GameSpite Journal 10 | Final Fantasy III

Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI) | Dev.: Square | Pub: Square | Genre: RPG | Release: Oct. 1994

Final Fantasy VI -- née Final Fantasy III in its Super NES incarnation -- is one of the greatest RPGs ever made. You love it, I love it, and if by some insane chance you’re reading it and you’ve never played it, what the hell is wrong with you? It’s freaking FFVI! Your life is inherently less meaningful without having experienced it. Now that we have all that out of the way, let’s try and figure out just what it is about this particular game that brings about the sort of downright irrational fondness I was just displaying.

First of all, it doesn’t suck. Now, that doesn’t seem particularly remarkable; obviously, a game everyone thinks is great doesn’t suck, right? Not really. As RPGs go it’s fairly rare that one can say that. Most RPGs, even those that are otherwise enormously enjoyable, have some element to them which is really hard to swallow for some people. Older RPGs tend to have terrible translations and a bit too much grinding for most people’s tastes. Newer RPGs are prone to long, unskippable cutscenes and endless dialogue, and they frequently do away with overworld maps entirely. Even in the sweet spot of the 16-bit heyday, you’re at least going to have that one dungeon that overstays its welcome, or that one directionless stretch in the middle where you just end up wandering aimlessly about in search of plot or trying to gain some extra levels. Nobody seems to have a gripe like that when it comes to FFVI though. That isn’t to say it’s completely perfect in every way, mind you. Just that there’s no glaring obvious flaws to drag it down.

Visually, it was pretty amazing for its time. Now, looking back on it today, things might not seem very special. It doesn’t even hold the undisputed title of best-looking SNES RPG. It’s not even the best-looking SNES RPG from Square. A very strong argument can be made that Chrono Trigger is a far better-looking game, with more detailed sprites, and a clean, consistent 2D art style that keeps everything in the game looking exactly like it does in the concept art. Still, FFVI was mind-blowing when it was first released on a number of levels. First off, it really nailed a visual style for its characters and backgrounds that screamed “SNES!” FFIV had been a huge step up from its NES predecessors, but it was still taking the same basic 8-bit approach, with square map sprites marching around, showing little expression beyond spinning in place now and then. FFVI managed to find a style that kept things simple and iconic, but allowed for properly expressive characters—laughing, slumping their shoulders, looking agitated—and put it to very good use. Backgrounds saw a lot of sophistication too, cleverly arranging certain tile sets to yield skyscrapers that seemed to pull the camera down to a side view and an opera house with a very unique perspective.

More than that, though, it was really one of the first RPGs to break the mold and present a setting that wasn’t the same vague interpretation of medieval europe as filtered through too many viewings of Laputa found in, almost every other RPG ever to come out of Japan. Instead, it went with a steampunk sort of aesthetic, many years before that became the annoying fad it is today. At the time, throwing phonographs, saloon girls, and reasonably modern cityscapes into an RPG was completely unheard of. Then, of course, the presentation of the game’s world was also quite unorthodox, putting every trick the SNES had up its sleeve to work for various approximations of 3D here and there. Things like a first-person mine cart ride and the breathtaking (for the time) introductory sequence of three clunky robot suits slowly marching through the snow towards a town built into a cliff face left everyone impressed. While splashy intros were already firmly established as something to be expected from RPGs at that point, the unique and unexpected perspective of that sequence really made it stand out from even its flashiest CD-based peers.

You could cite any number of other aspects of the game as exemplary: The standard litany of praise. There’s the wonderful split between the linear opening and freeform second half of the game, as is the case with many of the best RPGs. There’s the brilliance of building up a comic relief character into the main villain so subtly that it’s both shocking and logical when he takes center stage, and the realization of how thoroughly screwed the world in general is halfway through the game. There’s the cast of 14 characters who, with the exception of a couple one-note jokes, are more complex and developed than those of many games that only have three or four to keep track of, not to mention each having a unique ability and means of improving it. There’s the cinematic feel to the opera scene, and the cliff. The lack of a single clear main character. The maturity of certain themes. These are all well and good, but none of these things are the real reason anyone playing RPGs on the SNES loves this game to death. Really, that can be traced to one particular aspect of the game. The soundtrack.

I propose to you that it is actually the music of FFVI which is its most endearing quality. First off, even in a vacuum, it’s an amazing collection of soulful, memorable songs. In context, however, the whole game is scored like a ballet. Each character has a lietmotif which captures their basic essence, from Terra’s wistful flutes and strings to Shadow’s mysterious and subdued theme with its rather impressive approximation of an acoustic guitar. Over the course of the game, these various themes are repeatedly reprised, clearly indicating which character is dominating a scene, and reminding the player what they’re all about. Eventually this culminates in a final song played between the death of the final boss and the credits, blending every character’s leitmotifs into a twenty minute plus composition which really ties the whole game together, and creates an indelible sense memory of the whole experience that sticks with the player forever. That’s why we all love Final Fantasy VI, and why the opera house in particular will always feel so significant no matter how many lavishly rendered cut scenes future RPGs use to try and leave their mark.

By Jake Alley? | Nov. 25, 2011 | Previous: Sparkster | Next: Donkey Kong Country