Handheld gaming is more than a compromise of power and portability. Whether it’s the ability to play anywhere, multitask or hold an entire console in your hands, it’s a special experience consoles have never replicated. In a world where high resolutions and teraflops reign supreme, we take a look at a portable relic every month and reflect on what makes it memorable. Be warned, spoilers may occasionally populate these articles.
When dealing with a franchise that has been around for over thirty years, has fifteen mainline entries and who knows how many spin offs, sequels and remakes, there’s likely to be some debate about which entry is the best in the series. When it comes to Final Fantasy, there is nothing to debate because on all objective criteria Final Fantasy VI is unquestionably the crowning achievement of the series (Editor’s Note: please direct all flames and outrage to this particular writer and not Hardcore Gamer). Originally released in the US as Final Fantasy III in 1994, 2007 saw the title re-released for the Game Boy Advance as Final Fantasy VI Advance, restoring the series to its proper numbering and complying with that peculiar Nintendo policy where the title gets a reference to the platform of the release. This port made the title accessible to a new generation of gamers and gave the old fans an opportunity to play this title on a handheld device in places like work when the boss is out of the office, which is a workplace crime this writer can neither confirm nor deny ever committing. Note that while articles on old games may contain spoilers this article borders on game ruining territory, so if you haven’t played this game go take care of that and then return to this page.
The setting of Final Fantasy VI was a shift from its predecessor. The world was going through an industrial revolution, leaving the medieval high fantasy behind and heading into a steampunk direction. Castles, dragons and swordplay were still present but advanced machinery played a much greater role than it did in previous Final Fantasy games. The game begins with the player controlling Terra and two of the Empire’s soldiers in militarized mech walkers. Magic had become a thing of legend, where it was discussed in history but since the War of the Magi magic hasn’t been used by people. A frozen esper is believed to be in the village of Narshe and this is something the empire wants to get their hands on. Things don’t quite work out in this mission, as Terra and the soldiers learn the hard way that acquiring an Esper isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Upon waking up from this unfortunate incident, Terra meets another major character named Locke. She learns he is part of resistance unit known as the Returners and that the Empire has been controlling her with a slave crown because she has natural magic abilities. Going through several hours of gameplay, we learn that the Empire is up to no good. They want to bring magic back into the world, but as a means to achieve world domination. Terra is of interest because she has innate magical abilities due to her being half human and half esper. Celes was one of the Empire’s generals, but we learn she was infused with powers as part of experimentation to make her into a magitek knight. Espers are caught and held in the imperial capital city of Vector, where they are imprisoned so that the Empire can extract their magical essence for their own purposes.
Kefka works under Emperor Gestahl but he is the real ringleader of their insidious doings. Some Final Fantasy games have villains that you almost feel sorry for, such as Sephiroth and his tragic backstory. Kefka is not one of these villains. He is a power hungry madman, his clownish appearance almost a subtle nod to Batman’s Joker, who isn’t the worst character to compare to Kefka. Kefka’s personality is established early on when he makes his lackeys wipe sand off his boots while they walk through a desert. Kefka is ruthless and has no regard for anyone he kills. We witness this early on in a sequence that is best described as an extended gut punch as Cyan witnesses this when his family and all the other citizens of Doma die. Later on when Kefka is more powerful he isn’t above taking a lazier approach and using the Light of Judgment to raze a whole town. Unstable, power hungry and cruel. He might not adorn as many wall scrolls or be the subject of as erotic fan fic as his one winged successor, but he is truly a villain to be reviled.
A great villain only part of the equation and something that has been a recurring theme in most Final Fantasy titles are characters that the player cares about. Terra is unfamiliar with the concept of love, and her new realization that she’s a mix of human and esper is an additional obstacle in her self actualization.
Thief Treasure hunter Locke is haunted by his past failure, which is something he dwells on in his implied courtship of Celes. The contrast of the Figaro brothers Sabin and Edgar is a dynamic that’s used a few times in the story, which can lead to a humorous moment when Sabin learns the truth about the coin that decided the fate of their kingdom. Even with the limited storytelling tools in 1994 hardware, there were several moments involving these characters that delivered an emotional impact that was not yet commonplace in video games. Final Fantasy II/IV had its share of depression, but Final Fantasy VI elevated this to the next level.
One of the more memorable emotional moments occurred in the second half of the game. Locke had been searching the world for some fabled treasure that can restore life, which he found in the form of the Phoenix magicite. He returned to where his betrothed Rachel slept in suspended animation. The wish to restore a lost loved one is something all of us have felt, but like in real life the wish isn’t enough to remove the pain of loss. Locke got a few brief moments with her in a lucid state, but after all his searching the best he could get was closure to the loss. He couldn’t protect her when it happened and he couldn’t undo the consequences of his failure. Rachel was still gone, but at least he was able to come to terms with it, which is really the best any of us can hope for.
Storytelling is a definite strong point of Final Fantasy VI, and part of that isn’t just the events that occur but also through the means of conveyance. Flashbacks were a fairly regular occurrence to flesh out the characters’ backgrounds. The coin toss scene in Figaro established a personal reason for Edgar and Sabin to oppose the empire along with showing Sabin’s devotion to training. Love and loss of a loved one were referenced in a couple instances; Locke lost Rachel before anyone knew she answered his question affirmatively and we got to know Setzer’s tale of heartbreak when the party went looking for a replacement airship. The tale of Terra was perhaps the bleakest story, when players get the rare opportunity to step into the memories of the esper Maduin. The lofty ambition of her conception was based on the joining of the human and esper world but she couldn’t be kept safe from the Empire forever, for they eventually found a way into their world and the visit and let’s just say their invasion did not end well for the espers. Instead of raised peacefully in the world of espers she was reared by those who only wanted to benefit from her power. Maduin and Madonna were not the only human and esper couple, as flashbacks from a battle thousand years in the past reveal a human queen who had love for the esper Odin. Both were petrified in the battle, but even death and the passage of time was not enough to prevent her from shedding a tear when she felt the presence of the glowing magicite corpse of Odin.
Shadow is one of the games most enigmatic figures who reveals nothing about himself to any of the other characters, but dreams have a way of revealing someone’s innermost thoughts. Once upon a time he was named Clyde and his dreams recall his criminal exploits with his partner in crime, Baram. Like Locke, he failed Baram in his time of need, but instead of listening to request to put him down quickly he abandoned his mortally-wounded friend to be dealt with by the authorities. Unbeknownst to everyone, Shadow has a child with whom he gets reunited. This is never acknowledged to anyone outside of himself, and based on his scene during the ending his daughter who has grown up this far without her father will never know him.
While its inclusion was surprising, having the player take control of Celes as the female lead of an Opera doesn’t seem too out of place considering how tragic so many of the characters backstories are. The subject matter of the matter is nothing special, Maria and Draco are lovers but a chap by the name of Prince Ralse has other plans for her. This sequence served as a plot device as an elaborate trap to get Setzer by having him mistakenly kidnap Celes when he was trying to kidnap Maria, making the part of the plot not too dissimilar from what is actually happening in the opera. The player needs to memorize the lines to not screw up the performance so the play can continue long enough for Setzer to come by to do his kidnapping but a certain meddlesome octopus complicates things further. This is among the most unique scenes in this game which showcases a partial performance of a serious opera but liberally adds some comedic elements.
One of the most defining features of Final Fantasy VI is a moment that happens roughly halfway through the game. Things seems to be going well, the party has reached some understanding with the imperial forces and the espers haven’t destroyed the world in retribution for the things the Empire has done to them. Kefka decides to screw this up by killing General Leo, slaughtering a bunch of espers and raising up the island that leads to the esper realm into the sky to move the goddess statues around. Like any JRPG, this is time for the heroes to travel to the floating island, put a stop to Kefka and prevent whatever cataclysmic event is going to. This is the perfect set up for the climatic showdown, where the world is saved is Kefka is stopped. Except that it wasn’t. Kefka betrays Gestahl and overpowers the party. He moves the statues out of balance and all hell breaks loose. The player now has only a few minutes to make it to the airship and even gives the players to option to hurry up and jump to the ship without waiting for Shadow. During the chaos Setzer’s airship is torn apart, as the scene changes to explosions and earthquakes. Never in my gaming life to this point have I felt like such a failure in saving the world.
Celes wakes up on a desolate island with Cid being her sole companion. It’s revealed that she has been in a coma for the past year, during which time the other survivors on the island had all passed away and Cid isn’t doing too well himself. Alone in a new world without any of her companions, it’s easy to abandon hope. During the first playthrough, I failed to keep Cid alive with the fish catching minigame. Celes was now truly alone, and in a state of despair threw herself from the cliffs into the sea, which was something shocking for a 1994 Nintendo game when their puritanical content policies were still in effect. Her suicide attempt failed and soon after washing ashore saw that a bird had a familiar bandana piece in its beak. This scene illustrated how incredibly hopeless things had become in game’s world, as one of the most powerful characters could be brought to the ultimate point of giving up. It also showed that even when things are at their bleakest a glimmer of hope can still be found, no matter how faint it may seem.
The second half of Final Fantasy VI is more open ended at what the order the player wants to go about finding all their party members and taking on additional quests like fighting the eight legendary dragons that were unsealed when the world ended or take some time to try to reunite Gau with his father. The second part of the game is about rebuilding the world Kefka destroyed. Finding out things about the characters makes this portion interesting since we get to see what they’ve ended up doing over the past year. Terra has taken on a matriarch role in a town without any adults, Cyan has been posing as a dead soldier and writing letters to a young woman, Strago went off and joined a cult. They all found a variety of things to do in order to occupy themselves.
Once the player has reunited all the party members, killed all the dragons, got all the magicite and a decent arsenal of equipment, it’s time to go into Kefka’s Tower. This tower is a grotesque work of architecture, constructed from all the debris form the world’s ending with remnants of Vector on display. One of the interesting things about the tower and a new feature in Final Fantasy VI is there are a few scenarios where the player switches control between multiple party groups and Kefka’s tower is set up where the player switches between three parties of up to four people. Each team has to make it to the end before they can fight Kefka and the parties cannot get past a certain point without another party opening up the way for them. The tower has some great boss fights, including the statues and a rematch with Atma, but Kefka is an impressive boss and I would make the argument the blueprint for the final showdown with Sephiroth in the subsequent Final Fantasy. The battle occurs in multiple stages; before the players even get to fight Kefka they have to battle a tower of abominations that could be described as the embodiment of Renaissance art depicting a twisted version of hell. Upon reaching the top of this tower the sky is bright as Kefka descends from the heavens, now in the form of a triple winged angel. This can be a drawn out and challenging fight or the player can cheese Kefka with an instant kill by pairing the Offering and Genji Glove relics to a powerful fighter. The epic musical composition Dancing Mad plays during the battle, which even with the hardware limitation attempts to incorporate choral arrangements to the theme. After the battle, the player gets a hint at what happens with each character as signs of life return to the ruined world.
The story and characters are a huge part of why Final Fantasy VI is considered by many to be one of the best entries. Characters have their set attribute growth pattern like in most JRPGs, but the discrepancy between characters is narrower than it’s been in other Final Fantasy titles. Sabin and Cyan are harder hitters while Strago and Relm have more powerful magic, but with the esper system everyone can learn every spell and manipulating the level stat bonuses with espers everyone can end up becoming a stronger fighter or magic user. Later in the game, the right combination of doing this with good weapons and relic combinations can make some overpowered characters. This way of doing attributes is nice since it’s easier to assemble parties based on the character personality pairings and not having to worry about whether or not this group is going to be able to survive random encounters. The main thing that makes characters different in combat is their unique skills; Locke can steal items, Edgar uses tools, Relm paints them and Sabin can use a variety of Blitz attacks using Street Fighter style control inputs. Everyone has done this, but there is no better use for this than during the Phantom Train battle because who doesn’t want to suplex a train? The Game Boy Advance version isn’t too different than the original SNES release. It did get a new translation which does clarify a few things and adds a few extra espers to catch and some additional post-game challenging dungeons.
Final Fantasy VI is a video game masterpiece. While any version of it is worth playing, the better versions are the original SNES (or Wii Virtual Console or SNES Classic) and Game Boy Advance iterations. The other incarnations are worthwhile, but the experience is best on the Nintendo platforms. As ridiculously long as this article has been there are still several other aspects about this game that are worth discussing, but we’ll cover one more things before we end this. A theme throughout the game is hope. The characters have all experienced some tragedy in their backstory that a few them are haunted by and trying to right throughout the game. Halfway through the game everything goes to hell but even at the bleakest points they still keep fighting in spite of everything. The characters suffer from some sort of terminal optimism, but they do ultimately prevail. The world ending isn’t erased, their lost loved ones are still gone, their past failures haven’t been corrected, but they still see some faint glimmer of hope when it’s easy to lose all hope.
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