Hey, who wants to see me nerd out over an old video game?

Back in June, Boss Fight Books had an open call for submissions– in particular, looking for pitches for an upcoming book on Final Fantasy VI (originally released as Final Fantasy III in the US).

Seeing as of how FF3/6 is one of my favorite games, well, ever, I naturally got in on that. Sadly, I got a rejection letter a week or so ago, but it was a long shot anyway.

Even still, while I was waiting, I hammered out a couple thousand words about the game … so I figured I’d share some highlights of it here. Lemme know if you’d like to see more– if I get really ambitious (and if someone asks nicely) I might even keep hammering out reflection and pseudo-academic analysis of a video game that’s old enough to drink.

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Spring, 1995.

A Saturday.

The basement (of the archetypical wood-paneled midwestern variety) used to be the realm of my older sister, but once she moved away for college, I was able to lay claim to that subterranean domain.

As far as basements went, it was pretty sweet.

The SNES was hooked up to an old Commedore 64 color monitor, and set up next to an even older television that somehow got a grainy signal through the concrete foundation. Add a battered couch, a couple of much-read Nintendo Power magazines, and far too many empty soda cans, and you had the perfect setup for a nerdy twelve year old.

That Saturday, my family was getting ready for a big road trip down to the beach somewhere (Alabama, maybe?) but I had time to kill, so I descended into the cool (temperature-wise, that is) basement to fire up my Super Nintendo.

The Atma Weapon (or Ultima Weapon, according to the more “accurate” translation I’d read years and years later) was finally dead. I’d been trying to beat the gnarly-looking boss monster for at least a week, maybe longer. The Atma Weapon was tough enough on his own– but on top of that, there was a long, monster-ridden stretch of floating island between the that boss and the closest save point. On top of that, my characters were probably under-leveled, as I’d gotten into the habit of running away from random encounters in order to get on with the plot faster. Over and over, I trudged across the Floating Continent to butt heads with Atma Weapon, only to fall beneath his onslaught of high-level spells I couldn’t match.

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Seriously, this guy is a jerk.

Until finally, whether out of sheer persistence, or some rudimentary strategy cooked up by my pre-teen, internet-less mind, my ragtag party of heroes struck the Atma Weapon down.

One cut scene later, the world ended. More on that later.

When the smoke cleared, the grand, world-spanning adventure had been reduced to a single island. The large cast of ragtag heroes and their villainous opponents had been cut down as well, down to Celes and her adoptive grandfather, the kinda-mad scientist Cid.

Up to that point, Final Fantasy VI is fairly clear in what your immediate goals are. Go here, meet this guy, fight a boss or two along the way. But on that island, there are no dungeons to delve, and the only monsters you randomly encounter are weak, and will die of poison even if you don’t do anything in battle. Puzzled, I blundered about between Cid’s house, the beach, and the random encounters without any clue of what I was supposed to do. In those heady, pre-internet days, there were no handy internet walkthroughs to consult. And in typical fashion, my much-battered issue of Nintendo Power laying out tips for Final Fantasy VI left off well before this point of the game.

And because of my ignorance, Cid died.

In one of those little disconnects between game mechanics and narrative, none of the Cure spells under your “Magic” menu or even the Phoenix Downs in your item inventory will save poor Cid. Utterly broken by the death of possibly the only other person left in the world, Celes flings herself from a cliff, off into the polluted waters of the ocean beyond.

As she fell, my mom started yelling from the top of the stairs, telling me it was time to go. Forced to turn off the SNES in the middle of Celes’ plummet, I was left to dwell on that cliffhanger (cliff-jumper?) for the whole of Spring Break.

Funny thing is, I re-played the whole sequence once I got back home, and Cid lived.

Whether Cid lives or dies is one of the few parts of FFVI where the player can actively influence the plot. Incidentally, it’s preceded by another key moment where the player will either wait to save the mercenary ninja Shadow, or abandon him to death. The game never tells you to wait for Shadow, and it never tells you which fish you need to catch and feed to Cid to keep him alive. In that way, these two key moments reflect the uncertain nature of life, and how we often don’t know what consequences our choices will bring.

This all ties into one of the major themes of FFVI, as well as it’s central mechanic: choice. In FFVI, each push of the button does not correspond to a bullet fired, or a sword swung. FFVI even lacks the simulationist aspect you get from a strategy game, in which the player takes on the role of a general and orders units about. There’s no character standing behind Terra and company, yelling combat commands like some kind of Pokemon trainer. “TERRA! USE MORPH!”

Instead, the player acts in the abstracted role of the director, having sway over the little stuff: which door to go through, what gear to equip, who to put in your four-character party, and so on. It’s honestly the standard sort of gameplay one expects from a RPG like FFVI. However, what makes FFVI stand out from its contemporaries is the fact that the mechanics and themes of choice carry over into the plot, from the very beginning to the very end of the game. More often than not, these thematic bits are subtle … which makes Shadow or Cid’s deaths hit even harder.

Well played, Squaresoft.

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Final Fantasy 6 wasn’t the first Japanese Role Playing game (“JRPG” for short) on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (“SNES” for short). Depending on who you ask, it’s not even the best JRPG on the SNES. Any discussion of FF6 is bound to include Chrono Trigger in the same breath. Even still, FF6 is regularly featured on “Top games on the SNES” or even “Top Video Games of All Time” lists. There’s more than nostalgia at play here; Final Fantasy 6 is a genuinely entertaining game, if a dated one. And yet, many of FF6’s limitations add to its appeal. The character sprites are surprisingly emotive for such small icons, Ted Woolsey’s hurried translation is charming despite its occasional clunkiness, and the soundtrack doesn’t lose any of its grandeur rendered in 16 bits.

The title “Final Fantasy” is a bit ironic, given that SquareEnix (formerly SquareSoft) has released fourteen “main” Final Fantasy games to date (with the fifteenth installment scheduled to hit in late 2016). This, of course, is excluding the convoluted family tree of spin-offs, side stories, and other games to bear the “Final Fantasy” name.

Final Fantasy games don’t share continuity with each other, and start in an entirely new setting with an entirely new cast of characters. This is a stark contrast to other long-running franchises like Mega Man or Zelda, which focus on the same central characters and gameplay elements. By starting anew each time, the developers behind a Final Fantasy game are free to explore different settings and characters that they might not have gotten to otherwise.

Final Fantasy 6 is a key game in the Final Fantasy franchise, as it marks when the Final Fantasy games truly began to come into their own. This isn’t to say that the prior Final Fantasy games are bad (Square wouldn’t have kept the series going so long if they were). However, Final Fantasy 6’s industrial-baroque world is a far cry from the series’ Dungeons & Dragons derivative roots. On top of that, one can draw a direct line from Final Fantasy 6’s aesthetic to that of Final Fantasy 7, the true blockbuster of the franchise. All you need to do is combine Vector’s industry to Zozo’s grit and grime, and you get Final Fantasy 7’s Midgar. After the blockbuster success of Final Fantasy 7, Square (and later, SquareEnix) stuck to this science-fantasy vibe (albeit with the occasional throwback like FF9).

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Final Fantasy 6 opens on a bleak, snow-blown cliff. After the obligatory exposition crawl, three mecha pilots drive their big stompy robots onto the screen. Here, we meet Vicks and Wedge (the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the Final Fantasy series) as they discuss searching for an Esper. This is also where we meet Terra, our first Player Character (though she’s not given a name yet, listed only as ???? in various menus). Vicks refers to Terra as a “sorceress,” only to have Wedge reassure him that Terra is completely under their control, due to the “slave crown” mind control device around her head.

The ensuing cutscene, in which the trio of mecha plod throught the snow as credits scroll overhead is one of the best looking sequences in the game. Eventually, once the credits are done rolling (or once you get impatient enough to hit the A button), Vicks, Wedge, and Terra stomp their way into the mining town of Narshe. The tutorial-level random encounters are easy enough, especially considering that your mecha have lasers (and missiles, in Terra’s case) where Narshe’s guards are forced to rely on hatchets and trained mammoth-looking monsters.

In these opening few minutes, Final Fantasy 6 does a lot to distinguish itself from the standard D&D-derived fantasy tropes. Most obviously, you get to drive a robot. Sure, it’s a magic-powered mecha, but it’s still a far cry from the typical “ye olde medieval tymes” that has been the ‘default’ setting for Fantasy literature, video games, and other media ever since Tolkien. In addition to the deviation from the standard fantasy setting, FF6’s opening sequence deviates from the standard fantasy plot as well. An easy way to provide motivation for a fantasy genre protagonist is to have some minions of the bad guy go raze his home to the ground. This gives your hero ample motive to go a-questing. Revenge, obviously, but it also means there’s no place for him to go back to when it’s all over. Probably one of the best known examples is the offscreen deaths of Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru in Star Wars.

Instead, in FF6, we are the aggressor. Admittedly, Terra is mind controlled, but the player is still directing her actions (along with those of Vicks & Wedge). So we’re controlling Wedge, who in turn is controlling Terra. It’s an amusing extra layer. Regardless of how you spin it, you begin FF6 in the role of the antagonist, blasting through the ranks and ranks of Narshe’s town guard. The ‘working for the bad guy’ intro was also used in FFIV (originally ported as FFII on the SNES, because this shit gets confusing), but that doesn’t make it any less effective in throwing off the typical narrative intro.

Just as FF6’s opening breaks from the ‘standard’ hero’s journey framework, its ensemble cast also helps it stand out from other games. I’ll give a quick rundown of the cast in another blog post. Stay tuned!

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    1. Book Review: Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler | Dial H For Houston

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