Final Fantasy VIII: A Series Discovers Its Crack Pipe
by Pitchfork



EPIC PROLOGUE

1998. One year ago, Final Fantasy VII singlehandedly transformed video games forever and ushered in the Golden Age of Square. SquareSoft was now officially a Big Deal. A very Big Deal. Super Mario RPG, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy VI had all been hits, but Final Fantasy VII was a phenomenon. Quite Possibly the Greatest Game Ever Made. Afterwards, Square had just about cemented its reputation as Quite Possibly the Greatest Video Game Designers Ever with a string of successful titles that included Final Fantasy Tactics, Parasite Eve, Einhander, and Bushido Blade. It was like they were incapable of making games people didn't love. I saw people gathered around an Ehrgeiz cabinet at my local arcade, for god's sake. Square was at the top of its game. Its popularity - and profits - had never been higher.

But there was one small issue.

Final Fantasy VIII. There was no avoiding it. It had to happen. Square was now faced with the unenviable task of producing a sequel that could live up to and surpass Quite Possibly the Greatest Game Ever Made.

Let's face it: gamers are a tough audience to please, especially when it comes to sequels. Case in point: Street Fighter. (Yes, the only games I know anything about are 2D fighters and JRPGs, thanks for asking.) Street Fighter II was a megahit. It changed video games, revitalized the arcade scene, and pleased just about everybody - excluding, I suppose, fanatical Karate Champ loyalists. Naturally, fans craved more. Capcom took an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to following it up, releasing Street Fighter II: Champion Edition and then Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting. Each new version included additional moves, playable boss characters,and minor game-balancing changes, but they weren't really new games. They were tweaks meant to make a good game even better. And for a while, fans bought it. Champion Edition and Hyper Fighting were well-received in the arcades, and SNES owners who'd already bought Street Fighter II's 16-bit port happily shelled out another fifty bucks for Street Fighter II Turbo. But by the time Capcom unveiled Super Street Fighter II Turbo, many fans were turned off. "Just more of the same," they grumbled, and went to place their quarters on the Mortal Kombat and Samurai Shodown cabinets. Capcom took heed and released Street Fighter Alpha. It was a fine game, and a good starting point for a new 2D fighting series, but I don't recall it turning many heads. "Sure, the new graphic style is nice," we said. "But there aren't enough characters, and most of them are just the same people, anyway. It's still too much of the same old, same old. When is Street Fighter III coming out already?" A couple years later, Capcom released III, and nobody even cared. "It's too different," we whined this time. "Who are all these new people? What happened to the old ones? What's with only being able to pick one Super Art? And besides, 2D games are practically antiques at this point. 3D games - now those are the wave of the future!" Recently, when Capcom announced Street Fighter IV would contain most or all of the old cast from Street Fighter II and would be 3D, gamers were already tearing their hair out and wailing that it was definitely going to suck. I would hate to have an audience like us.

Occasionally, a particular game comes along with which we all fall in love. We are pleased consumers; here are our dollars! we say. But we now we need more. We demand a sequel! Snap to it, lest we lose interest! And that won't take long, as a lifetime of buying your products has made us all borderline ADD and susceptible to all the shiny new games your competitors are offering! Quick, before we decide to give them all our dollars instead of you! The only time we complain more than when we don't get a sequel to a popular game is usually when we do get one. If the successor to our favorite game is anything short of superior to the original, we turn on it. And if our favorite game happened to be revolutionary - like Final Fantasy VII - well, then its sequel damn well better break just as much new ground if its makers expect to retain our fickle loyalty.

Square had been in the game long enough (so to speak) to know this was the situation they were in and these were the kind of people they were dealing with. An unpopular sequel has the potential to wreck a franchise - and if it's an especially high-budget sequel, and the franchise in question is your main moneymaker, it can sometimes even prove fatal. Square couldn't afford to screw up Final Fantasy VIII, and any final product less than Quite Possibly the Greatest Game Ever Made would have constituted screwing up.

I imagine the events leading to Final Fantasy VIII's inception went down something like this: every Monday morning, Sakaguchi would call Kitase (director), Nojima (scenario writer), Hiroyuki (battle designer), Nomura (character designer), and Uematsu (composer) into his office and sit them all down. He'd remind them that the wildly successful sequel to Final Fantasy VII wasn't just going to make itself, and the clock was ticking. "Stop pussyfooting around it," he'd tell them, "and make it happen already."

All of them were reluctant to even get started. They knew what kind of pressure they'd be dealing with. They knew the standards being demanded of them would be impossible to meet. You can't blame them for being intimidated. Most of them would just retreat to their offices and whittle the days away, sulking and procrastinating while sipping Sapporo and surfing the Internet for Final Fantasy VII Geocities fan pages and Tifa + Cloud + Sephiroth hentai.

Eventually, Sakaguchi was fed up. He had Kitase, Nojima, Hiroyuki, Nomura, and Uematsu all dragged into a conference room, supplied them with a week's worth of bottled oolong tea, Oronamin C, shrink-wrapped convenience mart sandwiches, and cigarettes, then locked them in, telling them they had three days to either come up with a plan for Final Fantasy VIII or tender their letters of resignation.

What nobody knew at the time, however, was that there was a gas leak in this particular conference room.

DAY ONE, HOUR THREE: Nomura sits in corner, surrounded by a pile of crumpled-up character sketches. No matter how much he tries, he can't come up with a hero who doesn't look like Cloud or Ramza. Nojima has just spent an hour plotting a story together, only to realize that he's just rewriting Final Fantasy V with more robots. Uematsu has been playing chopsticks on his Casio keyboard since Sakaguchi locked the doors.

DAY ONE, HOUR FIVE: Uematsu and Hiroyuki claw at the door, screaming to be let out. Kitase has already eaten half the sandwiches himself out of self-pity. Nojima is pacing and chain-smoking.

DAY ONE, HOUR TEN: Nomura has drawn a quick doodle in his notebook of Mickey Mouse dressed in a trench coat. For some reason, he can't stop staring at it. Hiroyuki asks Uematsu if he smells something funny. Uematsu says no, but then bursts into laughter and can't quite say why.

DAY ONE, HOUR FOURTEEN: Nojima announces that he's starting to feel kind of funky. Kitase can't stop staring at his own hands. Nomura has gone back to one of his discarded sketches and added a few extra straps and belts to the character's outfit. He decides he's definitely on to something now.

DAY ONE, HOUR TWENTY: Kitase, for reasons he cannot articulate, is feeling intensely nostaglic for his old college days. The only way they could have possibly been better, he muses, is if his campus floated through the sky.

DAY TWO, HOUR TWO: "I got it," Nojima tells everyone. "Final Fantasy VIII's story is going to be about a pair of fiercely-competing rivals."

DAY TWO, HOUR SIX: "It's like a sword...but it's also a gun," Nomura explains to Uematsu. "A blade that uses bullets! This is the best idea I've ever had. Don't you think?" Uematsu nods, only pretending to listen. He is secretly gawking at the enormous size of Nomura's dilated pupils.

DAY TWO, HOUR EIGHT: Kitase recalls the time his nephew showed him his collection of Magic: the Gathering cards. He now strongly believes that Final Fantasy VIII should be about collecting cards and dueling other players.

DAY TWO, HOUR TWELVE: Nojima has reconsidered. "Okay. This game should be about an evil witch. The fiercely-competing rivals will still be around, but the focus is really going to be on the witch."

DAY TWO, HOUR SIXTEEN: Hiroyuki, who has been in a near-catatonic state for the past few hours, begins speaking to Uematsu.

"I got an idea. What if your characters could, like, equip spells?"

"Huh. You mean like buying spell books in Final Fantasy III?"

"Nah. I'm saying they'd literally equip spells."

"I'm not following."

"Okay, okay, listen. Say that like, instead of having armor and accessories, your guys just used magic. For example: you know how in the past, you had your dudes putting on, for example, Mythril Armor? What if we had them, equipping - I dunno - Quake instead? They'd be wearing spells instead of armor. What do you think?"

"That doesn't make an ounce of sense, but for some reason it seems like the best idea I've ever heard in my life."

"Thanks. I am so fucking high right now."

DAY TWO, HOUR TWENTY: "No, wait. Now I'm sure," Nojima tells everyone. "Now I am certain this game needs to be about a magical girl with the power to send people's minds through time itself. How trippy is that, right? But I mean, there's still gonna be those competing rivals and evil witch around, and...no, wait! That's two witches. There will be two evil witches in this game!"

DAY TWO, HOUR TWENTY-THREE: "I never wanted to be a video game character artist," Nomura confides to Hiroyuki. "I wanted to be a fashion designer." Then he sits back down to draw some extra pockets on Selphie's dress and wonder if Seifer might look better in a black mallcore beanie and belly shirt.

DAY THREE, HOUR FOUR: Okay! Right! New and even better idea!" Nojima shouts. "So you got this high-tech isolationist civilization, yeah? And the moon, see - the moon is where all the monsters in the world come from. They just get together in a big bunch and just like, fall down from the moon. Get what I'm saying? Anyway, but these guys from this futuristic city build this giant floating monolith - you know, real Space Odyssey - that they can use trigger this effect. So its evil ruler - who's one of our two witches - is gonna use this thing to...to...guys, sorry, guys. Hold on. I am blasted." Then Nojima begins ceaselessly guffawing for five solid hours.

DAY THREE, HOUR SEVEN: Uematsu steals one of Nomura's pens and scribbles gibberish in Roman characters all over the walls. He realizes that a small part of it, reading "CESONIV SOCEW CESUL SOHTFI," spells out words in Latin when he looks at it backwards. Astonished by this coincidence (and the fact that he suddenly knows Latin), Uematsu has found his inspiration for Final Fantasy VIII's signature theme.

DAY THREE, HOUR NINE: "So I got it figured out guys," Nojima says, having collected himself. "There's a girl who sends people into the past and there's these two - fuck it - three witches out to get her. And there's also this high-tech country that builds a machine to make monsters fall from the Moon, And the main character is this guy from a flying school who has to battle his hated rival while playing card games - okay, Kitase? - and stopping the three witches and all the moon monsters and rescuing the time girl, who's also his sister. But I think what we got here - at its heart - is a love story. The greatest love story ever told."

DAY THREE, HOUR TWELVE: Nomura has been hording the remaining Oronamin C bottles for himself. Hiroyuki approaches him and demands he stop being such a miser and fork some over. Nomura tosses one over to him, which he promptly chugs down. Moments later, Hiroyuki asks for more. Nomura tosses him three bottles. Hiroyuki decides to hold on to them, thus increasing his Oronamin C stock by three. This exchange becomes the basis of Final Fantasy VIII's Draw mechanic.

DAY THREE, HOUR SIXTEEN: For the last hour, Kitase has been raving about how video games are the new cinema of the 21st Century. "Cutscenes are the new boss battles! FMVs are the new dungeons! Conversations are the new enemy encounters! Less random battles - more five-minute exchanges between party members talking about their feelings! THE OLD WAYS ARE DEAD! VIVA LA REVOLUCION!"

DAY THREE, HOUR NINETEEN: Nojima sits supine and motionless, gazing into the fluorescent lights and watching them spool and unspool in spiraling prayerbeads of pure spiritual essence. He is on the very threshold of revelation about the nature of time and space, and humanity's place in both. He vows to incorporate this epiphany into Final Fantasy VIII's story. Months later, when it comes time for him to introduce Ultimecia into the game and explain her ultimate goal of Time Compression, it will all somehow seem a whole lot less obvious.

DAY THREE, HOUR TWENTY-THREE: Circle jerk.

When it's finally been three days and Sakaguchi unlocks the doors, they all descend on him at once, babbling and screaming about all the amazing new ideas they have and how eager they are to get to work. Sakaguchi wonders how he ever became such a brilliant leader.

Final Fantasy VIII is an aberration. Everyone wondered where Final Fantasy could possibly go after its groundbreaking and apocalyptic seventh installment, but nobody could have possibly predicted how VIII actually turned out. The Materia system - which itself was a modification of the Magicite/Relic system - was swept aside completely and replaced by the Junction system. Armor and accessories vanished; party members now equipped Guardian Forces and spells. Weapon upgrades became unnecessary. The SeeD salary mechanic was introduced, making slaying monsters completely irrelevant to earning Gil. Enemies leveled up along with party members. Cutscenes and conversations constituted a far larger portion of the game than ever before, and the exploration and battles the series was built on became far less prominent. The whole package was presented as a vehicle for a new breed of love story. The designers defied expectations the only way that was sure to work: warping and breaking every rule they could, catching everyone off guard and keeping their heads spinning. It's a Gordian solution: if a standard can't be met, change it instead.

Doing things differently, of course, isn't a fault in itself; but whether the changes are improvements makes a big difference. Just look at what happened with Final Fantasy II. Final Fantasy VIII and its plethora of new concepts and mechanics are much less of a failed experiment than the series' ill-fated second installment, but they're still, at best, a mixed bag.



PEOPLE

Final Fantasy VIII is the first entry in the series to use realistically-proportioned character models that remain consistent between field maps and battle screens. In addition to making its cast more realistic in their physical appearances, Final Fantasy VIII also strives to depict them thinking and acting more like actual people instead of exaggerated cartoon characters who rely on gimmicks and archetypes to define themselves. The result: whereas the characters in previous Final Fantasy games would feel right at home in the pages of 1970s Marvel Comics, Final Fantasy VIII's cast seems better suited for Apartment 3-G or Mark Trail.

SQUALL LEONHART
Weapon:
Gunblade
Limit Break: Renzokuken. My guess is it's Japanese for "Omnislash."

The shining star of Balamb Garden is often characterized as a lone wolf who has difficulty expressing himself to others, but it's much easier and a lot more accurate to just say Squall's a giant douche. All throughout the game, we're forced to watch him bitch and sulk about whatever happens to be bothering him at that moment. People speaking to him annoys him. His friends annoy him. His instructors annoy him. His job annoys him. His fellow students inexplicably look up to him, even though he treats most of them like subhuman mongoloids. It seems like more than half of the 30-40 hour Final Fantasy VIII experience consists of reading Squall's internal dialogue about how everything and everyone is a pain in the ass. Of course, everything changes after he meets Rinoa. Throughout Acts 1 and 2, Squall oscillates between being irritated and mystified at the free-spirited Rinoa. Then, once Rinoa is out of commission in Act 3, Squall suddenly decides he's in love with her even though all he ever seems to want is for her to shut up. When he ditches his friends and duty to carry Riona to Esthar and finds the only people in the world who might be able to help her, Squall is a jerk to them, too. And when Rinoa finally wakes up, you get the immediate impression that Squall is thinking he liked her better when she was comatose. Then they go to a great big field of flowers and Squall takes Rinoa by the hand, swearing he'll be her knight forever, and...ugh. I miss the silent protagonist.

In six words: "YOUR FRIENDS LOVE YOU, SQUALL!" "Whatever."
Positives: Square does an admirable job of fleshing him out. I don't think any games before Final Fantasy VIII explored their protagonists' inner lives so thoroughly.
Negatives: Too bad this protagonist happens to be an unlikable, angst-ridden jerkoff.


RINOA HEARTILY
Weapon:
Blaster Edge (not as cool as it sounds)
Limit Break: Combine and Angel Wing. As the game's heroine, Rinoa is allowed to have two Limit Breaks instead of one. Combine lets her team up with Angelo the Interceptor Wannabe Wonder Dog and randomly perform one of the abilities he's acquired from Pet Pals magazine. Angel Wing is sort of like the Berserk status, but Rinoa randomly flings spells at enemies instead of using physical attacks.

As "princess" of the Forest Owls, a resistance group fighting for Timber's independence from Galbadia, Rinoa commissions SeeD for assistance with the Owls' harebrained schemes. Shortly after the Timber Owls' attempted kidnapping of Galbadian President Vinzer Deling, Edea seizes power in Galbadia, and Rinoa gets pulled into the war between the sorceress and SeeD. Rinoa is the outsider of the group. She isn't a SeeD, and wasn't raised in Edea's orphanage like the rest. Rinoa used to bump uglies with Seifer, but she develops a crush on Squall because she evidently has a fetish for self-absorbed jerkwads with gunblades. She has a down-to-earth and impulsive personality, and the only possible way Square could have possibly characterized her any more maladroitly would have been to make Cyndi Lauper play over the soundtrack whenever she appears onscreen. Convenitently enough, Rinoa is also the daughter of Julia (whom Laguna was in love with before the Centra incident), and a sorceress candidate who becomes a crucial instrument for Ultimecia's plans.

In six words: Liked her better in the demo.
Positives: Rinoa is really well animated, even by today's standards. Her movements and mannerisms help establish her personality even more than her spoken dialogue. And yeah, I guess she's kind of cute.
Negatives: I can't even pretend to be objective. I hate this bubblehead. She is equally annoying as Squall, but for all the opposite reasons. This playthrough was the first time I've ever used her in my party when the game didn't require it.


QUISTIS TREPE
Weapon:
Whip
Limit Break: Blue Magic. She doesn't acquire new spells from getting hit with them during battle, but by winning or stealing certain items - like Spider Webs, Mystery Fluid, and Black Holes - and then apparently eating them. Yum! Dark Matter!

After being inducted into SeeD at the young age of fifteen, Quistis has served as an instructor in Balamb Garden. Her best students are Squall and Seifer, who both treat her like garbage even though she's unarguably the hottest teacher ever to grace a teenage masturbation fantasy. Aside from shooting lasers out of her eyes and and acting as an advisor to Squall, Quistis doesn't really do much. As you might expect, she has a hopeless crush on Squall, but she usually keeps it to herself and gets over it in Act 2 without much fuss.

In six words: Lacks personality. Who cares; she's hot.
Positives: A female JRPG character who isn't a helpless damsel, a femme-fatale bimbo, a magical loli, a short-tempered tomboy, or any of those other stock character molds. Progressive.
Negatives: Might actually be more memorable if she were.


ZELL DINCHT
Weapon:
Gloves
Limit Break: Duel. The Blitz returns, more broken than ever. Of all his special attacks, only two are really necessary (Punch Rush and Booya), and he even starts the game with them.

And energetic and talkative Garden student hailing from the nearby port town of Balamb, Zell is as American as Terry Bogard and twice as loud. (And his Burning Rave attack suspiciously resembles Mr. Bogard's Power Wave, too.) There are only two emotions Zell seems to be capable of: OHHHHH YEEEEEAAAHHH and AWWWWWW MAAANNNNNN. He is a man of simple pleasures, driven by two things: a desire to honor the memory of his soldier grandfather, and a passionate love for hot dogs bordering on obsession.

In six words: Yo wad up spooty white boy.
Positives: Probably the most likable of the six main characters...
Negatives: ...which is really kind of sad.


SELPHIE TILMITT
Weapon:
Nunchaku
Limit Break: Slots. Next to worthless for the same reason as Cyan's Bushido skills. Repeatedly hitting "Do Over" and waiting for Selphie to produce a useful spell is an open invitation for your opponents to have themselves a rape party with your team.

Selphie is a transfer student from Trabia Garden who comes to Balamb to participate in the SeeD field exam. She is one of the four students to pass (along with Squall, Zell and Nida), and is partnered with Squall and Zell for their first official mission. Essentially, Selphie is a perky Japanese schoolgirl with extensive paramilitary training. Battle Royale has nothing on her. She is also the very first JRPG character with her own Live Journal, and I'm not sure if that's interesting or sickening.

In six words: Who does your hair? Fire them.
Positives: She scares the hell out of me, and I think I like it.
Negatives: Even Maria from Final Fantasy II was more complex than Selphie.


IRVINE KINNEAS
Weapon:
Rifle
Limit Break: Shot. Mash the R1 button to make Irvine go Columbine on his enemies' asses. (Still too soon?)

This insouciant SeeD is Galbadia Garden's best marksman, and was selected to work with Squall's Balamb team on a mission to assassinate Sorceress Edea. Irvine claims to only have two concerns in life: guns and girls. But after he chokes at the trigger and has to settle for trying to date rape Selphie after scaring off Quistis and Rinoa, you have to wonder about the guy.

In six words: Brokeback Mountain jokes are too easy.
Positives: Is responsible for some really tense scenes towards the end of Act 1.
Negatives: Takes the rest of the game off afterwards.


LAGUNA LOIRE
Weapon:
Machine gun
Limit Break: Desparado. The only time Laguna is ever legimately cool.

Periodically, Squall falls into a dream-like state in which he experiences the world through the eyes of a stranger. This stranger is Laguna, a Galbadian soldier who aspires to be a famous journalist. His wacky misadventures lead him all across the globe until he finally finds himself stuck in Esthar - as its president. Laguna is Squall's opposite: clumsy, good-natured, loquacious, and...well, likable. (The apple fell miles away from the tree, in this case.) His character is an intentional throwback to the less brooding and more cartoony heroes of Final Fantasy V and VI.

In six words: Hunter S. Thompson from Bizarro World.
Positives: The hell with Squall and Rinoa - Final Fantasy VIII should have been about Laguna, Kiros, and Ward. The Laguna segments are the only times when the game really feels like the Final Fantasy I fell in love with. The battle music is better, too.
Negatives: Final Fantasy has almost always had an underlying POWER OF LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP theme, but it's usually just a tad more subtle than when Laguna actually lectures Squall and co. on the subject. I have no problem with this kind of nonsense in a game like, say, Grandia II. Ryudo's ranting about the STRENGTH OF THE HUMAN HEART towards the end of the game is ridiculous, but Grandia II is a title whose episodic, uncomplicated story takes a backseat to its incredible gameplay. The same cannot be said for Final Fantasy VIII.


KIROS SEAGILL
Weapon:
Katar
Limit Break: Blood Pain. Coolest-looking attack in the game, hands-down.

Bloody hell. I was wrong about Barrett being the only black Final Fantasy character. How could I have forgotten Kiros?! In my defense, Barret is still the only permanent black party member, since Kiros is only playable during the brief Laguna sequences. And I don't mean to dwell on the race issue here, but Kiros is also far less of a walking stereotype than Mr. Wallace.

In six words: Blood Pain seriously fucks shit up.
Positives: Kiros, like Laguna, recalls the JRPG's 16-bit days, when it was excusable to have a character without a complicated backstory or complex psychological motivations to explore. Kiros is Laguna's level-headed war buddy. He has cool weapons and an even cooler fighting style. That's all there is to Kiros, and it's enough.
Negatives: None. There is nothing not to like about Kiros.


WARD ZABAC
Weapon:
Harpoon
Limit Break: Massive Anchor. Makes Kain and Cid look like nancyboys.

Laguna's other pal. Despite his imposing appearance, Ward is a total softie. After permanently damaging his voicebox and getting separated from Laguna during a botched mission in Centra, Ward leaves the Galbadian Army and becomes a janitor. The quiet life bores him more than he thought it would, and he rejoins Laguna and Kiros to help in their search for the kidnapped Ellone.

In six words: Ward is big, bad and heavy.
Positives: See Kiros.
Negatives: See Kiros.


ELLONE



Squall's long-lost older "sis" and Laguna's adopted niece. Ellone possesses the mysterious, unique, and totally unexplained power to send people's consciousnesses back through time to experience events through the eyes of another person. There are limitations: Ellone can only send people into the minds of people she knows, and those sent back can only witness past events - not change them. Because of this power, Ellone is constantly on the run from Adel, Edea and Ultimecia.

In six words: Plot device that walks and talks.


CID KRAMER



Final Fantasy VIII has an older man named Cid who builds...actually, would you believe nothing at all? Cid was the co-founder of Garden and SeeD along with Edea, and he currently works as the Headmaster of Balamb Garden. Cid is a divided man. His ideal vision of Garden as a place where the seeds of a better future are planted are at odds with Garden Proprietor NORG's vision of Garden as a mercenary-dispatching cash cow. Worse, he also has to cope with knowing that SeeD's main purpose - defeating sorceresses - means that his students will inevitably be drawn into a life-or-death struggle against his wife.

In six words: Cids should stick to their gadgets.


SORCERESS EDEA

Edea is Cids wife, with whom he co-ran an orphanage before establishing Garden and SeeD. Edea received the sorceress power at age five, and then once again as an adult, thanks to a mix-up involving time travel - which, incidentally, was also when she was inspired to create Garden and SeeD. Some time after SeeD is founded, Edea disappears. She resurfaces in Galbadia years later, when President-for-Life Vinzer Deling appoints her as his ambassador for peace. The title is only a euphemism; Deling only intends to use Edea as a tool for cohesion and intimidation. But the plan backfires. Edea publicly murders him during her inaugeration ceremony and seizes power herself.

Talking about Edea is tricky, because there are two Edeas in Final Fantasy VIII: there is the sagacious, nurturing Matron Edea, and there is Possessed Edea, whom the player meets first and is actually Ultimecia speaking and acting through Edea's body. So when we're discussing the pitiless, megalomaniacal Edea who seduces Seifer, murders Deling, and punches a giant icicle through Squall's chest, we are really discussing Ultimecia. As if Final Fantasy VIII weren't already complicated enough, huh?

It might be worth noting that a terminology change was made in the North American localization of Final Fantasy VIII. The English script refers to Edea as a sorceress, but what she's called in the original Japanese is evidently a lot closer to "witch." Interesting choice. "Witch" is a bit of a loaded term; Square's American branch probably worried that players would associate it with pointy hats and broomsticks, inadvertantly softening the impact of the sleek, stylish, and genuinely menacing trio of Edea, Adel, and Ultimecia. But "witch" still might have been the better choice: Possessed Edea's speech and manners are very evocative of the Hans Christian Anderson breed of witch, especially in the scene in which she lures Seifer to her side. (The old woman in the gingerbread house probably spoke to Hansel in the same tones.) And since Final Fantasy VIII's world was designed to have a more predominantly Western feel than previous entries', it makes sense for the game's story to tap into Europe's traditional witch-phobia. Possessed Edea speaking of the populace's deep-seated hatred and fear towards sorceresses isn't terribly evocative; the scene probably would have struck more of a chord with English-speaking audiences had she referred to people hating and fearing witches instead. Ah, well.



In six words: Edea is the game's real star.
Positives: The series never had a better villain than it did in the first half of Final Fantasy VIII. Possessed Edea is the queen from Snow White, the witch from Sleeping Beauty, and the stepmother from Cinderella mixed and stirred together with honey and arsenic. I love it.
Negatives: Does the second half even have a villain? Possessed Edea's shoes are just too big for Seifer, Adel, and Ultimecia to fill.


DOC ODINE



A brilliant but inhumane Esthar scientist whose expertise in sorceress power and magic is unsurpassed. He is solely responsible for the science behind Guardian Force junctioning and para-magic, which are used by Balamb's SeeD to counter sorceress magic. Among his other accomplishments are Lunatic Pandora, sorceress-neutralizing technology, and a machine that duplicates Ellone's time-jumping powers.

In six words: Hojo dressed like a demented geisha.


MOOMBAS



A bunch of penny-ante Moogle wannabes who make their debut in Final Fantasy VIII and are never seen again. Good.

In six words: Selphie was right: skin the twerps.


GALBADIAN ARMY



Final Fantasy II had the unstoppable hellspawned footsoldiers of the Paramekian Empire. Final Fantasy VI had the MagiTek-powered armies of Emperor Gestahl. Final Fantasy VII had Shinra's security forces. Each incarnation of the Final Fantasy evil imperial army has become less and less frightening until we at last hit the bottom with the Galbadian Army. It's baffling that Galbadia ever became an imperial power with an army of useless wimps like these guys. If you ever get a Game Over screen as a result of a run-in with these guys, you'd probably be better off playing Mystic Quest.

In six words: They're more like dominoes than soldiers.


BIGGS AND WEDGE



They're back! This time, Biggs and Wedge get reincarnated as a pair of Galbadian soldiers who can never seem to get a break. Fortunately for them, Final Fantasy VIII is the first game the pair manages to live all the way through.

In six words: Gilgamesh and Enkidu without any balls.


FUJIN AND RAIJIN



Seifer's cronies in the Balamb Garden Disciplinary Committee function as Final Fantasy VIII's recurring gag villains, a role they share with Biggs and Wedge. But unlike them, Fujin and Raijin are actually able to put up a pretty tough fight. Fujin is a chemically-imbalanced, one-eyed young woman who is skilled with a chakram and wind magic, while Raijin is a sycophantic, bo-wielding musclehead with an affinity for lightning magic. It's a shame they never get to help Seifer out in battle, since the bastard usually needs all the help he can get.

In six words: ELLONE, WHERE? RAGE! FATIGUED. Ya know?


NORG



The black sheep of the isolationist Shumi tribe, NORG puts up the funds Cid needs to establish Garden, under the condition that SeeD work as a profit-driven mercenary force. NORG hides in the restricted-access basement of Balamb Garden, and never comes out. The hooded, humorless Garden Faculty serve as his eyes, ears, and arms throughout Garden. When the new Sorceress War begins and it's time for SeeD to rise to its true calling, NORG resists, and a civil war erupts in Balamb Garden between Cid's followers and NORG loyalists.

In six words: Bujururururu! MORE-MONEY! MORE-CASH-MONEY!


SEIFER ALMASSY

Balamb Garden's only other gunblade user is also its other prodigy. Seifer is talented, self-absorbed, short-tempered, and fiercely independent. Soon after his arrogance costs him his last shot at becoming a SeeD, he defects from Garden to serve as Sorceress Edea's personal knight. He is her bodyguard, commander of her armed forces, and an anti-SeeD bloodhound. When Edea is neutralized, Seifer retains his control of the Galbadian Army and continues to take orders from Ultimecia out of sheer stubbornness - to prove that he was right and will come out on top over Squall in the end.

Square knew it had scored a hit with the Cloud and Sephiroth face-off in Final Fantasy VII, so they tried taking the idea a step further in the next game. Cloud and Sephiroth were basically just two guys who happened to get in each other's way, but Squall and Seifer are two sides of a coin. The conflict between them seems so much more fitting and inevitable. They have known each other their entire lives. They use the same weapon. They have polar personalities. Their hair and clothes are opposite colors. They have matching scars. They have both been romantically involved with Rinoa. You could probably say that Seifer comes out the loser because Squall discovers the POWER OF LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP over the course of the game, while Seifer insists on going off on his own and pushing his friends away from him.



In six words: Craziest motherfucker in FF besides Kefka.
Positives: What a great antagonist. That we actually watch him becoming progressively more desperate and nuts as the game goes on (did you notice how his coat gets dirtier and more ragged each time he reappears?) makes him one of the most compelling villains Final Fantasy has ever seen. He's also the only character in the series who can claim to have gone Odin on Odin's ass.
Negatives: Has to share the stage with Edea, Adel, and Ultimecia, who all take turns stealing his thunder. He's also kind of wimpy when you face him in battle, and ultimately gets his ass handed to him by Gilgamesh, of all people.


SORCERESS ADEL



For decades, this despotic sorceress ruled Esthar with an iron fist. Some years ago, she was overthrown by an internal resistance movement led by Laguna, and contained in a specially-designed prison in outer space. Since Adel was so powerful, not even keeping her stuck in suspended animation out in orbit was enough. As a safety measure, her "tomb" is insulated against every kind of outside interference imaginable, including junctions and radio waves. (A side effect of this is that Adel's thoughts manifest as interference across all terrestrial radio frequencies.) A long-established rule of the JRPG is that all long-sealed evils get sprung and must be dealt with by the game's heroes, and Adel is no exception. When Ultimecia can no longer possess Edea, she sets her sights on Adel. Catastrophe ensues.

In six words: Got some nice pecs there, Missus.
Positives: Pretty freaky, if you ask me - especially when she "eats" Rinoa.
Negatives: How many lines does the script give her? Three? Four?


ULTIMA AND OMEGA WEAPON



Enter Final Fantasy VIII's super bosses. Ultima Weapon lurks at the bottom of the sunken ruins beneath the Deep Sea Research Center, and is the easier of the two. Although arguably as difficult as Ultimecia herself, it's possible to defeat Ultima Weapon without any really extensive preparations. Omega Weapon is a different story. Power-leveling and junctioning hundreds of forbidden spells to your characters' stats won't be enough; Omega Weapon just gets stronger along with them. And since the Phoenix + Final Attack trick went out with Materia, there's much less room for error than with Emerald and Ruby Weapon.

In six words: No thanks; I have a life.


ULTIMECIA'S SERVANTS



Final Fantasy VII skipped out on the final dungeon boss gauntlet, but now it's back in full force. And this time, there's a catch: each servant steals one of your party's abilities, and they all must be found throughout the castle and defeated before you can face Ultimecia at full strength. The roster: the masked Sphinxaur, the living live wire Tri-Edge, the volatile Krysta, the mechanical Trauma, the indestructible Red Giant, the deceptive Gargantua, the mighty Catoblepas, and Tiamat the time bomb.

In six words: Somewhat easy; loads of fun nonetheless.


SORCERESS ULTIMECIA

A kruel and vastly powerful sorceress from the distant future who seeks to achieve Time Kompression for inkomprehensible reasons only she knows. To akkomplish this, Ultimecia utlizes an advanced version of an Odine device that allows her to take kontrol of sorceresses from the kurrent era in order to find Ellone, who kan take her even further back into the past - which is apparently the only way she kan kast the magik which will result in the compression of past, present, and future. Really, I don't have a damn klue, and I suspekt Final Fantasy VIII's writers didn't either. The whole scenario praktikally skreams RUSH JOB. To Ultimecia's kredit, she puts up a tougher and more engaging final fight than any Final Fantasy end boss yet, inkluding Kefka and Sephiroth.


In six words: Time Compression. Noun: impending writers' deadline.
Positives: It's already been said: even if Ultimecia isn't the best of villains, she's a hell of a final boss. The fight with her has not one, not two, not three, not even four, but five phases, and each is nastier than the last.
Negatives: She's Zemus with a sex change and a speech impediment. And what am I to make of her last words? One second she's absorbing all time and space and trying to kill me, and the next she's babbling advice about cherishing my childhood memories - while still trying to kill me. Is she actually relaying a profound message to the player, or is this just a last-minute effort by the game's writers to give Ultimecia some semblance of depth and meaning?




PLACES

For all Final Fantasy VII's ambivalence towards urbanization and industrialization, Final Fantasy VIII presents a world of modern, clean, and relatively harmonious European-inspired cities. And whereas Final Fantasy VII's world, sharply divided between pastoral Arcadias and industrialized sprawl, embodied the game's themes, Final Fantasy VIII's sometimes seems like it was designed to be little else than a pretty-looking place for the heroes to run around in. This isn't surprising; Final Fantasy VIII's narrative intentionally directs its focus almost exclusively on its characters rather than any underlying social or environmental messages. The game's cities, ruins, and remote railroad tracks are designed and rendered beautifully, to be sure, but its world often feels a lot less diverse and more compacted than Final Fantasy VII's Planet. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy VIII does have its share of memorable locations, even if none of them are quite so captivating as Midgar or the North Crater.


BALAMB GARDEN



The first of the three Gardens, this prestigious military school on the Balamb island continent is Squall's home and SeeD's nerve center. Of all Final Fantasy VIII's locations, Balamb Garden is the most frequently revisited. It boasts all the features of any modern academy - state-of-the-art classrooms, claustrophobic dormitories, advice-dispensing cafeteria ladies and nurses, whip-wielding instructors in short skirts, nerds sitting around the cafeteria playing CCGs, library staff drama, austere faculty members with no sense of humor, dinosaurs in pens, an emergency switch that transforms the campus into a flying fortress, and a money-grubbing monster living in the basement. It really takes you back, doesn't it? There's one important thing missing, though: Squall's roommate. Before becoming a SeeD, Squall lives in a double. You never get to meet his roommate or even set foot in his part of the room. For Balamb Garden to be a complete portrait of the School Days experience, Squall needed a pothead roomy whose perpetually-hazy half of the room is furnished with lava lamps, Grateful Dead and Bob Marley posters, tribal tapestries, a tremendous sound system, and a rug shaped like a cannabis leaf. His role in the story would be trying and failing to get Squall to smoke up before going on the Fire Cavern and Dollet Missions, and then acting as a hint-dispenser when the player is having trouble figuring out what to do next. ("Yeah, so like, good luck getting him to loosen up Rin, - I been trying for years. Say, you poke smot? ZELL! What up, cop killa? You get those Dutchies?")


DOLLET



For of us who bought or rented Brave Fencer Musashi just for the Final Fantasy VIII demo packaged with it, the Dollet Mission was our first peek into the sequel of Quite Possibly the Greatest Game Ever Made. Because of this, a sense of total nonplus will always be tied to Dollet. "The hell is SeeD? The hell is Garden? The does "Draw" mean? Who's this chick in blue and why doesn't she say anything? Who's this guy in the white coat and why is he out of his mind? What the hell is everyone talking about? Is my guy using a sword or a gun? Boy, I sure can't wait for the full game to come out! It's gonna be great! I guess."


TIMBER



Having a military force consisting entirely of Civil War reenactors, this inland region was easily feel to expansionist Galbadian forces fifteen years ago and is still under foreign occupation today. Timber is a transportation and media hub, boasting an extensive train station, a television station, and a publishing company. And no, Timber hasn't a single damn tree in sight. Timber's chief imports are foreign soldiers, and its chief export is sassy young heroines.


DELING CITY



Galbadia's capital city boasts a chic shopping arcade, reliable public transportation, and a modern sewer system you can look forward to getting lost in. In case the presence of the Arc d' Triomphe didn't give it away, Deling City is modeled after Paris. Does anyone else find it kind of funny that the central metropolis of Final Fantasy VIII's militaristic, imperialist dictatorship is based on the capital of France? Might this explain why the Galbadian Army seems so wimpy compared to all the evil imperial forces we've seen previously? (Look, I resisted the Brokeback Mountain joke.)


FISHERMAN'S HORIZON



A remote island village of made up of expatriate artisans and scientists from around the world who didn't want their lives' work to be used for war or violence. It's kind of like Final Fantasy VII's Cosmo Canyon, only FH is populated by NPR-listening Apple nerds instead of barefooted hippies.


ESTHAR



Once the most powerful and feared nation on the planet, Esthar purportedly vanished into thin air following the end of the Sorceress War. Esthar is three things: isolationist, high-tech, and massive, taking up the bulk of the eastern continent. When it's not being ruled by insane witches or rained on by extraterrestrial monsters, Esthar is a futuristic paradise - the inverse of Final Fantasy VII's dystopic Midgar.


SHUMI VILLAGE



This easy-to-miss spot on the northern Trabia continent is the underground home of the Shumi, an industrious tribe of borderline autistic squidmen. They're a decent bunch, and their village is one of the most lovingly-rendered locations in the game.


DEEP SEA RESEARCH FACILITY



This is Final Fantasy VIII's only optional dungeon, and it has the potential to be a doozy. Don't listen to a single goddamn word Zell says unless you feel like spending three hours instead of three minutes getting to the bottom. This is something I had to learn the hard way.


ULTIMECIA'S CASTLE



Let's recap. Zemus/Zeromus was a master manipulator holed up in a cave beneath the surface of the moon. Exdeath was a ruthless, power-hungry mage living in a castle made of bones and body goo. Kefka was a nihilistic living god with a giant pile of garbage for a throne. Sephiroth was a super-soldier turned fallen angel who hung out at the bottom of a giant hole. Sorceress Ultimecia may not exactly be Final Fantasy's most compelling villain, but with the most impressive Gothic fortress this side of Castlevania, she's sure got the best pad.


THINGS

GUARDIAN FORCES AND PARA-MAGIC



The latest incarnations of the famed Final Fantasy summon monsters are Guardian Forces, independent energy sources that SeeDs capture and junction to their brains - really! - to augment their fighting abilities. One of the benefits of having an elemental deity living in your head is the ability to manipulate certain types of energy. This skill is called Para-Magic, and was discovered and developed by Doc Odine as means of giving normal humans a means of countering the "real" magic that only sorceresses have access to as descendants of the Great Hyne. It's possible to play through Final Fantasy VIII half a dozen times and still not pick up on this. The game is full of tidbits and plot points like this; in order to really understand what's going on in Final Fantasy VIII, you need to talk to everyone and explore everything. It's a real treat for players who enjoy meticulously exploring every corner of a game, but potentially alienating for those who'd rather just play for an hour or so a day to unwind after class or work.


TRIPLE TRIAD



Okay, seriously. The Triple Triad card game is the best minigame in any JRPG to date, and possibly Final Fantasy VIII's most influential aspect. The rules are simple, the matches are quick, and the rewards are great. Since it's low-maintenance and totally optional, casual gamers can play only occasionally and still get some neat stuff out of it. But there are also enough tricky rule changes, special opponents, and rare cards to seek out that the more hardcore audience might actually spend more time in Triple Triad matches than actual battles.


THE LUNAR CRY



The planet's moon is a world crawling with monsters. Periodically, for reasons nobody really knows, millions of monsters condense on the moon's surface and fall to earth. Since the first time anyone mentions the Lunar Cry is halfway through the game, you can probably bet the designers came up with it on the fly because they needed another plot device.


LUNATIC PANDORA



The Lunar Cry is somehow related to an immense crystal pillar that fell from the moon some ages ago. Under Adel's rule, Esthar discovered the crystal pillar and housed it inside an immense floating monolith dubbed Lunatic Pandora. Adel planned to use Lunatic Pandora to weaponize the Lunar Cry phenomenon, but was overthrown before it could happen. Laguna subsequently had Lunatic Pandora dumped into the ocean, but I probably don't even need to mention that it gets pulled out and reactivated.


RAGNAROK



The airship that isn't an airship. Blasphemy.


TIME COMPRESSION



The reigning mother-queen of all video game plot devices and rushed endings. Ultimecia's evil scheme isn't anything so basic as blowing up, enslaving, or blinking the world out of existence. She wants to compress past, present, and future into a single being and create a universe in which only she can exist. Thanks to some trickery involving Ellone's powers, Squall and the heroes manage to allow Ultimecia to only achieve a partial state of time compression - just enough to let Squall and co. vault into Ultimecia's time period while retaining access to the present-day world map, certain dungeons, Ragnarok, and all the important Triple Triad players from Balamb Garden. Don't ask how it's supposed to make sense. It doesn't. Time Compression was also a great excuse for the producers to slash the production budget for the ending sequence. Why is half of the ending movie made up of distorted and looping FMV clips from earlier in the game? TIME COMPRESSION. If you want a few laughs, check out some of the bigger Final Fantasy fansites out there and watch them try to analyze and explain Time Compression. See what they come up with. It's really surprising how many of them have convinced themselves it's legitimate.


"DO PEOPLE HERE KNOW GF?"

Summon monsters stepped into the background in Final Fantasy VII, but now they're back in a big way. They don't play quite as significant a role in the game's story as in Final Fantasy VI, but never before have summon monsters been such an integral part of the gameplay. Virtually every aspect of your party's battle performance is tied to the Guardian Forces they have junctioned. It sometimes seems a little extreme: Squall can't even toss a potion to Zell without having a GF equipped. In any event, let's take a look at a few of the more noteworthy ones.



COOLEST-LOOKING SUMMON SPELL
Tonberry - Chef's Knife




In a game full of wildly over-the-top summoning sequences lasting up to 90 seconds (and can't be fast-forwarded through or skipped), there is definitely something to be said for the koan-like simplicity of "Doink."


MOST USEFUL SUMMON SPELL
Doomtrain - Runaway Train




Doomtrain is a pain in the ass to acquire, but the rest of the game becomes a breeze once you do. An enemy hit by Runaway Train gets pegged with virtually every negative status in the game, including the dreaded Vit-0. You can usually consider even the mightiest of bosses good as defeated once Doomtrain shows up.


MOST USEFUL MENU ABILITY
Quezacotl - Card Mod




Card Mod turns your Triple Triad cards into items. Free items. Lots of free items. You don't even need to spend hours playing Triple Triad to reap some pretty incredible benefits from Card Mod. Just look at the screenshot. The Bahamut Card can be refined into 100 Megalixers, and you don't have to play a single card game to acquire it.


MOST USEFUL COMMAND ABILITY
Leviathan/Alexander - Recover/Revive




We have a tie. Leviathan's Recover ability maxes out the HP of a standing party member. Alexander's Revive ability revives and maxes out the HP of a fallen party member. They basically amount to an infinite supply of Curagas and Full-Lifes that can never be silenced, reflected, or blown away.


MOST USEFUL NON-JUNCTIONABLE GF
Odin




In addition to all the GFs you can collect and junction, there are a handful that cannot be junctioned, but show up in battle every now and then to help you out. The best of them is Odin, who randomly appears and wins battles for you before they even start. Marlboro-hunting season is on.


BEST MAKEOVER
Cerberus




The last time we saw this guy was in Final Fantasy III, where he played a worthless milquesop of a Dark Crystal guardian. Now he's back with a hellish redesign and a slew of useful abilities. Remember all the trouble you had to go through to get the Doublecast ability in earlier games? Counter Rockets enables douple and triple-casting for your entire party at absolutely no cost. Wow.


BEST DEBUT
Diablos




We got some slim pickings here. The only entirely new faces are Diablos, Pandemona, and Eden. Pandemona is a giant air bladder with limbs and eyes. Eden is - well, by the looks of things, Eden is a bloated mutant pterodactyl/sea turtle from outer space. Diablos looks terrifying, has an impressive and useful attack, and is the only of the three to ever appear in later games. Looks like have a winner by proxy.


MOST SURPRISING COMEBACK
Gilgamesh



If his rambling about dimensional rifts is any indication, Gilgamesh didn't die in the Void back in Final Fantasy V. Instead, it looks like he managed to escape and go off on an interdimensional joyride. And yes, those are pieces of cardboard with arms drawn on. It's like he's become the SquareSoft equivalent of Deadpool.


MOST DUBIOUS STAND-IN
Quezacotl




I can live with Square screwing Titan out of work, but seriously: stop nerfing Ramuh. You don't mess with a classic.


MOST RIDICULOUS GF-RELATED PLOT DEVICE
Memory loss




Halfway through the game, we find out that Squall, Quistis, Zell, Selphie, Irvine, and Seifer all grew up in the same orphanage together and were raised by Edea. Why wasn't this mentioned sooner? BECAUSE JUNCTIONING GUARDIAN FORCES MADE THEM FORGET. The scene in which this is revealed is the only one that can compete with the brain bubble-promoting absurdity of Tidus and Yuna's bout of insane laughter in Final Fantasy X.




EIGHT BETTER LOVE STORIES THAN FINAL FANTASY VIII

There are multitudes of fans out there who hold Final Fantasy VIII as their favorite game in the series. Fine. I can live with that. After all, the junction system and Triple Triad are loads of fun, and they're both exclusive to Final Fantasy VIII. But it has come to my attention that there are people out there who love the game for its story. That's something I have a much harder time swallowing.

I was all set to come up with a list of eight love stories that are better than Final Fantasy VIII, but that wouldn't really be fair. Video games are are developing medium. Final Fantasy VIII's love-themed plot might have fallen short, but you can't say the developers didn't try. As bad a taste as the Squall/Rinoa melodrama leaves in my mouth, Final Fantasy VIII attempted something that hadn't been done before in video games, and deserves kudos for that. Comparing Final Fantasy VIII to films, novels, and plays and discussing why it can't live up to them wouldn't really constitute a balanced argument. Those media have had decades and centuries to figure themselves out; video games have not. Saying Final Fantasy VIII's love story isn't of the same calibur as The Age of Innocence (the novel) would be like bashing a twelve-year-old with colored pencils and construction paper for not producing material of the same quality as a professional illustrator, and I'm not going to do that. It wouldn't be right.

But I can bash "Eyes on Me."

Final Fantasy VIII intended to make the line between video games and cinema even blurrier. Somewhere during the development, it was decided that the game needed a signature theme: a song that do what "Dont You (Forget About Me)" did for The Breakfast Club, or that one awful Aerosmith single did for that one awful Bruce Willis flick about asteroids. So Square called up Yu Yamada and Faye Wong, who went on to write and record six minutes of constructed sound so trite and sterile that even Lite FM would be reluctant to spin it. Final Fantasy VIII's signature tune, "Eyes on Me," is as much a love ballad as Grape Drink is a fruit juice. It's comprised of ingredients that are derived from or resemble things you'll find in a good love song, and it almost sort of sounds like one - but it's really only pretending. "Eyes on Me" is a spiritless and artificial affront to music, and should never have been a big a deal as it somehow became.

EIGHT BETTER LOVE SONGS THAN "EYES ON ME"


VIII. Radiohead - "Creep"

This song should always be softly playing in Squall's dorm room. During any of the sequences in which Squall is sulking on his bed, the volume should progressively rise until it becomes unbearable. As far as I'm concerned, Squall's gunblade case should be sitting beneath an OK Computer poster.


VII. Jefferson Airplane - "Somebody to Love"

The trailer for Lost Odyssey recently demonstrated that JRPGs and Love Generation rock n' roll might not be as incompatible as we might have assumed. Picture this: Laguna, Kiros and Ward sneaking into a Matrix or Fillmore Auditorium-styled nightclub to watch a Slicked-up Julia perform 1960's psychedelic rock. How much more interesting would that have been than the hackneyed pianist in a hotel bar routine?


VI. Marilyn Manson - "The Last Day on Earth"

"Ah hah!" you're saying. "What right does a Marilyn Manson fan have to pick on our beloved Faye Wong?" As much as he has to pick on Celine Dion or Randy Newman. Hmm. Now that I listen to the song again, I think it might be better suited for Final Fantasy VII's scenario.


V. Nine Inch Nails - "Closer"

One of the myriad problems with Final Fantasy VIII's story is that it takes itself too seriously for its own damn good. Replacing "Eyes on Me" with Trent Reznor's famed ditty about the physical act of love would certainly help remediate this. "Eyes on Me" made that dragging scene in the Ragnarok's cockpit between Squall and Rinoa even more difficult to sit though. "Closer" would put a welcomely different spin on things.


IV. Berlin - "The Metro"

Attention all aspiring rock musicians out there: cover this song. It is impossible to perform a bad cover of "The Metro." This particular version comes from Bella Morte, the Blink 182 of goth rock, and even they couldn't mess it up. I bet even Ms. Wong could have made it work.


III. Misfits - "Saturday Night"

Yes, I am aware that "Saturday Night" is a post-Danzig song, but that doesn't detract from it in the least. This would be perfect for the scene in the Ragnarok's cockpit. The lyrics don't quite match up to the scenario, but there's something about the situation - being young, in love, and stranded on a spaceship full of self-replicating alien monsters - that just screams MISFITS.


II. VNV Nation - "Standing"

VNV Nation is an act whose music is powered entirely by machines. In spite of this, "Standing," a futurepop track bordering on vocal trance, still contains more soul and life than "Eyes on Me." For shame.


I. The Cure - "Lovesong"

If Square had really wanted to do this right, they should have told Uematsu to take a vacation and outsourced half of Final Fantasy VIII's soundtrack to Elektra Records. Almost every OST track used for the game's cutscenes could be replaced by a song from Galore, a collection of The Cure's singles from 1987-1997, or the Faggy Love Song Years. Just imagine it. "Lovesong" playing during the cockpit and flower field scenes. "Catch" during the Laguna sequence at Winhill. "Pictures of You" during the scene at Trabia Garden's basketball court. "Just Like Heaven" for all the hokey bonding moments between Squall and Rinoa on the second disc. And "Friday I'm in Love" should be played at every possible opportunity, since that song makes me want to cry like a schoolgirl losing her virginity on prom night and I'm not the least ashamed to admit it. None of this would make Final Fantasy VIII's story any less of a silly mess, but it would certainly give it a better flavor.




CONCLUSION

I'm still scratching my head here. Final Fantasy VIII succeeds and innovates on so many levels, but fails and trips over itself on just about as many. It has some of the most realistic-looking characters ever seen in video games (at the time of its release), but they still act like two-dimensional cutouts. It has the best party customization system since Final Fantasy V, but the dungeons are short and the enemies easy enough that you could theoretically play through 90% of the game using nothing but GF attacks. "Premonition" and "Vithos Lusec Wenos Vinosec" are among the best and most evocative tunes ever composed for a video game, but "Eyes on Me" is a stinking bottom-feeder. Final Fantasy VIII attempts to blend video games and cinema; the result is half above-average video game and half evil omen of things to come (Spirits Within). The list goes on.

Final Fantasy VIII isn't really a step forward for the series, but not a step backwards, either. It's a hop to the side; a change of direction of an even greater scale than the false start in Final Fantasy II or the steampunk Renaissance of VI. This is the new face of Final Fantasy. From now on, expect the norm to be Japanese teen-idol heroes, millions' worth of eye-popping special effects, epic Hollywood storylines, and a general sense of substance being overidden by style and high-end fluff. Success can sometimes be the worst thing to happen to a creative outfit.


VERDICT!
3 OUT OF 5 MINIMOGS!



Can't say I'm not relieved to have that behind me. Final Fantasy IX to begin as soon as I crack 10,000 points in Berzerk.











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