• An Opera of Balance and Ruin

    Of all the entries I have to write about in the series, this has been the one I’ve both looked forward to the most, and yet one I’ve dreaded as well. VI for me holds a dear place in my heart as many other articles I’ve written can tell. Yet, I’ve tried to resolve myself with these articles to be more fair and objective. Like IV before it, I could write a novel about this game if I wanted to, so trying to focus on what needs to be said and staying concise will be the greatest difficulty for me. Likewise, for all of my biased feelings towards this game, VI is also where I feel the series began a transition into a form that I would later come to be disappointed with. So my overall goal here is to look at this entry in a balanced light as opposed to me just gushing about it for the next ten to fifteen pages. I hope that those who read this will understand this.

    To explain the birth of Final Fantasy VI we first have to look at a different project being worked on by Square during the same time as FFV’s development. Nintendo had partnered with Sony to build a CD gaming system that would hook up with the Super Famicom to create a whole new level of content for developers and gamers to experience. Most people know this story and how Nintendo foolishly chose to scrap the project in part due to the ease of piracy that CD formats would bring. Sony took this system and retooled it into the PlayStation a few years later. What many people don’t realize is that while this new peripheral was being developed, Nintendo had asked a few game companies to start creating killer apps for it. One of which was Square, and that game would eventually become Secret of Mana.

    When the project got shelved, SoM was so close to being finished that Square couldn’t sink the project. Instead they had the ignoble task of trying to scale the game down to fit into an SNES cartridge. The game’s director noted that maybe up to 40% of the game’s content was lost, including the idea for multiple endings. Some fans and game journalist cite this incident as possibly the spark that likely got Sakaguchi and Square in general to want to jump from Nintendo. Not necessarily due to being screwed over, but because the sense of creative possibilities working on the CD format offered opened the company’s eyes to what they could really do. In truth, I feel Secret of Mana is a major tipping point for Square’s development process. If you were to stack together a lot of Square’s major titles in chronological order, there is a serious jump in production values for any game released after SoM in audio, visuals, and game content. That’s not to say the company wasn’t growing in these directions already as FFV can attest to, but seeing how that game was in development at the same time as SoM, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it didn’t receive some influence. What’s really interesting to note is how SoM’s final gameplay structure is actually mirrored by two of Square’s future hits on the SNES: Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI but I will get to that a bit later.

    FFVI began development in December of 1992, shortly after FFV had been released. The development of this game had drastically changed from previous installments due in part of Square expanding its studio and the transition of senior developers like Sakaguchi to more executive positions, as well as the rise of new and younger employees within the company like Yoshinori Kitase and Tetsuya Nomura. VI is often remembered for its large ensemble cast, and this is actually a direct reflection of its development. Sakaguchi stepped down from directing this entry and instead gave the reins to Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito, his two favorite designers within the company. Sakaguchi still oversaw the overall production and helped write the project, but VI is more of a product of a new generation of staff. If V was sort of the greatest hits installment celebrating the glory of the previous entries, then VI represented the new direction that Square wanted to take their flagship franchise.

    One of the key design elements they chose to do for VI was to create a game with a “cast of main characters” with this idea in mind, the production team tasked several people to submit their own ideas for main characters to be in the game. Sakaguchi had set up the main plot to be another story of rebels vs. an evil empire, but the staff was given the green light to write the individual scenarios for each character that was approved. This helped lead to the game’s episodic feel. Sakaguchi is said to have proposed the characters of Terra and Locke who began the journey as two male characters who could use magic before Terra was changed to a woman and Locke into a non-magic using treasure hunter. Kitase had developed Gau and Celes, of which he has said that Celes ended up gaining a larger role than initially planned due to his attachment to her. Initially she was conceived to be a spy who grew sympathetic to the rebel cause. In fact, many of the elements in Locke’s early design were transferred to Celes’ character such as being able to use magic and being a sort of foil to Terra. Tetsuya Nomura drew on some of his scrapped ideas from FFV for his characters. He had originally wanted the Ninja class to have a dog sidekick type ability and proposed the idea for a gambler class that used slots as a weapon. These two elements gave birth to Shadow and Setzer Gabbiani, though Shadow’s story would be entwined and written by Kaori Tanaka. Kaori Tanaka is a bit interesting here as she’s one of the few female writers to actually work on a Final Fantasy title in this time frame. She developed the two Figaro Brothers, Relm, and side characters like Vargas and Master Duncan Harcourt. She was so enamored with her characters that she actually drew and wrote a gaiden story about the Figaro Brothers detailing their youth and is filled with some clever callbacks to earlier FFs such as the royal family’s connection to a giant ant-lion like the Damcyan family. To this day, it is still unknown who developed the ideas for Cyan, Umaro, Strago, and most curiously of all, Kefka himself. Though considering his fondness for the character, I feel it may be a safe bet to say Kefka is Kitase’s creation, whil Cyan and Strago were likely Sakaguchi’s suggestions since he has mentioned several times he like Guts and Glory Old Men.

    Despite what many fans think, FF titles in these days are not constructed in a linear fashion. The game didn’t have a solidified script and the scenario underwent multiple changes throughout development. In fact FFV’s story was written in a tag team style by Kitase and Sakaguchi. It’s even implied that the plot was mostly written along with the game development. VI was said to have a vision, at first, but nothing was really set in stone. Instead the game was developed in usual Square style which could best be described as a sort of jazz session with each team member adding their own unique element to the development to create something interesting. Sakaguchi would start by laying down the general idea of the game he wanted to make. The staff would supply the main characters and be responsible for their individual stories, but it was Kitase’s job to pull them all together to make them narratively coherent, while Ito focused on the gameplay side of things, and Sakaguchi made sure the whole project came together.

    Originally, there was meant to be an equal balance between the whole cast, but Kitase admits that he may have faltered a bit in this regard, as he feels he may have given too much screen time to Celes and Kefka compared to other characters. Of anything, if the developer interviews are anything to go by, VI may have had some of the wildest changes between its initial ideas to its final product with only the next entry beating it out among the series. Celes was meant to have a subplot where the process for her magical powers would be slowly eating away at her sanity like Kefka, and it’s only through her love with Locke that would save her from this fate. This idea, along with her original story premise of being an enemy spy who grows to care for the rebel cause would largely be dropped or subverted within the game, but would interestingly find their way in the next entry which Kitase also wrote and directed. Likewise, Cyan was meant to have a female foil of a character he would have verbally spar with, as she flirted with him, named Angela who was eventually cut from the game. Strago had a wife that was just as kooky as him that was also cut. The two would have arguments about who would die first and try to guilt the other one. Mog, Umaro, and Gogo also had alternate methods to obtain them, and it’s been theorized by fans that Siegfried’s character is a leftover of this original scenario with Gogo. Probably one of the biggest changes most people don’t know about is that the World of Ruin was never in the original scenario. In a 2019 interview about the game’s 25th anniversary, Sakaguchi and Kitase revealed it was originally going to end on the floating continent with a final battle against Kefka, but development of the game had been going smoothly by this point that the team talked about adding the Ruined World scenario, and thus history was born. Course they may have later regretted that aspect because the end game crunch of debugging the game is a pretty infamous story about its development, with the staff working long hours to try fix what is considered to be the buggiest game in the franchise.

    If VI felt like a game with more production value than previous FFs it may stem from a few new developments within Square, as well as the expertise of the development staff. Square had always had a healthy rivalry with Enix’s Dragon Quest series, but until FFIV and the 16-bit era in general, Sakaguchi had always felt Final Fantasy had lagged behind DQ in everything but graphics. With FFIV and V, the series began to see units sell closer to the million mark and so Square was able to expand, which allowed them to staff the game with about thirty staff members which was quite big for them. To emphasize this huge staff, Minoru Akao, the game Sound Programmer, has the distinction of being the first dedicated sound designer for an FF title. Before VI, sound design was made by graphic artists who had spare time. More important were design element Sakaguchi had pushed for the game that Kitase and Ito both took to heart for the project. The first was trying to place a heavier emphasis on the characters feeling like actual people, which was one of the reasons the game took on the “cast of main characters” design approach. The other was to create a game that didn’t rob the player of control by overloading them with audio and visuals, and instead make the player feel like part of the experience. What I’ve always found interesting is seeing how they both carried out these orders.

    For Kitase, the ability to help the characters evoke more feelings from the player became his emphasis for the project. Pulling from his film student background and greater control on the game’s development, Kitase tried some really interesting techniques for the game. I feel one of the most poignant moments was the Daryl Tomb sequence where Setzer tells the party his backstory and the sequence plays in the corner while the team walks down a staircase. This scene is really striking because VI has several other flashback scenes but most are portrayed in more traditional methods with a faux grayscale borrowed from traditional film, whereas this sequence is played in color and shown simultaneously, only finally ending with a full flashback towards the end. This scene is visually interesting and combined with Uematsu’s haunting “Epitaph” track, creates a powerful moment for the game. In truth, Kitase’s use of visual techniques combined with a better use of Uematsu’s score, helped to make VI a game that is probably best remembered for its moments than for its content. Another sequence easily remembered by longtime fans and even some non-fans is the backstory of the Figaro Bros. that culminates in the iconic coin toss scene. In many ways, Kitase was doing his best to pull from what had made FFIV so successful by trying to create really powerful moments for the characters that would stand out to the players, and he used his knowledge of film techniques to make it work better like having the camera pan and follow the coin toss. Even the infamous “sand on my boots” scene with Kefka is just Kitase doing an in-game ad-lib he had the developers throw in because he felt he wanted to show the player how screwed up Kefka was in a more interesting fashion, he even admitted that wacky scene largely colored the staffs impression of what Kefka would be like.

    Helping Kitase to bring more emotions to the sequence was the sprite work done by Kasuko Shibuya. Her work on the project helped immensely as Square built on expressing the characters better from previous installments. One of the biggest technical changes between FFV and VI was how earlier installments used smaller and more condensed sprite for field elements, and the taller and more detailed sprites for battles only. VI has the field sprite and battle sprite as the same, and to further this along, they were drawn to invoke more feelings for the player. FFV’s field sprite for Bartz has about twenty separate configurations to showcase movement and emote. Terra’s normal form has forty-five, a few of which show something as simple as her ponytail swaying back and forth away from the player. There is a clever use of simply animation techniques at play here as well as Kitase and the art team. A sprite of Celes staring down to her right can be used to convey her looking at something specific or it can be used to convey her looking away from who is talking to her in shame depending on the context of the scene. This use of larger fixed sprites to help the player project their feelings onto the character is another means in which the development team helped to make the characters feel more alive for the player.

    Other unique uses of technology were how the Mode 7 effects were used. FFIV, and especially FFV had used the highly touted tech quite a bit in their games to create some cool effects like the airship flight in IV or the Meteor crashing in V. VI blatantly took the tech that had been used in SoM over world map to create a pseudo-3D effect for all transportation traveling In VI. The first time the party escapes from Figaro and are on the Chocobos, they’ll find themselves seeing their characters traversing more of a 3D style world. It’s a little disorienting, but still cool when you first see it. They’ll see it again when they traverse the Serpent’s Trench. It really shines the most when the player finds themselves using the airship, and to this day I still would argue the Blackjack and Falcon are the two fastest airships in the series visually. Course this ambitious use of tech doesn’t always succeed, as the train cart escape from the Magitek Facility will show. It switches to a first person perspective and tries to create a shifting visual to give the impression of moving forward, but the sprite textures just don’t work very well and the whole sequences feels jarring instead. Kitase has mentioned this being one of the sequences he wished he could redo or simply change as he feels it may have worked in 94, but has aged poorly since then. I feel the real crown jewel of utilizing the Mode 7 effects for a more cinematic feel are really in the game opening and endings. Tetsuya Takahashi had been put in charge of the Magitek Armor walking sequence. A huge fan of giant robots, Takahashi poured his heart and soul to making this sequence as eye catching as possible. Unfortunately, it’s unknown if he was simply basing the designs on his personal taste, or simply was never given the final designs for the Magitek Armor, but VI ended up having three conflicting designs of what the Magitek Armor was meant to look like. Amano drew them as mechanical dragon style tanks, Nomura designed them as humanoid looking cars not too different in appearance to the Ride Armors from Capcom’s Mega Man X series, while Takahashi animated them as very human looking machines closer to more traditional anime mecha. The reason it was apparently not changed was due to the sequence not only looking amazing, but time constraints as well. While it lacks internal consistency, it is still one of the game’s most well remembered moments. The other sequence that works super well is the ending and watching the Falcon traverses the recovering world. This sequence doesn’t get as much love as the first one, but seeing the Falcon fly low and almost surf across the ocean is actually a visual treat and leaves the game with a bombastic visual to bookend the one it starts with. For a game that Sakaguchi didn’t want to be all audio and visual, VI ultimately fails not to impress, but is better for it.

    On the flip-side with Hiroyuki Ito trying to make the player feel like part of the experience, I feel he succeeded far better than Sakaguchi had hoped. VI truly begins the idea of the series being a more interactive experience. FFV had puzzles and FFIV had themed dungeons, but neither quite hit the broad strokes of those concepts like VI does. VI is constantly bombarding the player with new and exotic gameplay parameters that distinctly separate it from its predecessors. The game begins with the player being given a taste of power early on. Much how FFIV begins with a scripted fight to show off the fancy graphics, VI re-uses this concept but does it for a variety of reasons. Obviously to show off the cool new graphics, but also to signify Terra’s power by giving her Magitek Armor more options, to show the player how terrifying the empires magic machines really are as they cut through the Narshe defenses like butter. You really feel this contrast when you get to the next unique sequence where Locke tries to save Terra from Narshe forces with the help of Moogles. The game throws the player into a quirky tower defense type game where they utilize three parties of four. This shows off how the large ensemble cast is going to work for the game and how Square wanted the player to use everyone. You fight a lot of the same monsters you did in the opening but they are much tougher here than they were when the player had access to three magic tanks that could effortlessly one shot anything they encountered. The next dungeon is a bit more straightforward, but savvy fans learned that ignoring the treasure of this area ended up giving you “powered up” items later on, a concept that would be better utilized in Chrono Trigger, but still a neat concept. Mt. Kolts is more of a linear story driven experience with a surprise twist at the end when the player is introduced to Sabin and his arcade fighting game mechanic Blitz moves. The next gameplay sequence has the player traversing the Lete River and having to choose the correct path to reach Ultros, finally the game splits into a three way choose your own adventure. Terra’s path leads back to Narshe where the party will finally fully explore the mines and run into a few actual puzzles to get by. Sabin’s scenario leads the party through one of the best scripted sequences in the game where we are again introduce to two new characters with radically different play-styles in the form of Cyan and Gau. It even ends with a redo of the Lete River sequence of needing to choose the correct path, but here, choosing the alternate path nets you treasure. Locke’s sequence is easily the best with the town of South Figaro turned into an adventure style interactive dungeon where Locke must speak with the townsfolk, acquire disguises to get past check points and eventually find a secret passage out of the town. It’s completed with the player’s first taste of the item upgrade mechanic, and a boss battle built around using Celes. From here, the party assembles at Narshe and the player is thrust into another Tower defense style scenario, but now they must use the active party they have to build the teams. It’s more difficult than the first time as the area has two bosses respectively and depending on how well you used certain characters, some parties might be stronger than others. Even the final fight against Kefka tests the player’s knowledge of the split scenario as he’s more or less a redo of the Tunnel Armor boss fight, just without the heavy telegraphing from that scenario. This is all just the first third of the game. IV and V don’t do nearly as much in that time frame for their dungeons and I haven’t even gotten to the opera.

    This interactive nature comes into play as well with VI’s gameplay. VI tries to redo what FFIV had done, combine the character with their class to make them unique both as an individual and as a party member in battle. It may seem inconceivable, but FFVI is actually the first FF to let you switch out party members. Seven years into the franchise’s history and the sixth installment, the player finally had control of who they can use, though the game still makes ample use of choosing for you based on the current scenario. The game even makes the cast largely re-utilize jobs introduced in FFV with Strago being a Blue Mage, Umaro a Berserker, Cyan as a Samurai, and Relm being a Beastmaster. To differentiate itself from its predecessors, Ito gave the characters different ways to interact and use the classes. Sabin doesn’t have Kick or Counter, instead you input Street Fighter moves to activate Blitzes he uses. Edgar purchases Tools that offer a variety of uses in battle, Umaro equips Relics to give him different attacks to cycle through in his Berserker rages including a magic option, and Cyan charges up his attacks to unleash increasingly powerful Bushido techs.
    Cyan especially gets a lot of heat from gamers due to his method being the least engrossing, yet I’ve found that it really exists to show off another forgotten, but important addition to Ito’s ATB system, the ability to skip an active characters turn for another character who has a full ATB gauge. I’m sure some of you reading this may have never even noticed this trick, but it debuted in VI. You could actively switch between multiple characters once their turns came up so you can input the commands in the order you want in case you really want Terra to heal the team before Edgar uses the Drill despite Edgar getting his turn first. This ends up adding a whole new tactical level to the game, and in the case of Cyan, he is pretty much here to teach you that. The most effective way to use Cyan is to have all the other party members give their commands and then finally have Cyan go last to charge his move. He will likely reach the tech you need by the time the first party member gets their next turn. So rule of thumb, Cyan always goes last. The game even gives you a hint to this since Cyan is one of the slower party members. Characters like Terra and Celes also have more tactical minded abilities over just being a super attack; Celes has the ability to negate all magic damage per round at the cost of her turn and the party also being restricted to melee options only. Not always a useful move, but in the cases where it is, players are certainly happy it’s there. Terra’s Trance is also a temp super mode that makes her a dominating powerhouse. Again, it’s not something you would need for every battle but the tactical option is appreciated. Setzer allowed Nomura to realize his Gambler class he pushed for in FFV. They got the class working well enough and introduced us to our first taste of a slot machine ability that will see a lot of usage in the following games.

    Not all of these are successes of course, Cyan’s Bushido is often lauded as the most tedious and loathed mechanic, and while Terra and Celes’ ability have their uses, the gap of time between them being useful is long enough for most players to forget and ignore them. Gau is another character who is both loathed and loved depending on how a player feels about his Rages. Borrowing an idea from DQV where the player could recruit a team of monsters, Gau has the ability to master a monsters traits and skills, effectively making him a recruitable monster. Where things go a bit awry here is that DQV had 40 monsters you could recruit, Gau has 253 Rages. He has six times as many monsters he can imitate over DQV’s more modest selection, and with anything where inflated quantity becomes a factor, not all of these Rages are terribly useful. On the other hand, the ones that are useful make Gau one of the game’s strongest characters, but most players don’t want to look it up and bother scouting them in the Veldt, let alone the trial and error gameplay originally involved. VI gets props for the eclectic character builds but often gets lambasted by their inconsistent usefulness and most get overshadowed by the game’s main development tools: Relics and the Esper system.
    Relics are nothing new to FF, FFV had already started pushing the items into a direction of making them tools to help bolster stats or act as a defensive measure for status magic. Some accessories even worked in tandem with Job Classes like the Thieves’ Glove and Kornago Gourd which both buffed the Steal and Catch commands respectively. VI simply took the concept one step further by combining these items with the sub-job mechanic of V. Genji Gloves would now let characters dual wield weapons, Dragoon Boots would change a character’s attack to Jump, Locke’s Brigand’s Glove would upgrade Steal to Mug, and the Master Scroll would allow a character to attack four times like Barrage. There were 25 different accessories in the GBA version of FFV, FFVI has around 56; half of which fall into the category of being former abilities unlocked through FFV’s Job system. VI tries to merge the best elements of both IV and V’s take on the class system. Allowing the character’s o embody a role that players would appreciate and help them define them better, but also the option to customize the character to tailor their needs.

    Complicating everything is the Esper system. A key story element, Espers and their magicite are the source of magic used by the heroes and villains of the game. They work as summons, tools for teaching magic, and a means for the player to manipulate stats beyond equipment. Interestingly enough, with the exception of HP and MP, your party’s stats never actually grow like in previous games. Damage algorithms use the character’s level more than their stats to determine damage, though manipulation of stats can give you some really great results. This is where the stat manipulation from espers come to play, it’s only balanced by the fact a character can only equip one Esper at a time, the stat increase only happens during a level up, and the best stat upgrades are relegated to espers found in the game’s second half. Yet due to levels and gear often being more important, you can honestly ignore this mechanic and still make it through VI fairly easy. Making matters worse here is that the Magic algorithms are disproportionately more useful than most stats. Several characters use the Magic stat for their skills damage algorithm, and magic in VI has a higher base damage formula than most FFs. Perhaps this was a way of integrating gameplay with the story, but it ends up making most players choose to focus on teaching characters magic and focusing on magic stat improvements over using the party’s unique skills or equipment set ups. This would not be the first time an oversight like this would happen for an FF, but it remains one of the biggest black marks against the game by its detractors. After FFIV and V had both effectively built very well rounded and mostly balanced gameplay mechanics, VI goes the FFII route and ends up giving the player a very unique but highly exploitative system instead. You could have a final party playing towards their strengths and using their cool job abilities, or you could build a team of dual wielding Ultima throwing gods with max health a la FFII.

    Granted, I feel this was partially intentional. One area I feel VI differs from its predecessors is how it was designed to be both user-friendly and accessible for players new to the genre. In fact the overall design of the game invokes this feeling of the staff trying to make a game that would have mass appeal over one that refines what worked before. The game has a large ensemble cast which translates to every player having at least one character they would gravitate towards. The game is far more story-driven and character focused than the previous games, making the game’s greatest appeal being the narrative like with the popular FFIV. The gameplay is more interactive, and dungeons and scenarios offer more to do than just the simple town/world map/dungeon cycle that most of the genre followed. The last third of the game is an open-world, choose your own path, adventure which was tested in FFV, enhanced in Secret of Mana, and pushed further here before Chrono Trigger perfected it. VI was designed for a generation that liked to be always engaged and not spending too much time in menus. The game has more puzzles, the abilities are more interactive, some story bits are interactive, and until the last half of the game, the title is throwing new stuff at you with every scenario that monotony doesn’t usually show its face unless you linger around too much. This brings us to one of VI’s problems…

    VI was not a game designed for grinding. While grinding magic is way less tedious in this game than some other grinds in other installments, it is still a chore for most players who look past the fact the tedium was meant to deter grinding behavior. The best way to actually play VI and get a good difficulty curve is actually to play without grinding. Levels matter more than most elements in damage, so not stopping to grind levels or learn magic allows the game to maintain a fairly good difficulty curve, the issue is most players ignored this, and power leveled due to conditioning by other entries in the genre, resulting in VI being the easiest FF of the 2D installments. This idea of anti-grinding and simply enjoying the narrative first would be worked out and better implemented in Chrono Trigger, which would fix the issue by limiting encounters by removing random battles, and then combined with a more linear dungeon structure. Still, for those who often cite VI as being too easy, I feel it would be in your interest to attempt the game again, but simply try to play it without needless grinding or attempting to master all the magic. While it would certainly not reach FFIII’s level of BS, one may find it quite refreshing.

    Where VI often excels and if given its greatest praise is both within its narrative and focus on characters. While the idea of Magic vs. Technology is hardly new, for Final Fantasy it was a new concept to play around with. Sakaguchi doesn’t really remember who came up with the idea initially, but he has hinted that he thinks Tetsuya Takahashi had been a major influence for going in this direction due to his preference for science fiction. Final Fantasy has never been shy about using Sci-Fi elements in their plots. The series has rarely ever been pure high fantasy with FFII likely being the lone exception. Even FFI hinted that the world had once been technologically advanced with one of the remnants of this culture being Tiamat’s stronghold in a space station orbiting the planet. FFIII had the Ancients who built airships and devices to harness light and darkness. FFIV had the main antagonist be an alien from a technologically advanced civilization trying to conquer the more primitive world using a giant robot to wipe out all life on the planet. FFV once again had an ancient civilization that harnessed the power of the crystals and built floating cities with laser cannons and robots. So VI using a technological empire who tries to harness magic using science isn’t too much of a stretch for the series. What is unique with VI is how the setting of VI is distinctly steam punk in nature with the architecture and dress of the NPC townsfolk invoking a 19th century European vibe. The game features trains, and though relegated to enemies only, metal projectile based guns are also more prevalent in the scenario. Even the machinery has more of a steampunk vibe to their designs when using in-game models. The Magitek Armors feel like steam powered behemoths and aerial units have more of cobbled together from random scrap kind of feel than slick military vessels. The Golem summon himself is re-imagined not as a stone figure but as a steam powered robot. This visual style gives the game a more interesting art direction than its predecessors and signifies the beginning of how the FF team would start using more stylized setting for the series from here on out. VI serves as a bridge between the first five entries that always had a visual similarity to each other and the later entries that would all opt for visually distinct settings to set themselves apart from both each other and other games.

    Another unique sci-fi element the game uses more liberally is the idea of genetic engineering. FFIV had touched on it with Dr. Lugae, but it was never given much importance in that game. VI uses the concept a bit better, and would serve as a basis for the next title that took the concept and ran with it. The idea of making artificial magic using soldiers through gene manipulation is only really hinted to, but creates a unique idea of the depravity of the Ghestalhian Empire and the extremes they’ll go to. I often feel one of the most interesting points of exploring the Imperial capital is how the player learns that Gestalh was having Dr. Cid even treat regular citizens with the magic infusion science he was working on. Course this can also take a darker look when you realize that Celes herself was given magic treatment as a child and thus that kid who can use cure magic will likely be a soldier one day. This all comes back to Gestalh’s obsession and passion for the restoration of magic, as he wanted to build a mighty magic based empire and was planning on having his Magitek Knights like Kefka and Celes breed a new generation of magic using humans.
    Of course, if we’re discussing popular story beats from VI and bringing us back to the interactive nature of VI’s design, we have to discuss the opera sequence. The opera is a bit strange, but honestly I feel it’s the best moment in the entire game both narratively and interactively. It’s unknown who really came up with the sequence, or even why it was placed in the game in the first place besides to have an elaborate scenario for Setzer’s arrival. Considering Setzer is Tetsuya Nomura’s creation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the sequence was partially his idea that Kitase and Sakaguchi ran with. Kitase said he wrote the original sequence, but Ito has also mentioned in some interviews it was his idea to make the player actually have to memorize and perform it because he found the original scenario too passive and wanted to avoid the player simply watching the game instead of playing. It’s a brilliant sequence that immerses the player in a powerful moment brought to life by the new graphical prowess of the team, and Uematsu’s confident score. Even moving past the actual Aria section, the sequence has the party go through a timed dungeon with some fun alternate sequences like accidentally shutting off the opera lights, or accidentally falling into the audience and having to make a comical escape back up into the rafters. The opera sequence had a lot of changes with several cut dialogue and originally, it was Biggs and Wedge who were meant to crash the party instead of Ultros. There are also three unused key items found in the data that pertain to the opera (an autograph, a red manicure, and an opera record) that may have been meant for some other scenario that was dropped for one reason or another. My personal theory is that the items were meant to be collected by Celes to help her prepare for her role in a similar format like the Wall Market Dress quest-line in VII, but there is no real evidence for this. Regardless of why it was created or what the original ideas for it were, the scene in question is often regarded as the most memorable moment in VI’s narrative besides the opening.

    Finally we come to the World of Ruin, which is simultaneously one of VI’s most brilliant and ambitious ideas and one that is often a sore spot for detractors. As mentioned earlier, Sakaguchi let it slip a few years ago that the Ruined World was not even part of the original plan. The development of the game had been going smoothly up until this point, and the staff decided to try their hands at making an alternate version of the world map. It’s unknown who came up with the idea or even why, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a combination of like the Light/Dark world feature from LotZ: Link to the Past, combined with someone on staff liking the map changes in Secret of Mana’s final act. Hell, I wouldn’t even be surprised if the concept was taken from SoM’s cut content, but this is all speculation, and we’ll likely never get a real answer. What we do know is that this is the point where Kitase began to fall in love with Celes’ character as he wrote her scenario. The opening sequence of the World of Ruin is easily my favorite piece that Kitase has ever written, and is honestly one of my favorite moments in the entire game. What makes it works so well is the balance of a gripping narrative, amazing atmosphere, and the integration of story and gameplay. If Celes wanders Solitary Island, the only thing she will encounter are powerful zombie Black Dragons or she may encounter a Land Ray or Peeper, wo enemies that are reskins of weak enemies from the first half of the game, whom instantly dies in battle due to having only 1hp and the Sap status effect, giving the player an in-game example of how normal life is dying in this new world the she and the player finds themselves in. Framing all this is the fishing mini-game needed to save Cid. The player is given no real instructions on what to do, and is unaware of all the elements at play here, which almost guarantees a player will likely see Cid die the first time they do this sequence. But what’s more engrossing is when you discover you can save him. Not only does this bring more urgency to the sequence in subsequent playthroughs, but the fact the reward for saving him is disappointing now leaves a player with the emotional dilemma of whether to keep him alive or not in later replays.

    The actual sequence that plays if you fail is honestly one of the most heartbreaking moments in the series for me as Celes falls into despair and tries to take her life, only to fail and by chance see a glimmer of hope to keep moving on. This whole sequence perfectly encapsulates the entire World of Ruin with the theme of hope overcoming despair, and an emphasis of gameplay being as strong as the narrative. Once Celes reaches the main land, she will certainly run into Setzer, Sabin, and Edgar. Once the Falcon Airship (a nice shout out to FFIV, I might add) is acquired, the rest of the sequence is completely optional and up to the player to decide. Open world design wasn’t exactly new at this time, but not something Square played with very much. Most of the open ended player controlled choices made n earlier titles were less intentional by design and more exploits by the player learning they can sequence break if they chose to. Skipping Mt. Gulag in FFI to get the airship and Job Upgrades first before tackling the remaining Fiends was certainly an oversight. Using Flammie and the Cannon Travels to sequence break SoM’s events seemed to be planned a little more since the game has actual dialog to point it out. Finally, FFV played around with the concept as well with the search to unlock the Sealed Weapons and Forbidden Magics of its world, which could be tackled in a few different ways as well. But VI took this all so much further. In both FFV and SoM, you still had to hit several event flags to unlock the final dredge of the game, but in VI, you could barrel straight to Kefka’s Tower and actually tackle the man himself if you wanted. You would likely get killed, but the option is there, and some players have accepted the challenge. Instead most players use the not-so-subtle clues left behind by characters to collect the remaining party to build their rag tag team to finish the game. They will also be introduced to other specialty dungeon concepts of the Multi-Party dungeon, where the player has to build multiple teams of four to traverse a dungeon where switches have to be hit to allow both teams to reach the end. Some will get a taste from the Phoenix Cave, but all players will get the real test in Kefka’s Tower itself. The game also unlocks a Coliseum, a first in the series, where items can be bet for better items. The fact it’s left as RNG has made it more of a sour experience for some players, but this too is just the devs telling you that maybe teaching every character every spell is not in your best interest…

    FFVI is easily where Nobuo Uematsu came into his own as a composer and solidified himself as one of the best. Even he has admitted in the linear notes for FFVII’s OST that trying to make a track that could top something like Dancing Mad was going to be a challenge. To this day, Uematsu seems to remember making this game far more fondly than other entries. Its no surprise either. His work on perfecting a powerful MIDI program for his titles allowed him to score a soundtrack that feels far less boop and bops video game sounding and more like something closer to an actual orchestra for a 16-bit game. The third movement in Dancing Mad, with its faux organ and echo is honestly breathtaking and a wonder to the skill he put into this game. VI’ score is filled with an unapologetic orchestral grandeur in tracks like Omen, Protect the Espers, Dancing Mad, and the entire opera sequence. Yet he also manages to slip in some surprises like the 50s rock n’ roll inspired Johnny C. Bad, the ragtime vaudeville inspired Spinach Rag, or Zozo’s Slam Shuffle theme that has this vibe of a Henry Mancini film track. As tradition at this point, Uematsu also gives us an experimental techno inspired Chocobo theme that really wouldn’t feel out of place in FFVII’s Gold Saucer.

    Of course the biggest addition to VI is the character themes and their leitmotifs within the game’s score. Character themes are hardly new to the series, IV actually has several character themes listed in the OST, and several tracks are so strongly associated with certain characters that even the ones that don’t get named tracks have unofficial character themes like Theme of Love for Rosa. But V scaled this back and only four characters get named themes with the rest getting tracks associated with them. Even of the named themes, only Lenna and ExDeath get actual themes with the other two embodying Moogles and the Dawn Warriors collectively. VI managed to give very party member their own unique theme, and this likely stems from the game’s central design theme being a “cast of main characters”. Uematsu was not exactly pleased with this outcome, but the man performed beautifully and for some characters like Gau and Relm, it’s a bit criminal how underutilized their themes are. Course the developers do cheat a little here. Sabin and Edgar share a theme for instance since they are twins, and several themes (Edgar and Sabin, Setzer, Cyan, Strago, Gogo, and famously Terra) all have themes that double as town or map themes. Mog simply gets a new arrangement of the Moogle theme from FFV as well. What is nice though is the leitmotifs that Uematsu utilized. Again, this isn’t completely new for the series, but with the opera inspiration of the game’s structure and Uematsu delving deep into Romantic era composition like Wagner, the use of this technique is more heavy handed than previous installments.

    This creates some interesting results as well since I’m sure many fans would guess Coin Song is more of the Figaro’s Bros. theme than their actual theme used for their castle. Likewise, Awakening and Metamorphosis are probably more appropriate themes for Terra than her over world map theme. Yet the use of these leitmotifs is well done in the game and helps to enhance the scenes they play in. We don’t actually hear Celes’ theme until after the opera sequence and her Aria, which has now likely ingrained itself as the song associated with her character. Likewise, Dancing Mad is a Fugue infused splendor of a final boss theme and when it hits the rocking fourth movement, the player gets that final gut punch of hearing Kefka’s original theme sneakily placed in there. The use of character themes, leitmotifs, and enhances in the technology and skills of the composer help to not only elevate the overall score, but is likely one of the reasons why an entire generation feels so strongly about the characters and setting of this experimental mess of a game. More than other entries in the franchise, I feel VI would have been a far worse experience without the composition Nobuo Uematsu managed to compose.

    Finally, we have the infamous translations. I don’t believe VI would be nearly as memorable in the West if it weren’t for the original translation by Ted Woolsey. While there are a lot of nuances lost from the original script and some strange errors caused by the rush job, I feel Woolsey did more to make VI stand out than other translations available at the time, and even after. Translation and localization are always a point of contention for fans, especially purist who want the authentic experience, but there are times when a strong localization can make or break a game, and I feel VI is one of those cases. There were a lot of things going against his work for this game. There were the usual issues of time constraints and technology like having a font that drastically cut down on how much text could be shown. But there were other issues as well like Nintendo of America’s censorship policies and Square’s indifference to the whole process that made doing these projects more of a headache than they deserved to be. Woosely actually managed to have a team to help him work on this game, but ran into problems due to having only thirty days to do the job. Likewise, Square gave him the game and a data file they dropped the entire script into with no concern about whether it was in actual order or not, which consisted of around 1300 pages to organize. His first pass at the script was rejected for being around three times too large to fit back into the game with the technical limitations. It took him two more attempts to streamline the script enough to fit. Woolsey added a lot of humor into the game that wasn’t quite there, largely to get around censorship issues. Kefka is a wonderful example of a character that is radically different between the Japanese and English scripts with his Japanese incarnation being portrayed as more like a spoiled child with anger management issues as opposed to his fast talking, Bond One liner Joker inspired psychopath form the West got. I feel it’s telling that Square has sort of latched onto this change in recent years as they try to fuse his two personalities together in more recent outings of his character, resulting in his popularity in Japan to slowly rise.

    Likewise, the original script for VI is surprisingly dry and unimaginative. Woolsey went out of his way to make the world feel more interesting with some of the changes he made. In the Japanese version, Espers were simply Phantom Monsters, a term that’s not too far from the translation of Summons up until this point. They turned into Magic Stones in death which Woolsey changed to the more exotic Magicite. Relics were simply accessories in the Japanese script, and Magitek was simply Magic. Woolsey certainly breathed way more lie into the script and setting than was originally there and it worked. It’s worked so well that Square-Enix has never bothered to change it as much as other games rife with translation issues like FFV and VII. Tom Slattery redid the translation for the GBA version and while he was finally able to give a more proper translation due to not having to deal with the same restraints as Woolsey, Slattery opted to keep a lot of Woolsey’s changes that he felt added character to the scripts. This translation has become the de facto one since with only minor changes over the years.

    Overall, FFVI is a game that marks a major transition within Square, as the new recruits at the company tackled their first Final Fantasy while the old guard watches them. There is a sense the new blood wants to redefine the genre by making the games feel more interactive, more user friendly, and most importantly, more dramatic. VI was a bold take on the genre that tried many different things and pushed the technology of the 16-bit hardware it was developed for. The new generation took on the status quo of the genre and was not afraid to experiment. While VI doesn’t always land on its feet with its ideas, the game is such an oddity for its time frame. Feeling like it has one step still in the past with the other step boldly stepping into the future. It wouldn’t be until advancements in hardware would finally allow them to spread their wigs and see how far they could fly. VI itself is an opera. Bold, melodramatic, and perhaps a little pretentious. But the game embodies the spirit of new game designers who would define a generation.

    This article was originally published in forum thread: An Opera of Balance and Ruin started by Wolf Kanno View original post
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