Last night I started playing Final Fantasy VI, a video game about suplexing locomotives. I had never played it before.
Six hours later, I saved my game and stopped. A lot happened in that time. Let's decompress.
Yes, I missed out on Final Fantasy VI. Take a deep breath. I turned out fine. I didn't have any set-top game consoles growing up, so my video game playing was limited to PC games and a cherished handheld device or two. I didn't own an NES or a SNES, didn't have a GameCube or a PlayStation, and certainly never owned a Dreamcast. As a result, I was absent during the heyday of the Japanese role-playing game.
It's been fun catching up, though I've had to do it in fits and starts over the last several years. Thankfully I've had some smart experts to help guide me on my way. Most memorably, friend and Offworld editor Leigh Alexander was my senpai and sherpa on an epic 2011 playthrough of Final Fantasy VII. More recently, Kotaku resident JRPG expert Jason Schreier has been my travelling companion for many more games, from Final Fantasy Tactics to Suikoden 2.
Jason's been visiting me in Portland this week before we head up to Seattle for PAX, and last night we decided to stream some Final Fantasy VI. A short stream turned into a really long one, and by the time the pizza had gotten cold and the beer had gotten warm, I'd reunited my disparate party members, defended Banon from Kefka, and introduced Terra to the Esper.
You can watch a full archive of the stream here. We'll hopefully have time to stream some more today, but for now, some quick thoughts on Final Fantasy VI's first few chapters.
I'm glad I have a guide.
When we started, Jason said that he wasn't going to tell me what to do. I have him on tape, saying this. He said he'd let me do my thing, and would maybe nudge me in one direction or another. This was a lie. Within minutes he was telling me exactly where to go, what to do, what relics to equip, and how to survive each fight. He was literally reminding me to press A at the ends of fights. I'm 100% fine with that.
I suppose I might have figured out some of the various strategies, but others — like how many Sprint Shoes to buy so that all of my separate parties could have them equipped — would have been just lost on me. In fact, I probably wouldn't have equipped Sprint Shoes at all, and would have spent the whole game poking around at half speed. What a nightmare.
I wish it was on a handheld.
While the big screen makes the game easier to share with others, I do wish I was playing this game on a handheld device. I'm playing the SNES version, downloaded through the Wii virtual console, which is being emulated through my Wii U. (That's like, Inception-level deep emulation.) I had to go out and buy a Wii classic controller just to play this game. Why can't I just buy FFVI on the 3DS and play it that way? There is no good answer.
I gather that the PlayStation version of this game is held to be the inferior one, so I'm glad I'm not playing on Vita. But seriously. It's widely held to be one of the greatest games of all time. It should be easier to pay money and play it on things.
The random encounter rate is a bananas.
There are so many random encounters in this game. So many! When you're in a dungeon you can literally walk like 5 feet before you get into a random encounter. They should call them "constant encounters."
Jason tells me you get a relic later that turns off random encounters, or something like that. I want that relic now.
It's very odd.
I figured this game would be weird. Back when I started Final Fantasy VII, I thought I had it pegged — steampunk fantasy, straightforward story, beat the evil corporation, etc. Twenty hours later I was snowboarding down a mountain en route to the Chocobo breeding farm. Even so, FFVI is more immediately weird and silly than I was expecting.
Some people in our Twitch chat were discussing the notion that Square Enix might decide to make an HD version of this game, as they recently announced they were doing with FFVII. That game would be… just utterly ridiculous. Can you imagine what HD Kefka would look like? Can you picture some of these scenes and battles rendered in high-resolution?
I dunno, man. I'm not sure this game would work if it looked any different than it does.
Yes, the music is great.
When I say I haven't played FFVI, people usually freak out about the music thing. "Aren't you a big music guy? Don't you like music? What are you doing!" they cry, flecks of spittle flying from their lips and landing on my glasses. To them I say, well, ok, yes, the music in this game is really good. I love it.
I like Shadow's Theme in particular:
…but it's all very good. And I haven't even gotten to the Opera House scene, where apparently they sing? Hats off, Mr. Uematsu.
The writing is pretty bad, but also good.
On a small scale, the writing in FFVI is… not great. The localisation is questionable, the characters all act like weird children, and the pop culture references are corny and distracting. But on a larger scale, the narrative construction is pretty cool. The story quickly unfolds into a complicated, branching narrative, and the game guides us through it all with a confidence that feels unusual even today.
FFVI pulls some cool narrative tricks in its opening hours. It hops from character to character, letting you see major events from multiple perspectives. At the point when you've first assembled your starting party, where most JRPGs would have you set out on your adventure, your party is ripped asunder. They form three smaller groups who have their own lengthy adventures while attempting to meet back up in Narshe for the first major confrontation with Kefka and his army.
During that period you'll hear tell of events that you will later witness as other characters, or briefly meet enemies who will go on to fight other characters in a different timeline. Locke goes to do recon in an occupied village and meets Celes (badass alert) and breaks her out of prison. Terra, Edgar and Banon stay on the river.
And Sabin… man, Sabin. Sabin goes on a ridiculously convoluted, hours-long adventure that could have occupied the middle series of episodes in a season of TV.
He infiltrates an enemy base that looks straight out of Metal Gear, starts a buddy cop flick with a new character named Cyan, has time to meet and part ways with Shadow, meets and briefly fights the main villain Kefka, recruits the feral (annoying) kid Gau, and has this entire adventure aboard a ghost train bound for the afterlife that features both 1) a scene in which Sabin gruffly orders food from the ghostly waitstaff of the diner car and proceeds to stuff his face and 2) a culminating boss battle in which he suplexes the train's locomotive.
By the time Sabin and his crew make it back to Narshe for the final showdown, I'd almost forgotten what the hell was going on with everyone else… but only almost, because even during Sabin's adventures the game was sure to gently remind me about the other characters. (For example, when Gau tells Sabin of the gleaming treasure in the cave, Sabin laughs over how jealous Locke will be if Sabin finds some good treasure without him.)
The whole three-part section demonstrates the sort of ambition and sprawl that you just don't get in most modern games. I have a feeling it was unusual when FFVI first came out, too.
Seriously, though, it's weird. And that's good.
I know I already said the game is weird, but really — this game is extremely weird. In a great way. I was texting with PC Gamer's Wes Fenlon about it this morning and he described it thusly: "It's from a time when men were still men, women were still women, and JRPGs with fun characters were still JRPGs with fun characters."
Which pretty much sums it up. This game is extremely weird in a way that only a certain subset of '90s video games could be, and that's great. I'm looking forward to playing more, hopefully with Jason nearby to sherpa me through any challenging bits.