Final Fantasy VI: The 16-bit High-Water Mark

When I first played Final Fantasy VI, I wasn't even holding the controller. I watched my older brother play through the Super Nintendo game beneath the glow of the bulbous cathode ray tube in our living room, after school, after dinner, after homework, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.

I felt like I was a part of the experience as a spectator; I coached him, suggesting maneuvers as he played, following the story, not really understanding the significance of its themes—isolation, identity, self discovery, egomania, death. I was in grade school and the impressionistic fantasy game was a dark, baroque epic in the last years of the 16-bit era.

Final Fantasy VI: The 16-bit High-Water Mark

Square—Squaresoft at the time—had a few more games in development for the console, Chrono Trigger arriving a year later, but Final Fantasy VI was the high-water mark and everything afterwards was the in the receding pixel tide. Lofty words, but the medium changed dramatically when polygons arrived and storage space was cheap.

We were borrowing the game from a friend who had a wealth of Super Nintendo cartridges; these games cost as much as $70 and it took months and months of savings for a single purchase. We used to wander the neighborhood collecting cans! Like good little hobos, raising money for games. It was probably some time in 1995, maybe early '96, six months or so after Final Fantasy III's (as it was known in the US) October 1994 release date. But we still couldn't afford the game. So thanks for that, Bobby down the street, in the house upon the hill.

Final Fantasy VI: The 16-bit High-Water Mark

And I recently decided to replay it, with ZSNES and a Logitech controller. The game is of course a menu-based role playing game with a fairly linear storyline. I don't need to dwell on the specifics of the game mechanics—you know all that, more or less, because the Final Fantasy series was essential in defining the JRPG genre. It features more character customization that previous entries into the series, via relics that gave characters unique abilities, Espers that taught magic, and the usual armor and weapon options. This was all elaborated upon in the follow up, Final Fantasy VII, the most common entry point to the series for slightly younger millenials than myself.

But none of that is particularly important. What matters is the story, and how it was conveyed on a system with the processing power a fraction of today's smoke alarms.

The protagonist Terra serves as an automaton to an evil empire, a rare specimen that knows magic in a world where magic is just something talked about in silly stories of older times. When she's freed from her servitude she has no memory of her past, why she has her abilities, and why she is alone in that harsh world. The rebel forces take her in.

All of the subsequent characters struggle with their own questions of identity and isolation—Locke and his long lost lover, Shadow's inability to connect with anyone besides his dog, the royal brothers Edgar and Sabin and their reluctant responsibilities, Cyan and the fall of Doma (spoiler alert, yeah). It goes on and on, with all of the characters being forced to find and forge their identities in an uncertain world. The story plays out over the first half of the game, graciously never really forcing players to do the leveling up grind.

Final Fantasy VI: The 16-bit High-Water Mark

The second half consists of more wandering—a little more tedious, and when I replayed it recently I consulted online guides because I wasn't interested in investing hours just to find what to do next. As a child, though, that wasn't a problem; it was an adventure. It was an adventure when my brother and I wandered down drainage pipes with sharpened sticks to find beer cans to raise some spare change, and it was an adventure when we bought games like these. In typical Final Fantasy fanfare, it culminates in a battle with a baroque god, featuring one of the greatest final boss themes ever by Nobuo Uematsu. And that's not even the most memorable song of the game.

(Is it hypocritical to include these remastered versions when I wax about the "impressionistic" beauty necessitated by Super Nintendo's limitations? Maybe, but it still kicks ass.)

We had a subscription to the monthly magazine Nintendo Power and I poured over Hideaki Amano's artwork before I ever played the game. In fact I didn't really like his style, at the time—it's perplexing, disturbing, almost grotesque, and I wanted clearly defined cartoons. Amano, like the game, was not interested in simple clarity of form, instead letting his lines and shapes run mad. He still cites it as one of his favorite projects.

Final Fantasy VI: The 16-bit High-Water Mark

Maybe it's just because I was young and impressionable, but the game and its characters practically burned their images into the back of my skull. Such a huge world in so few megabytes. When I replayed it weeks ago, twenty years later, I still knew all the story beats, I knew all the spells, I knew all the tricks. (Admittedly I did buy the Playstation re-release too—for the CGI cut scenes! FMV!—but the subtle load times drove me crazy and I never finished that version.) Yes I consulted some guides to ease the process, but I knew all the broad strokes like a map of my old neighborhood.

Final Fantasy VI: The 16-bit High-Water Mark

I like to think of it as a golden age of impressionism in video games, along with the early N64 and PSX games that followed; the technical constraints requiring imagination to evoke deep sentiments from the blocks and triangles on the screen that showed so little and conveyed so much. I know I sound like an old man—we had to imagine the pictures!—but I saw gods and sorcerers fight for the world on a 256x224 screen with baroque flourish, and afterwards nothing else really lived up to that.

So what I'm saying, you knuckleheads, is that you should play it some time. Five stars, A plus, drinks all around.


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Images via Fantasy Anime, Final Fantasy Wiki, and Overclocked Remix.