A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

MERCIFULLY, this is the last time I’ll need to preface these things with the circumstance of localisation. Final Fantasy VI was not released in its original form in Europe, so I played the American SNES release for the purposes of this article. The Game Boy Advance and iOS versions that did reach European shores both pack extra content and new translations, though the latter uses the same style of sprite-work seen in FFV’s iOS and the former has a lower difficulty. Pick your poison. Again. Also, since this is the first story-intensive entry, there will be spoilers ahead.

The fifth instalment of the series was a runaway success in Japan. It was a consummation of everything that had come before, realising the full potential of the Job System while retaining an indelible sense of charm and adventuring spirit. But it also represented a brick wall: If the series was to evolve, it would need to go beyond what the traditional save-the-crystals narrative could permit. It would have to reinvent itself in order to assert its relevance among a growing tide of competitors like Lufia, Earthbound and, its oldest rival, Dragon Quest.

In reality, it’s easy to imagine that Square didn’t feel much incentive to change. It was already on the verge of dominating the console RPG market; Secret of Mana redefined the aesthetic capabilities of the SNES, while the upcoming Chrono Trigger would go on to become one of the most beloved videogames of all time. Akitoshi Kawazu (remember him?) was helming the Romancing SaGa series, and everything else the company touched turned to gold. They had no reason to mess with a winning formula that had served them so well in the past.

But they did.

Hironobu Sakaguchi, the patriarch in the director’s chair for five straight games, retreated to a hands-off producer role for the rest of his Square tenure. Two men took his place: Hiroyuki Ito, creator of the Job System and Active Time Battle, and Yoshinori Kitase, who worked closely with Sakaguchi during FFV’s development. The former was a Square veteran; the latter’s only other credits were supplemental roles on Final Fantasy Adventure and Romancing SaGa.

Sakaguchi’s absence is felt immediately. Crystals, it seems, have run their course. The cheery, Tolkien-lite medieval aesthetic has given way to the grit and grime of steampunk. The garish greens and blues of nature have bled into the steel of industry. Magic is no longer a wondrous force for good – it’s a weapon of mass destruction, harnessed by an imperial regime that, unwittingly, is bent on re-enacting the follies of a thousand-year war that nearly tore the planet apart.

Final Fantasy VI is oppressive. The title screen is stormy clouds and tolling bells and squalling choirs. The opening features no kingdoms and dragons and whimsy, but imperial mecha trudging balefully through the snowy Mode 7 plains. Its heroes are not archetypical representatives of human virtues like faith and courage, but deeply damaged individuals who all have a cross to bear. Its villains are not demi-gods or embodiments of the void, but all-too human monsters motivated by greed and psychopathy. It’s such a dramatic departure from the light-hearted appeal of the other games that it almost doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same series.

Kitase has mentioned in past interviews that the team treated every character as the protagonist. This ensemble philosophy extended to the development process itself, where every team member was encouraged to pitch in with ideas on where to take the game, whether it was narrative or gameplay-related. The result is a work with an abundance of concepts, design philosophies and plain old ideas, but it was up to Kitase on the narrative side and Ito, on the gameplay side, to piece these disparate elements into a coherent whole.

It’s fitting that a game with two directors is itself divided into two complementary halves. The first half sees the heroes – a band of rebel fighters unceremoniously dubbed The Returners – wage a desperate, dwindling war against the overwhelming might of the Gestahlian Empire, whose Magitek forces have laid waste to the surrounding regions. The Returners battle the Empire’s forces – including Kefka, a sociopathic madman with a fabulous dress sense – until they finally take the fight to the Emperor himself atop a Floating Continent above the world.

All very traditional stuff for the time, to be sure, albeit tempered with a pervasive, rising sense of dread throughout. Characters are constantly bombarding the player with warnings to not repeat the genocidal mistakes of the past, with scars of the war still present on the conscience of the planet. There is a doom hanging over this world like the sword of Damocles, and the party does all it can to stop that sword from falling.

Here’s the kicker. They fail.

Part Two, or the World of Ruin, opens a whole year after Kefka takes control of the Goddess Statues – sealed deities bearing unbridled magical power – and lays waste to the planet. The earth is rotting and the party is scattered from hither to yon. The frantic pace and linear progression of Part One collapses in on itself, giving way to a path that’s been wiped off the map. The player stumbles their way through the dying world to find their missing friends, with no obvious objective in sight.

Only once the Airship is reclaimed does the world re-open itself; the player can take the fight to Kefka then and there, or they can right what wrongs they can and reunite with everyone they’ve lost. The choice is yours. Part One is linear as you can get – Part Two is pure sandbox. It’s amazing.

The apocalyptic bleakness of FFVI’s second half is captivating, especially for a 16-bit game. It comes close to matching the chilling anxiety of Majora’s Mask, that’s how good it is. The game’s oppressive atmosphere makes its lighter, more triumphant moments all the sweeter. Character sprites are much larger than before, allowing for a significant amount more detail and expression for individuals. They also retain their size both in and out of battle.

Backgrounds have similarly increased in aspect, and the painstaking level of depth and clarity in this pixel art is incredible, providing the characters and their environments with a vaster berth of personality. You’ll actually remember towns like Narshe and Vector this time, thanks to the extra effort put in by the artists to make these places distinct.

Now, let’s talk about Nobuo Uematsu. His previous work on the series lent those titles vitality and wonder seldom seen, sure, but this game… This is where he truly hit his stride. It’s thanks largely to Uematsu that Final Fantasy VI feels legitimately operatic in its scope, with each character receiving their own distinct theme. His employment of leitmotifs, dipping in and out of various pieces, culminates in two of the most brilliantly-realised pieces of music in videogame history: The final boss theme, ‘Dancing Mad’ – an 18 minute-long, four-part opus of ecclesiastical madness – and ‘Aria di Mezzo Carattere’, a stunningly beautiful song that forms the backbone of an in-game opera.

Oh, yeah, Final Fantasy VI has an opera in it. Just because. It made me cry.

Gushing aside, the famous ‘opera scene’ is a prime example of the game’s numerous unique scenarios, including a raft escape, an extra-dimensional journey through a phantom train and ten minutes spent convincing enemy soldiers to put aside their differences for the common good. What seem like indulgent digressions on paper are actually integral to maintaining the pace of the early game and, crucially, tie back into the main narrative and the characters’ arcs.

But what makes these digressions matter is interactivity. The opera scene retains its impact because you’re the one remembering the correct lyrics for Celes. You’re the one controlling her. You’re the one fighting through rats toward the purple grin of Ultros. It’s not difficult to be cynical and imagine this playing out as a non-interactive cutscene (perhaps with Quicktime Events?) in modernity, which attests to the longevity and memorability of FFVI’s story and, indeed, its characters.

Each character – 14 permament party members in total – has their own, fully involved backstory that requires the player to dig around to discover for themselves. For me to go into detail on them all would require this article to be at least 6,000 words long, but it would be remiss of me not to talk about Kefka. He’s one of the most fascinating villains in role-playing games, and it’s not necessarily for the depth of his character.

Introduced as a comic relief henchman to the Emperor, complaining about sand on his boots, Kefka keeps cropping up throughout the first half, committing atrocities and bothering the party, slowly accruing power until he eventually becomes a lunatic death-god dispensing divine judgement from atop a towering “monument to non-existence”.

He’s not motivated by Freudian complexes or otherworldly forces or an oxymoronic desire to save the world by ending it. He’s just an insane man with a twisted sense of humour who wants to watch the world burn. In a cast as diverse and memorable as FFVI’s, Kefka remains the most fascinating to this day.

All this, and I’ve barely even mentioned the actual gameplay.

Final Fantasy VI is the first in the series to actively make the narrative its prime focus. This means that the Job System from FFV is once again axed, replaced by the inherent classes and abilities of FFIV. The difference this time is found in the Esper and Relic systems, which act as the game’s lip service to the series tradition of player customisation. Relics, for which there are two slots, essentially function as Accessories, providing the player with, among other things, status immunities and unique battle commands. Espers – this instalment’s story-critical Summon monsters – can be assigned to characters in order to ‘teach’ them Magic.

The system is, unsurprisingly, Ito’s brainchild, which explains the vast amount of experimental set-ups and customisability the player can potentially engage with. The problem is that, unlike the finely-honed balance of the Jobs, the system is hideously exploitable. Certain Relics, like Offering and Gem Box – as well as spells like Ultima – are horrendously over-powered, resulting in dual-wielding, double-casting abominations that turn the last fight into a joke and make the ‘super-bosses’ quail in terror.

The overall difficulty has received a sharp downgrade in general. There are less creative boss fights and even fewer that present a decent challenge, and that’s assuming your ATB settings are on Active and at the highest speed. A welcome addition is the ability to switch between ‘ready’ characters during battle, meaning you don’t have to waste a turn just to reach the character you actually want, but this doesn’t salve the lacklustre challenge.

What’s worse is that, in its original version, the game shipped with over 100 different glitches, some more devastating than others. Glitches are no stranger to the series, granted, but VI’s are particularly fascinating. The Vanish-Doom glitch is, essentially, an instant-win button that works on 90% of bosses, including tougher fights like Atma and Deathgaze. The Sketch glitch, meanwhile, runs the risk of deleting save data or replacing the player’s inventory with random shit, whether it’s endless Dirks or 99 Illuminas. It’s a little crazy.

It’s an incredibly easy game to break, even for those who aren’t particularly familiar with the mechanics involved. The gameplay was streamlined in FFIV for the sake of the story, sure, but not to this extent, and the literally game-breaking glitches don’t help. We’re back to the days of the original Final Fantasy, where certain spells and stats simply didn’t work, but it’s more likely a result of the game stretching the SNES’s resources to breaking point, as opposed to errors born from unfamiliarity with the hardware.

They’re forgivable botches, all things considered. Though the game’s development cycle may only have been a year (imagine that, Square-Enix), the loose collaborative process enabled the team to be much more ambitious with its goals, enabling a febrile creative atmosphere evidenced by interviews from the time. That curtailed process is mirrored in the English localisation helmed by Ted Woolsey, who was given only 30 days(!) to completely transliterate the script while simultaneously accommodating Nintendo America’s draconian censorship regulations.

Woolsey’s translation has been criticised for numerous errors and taking liberties with the text, but given the text-box limitations of the SNES and the insanely short work schedule, it’s a staggering achievement that conveys the spirit and tone of the original without compromising accessibility for English-speaking audiences. (Having played around ten minutes of a much more literal fan-translation, Woolsey’s efforts are very much appreciated.)

The creative and technical boundaries imposed by the hardware is one of the main reasons why this game excels. The team were working within very set parameters but still managed to cram scores of side-quests, character backstories, a sweeping soundtrack, severe graphical intensity and a long, involved narrative with two distinct halves onto a single SNES cartridge.

It’s how the game earned its esteemed reputation and why it remains a fan-favourite: It did what no other title at the time had done and what few even thought possible. Yes, it streamlined the gameplay, compromising customisability almost as much as FFIV did, but by expanding the narrative with such gusto it enabled the series to evolve beyond its two-dimensional trappings.

Final Fantasy VI was the moment when Final Fantasy became important. It is also the transitional shatter-point between what the franchise was and what it would become. It’s the last 2D game in the series, the last SNES game and the last Nintendo-exclusive title. Moreso even than FFV, it’s a farewell to everything that had come before and an opening salvo aimed at the future. Goodbye, Sakaguchi; hello, Kitase.

What next? Global domination. The world is square: Final Fantasy VII.

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