the second phase of the fight can cause you to lose simply for not knowing what to do or how to perform an action that isn’t explained, demonstrated, or presented in-game until your time has almost run out.

Not only that, it represents the first-ever change of input modality in a Final Fantasy game. Until this point, not only FFVI but the franchise as a whole has operated through menu-based actions. Blitzes, however, work with fighting game button combos. This is not explained in-game until Doom Fist runs down to around 20 seconds. Even then, it’s hard to intuit the precise method of using Blitzes, including the fact that you finish them off with an unprompted press of the confirmation button. You reach a story point in a boss fight that expects you to perform an unknown action in a style you’ve never seen before, at which point you’re expected to figure out how this new command technique works with enough time for two or three before your timer runs out. Frankly, it sucks.


On the other hand, victory results in Sabin joining your party. Finally, a traditional Final Fantasy class! Whose class skills are deeply unconventional. No status quo for this Final Fantasy, thank you.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 8 | Anatomy of a town

Once you get to South Figaro, you can…


…skip right past it, as a matter of fact. For the moment, nothing in the city is mandatory; in fact, you don’t even need to stop there at all once you complete the cave linking the city to Figaro Castle (or at least its former resting spot in the desert). By why wouldn’t you? At this point in the game, South Figaro is simply a resting point where you can recover from the journey and stock up for the future. Plus, it’s conveniently located between the cave you’ve just completed and the caves you’re about to explore.

So while you can head on to the destination shown above, the layout of the world map shows that the game designers clearly want you to stop in and see what’s hopping in South Figaro.


And here’s the first thing that’s happening, aside from the obvious future party member who totally blows you off for now: The first proper equipment shop of the game. This is actually pretty weird. Most RPGs let you go shopping within minutes of initiating the story; in fact, a properly old-school RPG makes a trip to the store your first task once you finish talking to the king/mayor/regent/whatever; dude gives you a mission and a pittance of gold and lets you buy gear.

Not so in Final Fantasy VI. The starter gear each character entered the game with has served you in good stead until this point, and it’s only now that you’re moving on to more challenging scenarios that you need to upgrade your equipment. This actually makes good sense from a narrative standpoint; what kind of sad sack adventurer begins an epic quest with no gear whatsoever? Locke and Edgar had a sense that they were heading into action, and Terra was presumably kitted out by the Empire, so why would you need to blow cash right away on gear?

However, the downside of this is that you went to the shop in Figaro Castle — the only that sold only tools for Edgar — without knowing about some of the helpful iconography of FFVI‘s shopping interface. (Unless, of course, you stopped in the tutorial rooms outside Narshe… but that was a lot of information being firehosed at you, and it’s easy to forget or overlook small details until you see them in action.) So it’s not until here that you’ll probably appreciate one of FFVI’s nicest innovations: When you go shopping, you can see every party member and get a sense of not only who can equip a specific piece of gear, but whether or not it represents an upgrade.

When an item is compatible with a specific character, that character’s sprite raises his or her arms. The relative effectiveness of a new item is denoted with a small icon: A green arrow (pointing upward) means it’s an improvement, a red arrow (pointing downward) means it’s weaker than your current gear, an equal sign means it’s a wash, and an E means it’s already equipped. This is a simple, brilliant way of making transparent something that traditionally was a confusing, unintuitive mess in RPGs, and any post-FFVI that didn’t or doesn’t adopt a similar system deserves to be kicked in the pants.

This system isn’t perfect. The relative stat indicators are based on the item’s most fundamental stat — Attack Power for weapons, Defense Power for armor. It doesn’t account, for example, for a sword that boosts its user Magic Power stat, or for a breastplate that improves your Evasion stat. It’s always a good idea to do a granular comparison by item. Especially if you come to a new shop and find a weirdly expensive piece of gear that nevertheless has a red arrow icon. There’s probably some sort of special trait to it that doesn’t factor in to the icon calculations — a fact the game doesn’t really explain.


The other new kind of shop in South Figaro — and this is a doozy — is the Relic Shop. Let’s look at Relics, shall we?

Final Fantasy VI dispenses with the Job System of FFIII and FFV, but unlike FFIV it doesn’t lock your characters into a single, fixed class. Instead, it splits the difference; each party member has his or her own specific, assigned class, and that class comes with a set skill (Edgar’s Tool, Locke’s Steal, and Terra’s Magic — well, seemingly Magic for now, though sharp-eyed players may have noticed that Magic occupies a different action menu slot than the other heroes’ class skills). This never changes, even after many class skills have been rendered obsolete in the late game.

However, FFVI dives head-first into the idea of character customization through two different mechanics. One of those won’t become available until you’ve traveled a fair distance into the game, but other becomes properly available here: Relics.


Relics look like standard equipment, but there’s an entirely separate menu slot dedicated to equipping them. In other RPGs, these might be designated in the accessory slot, but while Relics do often confer the same sort of boosts and buffs that traditional RPG accessories do (a stat bonus here, a status immunity here) many Relics can completely change the nature of your character. In short, with the proper combination of Relics, you can effectively grant characters a subclass.

You get the first proper taste of that here. The Relics available in South Figaro mostly offer passive bonuses: Silver Spectacles prevent Blind status, Sprint Shoes allow you to move twice as quickly while exploring (moot in this remake, where you can sprint by default), and so forth. However, the Knight’s Code does something completely different; rather than buffing your stats, it instead gives you permanent “Cover” status.

Final Fantasy veterans would immediately recognize Cover as a trait of the Knight class, beginning with FFIII. Even Americans in the ’90s, who missed out on FFIII and FFV, would have known it: Cecil gained the ability once he became a Paladin in FFIV. By equipping a Knight’s Code, that character will always jump in to take a physical hit for any other character in critical status, preventing the critical character from dying while absorbing the damage with a defensive bonus. So, with a Knight’s Code, a character gains a key trait of a Knight, even if they can’t become a Knight in the literal Job sense.

A few plot points from South Figaro, you can potentially acquire a second relic called a Gauntlet, which allows a character to wield a weapon with two hands for extra attack power (though of course without the defensive and evasion perks of a shield, which can no longer be held in the off hand). By putting both a Knight’s Code and a Gauntlet on a single character, you’ve effectively created a Knight. It’s not the Job System, as you don’t level up your Relics through use, but it’s an attempt to provide a similar sort of flexibility.

While the game doesn’t explain the Job connection directly, it does once again trot out a Moogle to explain the mechanic so there’s no chance of you failing to understand this equipment’s importance.


Besides capitalism, the other role South Figaro plays at this point is expository. You can wander through the (surprisingly large) town, chatting with citizens to get a sense of the world beyond the limited view you’ve seen so far. While much of it has to do with the omnipresent threat that the Empire poses, you also get some local color; apparently a martial artist named Duncan is a big deal.

It’s not clear from this dialogue box, but this is meant to be directed specifically at Edgar — a hint for an upcoming plot twist, though one that unfortunately makes sense only in hindsight.


Mouthy kids giving away the big plot twist after that one.


Clearly the citizens of South Figaro are all quite upstanding. This, as it happens, is a bit of eavesdropping you do in the home of the city’s richest man. Evidently simply being the wealthiest man in town isn’t enough for the guy and he’s trading state secrets. Or is it that he’s the wealthiest man because he’s trading state secrets?

In any case, Edgar seems oddly silent on what is clearly a matter of border security.


Although it’s currently optional, poking around through the streets, shops, and homes of South Figaro is the first chance you’ve had to really roam freely in FFVI. Everything up until now has been blocked off, locked away, or otherwise pushing you inexorably forward. Here is an entirely discretionary location filled with dozens of people with information and tips to relay; it’s a chance to dabble in some world-building, to establish some context for the adventure ahead.

You can also stumble across sights like the room above. It seems innocuous enough at first glance, but armed with hindsight of having experienced the game, a returning player knows the more ominous role this room will play. You’ll be revisiting South Figaro in the course of the game (and really, not too far out), and the fact that you can poke around in places that have a crucial story role while they’re still in a blank, neutral state is pretty cool. Usually games lock you out of plot-specific locations until they become relevant, or else the first time you visit a place is the only time it is relevant. FFVI‘s team put in a little extra effort to render this city in multiple states, and the game world is richer for it in a way that few people will even consciously notice.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI: Episode I

Finally, at long last, I’ve kicked off the promised video companion series to Anatomy of Games. This is a complement to the text pieces, not a replacement. Please enjoy, or at the very least don’t be too nasty if you hate it.

It’s not a coincidence that I’m launching this on Thanksgiving. When I think of Final Fantasy VI, I think of getting hooked on it all over again over the Thanksgiving break, to the point that I went out and bought the strategy guide and paid way too much for the mail-order three-disc official soundtrack release….

I’ll probably put together new episodes every couple of weeks. They’re a bit involved and rather time-consuming, if you can imagine that.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 7 | M-m-m-m-magic


The party’s escape from Kefka’s assault on Figaro involves yet another fixed, mandatory fight. All appearances to the contrary, these are not the norm for Final Fantasy VI. They seem to be heavily front-loaded, or at least attached to major plot events… which are heavily front-loaded.

This time around, you the player are on the receiving end of Magitek Armor… which also get a pre-emptive attack on you, since they’re in pursuit of you (hence their appearing on the right side of the screen, where the player’s party normally lines up). Despite the sheer havoc you wreaked on Narshe with a trio of Magitek suits in the prologue, though, these guys don’t immediately stomp you into an ugly paste.

This isn’t as inconsistent as it may seem at first glance, because the different between that scenario and this one boils down to which side Terra happens to be on. Much ado has been made about the importance of her innate powers, and this battle helps to reinforce that idea…


…especially if you happen to have her cast a spell during the fight, which brings the battle to an improbable halt so that Edgar and Locke can share a whispered aside about her spell-slinging capabilities. Courteous of the Magitek soldiers to oblige, eh?

This sequence consists of Edgar freaking out about Terra’s magic powers and realization slowly dawning on Locke that all the spells she’s been casting as they travel together are kind of a big deal. You get the impression he’s maybe not the sharpest rake in the shed, since he didn’t really blink at teaming up with an army of moogles, either. Edgar, on the other hand, realizes exactly why people have been making such a big deal about Terra, though he tries not to make her feel bad about being a petite weapon of mass destruction.

This conversation doesn’t have to happen here; in fact, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen at all. If Terra uses magic during the events of this particular update, while traveling with Edgar and Locke to escape Figaro, you’ll see it. Otherwise, if you somehow decide “Eh, it’s too much trouble to bother using the features that make this character unique in combat” and just mash attack and heal with Potions, it’ll never happen. It’s an optional, though fairly likely, dialogue event meant for world-building.


Whether or not you trigger the event, once you destroy the Magitek soldiers, a short scene plays out in which the men make their case for Terra to at least consider hearing their side’s story. Again, even though you’re ostensibly taking up the role of Terra as your point-of-view lead for now, you don’t have a choice but to accompany them. FFVI isn’t in the business of giving you multiple or branching plot lines, though as the optional m-m-m-m-magic cut scene demonstrates, it is in the business of letting you uncover additional context or meaning through your actions — something that will become especially apparent in the second half of the game.


The road ahead sends you through the guarded cave; with King Edgar in the party, the dude at the entrance can’t really turn you away any longer.

So let’s talk a little about Edgar.


Edgar’s role in the game is “Machinist.” Even though FFVI steps away from Final Fantasy V‘s Job System, characters still belong to a given class. Final Fantasy IV did this as well, with each party member slotting into one of Final Fantasy III‘s Job roles — Cecil as Dark Knight then Paladin, Tellah as Sage, Rydia as Evoker then Summoner, Edge as Ninja, etc. — though FFVI doesn’t really map to FFV‘s classes. Sure, Locke is just a euphemistic Thief, but there was no equivalent to a “Magitek Elite” or “Machinist” in FFV.

FFVI‘s character customization feature will unfold in the fullness of time, and once it does it renders these class distinctions more or less moot. But that customization comes fairly late in the game; FFIII and FFV open up their respective Job Systems after their first proper dungeons, but FFVI‘s system doesn’t become available until nearly a third of the way through the story. Until then, each hero’s class-specific skill plays a fairly major role in both defining the cast’s combat capabilities as well as maintaining some variety in battle, as only a quarter of the characters wield an innate command of magic.


So what, precisely, does a Machinist do? Well, he wields an arsenal of machines, obviously. Specifically, the tools that were available for sale in Figaro. (If you didn’t buy them in Figaro, which now has vanished into the sand, you’re stuck with only the Auto Crossbow until you reach South Figaro). At the moment, you have up to three different tools available for Edgar’s use.

These devices are, to be somewhat honestly, practically game-breaking at this point. Edgar’s tool command has no cost; the weapons aren’t consumable, nor do they draw from a mana pool (because, after all, only Terra has the ability to use magic). The first three weapons you acquire hit all enemies with powerful effects. The Auto Crossbow alone can end most battles in the cave that lies ahead in a single turn.

But that’s fair enough for the moment; this is meant to be the player’s first real dungeon adventure, and as such the game is still easing you into things. The cave you must traverse is considerably larger than those behind Narshe (at least so far as you’ve seen to this point) and features a number of dead-end branches. Having Edgar on hand to wipe things out means this amounts, more or less, to an extension of the tutorial phase of the game; though, of course, using the Tool command is left to the player’s discretion, so you can fight through the traditional way if you prefer.


Edgar’s Noiseblaster does no damage to foes, but it has an extremely high probability of causing confusion status to the entire enemy party. Because status effects like confusion are binary, tougher foes have a lower probability of being stricken by it (you’ll almost never confuse a boss, for example). The efficacy of skills like Noiseblaster (or their magic equivalents) are determined by various unstated mathematical formulae that involve your character’s level and the innate level of the enemy, which you can scan with the appropriate skill; but basically, like Steal, this sort of power has greater effect against less powerful foes and lesser effect against stronger ones.


You can tell when an enemy is confused, because its sprite becomes mirrored — in effect, it becomes a temporary member of your party, facing off against its former allies until it suffers physical damage (which jars confused enemies and party members like to their senses) or the confusion wears off on its own.

Then again, why mess with status effects when you have access to the Auto Crossbow, a preposterously effective device that hits every enemy for several times the amount of damage a standard attack can deliver? It can kill every foe at this point in the game with a single shot, and because of affinities and weaknesses and such it delivers even greater damage to flying foes. Basically, if you want to cruise through the Figaro cave practically unharmed, just have Edgar use Auto Crossbow every round.


But where’s the fun in that? It’s always nice to mix things up. The Bioblaster handily combines the damage-dealing effect of the Auto Crossbow with the status ailments of the Noiseblaster: It delivers a poison attack as pure HP damage, then causes poison status to linger, steadily draining the health of afflicted enemies each round.

This attack will remind you the Bio Blast ability Terra had access to in her Magitek armor, and not coincidentally: The idea is the same. I believe the visual effect is the same as well. Again, it’s a case of story being expressed through game mechanics. What Edgar can do with a machine specifically designed for the purpose, Terra can do innately when augmented by technology. Science has reproduced many of the effects of magic in this world over the past millennium, but having access who can do all this and more by herself would be a huge advantage for a power-hunger warmonger.


Edgar Roni “Instant Win” Figaro; at this point in the game, basic attacks hit for 50-70 HP, making the Auto Crossbow hilariously overpowered.


If you deign to let enemies take a turn in combat, you’ll see a new effect in battle: The furry eyeball monsters, Fopers, use a skill called Forty Winks that, yes, causes a party member to fall asleep.


Sleep status isn’t quite as debilitating here as in, say, Shin Megami Tensei, where a sleeping character’s defenses drop to zero. Still, sleep takes that part member out of the action until they’re struck.


Or until the effect wears off on its own, which happens when a tapir comes and eats your character’s dream.


The Figaro cave, again, is lengthy and convoluted compared to what’s already come. However, the layout branches from a couple of fairly central points, meaning the recovery spring at the beginning of the cave — which restores both health and Terra’s mana — is never too far away.

There’s also a turtle hanging out in the spring, which might seem vaguely familiar to anyone who’s played FFV; for now, though, it’s just an intriguing detail. You can’t do anything with the turtle, though seeing it there is likely to have the side benefit of drawing you closer to investigate, at which point you’ll discover the curative properties of the spring. These healing pools aren’t especially common throughout the game, but they show up just often enough that it’s good to be made aware of (or rather, to discover on your own) their existence.


The other new enemy type in Figaro’s caves is the Hornet, which basically appears to be here to demonstrate how much more powerful Auto Crossbow is against flying enemies than grounded ones. Though you may not catch on right away, because it’s all just different degrees of overkill at the moment.


The other end of the cave dumps you in a stretch of land hemmed in by mountains and sea, with one obvious point of interest: The town of South Figaro.


South Figaro is the first time you’ve visited a totally open, unguarded city. You can walk right in and go anywhere you like, and it’s a rather sprawling village for a game of this vintage. Such is your newfound freedom that you might not even notice the man dressed in black who heads toward the pub as soon as you enter town.

If you chance to follow him, though, he won’t talk to you at the bar.


Though you do get to rename him, intriguingly.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 6 | The meretrix of Figaro

Once you leave Narshe, the overworld is basically walled off to give you a small amount of territory to explore, but not so much that you’ll get lost. Between Narshe, the Chocobo Stables, the blocked cave, and a castle standing in the desert to the south, you can only travel to four destinations.

Everything but the castle is just a distraction, though. You can’t move the game forward until you visit Figaro Castle. You can dawdle and grind for levels in the overworld all you want, but fairly soon your character growth will hit the wall at which even fighting those relatively valuable desert creatures will yield so little experience that you can’t gain new levels in any reasonable amount of time.

The castle stands as the sole geographic feature in the desert, so it’s fairly hard to miss. You can see if even if you stick to the grasslands and their relatively weak enemies.


The gatekeeper lets you in; evidently Locke visits Figaro often enough to be recognized on sight..

Once you enter the castle, you need to see the king. You can’t really stray from the path to the throne room yet, because once again the map is designed in such a way as to railroad you. Guards are stationed at most doors to turn you away, and the one side path that appears to be open leads to the engine room, and the castle’s chief engineer scurries over to stand in your path if you try to snoop.

It’s natural to be curious, though. What on earth does a castle need with an engine room?


Gadgetry is the prevailing theme in Figaro, though. The one side excursion you can make before seeing the king is to duck into a pair of rooms where shopkeepers dwell. The first simply offers consumables that you either have already seen in battle (Potions and Antidotes) or goods that strain your budget (Phoenix Downs and Tents).

The other shop, however, is much more interesting. A stocky bearded gentleman is selling some impressive-sounding device…


…the Auto Crossbow, Noiseblaster, and Bioblaster. The precise utility of and need for these devices isn’t quite clear yet.

Honestly, the placement of this particular shop here seems slightly ill-considered. One of these devices will be added to your inventory in short order, and because this is your first view of an equipment shop interface, you may not be aware of one of the helpful mechanics FFVI introduces (unless you were paying very closely attention during the tutorial room).

Each party member appears in the lower pane of the shopping window, and when you select equipment that character can use — weapons, armor, accessories — their sprite animates and you see a small icon to indicate whether that new item represents an increase or decrease in their core stats. Since you haven’t bought gear for your party at the point in the game, it may not be immediately intuitive that neither Terra nor Locke have any use for these tools.


Aside from the shops and some obstructive guards, there’s nothing else you can do in Figaro yet except meet its monarch, the regal…


…Edgar. His icon looks remarkably like the official artwork of Faris from Final Fantasy V. But rest assured that he is in fact a man rather than a woman in disguise, a fact he makes abundantly clear throughout the game.

Also, his full name is Edgar Roni Figaro. But you can call him Lando if you like.

Edgar and Locke discuss the story a bit and make it clear that while this particular kingdom has a treaty with the Gestahlian Empire, Edgar has no particular love for their allies. They dearly want Terra to join up with them, if only to deny the Empire her skills, but rather than pressuring her to agree they leave her to take the time to explore the castle and talk to people about Figaro.

Of course, you ultimately have no choice but to team up with Edgar — this isn’t Elder Scrolls — so the free-roaming time amounts to an opportunity for the game to provide more backstory and context.


You can also take a rest for free to restore Terra’s HP and MP totals.

The most interesting nugget of narrative plays out if you visit the High Priestess.


She kicks off a flashback where a younger Edgar and his brother discuss succession in the very likely event their ailing father passes.


Edgar’s brother is named Sabin (Sabin Rene Figaro, to be precise), and… I can’t come up with a punchy Star Wars-themed moniker for him. Sorry. He’s a powerful monk who doesn’t want to play by the rules, so let’s dig into the prequels and call him Qui-Gonn. Anyway, his original name from the Japanese version is always listed as “Mash,” which I thought was remarkably inconsistent with the more common Western names prevalent throughout the game until I realized it was actually meant to be “Matthew.” Romanization, folks.

Sabin and Edgar’s flashback shows them flipping a coin to see who will take up the succession; we don’t see the outcome, but we do see Edgar hanging out as king sitting next to an empty throne, so clearly Sabin split for parts unknown. At this point, the presence of the name entry screen should make it clear that Sabin will have a part to play in the game.


Otherwise, what you learn here simply sets up details about the world: The Empire is not the only power, and Figaro has a place in the global economy.


And no one seems to have seen magic in person, which makes Terra’s combat capabilities all the more intriguing.


And there’s also this bozo, who seems incidental at this junction but plays a minor role much, much further down the road.

Anyway, Terra is allowed to roam freely now, but only within the limitations of the existing game world. The cave to the east of Figaro remains blocked by a guard, and the plot won’t advance until you talk to Edgar again. On the plus side, even though the game is railroading you and Terra both, it’s being very nice about it.


Edgar may be king, but he doesn’t take anything by force. This is reinforced by his reputation as a shameless womanizer who throws himself at every woman in the kingdom, young and old alike. It’s actually kind of gross if you pay attention to the actual breadth of women who talk about his romantic attentions.


Once you speak to Edgar, the gears of plot begin to grind in motion as the kingdom receives a visitor: A guy named Kefka.


Who should look familiar. We’ve already seen Kefka a few times already: As a tiny, tiny cameo in the game’s introduction, standing with the Empire’s other generals in Terra’s flashback, and — most importantly — goading Terra into burning everything in sight and murder his army’s soldiers. He is an over-the-top monster with no remorse or redeeming features, though he also looks and dresses like a clown. So it’s a little hard to know what to make of the guy.


Though, when he sets fire to Figaro, it becomes easier to make up your mind.

At this point, the game gives you temporary control of Edgar — though your options are even more limited here than we’ve seen in other situations where the game needs to drive the plot forward. You can talk to your soldiers, Kefka’s soldiers, or Kefka. Speaking to the castle’s chancellor toward the back will continue the plot’s momentum: Figaro Castle submerges beneath the sand (hence the need for an engine room), while Edgar, Terra, and Locke leap onto chocobos and race to freedom.


Not bad for a perverted sex fiend.

This little scene is really unusual for an RPG of this era: It’s a dramatic action that involves quite a bit of movement and even changing scenery. You definitely didn’t see this sort of thing in PC and cart-based console RPGs, and disc-based RPGs like those on Sega CD or Turbo CD used animated cut-scenes to convey this sort of action. There’s a lot happening here, and FFVI really goes out of its way to keep the pace lively. The trade-off for this, as we’ve seen, is an unusual degree of limitations and linearity. Nearly an hour into FFVI, and there’s been exceedingly little freedom. This definitely puts FFVI at odds with the normal sensibilities of the genre. Not necessarily a bad thing… more the shape of things to come for a huge percentage of the genre.

Let’s break down the game so far: After the opening dialogue and credit role to set the stage and mood, you controlled a girl and two soldiers through a series of escalating battles with fixed locations and enemy parties. Soon, your team is demolished and you’re left with just the woman, Terra, minus her soldier pals and her snazzy suit of mech armor. As Terra, you can only travel through a short, linear cave, but now the battles are random in nature. The scene changes to Locke, a thief, who teams up with a gaggle of moogles to defend Terra while teaching you about the game’s (uncommon but nevertheless essential) party-swap mechanic, stealthily introducing a future party member (Mog) and the opportunity to try out both characters’ unique skills (Steal and Dance).

At this point, you’re ushered out of the city you invaded and finally get a chance to experience a proper tutorial — if you want. Otherwise, you enter the game world proper and experience the overworld’s workings, such as random battles that change as moving through scenery leads you through different environments. You can also rent a chocobo before reaching the game’s first proper “town,” Figaro Castle, where you learn more about the world, team up with a new character (Edgar), and have a proper meeting with the villain of the piece (Kefka).

That’s a huge amount of story and gameplay information to absorb in the space of an hour, but FFVI does an excellent job of doling it out in small, easy-to-digest pieces. For veteran RPG and Final Fantasy fans, this sequence offers a breezy chance to enjoy some flashy storytelling; for newcomers, though, the flashiness puts an accessible face to a traditionally complex and arcane genre. Meanwhile, the low difficulty and gated design of the world prevent the inexperienced from wandering off course and dying unexpectedly, minimizing frustration. While you can argue FFVI takes a little too long to open up its design to players, this prologue perfectly demonstrates how to introduce players to a world, its characters, and its game mechanics, setting up story and play hooks for the rest of the adventure, without forcing didactic tutorials into the mix. There are a lot of reasons some people consider FFVI the greatest RPG ever, and in many cases it’s because it served as their entry point to the genre. The excellent design of opening hour pulled them in.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 5 | The didact

Everything until this point of Final Fantasy VI — approximately 45 minutes of play time — has been a sort of prologue that doubles as a subtle tutorial. But now that you’ve made your way into Narshe and back out again, you have the opportunity to experience a genuine, overt, no-bones-about-it tutorial section. These training houses appeared first in Final Fantasy IV and continued through Final Fantasy VII, which really makes sense as those four games represent a very specific phase in the series’ life that ended when Final Fantasy VIII came along.


The tutorial house is completely optional, but it’s incredibly valuable. These guys, who either have big blond bouffant ‘dos or else are wearing ‘coonskin caps, offer you play advice and details on many unintuitive mechanics.


Some of what they pass along is standard RPG lore.


While others have to do with how FFVI specifically presents standard mechanics. Character status effects — both positive and negative — are denoted not with icons or text pop-ups in this game but rather by changing the coloration of the black outlines around the afflicted sprite.


The tutorial room is worth the price of admission for this tidbit alone. At no point in combat is the fact that you can hit the shoulder buttons to change spells from single- to multi-target self-evident, but this is a tremendously valuable piece of advice that can save both time and magic points; if you can wipe a party of enemies with a single multi-target spell, you don’t have to beat down each one individually, or spend the magic for multiple spells.


There’s even a room which is specifically designated as experts-only. Although you’ve already been forced to take part in several battles by the time you reach the tutorial house, which means you have context for most of the information you’re given here, much of the more advanced info is sequestered so as to minimize confusion.


In fact, there’s only one bit of dialogue that makes any sense whatsoever here: You’ve already come across Mog’s Dance command (at least potentially), so now you know (1) how it works and that (2) it’s not wholly unique. You can take notes if you like here, but eventually you’ll return to Narshe and can visit then — a fact that should be fairly self-evident given the way you didn’t actually destroy the city, and you’re actively blocked from exploring obvious interactive portions of the city.


For now, though, all you can really do is venture forward. There’s only so much to do in the tutorial house, and the guards continue to chase you away if you try and wander into Narshe.

Once you leave Narshe, the perspective changes, which can be a little confusing for a newcomer. This is another level of abstraction inherent to RPGs of this era: When you travel across the world, everything zooms out. You travel across a map, and regions you can enter and explore become represented as small icons. Unlike a lot of other RPGs, in FFVI you don’t venture out from an obvious castle or city or the like; Narshe is depicted as a small path leading into the mountains, which makes its iconography somewhat less than obvious.

Despite the visual difference, functionally this portion of the game works more or less like Terra’s solo walk through the caves. The overworld is, of course, much less maze-like; it largely consists of open spaces. And you can save freely (or use camping gear like tents and sleeping bags to restore the party’s health) at any point while in the overworld. You also won’t find treasure chests.


However, you will encounter random battles with new enemies. These battles work the same as in dungeons: Every step you take, there’s a mathematical chance you’ll be whisked into combat and forced to fight some sort of wildlife or other sort of marauder. The monsters you fight throughout the game vary according to your location, and the creatures outside Narshe are completely different from those inside the city and its caverns.


In this case, the monsters are nothing to sweat. I mean, there are bunny rabbits who ambush you from inside heads of cabbage. It’s not exactly intimidating.

Leaf Bunnies have two forms of attack: Basic weak attacks, and a skill called Incisors, which hit one and a half times as hard as a standard strike. The crows, called Darkwinds, are basically the same deal: They can attack or use a skill called Dive, which again confers a 50% attack bonus. But neither has group attacks, special counters, or weird behaviors. These creatures do have some specific affinities and status traits — Darkwind, being a flying enemy, permanently carries the Float status, making it immune to Earth-element attacks — but none of these matter right now. The one thing worth knowing is that both are weak to Terra’s Fire spell, which makes encounters like these a handy test case for the shoulder-button spell targeting feature.


As you roam through the overworld and encounter enemies on different kinds of land, you’ll find the scenery in the battle background changes to reflect the nature of the environs. This actually does have a functional gameplay purpose, but that comes much later; for now, it’s strictly aesthetic.


Well, mostly aesthetic. The territory in which you enter battle can have an impact on the nature of the enemies. Sand Rays, for example, will only attack in desert regions, while you’ll never encounters Leaf Bunnies in those areas. Never mind that in about 20 seconds of walking you can go from snowy mountains to shimmering deserts… like I said, the overworld is abstraction.

Would you be surprised to learn that Sand Rays can also use basic attacks and a special action called Tail that hits for 150% damage? Unlike all the other enemies you’ve faced in free battle so far, though, the item Locke can steal from Sand Rays isn’t Potions but rather Antidotes. They’re also about 50% more powerful than Leaf Bunnies and Darkwinds, and appropriately enough give more EXP upon their defeat. The further you roam from Narshe, the more powerful enemies become… but, generally speaking, the rewards for victory grow commensurately as well.


There are only a handful of places you can visit at this point in the game, but the most obscure is a patch of forest that turns out to be an interactive location: A chocobo stable. Chocobos are returning creatures from previous Final Fantasy games, and here they serve as steeds that allow you to travel rapidly across the map without fear of enemy attacks.


There’s a clever panning and rotation effect applied to the map when you ride a chocobo; rather than orienting itself with north toward the top per usual, the map becomes as immersive as the Super NES was capable of managing, with the world rotating around you as you turn and scrolling beneath you as you run. The effect is somewhat diminished on Game Boy Advance thanks to the washed-out colors and the shorter vertical height of the screen resolution, which causes the horizon and its concomitant fog to dominate the screen.

This can be a little confusing at first, so this is probably a good time to point out the mini-map overlay that accompanies overworld exploration. A small, super-zoomed-out version of the map sits translucently atop the overworld map screen, with the player’s position relative to the surrounding landforms depicted as a red dot and possible destinations blinking as points of white light. When you ride a chocobo, your forward orientation is depicted as a smaller red dot to help you maintain your bearings. It takes a little getting used to, but it works well enough.

Enemies can’t attack you while you ride a chocobo, so this is a safe and convenient way to find your next destination. Of course, the downside is that you don’t gain any experience or cash if you’re not getting into battles… and if you hop off the chocobo at any point, it’ll run off for good and you’ll be out 100 gil.

Ah, right, gil. We can talk about money next time….

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 4 | Moogle rush

Annoying admin note: Hi everyone! If you’re enjoying The Anatomy of FFVI, please consider supporting this site on Patreon. The campaign is less than $45/mo. away from the point at which I’ll turn the FFVI series (and future series as well) into videos, which would be pretty rad… please, help out if you can. Almost all the post-tax money from Patreon goes to creating physical rewards for backers and buying material for this site and Game Boy World, so your contributions are a huge, and direct, help. Thanks! Now, on with the countdown…

FFVI uses Terra’s second lapse into unconsciousness as an excuse to do something Final Fantasy has never done before: Change points of views for the gameplay. The five previous games in the series either treated your party as an indistinct, uniform mass of people, or else they transpired from the perspective of a lead character (Firion, Cecil, Bartz). Sure, FFV had that one section where you controlled Faris at the dance, but that was a brief intermission and Bartz resumed the lead as soon as the action kicked in.


Not so in FFVI. The scene switches back to the old man’s house in Narshe, where this vest-clad scalawag bursts in and responds in a huff to aspersions against his personal morality. By default, his name is Locke Cole, so that’s what we’re going with. But you can also call him Han Solo. It’s cool.


Locke is sent to catch up with Terra, whom the old man had to send alone into the caves when the heat came a-knockin’. Clearly the intent was to have Terra wait up until Locke arrived, but the best plans can go awry. Sometimes Alderaan gets blown up, sometimes the Narshe town guard wants revenge against a green-haired cop killer.

You don’t control Locke’s actions here just yet; all of this plays out on autopilot. He finishes his conversation and then dashes into the caves, catching up with Terra rather easily thanks to her being sprawled unconscious on the ground. As a testament to this character’s agility stat, he manages to make it here before the guards, who had already caught up to Terra moments before. Then again, they had to take the long way around; Locke dropped in through the freshly-made passage between levels that Terra helpfully constructed.


Such is the nature of narratives that Locke turns out to have arrived in the nick of time.


Though evidently with insufficient numbers to stand up against Narshe’s surprisingly large army. Didn’t we already kill most of these guys?


It’s at this moment that a beloved Final Fantasy standard bursts into the room to offer help: Moogles. Coincidental timing? Probably not, actually, given some dialogue later in the game; Moogles appear to be in cahoots with that mysterious thing trapped in the ice. But for now, the important thing is that after a series of mandatory scripted battles and about two screens’ worth of random encounters, we’re bring introduced to a third combat format. It’s a lot of information all at once, but the central mechanic here — dividing what will prove to be an absolutely huge playable party into independent groups — comes into play throughout much of the game. The game is laying on new elements here at the beginning, but the shifting scope of gameplay keeps things fast-paced and exciting… which is something you can rarely say about game segments that function as tutorials.


Because this is a mechanic that, to my knowledge, had never before appeared in a console RPG, FFVI offers an optional explanation. (Optional! Take notes, contemporary game designers.) You control three different parties here, each represented by a Moogle leader (Locke take position two in the initial party, incidentally). You control them like you have your previous parties of Terra and Imperials and just plain Terra, one by one. To swap between parties, you simply press the Select button.


Unlike the caves above, this sequence is free of random encounters. Once again, all the encounters are fixed. Unlike in the initial invasion of Narshe, battles don’t happen at set points in the environment, though. Rather, the army of bad guys you saw when Locke found Terra begins to spread out and advance on where she lay in a crumpled heap. They march slowly through the maze-like cavern, traveling from the bottom of the map to the top, with the stipulation that if they manage to reach Terra’s position the game will end. So there are stakes at hand, and you’re outnumbered. Fortunately for you, Moogles, much like moms, are tough.

What you’re seeing here is basically a very early take on a tower defense game. The optimal approach, which seems fairly intuitive, is to position your Moogles at chokepoints to obstruct the enemies and leave no path to Terra open. You can wait for the enemy host to descend upon your parties, or you can take the fight to them.


Whatever your tactic, your first battle (assuming you engage the foe with your initial party) introduces several new elements to the combat mix. First, Moogles! Look at how cute they are. Aw.

Moogles all fight the same, with one notable exception. Each has different stat values — clearly Moglin there is quite the Moogle bruiser, whereas Mogret probably ought to stick to a desk job. Your actions available with the Moogles boil down to attacking or using items; one of the convenient abstractions of FFVI is that, unlike in many games such as Dragon Quest, your access to the group inventory in combat is universal rather than limited to whatever each individual character has on hand in their personal satchel. In this case, you can rummage through poor Terra’s stuff. Does it make sense? No. Does it make the game more flexible and friendly? Yes.

Another big factor here is the introduction of Megalodoths. There’s nothing special about this monster specifically, but it’s the first enemy in the game that has a group attack. The icy blast shown above hits all members of your party for roughly 30-40 HP apiece. That’s fairly devastating at this point, and it only takes about three rounds of Megalodoth attacks for Mogret to go down, muttering darkly as he/she dies about not taking that stupid desk job after all.

The Megalodoths you face can outpace your party in terms of damage output quite quickly. While it may seem tempting to start by attacking the weaker Silver Lobo enemies and thin the enemy ranks, the longer a Megalodoth is alive the longer it has to smash your party for huge amounts of damage — and at this point you only have a limited number of Potions to rely on for healing. With Terra out of action, you can’t rely on her healing magic, either. So while this sequence isn’t incredibly difficult, it does force you to learn to assess your enemies’ relative threat level and make smart tactical choices.

That being said, you do have the potential to somewhat increase your stock of Potions here. Your new lead character Locke, being a “treasure hunter” and all, has a special unique command: Steal. This is exactly as it sounds. By selecting Steal and choosing a target, you can potentially swipe goodies from bad guys — basically, the same stuff you get at the end of battle, though occasionally something much rarer. The mathematical formula for Steal’s success is heavily dependent on Locke’s level vs. the level of his target, though, so attempting to Steal here is not really the best idea; it’ll mostly result in wasted turns, which gives Megalodoths more time to rake your party across its icy coals.

Still, if it succeeds, that’s a free Potion… which heals one character for 50 HP. Which basically means it can undo one quarter of the damage yield of a single Megalodoth attack. So, not a great tactic at the moment.


Locke isn’t the only one with a special command, though. The leader Moogle of the second party here, Mog, has unusually high stats among his peers as well as a unique menu option called Dance. If you select Dance, a submenu containing an item called Twilight Requiem pops up, allowing you to target Mog and Mog only.

If you choose to issue the Twilight Requiem command, you lose control of Mog for the rest of the battle. He enters a sort of berserk state, acting independently every time his turn gauge fills. Sometimes he’ll jump forward and use a standard attack. Other times, though…


…he uses something called Snare, which causes a portal to appear under a single enemy. If it connects, and it has a high hit rate, the enemy simply slides into the portal and vanishes. So essentially it works on the same principles as Magitek Terra’s Banisher command, though you are at the computer’s whims for executing it.

Once you work your way through the legions of Megalodoths and Silver Lobos, there’s one last enemy to deal with: The guard commander who initiated the rush against Terra. He remains fixed to his position at the rear ranks, though, so once his minions are gone there’s no more direct threat to Terra. Still, you have to defeat the enemy boss, which can be tough…


…especially if you fooled around fighting those Megalodoths.


Because this is still the tutorial phase of the game, though, losing to the Guard Leader isn’t game over. Not only do you have two other parties to choose from — the point of view swaps over to the next group in line if you fall — but the defeated party is sent back to Terra’s position with their hit points reduced to 1. If you have Potions on hand, your defeated group can heal up and return to the fight.

On the other hand, with three groups to work with, alternately taking on the enemy hosts, you should have plenty of stamina remaining in at least one of your parties.


Mog’s group being the most likely, giving his monstrous stats for this point in the game. The Guard Leader can only target one character at a time, and while he hits hard — sorry, Molulu — he’s still less of a threat than the Megalodoths were.

Despite being a boss, however, Guard Leader doesn’t have instant-death protection. One lucky Snare attack and the battle can potentially end quite unceremoniously.


With the bad guys beaten and Terra safe, the Moogles make their exit and… you’re not given a chance to control Locke, or explore the caves. The game takes over and Locke rushes to the caves’ exit, using a secret door to slip out of Narshe through the back route.

At this point, Terra regains consciousness and Locke gets a little creepily over-solicitous, even if it is in a well-meaning way. But with Terra awake, she returns to the lead position in the party. Locke recommends heading to a nearby town in the south, giving you your hint for where to go once you embark on the post-prologue portion of the adventure.


You can try to return to Narshe, but you still haven’t managed to wipe out the town’s reserve of guards. Ever vigilant, they’ll spot Terra in an instant and cause her to panic and dash over to the side automatically. Basically, you’re not allowed in here yet — but while this amounts to an invisible wall, at least it’s a clever one.

That’s FFVI in a nutshell so far, really. It does all the things you’d expect from an RPG, but it presents it all in such a clever, narrative fashion that it feels far removed from the comparatively old-fashioned methods the genre typically employs.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 3 | Terra battle

Not only is the game not over once the mystery creature locked in ice explodes ??????’s Magitek device, we’re not even done with the prologue.


The girl awakens in a cozy bed with a guy described in the dialogue as “old man” watching over her. He doesn’t look that old, but I realize that most JRPG protagonists are young enough that they’re still waiting for their first tufts of body hair to sprout. By that standard, this guy has a foot and a half in the grave. (?????? herself is a bit of a doddering old-timer, too; according to her official bio, she’s an elderly 18 years old… though, to be fair, FFVI‘s extensive cast of characters has a much higher median age than most games of its ilk.)


?????? tumbles out of bed, but before she can stumble to the kitchen to pour herself a cup of ambition, she gets dizzy (with a neat technical touch: The Super NES’s Mode 7 mosaic effect renders the world a blur, as if her eyesight were failing) and falls to her knees. But it’s fine. It’s not like this house has a kitchen anyway.


At this point, the old man reveals he has removed the Slave Crown that rendered ?????? a mindless puppet, and she finds enough clarity of mind to recall her own name. Her default moniker is Terra (full name: Terra Branford), and we’ll go with that for convenience. The first time I ever played through FFVI, I gave everyone Star Wars-related names that worked surprisingly well, but that’s neither here nor there.


The plot must go on, though, and some very angry Narshe guardsmen bang on the door to the house of the old man who’s taken in Terra, demanding she be turned over them. Understandably, given that she just ripped through the center of the city, either poisoning or banishing to some alternate dimension all who stood in her way. Obviously, the “old” man can’t simply turn her over to be executed or tortured or both — Final Fantasy VI will go dark, but not that dark —so he tells her to sneak out through the back door.

So, finally, you’re given proper control of Terra. Just Terra; no soldiers giving her irresistible orders, no giant clumsy armor suit to steer around town. Just the girl. It’s time to get the heck out of Dodge.


But not, of course, before poking around the guy’s house looking for treasure. It’s an RPG. Looting is what you do. For some reason every clock in FFVI contains an Elixir, a super-valuable restorative item that restores a character’s entire hit and magic points in one shot. At no point is this fact advertised in the game, but previous Final Fantasy titles have included interactive bits of scenery (wells, fireplaces, etc.) so veterans are conditioned to go poking around unlikely places.


Still, even for the curious, there’s not much to be done at this point; you can’t go out through the front door, since it’s surrounded by guards and dogs, and the old man’s house is pretty small. So it’s out the back way, where Terra is barely visible behind the house. You can only walk to the left, which leads you across a linear bridge to a cave. Despite having been liberated, Terra is still advancing along a fixed route at this point in the game.

It’s not a very discreet route, either. Exposed on the bridge, she’s spotted by a gaggle of guards, who freak out and disperse to lend a sense of urgency to the scenario.


There’s nowhere to advance but into the caves behind the city, though you enter them from a different point than during your initial approach into the city. The caves here look familiar, but they’re much more constrictive — this is an area the Magitek armors wouldn’t have been able to explore. Even so, despite the appearance of branching paths here, there’s really only one way through the caves.


Eventually, Terra will be drawn into more random battles. This time around they work a bit differently. Because there’s only one of her, and she’s not clomping around in a death machine, battles have somewhat higher stakes. You’d still have to make an utter mess of things to lose here. The fights do take longer, though; Terra is the only party member you have on hand, so you can only attack when her turn comes up. She’s not initially strong enough to take out a Wererat with a single hit, so it takes a couple of turns to wipe out an enemy formation.

Alternately, though, you can make use of Terra’s Fire spell, which can easily take out a Wererat in one hit. However, you only have a finite amount of magic points with which to cast spells, and unless you took the Elixir from the clock there’s no way to replenish them. Different games have different ways of handling level-ups; some replenish all your attributes when you ding a new level, others don’t. FFVI is the latter type.

As for the possibility of losing, I suppose if you tried to grind for levels, you’d eventually run out of MP for casting Cure… but even so, Wererats and all the other enemies that appear here have a good chance of dropping Potions when defeated, so it would be a while before Terra ran out of healing items. In short, this is a somewhat more stressful and urgent-seeming scenario than the Magitek-powered fights, but you still aren’t in terrible danger.


Speaking of leveling up and item drops, it’s worth mentioning the information that flashes at the end of a battle. By this point in the game, Terra has probably leveled up a couple of times; Wedge and Biggs leveled up during the mandatory fights as well, given that they were working from Level 1. The game doesn’t explain this element (at least not yet), but battles end by giving you a brief report on what you’ve earned for your victory. At this point in the game, you receive one perk —EXP — and possibly another — item drops — after vanquishing an enemy formation.

EXP, or experience, is an invisible statistic that characters accumulate as they complete battles. Different enemies are worth different degrees of EXP, and the EXP you earn at the end of a battle is divided by the number of characters conscious at the end of the fight. Terra here, fighting solo, is keeping all the EXP earned from those Wererats all her own. When she fought alongside those two soldiers, though, each character only earned 14 EXP from a battle like this (42 divided by three). After accumulating sufficient EXP, a character jumps up to a new level, which brings with it the possibility of statistical increases. A mechanic introduced about a quarter of a way into the game will add a great deal of nuance to this rule, but for now the important thing is kill enemies, get EXP, become stronger.

The other thing that sometimes happens at the end of a battle is the acquisition of item drops. Here in the caves of Narshe, the only drops you’ll acquire are Potions, which restore 50 HP to a single character. Most enemies carry items and have a random chance of dropping them upon defeat, and those items go into the party’s collective inventory for use by anyone.


Even if the only loot you can score here is Potions, the variety of enemies you get them from expands in this zone. Whereas I’ve only ever seen Wererats in the Magitek portions, here you can also encounter Bandits and Spritzers. While fairly simple to take down, these enemies have their own odd traits. They don’t absorb Poison like Wererats do, but Bandits inexplicably smack themselves with the wrenches they carry if you damage them (creating the possibility that they’ll commit suicide in the process). If you deal the final blow, they’ll toss a wrench at you instead. It’s a strange enemy, and an introduction to some of the oddball enemy logic in FFVI.

Spritzers, on the other hand, are only annoying if you let them attack for a while. Their first few actions in a battle may be either a light physical attack or the decision to do nothing at all, but on their third ATB turn they’ll use an ability on Terra that inflicts the Slow status effect. This causes her outline to glow white, and, more annoyingly, for her ATB recharge speed to slow way down. In these battles, where Terra is the only party member, that means Slow status causes battles to take much longer (and for enemies to have more opportunities to attack) as you get fewer turns. Fortunately, most status effects clear up after battle; Slow is one of them. As long as you see a fight through to the end, Terra will return to normal for the next fight.


A treasure chest located very slightly off the main path beckons you. You really can’t miss it; it’s sitting right there. While the bridge to the left is the obvious path forward, this little raised alcove with the chest on it serves to clue you in to the fact that it’s worth diverging from the path ahead to explore.

Of course, a Phoenix Down — which you use in battle to revive a fallen comrade — doesn’t do much good when your party consists entirely of one person (you can’t use Phoenix Downs on yourself, because they only work on the dead, and you can’t use items when you’re dead). But it’s a valuable find, costing far more than a Potion, and at this early portion of the game seems like a legitimate treasure.


Once over the bridge and into the next room, however, your path forward comes to a dead stop: The four guardsmen who spotted you before hem Terra in, backing her into a corner. The floor conveniently falls away beneath Terra, and she plummets to a lower level of the caves — falling to advance the plot being one of the Final Fantasy team’s favorite narrative tricks in the mid-’90s — before blacking out.


It’s also a convenient excuse for a flashback; as Terra fades from consciousness, her stolen memories return. In a nice touch, we see the battle Wedge and Biggs referred to before the credit crawl: Terra wiping out an entire regiment of Imperial Soldiers in her Magitek armor. A man in Magitek joins the battle and eggs her on, laughing at the carnage.


Said man appears in another flashback, along with a man and woman we don’t yet know, as a legion of soldiers salutes the emperor, Gestahl, while Terra stands mutely in the background next to a Magitek suit. The amnesia gag has become all too common in Final Fantasy and other JRPGs, but here it’s a element used only briefly as an excuse to introduce Terra as a point-of-view character for the player while feeding us a bit of the game’s backstory. For each new factor we see elucidated — Terra’s robotic slaughter of the soldiers, the Empire’s plans for world domination through Magitek — new questions arise. Who was the man in the Magitek, and who are the people standing next to him? What’s the deal with Terra? And will she recover from her blunt trauma so soon after having the Slave Crown removed? FFVI does a great job of introducing both its play mechanics and its driving narrative in unison.

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 2 | The continuing adventures of ??????

For newcomers to the role-playing genre, Final Fantasy VI‘s opening could be fairly disorienting, I imagine. Your little robot guys start walking, then some tiny people run up to you. The screen freaks out as a crunchy sound effect plays and all of a sudden you’re in a different place with intense music playing and barely animated sprites wobbling while numbers fly up. Square kindly made the fight through Narshe a gentle affair, with few threats and a sense of progression as you make your march up the screen. All battles here are scripted, and they’re not random: Each battle is initiated by a small character sprite that makes contact with your party leader. First, you fight one dog, then two soldiers, then two dogs, then two more soldiers. You can paste these guys in no time.

However, on your fifth fight, you start to see a little more of the combat system’s nuance when a pincer attack begins.


Your party shifts from its usual spot on the right side of the screen to the center, while enemy sprites surround your characters on either side. If you’ve gotten into the habit of using ??????’s Bio Blast attack, which hits multiple targets, you’ll discover that you’re now only able to target one column of enemies or the other; you can’t multi-target both groups of enemies. Which makes sense. You’d hit your own party there in the middle.

This also confers a few other disadvantages onto you. Enemies get initiative when they pincer your party, meaning their ATB gauges are full at the battle’s outset, giving them the ability to make the first strike. The party’s ATB meters, which usually start out full (or nearly so), begin nearly empty in this fight. Also, the idea of rows — which admittedly you haven’t explored as of yet in FFVI — go out the window in the event of a pincer ambush. Normally, characters in the back row stand further away from the enemy and are less likely to become targets of attacks, and suffer less damage from most physical attacks. When you’re surrounded, the squishy back-row types become every bit as exposed to danger as the front-row warriors. Obviously, this is not an ideal combat scenario.


Still, the challenge posed Narshe’s sad little provincial soldiers is so negligible as to be a non-factor, and you’ll easily stomp through even the pincer ambush. The fight through town is fairly brief, especially with the threat level here at about nil, and there’s no way to move but forward. With the introductory battles out of the way, your team reaches the caves and the game proper begins.


While you still can’t deviate from the path inside the caves — the branching route denoted by the mine cart tracks to the right runs through an aperture that once again you Magitek armor proves too bulky to clear — the battles are no longer scripted here. Instead, the game shifts over to random battles. Rather than presenting you with enemy sprites to initiate fights, FFVI simply makes them happen when- and wherever. Every step you take brings with it the probability that it will cause your party to enter battle. Foes are “invisible” compared to the soldiers in the town, though there are still a few scripted encounters in the caves.

The one branch you can explore here appears almost immediately to your left, where an obtrusive glowing spot on the floor of an alcove begs your attention. This is a save point, an opportunity to record your progress in the midst of a combat scenario. The game offers to explain this mechanic here, though there’s very little chance you’ll need to reload your progress here in the caves. The important thing to know is that normally you can only save your data while on the world map. Save points offer the exception to that rule, giving you a chance to record in the midst of exploration. These appear fairly infrequently, but they’re not too hard to miss given the way they shine and pulse in the darkness.


The caves introduce a new kind of enemy, Wererats. I don’t know if these are men who turn into rats or rats who turn into wolves or what, but in any case they aren’t any more threatening than the guards you’ve already pasted. However, they do have an interested attribute that you may or may not notice, depending on your tactics: They absorb poison. If you’ve been leaning on the crowd-control capabilities of the Bio Blast weapon, this can come as quite a surprise. Rather than vanished abruptly upon being Bio Blasted, the Wererats instead take what would normally be the damage value of the beam and convert it into life-giving healing power.

Elemental absorption will become a more important factor later in the game, and there’s no mention of these creatures’ capability. I suspect they were given their poison-absorption attribute as a way to clue players who decided to spam every encounter with the Bio Blast into the fact that you can’t simply steamroll the game with a single action. (Well, not in theory, anyway.) The one group attack your prologue party possesses is completely useless here. Worse than useless, actually; it helps the enemy. So you need to mix things up, see.


After a hopeless last-ditch effort by the Narshe watch to halt your advance, they roll out their heavy hitter. It’s… a giant snail. Ymir, the whelk, maintains a Final Fantasy tradition: It has a defensive cycle that the game makes a big deal of, then rarely uses again. In this case, Ymir offers two targets, its head and its shell. So, again, you can’t use the Bio Blast, because it will hit both targets, and if the shell takes damage, Ymir does this:


…striking one or all the party members with a powerful retaliatory lightning strike that hits for about half the target’s max HP. It’s by far the most deadly attack in this portion of the game, though as the in-combat dialogue warns you, it only happens if you strike the shell.

However, like the Mist Dragon in Final Fantasy IV, Ymir has a tendency to switch to a combat form that leaves you with only the “bad” target. When it withdraws its head, you can’t attack without taking far more relative damage than you deal. You’re given a brief warning that it’s about to transform (the snail grumbles some wordless dialogue first), and once that happens all you can really do is wait. Or, if you get sloppy and attack after the shell has retreated, you can use this lull to heal up.

In other words, the point here is that you can’t simply press the attack at all times. Some enemies, especially bosses, have more complex battle patterns that require some manner of tactics and patience to overcome. This is made something of a lie by the fact that FFVI’s mechanics are so easy to abuse as to render the whole idea of difficulty or tactics moot, but their heart’s in the right place.


Something else worth noting is that ?????? doesn’t simply have more Magitek commands than her Imperial companions; she has more battle commands, period. If you choose Magic from the combat menu, you can either cast Fire or Cure. These are made almost entirely moot by the Magitek armor, though if you care to experiment you’ll find spells have a level of versatility lacking in the machine-powered abilities: You can switch targeting fields with spells (turning offensive ability against allies or healing foes), and Cure can be multi-targeted if you know the trick.

This may not seem like a big deal now, and it definitely has no value against Ymir, but those Wererats offer a handy test bed for this power. As you might suspect from their affinity for poison and the fact that they slowly shed HP if you let them live long enough, they’re afflicted with the undead status… which means Cure actually inflicts damage against them. Again, this sequence is such a cakewalk there’s no need to stumble across this fact. But it’s there for experienced players to tinker with.


Eventually, your brainwashed witch and her handlers reach their goal, which appears to be a creature frozen in a chunk of ice.


Sadly, it’s not Captain America. But it does make short work of the obvious bad guys you’ve been parading around with for the past 20 minutes. It zaps them with electricity, causing Wedge and then Biggs to vanish into thin air (please ask for a copy of my 10,000-word fan theory manifesto on how this interaction caused them to be endlessly reincarnated in search of karma to make up for their actions here).


It has something different in mind for ??????, however. Rather than causing her to vanish, it begins to resonate in sync with her before causing a massive explosion that causes the screen to fade to white. Game over…?

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The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 1 | Slave 4 U

Twenty years ago this week I drove across town to the nearest Target one afternoon as soon as my classes were out. My goal: The Super NES game case, where a brand new release was on sale. I’d seen it advertised in late-night MTV commercials, of all things, and the gushing EGM review from a couple of weeks before had me absolutely champing at the bit to play. Final Fantasy III was going to be amazing, I could just tell.

And I was right. I didn’t know about the series’ torrid history, the fact that this was properly Final Fantasy VI and that we’d missed the episode between this and Final FantasyII.” What I did know is that for the first time, a “proper” RPG felt as lively and engrossing and breezily fun as an action RPG, like Zelda, or SoulBlazer, or this game’s spiritual predecessor Secret of Mana, which I had freebased the previous winter. It looked great. The story was phenomenal by the standards of the medium. The music was amazing. And there was so much stuff to do!

The big, heavily hyped game of fall 1994 was Donkey Kong Country, which I dutifully preordered and commenced playing after finishing FFIII. But I only made it about halfway through the comparatively brief platformer before my interest faded and I longed to experience Final Fantasy again. I bought the official guide and made use of Gau’s Rage checklist. I bought the official U.S. release of the three-disc soundtrack at a preposterous premium mail-order price. I beat FFIII again and again, and began making use of that newfangled thing called the “world wide web” to read more about it and other games like it.

How did a game like this manage to take a casual RPG dilettante like myself and turn him into a fanatic for the genre? This was the turning point for me, the moment at which I rounded a corner from “kind of interested in RPGs but not really sure if they were my thing” to “pretty much fixated on them.” In this series, we’ll look at the whys and wherefores… because I’m certainly not the only one on whom Final Fantasy III, or rather VI, had such an effect.


A note on versioning here: This series will be based on the Final Fantasy VI Advance remake from 2007 for several reasons. One, the actual mechanical changes TOSE applied to this version corrected a lot of unintended glitches and bugs in the Super NES game (such as evasion not working properly). Two, while the localization lacks a certain punchiness that the original offered, it brings the game’s naming conventions — spells, summoned creatures, equipment, items — in line with series standards, which makes it easier for me to explain the relationship FFVI has with its predecessors. Three, the meaningful content changes are all fairly easy to isolate and have no real impact on the design of the original release, and it’s not like you can hear the downgraded music in this blog. And four, my screen grabs of FFVI running via RetroN 5 look much cleaner than my screen grabs of FFIII running on Wii Virtual Console.

Ideally, I would have started from Final Fantasy and worked my way up to this point, but today is FFVI‘s 20th anniversary in the U.S. I thought it merited a bit of birthday indulgence, you know?


FFVI doesn’t wait around; whether you start a new game or let the attract mode run, you’re treated to a prologue that sets up its backstory. Plot had always been an element of Final Fantasy, much more so than in its contemporary console RPGs, and each chapter of the series (besides V, I suppose) pushed the boundaries of in-game narrative a little further than the last. The exposition here goes beyond the introductions to FFIV and V, which were basically in-engine scripted dialogue sequences. This is something more.

FFVI pushes toward the sort of cut scenes that had done so much to spice up Sega CD and Turbo Duo RPGs, but the lack of high-capacity media actually kind of works in the game’s favor; rather than switching over to anime sequences that bear little resemblance to the game, FFVI instead sets the stage with specially adapted images and animations. A pan over a piece of scenery that only appears in the intro…


A glimpse ahead at a futuristic city seemingly ripped straight from Blade Runner


Eventually returning to the cliffside shown at the beginning, where the in-engine content kicks off in earnest. The narration and dialogue here set up the premise of the story: A war a millennium ago left the planet in tatters and seemingly purged all magic from the world. Civilization has rebuilt itself, but this time without magic; instead, humanity relies on technology.

We can see that here with the Magitek Armor the two soldiers and their companion ride. It uses machinery to simulate the effects of magic. We also learn that they use technology to enslave the girl who accompanies them, shackling her with something called a Slave Crown that renders her an obedient puppet and keeps her reputedly tremendous innate powers in check.

So: Magic, gone. Technology, dominant. Empire, not very nice. Girl, mysterious and powerful and effectively a robot. Town below, holds what appears to be a remnant of the war.


And the trio advances on the town in the snowy valley as the credits roll.


Once the city scrolls into view via Mode 7 and the staff receives its credits, the playable portion of the game begins at last. Despite the soldiers having both a mission and a purpose, the dialogue contrives to put the player in control of the green-haired girl: The soldiers, not particularly caring to risk their own lives, put their slave in the vanguard to bear the brunt of the city’s resistance. They call the shots, but you — as the girl — take the lead.


A glance at the menu screen reveals a few items of interest. The soldiers, as you may have noticed in the introductory cut scene, are named “Biggs” and “Wedge,” a reference to Luke Skywalker’s pals in Star Wars. But Biggs and Wedge were the rebels, not soldiers for the Empire! Someone wasn’t paying much attention.

More significantly, they’re low-level grunts — level 1, to be precise — yet they’re more physically durable than the girl. The girl herself doesn’t even get a name, just a string of question marks; she’s a tool for the Empire, not a person. She has more combat experience than the soldiers, though; the 50 soldiers she reputedly fried in three minutes appear to have doled out enough EXP to take her to level 3. And despite magic no longer existing in the world, she somehow has magic points.

If you poke around through the menus, you’ll even find she has two magic spells listed under Abilities: Fire and Cure. This is entirely consistent with the opening dialogue; the soldiers referred to her as a “witch,” and it’s meant in the literal sense. Somehow, this puppet child knows magic.


Your trio of troops (despite ?????? being put at point in the dialogue, the troop troupe is led and symbolized by Wedge — characters separate out from the lead sprite for conversations, then merge back into it when the action commences) is now free to march through the streets of Narshe. And when I say “free” I mean “limited to walking ahead on a straight path toward the goal at the back of the city.”

The map designers did some clever walling-off of a space that you won’t be able to explore until much later in the game, allowing you to move through a real area of the game but restricting how far afield you can go. The Magitek sprites are twice as large as normal character sprites, and they require twice as much clearance in the environment as well. While it looks like you can roam freely through Narshe, in fact every path branching off from the central street through town funnels you through a single-tile space, which prevents the armor from passing into the back streets of the city. There’s all kinds of cool weaponry on sale (and hidden!) here, but you can’t get to it, because you’re in giant hulking suits of armor.

Instead, you can only stomp straight up the screen. As you march, the trio is accosted by multiple groups of enemies — all predetermined, all easy, all designed to teach you the ropes of the combat system.


Let’s talk about the combat system, then. The battles here grow progressively more complex, beginning with a pair of weak soldiers (meaning you outnumber and greatly overpower your foes) and adding new permutations with each fight. Fans of Final Fantasy will feel right at home here, but for a newcomer…

The first thing the console gamers in my life always remarked on the first time they played Final Fantasy or other turn-based RPGs is that you don’t do anything. Which is to say, there’s a level of abstraction between yourself and the characters you control. Because you command a party of warriors rather than an individual, the 1-to-1 input-to-output element of an action game disappears as a matter of necessity. Recent Final Fantasy titles bear this out; the series abandoned turn-based combat beginning with Final Fantasy XI, and every numbered entry from that point puts you in command of a party in name only, if that. FFXI and XIV, being MMOs, have an easier time getting away with this — the other party members are other people. Final Fantasy XII (whose combat system was designed by FFVI co-director Hiroyuki Itou) automated the processes, giving you direct control over one character at a time while allowing you to program the behavior of inactive party members. Meanwhile, using the single-character control option in Final Fantasy XIII was missing the point; it was better to work at the tactics level, adjusting your party’s configuration on the fly and allowing them to perform appropriate commands based on their new role and the current situation. And Final Fantasy XV is straight-up an action game, with the promise of a one-button interface.

Not Final Fantasy VI, though. As the first battle begins, your party lines up on the right side of the screen opposite intricate, static renditions of your foes. At the bottom of the screen, a cursor hovers over you command options. Nothing happens at first, which can be confusing if you don’t understand how the system is supposed to work: It’s just a bunch of people staring each other down. Eventually, though, one of the enemy soldiers will flash and shake, causing a slashing effect to appear over one of the character sprites to the right (which results in some numbers popping up over the afflicted party).

The differentiation in art style between your party and the bad guys helps you bridge the connection more quickly; your combat sprites make use of the same character graphics that appear in exploration mode and cutscenes, so you can look at the battle situation and immediately recognize the fact that the little people you were walking around with are the ones at the right side of the screen. They’re “you.” This is actually a pretty big design leap for Final Fantasy VI; previous Final Fantasy titles used different sprites in battle than on the world map. But you’ve already seen these character sprites chatting about the plot several times over the past 10 minutes, so it’s much easier to grasp the nature of these encounters and your role in them at a glance.

Functionally, FFVI’s battles work much like any turn-based RPG, with protagonists and enemies alternating their actions by turns. The player selects all commands from a series of menus and then chooses a target: An enemy for offensive actions, a fellow party member for cures or buffs. There are other variants on these commands — multi-targeting, or even using the “wrong” type of command on the “wrong” side of the battle lines, e.g. healing enemies — but those don’t come into play now; for these early encounters in Narshe, the Magitek armor limits you to a very fixed array of skills without the ability to explore more advanced targeting abilities.

Although the battle system doesn’t offer an overt tutorial of any sorts, everything is presented visually. The active party member steps forward and waits until you issue them their commands with the menu at the bottom of the screen. A simple cursor (a pointing finger that stands out on the semi-realistic battlefield for its slightly comical appearance, which also ties it in with the squat little cartoon sprites of your party as “alien” elements of the tableau) allows you to pick your actions and then select a target for the command you’ve selected. And then the cursor switches to the next party member in line. When you inflict damage, numbers pop out of the target(s). When you take damage, the number that appear atop your character correspond to the numbers that are deducted from their hit points in the menu below. Other factors, like magic points for casting spells, appear conditionally when you need to see them.

The big difference between 16-bit Final Fantasy‘s combat system and traditional turn-based mechanics is that the turns have a real-time element to them. The Active-Time Battle system, as it’s called, came into effect with Final Fantasy IV, and FFVI refines it over and above the improvements made in Final Fantasy V. Rather than turns playing out per side, every character has his or her own individual statistic that determines the frequency with which they can act. On the player’s side, you can see this depicted individually as a small gauge beside each party member’s health tally, which slowly begins to fill after that character performs an action. Once the gauge tops out again, that party member becomes active and steps forward to wait for a command.

You don’t get to see enemy turn gauges, but they operate under the same rules and limitations as the party. Before the ATB came along, a character’s Speed rating determined the number of attacks they could perform per turn, which got kind of ridiculous when you had someone dishing out 32 punches per round. Here, Speed simply determines how quickly a fighter get his or her next turn. Slightly complicating matters is the fact that despite everyone having “turns,” the action doesn’t pause or freeze while you choose your commands (even if you elect to use Wait mode, which only impedes enemy actions while a command menu is active). So you can’t really afford to take a lot of time to pick an action, because the enemy will be happy to dish out punches while you muddle about with menus.

It’s a lot to take in, but FFVI does a good job of rolling these things out slowly in a fairly non-threatening manner. Your party members can take a lot of abuse, and every enemy goes down in a single attack. Because you’re stomping around in suits of magical armor, right? It makes sense. And every character comes equipped with Heal Beam, which does exactly what it sounds like: It heals one of your party members for about five times their current max hit points.


It’s worth noting the disparity between the Imperial soldiers and ??????. While Biggs and Wedge have four possible commands — besides Heal Beam, there are three attack options that reflect the three main elemental forces of Final Fantasy magic — the girl has access to four additional commands. These are basically overkill, since any attack will take out the bad guys. But besides underlining the idea that ?????? is something special in combat, capable of using twice as many Magitek commands as the standard grunts, these spells also give you a chance to mess around with other combat effects.

Banisher, for example, simply removes an enemy from battle; there’s no HP damage registered, the target simply disappears. Confuser introduces a status effect, causing an afflicted foe to become muddled and attack its own allies. Magitek Missile is the sole physical (that is, non-beam) ability available in these early encounters, a single-hit projectile that is ludicrously powerful compared to the other actions. And then there’s Bio Blast…


…which hits the entire enemy party with a wave of psychedelic light. Not only is this the one multi-target attack you have access to here, introducing the idea of hitting the entire enemy party in a single action, it also hints at another of Final Fantasy‘s long-running “effective typing” mechanics. Bio Blast has a poison attribute, which makes it tremendously powerful against human foes. If you use this attack in one of the follow-up skirmishes that mixes human and non-human foes, you’ll find Bio Blast hits your human opponents much harder than the beasts. Not that it really matters since it’s a one-hit wipeout for every defender of Narshe, but nevertheless it’s a chance to play around with some of the game’s more advanced mechanics in a scenario where you’d have to make an active attempt to lose.

These first few minutes of the game neatly wrap exposition, exploration, and battle mechanics into a tidy little package that functions as a gameplay tutorial without being didactic about it. The narrative justifies the scenario quite effectively, giving you a reason for conflict, introducing one of the key cast members from an outsider perspective, setting up the history of the world and the combative (but by no means all-powerful) nature of the Empire, and excusing the fact that you completely steamroll the forces of Narshe. Along with the cinematic intro of the armored soldiers marching on Narshe in the snowy night, it adds up to an impressive beginning for a game that grabs both RPG fanatics and newcomers alike.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game, Games. Tagged with , , , , , .

The Anatomy of Bionic Commando | 15 | Bionic alternatives

We’re done with Bionic Commando now, and I’m very disappointed in you all for not reading it by the thousands, because this is a truly great game. I’ve always liked it, but after breaking it down stage-by-stage I see that it truly was masterfully crafted. Capcom created a platformer that broke the rules of platforming, and they did a remarkable job of nudging players in the proper direction. Sometimes subtly, sometimes not. But there’s a reason I was able to master the game my second time to play it, and it’s not because I’m some gaming savant; Bionic Commando is simply that thoughtfully designed.

While NES Bionic Commando stands at the pinnacle of the series in terms of raw design and inspiration, the entire series provides interesting perspective on this classic.


The series began in arcades, where it clearly came into being as a follow-up to Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Same art style (definitely a Tokuro Fujiwara special), same stiff controls, same insane difficulty level. I’m almost positive they finished up development on GnG and said, “Alright, how can we make this even harder? Ah… let’s take away jumping.”

The arcade game had that sort of “ha ha, screw you” approach Capcom took to their arcade platformers, spamming you with all kinds of cheap deaths and overwhelming odds that often didn’t make for a very fun game experience. It’s not that it’s difficult so much as unbalanced, requiring considerable memorization and even then crammed with enough randomness that you’re still at the whims of the A.I.

The bionic arm in the arcade game really does feel like an evolution of Arthur’s jump: It’s a fussy, unfriendly way to get about, and once you initiate the action you’re committed to it. It doesn’t help that extending your arm at a 45-degree angle requires moving your controller in the same direction. The NES game would change the speed of grappling, the bionic arm’s ease of use, and the overall accessibility and balance of the action to properly realize the germ of brilliance hidden beneath so much awkwardness.


The NES game was, as often happened with NES “versions” of arcade games, the only one of its kind for years. Bionic Commando came to a ton of other platforms, but it was always adaptations of the coin-op. Only the NES had what amounted to the sequel. That it, until 1992, when Capcom released Bionic Commando for Game Boy. Interestingly, this was the first time the Top Secret title didn’t appear on the Japanese version; Capcom was making a clear break from the series’ arcade origins, and it shows. Bionic Commando on Game Boy is a wonderfully faithful adaptation of the NES game.

The biggest change the Game Boy port makes is to completely reimagine the game’s setting; rather than being set in 1989, the story now transpires in a far-future century. As a result, the Hitler/Fourth Reich connection disappears completely as well. Despite the futurism and revisionism, though, this hews amazingly close to the NES game, scaled down and made monochrome but every bit as solid and playable as its source material.

The Game Boy Bionic Commando makes one other change that would be repeated in subsequent games: The Albatross weapon is no longer the size of a Metal Gear. It’s more like the Balrog fortress from Strider. Rather that existing as a single-screen battle, the Albatross comprises the entire final stage of the game. The spirit is much the same — there’s a deviously difficult sequence where you have to grapple along the bottom of the airship, suspended over nothingness, to reach the hangar where not-Hitler/not-Master-D is about to jet away. Not only is it the most nerve-wracking sequence in the entire game, it also calls back to the NES Albatros with its intermittently firing thrusters. A really fantastic rendition all around, that expands the finale to become something even better.


And then there was Bionic Commando: Elite Forces, which I endorsed heartily upon launch, because 2000 was a lonely time for fans of 2D games. In hindsight, it’s OK, but it makes a lot of dumb design mistakes that were fairly common back then. Too much animation, too-large sprites. A weird sniper mode that popped up from time to time for no reason other than someone on the team MDK and was like, “Yes!”

That being said, it’s not bad. Less than a wholly new game, more than a remake, it walked a weird line between new and old without total success — but with some success, nevertheless. And it used the standalone Alabatross level, which was nice. Also: Female protagonist option! A first and only for the series. She wore leg warmers and dyed her hair pink. She was cool.


Almost a decade later came Bionic Commando ’09, which… well, it did some interesting things. But it also used a lot of design shortcuts (invisible walls in the form of dangerous radiation zones if you dared stray from the intended path), and it suffered really badly from being a product of its times. The angry dreadlocked white dude protagonist was inexplicably supposed to be Captain Spencer, and doddering old Super Joe was now the bad guy. And then there was the whole Evangelion thing about the arm…. ugh.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the same team take another crack at the idea now that we’ve moved beyond the age of trying too hard. I’m pretty sure that without the grimdark patina and the cheap barriers, this could be a heck of a game. It almost was!


And finally, there were the Rearmed games, the first of which was an almost perfect update of the NES game, absolutely bursting with love for the source material. Great music, lovely graphics, great new additions (I loved the little details, like your chopper pilot being a lady named Haley… who at the end took the role of Hal), improved bosses, a ton of optional challenge rooms. Just great stuff all around.

I guess that just leaves Rearmed 2, which I never played because it required an always-on Internet connection, and my PS3 and Xbox 360 were situated in a place that made that impossible. That’s not the case anymore, though, so I suppose it’s finally time to explore this untamed frontier. Even if they did give you the ability to jump. Ugh.

But that’s not next. No, next up is a game I’ve been dying to analyze since the start of this site. See you Monday. And thanks for the few of you who cared enough to read about Bionic Commando from start to finish! You’re the good ones.

Posted in Anatomy of a Game.