Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Last time, I began covering one of the greatest video games of all time, Final Fantasy VI. Halfway through writing that article, however, the gravity of the situation overtook me and I needed a couple weeks to collect my thoughts and finish this thing. Now that I’ve settled that raging torment within my soul, let us proceed!
In my previous issue, I covered FF6‘s development, characters, music, and story. But there’s actually even more to the progression of this classic RPG than its characters or plot; the game is filled to the brim with show-stopping moments, the kind that can be instantly called to memory even if you last experienced them years ago. A few examples, to wit:
-From the opening minutes of the game, it’s clear that we’re witnessing something special. After a brief introductory scene with our first player character and her chaperons, the credits roll and the orchestral overture plays over a Mode 7 (faux 3-D) graphics display of the trio making their way in power armor to snowy Narshe. Even from a modern perspective, it’s an impressive display that pushes the technology to its limits in order to capture the player’s attention and set the stage for what’s to come.
-After we’re introduced to a handful of characters at the heart of the story of the Returners – Terra, Locke, Edgar, Banon, and Sabin – they’re unexpectedly split apart and the game gives us the option of whose story we’d like to immediately follow, leaving the fate of the others uncertain for now. Each scenario is memorable in its own right, but the choice itself is completely novel.
-After the player has run through all three scenarios and added several new characters to the separate parties, they’re finally reunited just as the Empire comes to invade Narshe and claim the frozen Esper they’ve been protecting. Friendly conversation is cut short as the bad guys are engaged, in an intense sequence that might take the player more than one try. After the threat is neutralized, Terra comes face-to-face with the frozen Esper, which somehow resonates with her unknown nature. She transforms against her will into an alabaster, bestial creature – and then goes screaming off into the sky with a bone-chilling sound effect that most of us didn’t know the Super Nintendo could make.
-The party attempts at one point to lure the owner of an airship into a trap in order to gain passage to another continent. They do this by having Celes assume the role of an opera singer that the pilot plans to kidnap (even though she’s a former general, not some opera floozy!). FF6 pauses all the action outside and we forget about the plot as we play through the opening sequence of the politically-tinged romance. …And then it’s all ruined by a wisecracking octopus. In retrospect, it’s a bizarre sequence that comes out of nowhere, but the game sticks the landing perfectly with its music and atmosphere, and we feel just as proud of Celes as Locke is for nailing her lines.
I’ve just described those completely from memory, and they all come with more than half of the game left to play. Final Fantasy VI hits the player with wave after wave of incredible moments, all in the service of a bigger goal – having us experience the highs and lows alongside these characters in order to make them feel like close friends. That’s the real reason the story has the weight it does, and the true brilliance of this aspect of the game.
Gameplay in FF6 derives heavily from the turn-based formula that’d been honed in the previous five titles and particularly the active time battle (ATB) from the SNES era, but there are new additions that are very welcome here. The skill system is closest to Final Fantasy IV, where each character possesses their own immutable class (they’re not explicitly named in the US version) with a unique set of battle options in addition to the common pool of Magic spells. Co-director Hiroyuki Ito built on his experience developing the battle systems for the last two titles to deliver a satisfyingly complex system here, and he continued to work on the series in this capacity on and off until Final Fantasy XII.
This game upgrades the FF4 setup in two ways: First, you have control over which four members to use in your party for most of the game, so you can balance your battle specialty however you see fit – as opposed to FF4, where you’re always locked into a party configuration by where you’re at in the story. Second, Magic and certain other abilities (Rage, Dance, Lore) are collected by meeting special conditions in battle. In order to obtain Magic for most characters, the player must obtain and equip Magicite (which can’t be shared), then battle to gain points toward learning each spell. The excitement of acquiring new abilities gives completionist players plenty to do and makes the typical JRPG level grind palatable, if not downright enjoyable. Later Final Fantasy games would continue to use voluntary party swapping and learning abilities from equipment, adding to this game’s (and Ito’s) legacy as the starting point for those systems.
Final Fantasy VI also adds something to the battle system that players were likely surprised by the first time around, if they saw it at all. When a character executes a standard attack while at critical health, there’s a 5% chance a “low HP attack” will be triggered – a devastating ability with a unique name and aesthetic for each character that the game gives no indication even exists until it happens. This feature in particular was such a hit that a variation on it, the “Limit Break”, became a staple of the series starting with Final Fantasy VII.
In its initial run, Final Fantasy VI sold 2.6 million units in Japan and nearly another 900,000 in the US, making it the most successful combined release for Squaresoft up until that point. (Final Fantasy VII would later blow it and anything else in the franchise away with 10 million combined sales once the series gained mainstream acceptance in the US, partially because of the path this game paved, but that’s another story.) The Final Fantasy series was a behemoth by now – gamer cred started to be more of a thing, and if you hadn’t played the latest RPGs, yours was questioned! The company heads in Japan had to be second-guessing their decision to miss out on the revenue from FF5 due to impatience, but at the very least this game would unify the series across the Pacific and finally have the US market jump from FF3 straight to FF7 in order to get properly synced up.
Players looking to give this classic a go can to shell out $50 for the highly coveted Final Fantasy III US cartridge, but there are other options that aren’t so hard on the wallet. The game was packaged with FF5 and ported to the PlayStation using its original assets under the title Final Fantasy Anthology in 1999. It features some bonus content but is bogged down by slow loading times; still, it’s under $20 for a complete copy, so it may be worth picking up. A port with even more bonus content and a retranslation of most of the dialogue (goodbye, Woolseyisms) called Final Fantasy VI Advance was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2007; it’s a great version of the game, but since the tiny cartridge alone still goes for $30, it might be best to stick with the original. (Or buy both, if you’re a collector like me!) It’s seen assorted Virtual Console releases, plus a noteworthy 2014 mobile phone version that features completely reworked, smoother 2-D graphics that may be especially compelling to new players.
All right, so I’ve covered just about every aspect of this game in detail over the course of two entries now. Let’s get to the nitty gritty: Why is Final Fantasy VI is the greatest game ever created? Is a claim like this simply the product of wistful nostalgia? Am I a deluded fool looking through 16-bit glasses? I say no, and here’s why: FF6 has more areas than any other game in which a person can reasonably claim it’s the best at what it does. Music? Check. Characters? Check times twelve. Reputation? Check, and it’s well-earned. Villain? Mwa, ha, ha! The story is epic, the world is engrossing, and the battle system provides one of the best examples of a classic JRPG absolutely nailing it. There’s just no other game that provides this much of everything to deliver a complete experience. Other games have a “holy crap” moment or two; FF6 provides a dozen. Other games have a villain who torments the player or kills somebody; Kefka blew up the world. Final Fantasy VI isn’t a piece of light entertainment. It’s an artistic masterpiece that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!