What is a legacy? To me, it’s the hopes, dreams, knowledge, experiences, advice, and all kinds of things that are valuable to us, that we want it to carry on to those that will come after us. I find this concept is especially fitting when it comes to gaming series, and FF VI was a major point in my life, both as a gamer and as a person. I always felt like this game was forgotten on the shadow of the massive success that is its younger brother FF VII, which is a shame because this game is such a masterpiece. Nearly every single aspect of this game was well though and crafted, especially from a game design perspective.
FF6 came out in 1994, and it was the last game of the series to be released on the SNES. You would think that the console limitations would make it very similar to the previous game, but the development team instead worked full aware of said limitations, pushing the limits of the technology, while setting the bar very high for other RPGs. People say that FF 7 is the game that others RPGs will be judged by and personally, i don’t think that’s true. This was the FF that captured the very essence of its name, picking the very best of what came before, and taking it to new levels. And while this game is not perfect, it was the only one on the franchise to find a balance between gameplay and presentation.
Funny thing, the first time I ever played this game, I got bored of it. The second time, a little smarter, I managed to play a lot. But it was only years later that I finally was mature enough to understand the meanings of its themes, or the beauty of its music. And I’m really glad I came back after all that time. But enough of (my) backstory...
This is the forgotten legacy of Final Fantasy VI.
Not Just Another Fantasy
The sixth game on the franchise (third in the US, because math is hard) manages to be more of the same, but better (The way a proper sequel should be). It brings back the entire steampunk world we came to love. It’s all there: the airships, the metallic forts, mechs, you name it. The gameplay feels familiar - despite some people arguing that this is the weakest in the entire franchise (I disagree). And yet, it’s unlike everything that came before. It’s undeniable the amount of love and effort that went into this game. It’s at least 30 hours long, with a beautiful world (that by the way, doesn’t have a name, which in my opinion makes it feel even more like a distant/fairy tale), with various places that are instantly recognizable. From Zozo’s unique design (and music), to the massive Vector Fort, i dare to say each place is really it’s own, no matter how much assets the devs reuse.
FF 6 left behind much that was already on the other games, and set sail to uncharted territory. It was this game that abandoned the Crystals plot and directed the series to what it is today. Even before you take control, it already manages to show you that it is going to be like no other FF. The haunting melody that plays even before you press start, will stick with you during the entire game. And when three mechs walk into the horizon while the credits roll? Just memorable.
This game also has fourteen playable characters. They could have easily gone for a smaller and easier to handle cast, but the development team embraced the idea of a big party, and built everything around it. The design philosophy was that every character is a protagonist, with each one having a musical theme, little episodes throughout the story (that in no way are fillers), and unique features, without ever making one of them stand out from the others, both in terms of the story and the gameplay. And it feels great, no one is useless, and by the end of the game, you can use any members you want, without feeling like they are not up for the task.
It’s also thanks to the robust Esper system that the game gives the player complete freedom on what role you characters will have by the end of the game. This feature is introduced to you after a few hours of gameplay, and is the way for the heroes to learn magic. And they don’t just allow them to learn skills, but also have passive effects, like increasing Max HP or increasing a status like Strength or Mag. Power, just to name a few. Want to transform your thief into a mage? With effort you can! Although, the nature of the system forces you to keep an close eye on your characters later on, when you’ll have lots of Espers with lots of different effects. Since their passive effect only happens on level up, you need to be careful not to waste a opportunity to improve a stat. Not to mention, Espers are also summons, so you gonna find yourself going into menus a lot to do management. It’s hard work, but the payoff can be a game breaker character.
As for the battle system, it could’t be more familiar. It’s the Active Battle Time. In case somehow you don’t know it, here’s a little description. The characters have a bar that is filled after some time, and the time it takes varies based on stats and buffs or debuffs. When full, they can perform an action. Pretty simple huh? This makes combat feels more fluid, since it’s not just waiting for your turn to come after a specific order, giving that dynamic that almost looks like a dance .
And of course, magic is a very common thing in fantasy, but in this setting, that magic is rare (So much that people aren’t born with it anymore). So the party relies on other techniques, unique to each of them, which serves to reinforce their personalities, as well as their role in combat. For example, Sir Cyan is damn good with a sword, with techniques based on that, while Strago is your well know Blue Mage, learning attacks from the enemy.
The pacing feels just right, which was another of the devs concerns, and let me tell you, they did a fantastic job. For example, while you are invading a bad guy’s base, it’s all about fighting your way, while in a more critical moment of plot, the game allows you to safely watch it unfold, with little to no battles. It’s beautiful, and yet, the player doesn’t even realize it. We all know how in RPGs battles can be boring and just an obstacle between you and the next piece of plot if not done right, and thankfully this is not the case. It has just the right amount of battle to not bore you, but also to not feel like the game is keeping you from reaching that delicious next piece of meaningful dialog.
You can also play this game without a strategy guide. The NPCs give you just the right amount of info to find everything, from the main quest to sub quests, on your own. This still amazes me. The game is self-explanatory, and that only reinforces my belief that this game is perfect for newcomers, be it to the RPG genre or to the Final Fantasy series. But even so, there’s ton of things that you will definitely miss, be it an item (Cursed Shield i’m looking at you), an Esper, heck, two of the party members are secret! You better turn the place upside down if you want to see everything!
A Tale to Remember
With such a huge amount of characters, and do not forget to mention the NPCs, you would imagine that their development would be mediocre at best (Admittedly, some do get more spotlight than others, but still). Think again. Each and every one of the people you meet will leave it’s mark, from heroes to villains. They have their own personalities, goals, dreams, strengths, weaknesses, and they all lost something. Every FF has it’s own core theme, and here, it’s hope (Love would also be equally valid choice in my opinion). Unlike many other RPGs, the tale this time is not only about saving the world, it’s about learning to live on it, to overcome the loss, and always keep pushing forward. And while the plot is there, it’s in the game’s characters that is the main focus. It’s trough their fights, feelings and interactions with each other and the world, that the tale truly shines.
As i said before, the game does not have a main character. Instead, each of them has a role to play. This is especially reinforced in the moments where the party must split, sometimes with some of them taking solo missions, but none of it feels like filler. By having characters that are well balanced, you never get stuck.
The first half of the game is a little linear, while the second half is entirely build to allow you to make progress at your own pace, reinforced by the fact you can assemble any party you want. The game to me fells divided into three Acts, with a prologue. The prologue serves to give you the entry point - as well as a very discreet tutorial - to set the quest and your goals. I particularly enjoy the fact that you don’t get to know your first character (Terra, or whatever name you give her) until a little further ahead. You see, Terra has amnesia, and don’t remember a thing about herself. She is lost and confused, just like the player. Why that Esper reacted to her? What’s the deal with the Empire? Why can she use magic? Nobody knows! So, much like Link “links” the player to the LoZ universe, Terra serves this very same purpose on FF 6.
It is also worth mention that this game has lots of remarkable moments. And i mean a lot, many of them completely optional, all thanks to the nature of the second half of the game. They usually explore a particular character background, with some really awesome music to set the mood. Speaking of music...
Telling Without Words
The music in this game received the same care and attention that the other parts in the series have. FF VI’s Soundtrack is often considered to be one of the best in the entire franchise, and it always pops up in the best soundtracks lists around the web. Not only that, this game has probably the biggest amount of remixes, both fan and official made. Just give a listen to Balance and Ruin, the OCRemix tribute to the game, or the Distant Worlds album.
And it deserves all the praise it gets. Each and every element of it, from the choice of instruments, the tempo, the notes, it’s all crafted to reinforce the narrative, all thanks to the different styles Uematsu incorporated on the songs. It draws from classic, old western, baroque, circus music, the list goes on and on! It’s one of the finest examples of “telling a tale without words” that I ever seen. In the words of the man himself:
“Can anyone describe the emotions we get from music? Music is not for thinking. It is meant for feeling. Don’t use your head. Knowledge or experience is not needed in order to feel happiness from the white cold snow, warm smells of flowers, heart warming meal, blue ocean, or the touch of your lover’s hand. Same applies to music. Just feel it.”
If you wish to get in touch deeply with music, just try to set in with it. Music is a wave, as well as our feelings.
Believe in the music you are listening, and hand your heart over to it. It is like tuning a radio into the right station. When the wave lengths match (and only if,) you will understand everything the music is wanting to tell you. Keep the emotions you get to your heart, such as joy, sadness, happiness, and anger. Do not be ashamed of being moved by music. Praise yourself from being so honest.”
And boy, did he mean it. You can listen to each character theme and they will describe to you their goals, hopes, dreams and in some themes, their losses (Rachel’s theme anyone?). Nobuo Uematsu did a fantastic job, giving the right tone to the right moments. Every theme is unique, and a tale on its own, filled with symbolism (Just pay attention to Edgar/Sabin’s Theme, it has an intro that repeats twice, one time for each brother, before resolving and moving on), and a fantastic use of “leitmotif”. For those who don’t know, leitmotif is a “short, constantly recurring musical phrase that is associated with a place, event, or character”. As an example, the theme of the final boss has a little piece of their respective character theme before being revealed as the final boss. Using the Figaro brother’s theme again, Coin Song is very similar to their main theme for a reason. It’s those little things that made this soundtrack Nobuo’s masterpiece.
But the track the absolutely stands out is “Aria de Mezzo Carattere”. This piece is an opera sung by one of the characters in a particular moment of the game. Since the developers had not found a way for the SNES to perform actual voice tracks, they used a synthesized “voice” that harmonizes with the melody. The song is about a lost love, and it’s also a big part of one of the character’s development. This entire moment is perfect, and is one of the best in gaming history. This was mind blowing back then. There was an opera playing right in front of your eyes (I was all like, “How the heck did you guys do that?”) . Even better, the player must take part on the action, reciting the correct lyrics in the correct order, instead of just “Press E to be Awesome”, like certain modern triple A games.
A Climax Worthy of the Gods...
If you could’t already tell, this section contains some heavy spoilers. So, if you still haven’t finished the game, please, by all means, skip this next part. Everyone else out? Good.
First off, the villain wins. Kekfa Pallazo. Sadistic, insane, nihilist, the embodiment of chaos itself. Do you feel the shivers running down your spine already? In the middle of the game he simply kills his boss, dishevel the Statues and becomes a god. There’s nothing you can do except run. And of course wait for Shadow before jumping to the airship. I mean, who would’t right?
And then the airship is destroyed, the heroes scattered and the world is destroyed. What?
Talk about a wham moment. I honestly though i made it to a bad ending. But the game continues with Celes searching the world for the party (The song that plays is aptly named “Searching for Friends”). After reuniting with everyone and giving them closure on their plots (or not, you can finish the game as soon as you get the new Airship if you’re badass enough) our heroes depart to Kefka’s Tower: The massive thing he built with pieces of the planet, where he occasionally burns a city for fun.
I have the opinion that the final battle of a game should be something really apart from the rest. It must have it’s very own identity, it’s own set of rules, and above all, test everything the player learned so far. And this game grand finale does just that (Except in the SNES version, some of his stats are broke). After being tested in one of the most punishing dungeons in the game (at least if you don’t know what you’re doing), and have defeated the Three Goddesses of Magic, you save the game and take the cast to the top of the Tower, where the sadistic clown god himself awaits. What happens next is Kefka demonstrating his nihilistic nature, giving us some awesome stuff to quote- At least in the american translation. In the original he’s much more “wacky” for the lack of a better word (I dare you to forget “I’ll create a monument to non-existence”). Then, right before the battle begins you have to set the order that the party will fight Kefka. There’s you unique rule. If someone is down during the change of phase (another rule, Kefka has multiple forms) he is replaced by the next person in the order.
Unique identify? You freaking bet it! If you know FF, you can remember that the series just loves to borrow from mythology and religion. Kefka’s final battle is entirely modeled after Dante Alighieri’s “Divine’s Comedy”. Just take a look. The first form is a giant ass devil stuck on the ground. It’s just like Lucifer is depicted in the book. Second form, a mess of bodies. Totally purgatory. Third, an woman and a man. It doesn’t take a genius to see that it is Jesus and Maria. Lastly, we have Kefka himself, descending from the heavens to face the party, while that same melody you heard on the menu before plays, making the game come full circle, letting you know that this is it. Divine Comedy ends with Dante meeting God and asking him the meaning of life and stuff. Except in this case, god is trying to kill you. Good luck.
But what is a gran finale without some music? And holy sh*t Uematsu, you genius bastard. Dancing Mad (Or “The Wild Dance of a Mad Star”, in the translation from the original Japanese) is, hands down, the best final boss theme ever. In my opinion. Five movements. Eighteen minutes long (Each movement repeats twice). Extremely well constructed, and symbolic as hell. But i’ll have to talk about it some other time. In the meantime, just listen to this killer arrange, courtesy of a Youtube user named Evergreen- special mention to the very last movement. Just, beautiful.
An Echo Through Time
Even with so much that I already wrote, I still feel like I barely started touching the greatness of this game. But, I’m running out of space here and honestly, it’s better that you experience the game yourself if you haven’t already. I greatly recommend to check out the GBA version. It has the best translation, less censorship, a new dungeon, new Espers and it fixed many things that just didn’t work in the original SNES release- Such as blind, that literally did nothing, and the final boss’s stats. Just stay the damn away from the IOS version. It does not do justice to the original.
FF 6 will forever remain as one of the most beloved games of all time, and the impact it left on the world is visible to this day. It defined the cliches of the genre (Or do you think that thiev- i mean Treasure Hunters were always a thing?), took the series to new seas, has a charismatic and believable cast, and quite possibly, one of the best villains in gaming history. It also dared touching on themes that are no only more dark, but relevant even to this day, like suicide and teen pregnancy. Its safe to say, that this game set the bar very high, influencing one way or another games to this day, and more importantly, changed the RPG genre forever. That, is Final Fantasy VI’s legacy, and i’m sure that as long as gaming exists, there will always be someone to remember it. I know i will.
Thanks for reading, and stay gentle people!