I played Final Fantasy VII when it first released in 1997. I was 9. I didn’t understand much of it, but Cloud’s larger-than-life voyage still filled me with the same warm pleasantness I found in a heated blanket or comfort food. It took me weeks just to get out of Midgar, longer to reach the second disc, and months to finally conquer the game and put Sephiroth in the ground.
I was enthralled all the way through, excited by my recent conquest, and ready for more Final Fantasy. I really dug IX, XII, enjoyed X, and could never quite get into VIII or XIII. Sadly, I never got around to playing Final Fantasy VI (released as Final Fantasy III for the SNES in the US) despite numerous friends recommending me to do so. I struggled to justify the high price of a (19 year old) game I had no nostalgia for, and I refused (okay, refused is a strong word) to play the (supposedly) inferior Playstation version. I recently found the GBA port for five dollars at a local pawn shop and couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
The first thing you’ll notice is the graphics. They’re obviously dated, but the use of simple art and vivid color paint a fantasy world torn apart by devastation just as well as any current-gen engine. They’re not quite the best offered by the 16-bit era, but they’re certainly serviceable. Yoshitaka Amano’s art’s unique, creative and, best of all, helps stimulate the player’s imagination with its ambiguity, allowing the player to fill out the empty holes within the environment and world of Final Fantasy VI. You can’t help but be reminded of the vivid water colors of Edo period Japan. There’s reported slowdown during Mode 7 scenes, but I rarely noticed this except for some specific scenes near the very end of the game. The audio’s also been criticized when compared to the original SNES version. I played Final Fantasy VI Advance on a DS Lite; with the DS’ speakers being of slightly better quality, I’m not sure if I can judge how the game sounded on the original GBA, but it’s safe to say that I found Nobuo Uematsu’s score just as hauntingly gorgeous as everyone else.
The story’s drearily predictable at times. What sets it apart (and has already been painted on every FFVI message board from here to Timbuktu) is Kefka. Kefka is the nihilist-clown-court-mage of the evil emperor; he’s also the main villain. He’s about as much fun as you can imagine—a cross between Jack Nicholson’s Joker and your average JRPG bad guy.
The cast of characters, the largest the series has seen, is diverse enough. Each character has a specific role—spell caster, fighter, etc—but still manages to be highly-customizable. A number of them never find the time to develop, and some are borderline useless. Summons are weak but equipping them teaches new abilities—exactly like the equipment system in Final Fantasy IX. In the end, your abilities and equipment matter a great deal more than level—a nice idea that helps keep the grinding to a minimum and rewards strategy and planning over having a free hour to grind demonic dinosaurs. Also, you fight demonic dinosaurs.
Like the graphics, there are some obvious gameplay shortcomings that might’ve been filled had the game been made today. There’s no map aside from the tiny, semi-transparent square in the corner while you’re roaming the world; the blurry textures signifying towns, caves, or dungeons on the world map are sometimes too easy to miss; and you can hardly walk five steps without another random enemy encounter.
The game opens up in the second half and, as a direct result, loses some focus. During the opening hours, the player’s tasked with stopping the evil empire from desecrating smaller kingdoms and villages. During the latter half, the player must reunite the 14 scattered party members. Once you obtain the airship, you can tackle any of the optional content in any order you want until you’re ready for the final confrontation with Kefka. By itself, this open world works, and is a super fun time, but it’s so vacant of any meaningful story development that Final Fantasy VI starts to drag and loses its flow.
I can see why people swear by it, and I wasn’t disappointed. The ability/job system allows a great deal of customization while still giving each character a distinctive play style. Final Fantasy VI handles this give and take between customization and distinct characters better than any other Final Fantasy I’ve played (with the exception of maybe Final Fantasy IX). The 16 bit graphics are a perfect example of how to use simple art and visuals to convey theme, tone, and atmosphere. The soundtrack is—in a word—beautiful and deserves all the recognition it gets. Although the community criticizes the advance port for its low quality audio and stuttering during mode-7 effects, neither hindered my ability to enjoy the hell out of it. The 2nd half dragged for me—mainly because it’s comprised entirely of optional side quests. Some characters and spells felt incredibly overpowered (Sabin and Ultima, I’m looking at you) while other characters and spells were borderline useless (and you’d think a yeti would come in handy every now and then). All and all, Final Fantasy VI is still worth picking up if you can find it for the right price.
Written by Mason Miller
Images from finalfantasy.wikia.com