Review by DDJ
"Why don't we remember Final Fantasy VI?"
I've been on a bit of a classic gaming kick recently, mostly old SNES-era console games. It's been rather fun, and I just now finished one of the all-time classics from that era, Final Fantasy VI.
Before playing it, Final Fantasy VI was a game I heard often of in discussions enough to notice, but not so often as to run out and play right frickin' now. In discussions and polls of the best game ever, it always had a few mentions, and in contests like GameFAQs' Best Game Ever contests, it usually did pretty well. Going into it, though, I was somewhat skeptical, and for a very specific reason: Chrono Trigger. Chrono Trigger is absolutely everywhere in these discussions. I dare say Chrono Trigger is second only to Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time in popular discussions of the best game ever, and second only to Ocarina of Time in most polls. In the recent series of "Best Game of All Time, According to..." lists I wrote for GameFAQs, Chrono Trigger made more lists than any game except Ocarina of Time, 12 out of 20. Final Fantasy VI, by comparison, made six lists.
Why did that make me skeptical? I had just finished playing Chrono Trigger when I started Final Fantasy VI, and I hated Chrono Trigger. Hated it. I thought it was garbage. No character development, a weak plot, a useless gimmick, an unentertaining battle system, boring locales, subpar graphics for the time, the works. I couldn't stand the game. I didn't understand its appeal except for nostalgia. Entering Final Fantasy VI, my thought was: if people regard Chrono Trigger so highly but I hated it, how much more will I hate a game that came out a year earlier and yet hasn't had the same acclaim?
Fast-forward to now, and the result: I thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy VI. I won't say I loved it, but I definitely enjoyed it. I looked forward to playing it and beating it wasn't a chore like it was with Chrono Trigger. The characters were engaging, the plot was at least a little bit less predictable, the graphics were very impressive for the time, and the battle system was oddly engaging. I honestly don't think there's any comparison between the two.
I'm not going to base this article on Final Fantasy VI being objectively better than Chrono Trigger, though; instead, I'll base it on a set of facts I think we can largely agree on. I think we can at least agree that Chrono Trigger, if nothing else, isn't enormously better than Final Fantasy VI. You might like Chrono Trigger more, but I don't think anyone's going to say that Final Fantasy VI is the Kane & Lynch 2 to Chrono Trigger's Uncharted. Let's at least say they're somewhat similar. And secondly, I don't think anyone will disagree that the disparity between how well the two games are remembered is disproportionate to the disparity between the games' actual quality. All that begs the question: why don't we remember Final Fantasy 6?
This article, although much more brief, is closely related to two pieces I've written in the past, "A Detailed Look at Final Fantasy VII's Staying Power" and "A Detailed Look at Ocarina of Time's Staying Power" (I had planned to write a third in that series about Chrono Trigger, but as you can probably tell, I'll be damned if I know why that game has any staying power). In many ways, this is a detailed look at Final Fantasy VI's lack of staying power. Why don't we remember Final Fantasy VI? Why do we remember Chrono Trigger so much better? Just to be perfectly clear before I begin, though: I think Final Fantasy VI is a great game. It's behind only VII and IX in my opinion as far as games in the series I enjoyed the most, and behind only VII in what I would say are the greatest games in the series. This review isn't about Final Fantasy VI's greatness, which it has an abundance of, but rather its lack of apparent staying power.
In my opinion, there are three primary reasons why we don't remember Final Fantasy VI very well. When it comes to remembering games, we as people have relatively limited bandwidth for how a game "hooks" our memory. There have to be specific key things that are easy to remember and recall. You can see this in your own every day memory: in movies, do you remember the entire film, or do you remember particular scenes and twists? In books, do you remember the entire plot, or do you remember characters? Heck, can you remember anything specific about your shower this morning or leaving the house today? Likely not -- it takes specific things to grab our memory. In my opinion, the reason why we don't remember Final Fantasy VI very well is because it lacks three things that we as people commonly use to index into our memories of games. As a result, we forget it, even though we enjoyed it more than most other games, solely because it's harder to immediately call up a face or scene.
No Strong Main Character
Final Fantasy VI has one of the strongest casts of characters in any game I've ever played. Of the fourteen characters you have to choose from, twelve of them have interesting back stories and relationships with the other characters and with the enemy, and nearly all go through some significant character development over the course of the game. They are all very human and very much relateable. However, there is no "main" character. At the beginning of the game, you think it's going t be Locke; he fits the profile just fine, given Square's obsession with scrappy young thieves as the main characters for this game during this time. Yet as you go through the game, Locke has relatively little actual impact on the plot compared to characters like Celes, Terra, and Edgar. I won't insult Locke by calling him the equivalent of Vaan from Final Fantasy XII (a character that defines the term 'useless'), but Locke doesn't have quite the relationship with the plot one would expect from a main character.
It's tempting to call Terra the main character, but can you really call someone a main character when they are vanished from the party for a substantial portion of the game? The same can be said, albeit to a lesser extent, about Celes; I don't think there's any question Celes is the main character of the latter part of the game, but it's hard to call her the main character of the game as a whole. The game doesn't do us any favors in identifying a main character either: in most games, the main character is the guy you actually, you know, see on the screen, but Final Fantasy VI changes that on us every time we change our party's formation. We choose who the "main" character is.
I don't think this is a bad thing at all, personally. Actually, I love this; seeing an entire cast of characters, having the flexibility to use them in different combinations, it all made for a very unique gameplay experience. But it may have had a negative impact on the game's overall memorability. As humans, we remember things often by attaching human characteristics to them; it's one of the things that allows us to feel empathy and survive. As a result, we often remember stories, in games and in other mediums, as the story of a particular character. Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo. Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker. Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud. Each franchise has a very strong cast of characters outside the main character, but there is a main character that we come back to. That main character is the story's "hook" into our memory.
In lacking a strong main character, Final Fantasy VI lacks a hook into our memory. It's hard to give the game a face because it has so many faces. As a result, the game is not quite as memorable as others. Compare this to Chrono Trigger, where the main character's name is in the flipping title. Sure, Crono goes through absolutely no character growth, doesn't speak, and is completely unrelateable and pretty much worthless to the game's story besides being the bastard with the sword slicing stuff up; but the fact that the game has a main character gives it a face to be remembered.
No Strong Villain
Kefka has his fan club online, and I suppose the character has some appeal as a counterpoint to the traditional RPG villain. In my eyes, however, he's nothing more than your stereotypical gothic teenager going through a "everything is meaningless" phase, putting on weird makeup and clothes and listening to the Insane Clown Posse wondering why no one understands them. Kefka just doesn't have any depth for me. Causing the end of the world wasn't some grand scheme, he basically did it accidentally in an ADD-spawned fit of distraction. He's not maniacally evil so much as he's just insane, and not the good, intriguing, Silence of the Lambs kind of insane -- just the unrelateable, inconceivable, bizarre kind of insane. Wildly convenient for plot purposes since it gives the writers a reason to cause graphics- and plot-friendly calamity without having to find a motive.
Now, that's not to say that Lavos is the pinnacle of character development, or Magus for that matter. However, Lavos was at least interesting, and Magus was at least, for lack of a better word, cool. Kefka is just silly, and in my opinion, drags the whole game down. What's even more a shame is that it wouldn't be hard to substitute a better villain into the plot, or even make Kefka at least a bit more serviceable. Just give him the maturity of your average 20-year-old instead of your average 10-year-old and you've already corrected 90% of the problem. Hell, just let Gestahl be the villain the entire game and you're golden -- his plot to trick the main party was gold. If Final Fantasy VI has one major problem, in my opinion, it's that Kefka just isn't a villain anyone wants to remember, in a genre where a game is often only as memorable as its enemy (I'm looking at you, Sephiroth).
Here's the interesting thing about Chrono Trigger. As I mentioned previously, I think Chrono Trigger's gimmicks suck. It has lots of them. Let's count. Time travel? Nothing more than a convenient excuse to have cities look different, but really, there's very little that time travel actually does for the plot. There's very little manipulation of different time eras in the gameplay. It was an interesting idea to be sure, but the execution just made it seem like a meaningless chore. Freely-arranged battles (with characters and enemies moving around)? That'd be cool if it's ever anything more than a distracting nuisance. Not being able to control where your characters move means that for any kind of proximity-based attack, you're just waiting for that idiot on the screen, who you control otherwise, to randomly move where you want him. Team-based attacks? These might be cool if the system for developing skills was anything more than a simple level-up system. There's no real thought that goes into skill development besides making sure to mix up your party every now and then.
But here's the thing: in my opinion, the gimmicks of Chrono Trigger sucked, but at least it had gimmicks. Gimmicks are memorable in the same way that plot twists are memorable; they're something that sets this game apart from all the other games in your memory. Gimmicks, even bad ones, help us remember games. And Final Fantasy VI lacked a gimmick. The change in the world map was interesting, but it was spoiled so much (down to including different maps in the game's actual manual) that it didn't come across as much of a twist. Freely gathering your party after the cataclysm was interesting, but not particularly memorable. By and large, Final Fantasy VI plays like your quintessential traditional JRPG, and as a result, it isn't that memorable separate and apart from other JRPGs because it lacks a gimmick to set it apart. I can criticize Chrono Trigger's gimmicks until my face turns blue, but that doesn't mean that the gimmicks aren't what makes the game memorable.
Those, at least, are the three main points I have for why Final Fantasy VI isn't remembered as well as Chrono Trigger. I think it's a much better game, but it lacks those discrete qualities and characteristics that make the game easy to remember and recall, dooming it to pseudo-obscurity even by players that loved it when they played it. I do believe tht Final Fantasy VI is one of the greatest games in video game history and truly a genre-changer, but the qualities that make it great are somewhat independent, ironically, from the qualities that would have made it more memorable.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 08/23/11
Game Release: Final Fantasy III (US, 06/30/11)
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