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Memory Leaks: Final Fantasy VI

🗺️The world is square...

Final Fantasy VI (released as Final Fantasy III in the US) was the end of an era at Squaresoft. It's sequel, Final Fantasy VII, would be a watershed game that reinvented the series, moving it over to Sony's hardware--FFVII was for many people the reason to buy a PlayStation--and transforming it from a Japanese interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons-style storytelling into the more anime-influenced cyberpunk/urban-fantasy aesthetic that it still has to this day. As important as VII was, it's easy to overlook what a blockbuster success VI had been, really representing the peak of what a JRPG could be in the 16-bit era with its sprawling cast, immersive story, finely-tuned combat, and gorgeous music.

How I Remember It...

Final Fantasy VI was my first JRPG, and not a single other JRPG has lived up to the promise of what FFVI told me video games could be like. Okay, it wasn't the first one I'd played. Dragon Warrior had been all the rage for a while in the 80s, and there were certainly RPG elements in games like The Legend of Zelda, but Final Fantasy VI was the first one that I finished and also the first one where it really clicked for me. I got it. And I was hooked. Here was a game that used the framework of menu-based combat to tell a huge story with a gigantic cast of characters that all had arcs and drama and backgrounds and I was invested in every single one. I wanted Relm to get her autonomy, for Gau to reconcile with his father, for Locke to get some closure after the loss of Rachel, for Cyan to stop hiding from his pain and confront it, for Terra to feel real love, for Edgar and Sabin to settle their differences, for Setzer to... I dunno, get laid or something.

I was introduced to the game by my best friend Scott, and I ended up borrowing his copy for my first playthrough. He'd shown me the ropes and guided me through some of the trickier elements so I could experience the best possible version of the story (shout-out to waiting for Shadow on the Floating Continent). This was another one where big parts of the game were spoiled for me beforehand and it was not a detriment at all. It did not lessen the impact of the big pivotal heartbreaking story beats. Which were legion. Because this story is full of tragedy, on both a personal and planetary level. That was something else that struck me about the game: how sad it could be. Of the fourteen (!) regular party members you can accrue throughout the game, nearly all of them have some kind of backstory that pays off. Many of these are optional, and several are tied to unlocking characters' final attacks, and not all of them are tragic, but hoo-boy a lot of them are. Take Gau, for instance. He's a feral child whose father went crazy, believed the child to be a demon, and abandoned him in the wilderness. You have the option to try to bring them to a reconciliation, presenting Gau to his father as a well-groomed young man... and it doesn't work. His father rejects him again.

I recently watched a video essay about the game that describes it thematically as an argument against nihilism. The heroes aren't trying to save the world, they're trying to pick up the pieces. Terrible things keep happening, but they get through them by relying on each other and never giving up hope. And indeed, throughout the game, you're going to find yourself trying to fix things things only to have them blow up in your face. Try to have Terra talk to an Esper, she turns into a glowing fae-looking creature and flies off screaming into the night sky. You try something similar later in the game, and an entire city gets destroyed. When you reach what you think should be the final confrontation with the evil emperor, the game pulls the rug right out from under you. Not only do you lose, but the world breaks and you wake up a year later on a new map with only one of your heroes, having to rebuild your party.

This may sound like it could be tedious, but it's where the game absolutely shines. The first half is a traditional JRPG structure where you follow a more-or-less linear story and then at the end the map opens up and you can explore. In the second half, there's a very short bit of story, and then you get to explore, find your heroes again, and prepare for the final dungeon in whatever order you feel like. It becomes much more open-world. And since it's a new map, there's no more start areas with easy enemies. You get your airship relatively quickly, so instead of a path, you get a set of enclaves. And while the game gives you some breadcrumbs for where to find your heroes, part of finding them is just about looking around.

I mentioned that you have up to fourteen playable characters (not counting the ones who only join your party briefly for story stuff) and that's a lot for a Final Fantasy game. In fact, it kind of spoiled me, because every other game in this series has struck me as just not having enough people. I also like that the characters aren't as intrinsically specialized. They have stat differences and use different sets of weapons and armor--that hasn't changed--but anyone can learn any of the main pool of spells you have, and especially late in the game, magic becomes a big part of your attack strategy. This means you get to pick who your healer is or who your support mage is and who your elemental specialist is. And if you want everyone to just learn everything, you can do that too. And, in fact, there are numerous points where you have to split your heroes into multiple parties, so not only do you want to have a balanced team of four, you really need several balanced teams that can work together.

And for having such a big cast, the game manages to wrangle them all quite skillfully. Ostensibly the story centers around Terra Branford, but it's definitely an ensemble. Terra actually disappears for large swaths of the game--and one time when you find her she straight up refuses to join you because she's too busy looking after all of these newly orphaned children (seriously, so much tragedy here). Characters are frequently paired up which makes them relatively easy to keep track of and gives you insight into their personalities based on how they react to each other. Gau's not much of a character on his own, but pair him up with the overly formal Cyan and that's comedy gold right there. Locke is dealing with some survivor's guilt by being overly protective of women, and Terra and Celes both react against him doing so, but each in a way that speaks to their individual histories.

I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment to praise Nobuo Uematsu, whose music takes this pile of pixels and elevates it to art. His favorite trick on this soundtrack is taking a line that feels like it should resolve on a minor chord and instead hitting a suspended fourth and then dropping that to a major third and I'll be damned if it doesn't get me every time. It's kind of incredible what he was able to do with just a SNES chip set, from haunting overworld music to exciting battle anthems to a freaking opera! The music for this game is rightfully beloved, as evidenced by the myriad covers and reinterpretations made by professional and hobbyist musicians over the years.

This is definitely one where I've double dipped. I bought a SNES cartridge, then got it on PlayStation in the Final Fantasy Anthology collection. And for both of those I bought a rapid-fire controller just so I could use the Lete River trick. I got it on the Wii Virtual Console, and then on Android and PC. Each of these renditions has its issues. The original was a bit buggy and had a rough translation. The PlayStation version was plagued by slow load times. The recent PC and Android editions have chibi-fied art and the UX is supposed to be optimized for mobile but seems to land more in the realm of unplayable. Which is why I'm stoked for the upcoming Pixel Remaster, due out in just under two weeks. That's right, for the second week in a row, I'm going to gush about how a new edition of my favorite game has come out and all other previous versions of this thing that I have loved unconditionally are, in fact, garbage!

So, with that in mind, I wonder if they're going to have recorded vocals for the opera...

In MEMORY LEAKS, Kurt is going through his favorite video games. See more posts.