I’ve met some gamers who were literally unaware that there were any Final Fantasy games before VII. "Met" is a bit strong a word I suppose; standing next to a couple of twelve-year-olds browsing the DS section of my local GameStop doesn’t really count as meeting anyone, but nonetheless the event still resonates in my brain. It amazed me on a number of levels. First, the fact these kids, who I suspect weren’t even born yet when Final Fantasy VII was first released had played it, struck me as unusual. It isn’t like there are copies of the game growing on trees. The age issue however was nothing compared to what would follow. Holding a copy of Final Fantasy IV DS, one of them said aloud — I swear I am not lying — “Dude, I didn’t know there were games before VII.”
It’s an extreme case I suppose, but it has always irked me a little bit the way that many people seem to completely forget that there was a Final Fantasy series before it hit the sunny shores of the PlayStation. You can see it just about everywhere. When Final Fantasy XIII went multiplatform, Sony fanboys declared Square Enix traitors and backstabbers. I can’t count the number of internet posts I read stating things along the lines of, “Final Fantasy is a PlayStation series, I can’t believe Square would do this.” The irony of this statement has always been that while all the recent main series games have roosted on Sony consoles, the series was exclusive to Nintendo consoles before that.
Granted, I can understand some of the love that people give to the 3D Final Fantasies. For the most part, all of the Final Fantasy games from VII on have been superb. I consider FFVIII to be my favorite game of all time, despite it’s numerous flaws. Comparatively, the 2D entries into the franchise rest on shakier ground. Final Fantasy I-III can feel archaic when compared to their newer kin. Final Fantasy IV is considered a classic, and is hailed as the game that basically invented active time battles, but even it has its problems. Characters sacrificing themselves grows a bit tiresome after the sixth or seventh time you find out they aren’t really dead. Final Fantasy V is probably one of the most fun games in the series to play, but story-wise, it’s pretty lousy.
Then we come to VI.
Of all the games lost in the shadow of Cloud’s adventure, VI is probably the one that evokes the most sympathy in me, largely because it is such a great game. I am not exaggerating when I say that it is about as close to a flawless game as I have ever played. Everything about the game reeks of something that was built with the sort of love and care that every game should be.
The graphics, for instance, are still gorgeous. I cringe whenever I see people wishing for a 3D remake of FFVI, largely because I don’t think the game would benefit from a graphical update. Just try comparing some screenshots of Final Fantasy VI and let’s say the DS remake of Final Fantasy IV. Better yet, compare VI and VII . You can be the judge of what looks better, but honestly I don’t think there should be much of a debate as to what has aged and what will age better.
The gameplay is excellent. Granted, the game eventually suffers from the now-standard tendency of Final Fantasy games to make all of your characters jacks of all trades, but overall, the game still does a much better job of maintaining differently useful characters throughout the game. Well, Except for Gau. Gau just sucks. The Magicite system of learning magic is well balanced, and though they become a bit irrelevant toward the end of the game, the character’s individual abilities for the most part remain useful throughout. In terms of RPGs, it’s a just a solid, fun-to-play battle system that holds up well today.
Where the game truly shines is its story. I can’t count the number of top ten whatever lists that include FFVII based on its plot, or, more specifically, the oh-so-overrated murder of Aerith. Yeah, I get it, it was in 3D, it was cinematic, and it was the permanent death of a party member. For all intents and purposes though, the plot of FFVII — or many of the other games in the series — isn’t the best. Final Fantasy VI however, for all the cliches it openly draws from, presents a strong, emotionally moving story endowed with a massive and deep cast of characters. There are around a dozen characters in VI and for the most part, most of them are given full back stories. Locke for instance, at the game’s start seems like your typical happy go lucky thief, but as the story progresses we learn that he is actually burdened by a heavy personal tragedy that drive many of his actions throughout the course of the plot. Even your enemies are given more depth than RPGs usually allow. One of the most dramatic moments in the game isn’t the death of an ally but of an enemy.
Perhaps that is what makes Final Fantasy VI such a fantastic game. By far, VI has probably the best villain in the series: Kefka. I was fifteen when I first purchased Final Fantasy VI off of eBay and the guy disturbed me even then. He’s defined by obvious madness, complete disregard for innocent life, and a just plain freaking laugh; whenever Kefka came into the scene you knew some bad stuff was about to go down. One the most brilliant and arguably darkest moments in gaming history is when Kefka wins. Most RPGs, and most certainly, the vast majority of the Final Fantasy games center around beating some ultimate evil before it can destroy the world. Well, in Final Fantasy VI you confront the ultimate evil and lose. The last section of the game follows your second attempt to bring down Kefka in a world utterly ruined by his rise to power. Let me tell you, if you think Aerith getting gutted was brutal, then you haven’t experienced the horror of a bunch of cute 2D sprites getting nuked and plummeting to their deaths as Kefka tears the continents apart.
In short, Final Fantasy VI represents the series at its apex. The Final Fantasy games up until this point had been good and often demonstrated spurts of brilliance, but really it all came together in VI, and arguably the series was never this good again. It combined great graphics, excellent music, a solid combat system, and a deep story to piece together what has remained a consistently strong RPG, rivaled in the minds of many only by the likes of Chrono Trigger. In short, it is a flawless game.