Final Fantasy VI: The World Is Square
by Pitchfork

   


Well, here we are at last. Final Fantasy VI. This is where things start getting interesting.

Sometime around 1992-3, some of the thinkers and higher-ups at SquareSoft probably sat down and got to looking through their 16-bit catalogue. Final Fantasy IV had raised the bar for dramatic narratives in video games (not that it was very high to begin with), while Final Fantasy V took the turn-based RPG to new depths in terms of strategy and character customization. Seiken Densetsu 2 (aka Secret of Mana) was arguably the most aesthetically rich video game ever at that point, while the Romancing SaGa titles experimented with nonlinearity and alternative character growth and battle systems. And Mystic Quest -- well, Final Fantasy USA was a lesson in what not to do when putting together an RPG. With all these achivements under its belt, the up-and-coming superstar developer decided it was about time it got serious.

Final Fantasy VI is the first numbered Final Fantasy game directed by somebody other than series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, the third to be released overseas, and the last built entirely from 2D pixel-based backgroups and sprites. It's also the first of the two "liminal" games of the Final Fantasy series. We've just finished looking at the five Sakaguchi-directed games, which round off the Old School period of Final Fantasy. Later on, we'll look at the post-VII games, which comprise New School Final Fantasy. But VI and VII are a period of their own. They are when Final Fantasy (and SquareSoft) metamorphosed from what it was then to what it is now.

After relinquishing the directorial role, Sakaguchi continued to work on the Final Fantasy series as its producer -- an opaque title suggesting a comparatively hands-off role in development. (My assumption is that the producer is allowed to impose suggestions and veto ideas he doesn't like, but leaves all the brainstorming and sweating over details to the underlings.) His vacant shoes were apparently so big that it took two co-directors to fill them. First wass Hiroyuki Itou, who designed Final Fantasy IV and V's battle systems. The other shoe's occupant had only been previously credited with map design for Romancing SaGa and Final Fantasy V. Next to the designer of the ATB system (which was quite literally SquareSoft's trademark at the time), Yoshinori Kitase probably seemed like a surprise choice, but his results speak for themselves. After Final Fantasy VI, he went on to direct Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy VIII, and went on to produce Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2, Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, Final Fantasy Dissidia, and Final Fantasy XIII. (Notice how the vomit pushes a little farther up your throat as your eyes move across the list?) Kitase is the franchise's adopted patriarch; his influnce on Final Fantasy probably outweighs even Sakaguchi's, and Final Fantasy VI is his debut.

What immediately strikes the first-time Final Fantasy VI player is how much darker it is than its predecessors. Final Fantasy III begins with a pack of scrappy orphans lost in a cave. IV introduces itself like a Saturday morning anime. V's exposition is a fantasy hodgepodge of dragons, pirates, chocobos, incognito princesses, crystals, meteors, goblins, and an impossibly peppy soundtrack. Final Fantasy VI's prologue (accentuated by a tolling bell, portentous strings, and a series of dire images) describes a civilization in the grip of scientific and industrial revolutions and on the verge of reducing itself to ashes through a nuclear magical holocaust. Less than even a minute into the game, Square makes it clear that they mean business this time.

It doesn't get much brighter, either. The entire first half of Final Fantasy VI is marked by a sense of apprehension as the heroes fight a losing battle against the relentless armies of of an instatiable, power-crazed emperor. The tension gives way to despair and desolation in Part Two after the forces of good prove powerless to stop a civilization-crippling catastrophe. And this time, the heroes have no elemental Crystals to protect and guide them, no age-old prophecies working in their favor, no long-hidden weapons of legendary warriors to inherit, and no final epilogue unmarred by loss.

If you've been keeping up with us thus far, it might have occurred to you that this all sounds an awful lot like Final Fantasy II. Apparently, after the less than stellar results of their first shot at a darker, grittier RPG in 1988, Square put the idea in the freezer for a few years and waited for better hardware and a bigger budget. By the time Final Fantasy VI was greenlit for development, they had both.

There seems to be a sharp difference in fans' opinions of Final Fantasy on different sides of the Pacific. A 2006 "best game ever" poll conducted by Famitsu placed VI twenty-fifth out of one hundred, outranked by VIII, V, III, IV, VII, and X (and six Dragon Quest games). On a similar poll conducted by GameFAQs in 2005, Final Fantasy VI scored tenth out of a hundred. The only other Final Fantasy game in the top ten was VII, which ranked first (of course), while the only Dragon Quest game to appear was the very first, which clung to the seventy-seventh spot. What gives?

We can venture a guess. If Final Fantasy VI could be said to have an analogue in the fighting game world, it would be Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. Both are broken as hell, adored by Americans for their recognizability and accessibility, and disdained by Dragon Quest and BlazBlue-inclined Japanese audiences.

It breaks my heart to say it, but Final Fantasy VI wasn't built very solidly. We won't even get into all the glitches (Evade does nothing, the Goggles do nothing, Vanish + Doom kills everything, the Sketch command has a chance of either ruining your save file or giving you 99 Gem Boxes, etc.), but what's more alarming is that it was apparently designed without any real consideration toward balance or challenge. Final Fantasy V's Job System might lend itself to abuse, but Final Fantasy VI's Espers/Relics setup practically begs it. It's possible (and pretty easy) to set up Terra so that she's dual-weilding Excalibur and Ragnarok, doublecasting Ultima, summoning Bahamut, choosing from a list of stat bonuses whenever she gains a level, and retaining her Trance command. For Japanese players who had survived Final Fantasy III and IV, in which fighting as dirty as possible was necessary in order to win, Final Fantasy VI must have been like tossing a hand grenade into the barrel with the fish.

But for better or worse, making story-focused RPGs that didn't deliberately pound their players into submission or necessitate repeated EXP/gold grinds was a crucial step in Square's rise. A project like Final Fantasy VII (which entered development in 1994) wasn't going to come cheap -- 1up puts the price tag at $45 million, which was a tremendously high budget for a video game in the mid-Nineties. Square needed to establish a reliable overseas audience and reputation beforehand. So instead of trying to entice Mario and Sonic-attuned American players with dumbed-down "beginner's" RPGs, Square seems to have shifted its strategy by making all of its flagship titles more user-friendly and faster-paced. After Final Fantasy VI, Square gave North American players Chrono Trigger, Secret of Evermore, and Super Mario RPG, none of which ever come close to being as tough as Final Fantasy I through IV. (Hardcore Japanese players wanting a challenge could still bang their heads against the Romancing SaGa games, which Square probably never even considered exporting to North America.)

   


CHARACTERS


Usually, the best way of telling the Final Fantasy games apart from each other is to associate a number with a character or a sword. Final Fantasy IV is about Cecil. VII is Cloud's. X belongs to Tidus. But Final Fantasy VI stands out not for any one face, but for the sheer size of its cast. Counting temporary allies, the game has nineteen playable characters, making its roster the largest in the series. (For the record, IV comes in second with fourteen characters -- sixteen if you count the different versions of Cecil and Rydia -- and II and VII tie for third with nine characters each.) And although some characters get more time in the spotlight than others, not one of them can easily be designated as the one central figure. Terra, Locke, and Celes might be the closest candidates, but none of them dominate the story the way Cecil, Cloud, or Squall do in their respective games. It's great fun watching all of these characters cross paths as the story unfolds, but sometimes it's just as interesting to notice which characters don't cross paths. Most console RPGs' cavalacade of heroes will be tight and intimate with each other; like superhero BFFs. They save the world and become best pals for life with each other while they're doing it. But with Final Fantasy VI and its extensive cast, you've got characters who never even speak to each other, yet still share the greater stage together.

Mister K. of HG101 points out that each character's special ability reflects their personality. Terra's supernatural quality is underlined early on by her special access to magic, and the discovery of her dual nature comes with her access to the transformative Trance ability later on. Celes's selflessness character takes a practical form in battle, as her Runic ability makes her a decoy for enemies' magical attacks.

But Square goes even further than that. Final Fantasy VI is one of the only JRPGs (that I've played, anyway) in which relationships between characters (in the story) are frequently accentuated by their special skills (in the game). For example, the twins brothers of Figaro both have very similar battle commands, but the nature of the attacks differ inasmuch as the brothers have grown apart over time. The wordly machinist Edgar has his Tools command, which uses special items bought in shops or found treasure chests and require only the press of a button to activate, while the expatriate monk Sabin has an aresenal of Blitz techniques that he learns by gaining levels, and that require the player to input special controller commands. The "wild" characters -- the feral human Gau, Mog the moogle, and the sasquatch Umaro -- are all different degrees of berserkers. The loving bond between Relm and her adopted grandfather Strago is accentuated by their complementary Sketch/Control and Lore commands, while the secret tie between Relm and her lost biological father Shadow is hinted at through their unique access to the Memento Ring relic and Interceptor's counterattacks.


The Returners


TERRA BRANFORD

Class:
Magitek Knight
Special Ability: Trance (Morph)
Desperation Attack: Riot Blade

Enter the obligatory a.) exotic mystery girl wearing a curious pendant b.) amnesiac who turns out to be the key to it all. (We're told her Japanese name, "Tina," was chosen for how exotic it sounds to the Eastern ear. I will admit to feeling a little upset when watching the closing credits for the first time and discovering that the mysterious, otherwordly witch woman had a last name and it was Branford.)

Terra has spent most of her life in the unwilling service of the empire as a biological research subject and a mind-controlled super soldier. During a failed reconnaissance mission to the mining town of Narshe, she makes psychic contact with an Esper and breaks free of the empire's control. Having no memory of her past or identity, Terra immediately finds herself on the run from both Narshe's security forces and the imperial army. Her story arc revolves around her coming to terms with her own identity and discovering her place in the world. (We shall soon see her existential crisis and mental breakdown recycled and refined in Final Fantasy VII as the better-executed and more famous existential crisis and mental breakdown of Cloud Strife.)

As the cast member closest to the axis of the main story, and as the first to receive a formal introduction, Terra is a strong candiate for the designation of Final Fantasy VI's main protagonist -- which would make her the first instance of a female Final Fantasy hero. Unfortunately, Terra more or less remains a JRPG heroine, which is a much different creature than a JRPG hero. It's hard to belive that a magic-flinging, flying, human/phantom beast hybid with the power to change the course of a war could act like such a mawkish little titmouse out of battle, requiring the emotional support of (much less powerful) men in order to function, and constantly soliloquizing about how she is too different to ever find true love. (Not that female characters shouldn't ever be allowed to express emotion or vulnerability, but this particular female character is a demihuman sorceress with extensive military training; not a damn schoolgirl.)

At the beginning of the game, Terra's special ability consists of being able to cast magic. Later on, once everyone else becomes capable of learning spells through Magicite, she also acquires the Trance (Morph in Final Fantasy "3") command, which temporarily causes her magic attack power to skyrocket. With the exception of stuff like Offering/Genji Glove shennanigans, there's not much in Final Fantasy VI that can do better damage than a Tranced Terra casting high-level black magic.


LOCKE COLE

Class:
Adventurer
Special Ability: Steal/Mug (Capture)
Desperation Attack: Mirager

Although some purists insist on dropping the "e" from his Romanized name, I think bestowing Final Fantasy VI's closest fascimile to an archetypical JRPG hero with the namesake of an Enlightenment philosophe who believed in the innate goodness of humankind is a point for SquareSoft translator Ted Woolsey. At first glance, Locke comes across as your garden variety video game do-gooder, rescuing girls in distress, standing up against the forces of evil despite impossible odds, outwitting a whole city full of enemy soldiers, and so on. Later on, it's revealed that Locke's hero complex stems from his overwhelming guilt at being unable to rescue his old girlfriend Rachel from a freak accident. Every time he bails out Terra or protects Celes, he is actually trying to save Rachel. Even so, the plot focuses much more on Locke's being an adventurous, agreeable bloke than on his tragic past, which makes the heavier moments of his arc more effective by way of contrast.

Final Fantasy thieves usually aren't good for anything but item collection, and Locke is par for the course. He's decent enough as a party member, but you probably insisted on turning him into a tank because you named him after yourself. Admit it.


EDGAR RONI FIGARO

Class:
Machinist
Special Ability: Tools
Desperation Attack: Royal Shock

A consummate engineer, a feckless ladies' man, and the reigning king of Figaro, Edgar aids the anti-imperial cause with his technological expertise and the resources of his kingdom. When he's not handling his nation's affairs or hitting on anything with ovaries crossing his line of vision, he's donning a Jason mask and murdering things with a chainsaw. This is JRPG logic at its finest: Edgar and Locke go into hysterics when they see Terra using magic in battle for the first time, but nobody so much as blinks whenever Edgar puts on his hockey mask and saws off some poor sap's legs for an instant-kill.

I strongly suspect Edgar was designed with Gordon and Edward in mind: "hey, why don't we make it so the spear-wielding royal figure with long blonde hair isn't a sniveling wuss for once?" Edgar's defining characteristics are all the inverse of Gordon's and Edwards: decisiveness, confidence, resourcefulness, and unrepentant lecherousness. Having his act together from the get-go, Edgar doesn't undergo any major personal crises or transformations throughout the story, but he's such a reliable and likeable character that it's hard to want him to change course.

Being a machinst, Edgar can use eight special battle items with his Tools command. Their effects range from multi-hitting physical attacks to status ailments to the infliction of additional elemental weaknesses. His raw damage potential might be comparatively low, but debuffs and crowd control attacks that cost no MP and can't be silenced are nothing to scoff at.


SABIN RENE FIGARO

Class:
Monk
Special Ability: Blitz
Desperation Attack: Tiger Break

While Edgar was blessed with brains, his twin brother Sabin got the greater share of strength and pluck. After the late king's covert assassination by the empire, Sabin eschewed the succession proceedings and abandoned Figaro to train in the mountains as a warrior monk. Ten years later, a chance reunion with his brothers brings him back into civilization to lend some muscle to the Returners' fight against the Empire. Sabin's personal arc peaks early in the game, during the buddy comedy escapade in which he plays Chris Tucker and Cyan plays Jackie Chan. Though his role in the main plot is comparatively light afterwards, he never once hijacks the proceedings with a melodramatic personal crisis or prolonged lapses into introspective brooding. Like his brother, Sabin is almost always present, always consistent, and never unbelievable. Final Fantasy VI's Brothers Figaro are a model for how to create memorable characters without being needlessly ham-handed about it. (To use the old cliche: less is more.)

Sabin is a heavy tweaking of the Final Fantasy Monk class. Rather than getting the old Kick or Build-Up commands, Sabin uses the Blitz: an aresenal of martial arts techniques that can inflict damage on enemies or heal party members. It is the first instance in the series of a battle command requiring special D-pad inputs to work properly, and one of the first clear examples of the games' developers foregoing any thoughts toward game balance. Bum Rush just isn't fair.


SHADOW (CLYDE ARROWNY)

Class:
Assassin
Special Ability: Throw
Desperation Attack: Shadow Fang

Shadow first appears as an enigma: an icy, laconic mercenary with a high price tag. His only companion is his dog Interceptor. Even when he's on friendly terms with the other heroes, he rarely opens his mouth to say anything but some variation of "leave me alone." His past is gradually revealed by way of randomly-occurring dream sequences triggered when he spends the night at an inn; what we see is a former criminal who, when offered a chance at redemption, was too haunted by the demons in his past to accept it, and abandoned his identity and family to live as a wandering killer-for-hire.

When writing a some words about my favorite video games a few years back, I had a few things to say about Shadow's role and impact in Final Fantasy VI. Because it's relevant, and since there's no sense in rewriting it, I trust you will not mind if I copy/paste a slice of it here:

Square Enix (at least in the American localizations) has been trying to channel Shakespeare lately, and anyone who's actually familiar with the Bard and his language will tell you that they're making idiots of themselves. The Shadow/Relm link is the closest Square's ever come to capturing that particular sort of Shakespearean pathos, I think. Let's use, oh, Othello as an example. You know how it goes: Othello marries Desdemona, Iago tricks Othello into believing his new wife has been unfaithful, Othello murders the innocent Desdemona.

In
Final Fantasy VI, the evidence of the Shadow/Relm link becomes so overwhelming that there really can't be any room for doubt: Shadow is Relm's lost father. He knows it; she doesn't. But you know it. And you, the meddling player, have already done so much: you've reconciled Sabin and Edgar, introduced Gau to his father, gotten Cyan to overcome his personal demons, helped Locke get over his dead girlfriend once and for all, given the children of Mobliz hope for the future...you little Amelie, you! Every time Final Fantasy VI shows you where a problem exists, it lets you go in there and patch it right up.

But
then you get to Shadow and Relm. You know he abandoned her after her mother died, and that the kid still has some issues about it. You know that when he's hanging out on the airship, his estranged daughter stands just up the stairs from him. There they are, but you're powerless to get Shadow to come clean. It's a little like being an audience member during the scene where Othello's approaching the sleeping Desdemona, his mind made up to kill her -- taking it slow, giving you all the time in the world to stew in your seat thinking YOU FUCKING MORON SHE'S INNOCENT DON'T DO IT. YOU NINJA BASTARD, ACT LIKE A HUMAN BEING AND COME CLEAN WITH THE DAUGHTER YOU DITCHED. But it's no good. Othello's always gonna kill Desdemona for no good reason, Shadow's always gonna die one way or another, Relm's never gonna know her father, and there's nothing you can do about it.

That reads a bit sloppier than I remember, but the point still holds. (Although, really, it's probably best that Relm doesn't know the truth. No kid deserves a father like Shadow.) Final Fantasy games aren't exactly known for their subtlety; the hoplessness of Shadow's relationship with his lost daughter being expressed by way of understatment and ambiguity is such a rare and delightful feat. (The screenshot above shows the only time that Shadow ever addresses Relm directly.)

At any rate, Shadow's "Assassin" class is basically "Ninja" with an extra syllable and no innate dual-wielding. He still gets to throw stuff (including one-use items that duplicate the effects of Edge's Ninpo from Final Fantasy IV), and has a powerful in-battle bonus in the form of a unique "Interceptor" status effect. Every so often, Shadow's dog will block an incoming physical hit directed toward his master, then pay it back with a powerful counterattack.


CELES CHERE

Class:
Rune Knight
Special Ability: Runic Sword
Desperation Attack: Spin Edge

Artifically infused with magic as an infant and brought up as a soldier, the young Celes quickly rose through the imperial ranks to become one of the empire's top generals. But Gestahl's greed and Kefka's cruelty compels her to have a change of heart, and General Celes lands in prison after a failed defection attempt. She is set free by Locke the night before her execution, and sides with the Returners from then on (though some still question her loyalty). The extent to which Celes suffers from JRPG Heroine Syndrome is arguable. She's made of much tougher stuff than Terra, though you do have to wonder why a battle-hardened femme fatale military officer would abide some candy-ass thief from the boonies insisting that she needs his protection. (No less strange is the fact that Locke keeps insisting he's the one doing the protecting, even though the Figaro escape sequence makes pretty clear that she's more often the one taking care of them both. Hmm.)

Celes is the only party member other than Terra who begins the game with the Magic command and learns new spells without Magicite or special items. She also has the Runic Sword command, which is the Final Fantasy version of a Counterspell: the first spell cast after Runic Sword's activation fizzles out, restoring Celes's MP by an amount equal to its casting cost. In most playthroughs, its usefulness wears off as soon as Magicite becomes availble. In low level/no Magicitie games, Runic is frequently the difference between victory and a team of four corpses.


CYAN GARAMONDE

Class:
Samurai
Special Ability: Bushido (SwordTech)
Desperation Attack: Tsubame Gaeshi (Back Blade)

A swordsman in the service of Doma's royal family. Cyan effectively (and single-handedly) beat back the imperial siege of Doma Castle, but fails to prevent Kefka from dumping poison into the fortress's water supply. With his liege slain, his family dead, and his kingdom wiped out, Cyan joins the Returners for lack of anywhere else to go or anything else to do. He is one of the games most compelling characters, which is once again owed to Final Fantasy VI's having more sense than to repeatedly beat you over the head with the tragic details of his situation. After the Phantom Train sequence, there are only two other extended scenes that focus exclusively on Cyan's story arc: the reunion on Mount Zozo and the Doma Castle Nightmare. In fact, one of the most touching and memorable moments of the latter is a flashback sequence that only occurs if you take a detour on your way to confronting Wrexsoul in the throne room. (I think it is infinitely preferrable to design a game in which the story is delivered by way of player participation and exploration rather than scripted back-and-forth dialogue sequences at mandatory cutscene trigger points.)

Cyan's appeal as a character is diminished somewhat by the fact that he's next to worthless in battle. His special attack involves forcing your whole team to drop everything while Cyan charges up for sword attacks that aren't any stronger than Sabin's instantaneous Blitz attacks or a character using the Fight command with the Offering equipped. Seriously, if Japan's real samurai were anything like Cyan, it's no wonder they died out. YOU'LL ALL BE SORRY IN FOUR MINUTES WHEN I CHANNEL ENOUGH CHI POWER TO UNLEASH MY LEVEL EIGHT SUPER HYPER OH GOSH I'VE JUST BEEN SHOT FIFTY TIMES IN THE FACE.


GAU

Class:
Wild Child
Special Abilities: Rage, Leap

A feral teenager living on the Veldt, Final Fantasy VI's equivalent of the African Savannah. (I bet if you asked most parents, they'd tell you that all teenagers are feral.) Though his uncivilized manners and broken speech might suggest that he is somewhat dim, Gau's giftedness and cunning is evinced through his managing to survive a childhood spent alone in the most savage of environments. He befriends Sabin and Cyan and assists them on their journey to Narshe, then sticks around just for the hell of it. Surprisingly, the one (optional) sequence in Gau's brief story arc is among the more moving moments in the game, thanks in no small part to the sonorous melancholy of his personal theme.

Gau is an unusual character. His Fight command is replaced with Rage, which boots up the "program" of a particular enemy, which Gau automatically follows until the battle ends or he gets knocked out. His other ability, Leap, is used to add more Rages to his aresnal. It can only be used on the Veldt, an area which is populated by just about every type of monster you've encountered at a given point of the game.

Oh, also:

I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER! I'M GAU! I'M YOUR FRIEND! LET'S TRAVEL TOGETHER!


SETZER GABBIANI

Class:
Gambler
Special Ability: Slots/Gil Toss (GP Rain)
Desperation Attack: Red Card

Known as the notorious "Wandering Gambler," Setzer is a wealthy vagabond who travels the world on his airship, enjoying a life free of cares and responsibilities. When Locke and Celes need a way of reaching the imperial capital on the southern continent, they successfully hatch a scheme to trick Setzer into kidnapping Celes, who then sneaks the rest of the party onto the airship. At first Setzer is irritated at being duped, but then finds himself captivated by Celes. They agree to bet on a coin toss: if Setzer wins, Celes marries him; if Celes wins, he lends the Returners his airship and assistance. Celes tricks him a second time by fixing the outcome with a trick coin, and the duly impressed Setzer gladly holds up his end of the bargain. He views his siding with the anti-imperial cause as gambling his life, which he puts on the line as casually as he would a poker chip. Cool.

Setzer's main special ability is Slots, whose effects depend on the player's success at matching up a row of spinning slot reels (the first time we've seen this in Final Fantasy, and certainly not the last). Equipping the Coin Toss relic turns Slots into Gil Toss, the old "throw piles of money at the enemy to deal piles of damage" manuever that belonged to the Samurai in Final Fantasy V.


STRAGO MAGUS

Class:
Blue Mage
Special Ability: Lore
Desperation Attack: Sabre Soul

An elderly monster hunter from Thamasa, a solitary village where naturally-born magic users live in isolation from an outside world that has long distrusted their special abilities. Strago is well versed in legend and lore, not to mention an accomplished mage. His raison d'etre is Relm, a young girl he adopted as his granddaughter after her mother (a friend of Strago's) died and her father skipped town. When Strago learns the cataclysmic aims of Geshtahl and Kefka's ambitions, he joins the Returners in order to prevent the thousand-year old catastrophe from repeating itself.

As Relm's surrogate father, Strago has an implicit connection with Shadow, her biological father. According to an issue of the Japanese V-Jump magazine (as translated and quoted by The Final Fantasy Wiki), Final Fantasy VI's developers originally devised a cutscene in which Strago would successfully press Shadow into showing him his face. Afterwards, they share a drink and never speak of it again. The scene never made it into the final game, but it suggests that the developers didn't intend for Shadow's identity to escape Strago's notice. Here's an interesting thought: does Strago recognize Shadow and Interceptor when the party arrives in Thamasa for the first time? Watch the scene again closely.

Final Fantasy VI's Blue Mage is pretty much the same as V's. Most of Strago's Lore isn't very useful and has unreasonably high MP costs, while Strago himself has lower magic power than you'd expect. Step Mine, Grand Train, and Big Guard are nice, but you're usually better off just sticking with Magicite or Gau.


RELM ARROWNY

Class:
Loli Pictomancer
Special Ability: Sketch/Control
Desperation Attack: Star Prism

Strago's rambunctious and foul-mouthed adopted granddaughter. As a half-Thamasian, Relm's natural capacity for magic manifests itself through her artistic abilities. Her paintings not only look lifelike, but act real as well: in battle, Relm creates mirror images of her foes to attack their originals. She also has an alternate "Control" command that allows her to temporarily possess an enemy and order it around. This makes Relm an updated version of Final Fantasy V's Trainer job, but her real usefulness is in her being a little girl, which naturally gives her the highest magic power stat of the whole cast. If Shadow gets blown up on the Floating Continent, Relm also gets Interceptor's in-battle protection for the remainder of the game.


MOG

Class:
Moogle
Special Ability: Dance
Desperation Attack: Moogle Rush

VI is the first Final Fantasy game to contain hidden optional party members, and Mog is probably the first you'll get the chance to recruit. (If you were around for the North American release of Final Fantasy "3," you might recall how Square USA's advertising branch used him as the game's promotional mascot.)There's not much to his story arc: Ramuh the Esper contacts Mog and tells him to help out the heroes on their quest, and that's that. The terrain-based effects of his Dance command make him a modified hybrid of Final Fantasy V's Dancer and Geomancer jobs. He learns one Dance for each of the eight basic terrain categories, and each Dance includes four magic-based attacks. Once he begins dancing, he doesn't stop until the battle ends or he gets KO'ed.



UMARO

Class:
Sasquatch
Special Ability: Equip on Sasquatch, and....

A beefy, cave-dwelling bigfoot who takes orders from his moogle buddies. Umaro is Final Fantasy VI's second optional character and is pretty much a furry version of the Berserker job. He cannot be controlled in battle; all he does is attack, attack, attack. His fixed equipment gives him elemental resistance to fire and ice, and he acquires a pair of special relics that give him additional attacks, boosted stats, and even more elemental resistance. Umaro gets a bit of a bad rap because of his extremely low customization potential, but at the very least, he usually makes a better addition to a team than Cyan.


GOGO

Class:
Mime
Special Ability: Mimic
Desperation Attack: X-Meteo

He (or she?) has a much more human appearance than he did during his appearance as a secret boss in Final Fantasy V, but that's really all we know about Gogo. He lives in the belly of the Zone Eater (a repulsively titanic worm creature), and seems to be content with sticking around there until the heroes bump into him. There's not much to say about Gogo. His only set ability is the self-explanatory Mimic, while his three other battle command slots can be whatever you want them to be (except for Trance). Despite being able to do everything, Gogo's low stats and inability to equip Magicite cause him to fall well short of the team's top tier.

Back in the days before GameFAQs and the Internet robbed video games of all their mystery, Gogo's identity was the subject of some pretty interesting rumors. Some of the more outlandish ones involved him secretly being Cecil, Banon, Daryl, and Emperor Gestahl, but these are obviously ridiculous and false: it has long been common knowledge that Gogo's true identity is that of Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.


Allies


WEDGE & BIGGS

Class:
Solider(s)
Special Ability: Magitek

If you needed more direct evidence of the Star Wars influence on a series of games whose every second installment tells the story of an outmuscled band of rebels fighting off a domineering military superpower, here you are: a pair of temporary party members named after Luke Skywalker's comrades from the Death Star assault in A New Hope. Wedge and Biggs ("Vicks" in Final Fantasy "3;" the reference seems to have been lost on Woolsey) are a pair of Magitek soldiers charged with investigating a reported Esper sighting in Narshe. Though they succeed in finding it, the Esper Tritoch apparently disintigrates them after being awakened by Terra's presence. It was only in later years that Wedge and Biggs's true fates become known: they were doomed to endure repeated reincarnations through a decade of Final Fantasy sequels as either temporary weakling allies or loser enemy soldiers who can't get a break.


MOOGLES

Class:
Moogle(s)
Special Ability: Kupo!

And they're back! Not quite the timid forest-dwelling fuzzballs seen in Final Fantasy V and Secret of Mana, VI's moogles are a tribe of scrappy cave-dwellers inhabiting the Narshe mines. Individual mileage may vary, but I greatly prefer this early version of them as mammoth-slaying pygmies to their future appearances as cutesy mascots designed for the sake of representing the Final Fantasy brand.




BANON

Class:
Priest
Special Ability: Pray (Health)

The founder and head of the Returners, an underground movement dedicated to reisting imperial expansion. Banon acts like a cross between Final Fantasy II's Hilda and Minwu: he's the one calling the shots and making the plans throughout the first half of the game, and fulfills the role of healbot during his temporary stints on the active team. He is good at two things: casting Cure 2 for free with his Pray command, and getting his ass killed by Ultros.




?????

Class:
Ghost
Special Ability: Possess

Some of the ghosts on the Phantom Train try to kill you, others try to sell you things, while some follow you around a while. They can't be healed in battle and their attack power sucks, but they make good decoys and can permanentlyblow themselves up for an instant-kill on any enemy using Posesses. They don't come much more boring than this, really.




LEO

Class: General
Special Ability:
Shock

The imperial army's top general and finest warrior. Leo seems rather out of place among the likes of Kefka and Gestahl: he refused a Magitek infusion, tries to win battles with a minimum loss of life on both sides, and acts honorably toward friend and foe alike. He's not really a villain: just a good guy who happens to be on the opposing team. This would make him the poster child and namesake of Rule #161 in the Grand List of Console Role Playing Games cliches, and doomed to the fate that such a designation entails. After Final Fantasy VII hit the shelves and rumors about a secret way of bringing Aeris back to life made the rounds, those of us who had played VI previously weren't fooled for a second: we'd already wasted enough damn time searching in vain for a secret trick to resurrect Leo. (It just didn't seem fair that you only get to use his awesome Shock attack in a single battle.)


CID

   

One of Final Fantasy VI's characters is a middle-aged scientist named Cid who builds airships Magitek equipment. Whoa, talk about a curveball! Cid serves the empire as its top scientist, and is responsible for the development of magical weaponry using power drained from Espers. Like Leo, Cid isn't such a bad person once you get to know him, however blithely he might imprison living creatures in glass tubes and suck out their life force to arm an implacable conquering force. Nobody knows why he wears a raincoat indoors.


ESPERS

   

First: "Esper" is a pretty shabby translation. Again, the original Japanese game texts refer to summon monsters as genjyuu, which literally means something like "phantom beast." There's not really a one-word English equivalent, and "phantom beasts" is cumbersome (especially with the big fat boldfaced English text), so Woolsey dubbed them "Espers" -- a term traditionally referring to people with extra-sensory perception (as in ESP-ers). But the term caught on: a decade later, the English versions of Final Fantasy XII and Revanent Wings would use the same term to refer to their summonable demi-deities.

   

By now these guys should be familiar. The Espers are an elusive race of magical beings assuming a multitude of forms. Up until now, Final Fantasy's summon monsters have almost always acted in the background. This time, we see them hunted and exploited by the villains for their magical powers. When an Esper dies, its essence crystalizes into a material called Magicite (that's pretty much like Materia, only not).

As the game progresses, the heroes amass a growing collection of Magicite, which confer new spells, summon magic, and stat bonuses when equipped. Final Fantasy VI's Espers are a lot like an early version of VIII's Guardian Forces, and almost as game-borking.


Villains


IMPERIAL FORCES


   

   

The high-tech armies of Emperor Gestahl are the main antagonists for the first half of Final Fantasy VI. Like their predecessors in Final Fantasy II, the imperial forces make their presence felt by attacking the heroes at every turn, occupying towns, restricting access to certain locations, and generally making a dreadful nuisance of themselves. But even with their Magitek equipment and robot helpers, these guys are far less threatening than the "game over if you talk to me" imperial soldiers from II (and appear in a much wider and fun variety of flavors to boot).


VARGAS

   

Duncan's son and Sabin's spiteful rival. Early throwaway boss. Let's move along.


ULTROS

   

The inexplicable Gilgamesh was a hit in Final Fantasy V, so Square came up with an even more nonsensical recurring boss to nettle the good guys in the next installment. Unlike Gilgamesh, who was the main villain's second-in-command and had at least some relevance to his game's story, Ultros is a total non-sequitur -- a talking octopus who just really, really, really doesn't like the heroes for some reason. (He does exhibit an intemperate fondness for Terra on occasion, but we're venturing into H-territory here.) Instead of having a change of heart and nobly sacrificing himself to save the heroes towards the end of the game (like Gilgamesh), Ultros's ultimate fate is to spend the rest of his life working as a receptionist at the Dragon's Neck Coliseum to pay off his tremendous debts. Bizarre. His name is a Woolsey mistranslation of "Orthrus" (a monstrous two-headed dog from Greek mythology), but he will always be Ultros to me.


TYPHON

   

Or "Chupon" if you played the Final Fantasy "3" version. As a nod to the source material, Final Fantasy V's Gilgamesh had a sidekick named for the Sumerian hero's beloved comapnion, Enkidu. Gilgamesh's spiritual successor in Final Fantasy VI, Ultros, has a myth-borrowed companion of his own. In Greek legend, Orthrus (Ultros) is the spawn of Echidna (remember her from III?), who was impregnated by the "father of all monsters," a massive hundred-headed snake called Typhon. (How a dog and a snake beast got refined into an octopus and a two-headed something with bad sinuses is anybody's guess.) Though he shows up once with Ultros as a warm-up boss, Typhon's main function in the game is to punish players for betting crappy items at the Coliseum.


ULTIMA WEAPON

   

"Ultima Weapon" (the Woolsey translation uses the term "Atma Weapon," probably because of space restrictions) actually refers to two different relics from the War of the Magi. The first is a lightsaber-like blade that draws its strength from the life force of its holder. The second is the monstrosity you see above: a living weapon bred for mass destruction. This is the first instance of an Ultima/Ultimate/Weapon boss in the series, and while it's not nearly as nasty as some of its future incarnations, this beast means business. He is the endboss of the Final Fantasy VI's first half, and enjoys hanging around the Floating Continent, talking smack, and blasting your already-weary party with atomic energy attacks. In the second half of the game, another version of the monster appears in Kefka's tower. (Woolsey simply calls it "Atma," while the name "Ultima Buster" appears in the Japanese and GBA versions.) The fight is usually much less scary than the one with its brother, but it's interesting because it opens with what I've always felt is one of the coolest and strangest speeches in the entire series:


He never tells you what the answer is. He just tries to kill you.


PHANTOM TRAIN & DOOM GAZE

   

Besides Ultros and Typhon, these two are Square Enix's go-to bosses whenever it comes time to throw a bunch of extra "bonus" fights into the latest re-release of a twenty-year-old SquareSoft game. The Phantom Train is a steampunk take on the grim ferryman of Greek myth -- a sentient steam engine shuttling souls to the afterlife that doesn't take kindly to mortal stowaways trying to impede its progress. Doom Gaze (actually "Deathgaze," but whatever) is an ancient demon released after the Floating Continent catastrophe, and randomly picks fights with your team when they're riding around on the airship. It is a very bad idea to board the Falcon with a party whose levels are multiples of five. (I had to learn this the hard way.)


SIEGFRIED

   

Siegfried is a...thief? Treasure hunter? Monster slayer? Who knows? He only appears in the flesh on three occasions (and is mentioned once by Ultros), so it's really hard to guess what his deal is. When he drops in on Cyan and Sabin inside the Phantom Train, he's a blustery doofus with a whole lot of bark and absolutely no bite. In his final appearance, he claims that someone has been running around pretending to be him, and makes a nigh-undefeatable contender in the Dragon's Neck Coliseum. Weird. Since his design is somewhat similar to Gilgamesh's, and because he also shares his name with another warrior of a mythical epic, I get the feeling Siegfried was originally intended to act as another prominently recurring gag villain until Ultros took over the role for himself.


THE GODDESS STATUES

   

The Empire's Magitek technology is derived from the powers of the Espers, but the true fountainheads of the world's magical energy are the Statues: three fallen gods whose whose differences escalated into the planet-shattering War of the Magi. They themselves created the first Espers by magically warping human beings and forcing them to march against their counterparts. After years of destruction and bloodshed, the deities came to their senses and agreed to end the conflict once and for all by turning themselves to stone. Final Fantasy "3" refers to them as "the Goddess Statues," the English GBA version calls them "the Warring Triad," and they're simply "the Warring Gods" in Japanese.

   

Each statue represents one of Final Fantasy's three primary spell types. Demon ("Poltergeist" in the Woolsey translation) rules over fire; Fiend ("Doom" as per Woolsey) controls ice, and Goddess represents lightning. Each statue's power neutralizes the other two. If they are ever moved out of alignment, the balance would shatter, and the instability in their tremendous energy field would be sufficent to cause a planetary-scale cataclysm. (Spoiler: it happens.)


EMPEROR GESTAHL

   

Always remember: kingdoms are good, empires are bad. Kings are often okay, but emperors are evil without exception. When the story begins, Gestahl already has about a third of the planet under his control, and his forces are still on the march. Though seemingly content with commanding an army of magically-enhanced soldiers and machines at first, Gestahl is later enticed (possibly by Kefka) to seek out Magicite for himself and take control of the Statues. Gestahl is basically a carbon copy of Secret of Mana's Emperor Vandole, and likewise comes to an ignominious end when his most powerful subordinate takes charge, depriving the player the satisfaction of killing off the odious old fart himself.


KEFKA

   

The first human subject of Cid's artificial magic infusion process. The operation didn't have all the bugs worked out yet, and one of the more noticable side effects was Kefka's transformation into a sadistic giggling weirdo. As he's never addressed by any sort of military title, Kefka's role within the imperial hierarchy is something like the Emperor's personal assistant and gofer. His ruthlessness and total lack of conscience make him an invaluable tool to Gestahl's avaristic ambitions, but only up to a point. Once the Statues are in their grasp, Kefka decides it would be more fun to blow up the world than to rule over it, and so gives his boss the old heave-ho. Kefka's two primary distinctions among RPG villains are that he actually succeeds in destroying the world rather than just trying to destroy it, and his digitized laugh, which probably sounds more like a broken carpet cleaner to the ears of today's gamers.

   

Even with a cast as large and likable as Final Fantasy VI's, Kefka still manages to steal the show. He's certainly not the most complex or deep antagonist, but you can't say he's not one of the most fun. The best way of putting Kefka in the context of the games' evolution is to compare him to his predecessors, all of whom were introduced from the get-go as a.) evil wizards b.) evil emperors c.) evil deities. Kefka, on the other hand, is just a human being with a warped sense of humor and the fashion sense of a deranged Liberace in pursuit of what makes him happy: killing shit. He's less of a dark sorceror with a chip on his shoulder (Zande, Zemus, Exdeath, etc.) than a grade-school social outcast who wears clothes that don't match, sits by himself at lunch, and pops ants with a magnifying glass during recess.

His first appearance is a joke: we see him trudging through the desert on a tedious fetch quest for his boss, complaining about his job, flipping out about the sand on his boots, and then getting completely humiliated by the heroes. He's a joke and an annoyance, but not a major threat. But over time, as he acquires more power and racks up a higher body count, Kefka stops being funny and starts being scary.

Here's how it usually plays out in Final Fantasy: the Main Villain gets carried away and tampers with some secret cosmic power or other, and is eventually destroyed and/or controlled by said power. The Emperor and Exdeath were both devoured and possessed by the forces they sought to possess. Zande was being manipulated by the Cloud of Darkness all along. It is strongly suggested that Jenova is the one pulling Sephiroth's strings in Final Fantasy VII, despite what later retcons might claim. But Kekfa is nobody'sclown. He's always in charge. He gets the best of his boss, masters the Statues, and lords over the world as an insane death-god, and all for the sheer fun of it.

   


PLACES


If you hadn't noticed from the screenshots, Final Fantasy looks better and better with every installment. After half a decade of RPG worlds looking like they were built from Lego blocks sitting on wallpaper tiles, Final Fantasy VI's presentation values set a whole new standard. Now that Final Fantasy is capable of creating such variety between locations (and since it certainly wasn't a quick or easy task putting these titlesets together pixel by pixel), let's take a quick look at some of the game's more memorable places.


NARSHE

   

A coal town in the northern mountains that becomes the flashpoint for a civilization-shattering crisis when a living Esper is found frozen in its mines. Narshe can be considered an early precursor for locations we'll be seeing later on, such as Midgar and Balamb Garden. Most early console RPGs kick off in the middle of a village or city that has the exact same tileset and BGM as any other town in the game. Though it probably seems obvious now, SquareSoft had the inspired idea of using the setting of players' introduction to Final Fantasy VI as a means of establishing the aesthetic style and tone of what's to follow. Think: name one really interesting town in a console RPG released before 1994. (My email address is here. Make me eat my words.)


ZOZO

   

Speaking of interesting RPG towns, here we have Zozo. All we're told about the place is that it was constructed by poor exiles from the upper-class city of Jidoor. That much I can wrap my head around. What's never explained are all the giants and cutthroats wandering around, the corpses in the streets, and the perpetually-lying residents' obsession with the clock. There's a chainsaw hidden in the cafe, none of the shops have anything for sale, and the only man who tells the truth ("This place is dangerous!") is a huckster pushing tubes of Rust-Aid(tm) for a grand apiece. This is some real EarthBound-grade weirdness here, and all the stranger for how it never even tries to explain or acknowledge itself.


VECTOR

   

Welcome to the dark side of the technological revolution: the grim fortress of stone and steel at the core of the empire. In addition to hosting the imperial palace and a small residential sector, Vector is also the site of the Magitek Research Facility, the engine of Gestahl's war machine. As usual, SquareSoft really knows how create a sense of atmosphere: even when there's no danger of being attacked in Vector, it's a place you want to get away from as soon as possible.


THE ESPER WORLD

   

In Final Fantasy IV, players had an opportunity to visit the realm of summoned monsters, where they could chat with Rydia's friends and enlist the help of Ashura and Leviathan. The "Esper World" returns in Final Fantasy VI, where it becomes the site of a dire and strange scenario. Imagine if the Nazis had discovered how to breach the dimensional barrier into Fairy-Land, where they kidnapped a truckload of elves, unicorns, and dragons and dragged them back to Berlin, where Hitler's scientists forcibly extracted the pixie dust from their bodies and used it to create horrifying weapons of unprecedented destructive power. This would be the nutshell version of Final Fantasy VI's plot and the Esper World's role in it.


DRAGON'S NECK COLISEUM

   

A first in Final Fantasy: a go-to location for a mini-game with big rewards. It returns in Final Fantasy VII as the Arena section of the Gold Saucer, and is then supplanted by card games, chocobo scavenger hunts, implausible watersports, etc.

The Dragon's Neck Coliseum is simple: bet an item and choose a party member to enter the area. You give up your item if they lose, and get a better item if they win. The catch: your contender fights on autopilot, so Terra is as likely to cast Blind as Ultima. (The Imp equipment + Dragoon Boots + Dragon Horn has always been my favorite way of idiot-proofing the proceedings.)


WORLD OF RUIN

   

Hmm. I would be interested in knowing if it was the developers (Kitase, Itou, et al) who gave Final Fantasy VI's second half its moniker, or if the title printed on the map that came with the Final Fantasy "3" cartridge just stuck in American fans' minds and mouths until it became official.

By now, Kefka's destroying the world in Final Fantasy VI is as much a secret as Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker's father, the cake being a lie, and the Planet of the Apes' really being Earth. At the time -- when VI was still new and hadn't been discussed and praised on message boards and retrospective gaming articles for the better part of two decades -- this was the most tremendous and shocking plot twist in a video game. For once, the heroes don't save the world. They get their asses handed to them. And he blew it up! That maniac, he blew it all up, damn him, damn him all to hell.

The World of Ruin is a bleak place. The geological face of the planet has been rearranged. Plants and animals are dying, and seeds refuse to grow. Familiar towns are destroyed, abandoned, and haunted. Your airship is long gone, so you're stuck shlepping from village to village across the blasted world map while listening to the bleakest, most depressing overworld BGM ever composed.

You begin controlling only Celes. After tracking down and recruiting Sabin, Edgar, and Setzer, you dig up another airship and take to the skies again. From this point on, Final Fantasy VI becomes a sandbox game. You can find the rest of your team, chase sidequests, and go after Kefka whenever you want. Some players say that the second act is a disappointment after the tightly-structured and expertly-paced first act, while others opine that the "opening up" in the World of Ruin is when the game really gets good. For my part, I think that Final Fantasy VI's managing to be both a rollercoaster and a sandbox is damn cool.


KEFKA'S TOWER

   

After the smoke cleared and the continents resettled, wreckage and debris from all over the world floated together to form a massive, unbreachable tower. This is Kefka's new home, where he rules over the world and blows up anything that annoys him with the explosive Light of Judgement. (Question: why does he wait until the heroes appear in his inner sanctum before announcing that he's about to deliver the finishing blow? Why doesn't he just spend the year between the Floating Continent disaster and Celes's awakening just zapping every square inch of the planet with the Light of Judgement? If he knew the heroes would eventually come for him like he says, wouldn't it have made more sense to obliterate every human settlement on the planet until his most formidable opponents were assured of being dead? He may be crazy, but that's no excuse for being foolish.)

Anyhow, Kefka's Tower represents Final Fantasy VI's endgame. It's the first final dungeon since Final Fantasy I that doesn't use the old "stars and crystals" motif, and has a great gimmick: when storming the tower, you split your team into three separate parties who each take a different path through the interior. Until each team arrives at their respective finish line, the door to Kefka remains locked. This is a brilliant concept, and for some reason, it's never used again. (Final Fantasy VII and VIII both half-assedly attempt to implement something similar, but neither comes close to duplicating it.)


"IT CAN'T BE...! AN ESPER???"


Summon monsters are nothing new to Final Fantasy, but this is the first time an entire game practically revolves around them. What say we have a look at the cream of the crop?


COOLEST-LOOKING SUMMON SPELL:
Alexander (Justice)


To borrow a term from Grandia, I think "BA-BOOM!" would be a more appropriate name for Alexander's gigantic pearl-elemental attack. Er, holy. I meant to type "holy."







MOST USEFUL SUMMON SPELL:
Palidor (Sonic Dive)


Indispensible if you plan on tackling the game at lower party levels. So you know that boss is winding up for that massive attack, and there's no way your party's gonna be able to survive it. (I'm looking at you, Magi Master and Goddess.) What's the best solution? Simple: don't be there for it. Casting Sonic Dive basically caused your entire team to use the Jump command at once, putting them out of harm's way and setting them up to do big damage upon re-entry.




MOST USEFUL SPELL LIST:
Ragnarok (Ultima: x 1)


Ragnarok teaches you Ultima and nothing else. No other spell is necessary. If at least two of your party members know it, then you've practically already beaten the game.







BEST-DRESSED
Siren


She goes pantless in the Japanese and Final Fantasy Anthology versions, but gets covered up in the American Nintendo releases. If you're not totally outraged by this unforgivable act of prudish, puritanical American censorship and don't think it renders the SNES and GBA versions completely unplayable, THEN YOU SIR ARE NO TRUE FAN. GOOD DAY.




BEST MAKEOVER:
Golem


He transforms from a midget made of rocks in Final Fantasy V to a sleeker, steam-powered midget in Final Fantasy VI. It rather makes me wish some of the other mainstay summons got steampunk makeovers, but that seems like the sort of request Tetsuya Nomura (who worked on VI's character and monster designs) would have been frighteningly eager to oblige.



BEST DEBUT:
Stray


Okay, so Stray isn't really that cool or useful. But since his Japanese (and GBA retranslation) name is Cait Sith, he's the only Final Fantasy summon monster ever to cross over and become a party member in a later game. That's gotta be worth something, right?



MOST INTERESTING JP/NA NAME CHANGE:
Crusader


When Final Fantasy VI Advance came to the states, most of the altered Esper names were reversed. Stray became Cait Sith again. Tritoch became Valigarmanda. Shoat became Catoblepas. Jihad, however, stayed Crusader. Hm. Now why do you suppose that is?




MOST DUBIOUS STAND-IN:
Bismarck


Great. The tsunami-flinging sea serpent of justice Leviathan calls in sick and is replaced by a magical flying whale with a doltish smirk on his fat face. I hope he runs afoul of a Japanese fishing boat.


ERAU QSSI DLRO WEHT


Final Fantasy VI still enjoys a devoted fanbase, though most of its members tend to come from a certain demographic. If you ever meet a gaming geek in his late twenties or early thirties (these days it's more and more likely to be the latter) who conspicuously complains about how awfully today's video games compare to those of yesteryear, don't bring up Final Fantasy VI unless you're prepared to listen to a misty-eyed rant about The Good Old days, back when the radio still occasionally played good music, The Simpsons was brilliant, and Final Fantasy "3" was the best thing that ever happened to the world.

What's so special about Final Fantasy VI, anyway?

This might be best answered by asking a pair of different questions: what does Final Fantasy VI do differently from the games that came before it, and what does it do differently than the games that came after it?

First, another criminally disproportionate analogy from my English undergrad days: a college professor of mine once compared William Shakespeare to Eugene O'Neill. Shakespeare, she said, was a brilliant playwright, but for the most part was not an innovator: he adhered very tightly to the established conventions of the Jacobean stage. Eugene O'Neill, on the other hand, was not a writer of Shakespeare's caliber, but he was an iconoclast: American theater can be cleanly divided between its pre-O'Neill and post-O'Neill phases.

Final Fantasy VI is more like the Shakespeare in that comparison. It's very recognizable a console RPG; it does very little to depart from the conventions and formulas of its genre. Even thought it doesn't break that much new ground, it does the old stuff better than just about everything else.

What makes Final Fantasy VI exceptional is that its creators very clearly tried to make it exceptional. I'm not sure you can say that about too many video games before the mid-1990s. I get the impressions that many (if not most) game developers working between 1985 and 1995 approached their work like the creative teams in charge of churning out cheaply-animated Saturday morning cartoons. They weren't trying to create art; they were in the business of developing a product. While a certain degree of craftsmanship was necessary, there wasn't much motivation or ambition to push the envelope. After all, it wasn't like anyone but children and geeks were paying attention, and they were only paying for quick, easy entertainment -- nobody was wanting or expecting Masterpiece Theatre. Why go the extra mile if nobody's asking you?

The Japanese studios had been cranking out Dragon Quest clones for the better part of a decade by 1993. It couldn't have been that hard: tweak the Dragon Quest mechanics, throw a crew of heroes and misfits into a fantasy setting with sci-fi elements, give them a crisis to defuse or a prophecy to fulfill, an evil wizard/demon to defeat, and treasure-filled dungeons to march through. The rest wrote itself.

Ultimately, it wasn't the random battles and periodic equipment upgrades that kept the kids coming back, but the experience attached to it -- the sense of transportation and personal involvement in an unfolding story. If you removed the narrative content from the early console RPG -- made the graphics as generic and unvaried as possible, removed all references to characters, setting, and plot, and assembled games consisting totally of mute, blocky humanoids floating through dungeon after dungeon and fighting random turn-based battles against gangs of bats -- the genre would have stayed on the ground. The novelty would have worn off by 1990; its only patrons would be odd, lonely types who get a sense of personal accomplishment from sequestering themselves with a TV set and working to make their imaginary numbers get bigger.

It wouldn't be accurate to suggest that SquareSoft was the first console RPG outfit to understand and appreciate the impact of their games' narrative content; nor were they they the first or only studio to create games with an emphasis on narration. What they did was take it further and do it better than anyone else. They were the first to conscientiously try to make a classy console RPG. Just because they were in the business of making software-based diversions didn't mean they couldn't take pride in their work and try to give players a richer experience than what they were accustomed to.

The most remarkable thing about the frequently-lauded Opera House scene isn't necessarily the sequence itself (it hasn't aged quite as well as you'd hope), but the fact that a bunch of game designers in 1993 decided to integrate a straight-faced, ten-minute opera scene -- complete with an orchestral score, synthesized voices, and lyrics -- into their game and do it legitimately as they could during a time when video games were still for the most part being designed and played as home-based arcade games. Such a concept at such a time (the big things in gaming around 1993 were Street Fighter clones and platformers starring cartoon anthromorphs) was nothing short of radical. Most other studios would have thought it ridiculous.

The sequence really doesn't do anything all that new -- functionally, the whole thing is just a mini-game requiring players to choose the right options at a series of prompts. But its a beautifully designed and indispensible mini-game, without which the Final Fantasy VI experience would be poorer.

Final Fantasy VI is still a video game. If any game blurs the line between electronic entertainment and "art" (whatever that is), it ain't this one. But it is undoubtedly an artfully-constructed game that comes out an undisputed heavyweight when matched against other games of its generation. we place it up against some of the major cultural triumphs of the Twentieth Century, Final Fantasy VI wouldn't last three rounds. The thought and care that went into creating it are impossible not to perceive. SquareSoft took a toy and turned it into something more than a toy -- or at least a toy that did a lot of things that toys don't ordinarily do. (Related note: we see so many arguments about what video games are and aren't, and what they should and shouldn't be expected to do, because nobody really knows, and nobody can decide.)

So: Final Fantasy VI is set apart from its predecessors by its earnestness to convey a narrative with more dramatic weight than players were then accustomed to. What distinguishes it from the new kids on the block is the way in which it goes about doing this. Games with "epic" plotlines, tremendous casts, heavy subject matter, and swelling orchestral soundtracks are no longer the exception -- they're the rule, at least as far as the consoles are concered. Even so, the methods Final Fantasy VI uses to convey its narrative content is starkly different from that of its distant DVD-rom descendents.

It is not Final Fantasy VI's plot that makes it what it is, but its mode of delivery: one that required its architects to find creative ways of working around difficult technical limitations and uses the established mechanics of a third-person video game as narrative tools.

The infamous Tim Rogers gives an example of Final Fantasy VI's peculiar technique, which I will quote in full:


In Final Fantasy VI, when Cayenne stands at the edge of the platform in the Phantom Forest, after the train ferrying his family to the afterlife has departed, there's this awkward silence. The rectangular train platform has no exit. Shadow stands in the middle of the platform, poised, with his dog. Cayenne stands at the end of the platform, head bowed. Mash is under our control. We can walk left or right. Talk to Cayenne, and he says nothing. He doesn't move. A word balloon doesn't even pop up. Talk to Shadow, and he says "Leave him alone," of Cayenne. Mash says nothing. We run back and forth for a few moments, in utter musical silence, unable even to open our own menu, until the screen fades to black. How many players, at this moment, tried to open their menu, only to find that you couldn't do it? I, for one, did. What did I want to see? What did the director not want me to see? This strikes me, today, as rather profound. I wonder if Kitase understood how profound that technique was? I think he didn't (and neither do I, honestly).


Some other examples:

  • Celes on the Solitary Island. If you choose to wander onto the world map, you'll stumble into random enemy encounters, as usual. But there's something odd about them. All the burrowing rodents and land-dwelling stingrays picking a fight with Celes will try to cast Drain, but have no MP to do so. After getting in one feeble attack, their HP automatically ticks to zero and they drop dead. To lend some credibility to Cid's diagnosis of the World of Ruin, even the enemies you meet are starving and desperate.

  • Why are you made to play as General Leo during the Thamasa sequence? At that point, you've only seen Leo four times, and he's always been an NPC. Suddenly, after a brief fade to black, Leo is on the center of the screen. Nothing cues you to the change in your "party." You instinctively press the D-pad, and Leo moves. Your one-on-one fight against the illusory Kefka is very, very difficult to lose. Leo wins the duel, but Kefka still kills him. Imagine how differently this scene would have played in your mind and on your emotions if the whole thing were just an extended cutscene over which you had no control.

  • When you first pass through Kohlingen, you can enter the town's cafe (or its tavern, if you're a purist) and find Shadow. If your team has fewer than three members, you can temporarily enlist the ninja's aid.

    In a modern game, the scene would probably play out like this: you enter the cafe and a cutscene immediately begins. You see your character from the front as he walks through the door. Cut to a closeup of his face, accompanied by a turgid bit of dialogue like "ah!". The camera zooms toward the far corner, where Shadow is seen sitting at a table by himself. If we're lucky, the scene ends there. If we're not, you watch your character approach Shadow on autopilot and make with the chitchat.

    In Final Fantasy VI, you enter the cafe...and nothing happens. It's like every other shop in every other town, with one quirk: the standard "town" jingle is replaced with Shadow's personal theme as soon as you walk in. Shadow is off-screen. You have to wander further in and look around before you find him. The game draws no other attention to Shadow's being there. It's a very minor device, but it works much better than wresting away the player's control to show him something he is perfectly capable of finding himself.

  • Strago's total lack of responsiveness when you find him marching in procession with the other crazies at the Fanatics' Tower. There is no exposition, no scripted "Strago!" from your character, no explanation whatsoever. When you approach Strago and tap the "interact" button, he doesn't even offer the standard "....." response. The scene is all the more alarming for how little attention the explicit narrative draws to it: expecting words and getting silence is always unsettling.

  • Personally, I've always found the most disturbing moment of the World of Ruin occurs when you wander back into Narshe. This was the same location where the game kicked off; it was your team's de-facto home base and the signature location of Final Fantasy VI's first half. Now you find it abandoned, boarded up, thick with fog, and crawling with monsters. Its distinctive BGM is replaced with the World of Ruin's pre-Falcon overworld music. When you meet and battle Tritoch, the music doesn't cut to the boss fight theme like you expect -- the organ keeps moaning and the wind keeps blowing, and here you are getting blasted at by the frozen Esper that set the plot in motion to begin with. The music was a conscious choice on the designers' part. Consider what it contributes to your reponse to the situation, and how your reaction to the event would change if the usual boss theme played instead.

  • You control Maduin during Terra's flashback. When you get down to it, there's not much of a point to this. There are no secrets to find, items to pick up, or "switches" to trigger. It could have been a completely non-interactive cutscene, but it isn't. Why doesn't Maduin have a status screen? Even when you're controlling Mog in the "choose a scenario" scene and Leo in the Thamasa sequence, you can still access their status screens -- which isn't at all necessary, but nevertheless still possible. Why not with Maduin? What does this change about players' perception of the event?

    There are certainly more examples, but we'll leave it at that. What's interesting about these is that they would all be impossible if Final Fantasy VI were in any other format. It presents a narrative in a way that no other medium can duplicate.

    It is both funny and upsetting to think that Kitase and co. had no idea what they were doing when they designed all this, but that's very likely the case. We've already seen how eagerly Square switched to voiced cutscenes and extreme linearity as soon as the opportunity arose. Final Fantasy may well have turned out like it did because the SNES hardware prevented Kitase from doing what he wanted to do.

    Another point Mr. Rogers makes (in a characteristic fashion that doesn't lend itself to direct quoting) is how much of Final Fantasy VI remains unresolved, even if you complete every quest and finish the game multiple times. What happens to Banon? What's Siegfreid's deal? What's the story behind Cyan's memory of a cave full of Magitek equipment? What becomes of all Narshe's moogles after the apocalypse? What's Gogo's story, and why does he hang out in the bowels of a giant worm? Seriously, what's up with Zozo? What the hell is going on in Shadow's head when he wanders into Thamasa and bumps into Strago and Relm? What is the Ultima Buster's answer to "the meaning of things?"

    Returning briefly to our tenuous comparisons between Final Fantasy VI and Shakespeare, let's take a quick look at Hamlet. There's a reason why it continues to tantalize literati, academics, and actors, even after four centuries -- even though the action comes to a conclusion, nothing is really resolved. Scholar Stephen Greenblatt can explain it better than me:


    "Who's there?" Shakespeare's most famous play begins. The question, turned back on the tragedy itself, has haunted audiences and readers for generations. Hamlet is an enigma. Mountains of feverish speculation have only deepened the interlocking mysteries: Why does Hamlet delay avenging the murder of his father by Claudius, his father's brother? How much guilt does his mother, Gertrude...bear in this crime? How trustworthy is the ghost of Hamlet's father, who has returned from the grave to demand that Hamlet avenge his murder? ...Is Hamlet's madness feigned or true...? Does Hamlet, who once loved Ophelia, continue to love her in spite of his apparent cruelty? Does Ophelia, crushed by that cruelty...actually intend to drown herself, or does she die accidentally?

    ....[T]he play in all its variations seems designed to provoke such questions. "What art thou?" Hortaio asks the ghost, and the question, unanswered, seems to touch on everything...



    I'm not suggesting that Final Fantasy VI is on the same level as Hamlet (because it isn't) -- only that it's similarly full of blank spots that nettle the player's mind and prick his curiosity.

    The line between artful ambiguity and clumsy omission is a hard one to spot. I'm not entirely sure Willy Shakespeare himself devised Hamlet with the intention of driving people up the wall for half a millennium. I'm even less certain Final Fantasy VI's stranger, subtler moments were intentional on the part of Kitase and his crew. Fortunately for audiences, dumb luck sometimes gets the same results as consummate skill -- although usually not more than once.

    In the case of Final Fantasy VI -- and many, many other games -- these ambiguities and omissions, whether intentional or not, heighten the experience by impelling the player to participate in the narrative by filling in the gaps where he can and wondering about missing pieces where can't. The riddle is always more fun than the solution, after all. A game that makes the player sit still while it explains itself to him doesn't do its job as well as a game that requires the player to think and search on his own. This is an interactive medium, after all. Games that try to tell a story but leave little room for the player's imagination to contribute to its construction are wasting their potential.


    TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOW YOU SON OF A BITCH TELL ME


    CONCLUSION!

    Final Fantasy VI is one of the first console games in which the monster slaying, spellcasting, item collection, etc. are eclipsed by the characters, story, and atmosphere. Something like this might not be so surprising today, but let's put this in perspective: do you think the guy who invented Pac-Man saw it coming? Suppose he ever suspected that for the video games of the 21st century, the silly cutscenes between levels would be one of the big selling points? For that matter, do you suppose Sakaguchi ever suspected, while designing the original Final Fantasy, that the monster battles and dungeon crawls might become less important to future players than the Light Warriors' imaginary personal lives?

    It's strange, is what it is.

    Final Fantasy VI a weird, imperfect masterpiece that set the standard for what a console RPG should be expected to do in terms of gameplay, presentation, and story -- a standard which, unfortunately, has yet to be revised or surpassed. I've probably played it twenty times now, and I'm still noticing new things that surprise and impress me. JRPGs with this level of replay value are a rare breed indeed.

    To close on another side note: there is another small, frequently-overlooked feature that sets Final Fantasy VI apart from later games in the series. It actually first appeared in V, but was transferred to VI two years later.

    Final Fantasy VI is a two-player game. If you open the config menu, you can assign party members to the second player controller. This means that if you have a sibling, friend, or roommate who likes to sit on the couch and watch you play RPGs, he is perfectly able to pick up a gamepad and join in the game himself if he wants. None of Kitase's other games have this feature. The only other time it appears in a numbered Final Fantasy game after this is in the deliberately retro-fied IX.

    What a neat game.





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