What drives creators to do their best work? Sometimes it's a fear of failure. From 1991 to 2000, Squaresoft went on an unprecedented run in which it produced some of the most beloved games of all time. Each success progressively ratcheted up the pressure to top what had come before.
In a 1994 interview, Final Fantasy 6 planner Akiyoshi Oota summed up the expectations that had been built up around the series after five successful entries. "There's like this silent pressure in any Final Fantasy development, that this must be the ultimate, most fun game ever," he said. "That feeling was definitely there in the [Final Fantasy 5] development too, that it had to surpass all other RPGs."
That pressure is obvious when playing Final Fantasy 6. It famously has more than a dozen playable characters, many of whom are optional, and a vast, non-linear open-world that comprises its second half. Its graphics are a tremendous leap forward compared to its predecessor, swapping tiny sprites and simple color palettes for some of the best art of the 16-bit era.
Its earliest scene also is one of its best. Riding in mechs, two soldiers and a solitary woman ride up to a cliff and look down on a city below. After a brief conversation, they set out across the snowy plains to the tune of "Terra's Theme," a somber leitmotif that is reused for the overworld and elsewhere. It's a marked contrast from the much more upbeat and adventurous "Ahead on Our Way" that opens Final Fantasy 5, or the bombast of Final Fantasy 4's "Red Wings Theme."
All of this was meant to convey a heavier, darker take on Final Fantasy. Previous entries hadn't exactly been light on drama, but their heroic sacrifices and shock reveals often had a cartoon quality to them. Surprise! Golbez is really Cecil's brother! Oh man! Did you see Galuf's heroic last stand? It wasn't as if Final Fantasy 6 suddenly had an Oscar-worthy script—it literally included the line "Son of a Submariner!"—but its soundtrack, visual design, and narrative design were a clear step forward from the mallet-over-the-head approach taken by Final Fantasy 4 and 5.
This was during an interesting period in general for the Super Nintendo. By 1994, developers had clearly mastered the 16-bit consoles, and they were ready to put them to work. Super Metroid mixed outstanding graphics with ambitious environmental design to create one of the best games of the era. Donkey Kong Country, while fairly dated now, was a graphical marvel for its time
Final Fantasy 6 pushed the boundaries of what was possible on the Super Nintendo, and remarkably, it mostly worked. The famous scene in which former Imperial General Celes is roped into performing in an opera somehow avoided being an abject disaster despite the Super Nintendo sound chip only allowing for basic mawps from the singers. It had a good deal of death, including at least one attempted suicide by a major protagonist. Its sprawling story meant that some characters got relatively short shrift, but most had at least one moment to shine.
Final Fantasy 6's final battle was an incredible spectacle by the standards of the 16-bit era. It was a four-part battle against a villain intended to evoke the visuals of Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel (at least, that's how I saw it). At the top awaited the villain, Kefka, now an angel. As the fight progressed from one level to the next, the theme "Dancing Mad" seamlessly transitioned with it. It was fairly ridiculous in just how overblown it was, but I'm not sure any Final Fantasy has topped it since; not even the more famous "One-Winged Angel."
All of this felt bigger than anything that had been on a console to that point. The genre lines are more blurred these days, so it's much more common for action games to have light RPG elements, or for shooters to have strong stories. But in 1994, the contrast between Final Fantasy 6, and say, a random mascot platformer (Aero the Acro-Bat!) was a little more marked. It was enough to earn Final Fantasy 6 a cult following, and it presaged the breakout success of Final Fantasy 7 on the PlayStation.
As for me, I didn't discover Final Fantasy 6 until 1999, some six years after its original release. I picked it up at our local FuncoLand, the predecessor to GameStop, because I had read in Nintendo Power that it was more than 50 hours long. 50 hours! I couldn't fathom a game being that long, despite the fact that I had probably spent many times that playing Super Mario Bros. and TIE Fighter. I ultimately picked it up because I needed a long game to play on my newly-acquired Super Nintendo, which had been given to me for free by a coworker at KFC.
I usually call Final Fantasy 6 my first RPG, even though I actually played Pokemon first. I guess Final Fantasy 6 was the first game where I was really cognizant of enjoying the genre. I think it really clicked home when Celes walked into her makeshift home to find Cid, her only companion, dead from poisoned fish. Or maybe I just liked Ultros, the villainous octopus that chases the crew on land, sea, and stage before finally settling in as a receptionist at the local coliseum.
Like so many others, I was subsequently hooked by Final Fantasy 7, which pushed the series into 3D. For a very long time, I considered it the best game ever made (forgive me, I was young). Looking back now though, it's apparent to me that Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger were truly Square's creative apex. For all of Square's fervent desire to push beyond what was possible on the Super Nintendo, it also benefited from its limitations. In just a few years, Square would be able to play fully-voiced songs over its romantic scenes; but for as much as I like Final Fantasy 8, I'm not going to pretend that Rinoa's zero-g cuddle with Squall is better than Celes' big moment on stage.
After the Super Nintendo, Square's work began to feel more bloated, the simple but razor sharp narrative moments found in Final Fantasy 6 giving way to lengthy cutscenes and load times. The graphics afforded by the PlayStation were exciting for the time, but now Final Fantasy 6's sprites shine far brighter than the blocky polygons found in Final Fantasy 7. And without need for voice-acting, Square was free to pile in characters and scenes without fear of overextending its budget.
Safe within the confines of a system it knew intimately, Squaresoft was free to proceed as if the sky was the limit. And the result was one of the most ambitious and memorable RPGs of the 16-bit era.