The Final Fantasy franchise is far from perfect. There have been more than a handful of duds and questionable game decisions over the years that clutter around all the really great qualities of this worldwide JRPG phenomenon. Such is inevitable when a brand has existed for nearly 40 years. Yet despite it all, there are three distinct games most fans tend to flock towards when asked, “Which one is really the best?” One of them is Final Fantasy IV, a Super Nintendo masterpiece that redefined dramatic video game storytelling. Another is Final Fantasy VII, which ushered the franchise into a new, PlayStation run generation of fully 3D characters and environments. FF VII also just happens to be my favorite game of all-time for its engaging characters, intense story, and really awesome music. The third? It’s none other than Final Fantasy VI, and it came to Steam on December 16th.
This marks the eighth platform VI has come to since its April 1994 release on the SNES. There’s even interest in remaking it for the Nintendo 3DS. If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is. VI is easily one of Square Enix’s most re-released games. Most of the changes are usually cosmetic (the Steam version will feature mobile version graphics) with the core story structure left intact. For anyone who has played it, they know this is for good reason. VI’s story of saving the world from decimation, and then bringing it back from the feared apocalypse, is truly one that stands the test of time. It’s required gaming for anyone who considers themselves a fan of JRPGs. This Steam re-release, coming over 21 years from the game’s original Japanese appearance, is evidence Square Enix is aware of its reputation. It’s more accessible than ever and will likely keep getting more versions as the years go on. It’s that significant.
Final Fantasy began dishing out deep, character focused stories with IV, and VI came along to refine the practice even further. This is especially notable considering the game features fourteen playable characters, all of which are important to the story and have their own demons to battle. The lead protagonist is Terra, the first female in the franchise’s history to have this role, and a major part of the game revolves around her blood connection to magic granting Espers. Your journey starts with her and you meet the remaining cast through her desperate journey for survival from brainwashing mad men. Yet Terra is just one cog in this game’s epic construction, and by the time you reach the climactic end, you legitimately care for her other allies like Locke, Sabin, Cyan, and Celes. You also witness one of Final Fantasy’s greatest embodiment’s of evil with Kefka filling the role of a truly sadistic human being who craves domination.
As is typical with the brand, VI was all about characters trying to save the world (this time it’s the Returners vs. Kefka). Kefka wants to become a god, a goal attempted by many other Final Fantasy antagonists, and a big chunk of the game is fighting that. However, unlike his predecessors and successors, the villain actually succeeds. One of VI’s most iconic moments is when your characters realize they can’t win and Kefka proceeds to bring the world to ruin. Continents are razed to obliteration and the few remaining living creatures are poisoned. It’s literally the nightmare scenario normal JRPGs staunchly avoid. Your first return from this failure is one year later as protagonist Celes, who wakes up from a coma to nothing but despair. Don’t play through the next portion properly, and she actually attempts suicide by jumping off a cliff. Calling it “bleak” doesn’t do any of it justice. Of course, a game can’t actually end on this, and the latter chunk is about Celes getting everyone together to demolish Kefka once and for all. Returning from the world’s end definitely made the final battle even more epic as it’s fueled by revenge.
VI marked a radical shift in terms of style for the franchise. The biggest is easily with its setting. The first five Final Fantasy games were deeply entrenched in medieval elements. There are knights, royalty, kingdoms, and magic, all typical fantasy fare. This game moved on from all of this to enter an age more like the Industrial Revolution. Machines are controlled by steam power and the town of Narshe, which is where the game begins, uses coal mining as a principal source of industry. Characters take steamships and railroads for travel, and a section of the game is dedicated to the opera. A fan favorite moment is when you fight the Phantom Train, and one of your characters Sabin can actually suplex the damn thing. The game itself is even aware of the content change. When you first meet Sabin and Edgar, Figaro royalty, the current characters comment on how there aren’t many kings anymore. Cyan’s a knight too and his journey is fueled by the rage and depression he feels after his entire castle dies of poison. With one kingdom mostly dead and another regarded as one of the last, the message VI was sending was very clear. This was not the Final Fantasy you’re used to.
The difference also comes out in combat, notably through the use of magic. Abilities like this are a staple of the franchise, and in the first several games, were just a fact of life. VI was the first game where this was actually viewed with surprise. Terra begins with magic at her disposal, and it’s not weird to the player when she can use it freely. But when she first uses it around Locke and Edgar, they react with utter shock. In a world run by technology, magic is special, and the fact that Terra can use it makes her stand out. You learn later that there are major story reasons for this. Eventually all your characters can learn what she knows, but you never really forget how nuts it was to see it initially.
VI also occupies a very unique place in Final Fantasy’s history. For several years, many companies held the belief that North American and Japanese audiences have very different tastes. This meant a lot of games didn’t come overseas for a while because the confidence for strong sales wasn’t there. Square is one significant example. The original Final Fantasy came overseas in 1990, two years after its Japanese release. Japan received both II and III during this time frame which officially put the international market at a deficit. This presented a problem when Square wanted to bring IV overseas. In an attempt to mitigate any confusion with these markets wondering where their second and third games were, IV officially came to North America as II. This carried over to VI when V was similarly jumped over, changing that game to III. Basically, the II and III Japan had was not the II and III everyone else got. Those were IV and VI. Such confusion ended when VII became a global hit, and now every game has received their proper numeration. VI also adopted it’s correct title in the Final Fantasy Anthology, one of its more popular re-releases, where it was bundled with V, bringing that game overseas for the first time.
I’m firmly in the camp that VII is the best final fantasy game produced, but there’s no doubt VI is a premier JRPG. This game is such an emotional and intense journey, and includes one of the franchises best fake outs (you’re lead to believe a character will die and he actually can…unless you wait for him). What has really stuck with me the most about VI is how it’s very much a team focused game. Most Final Fantasy games only need you to use a certain amount of characters per battle, and everyone else on your team can get ignored. It’s easy to pump up your main force and leave everyone else behind. If you do that in VI though, it’s impossible to beat the final area. You need to form four teams and use every character in your roster. Suddenly, the fighters you’ve left weak are absolutely needed to get through the hardest level. It’s a requirement I never saw before, and it’s one I’m keenly aware of now.
Final Fantasy VI is an incredible game. In some minds, it is the best game. What everyone can agree on though is that this is a must play entry in a leading JRPG franchise. It is such an incredible journey, and you’ll feel a distinct sense of accomplishment when the final battle ends. The game is more accessible than ever now. It’s on mobile phones, multiple handheld game systems, the Virtual Console, and now your own computer. If you’re a fan of JRPGs and somehow never gave this game the time of day, there’s literally no reason for you to not change that.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.