Retro Rundown: Final Fantasy VI

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.

Well, this is it. The big one. Final Fantasy XV dropped last week to largely positive reviews – although I think it’s important to remember that it has the same initial score as its disappointing predecessor and a lower score than the one before (a whole decade ago at this point). Early buyers are praising it for its homages to the old-school Final Fantasy titles and the way it handles like a throwback title in all the right ways. Most of them don’t explicitly add, “You know, when the series was good!” So since we’re all nibbling on member berries anyway – which is kind of what Retro Rundown is all about – I say we should go ahead and gorge ourselves! This is Final Fantasy VI.

Yes, I know it says "three", not "six". Shut up.

Yes, I know it says “three”, not “six”. Shut up.

I’ll tell you up front, a big part of my gamer identity and cred comes from this game. If you’ve read any of my other articles (which you better have by the time we’re done here if you know what’s good for you), y’might have noticed that tag at the end that says I ran FinalFantasyIII.com for fifteen years. My name back then was “Warteen”, a self-satisfyingly original moniker I held onto way beyond my teenage years out of sheer stubbornness, and my site and message board developed into a pretty tightly-knit community; I still have friends that I never would have met if not for this game. So anything I say here is strongly flavored by nostalgia. But hey, I doubt anyone is reading this for hard-hitting critique of an undisputed classic!

If the article stops mid-sentence, it's because I left to go hook up my Super Nintendo.

If the article stops mid-sentence, it’s because I left to go hook up my Super Nintendo.

As we discovered in a previous issue (that one! click THAT ONE! it’s another one by me!), the early Final Fantasy titles had a rather unique relationship with U.S. gamers. As of 1993, we’d only received two of the four titles available in Japan: Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy IV. Execs envisioned a problem there, because it’s not like you can just skip titles in a series as popular as this one. Gamers would start asking questions. Thinking about what’s on the other side of that big blue wet thing. No, that wouldn’t do. So, to keep the ignorant American children happy (after all, it wasn’t as if they’d ever have an easy way to talk to people in Japan), Final Fantasy IV became Final Fantasy II stateside, and after that they’d just subtract two from any Japanese titles and keep things humming along. Problem solved!

Pictured: Problem not solved.

Pictured: Problem not solved.

Then, in 1993, plans for the Western release of Final Fantasy V – to be Final Fantasy III over here, they assured themselves from atop their piles of money – imploded. The team in charge of localizing the game, led by Ted Woolsey, couldn’t get the translation done in a reasonable time, largely because it was hard to nail down the lighthearted tone this one had compared to its predecessors (even though it still racked up a decent body count). Woolsey’s higher-ups had already expressed concerns that this game was too difficult for a U.S. audience (our Final Fantasy II was the “easy mode” of their Final Fantasy IV), so they threw in the towel and cancelled the project. As an interesting side note to this part of the story, there were two other unsuccessful attempts to localize Final Fantasy V; they just couldn’t get it together until the PlayStation era, so FF5 experienced one of the first ever full fan translations of a video game.

Woolsey, you son of a submariner! You spoony bard!

Woolsey, you son of a submariner! You spoony bard!

So by 1994, we had five Japanese Final Fantasy titles and just two in the U.S. Thankfully, Square learned from the mistakes that cost them international revenue on their flagship series, and put all their resources into making sure that their latest critical hit Final Fantasy VI made it into U.S. stores with the title of (finally) Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The game’s localization is adorably dated, since it wasn’t until the next entry (the immensely popular Final Fantasy VII, which is certainly deserving of its own entry here) that Square wisely decided to more closely synchronize the titles and other content with what Japan had. FF3‘s players experienced confusing censorship (for instance, the spell “Holy” was changed to “Pearl” and the bar locations became cafes, because Nintendo of America was especially twitchy about religious references and alcohol) and ability names that didn’t match the convention that later fans would expect (“Firaga” came to us as “Fire 3”, among others).

An exposed 16-bit backside? THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

An exposed 16-bit backside? THINK OF THE CHILDREN!

Final Fantasy VI was produced by JRPG grandmaster Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was now Executive Vice President at Square. Since Sakaguchi’s role prevented him from being as intimately involved as in previous titles, wunderkind Yoshinori Kitase (whose directing credits also include Chrono Trigger and FF7, so, yeah) served as one of the two directors and oversaw the game’s story/scenario. There’s an excellent interview with Kitase about the state of the series here. (The second director was Hiroyuki Ito, who oversaw the combat aspects of the game.) The other big names involved in FF6‘s production were longtime series composer Nobuo Uematsu and legendary art designer Yoshitaka Amano.

Nothing captures the imaginative aesthetic of a classic Final Fantasy world better than Amano's art.

Nothing captures the imaginative aesthetic of a classic Final Fantasy world better than Amano’s art.

Like so many other entries in the Final Fantasy franchise, the big-picture plot of Final Fantasy VI involves a corrupt government – in this case, the outright oppressive Gestahlian Empire. The first half of the game is all about various characters joining the Returners resistance group, starting with Terra, a young amnesiac who wields the mysterious power of magic that the Empire highly covets. She’s arguably the protagonist of the game, at least until being overshadowed by former Imperial general Celes (who has an equally interesting arc) in the second half. In fact, as an amalgam of so many exemplary features, I would point to characterization as the one thing this game nails better than any other. Shoot, I even named my eldest son after King Edgar of Figaro! (Two things, though: One, if I’d known in advance how wild he would turn out, I’d have named him Gau instead; and two, my wife believes he’s named after Edgar Allan Poe, so DON’T YOU SAY A WORD.)

It's amazing how much personality you can squeeze into 16 bits.

It’s amazing how much personality you can squeeze into 16 bits.

I really can’t say enough about the quality of the character writing in this game. With an unprecedented cast of 14 playable main characters (still more than any other main series FF game, plus a few temporarily playable side characters), only the two “extra” characters (a mimic and a Sasquatch, both completely missable without a guide) don’t receive character-developing side quests. Every one of the core twelve has their own background and desires – not a single one feels like a cliché – and seeing the way they come together to defeat the Big Bad by game’s end is nothing short of inspiring.

90% of these are better characters than any introduced to the franchise since FFX.

Most of these are far better characters than any introduced to the franchise since FFX.

That Big Bad, by the way, is the second-best killer clown of all time (respect where it’s due, Mr. J) – Kefka. Driven mad by being artificially infused with Magic as a young man, Kefka rose to general and serves as the Starscream to Emperor Gestahl’s Megatron. We get to see Kefka’s cruelty up close a few different times – he attempts to burn Figaro Castle despite their status as Imperial allies, he uses poison against the civilians of Doma, and he murders his fellow general, Leo, when Leo’s sense of honor becomes inconvenient (a jarring sequence with Leo as a temporarily playable character after he’d been given some development) – all while he laughs maniacally. After inevitably turning on his own master and kicking him to his death, Kefka uses the ancient powers the Empire has acquired to rend the planet itself in a nihilistic display, killing countless people and throwing the world into ruin to begin the game’s second half. (It may not be a coincidence that “Gestahl” is similar to “gestalt”, the German concept of unification, and it’s his death that heralds the world breaking apart.) In terms of evil works successfully accomplished, Kefka probably has the best résumé of any RPG villain to date!

Kefka Palazzo, before and after his trendsetting endgame transformation.

Kefka Palazzo, before and after his trendsetting endgame transformation.

The world of Final Fantasy VI displays excellent depth; the World of Balance is rich, vibrant, diverse, and expansive, and the World of Ruin shows the damage that’s been done to the planet in both obvious and subtle ways. In the first half of the game, the player is exploring bustling settings and making new friends, while in the second half, they’re struggling to find a haven and hoping that their friends are still alive somewhere among the scattered and occasionally hidden locations that remain.

The world looks a little different since Trum- er, Kefka, took over...

The world looks a little different since Trum- er, Kefka, took over…

Uematsu’s score is, simply put, the best of any Final Fantasy title, and certainly in the running for the best of any video game ever. It completely brings this world to life; from the hypnotic overworld theme to the wild sounds of the Veldt plains to the chant-like Cult of Kefka Tower, all compressed to fit in a 16-bit cartridge, there’s not a bad or even forgettable tune in the bunch. “Kefka’s Theme” and “Dancing Mad” perfectly capture Kefka’s gleeful evil and overwhelming power, respectively. The melancholic “Forever Rachel” serves as the perfect backdrop to Locke’s fight to somehow bring back the woman he loves and still gets me all up in my feelings. There’s an orchestral opera, the full version of which lasts 12 minutes, for heaven’s sake! As I write this, I’m realizing that I could devote an entire article just to the music of this game, so I’m just going to link you to the Wikipedia entry specifically about FF6‘s music and move on.

This man wrote the soundtrack to my childhood.

This man wrote the soundtrack to my childhood.

…Actually, you should take this opportunity to explore the plethora of links I’ve provided you. I don’t normally do cliffhangers, but I have one more Retro Rundown scheduled in 2016, and there’s no game I feel is more deserving of a second entry – and worthy of sending off this mess of a year – than FF6. Going back and reviewing the music in particular made me realize that I’ve only scratched the surface of this masterpiece; join me next time, when I’ll get into the actual gameplay, analyze the game’s plot and most memorable moments, carefully consider its legacy, and present my case once and for all that Final Fantasy VI is the greatest video game ever made.

And if you disagree, I refer you to this response from Edgar.

And if you disagree, I refer you to this response from Edgar.

Update: Part Two is ready for you! Continue reading here.

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!

Written by: Big Brother

Big Brother (Adam Sanborn) owned FinalFantasyIII.com for fifteen years. He is currently tasked with educating the little brothers and sisters of the next generation.

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