Final Fantasy VI is a beloved game. While its immediate successor was far more popular, and while there have been other entries that have proven more influential, FFVI is always looked back upon as a high watermark in the franchise. But why it is so isn’t always well articulated. The gameplay bears a lot of the dated jankiness affecting mid 90s RPGs, while the story is quite content to rehash Star Wars. It doesn’t seem like a game that should work in 2016-7.
And yet the overall experience of playing FFVI nowadays is a uniquely satisfying one. This is, I think, because almost all of the design choices feel so purposeful and assured that you’re willing to overlook a lot of the game’s rough edges. If the purpose of an RPG game is to give the player some smooth-yet-crunchy stat based mechanics to play around with while showing off some stellar writing, then FFVI is a failure. But if it is about making the player feel like they’re on an adventure, then FFVI is one of the greatest successes in the genre.
Anyway, to recall the story: 1000 years ago the War of the Magi completely trashed the world and magic has since faded away. At the present we find the world in the middle of an industrial revolution where an evil empire has risen to power. Instrumental in that rise has been their researches into the lost power of magic. The game begins with the spotlight on Terra (Tina in the Japanese version), a magic user mind-controlled by empire. A recon mission gone sour unexpectedly results in her freedom, albeit with a nasty side-effect of amnesia. She quickly gets snapped up by the Returners, a typical ragtag group of rebels, who hope to use her powers to take down the empire.
But FFVI is committed to being an ensemble piece, and only keeps the focus on Terra for as long as her amnesia makes her a useful audience surrogate. And this commitment to having a large cast of characters with no clear protagonist goes all the way to how the plot is structured. The evil empire vs the good rebels with some sort of dangerous macguffin weapon thrown into the mix is as boilerplate and simple as you can get for this kind of story, but the broad strokes give the characters a lot of room to breathe. It’s easy to keep track of what’s going on even as you’re flipping perspectives because there aren’t a lot of details to keep track of (compare with FFXIII, which attempted something similar, but with a hideously convoluted plot where even figuring out basic character motivations became this huge reconstructive enterprise).
The idea of an ensemble-driven game is also reflected in the gameplay, where the game forcibly prevents the player from playing favourites by either breaking the characters up into smaller groupings or making the player manage multiple parties simultaneously.
A good example of how this all comes together is the first “act” of the game. The opening couple of hours are spent introducing four major characters – Terra, Lock, Edgar and Sabin – and giving them a purpose and a plan: they need to escort the leader of the Returners to the town of Narshe, where an important MacGuffin awaits them. At this point circumstances force them to split up into three different groups. The game here then branches out into three different story arcs as the characters take different routes to Narshe, introducing more characters – Celes, Cyan and Gau – along the way. The three arcs offer rather different scenarios: Terra and Edgar take a boat ride, Locke has to sneak through occupied territory, and Sabin winds up cutting through the eastern front of the empire’s war. Hours later, everyone regroups in Narshe just in time for a climactic fight requiring all of them to work together.
All this serves to illustrate how well the gameplay and scenario dovetail with each other in reflecting this one design choice. It makes these opening hours feel full and satisfying, and makes the player feel like they’re participating in the adventure alongside the characters, rather than as a spectator to it.
But, as the character list expands and the plot cranks on the game faces a risk that a lot of Final Fantasies succumb to: once the part of the story specifically focused on a particular character is complete, their character arcs may become increasingly forgotten by the plot.
FFVI averts this by taking its riskiest move: almost all of the actual plot is only in the first half of the game. The second half is dedicated almost exclusively to a nonlinear series of quests based on wrapping up all the character arcs. It’s risky because the game is throwing out the plot’s momentum – but then, as I’ve suggested, the plot exists for the characters anyway. And it gives a great hook, too: a year has passed, the world is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and everyone is scattered. You want to find out what happened to them all, regroup and have the final showdown.
A lot of RPG games suffer from a narratively sparse latter half, where the amount of content outstrips the game’s own story. FFVI is the only one I can think of which deliberately makes use of this to its own benefit.
Of course the characters themselves are all wonderful in a cheesy 90s video game fashion: an opera loving gambler, a feral child, a ninja mercenary, a moogle dancer, etc. The large cast is also the strongest in the Final Fantasy franchise. And the game reinforces this through all its set pieces – like the justly famous opera sequence, which manages to mix heartfelt sentimentality with Loony Toons-esque comic hijinks.
So what if the game’s old interface struggles to juggle all these characters, or if it sometimes makes some rather opaque design choices: again this is an example of principles and purpose overcoming technical limitations.
We could go on listing all the famous stuff: Kefka is universally praised as one of the great video game villains, and with good reason. At the start of the game he falls into the laughable “joke minion” category. But he becomes increasingly threatening and powerful while still acting as if he were a “zany” character, which becomes increasingly unnerving until the player realizes the full extent of the nihilism and madness behind his behavior.
Or there’s Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack, the highlights of which are the aforementioned opera music, but especially Dancing Mad, a 17 minute prog rock-inspired suite that serves as the final battle music. For a 16 bit SNES game.
This post was a struggle to write. It’s pretty easy to turn any sort of post on a classic into just a laundry list of its beloved qualities. I tried to articulate why, although there are other RPGs which are mechanically stronger or have better writing, FFVI felt like the most emblematic RPG when I revisited it.
And at least at this point it’s no question for me: it’s the best Final Fantasy.