In 1994 and at the tail end of the SNES’s lifespan, the (perhaps) most important title in the historic Final Fantasy franchise was released. Final Fantasy VI represents the culmination of every JRPG in the SNES golden era, whose position of finality can arguably only be challenged by the likes of Chrono Trigger, released a year later. As for the legendary franchise itself, it birthed innovations that have since become mainstays, including a steampunk setting, the increased focus on summons, and more screen time for the main villain.
A thousand years ago the Warring Triad, three statues from which magic originate, bestowed (or rather cursed) a group of humans with magic, turning them into beast-like beings now known as Espers. In typical human fashion, these Espers were feared and a catastrophic war broke out. To quell the conflict, the Espers were sealed away. A thousand years of peace and technological expansion have since followed, and now the Empire plans to use these Espers to harness magical abilities for themselves.
At the game’s opening, we gain control of a female lead character for the first time in franchise history. Her name’s Terra, a brainwashed, magic-wielding weapon of mass destruction forcibly employed by the Empire and sent to the mining town of Narshe to claim a mysterious Esper sealed in ice. After certain events and a chance encounter with the “treasure hunter” Locke, Terra’s set free from the Empire’s control. She learns of the resistance group known as the Returners and is invited to join them on their mission to stop the corrupt Empire.
Unlike any Final Fantasy game before or ever, Final Fantasy VI featured a staggering number of playable characters, with a headcount of a whopping 14 unique characters and only 3 are optional. We have the aforementioned Terra and Locke, of course. In addition, there’s the playboy king Edgar, his twin musclehead Sabin, the noble retainer Cyan, the feral child Gau, and even one of the Empire’s generals Celes. But wait, there’s more! We have the mysterious ninja Shadow, the gambling man Setzer, the crazy old mage Strago, and his precocious granddaugther Relm. The optional characters include Mog the moogle, Umaro the yeti, and Gogo the ambiguous mime.
Despite the large number of actors on the stage, the amount of character development that occurs is impressive. Over the course of the game, you really get to know them, and it’s honestly really sad to see them go at the game’s end. The game’s main themes deal with lost love, family, and ambitions. Piece by piece, subtle hints and shocking revelations are had about each character’s past. As mentioned in a previous article, the fact that a SNES game was able to elicit such great emotions from the audience is actually thanks to its 2D graphics and limitations.
The main mechanic in the battle system is the ability to actually equipped Espers that have expired into Magicite. From these powerful stones, characters can learn magic spells like Cure, Fire, and Pearl (“Holy”), as well as granted stat bonuses upon leveling up. While each character has an innate class type (like Locke is a thief), the Magicite system made it so everyone can learn any magic skill. It just depends on whose stats are better suited for magic and whose better for attacking.
Of course, we have Nobuo Uematsu’s genius music once again, in what many (myself included) consider to be his greatest work on a game ever. Each of the 14 characters has his or her own special theme, generating a stronger and more meaningful bond with each of them. Throughout the game, familiar tunes are rearranged and add that character’s personality to the scene, very much as leitmotifs (a technique made famous by Wagner) do for opera. Speaking of opera, we have the (arguably) most famous scene in Final Fantasy history.
With a game this monumental and theatrical, we need a villain who is equally as monumental and theatrical. Thankfully, Final Fantasy VI delivers in the biggest way possible, with the most warped character in Final Fantasy history: Kefka Palazzo. An official for the Empire, he takes insanity to far extremes even for the people he works for. Any reason and logic is completely thrown out the window, as his only goal in life is to destroy and watch people suffer. Even world domination isn’t enough for Kefka. As far as I’m concerned, Kefka is Heath Ledger’s Joker but over a decade older and 16-bit. The biggest difference is that Kefka is actually able to watch the world, quite literally, burn.
Final Fantasy VI makes use of my favorite narrative device, which is having characters separated and brought back together by some act of fate. In the game, the entire second half is devoted to bringing your band of friends back together after the world’s sudden facelift. It’s at this point in the game where we really get to know our characters well. We learn about their unfortunate and sometimes cruel pasts and how they choose to overcome them. Every single character has a brilliantly poignant backstory and I feel like my words simply don’t them enough justice.
Let me briefly go back to Nobuo Uetmatsu again and reiterate how amazing his work on this game is. The final boss theme, “Dancing Mad,” is a 18+ minute monster that gradually transitions as the fight progresses. Featuring the likes of synthesized organs and choir, it really builds up the atmosphere of challenging a god. The influence is easily seen with its famous little brother “One-Winged Angel.” The ending credits theme is a mammoth 21 minute masterpiece that weaves together all of the characters’ themes into one glorious farewell and curtain call. I’m not sure if there’s a more perfect way to end a video game than what was done in Final Fantasy VI.
And now for some fun facts about the game’s production and localization. The entire game was develop in a little over a year. With as much stuff is packed into this game, it’s understandable (kind of) why there were so many bugs in the final product. Also, Ted Woolsey gets a lot of crap for his translation jobs and particularly this one. However, I think he should get an award because not only did he do the translation by himself, but he did it in 30 days! Thinking back, a lot of the game’s charm is derived from the brilliantly awkward one-liners that the characters have, which are some of the most memorable lines of all time. “Son of a submariner!”
Final Fantasy VI heralds the end (once again, besides Chrono Trigger) of the SNES JRPG golden era, and its legacy lives on. Everything about it from its titanic story, wonderful cast, genius score, and Italian motifs is theatrical and operatic. Seriously, if you have not played or watched a playthrough of this game, you’re missing out on video game history. Now, if only Square Enix gets hopping on that 3D remake. I would love to see how all of the 2D subtleties would be brought out in full-motion 3D.