Final Fantasy VI was released for the Super Nintendo in Japan and North America in 1994, but it wasn’t released in Europe until 2002, when it was ported to the PlayStation. Having never played it as a child, I was curious to try it on the SNES Classic, as this game is often spoken of as one of the best entries in the Final Fantasy series; or even as one of the best games ever made.
In its scope and structure, Final Fantasy VI was incredibly ambitious for a 16-bit video game. The story brings together a large ensemble cast which revolves around a core group called the “Returners”, who are fighting a guerilla war against a malevolent Empire which seeks to use the power of magic in pursuit of world domination. But this conflict is just the start of something much bigger, and the scale and sweep of the story told in Final Fantasy VI is quite exceptional for a game of this time. Sprawling RPGs started to become more common in the PlayStation era (most notably in the form of this game’s own sequels), but when this game came out, in the heyday of platformers and side-scrolling shooters, it was pretty much unprecedented. I can well imagine that it must have seemed astonishing.
That said, the compass of Final Fantasy VI’s story is more impressive than its content. For the most part, the narrative is fairly simplistic, though it’s not without moments of drama; a few of which are genuinely moving. On the face of it, it sounds great to have such a large squad of characters at your disposal – up to 14, by my count – but there’s a reason few RPGs give you more than six or eight party members: it’s difficult to write such a high number of characters well. Apart from a couple of the main characters (Locke, Terra, Celes, arguably Cyan and Edgar), the characters aren’t fleshed out enough to make you care for them. The main villain, Kefka, is often cited on the internet as a well-written villain, but to me he just felt like a cliched, cartoonish maniac trying to destroy the world “for the evulz”. He’s neither original nor particularly interesting.
The problem of characterization brings you face to face with the first significant problem with Final Fantasy VI: its script. The Japanese script was rendered into (sort of) English by a man named Ted Woolsey, who translated several Square-developed RPGs in the 1990s. Woolsey’s translations are popular among a certain audience who appreciate his sense of humour, but I found that the translation really got in the way of my enjoyment of the game. The juvenile tone (which some people find “charming”) was incongruous in the context of the game’s dark events, and the resulting dissonance frequently disrupted any sense of immersion in the story, or suspension of disbelief. Woolsey’s translation was completed under some familiar pressures, such as Nintendo of America’s censorship policies, the usual challenges presented by interpreting linguistic idiom, and so on. These were compounded by technical limitations on memory and storage space. But none of this excuses the fact that the tone of the translation is completely wrong, with puerile dialogue that verges on self-parody, draining any tension or drama from the story. There are also mistranslations, and a plethora of stupid names for enemies, weapons, and spells. At its worst, the script makes playing the game feel downright embarassing.
On the other hand, as far as its core production values are concerned, Final Fantasy VI shows off some of the most attractive graphics on the SNES, as well as a magnificent soundtrack. The character sprites, and their little animations, are charming, while the environments and backgrounds are impressive and create a strong sense of atmosphere. Some of the battle effect visuals are surprisingly sophisticated, particularly when you summon “Espers” in battle. As for the music, it’s what you would expect from legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu. The score is varied, epic, moving, catchy, and overall an astounding technical feat on a Super Nintendo cartridge. The music is the aspect of Final Fantasy VI which has aged best, by far.
Gameplay in Final Fantasy VI is quite simple, consisting for the most part of exploring a world map, towns, and dungeons, talking to people, and fighting monsters. The game adheres to the traditional Japanese random-battle formula, and the encounter rate feels quite high. Although most of the game is quite easy, it’s still frustrating and tedious to have to fight endless random battles while trying to explore. Combat is menu-based, so all you have to do is select commands, and watch your characters attack, cast spells, and so on. That said, there is a surprising amount of complexity, in that on top of normal attacks, magic, and summon spirits, each character has a special ability. Some of these are quite simple, like Steal, while others include various kinds of magic spells; while some make the character behave according to a script, meaning you lose control of them for the rest of the fight. Some of the abilities can be unpredictable, or have irritating consequences like potentially killing your entire party, rendering them unusable. One special ability is bugged, so that if you use it, you run the risk of breaking the game so that it becomes unplayable. I don’t know whether this bug carried over from the original SNES version to the SNES Classic, but I wasn’t in a hurry to find out.
You eventually unlock the ability to equip Espers, which are the same as the Summon Spirits or Guardian Forces found in other Final Fantasy games. Espers have a variety of powerful abilities, and there are a surprising number of them to find and equip. As with most games in this series, searching for and acquiring powerful spells and items is fun and rewarding. Your characters can also equip relics, or special items that can give you attribute bonuses, status immunities, and so on.
You have a lot of room to customize your party, certainly more than you’ll find in other RPGs of the mid-1990s. So it’s a shame that, with all this, Final Fantasy VI still isn’t that much fun to play. Much of the blame rests with the random battle system, and the unavoidable, repetitive encounters inevitably turn combat into a chore. But it’s also due to the high level of abstraction inherent in the gameplay. There’s only so much pleasure to be derived from selecting options from a menu, and the characterful animations can only keep you entertained for so long.
None of this is helped, either, by poor pacing. The story, while broad in its scope, is weak in its details, and the high number of characters means much of your time is taken up with introductions, with people joining and leaving your party, by looking for lost teammates, and so on. It’s hard to build up a consistent rhythm with this kind of disjointed structure. Moreover, the player’s investment in the characters and the events that unfold is undermined by the dreadful localization. The bottom line is that Final Fantasy VI really is not very enjoyable to play, and the story and writing fail completely to compensate for the unrewarding gameplay. Unusually, the game offers you the freedom to play co-operatively with another player, as you can assign party members to a second controller. But the boring, rote nature of the combat means this holds less appeal than you might expect. It’s also easier said than done, surely, to find someone willing to sit with you and play through the entire campaign of a 25-year-old game like this. It’s not an activity for a first date, anyway.
The final, significant problem with Final Fantasy VI is that, while much of the game is quite easy, it features several prominent, infuriating difficulty spikes. One of these is during the famous opera scene, which in fact embodies much of what is best and worst about the game as a whole. Your squad attends an opera, with one of your allies posing as the female lead so she can be kidnapped and you can steal an airship (don’t ask). The game designers do an exceptional job of depicting the opera, using the limited audio of the SNES to mimic human singing; and the results are dramatic, atmospheric, and moving. But the beauty of the sequence is ruined by the fact it’s followed by a timed race to get to a boss, during which you’re forced to run a gauntlet of combat encounters; and if you fail, you have to do the whole 15-minute sequence again. And again, and again, until you manage to reach the boss in time. It’s a lot easier with a certain person in your party, but if you didn’t bring him, you have to walk back to the beginning of the game to add him to your party, and walk back again, wasting another hour or so of your time due to the – you guessed it – random battles you fight all along the way.
In fact, Final Fantasy VI loves making you do things against a time limit, which is perverse considering that this accentuates what’s worst about the random battle system. The second major difficulty spike comes towards the end, when you tackle the last dungeon. It’s quite possible to have completed the majority of the game, including most optional content, and be well levelled for everything that came before, but still be 10-20 levels too low to be able to tackle the final, enormous dungeon. The game basically demands that you go and spend 5-10 hours grinding levels. That may have been acceptable in the 1990s, but not today.
It’s always hard to score a game like this. Final Fantasy VI is historically significant, as it was an enormously ambitious game which pushed the envelope technically and artistically. But today, it’s impossible to recommend Final Fantasy VI as functional entertainment, which after all is why it was created. Nostalgia partly accounts for its popularity, but I still find it baffling that this game is so highly-rated in the annals of the Final Fantasy series – nevermind the wider RPG canon.