In a time when the majority of games had plots thinner than Subway’s bacon, Final Fantasy put an emphasis on story. Final Fantasy VI, released in 1994, remains my favorite game in the franchise nearly two decades later. This isn’t a trick of nostalgia. It wasn’t the first game I played in the series, nor was it the last. Technical limitations prevent it from having the most impressive visuals or beautiful music. Despite this, it remains to me the most memorable and engaging. Why?
1. The Characters.
To this day, Final Fantasy VI has the largest cast of playable characters in the series. Most of them are interesting and well thought-out, with believable motivations and weaknesses. They transform over the course of the game, and not always in expected ways.
The first character you control, Terra, is a perfect example of this. As a young woman robbed of any sort of childhood, she begins the game with no understanding of how to relate to people. She can’t fathom Edgar’s romantic advances, and plainly states she doesn’t know what love is. In most stories, this would simply lead to her finding the right man and a budding relationship. This isn’t how things play out in Final Fantasy VI: Terra doesn’t discover love in the arms of another person, but in protecting a village of orphaned children.
Other characters exhibit similar depth. Celes and Locke both seek redemption, though for entirely different reasons. Edgar and Sabin, twin brothers of royal birth, struggle with balancing freedom and responsibility. Cyan must move through the grief of losing his wife, child, and country in a single moment. Gau, a feral child who was abandoned by his father, must accept that he will never truly get closure.
That’s half the cast of playable characters. While most of the other characters aren’t quite as deep, the rest of the cast is still varied and interesting.
2. The Villains.
Although Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth is the most iconic villain in the series, Kefka is the most terrifying one. While Sephiroth’s stone-faced detachment and hyper-violent feats of strength solidify him in the minds of many as the epitome of bad ass, Kefka instead giggles with delight as he mercilessly destroys everything in his path. He sees every other living thing on the planet as a plaything. He revels in chaos and destruction. He poisons a castle’s water supply to end a siege he’s grown tired of, and turns against his allies once they have served his purpose. He’s… kind of a video game version of The Joker, right down to the makeup.
There are other villains in the game, though they all take a backseat to Kefka. Emperor Gestahl appears to be the main antagonist early in the game, and recurring nuisance Ultros serves as comic relief. The Rommel-like General Leo holds the begrudging respect of his enemies.
3. The Music.
There’s no escaping the fact that later games in the series had higher-quality audio, from a technical standpoint. But along with Final Fantasy VI’s large cast came an eclectic and often moving soundtrack. Every character has a memorable theme. Music for battle is appropriately stirring, and the game’s final battle and ending themes are each over fifteen minutes long. Although the quality is decidedly low-fi, Final Fantasy’s score is undoubtably epic.
Oh yeah, and there’s a playable opera sequence right in the middle of the game!
4. The Visuals.
Every subsequent Final Fantasy ups the ante in terms of graphics, and I would never try to argue that Final Fantasy VI looks better than its follow-ups. That said, Final Fantasy VI was surprisingly impressive for it’s time, doubly so because console role-playing games of the age were not known for their visuals. Character sprites conveyed a surprising range of emotion, and backgrounds were pleasing to the eye. The number of Super NES RPGs with comparable graphics can be counted on one hand. I don’t think people were blown away by Final Fantasy VI, but they were impressed.
5. The Overall Story.
Initially, Final Fantasy VI follows the same path as most other epic fantasies: a small band of heroes fight against impending doom. The game has all the trappings of a classic tale. Except for one thing: you don’t save the world.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Final Fantasy VI is the one game in the series where the heroes really lose. Halfway through the game, your party confronts Kefka and fails. They fail hard. The entire world suffers for your unavoidable loss, completely transforming it. The latter half of the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where Kefka is a maniacal ruler. Even when you eventually defeat Kefka, the price is quite high — all magic is stripped from the world. Final Fantasy VI’s ending, while hopeful, is bittersweet. Its grand ending sequence paints a world that is rediscovering hope, but is forever lessened.
It’s hard to call a game almost twenty years old timeless. The limited resources of the Super NES and a story limited by programming and storage limitations will feel more and more dated as time goes on. It is unfortunate that Square Enix has lost the magic that made the Final Fantasy series so great. There is no one developer who has taken up their mantle. Bethesda Softworks has created engrossing worlds in their Elder Scrolls series, but their plots and characters are horribly bland. BioWare has created compelling characters and stories, but have stripped many character-management aspects from their games, to the point where no one would really classify the Mass Effect series as an RPG.
As much as I would love to play a high-definition remake of Final Fantasy VI, I don’t think Square Enix is up to the task. The Game Boy Advance and PlayStation ports were abysmal. It’s a shame that one of the best stories in all of gaming will likely languish and be forgotten.