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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Memories #13: Final Fantasy VI

You'll have to excuse me for sounding like so many obsessive fanboys for saying this, but Final Fantasy VI is, in my humble opinion, the greatest game in the Final Fantasy series. It towers over the previous and later installments on so many levels. Sure, later entries had superior visuals, but few games in the series have managed to have such a compelling plot, developed characters each with their own stories and motives for being involved and the soundtrack still holds up magnificently well to this day. But for all the praise I've just heaped upon this game and I will dish out oodles more of through out this Memories post, I did not come into Final Fantasy VI with high expectations. In fact, Final Fantasy VI was a game I did not want to play. At all. They say that the best relationships start off rocky. I came into Final Fantasy VI, arms folded with the utmost reluctance.

Just a heads up, this is the longest Memories post I've done thus far. It also contains massive spoilers, so if you've never played Final Fantasy VI, you may not want to go any further.

Summer of 1996 is where the story begins. It's a Friday night in September and I'm in Blockbuster Video looking for a SNES game to rent. I already had my mind set on Mega Man 7. I'd rented the game before but I could never get enough of it. There was just one problem: Mega Man 7 was not in the store. Someone had beaten me to the punch. Adding to my annoyance was the abundance of lackluster SNES titles that did little to encourage me to pick them up off the shelves and take them home. But standing out from the plethora of sucky SNES games was Final Fantasy VI, right there for the renting. Except I didn't want Final Fantasy VI. I wanted Mega Man 7. I'm not sure if it was due to the fact that Final Fantasy VI was a game I was vaguely familiar with despite not playing it. As a reader of Nintendo Power (R.I.P.), I knew the game had been featured in the magazine several times. But I was still hesitant to pick it up, mostly due to my anger at Mega Man 7 having already been checked out. If games could talk, I imagine my conversation with Final Fantasy VI would pan out something like this.

Final Fantasy VI:  Soooooo, can't find any good games to rent for the weekend, eh?
Me: *Looks at FFVI, turns and keeps walking down the isle*
FFVI: You know you don't want any of these worthless games.
Me: *Still walking, trying to ignore FFVI*
FFVI: What are you gonna do, rent Batman Forever again? You know that game sucks the big one.
Me: Shut up.
FFVI: Come on, I'm your best shot at a decent game. You know I've had extensive coverage in Nintendo Power. I mean, yeah, that mag covers crappy games too, but they had good things to say about me.
Me: *Turning to look back at FFVI, arms crossed*
FFVI: You know you want to.
Me: *Sighing in defeat, I take FFVI off the shelf*
FFVI: We're gonna have SO much fun!
Me: *Rolling my eyes* Whatever.

Any words I could write here would
never come close to properly conveying
how incredible this title screen is.

So I got home and with nothing better to do, I popped FFVI into my SNES and wasn't expecting much. I had my this-is-going-to-suck expression on my face, fully prepared to be disappointed and would quickly eject the game from the cartridge slot. Sometimes it can take hours, days, multiple playthroughs before we warm up to a game. With FFVI, my negative emotions dispersed the second the first note of FFVI's Opening Theme played. Never had dark clouds and lightning strikes set to organ music been so mind-shatteringly awesome. I stared back at my TV with my mouth gaped open, not touching a single button on the controller. Then, as those last few piano keys stopped, a bell tolled and the game's introduction sequence began to play.  I hung on to every word, fascinated by what had happened to the world 1000 years before the game's main story takes place and how magic, a common resource in all RPGs, was nearly extinct in this game. This was followed by some Imperial soldiers talking about a frozen Esper next some mindless girl that couldn't say a word. This was all caped off with some opening credits that were done in a the style of a movie as the troops marched on in the snow, making sweet, sweet use of the SNES's mode-7 capabilities. Man, it was one of the greatest things I'd ever seen in a video game. After that title screen and intro, I knew my weekend was going to be anything but dull.

Vicks, Wedge and a mind controlled Terra
prepare to attack the mining town of Narshe.

Like most of my rentals from Blockbuster Video, FFVI had no instructions, but I really didn't need them. Despite being something of a newbie to the RPG genre, I took to FFVI like butter on bread. When I entered my first battle (which ironically wasn't so random) I was dishing out commands with ease. Fighting with the Magitek armor was quite fun. Lasers, beams, healing functions, the Empire really loaded these suckers up! I was a bit miffed when I lost the armor and had to do my battles on foot.

The mind blowing mode 7 portion of
the game's intro.

Turns out the silent female warrior was named Terra and the Empire had been controlling her through the means of a slave crown. Even at this stage in the gaming industry, female leading protagonists were something of a rarity. The only female lead I'd played as at this point in my gaming life was Samus Aran in the Metroid series. And while it could be debated that FFVI has no one main character, Terra is probably the closest that it has to a main star, as evidenced with her being among the playable heroes in Dissidia: Final Fantasy.

Anyway, Terra has a case of amnesia which really doesn't help with everything else she has to deal with. Her rare ability to use magic gets her swept up in the middle of a battle between the Empire and the Returners. The Returners are, or course, the resistance movement that has risen up against the ever advancing Empire. While the Returners want Terra on their side just as the Empire does, the way they go about it is far more humane. Terra is given the choice to join the Returners or decline. And when I say choice, the game actually gave me the option to decide to join them or not, with a different item being handed out depending on whether I said yes or no. She ends up going with the Returners anyway, but she was still given the freedom of choice before events forced her to join up with them. It probably helped that the Returners didn't resort to mind control and are genuine friends and allies to Terra. To the Empire, Terra is nothing more than a tool to help them maintain world domination.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Terra was the first of many developed characters in FFVI. Shortly after Terra was separated from the Empire, the game introduced me to the man that would become my favorite male FFVI hero, Locke. I'd call Locke a thief since he has the steal command, but I like my lungs where they are so I'll go with treasure hunter. And a little later I met Edgar, a lovable flirt and his brother Sabin. I couldn't believe how many characters this game was throwing my way in such a short mount of time. Before I knew it, I had a party of four and felt like an army. And everyone in the party felt diverse, not just in personalities, but in gameplay. Terra was the magic user, Locke, the thief, um, treasure hunter, Edgar used tools like a crossbow and Sabin was the martial artist. Earlier games in the FF series had character classes but since this was the first game in the series that I was exposed to, it all felt so fresh to me.

Even if you aren't one for opera, you'll more
than likely still enjoy this scene.

Sadly, my three day rental period was up and I had to return FFVI. I wouldn't play FFVI for nearly two years later when I picked it up along with Chrono Trigger for my 16th birthday in 1997. I saw far more of what the game had to offer. I quickly made it up to the point to where I had rented the game and found out far more about the plot and characters than ever before. The reason Locke tries to protect every girl he comes across is to make up for the death of Rachel, a woman he planned to marry but perished in an imperial attack. Celes was a general of the Empire but defected to join the Returners and ends up falling in love with Locke. Cyan lost his family due to the poisoning of his kingdom's water supply and this still haunts him later in the game. FFVI has fourteen playable characters and many of them have some reason or another to be involved in a fight against the Empire. This game has often been praised as having the best cast in the entire series and that is something I can't argue against.

And yet, as great as the good guys are, the antagonist is arguably more memorable. When I first saw Kefka, he was walking to Edgar's castle in the desert, complaining about sand on his boots. Little did I suspect that this general, who, at the time was under Emperor Gestahl's thumb, would rise up to become one of the biggest bid bads I'd ever gone up against. He had so many great one liners.

"Son of  submariner!"
"Do I look like a waiter?"
"Run! Run! Or You'll be well-done!"
"Welcome to my barbecue!"

Kefka stole so many of the scenes that he was in. I wasn't used to the villain being as much of a star as the heroes were. He had me in stitches just about every time he was on the screen. But for all the laughter Kefka brought, he was one seriously screwed up human being. While Terra was under the influence of the slave crown, he had her burn 50 imperial soldiers. He's the sole reason the kingdom of Doma fell and Cyan lost his wife and son because the sound of people dying is music to Kefka's ears. But Kefka's worst offense is one I'll get to in a bit. Let me switch gears for a moment.

It may look simplistic, but FFVI's boasts
quite the deep, but easy to understand
battle system.

As I said, one of FFVI's greatest strengths lies in it's terrific cast of heroes. Terra is still trying to find herself and when she tries to speak to the frozen Esper in Narshe, a wild transformation occurs. Resembling a humanoid Esper, Terra freaks out and flies off. As if the poor girl didn't have enough problems to deal with, Terra finds out that she's the product of a human and an Esper with her Esper half enabling her the ability to use magic. Terra is frightened by her own power and wonders what love is and if she's even capable of feeling such an emotion. These aren't things that are resolved quickly and frankly, it would have felt like a cheat if they were. Terra spends a great deal of the game with these things weighing on her mind but eventually comes to terms with who and what she is. To this day, I still think she's one of the top female protagonists in the FF series and this is thanks in large part to her long journey towards self assurance.

The other heroes have plenty of great moments, too. Celes has an unforgettable opera scene that gets interrupted by reoccurring baddie Ultros. This is the scene a lot of gamers bring up when discussing FFVI's best scenes, but Celes has lots of other ones as well. Being a former soldier of the Empire, Celes gets her loyalty tested to the Returners and more importantly, Locke, when Kefka accuses her of tricking them at the Magitek research laboratory. Celes pleads with Locke to have some faith in her, but Locke's doubt breaks her heart. She creates a diversion to allow Locke and the others to escape when Kefka has them cornered. But when Locke and Celes meet again, she refuses to speak with him for a while because he doubted her. Yeah, they make up eventually, but this has always been some of my favorite character development among an FF couple and it only got better as the game progressed.

With so many hours I'd spent on FFVI, I'd thought I'd seen everything. Espers going berserk, a whole kingdom taken out in one fell swoop, opera that didn't make me yawn and a number of other things. So when an island rose up into the sky, even my jaw dropped. I probably shouldn't have been too shocked. I did play Sonic 3 & Knuckles, so I'm no stranger to floating continents. Guess I just wasn't expecting it was all. Nor was I expecting the massive and I do mean MASSIVE fallout that was set to occur at the climax of the midway point of the game. That's right, the Floating Continent in FFVI is merely the halfway point.

A few paragraphs up I said that I would save Kefka's biggest atrocity for later. At this point in the game, Kefka has done the following:

1. Had his own underlings burned alive.
2. Poisoned an entire kingdom;
3. Murdered one of his fellow generals and one of the better members of the Empire, General Leo.

That's quite the number of villainous deeds to have under one's belt. But on the Floating Continent, Kefka's actions cement his status as the greatest villain in the history of the FF series.

You see, on the Floating Continent lies three status known as the Warring Triad. The game's intro cut scene mentions a war that took place 1000 years ago. This was known as the War of the Magi and it nearly destroyed the planet. The Warring Triad is actually the source of magic in the world of FFVI. Because each one feared the other's power, war broke out with humans being caught in the middle and turned into espers to fight for the The Triad. In order to put a stop to this senseless war, the Triad sealed themselves as stone statues, giving the espers free will and asking them to watch over them in the Esper World. The Warring Triad is aligned in a delicate balance that keeps their powers in check. If these statues were to get moved out of place, the resulting surge of magic power would be disastrous for the world. After killing Emperor Gestahl by first striking him with lightning and then throwing him off the continent (which is bid bad villain deed number four if you were keeping count), guess what Kefka does next?

When I first reached the Floating Continent, I had feeling things were really getting serious and that a lot was riding on the heroes. I was not expecting them to lose. It was such a blow that they failed, but the result of that failure was mind-blowing. By moving the Warrior Triad out of balance, Kefka caused an apocalypse that reshaped the face of the Earth. Lots of people died when the world was ripped apart. All of the game's heroes try to hold on as the airship is split in two but everyone falls. The game shows the Earth from a zoomed out point of view as explosions hit the planet all over with continents detaching from one another and sliding away. That's big bad villain deed number 5 and it's easily one of the most horrific things I've ever seen in a video game.

"On that day, the world was changed forever..."

No. Freaking. Kidding.

Because the Warring Triad kept the world in balance with their alignment, the first half of FFVI's world is called The World of Balance, a lush, green planet with Terra's beautiful theme playing on the world map. When Kefka moved the statues to shift that balance, the world was plunged into chaos. FFVI's second world map, a rearranged dark world is called The World of Ruin.

The second half of the game takes place one year later. Celes wakes up out of a coma and is being taken care of by Cid, which has tired him out to the point where he himself gets sick. Celes and Cid are the only two left on the small island. All the other people that washed ashore have since killed themselves due to the dire state that the world is in. Taking care of Cid led to another great scene with Celes. Depending on the fish you feed him, Cid can either live or die. At the time, I couldn't tell the good fish from the bad fish. I fed Cid a few bad fish and much to my and Celes' horror, Cid died. Celes runs up to the nearby cliff on the island. Cid, Locke and everyone Celes cared about is gone and the world has gone down the toilet. To Celes, there's no point in living so like everyone else, she tries to commit suicide and throws herself off the cliff in tears. But unlike those others, Celes attempt was not successful. Disappointed that she's still alive, Celes is greeted by a wounded bird that's wearing a familiar bandanna. Recognizing it to be one of Locke's, Celes realizes that he must be alive and this spurs her with the desire to live. She takes the raft that Cid left and heads for the nearest shore and this is where the second half of the game really begins.

There are a few scenes that show what the The World of Ruin looks like, but it isn't until the game gives you full control of Celes to move around on the world map that you truly get a feel for just how screwed up Kefka made the world. There's the howl of the wind that I'd heard before but thanks to the new overworld music, Dark World, it has never sounded more eerie. Dark World says everything that needs to be said about The World of Ruin. It's a world of depression, hopelessness and despair, a world some may think isn't even worth fighting for, let alone living in. These sentiments are shared by many of the people that have been left alive. Some folks are barely even eking out a living. Many live in fear of Kefka. Atop his tower that he created from the debree when the world collapsed is the Light of Judgement a force so powerful that it can tear the world asunder even further. The World of Ruin is a world that no one should have to live in and is something not even Emperor Gestahl wanted.

But as miserable as The World of Ruin is, it was nice to see people still going about their lives. The actions of the heroes and those NPCs that choose to go on convey a message that isn't hammered over your head. No matter how rough life gets or how much the world sucks (seriously, FFVI's World of Ruin is CRAP), you have to keep going.

And what of Terra? She's in the town of Mobliz where she's become something of a mother figure to the orphaned children that lost their parents when Kefka ended the world a year ago. By watching over these children, Terra finally learns what it means to love, realizing that she has to fight for the sake of these kids. It's a huge step for her character and while it took her a while to get here, it was great to see this woman that was once so unsure of herself come so far.

And it isn't just Terra that reaches resolution. In the game's second half, each character that was battling his or her inner demons reaches some form of inner peace in this wasteland of a world. Cyan comes to grips to what happened to his family. Locke gets the Phoenix magic to revive Rachel, only for her to tell him to stop blaming himself for what happened and to go with and be with Celes. And Shadow understands what it means to have friends.

Kefka's response to the heroes' positive
outlook on life? KILL EVERYTHING.

Even Kefka gets more development as he descends even further into madness. When the heroes tell him what things of value they've found in this ruined world, he scoffs their findings. Kefka thinks that there is no point in life and building anything when it will all be destroyed eventually and that he'll just kill everyone and everything on the planet and even the planet itself. It's one of the worst cases of nihilism that I've ever seen. When he sent the world spiraling into ruin, I didn't think Kefka was funny anymore. I really wanted to see him dead. But he actually made me chuckle one last time when he told the heroes they all sounded like something out of a self help book. After all he'd done, I didn't think he'd make me laugh out loud again.

After all these years when I reflect on my experiences with Final Fantasy VI, I can still view it as my favorite RPG of all-time. It's hard to believe I didn't want to play it at first. Now it's one of those games that I own multiple copies of. I have the SNES version titled Final Fantasy III, the PlayStation  version in Final Fantasy Anthology and the GBA enhanced port as Final Fantasy VI Advance. The GBA version was the last time I'd played the game all the way through and that was back in 2007 so it's been quite some time since I've played it. I think I'm due for another run of this classic. 

1 comment:

Adam said...

I never liked any FF so far though I like Chrono Trigger. But FFVI was the one I got the farthest in.