Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181375)
Written on  :  May 14, 2004
Platform  :  SNES
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Japanese RPG at its very best

The Good

In 1994, Square released the third and the last Final Fantasy game for Super Nintendo. Made during a particularly creative period of video game development, Final Fantasy VI remains until now one of the most revered Japanese RPGs. It was a story-driven game with great emotional intensity; at the same time, it expanded the gameplay almost beyond the boundaries of the genre.

The approach of Final Fantasy VI towards story-telling is unique for several reasons. There are two different "planes" of narrative in the game. While the outer storyline is fairly standard, traditionally epic, serving to tie all the events and the destinies of the heroes together, the inner layer of the story concentrates in turn on each one of the many characters of the game, telling their stories in a very warm and detailed fashion, bringing the player as close to them as it was only possible.

What makes the narrative remarkable is not the course of the events depicted by it, but the small individual "sub-stories" of each one of the game's characters. Every character joins the rebel group for his (or her) personal reasons, and those reasons are explained and shown in detail. The typically epic plot line becomes almost obsolete when the player dives deeper into the intimate worlds of the game's characters, discovering their fears, hopes, joys, and grievances.

Final Fantasy VI introduced mature themes that were unseen in Japanese RPG before: suicide, teenage pregnancy, complicated moral problems, love, etc. It is true that they are treated in a melodramatic way, but that's precisely what makes them so endearing, especially when they are presented against the background of a typical "world-saving" epic. The "opera scene" is, for me, one of the single most touching moments in the history of video games.

A brilliant move Final Fantasy VI did was eliminating the concept of one lead character. It is a unique example of a Japanese RPG in which it is impossible to point out a single protagonist. At least three people can be called "main characters", but it is impossible to say which one of them is more "important". This technique fit the melodramatic tone of the game extremely well, allowing quick shifts of focus that moved the story forward in a graceful, involving way. I can only say it's a real pity that the even more melodramatic sequels didn't use it, preferring to return to the old "lone hero" concept.

RPG designers have been always struggling to create a perfect balance between a focused narrative and exploration. Final Fantasy VI solves this problem in a simple and elegant way. Its first part is linear and intensely story-driven, like most Japanese RPGs. However, the second part (World of Ruin) throws the player into an absolutely open-ended environment, with only one main quest: defeat Kefka. The player is free to explore this world, travel to any location, and recruit any party members he/she sees fit. But the story doesn't simply disappear; the characters offer plenty of interesting side-quest, and gradually gathering them together for a fight against the ultimate evil is an unforgettable experience. World of Ruin is a phenomenon; I don't think there is any other Japanese RPG world that can compete with it.

Final Fantasy VI also manages to solve another common Japanese RPG dilemma. Should characters belong to a particular class, or should they develop freely and be able to learn any abilities? The fourth game chose the first path; the fifth the second. The sixth once again finds the golden mean. The characters do have clearly assigned classes: you can easily recognize the typical Final Fantasy classes of monk, thief, ninja, samurai, etc. However, later in the game the characters can learn any spells on top of their old, "pre-defined" techniques, essentially allowing completely free customization.

The series has always been famous for its exceptional music. But I think many fans will agree that the main theme of Final Fantasy VI is the single most memorable musical piece of the entire series. Like many outstanding compositions, it conveys strong emotions while being very simple.

The Bad

Final Fantasy VI suffers from occasional bad translation, though perhaps the original writing wasn't exactly stellar to begin with. Writing has been the Achilles' heal of the series during its entire existence. It is, however, possible that much of the writing was intentionally goofy. Personally, I find the awkward dialogues endearing, but I can see how they could detract from the serious themes of the game. Same can be applied to "cutesy" elements such as recruiting a moogle into your party and teaching him "dance" abilities, etc. The main villain is also decidedly "cartoony", having no other motives for his deeds other than simply being evil.

The graphics of the game are considered by some the best example of 16-bit art. However, those graphics also showed the limits of the Super Nintendo console in the age of full-screen animations and CD. They were barely enough to express all the rich ideas and emotions of the game. Maybe it sounds odd, but sometimes I wish Final Fantasy VI were made for a console with superior storage capacity, like TurboGrafx or Sega CD.

The Bottom Line

Some people would perhaps name the next installment as the highest achievement of the series; and while it is correct when applied to ambition, presentation, and influence, from the point of view of soul (and perhaps gameplay perfection as well) Final Fantasy VI takes the crown. It contains everything there is to love in the series and in Japanese RPGs in general, and remains a timeless classic that is admired by loyal fans and newcomers alike.