Final Fantasy VI
Article by Adrien Gregory | November 24, 2009
For fans of the role-playing genre, Final Fantasy VI needs no introduction. In the pantheon of console RPGs, only Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII surpass it in terms of sheer ubiquity and popularity. The original Dragon Warrior was more widely played, but FFVI remains more beloved. It enjoys all the affection given to FFVII, but with none of the frothing anger and controversy. And, speaking personally, it's my favorite game of all time.
But why is it so highly regarded? Nostalgia would be the knee-jerk answer, but that rose-tinted glasses only go so far. If something is, in fact, quite horrible, the reality of it eventually comes back to kick us in the tender regions. FFVI, on the other hand, is not only still playable all these years later, but it would feel like a breath of fresh air for the genre if not for the fact that it's fifteen years old. It's a product of careful refinement, nearly perfecting the science Square had been developing the previous eight years. These refinements would then go on to be largely ignored in the 32-bit era and beyond as developers became drunk on visual excess.
Nowhere is this more evident (and the contrast more jarring) than in FFVI's combat. Featuring the same Active Time Battle system as its predecessors, the combat is lightning fast as usual. It’s flashy, but it wastes none of the player’s time with tiring, overly lengthy animations. Unfortunately, this was cast aside once the PlayStation era began. Square themselves mostly relegated the animated excess to summoning spells, but in the wake of FFVII many developers would go on to pad out their battles with slow animation and long, tedious attacks that were almost cutscenes in themselves. Ostensibly old-school RPGs like Suikoden would continue the tradition of quick, get-you-in-get-you-out combat, but only in recent years have more developers clued in to the fact that players don’t want to watch that thirty-second spell for the umpteenth time. Only in recent RPGs like Persona 3, Etrian Odyssey?, and Square’s own Crisis Core? do we see acknowledgement of the faster, more streamlined mode of combat that made FFVI and its peers so brisk.
FFVI spares no expense when it comes to presenting the players with options for character building. While perhaps not quite as flexible as Final Fantasy V’s Job System, each of FFVI’s fourteen playable characters is completely unique, boasting their own set of special moves and attacks, running the gauntlet from the standard, to the unorthodox, to the downright bizarre. Locke, a thief (or treasure hunter, if you prefer), can steal items from his foes; King Edgar uses power tools in battle to inflect heavy damage and status effects; his brother, Sabin, uses deadly martial arts skills that require Street Fighter-esque button combos. All the characters even have an Easter egg special attack they'll occasionally use when their health is critical, a precursor of sorts to FFVII's Limit Breaks. Despite this variety, your party configuration is rarely plot-mandated. The first half of the game usually requires the presence of one or two essential characters, but by the time you reach the halfway point the world is your oyster (albeit a rather devastated oyster), and your party makeup is completely in your hands—a rarity in story-driven RPGs.
Further adding to the customization, the game’s Magicite system allows for an almost absurd level of stat manipulation. Along with being the plot contrivance through which the characters learn magic spells, most Magicite also boosts a certain stat when a character levels up. By using it smartly, you could plausibly to make Relm, the petite pre-teen artist with insane magic skills, into a physical powerhouse, while burly manly-man Sabin could theoretically become a powerful spell caster. Add to all of this the fact that all the characters can learn every spell and (with a certain item) equip any weapon or piece of armor, and you have a game that is not only extraordinarily breakable, but uncommonly easy to break. Is that a good thing? Absolutely. It's a hallmark of the genre. Final Fantasy Tactics features a host of game-breaking abilities and characters, and Chrono Trigger all but spells it out for you with its New Game+ feature. Nippon Ichi has created a whole line of games predicated on the idea that allowing a dedicated player to break the game is a good thing.
The best part is, none of it is even necessary. FFVI is not even an especially difficult game; it's content to simply let players who just want to play through it do so while still giving advanced players the ability to dig into the nitty-gritty of the game's underpinnings. The developers realized that for players who enjoy min-maxing, doing so is often a reward in and of itself. The rest of us can simply level up, equip that shinier sword, and move on.
Pushing things forward is a plot that doesn't seem overtly ambitious at first glance; however, with hindsight, one can see how Square was quietly sowing the seeds of a more mature tone for the series. FFVI's is a briskly told tale that includes surprisingly adult themes like war, assassination, genocide, and the apocalypse. It even briefly touches on things like racism and (implied) teen pregnancy. Given Nintendo of America's strict censorship policies at the time, it's almost a wonder the game came out here at all.
Not to imply that the game is a complete tragedy, though. Despite the serious overarching plot, it never digs too deep into any of its themes, and as often as not the dialogue is lighthearted, with plenty of comic relief to keep the whole thing from being a brooding, angsty mess. Translator Ted Woolsey, under a serious time crunch and hindered by technical limitations and Nintendo‘s censors, put together a stellar localization, one that was far ahead of its time. Outside of his other work, which includes Chrono Trigger and Super Mario RPG, and the work by localization houses like Working Designs and Nintendo‘s own Treehouse, video game translations would largely continue to range from "rudimentary" to "completely incomprehensible" for years to come.
Tying the whole thing together is an audio/visual presentation that has not only aged well, but still looks downright fantastic. For the first time in the series, the overworld was no longer home to tiny, squat representations of the characters; instead, it shared the same detailed character sprites of the battle screen. This allowed the team to give the cast a larger range of expression and do a lot more during plot sequences, and the resulting difference in consistency and detail can’t be denied. While still very limited by modern standards, the characters brim with personality and sport a surprising and previously unseen fidelity to Yoshitaka Amano’s artwork, as do the still monster sprites. Finally, there’s the soundtrack, almost inarguably Nobuo Uematsu’s finest work. With almost no dud tracks to speak of, each piece matches mood and tone perfectly; every character theme captures the essence of their personality; and it culminates in a fantastic, bittersweet twenty-minute ending piece that remains one of the best and most satisfying in the series. Square certainly must have known they had something special here as well. Back in a time when game soundtracks were all but nonexistent in the West, they saw fit to release it under the title Kefka’s Domain, a release that now commands a serious premium on eBay.
Regardless of what might be said about the series‘ direction since, Final Fantasy VI stands as both the culmination of everything that came before it while silently laying the groundwork for the series’ thematic future with a darker, more cinematically driven plot. It was Squaresoft’s best talent at the top of their game—at least until a couple years later when they one-upped themselves with Chrono Trigger. I still like FFVI more, though. You know, nostalgia and all that.