I mentioned in my link roundup last week that I had discovered a freely available compilation of remixed songs from the soundtrack of one of my favorite games from my childhood. The discovery set off a wave of nostalgia that left me reminiscing about that game, and so I will now subject all my faithful readers to an explanation of what was great about Final Fantasy VI.
Originally released as Final Fantasy III in America to avoid number confusion (Squaresoft thought that the second, third, and fifth installments of the series wouldn’t appeal to westerners, so they didn’t get localized until the late ’90s when Final Fantasy was at the height of its mainstream popularity), Final Fantasy VI was an ambitious game for its time. There was a total of 14 selectable characters to put in your party (two of which were actually optional secret characters), each with his or her own unique abilities. The story revolved around a group of heroic rebels fighting to overthrow an oppressive globe-spanning empire (no princesses to be rescued here). The central hero, in a genre that is still overwhelmingly dominated by male protagonists, was a girl.
There was a lot about this game to love.
One of the more quirky aspects of Final Fantasy VI is that it’s rife with Star Wars references and parodies. The main character, Terra, is a young, supernaturally gifted orphan whose parents were killed by the evil Empire. She has an older mentor figure who helps her towards joining the rebellion and then promptly dies. She goes on a spiritual journey to rediscover her heritage, and returns to aid the rebellion fully in control of her special abilities. In essence, she’s Luke Skywalker. There’s also a handsome rogue with a ship that Terra really needs, a big furry man who’s speech is unintelligible, and a highly capable former official of the Empire who gets imprisoned for assisting the rebellion and then subsequently broken out.
Besides the story parallels, there are also hat tips in the form of a pair of expendable crewmen named Biggs and Wedge who function as Terra’s wingmen in the opening sequence, a scene that directly parodies Luke rescuing Leia from the death star (“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”), and the final betrayal of the Emperor by his second-in-command who throws him to his death from a very high place.
So this is all wonderful high adventure fun, right? Well, yeah, it is. Every character’s so fully fleshed out, and the story is just exciting. You really feel like you’re doing something that matters to this world when you go and battle against the evil Empire.
Of course, then you reach the Floating Continent, which feels very much like the final dungeon of the game. The Emperor has seized control of the source of all magic in the world, and it looks like he’s going to wipe out the rebellion once and for all.
Your party reaches him just in time, but he easily subdues them. Then you watch in horror, wondering how you’ll get out of this scrape when suddenly the Emperor’s only remaining general (there were three, but one died and the other defected) stabs him in the back and throws him over a cliff. Huzzah!
Except this general is a madman who you’ve witnessed commit multiple acts of genocide throughout your travels. And he now has control of the source of the world’s magic.
This is where it stops being like Star Wars.
Where the first half of the game was ambitious, the second half goes all out in terms of its innovations. Up until the halfway point, the game has been pretty linear with very few opportunities to stray from the path. It’s been mostly lighthearted (aside from the mass murder) and there’s been a pervasive sense of hope that things will get better. That all goes out the window when you resume control of Celes, the former Imperial general who joined the rebellion, after she’s been in a coma for a year following the events on the Floating Continent.
Suddenly we have a new central character, the world is in ruins, the party has been scattered to the winds, and Kefka, the madman who took control of the source of magic, reigns over everything as a god. The Empire was oppressive, but it didn’t burn down whole villages just for giggles.
It’s almost like starting a whole new game at this point, but with much less restraint on what can be done. There’s some linearity at first, because you’re land bound again after your airship’s destruction, and you need to find a new one. Once you do, though the whole world opens up, and you’re free to go pursue anything that you like. There’s the matter of reuniting your party, in the course of which you’ll wrap up the individual plot threads that each character had dangling out there, but these are all standalone stories. You can tackle them in any order you like, and even skip some if you want. As soon as you have the second airship (named the Falcon in one last Star Wars reference) you can even go straight to the final dungeon with just your pitiful party of three characters (this is not a good idea).
Final Fantasy VI is, objectively, one of the best games. I loved it as a kid, and I still love it today. Now if only Square Enix would do a remake like they did with Final Fantasy IV…