Seventeen years ago, I was six years old. That year, Square released Final Fantasy VI (or Final Fantasy III here in the states) for the SNES. It was the first Final Fantasy game in the main sequence not under Hironobu Sakaguchi’s direction, the third to be released outside of Japan, and the last rendered in 2D pixels. Yoshitaka Amano designed the characters and Nobuo Uematsu composed the soundtrack.
Final Fantasy VI broke my heart; the dramatic narrative, the melodies floating through the background, the score of characters and battle options at my fingertips… All of it down to Kefka’s maniacal 8-bit laughter shook me to my core. To this day it remains my favorite Final Fantasy title. I own a miniature doberman, although we didn’t name her Interceptor. I frequently make use of the insult “son of a submariner.” The opera scene remains one of the most beautifully crafted and valorously written scenes in gaming history; the song itself invites chills and goosebumps, the memory of Celes flinging her bouquet off the turret… This was an RPG. This was what games could be, should be. This was beautiful.
[Past the cut you’ll find spoilers about Final Fantasy VI. If you didn’t play it yet (and you should) proceed at your own risk.]
Final Fantasy VI, I’ve slowly noticed, is becoming the “hipster Final Fantasy VII” in that its popularity is seemingly growing the farther we move away from its original release. Or perhaps people are now willing to admit that VI caught their hearts and held on faster than VII ever could. Granted, comparing the plight of the inhabitants of VI’s unnamed world to the ballad of Cloud and Sephiroth is like comparing watermelons and bananas; they both pack their punches but in different ways, and on different sets of people. If you’re in the group of people who holds VI closest to their hearts, the first three notes of Aerith’s Theme strike an entirely different chord, plucking a separate harmony of heartstrings — this is because those first three notes are also the opening melody to the VI’s famous opera.
The game’s story, for one, was like nothing else present in the series at the time. Final Fantasy I and II were your typical early-era RPGs. III features a group of spunky orphans who must search for crystals and restore balance to the earth. IV begins with the ferocity and pomp of a shounen anime, with angst-ridden protagonist Cecil having to make the old fashioned choice between light and darkness. V was a huge bowl of cotton candy with chocobos and dragons and cross-dressing pirate women somewhere in there (V also had Gilgamesh, who has since smattered himself across the entire series at large). But VI… VI was something special. You knew it when you fired up your system and the first thing you heard was the ominous buildup of a organ chords, accompanied by a murky sky dashed with cracks of purple lightning. There were no CGI cutscenes, no fancy orchestrated audio. Just text, and sprites, and the emotional whirlwind of MIDI accompaniment that only Uematsu could craft.
And then the Magitek armor, the solid steps of Biggs and Wedge’s machines as they lead an enslaved Terra Brandford across a snowy field, the girl’s musical motif playing in the background as the opening credits roll. As gameplay begins, you learn that you have touched down into a civilization in the very throes of a scientific and industrial revolution, so power hungry and so blinded by their lust for technological advancement that they have brought humanity to the brink of destruction, and the government has recruited thousands of innocents — and mind-warped Terra, who is half human and half magic-wielding Esper — to strap themselves into Magitek apparatus and capture all Espers so that their power may be harnessed for human use. Terra, bound and brainwashed to the murderous and psychotic makeup-wearing mage Kefka, has been forced to hunt down and kill the very beings she shares blood ties with.
Today, at long last, Final Fantasy VI celebrates its release on the PlayStation Network. The game has proven its worth by surviving the years with its appeal intact. It contains depth and realism surprising for a sprite-based RPG. It presents players with a world they can easily get lost in, in which we are wrapped in the broiling conflict that inevitably comes with the birth of new technology and the romanticizing of its capability and power . It moves us to ask questions about our own existence: Will we ever be capable of love, as Terra wonders about her self? What are we fighting for? If we have lost something precious to us, what is it that keeps us going? The story is intricately woven, tight and complicated. And despite how far we’ve come in regards to graphics and battle systems and A.I. crafting, the game itself is timeless.
The adventures of Terra, Locke and company marked the beginning of the steampunk era of Final Fantasy, and the series began its move away from the typical medieval setting and tone. The world of VI is a world trying to harness magic for war, extolling the virtues of science and technology as ways to better their society… No, actually, they’re using those for war too. Emperor Gestahl of the kingdom simply known as the Empire wants to break the gates between the human world and the Esper world, drain their powers and give them to humans. When Espers are killed or choose to willingly die, they are turned into magicite which, horrifying, your party can equip and use. Presumably it is this magicite that Gestahl and Kefka, sitting at his right hand, are harvesting, then using to augment humans.
The never-ending journey to better mankind, to increase our skill and performance, to outrun old age and even death… Humanity has struggled with this desire for centuries, seeking ways to gain power and escape the ravages of time. The world of VI is so appealing to us because it stands on a knife’s edge; the aesthetic of “the old gods” handing over a world barely finished to humankind is a tale embedded deeply in our own history. The gods wind our world up like a clock, set the gears in motion, and then step back to let us fight the good fight. Whether or not we turn the conflict on each other is our decision, and as all the stories say we invent the art of war.
The Empire, the Kingdom of Figaro, the wilderness of Veldt to the Mines of Narsh, the world is so close to becoming what we are in our own here in the 21st century (or back then in 1994), and yet it struggles so hard against itself that it seems bound to collapse. The Returners certainly won’t allow the harvesting of the Espers to continue. (Your breath caught in your throat when Locke broke Terra’s slave crown… I know it did.) There is civil unrest, a cloud of anger and fear settled over all. Does this sound familiar?
Besides a world so deep and rich, players are given the largest and most colorful cast of characters in the history of Final Fantasy to play with. From fiercely protective “treasure hunter” Locke to womanizing gambler Setzer to feral child Gau to the bizzare and random Gogo the mime, each of the game’s fourteen playable characters is given their own complex tale, with all fourteen strands stitched snugly into the game’s overall narrative. I could go on for pages about each of them. Shadow’s dark dreams and internal struggle, the way Locke and Celes force each other to change for the better, the unbearable sorrow behind Cyan’s will to fight on. But you who read this now may be new to Final Fantasy VI, having been born in the age of Call of Duty and more accustomed to the likes of Final Fantasy XIII. Or maybe you haven’t picked up VI yet because you simply never gave it a thought. I would want to spoil it all for you now.
I will say that Kefka Palazzo is the ultimate Final Fantasy villain. Sadistic and nihilistic, Kefka is pure chaotic evil without redemption. He is terrifying in ways other villains in the series have been unable to match. All had a purpose and took the crazy train into their own personal power trip, but Kefka is especially potent because he is so damned likeable. Harrowing and cruel, he is also playful and hilariously derailing. His dialogue is unnervingly charming; you relish scenes involving him and are simultaneously terrified that this will spell the end of you party should he appear. The strength of a game’s central conflict certainly hinges on its antagonist, and Kefka is certainly an antagonist worth the investment.
There is no way I could cram all I want to say about Final Fantasy VI into one editorial — the game itself has too much content, too many scenes and revelations and characters that are all an integral part of what makes the game so special, so timeless. Ultros constantly crashing your party, purple tentacles flailing. That awful moment when you don’t feed Cid all the faster-swimming fish… The iconic Opera scene that to this day makes fans cry, gorgeously composed and beautifully executed for the graphics of its day, during which the blossoming love between Locke and Celes begins to show. Each moment, each line of dialogue, each piece of music has been exquisitely crafted to lend complete support to the story and the game as a whole. Last year while participating in a panel with Nobuo Uematsu, the man himself said that VI was his favorite game to compose for, and to this date his favorite game to play. “The entire team was so invested in creating it,” I remember him saying. “You can really tell that everyone was on the same page when you play the final game.”
In the game, before beating your party within an inch of their lives, Kefka asks: “Why do people insist on creating things that will inevitably be destroyed? Why do people cling to life, knowing that they must someday die? …Knowing that none of it will have meant anything once they do?” Final Fantasy VI gives us that answer: because there are always people worth fighting for. In a crumbling world where our time to walk upon it is brief, we are made to make the most of what precious time we do have.