Looking back to 1994’s Final Fantasy VI

I recently played through Square’s Final Fantasy VI for the first time. I’m glad to say that I see what everyone’s spent the last 20 years freaking out about.

The characters in this game can never seem to catch a break. Like one might expect from a Final Fantasy game, their lives are the essence of melodrama. As the World of Balance is toppled by Kefka, Final Fantasy VI’s maniacal clown of a supervillain, one character’s family is poisoned. Another’s father abandons him and ultimately forgets about him. One attempts to end their own life.

Eventually, Kefka actually succeeds in destroying the world and bringing on the second War of the Magi, transcending the trope in which evil almost prevails but is stopped at the last second. The World of Balance is turned into the World of Ruin, and everything changes. Towns are burnt down, people are murdered and the characters are separated and scattered across the planet’s newly reorganized landmasses.

There are lighthearted moments peppered throughout. A certain samurai blunders through romance. There’s an octopus whose life is centered around periodically harassing you. You have my word that random townsfolk will make you smile. But Final Fantasy VI tends towards darkness.

I tend to roll my eyes when JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) feature so many dystopian tribulations. It’s fitting that the sixth Final Fantasy game is most famous for its opera scene because its plot essentially plays out like one. But these moments, from the cast’s frequent mood swings to its near constant peril, are incorporated perfectly into one hell of a narrative that really makes you care for these guys.

The characters’ visual details are limited by the Super Nintendo’s primitive hardware (which, for everyone’s benefit, makes their erratic emotions a bit more palatable). But what they lack in pixel count they make up for in expressiveness. Terra and her ragtag crew feel more like living entities than just sprites on a screen. The work that directors Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito put into their backstories only serves to bolster your connection with them.

What Final Fantasy VI accomplishes is all the more impressive when you consider that this game was released in 1994. This was the third mainline Final Fantasy to hit our shores in the United States, and it arrived as a shining example of what the role-playing genre could be. It took the emphatic storytelling of IV and stitched it together with V’s deeply customizable job system, combining the two into a focused and immaculate journey.

And none of this is to say that Final Fantasy VI lazily skated by on the ways in which its predecessors broke new ground. The game marks a considerable shift in style for the series and paved the way for the Final Fantasies of today. The games had already been moving away from Final Fantasy I’s D&D-inspired text, characters and monsters, but VI entirely ditches them for certified steampunk madness. It creates some seriously eye-grabbing visuals, as the development team took total freedom to try new ideas. Take a look at Final Fantasy VI’s wintry opening sequence. It immediately signals that something exceptional and gargantuan is about to unfold. It’s difficult to imagine seeing it in 1994 and not bugging out. Even now, the hopelessness it inspires is striking.

The characters’ compulsive flashbacks to happier days, in addition to being hilariously predictable, gives the world a sense of history and an uncertainty of its future. Your battles feel real, like they might actually have some effect on what is a heavily directed experience.

And good lord is Final Fantasy VI stylistically consistent. Even the most meaningless of characters were given the time of day by the writers, and the dialogue they offer is thoughtful, upsetting, funny. The game’s various optional party members who are waiting to be found deep in mines and in the stomach of a monster don’t feel shoehorned in at all.

I’m not going to say that Final Fantasy VI has aged perfectly, because it hasn’t. The draconian encounter rate frustrated me to no end (luckily there’s an item in the World of Ruin that prevents them). And while there may be endless combinations of espers, relics, equipment, spells and skills, it’s easy to find a setup that works and stick with it; the game is rarely challenging, and virtually any strategy will get you through it without difficulty.

Square managed to create a behemoth of an experience on Nintendo’s famously modest hardware. In our present world of uninspired AAA games that will be forgotten quickly, even with massive development teams and all the money in the world, Final Fantasy VI is a terrific reminder of what videogames are capable of being.