Presentation isn’t everything in video games, but it sure helps.
Consider Final Fantasy VI (better known to Americans as Final Fantasy III) and how it relates to its sequel in the public eye to see this principle in action. Within the ever-shifting, perpetually chimerical Final Fantasy series, no two chapters are more alike on their most fundamental levels than VI and VII. From their rebellion-driven plotlines, to the flexible, interchangeable nature of their respective skill systems, to their optional (and easily missed) party members, the sixth and seventh Final Fantasy titles are cut very much from the same cloth. Yet the two games boast wildly different reputations among fans of the series. Few gamers love both equally, or even at all; you’re far more likely to find that people love one and dislike the other. The three-year space between the releases of FFVI and FFVII wasn’t just a chronological gap, or a technological gap, or an ideological gap. It was all three at once.
While FFVI tends to be regarded as the last “classic” Final Fantasy, that perception is something of a fallacy. The game has far more in common with the chapters that followed than it did with its predecessors; its only real link to the games that came before it is its continued use of the active-time battle system (also present in VII through IX) and the fact that it’s a sprite-based game on Nintendo hardware. Beyond that, however, you’ll find it possesses very little in common with Final Fantasy V outside of the games’ shared universe of spells and beasts and gear.
No, rather than being the last stand of Final Fantasy’s old guard, FFVI is the herald of what was to come. Not coincidentally, it marked the first time Yoshinori Kitase -- best known for his work on VII, VIII, X, and XIII -- sat in the director’s chair formerly occupied by series architect Hironobu Sakaguchi. Many of the elements that would define Kitase’s entries in the series are present here: a highly flexible based skill system that amps up the heroes through interchangeable external devices, tons of optional side content, set piece events designed more for flavor than plot or mechanical advancement, and character drama in extremis. Not present are things like 3D visuals, excessively flashy battle animations, character designs by Tetsuya Nomura, or beautifully rendered full-motion video cutscenes.
Those missing elements, of course, are entirely window dressing: they have very little actual impact on the substance of the game. Things like the visuals were strictly technological considerations that would have completely impossible on Super NES; FFVII was flashy and polygonal because its host hardware was powerful enough to realize that sort of visual style. The Super NES never did get its proposed CD-ROM attachment, either (much to Secret of Mana’s detriment), so the FMVs were another technological embellishment enabled by the move to PlayStation. And Nomura’s clean, simple character designs were likely motivated by a desire to maintain consistency between concept art and in-game visuals. Yoshitaka Amano’s traditional Final Fantasy designs were fantastic and detailed, but they were also willowy and left most characters looking indistinct from one another; converting them to boxy PlayStation objects would have left the main cast a confusing and ugly mess.
Look beyond these surface elements, however, and you quickly realize that FFVII was largely just FFVI all gussied up with new technology. What VII added to the series’ mix was visual splendor, and that was certainly important. VII sold ten times as well as VI in America because its gorgeous-for-the-time visuals allowed Sony to put together some amazing commercials; granted, those commercials showed zero gameplay, but technically the footage shown was taken entirely from the game. Yet in terms of game mechanics, in how the games played, VII added nothing of value to VI. On the other hand, VI represented a massive leap in design and thinking over Final Fantasy V. FFVI was a major step forward for how the series fundamentally worked; FFVII simply introduced the technological sophistication to allow the developers to present their ideas without the constraints of 16-bit hardware and strict storage capacity limitations.
I don’t mean to suggest that VI and VII were objectively better than the games that had come before; personally, I’ll take FFV over either any day of the week. Yet there’s a clear demarcation between V and VI, a fundamental change in the series’ tone, temperament, narrative workings, and mechanical design. Final Fantasy V’s storyline is fraught with meaning, perhaps unintended yet present nevertheless. It revolves around the same elemental crystals as the previous Final Fantasy titles, making for a very old-fashioned romp of a game—but by the end of the quest, those crystals have been shattered, destroyed forever, and the series marched on without them (outside of titles in which they were used as deliberate callbacks to the older games).
It seems too symbolic to be a coincidence, then, that Final Fantasy VI was the first chapter of the series whose plot had nothing to do with crystals. In fact, FFVI’s world initially is one very nearly without magic at all; only through extreme measures and great difficulty has the world’s dominant military power, the Gestahlian Empire, managed to infuse a very limited number of super-soldiers with the ability to cast bottom-tier elemental and healing spells at all. Its ability to synthesize magic through machines is the key to its global dominance. This changes over the course of the adventure, as the heroes discover the secrets of the world’s lost magic and gain those powers for themselves, but even when the ultimate origin of magic is found, crystals never factor into the equation. The mysticism of FFVI’s world stems from a trio of artifacts, statues which represent earthly incarnations of three goddesses. Unlike the traditional crystals, the Warring Triad (as they’re referred to) don’t create balance by working in harmony; rather, they’re constantly vying for domination over one another and must be kept in balance to maintain harmony.
Clearly, the pastoral fantasy realms of older Final Fantasy games are meant to be a memory in FFVI. There are no classical fantasy races; the last dwarf was seen as a lone straggler running a shop in FFV, and elves were a relic of the even more distant past. Technology rules this world, and it’s not the forgotten tech of FFIV’s ancient towers or the crystal-powered clockwork of FFV. The seat of the Empire, Vector, is an imposing fortress of machines and weaponry, and even the antipodes -- including the remote mounting mining town of Narshe, where the game begins -- operate on steam. Many fans credit (or blame) FFVII for introducing technology and futurism as the baseline state of Final Fantasy worlds, but that simply means those people weren’t paying attention to FFVI.
By replacing the traditional crystals with science, FFVI transforms the series from a sort of old-fashioned fantasy milieu with occasional touches of science fantasy into pure sci-fi territory. About the only real vestige of the fantasy genre remaining in FFVI is the pivotal role that magic plays, but given the dramatic shift in tone introduced here it’s safe to say that magic is simply a stand-in for more typical sci-fi weaponry—a blunt deconstruction of the old saw that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
FFVI’s blurring of the line between tech and magic isn’t just a storytelling device. The Final Fantasy series is defined in large part by its practice of marrying narrative to play mechanics, and the Magicite system is definitely consistent with that tradition. Only four of the game’s dozen-plus party members have an innate ability to use magic, and each one is specially empowered within the confines of the plot: one has been surgically altered by the Empire, two belong to an enclave of mages who have remained hidden since magic seemingly disappeared a millennium prior, and one is half-Esper.
The Espers prove to be the linchpin of FFVI’s story, a race of innately magical creatures whose powers the Empire seeks to exploit. In death, Espers become a tool called Magicite, which can permanently confer upon a human the ability to wield magic. The non-innate majority of the party eventually gains the use of magic thanks to Magicite, though this actually doesn’t happen, story-wise, for a good half-dozen hours into the adventure. Until then, your party has extremely limited access to a fundamental underpinning of the Final Fantasy universe.
The creators’ decision to withhold such a key feature of play until the plot allows it makes for several interesting game design choices. Initially, it means that the game’s few magic users are highly valuable assets in the early going. Secondly, it developed into an interesting take on character classes. As in Final Fantasy IV, each character has an innate class (explicitly stated on the Japanese status screen, though dropped for the initial U.S. release). But the game takes a page from FFV’s Job system as well; eventually, any character can learn any spell via Magicite, and once those spells are mastered, a character will always have access to them, even after swapping Magicite shards around. While the mage characters do learn some spells through brute leveling, this is nowhere near as important as it was in FFIV, where magic-capable characters could only acquire spells upon reaching predetermined levels.
Instead, each character is made distinct through the distribution of class-specific skills. Many of these are very traditional Final Fantasy inventions: Shadow, the ninja, can throw items like ninja-class characters in the three previous games; Strago is a standard Blue Mage, capable of learning unique enemy skills by experiencing (and surviving) their use. Others are new twists on old techniques. Relm, for instance, is a “pictomancer,” whose power is in painting game-crashing images of monsters -- seemingly unique, until you realize she’s basically just a beastmaster from FFV by another name. Likewise Mog, whose “dances” are simply geomancy. Yet other classes are completely new or invert expectations. Edgar’s engineer class allows him to use potent special weapons. Sabin is technically a monk, but his special skills have nothing to do with doubling attack or defense; instead, he possesses an assortment of special attack techniques performed with fighting game-like inputs. And while you might expect Celes’ Runic Blade to work like FFV’s sorcerers, her blade absorbs and nullifies enemy magic rather than giving her access to elemental enhancements.
FFVI effectively deconstructs the series, reducing it to its components and recompiling them into something surprising and new. If it had benefited from PlayStation-level tech, it would have been a far fresher and more amazing experience than FFVII. But it’s probably best that the game launched on Super NES with relatively humble (albeit gorgeous) 16-bit graphics; as such, it serves as a sort of bridge between classic Final Fantasy and the modern series. Its narrative sensibilities seem heavily influenced by the advent of competing CD-ROM-based systems, offering much clearer and more meaningful dialogue sequences than any cart-based console RPG that had come before. Square was clearly paying attention to the likes of Lunar: The Silver Star and Cosmic Fantasy II and wanted to up the ante. FFVI was limited to a 24-Mb cart, but it’s the first Final Fantasy in which spectacular FMVs wouldn’t have been out of place. Instead, those FMV-bait portions played out as modest in-engine cutscenes, creating the impression of a quaint old-school RPG rather than the cinematic monstrosity many people see in FFVII.
It’s an illusion, of course, because FFVI is crammed with sequences that are little more than Square showing off. The famous opera is definitely the most dramatic of these. While little more, plot-wise, than an excuse to get access to an airship, the opera sequence is a beautifully developed set piece featuring a healthy chunk of script, a suite of original music, and unique graphics for no real reason but to create player immersion, to do something in a game that wasn’t simply fighting monsters or asking NPCs where to go next. For 15 minutes, the game comes to a halt as you participate in a stage production -- and while it offers rewards based on your performance and recitation, the overall effect is completely unlike anything ever seen in a console game before. For perhaps the first time, a console RPG world consisted of more than just battles and quests.
If anything, this dramatic change of style represents the developers’ attempt to accomplish a little too much. It’s an uneven game, to say the least. Some Final Fantasy fans blame this on the unstructured nature of the World of Ruin, but I don’t think that’s where the fault lies -- though, of course, I tend to be biased in favor of freedom in my games. No, the most troublesome issue with FFVI is in how its highly flexible skill system interacts with the open world portions of the latter half of the story. FFVI simply lacks any sort of restraints or limitations to impede players from cracking open the system and completely undermining the game’s challenge with very little effort. Even FFV’s beautifully dynamic job system had natural checks and balances built-in: players could only equip each character with a handful of the skills they’d learned, and high-powered freelancers were only available to those who had mastered multiple classes, a process which required a massive investment of time and effort.
FFVI had none of that, and by the end of the game each and every character was likely to be a walking engine of destruction. The game was especially fragile for anyone who had taken the time to find and complete the game’s sidequests; equipped with a Gem Box, X-Magic, and Quick, practically any character could single-handedly destroy any foe in a single turn. Even the final boss.
Admittedly, this is also part of the game’s appeal; the total flexibility of its skill systems bring FFVI’s most devoted fans back to it to replay time and again with unique self-imposed goals or limitations. The next two Final Fantasy games would imitate both FFVI’s late-game openness and its easily-manipulated systems, but those games also stripped away the unique skills and innate character enhancements that lend such diversity to FFVI’s massive cast.
All of these factors make FFVI one of the most unique RPGs ever made. It balances precariously at the tipping point between old- and new-school RPG design, encompassing the best traits of both styles. It’s essentially a 32-bit Final Fantasy in all but appearance, and even that limitation often works to its advantage: The simplified artwork and concise script leave enough to the player’s imagination to make its cast endearing in a way that the more elaborately defined of its successors lacked.
Still, outside of its devoted fanbase, FFVI is always destined to be an also-ran in the overall history of the series. Tetsuya Nomura is reputed to dislike the Final Fantasy titles he didn’t have a huge influence on, hence Setzer Gabbiani -- one of FFVI’s two Nomura-designed characters -- being the game’s sole representative in Kingdom Hearts. And for whatever reason, FFVI seems to have been largely forgotten by the Japanese fanbase; Final Fantasy was well-represented in a Famitsu reader poll of the best 200 games of all time a few years back, but FFVI was conspicuous in its absence.
Being an also-ran isn’t necessarily a terrible legacy, though. While FFVII gets the acolades, it also gets the hate and the terrible spin-offs. Meanwhile, FFVI quietly lives on in relative obscurity and the hearts of its fans. There are certainly worse fates.
Final Fantasy III (VI)
Based on: Stepping boldly into the future while still disguised in the superficial trappings of the past.