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Final Fantasy VI, the Essence of a Franchise Distilled for SNES

Though perhaps not the best of the series, FFVI was definitely the most Final Fantasy-ish of the lot.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

Originally published Feb. 2014

If Lightning Returns represents Final Fantasy taken to its weirdest extreme, you need simply turn the clock back 20 years and find its calm center: 1994's Final Fantasy VI. (Or, for those of you still living in the Super NES era, Final Fantasy III.)

Everything that defines the name "Final Fantasy" is present and accounted for in FFVI. It has an epic, driving, central story; a mad villain with a mindless urge to destroy for destruction's sake; a highly flexible skill system; a huge cast of diverse characters; immense player freedom within the constraints of the Japanese RPG design model; extraordinary graphics and music; and elaborate story set pieces that far surpass anything seen in its contemporaries.

It might have seemed a bit pretentious to roll the credits during the introduction of a video game, but these guys earned it.

It also embodies Final Fantasy's flaws. The epic plot wanders all over the place; the flexibility of the skill system turns the entire adventure into a total cake walk; few of the dozen or so party members demonstrate any real depth of characterization; the linear and open-ended portions of the quest are segregated awkwardly into separate halves of the game; and... well, actually the graphics and music are still pretty great, but you'd never know from playing the hideous mobile port or scratchy Game Boy Advance remake.

No, FFVI isn't the best Final Fantasy. It doesn't have the best story, the most ambitious presentation, the deepest mechanics, the most liberating structure, or the best-defined cast. Yet it does all of those things well -- not simply with competence, but with panache. It's the most well-rounded entry of the series, comfortable with itself and willing to push against the boundaries of technology without getting lost in spectacle. How many other RPGs would be willing to stop everything for 15 minutes so that players could take part in an opera followed by a battle in the rafters with a comic relief villain trying to drop a five-ton weight on the lead actress? And how many would then follow up such cartoon inanity a few hours later by shattering the planet with a world-ending apocalypse, leaving behind a land so bleak that monsters die on their own in combat and the heroine attempts suicide?

FFVI's ultimate bad guy was a magical clown who became god. It takes a hell of a game to sell that kind of plot twist.

FFVI felt even more remarkable for U.S. gamers, because console RPGs were still such a rarity in the '90s. Only a tiny fraction of games Japan began churning out in the wake of Dragon Quest made it stateside; Final Fantasy, for which we'd seen fully half the entries to date in English by 1994 (along with a bunch of Game Boy games from other series rebranded as "Final Fantasy" for the west), was one of the least stranded. Yet even then, we'd missed out on the meaty, mechanics-driven Final Fantasy V, a game whose Job system (among other things) provided valuable context for the workings of FFVI.

Speaking as someone who had dabbled in RPGs prior to 1994 but never really committed to the genre due to its complexity and lack of visual appeal, FFVI offered me an essential breakthrough. The game was about as pretty as a massive tile-based adventure crammed into a tiny Super NES cartridge could manage. And the splendor kicked in from the opening moments, which saw a trio of robot-riding warriors marching across a snowy field as the lights of a distant mining town rose over the horizon. In combat, those same armored suits could unleash a flurry of vivid spell effects and mechanical strikes. It all looked like the Final Fantasy that had already trickled its way into the U.S., but amped up to new levels.

Meanwhile, the workings of the game struck a perfect balance between expansive freedom and explanatory progression. After getting a taste of those Magitek suits' powers, things settled down considerably; you began building a fresh party from scratch, and while each character had his or her own special skill -- thieving, special tool attacks, nullifying elemental attacks, and more -- only a handful of characters could wield magic. By the time spells became available to the entire party, combat had settled into a steady groove. Every new factor arrived in its own time, carefully meted out to ease the player into the essentially systems without ever overwhelming.

Come for the intro, stick around for the 25-minute finale.

You didn't have to know the conventions of Final Fantasy to enjoy and complete FFVI; it was sufficiently self-explanatory to be approachable even for someone who didn't particularly get the importance of things like min-maxing stats through Magicite junctions. In fact, I completed the game without even realizing summons existed, somehow blundering my way to victory. On subsequent playthroughs, however, I discovered an abundance of content and systems hiding beneath the surface, enough to encourage experimentation and alternate strategies that kept the game from growing stale with repeated play.

Final Fantasy VI aimed to be the summation of all that had come before for Final Fantasy while pushing the series into new territory. It tweaked the active-time battle system with a variety of surprising mechanics; some worked, like Sabin's Street Fighter-inspired special moves, while others didn't, especially Cyan's sword techniques that prevented players from executing any other move while they charged up. It made the summoned beasts ("Espers") an integral element of the game, yet it downplayed the standard summoned attacks in favor of creating a bond between characters and Espers that would shape each individual warrior's traits. Meanwhile, it was the first Final Fantasy to discard the concept of Crystals altogether, and classical fantasy races were gone as well. There was something akin to continuity at work in the series: The elves and dwarves that played such prominent roles in the original Final Fantasy had faded over the course of its sequels, and FFV saw the Crystals shatter forever. FFVI left those concepts behind to explore new ideas.

In hindsight, FFVI seems closest in spirit to Final Fantasy VII, minus all those "integrated movie" ambitions. It combined the class-based Job mechanics of FFV while attempting to give players even more freedom to customize their party, eventually stripping down the barriers between individuals to let you define your team as you like. Want to turn Sabin the monk into a mage? Or use speedy Locke the thief as a knight? FFVI was fine with that. Nearly all of FFV's class mechanics found form in FFVI (even esoteric ones like Geomancer and Berserker), and the character-specific skills led to interesting strategies and situations -- pile-driving an undead railroad engine into oblivion, for instance -- but in no way were players locked into those roles for their team.

The kind of game that drives fans to try and improve on things like its localization -- not because the game as it exists is flawed, but because they're simply that obsessed with it.

If the essence of role-playing games boils down to player choice, FFVI represented a brilliant expression of the genre. No, choice didn't come in the form of narrative; the game's story shook out the same way no matter how you played it. It's how you got there -- the way you built your characters, the order in which you tackled the freeform events of the second half, the limitations you imposed on yourself for fun -- that kept FFVI so interesting. The game was crammed with detail, with options, and with secrets. It was the sort of RPG that players obsessed over for years in such numbers that obscure glitches and Easter eggs have earned their own names and inspired entire guides. It was the kind of game that gives you seemingly useless gear so that you could turn a debilitating status ailment into an advantage, should the notion occur to you. It was a playground for the dedicated fan, and a gateway drug for newcomers.

It's easy to lament the fact that they don't make Final Fantasy games like this anymore, but that's not really fair; no one makes any games like this, period. Like The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, Final Fantasy VI is the product of a different era. In 1994, you could create a game with top-of-the-line graphics, totally accessible play, impressive mechanical depth, and enormous scope without needing to sell 10 million units just to break even. The same modest technology and presentation that made it possible for story to go from Ultros the octopus attempting a Looney Tunes plot to Celes the runic knight attempting suicide also made it possible for developers to go hog-wild and create any kind of RPG they wanted. The irony of Lightning Returns is that it actually tries to do a lot of the same things people love in FFVI, but it falls flat because of progress. Mood whiplash between the silly and the dead serious undermines the narrative when rendered with realistic characters rather than chubby cartoon sprites, and the realities of HD development render top-end graphics a luxury for a handful of top-selling brands that dare not stray from a successful formula. Cherish games like FFVI; they don't make 'em like this anymore because they can't.

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Comments 32

  • Avatar for Ohoni #1 Ohoni 3 years ago
    I never really played this one when it was first out, I wasn't into RPGs back then, but I've always hoped that they would get around to making an FFIV-esc 3D remake of this one.
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #2 Roto13 3 years ago
    I'm going to have to disagree with one thing. I firmly believe Final Fantasy VI really is the best in the series.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @Roto13 Totally agree. IMO, FFVI is still the best in the series. It's close, though... IV, V, and VII are all strong contenders.
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  • Avatar for docexe #4 docexe 3 years ago
    This game is definitely among my favorite ones from the SNES era. And I have to say it: This game (along with a few other text heavy games like Super Mario RPG) was one of primary motivators for me to learn English as a second language.

    The way I see it, while FFVI is not the best when it comes to each of the individual elements, the fact that it does all of them with such level of competence, when almost every other entry in the series does a few well only to fail terribly at the others, makes it not only the more well-rounded entry but also the best overall in the series. The only other one that comes close, in my opinion, is FFIV.

    In any case, it was a nice retrospective. I suppose the theme of this week is: “They don’t do them like this anymore”. The paragraph at the end is quite sobering in that respect indeed.Edited February 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for Alex12345 #5 Alex12345 3 years ago
    What core entry Final Fantasy game does have the best story, Mr. Parish? I am super curious to hear your answer.Edited February 2014 by Alex12345
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  • Avatar for jeffcorry #6 jeffcorry 3 years ago
    Every time I get to the part where I can have Ragnorak forged or get the Esper...I have to pause...and really weigh my options. Thankfully the GBA remake took care of that. You can steal it from Kefka then save after the ending. I hate losing an Esper more than a sword...
    Okay. Well. Anyway. I love this game.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #7 SatelliteOfLove 3 years ago
    "It's easy to lament the fact that they don't make Final Fantasy games like this anymore, but that's not really fair; no one makes any games like this, period. Like The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, Final Fantasy VI is the product of a different era. In 1994, you could create a game with top-of-the-line graphics, totally accessible play, impressive mechanical depth, and enormous scope without needing to sell 10 million units just to break even. The same modest technology and presentation that made it possible for story to go from Ultros the octopus attempting a Looney Tunes plot to Celes the runic knight attempting suicide also made it possible for developers to go hog-wild and create any kind of RPG they wanted. The irony of Lightning Returns is that it actually tries to do a lot of the same things people love in FFVI, but it falls flat because of progress. Mood whiplash between the silly and the dead serious undermines the narrative when rendered with realistic characters rather than chubby cartoon sprites, and the realities of HD development render top-end graphics a luxury for a handful of top-selling brands that dare not stray from a successful formula. Cherish games like FFVI; they don't make 'em like this anymore because they can't."

    Preach.

    I went thru this on the PS1 version; still love it to death. I see VII-IX and beyond in the SNES-era FFs; you can tell the Gooch and crew were straining against the bounds of technology of the time, and the more advanced technology of new consoles would break those shackles.

    Now, like you said, that same introduction of new technology binds developers hand and foot.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 3 years ago
    @motionsuggestshimsel Best story/narrative? I'd give the edge to FFIX. Best world? FFXII. Obviously, this is all subjective!
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  • Avatar for koalpastor30 #9 koalpastor30 3 years ago
    Great article and I agree with almost everything Parish says, but FF VI is the best FF.
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  • Avatar for koalpastor30 #10 koalpastor30 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish XII is also a fantastic FF. The best FF in a very many years
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  • Avatar for Shadowfire #11 Shadowfire 3 years ago
    "No, FFVI isn't the best Final Fantasy."
    GET OFF OF MY INTERNET.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #12 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    @jeremy.parish It's not subjective when you are right! Hahaha. XII was and is an amazing game and is to this day my personal favorite but if I am being honest, I love every single one, 1 through 13.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #13 pdubb 3 years ago
    I think what managed to make FF6 stick with so many people so deeply is that it's huge cast pretty much allows everyone to find at least one character they can identify.

    Maybe you were a girl and liked that Celes was pretty much awesome (until they made her emo). Maybe you didn't identify with anyone until you found out that Gau and Realm both had father issues, and you liked them. Maybe you wanted to be the playboy and really resonated with Edgar and the fact that he had a freakin submarine castle. I mean for all the characters save the two "secret" ones, they cover the bases of pretty much every possible hero fantasy/emotional attachment I can think of.

    FF6 made you feel some sort of emotion when you were playing it. It's why I think it's remembered so well.
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  • Avatar for ob1 #14 ob1 3 years ago
    "In 1994, you could create a game with top-of-the-line graphics (...) without needing to sell 10 million"
    And in 2014, 20 years later, nobody will fund any game if he's not sure it's gonna sell 3 times more than A link to the past (which some called the greatest game in the world) or twice more than Ocarina.
    We wanted the world to embrace our art, so did it. But you know what they say : be careful what you wish for.

    Edit : typoEdited February 2014 by ob1
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #15 Dogislander 3 years ago
    Great write-up, Jeremy. FF6 remains my personal favorite due to the sheer amount of personality this game has. What may seem like a lack of characterization is what I consider a marvel in economic design.
    Each character gets their own story beats in both worlds and in some ways reminds me of the way Bioware handled character development with Mass Effect. In FF6, each character gets JUST ENOUGH backstory and motivation to make you invested, and their gameplay mechanics usually reflect their personality. This type of game may never happen again, but there are lessons in its design which will always ring true.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #16 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    One of the best games ever
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  • Avatar for Dreamcaster-X #17 Dreamcaster-X 3 years ago
    @cldmstrsn I agree. 12 is SO underrated. I honestly think it was just a little ahead of it's time. It had everything I love about FF games in spades. The cities felt alive moreso than any other game & the games overworld was just a huge sprawling world to explore and level up in. It's the only FF game where I leveled up all my characters because the brilliant combat system made it fun and not a chore. Throw in a VERY likeable cast of characters & brilliant music and what's not to love?
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  • Avatar for Dreamcaster-X #18 Dreamcaster-X 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Agreed!! 4, 5, & 6 are the best of the classic FF games in my book as well. 5 is definitely underrated.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #19 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    @Dreamcaster-X It looks like you got a good head on those shoulders Mr. Dreamaster-X!
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #20 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    Still my favorite FF game. I think, though, that the series is so varied that it's no wonder that people bicker over the best. There is some consensus, though, about FFVI and its standing. Maybe it's not one's personal favorite, but most acknowledge the greatness contained within. Great writeup, Jeremy.
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  • Avatar for LunarFlame17 #21 LunarFlame17 3 years ago
    I used to waver between whether I thought 6 or 7 was the better FF, but then one day I realized that every time I play through 6, I get bogged down halfway through and struggle to finish it, whereas every time I play 7 I can't put it down until I've mastered every materia, found every ultimate weapon and limit break, leveled every character up to 99, etc. 6 is definitely the second best FF, though, although unfortunately I've never played 12.
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  • Avatar for HotKarl #22 HotKarl 3 years ago
    Another excellent write-up in the series - and refreshing to hear that FFVI was a "gateway drug" for a favorite videogame journalist.

    For me, this release was notable as a "classic" in that it is the first, and only time I recall purchasing a game for $80.00US retail. An SNES cart no less!
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  • Avatar for matthewjohnson31 #23 matthewjohnson31 3 years ago
    @HotKarl What, did you not buy Chrono Trigger? I think that cracked triple digits...

    Anyway, I consider FFVI the last game in the series before Square's reach noticeably started to exceed its grasp. For that reason I intellectually consider it the 'best' in the series. The trouble is that I can't play it anymore; I played it so extensively in the 90s (and carted the Nintendo Power guide around for like six months) that there's no surprise left, and it's too long a game to go through without surprise. So I usually end up playing IV or V instead.
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  • Avatar for chucksiegfried01 #24 chucksiegfried01 2 years ago
    Sorry jeremy, but ff6 is the top rated game in the series by most critics worldwide. FF6 as a whole is better than 9. The character development and soundtrack are far better. It's the most acclaimed game in the series IMO..
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  • Avatar for chucksiegfried01 #25 chucksiegfried01 2 years ago
    Deleted December 2014 by chucksiegfried01
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  • Avatar for chucksiegfried01 #26 chucksiegfried01 2 years ago
    @chucksiegfried01 Chrono trigger and xenogears are the only games that come close to ff6 IMO..
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  • Avatar for ironjoe99 #27 ironjoe99 A year ago
    @Ohoni The thought of a 3d version of this terrifies me. Blargh. If they did this in the 90s or 2000s, it would look terrible today. If they did it nowadays? Then it wouldn't be turn based anymore. See FF7

    I really have to say its worth a try today even, especially with some of the amazing retranslations and rom hacks to fix the glitchiness. Give it a shot! You missed the era, just don't miss this game too.
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  • Avatar for secularsage #28 secularsage A year ago
    It occurred to me recently that Final Fantasy VI is styled after an epic opera, which is perhaps why it includes a villain who looks like an Italian clown and why there are multiple layers of plot that weave in and out like songs (including an opera within an opera!).

    I don't know why that didn't occur to me when playing the game - the beginning, after all, has a dramatic overture and everything! - but the more I've reflected on it, the more I've realized that it's exactly why the game feels so strange compared to other entries in the series. It's not as cohesive because it's broken into segments that communicate broader themes about the story, and the game goes out of its way to ensure that the characters all have their turn in the spotlight during and after the game (rather than focusing solely on one or two protagonists). Whenever I replay the game, I remember how strange the game really is and how much weirdness is in sequences that take places in places like the Phantom Train, the town of Zozo, the Magitek factory, the Esper World and the Veldt. Music plays such an important role in the game that it wouldn't feel the same without it, and the melodramatic moments only work because the game takes such pains to make the character archetypes bold and recognizable in appearance and in interactions.

    The games that followed increasingly felt like they were trying to be derivative of anime and Star Wars. And while I'd argue that FF IX and X hold up better than any other games in the series (and Chrono Trigger is the superior SNES JRPG), I think VI gets a lot of credit for being a JRPG that tried to be something much bigger than another fantasy-based adventure and which still hasn't been surpassed in its willingness to break its world into pieces to force the player to feel the despair of its cast.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #29 riderkicker A year ago
    I remember playing this game and almost missing out on Bahamut. I encountered that bat monster thing +1 more than I was supposed to and I lost it, so I restarted from a save and had to use the Blink + Death glitch to end him at the exact encounter. Yeah, this was a pretty messed up game, but I love it.
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  • Avatar for Mr.Spo #30 Mr.Spo A year ago
    I've only ever played Final Fantasy IV through IX, and with the exception of IV, I've only done them all once. VI stood out as probably 'the best', while IV was my favourite.

    I'm currently 7 hours into III as part of an FF binge. It's fun to see where the series' ideas came from, yet III is mostly renewing my appreciation for the Bravely games on 3DS. I'll be going through IV and up to XV eventually, and I'm really, really, looking forward to VI. A friend of mine is adamant VI isn't just the best FF, but that it's also the best turn based RPG ever.
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  • Avatar for Stepout #31 Stepout A year ago
    Best. Game. Ever.

    :)
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  • Avatar for nathanhill99 #32 nathanhill99 A year ago
    I remember walking into my local EB on a Friday night, cash from my freshly cashed paycheck in my pocket, looking for a game to buy. Nothing stood out until I spied FF III behind the counter. When I asked the clerk about it, he told me that he was holding it for a customer and that it was the last copy in the store. Then he reconsidered, checked his watch, and said "F it. He should have been here by now", and sold it to me. I took it home and quickly fell in love with it. Wonderful game. I often wonder what ever happened to the guy whose copy I snagged. I hope that he eventually got the game and had as great a time as I had playing it.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #33 Ohoni A year ago
    @ironjoe99

    I would definitely want a faithful remake, but the mobile version of IV was like that. I would want the gameplay left largely intact, but with cute SD characters made in 3D. I definitely wouldn't want a complete gameplay overhaul, or for them to make the characters look like the concept art.
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