The Restart: Final Fantasy VI, Part I

Thanks to an unexpected series of fortunate events, I recently came into possession of a Super Nintendo Entertainment System, as well as a cartridge with the words Final Fantasy III emblazoned across the top. The original US version of Final Fantasy III is better known as Final Fantasy VI everywhere else, which means that I somehow ended up with a North American launch copy of Final Fantasy VI the same day we explained how FFVI defined your gaming childhood.

Which is weird, because I never played Final Fantasy VI while I was younger, nor have I played it as an adult. But I’m not one to ignore an invitation, so this seems like a perfect opportunity to catch up with a classic. How does FFVI measure up 21 years after its debut?

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For starters, nostalgia has a way of making you forget how quickly carpel tunnel sets in with SNES controllers. Fortunately, there are tradeoffs. The 24-year-old SNES is eerily quiet next to a two-year-old PS4 that sounds like it’s going to cough up a lung whenever I’m playing Rocket League. It’s nice to go back to a game console that jumps straight to the game whenever you flip it on.

More to the point, it’s a sad reminder of what the Final Fantasy series has lost in the transition to the modern era. Final Fantasy XII was the last installment I managed to finish, and while I enjoyed that game, it was nevertheless a protracted exercise in babysitting. The upcoming Final Fantasy XV seems to push that even further, telling a story of self-involved man-children rendered exclusively in various shades of black. I’m sure the story is going to be epic, but the trailers have been mopey and dour and joylessly sincere, displaying a limited emotional palette to match the narrow selection of colors.

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Final Fantasy VI, on the other hand, is more like Graham Chapman’s Camelot, which is to say that it’s a silly place. Every other line of dialogue is a punch line, and while there are a few groaners, the result is frequently both fun and funny. That remains true even in the midst of tragedy. Cyan’s fear of technology turns him into a chivalrous caricature that wandered over from the aforementioned Monty Python movie mere moments after losing his wife and son, while Kefka’s evil schemes are the work of a second-rate Bond villain searching for an adversary.

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Some of that is likely due to the limitations of the SNES. The earlier consoles had fewer colors to work with so developers had to make better use of the ones they had in order to make the world visually intelligible. The map in FFVI is sunnier and more colorful than the more somber array that pervades modern gaming.

But it also seems to reflect a difference in philosophy. Final Fantasy VI revels in the abstraction of its pixels. It knows that it will never be able to convince anyone that the images onscreen are real, so it instead suggests archetypes, painting broad outlines with a few key anchors for personality. We know that Sabin ran out on Edgar and that Locke carries guilt due to his inability to protect Rachel, but the rest – character tics, attitude, and general demeanor – is left almost entirely to the player’s imagination.

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As technology has gotten better, games have been able to portray people with ever-greater accuracy, but in the process they’ve erased much of the nuance and ambiguity. The current crop of FF heroes is determined to tell us everything about their motivations and intentions, often in long, unskippable cut scenes that take ten minutes to make a point that should have been made in two.

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Pretty much everyone I’ve met in FFVI has some kind of tortured past and can be equally long-winded, but without voice actors the dialogue zips past as fast as I’m able to read it. I know enough to understand the backstories of Terra, Celes, and Gau, but I spend more time traveling between plot points than I do slogging through poorly paced cut scenes. Those more optimistic interactions – in which the characters display resolve and work to overcome their pasts – come to determine the way I see them in my head.

The point is that I feel like I’m relating to the characters more strongly precisely because FFVI has less definition, giving me more freedom to project my own thoughts and fill in personal details. It’s easier to empathize further from the edge of the uncanny valley, and a more diverse audience is able to see itself reflected in the characters.

Final Fantasy XV looks great, graphically speaking, and there’s no substitute for that kind of photorealism. However, it also makes the world more rigid. If I don’t like the style or the melodramatic delivery, it’s tough to see anything other than what’s presented, a fact that narrows the potential audience. Great storytellers know that the things we don’t see are often as powerful as the things we do, and that lesson seems to have been forgotten by developers that are overeager to play with all of the latest toys.

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Meanwhile, that same breezy pace makes SNES RPGs better suited to comedy because the timing is always perfect and the rapid-fire dialogue makes it possible to insert quips without breaking the tone (see: Earthbound). Unlike the sublime opera scene in FFVI, the performed cut scenes in more recent installments are often devoid of lines that are meant to be funny, as if comedic delivery is somehow beneath the voice actors Square Enix hires. Final Fantasy constantly burdens you with the weight of your task as if the game is worried you’ll forget that the fate of the world is hanging in the balance.

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And sure. Saving the world is serious business. But sincerity rarely comes at the expense of humor. Like a grizzled detective making an aside about a corpse on an episode of Law & Order, the levity makes it easier to process the sadness.

That’s why Final Fantasy VI is so refreshing. It populates a lush world with cheerful characters and then steps back to let you pick up the emotional slack, trusting that you’ll care about these characters because you like them and you want good things to happen to them. The result feels more human than many of the games that followed, if only because real life has a similar blend of comedy and tragedy.

Of course, I know FFVI has greater catastrophes in store (I’ve already had the game’s major event spoiled for me thanks to a lifetime on the Internet), but for now I’m enjoying the upbeat alternative to modern gaming. It’s nice to be reminded that epic games can still be fun, and I look forward to uncovering the secrets of the Espers.

 

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