You’re the best!
Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down
-Joe Esposito, The Karate Kid
Ladies and gentlemen, NPCs of all ages, thank you for joining us for this monolithic, unprecedented Final Fantasy project, of which this article is just a droplet in a sea. If you somehow stumbled into this post first, you can check out the many others that have been written by talented scribes across the world by navigating to the hub article.
With Final Fantasy: a Crystal Compendium complete, I can rest easy. This has been a lot of work but it’s seen a lot of passion as well. I originally planned to write a review for my favorite Final Fantasy game, which would be Final Fantasy VI (first released in North America as Final Fantasy III), as my contribution to this project but when we began to take on so many interested writers, with some eyeing FFVI as their own subject, I decided to give it up for others and focus instead on other project duties. However, when some of the proposed contributors had to drop out altogether, FFVI was free again, needing someone to write about it. Call it fate or Providence.
I want to dedicate this article to lunaticpandora (who intended to write for FFVI) and The Jack Archer. They both had to leave the project due to health reasons. If you two haven’t already recovered, I wish you well. Heck, I wish you well anyway and there’s nothing you can do about it.
So my article is about Final Fantasy VI. It’s often cited as one of the best and the brightest in the Final Fantasy canon of titles. Why is that exactly? I mean, out of so many games why is this the one that people frequently come back to? It may be due to its structure, its moments, characters, gameplay, but here are VI reasons why I personally think that the 6th numerical entry in this franchise is just swell.
This is going to contain fairly light SPOILERS.
#1. The Super Nintendo
Ah, the SNES. Some may say it’s one of the greatest systems ever made. While that is largely an argument for another article (though you can find some foundation for that assertion in this “doctorate thesis” here), it is well-accepted that the SNES had a fruitful run, a large and impressive library of games, a host of exclusives, a collection of nigh perfect experiences, and it was the
leader dominator of the home console market of its generation, Nintendo in their prime. Yet out of the myriad of 10’s comes an 11 with a 6 in its title.
Consider the fact alone that Final Fantasy VI was able to stand out on a console that was known for its RPGs. There was its use of Mode 7 pseudo-3D displaying some of the unique qualities of the hardware, the darkness of its visual design was only dulled and muted by later renditions (such as with the pasty FFVI Advance or the atrocious PS1 FMVs…), its concept art lived on in the detailed enemy sprites, its borrowed, balanced Active Time Battle (ATB) system engaged the player, its 16-bit universe allowed for the audience to bring their own impressions to bear and fill in the details of the world that the graphics couldn’t, employ their imagination rather than let the proverbial cat out of the bag, as it were, and tell us everything visually that there is to know through high definition. Furthermore, its sprawling storyline demonstrated the power of memorable storytelling: the snowy hike toward Narshe, Celes’ suicide, the opera house, Ultros, the Espers, the branching adventures. All of this and more was possible, and in some cases exclusively possible, on the Super Nintendo.
On a system already crowded with great games, FFVI was a precious stone among the gold.
#2. Ensemble cast
Nearly every subsequent non-MMO, numerical entry in the series has had a definable protagonist/main character: Cloud, Squall, Zidane, Tidus, Lightning, Noctis… except for Final Fantasy XII though of course Balthier is the self-professed leading man. The tendency in later Final Fantasy games is toward creating cults of personality with their main characters. Not so with FFVI.
VI is known for not having an easily identifiable lead. I tend to think of the game’s protagonist as Terra because we met her first, but then you reach the halfway point in the game and that spot seems to be occupied by Celes. I always identified with Locke and he too has his own time to shine and affect the plot and save the day. Fact is, most every playable character (minus the few secret ones or joke ones) get their own moments that flesh them out and provide the fundamentals for good characters: wants and wishes. If we can understand what a character desires, then we can understand the character. So much of FFVI isn’t spent wandering aimlessly, fetching items and running errands, so much as it is spent exploring the drive of its cast against a meaningful backdrop.
The balance of a core set of characters deepened and enrichened this linear/open world game before the advent of cinematic cutscenes, which are now so frequent as to be the new standard. These have almost become their own kind of exposition as slow and ponderous as old fashioned text crawls narrating films. Final Fantasy VI created a world impacted by people and a story driven by personalities, not politics or fate or mystical mumbo jumbo as seen in later series entries.
#3. Reason Number Three
Reason III has been renamed to Reason VI. See below.
#4. The Villain
Speaking of cults and characters, the Final Fantasy series is renown for its cutting edge, well-developed villains… Wait, no, that’s not right. Outside of Sephiroth, you barely hear crooning and euphoric ah-ing over Garland, Vayne, Exdeath, or Kuja. That’s why Kefka exists to remind us that not all villains need a tragic back story or a set path to redemption. There is such a thing as irredeemable evil and that is part of what made Kefka one of the most successful and memorable antagonists of Final Fantasy. He stands out from the pantheon of FF villains still as less than serious, less than brooding, more flamboyant, talkative, humorous, brash, and sadistic.
No discussion of Final Fantasy VI is complete without mentioning Kefka. It has been said that a hero is only as good as their villain, a statement which I wholly affirm to be true since the best of a character is seen when they undergo the harshest challenges. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is when I read that writers should put their characters through the worst. The more you brutalize your heroes, the better they’ll come out in the end, the better their personalities will be displayed. Everyone can be a moderately decent person when life is going great but it’s when we find ourselves suffering that our cores are laid bare and we show who we really are.
Kefka is here to ensure the heroes of FFVI suffer as much as possible. Kefka Palazzo is an imperial agent, the court mage, a military leader and a failed science experiment. At first, he seems like a mere thug, comical relief, though his impact on the plot steadily increases. He was the first test subject to undergo Magitek infusion but the primitive process warped his mind, removing all empathy and compassion, turning him into a psychotic murderer with great whimsy but without any sense of value for human life. When he achieves ultimate power through magical means halfway through the game, he actually does what villains hardly ever do: he succeeds. Setting himself up as a god to be worshiped, he wipes out entire civilizations and throws the world into primordial chaos before becoming tired of his plaything planet and turning to nihilism. He uttered his infamous, nonsensical phrase “I will create a monument to non-existence!” He was essentially Emperor Joker (you may recall the story where The Joker obtains omnipotence; not a good day for Batman).
What’s so remarkable about Kefka is just how unfailingly evil he is. He is proof that not every villain needs a sob story. He’s not Golbez, he’s not Sephiroth, he’s not Edea, he’s not Kuja, he’s not Jecht, he’s not Ardyn. Neither does Kefka fall into the common phrasing of “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Kefka has no good intentions. He doesn’t do bad in order to reach good. He does bad to reach worse. He doesn’t accidentally do evil or present himself as not in control of his actions. He certainly doesn’t fall into the rut of every villain ever: revenge. Kefka has no grasp of trying to obtain peace through militaristic strength (setting him a head higher than even Emperor Palpatine). He has no golden ideal he wishes to construct while morally faltering along the way, a kind of justification of his means through his end. No, he is purposeless, immutable, hideous pain, the laughing personification of the meaninglessness of his own worldview, which drives right at the heart of the themes of FFVI. The only response is to prove to him that life is valuable, worth being protected, by taking the shattered remains of his own from him.
We don’t know if he was a bad man before the Magitek or if he was always a sadist but we don’t need to know. The game doesn’t need to tell us whether there’s no hope for his recuperation or not. There’s no purifying his soul, deflating his delusions of grandeur, or saving him from the control of another, greater villain Few baddies exist like this anymore in our modern fiction of empathizing with the fallen and FFVI is powerful for it. Kefka exists as a force, as incapable of being reasoned with as a hurricane or the passionless hostility of the void of space.
Plus his has to be one of the most iconic laughs ever. When can we get an adaptation of FFVI with Mark Hamill as Kefka? Why do clowns have to be so scary?
#5. The Soundtrack
How many Final Fantasy soundtracks can boast that they are Nobuo Uematsu’s favorite? In 2010, the legendary composer admitted that FFVI’s OST was his favorite soundtrack to compose. Additionally, he also said that FFVI is his favorite FF game to play! Uematsu brought all of his talent together for crafting emotional and personal melodies, impressive and distinctive leitmotifs, and his particular fusion of classical, Eastern, and rock influenced sensations.
FFVI has, as we’ve seen, a very large cast of characters and nearly all of them received their own theme, which then is adapted throughout the game into other forms of music. The greatest example of this is “Dancing Mad” (“wild dance of a calamitous star” in Japanese). This is the theme of the final fight against Kefka and what a boss theme it is, one of the greatest and longest in games and the longest in the FF series! It is a complex, organic, multilayered composition divided into a quartet of movements corresponding with the tiers of Kefka’s godlike form. Uematsu combined flavors of Bach and opera with themes presented earlier in the game, making this final song the crown jewel of a magnificent soundtrack that helps to bring all of the game’s elements to a close.
“Well, usually when you make a song it’s two to three minutes in length, you have the introduction, the main part and the ending. But… for ‘Dancing Mad’ I didn’t really put a stop on it, so I kept on working on it, working on it, working on it and that really let the song… you know… I got to play around with it for something like fourteen minutes, and it’s really one of my favorites.”-Nobuo Uematsu
#6. Its place in history
Imagine with ineffable horror what FFVI would be like if it were made today…
It would be a lot prettier with HD graphics and you would have voice actors to read the script for you but Shadow would be restricted to DLC as would all character backstories, leaving tons of space of sidequests but little actual story or character development in the game itself. Also, Edgar’s weapons would be microtransactions, Sabin’s special attacks would turn into simple quicktime events for cutscene boss fights, the Espers would be hidden in lootboxes, the second half of the game when the world’s destroyed would be released as a separate episode, there would be spin offs, merch tie-ins and sequels galore to muddy the clarity of this game’s vision, Gogo would be only available in the day one edition, Umaro would only be obtainable in the limited edition GameStop GOTY version, and Mog would only be playable in the steelbook hardcover edition. But hey, you’d get an art leaflet with images you could Google for free for an extra $10 dollars. Good deal!
Final Fantasy VI is as robust and intact as it is because of its place in gaming history. It is pointed and pure, with secrets hid only behind exploration and skill, self-contained, aspirational only within its prescribed borders, and free from sequelitis where it is, wedged between FFIV that got a sequel and FFVII that never stops getting spin offs. In many ways, it is one of the last sentiments to the ancient ways of this series, a truly final fantasy.
Final Fantasy VI may not be your favorite FF but maybe you can catch a glimmer of its greatness. It is after all, a member of one of the longest running and best received franchises in gaming history. As ever, you decide. Your unique blend of emotions, experiences, memories and personality indicate that you’re an individual capable of engaging with entertainment in different and beautiful ways. Final Fantasy VI may indeed be cited often as one of the best, if not the best, and I hope I was able at least to convince you of a sliver of what it has to offer.
If you haven’t played this landmark, a title that appeared fairly consistently across lists like this one, then go find it and enjoy.
In your service,
-The Well-Red Mage
***This post is part of a larger undertaking. Final Fantasy: a Crystal Compendium is a community project bringing together over two dozen writers to create quality work on games from all across this beloved franchise. Check out more at this hub article.***
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