An Identity Crisis
It’s not every day that one gets to write and spin epic tales about the game that made one a true gamer; this responsibility demands a high degree of forethought. Careful consideration must first of all be given to exactly what constitutes a true “gamer mentality”, and how I knew I had officially reached it.
In the Spring of ’94, I was but a wee lad finishing his final weeks of seventh grade in a local Hawaiian school. Having just transferred from out-of-state and being new to the school, I hadn’t truly made friends with anybody yet. As chance would have it, it was during this time that I had spent a bit of pocket-money to purchase a copy of EGM to pass the time. Gaming was certainly not new to me (I had been playing games for years on my NES and Gameboy, and had saved up and purchased a brand-new SNES console with Super Mario World a few years earlier), but this magazine talked about games in a way that I hadn’t been familiar with: as an actual profession rather than just a hobby.
Among the pages of this magazine, I came across a two-page ad that quickly mesmerized me: one page plain white, with a solitary furry white creature with a pom-pom puffball suspended over its head and the cryptic words “Two’s company…” emblazoned underneath it, followed by a page filled with ferocious monsters straight out of the worst adolescent nightmares and the message “…Three’s a crowd” (keep in mind that this was still years before it was common knowledge that FFIII was actually FFVI). It was this ad that initially drew me into the quicksand of gaming goodness that would soon swallow up all facets of my life; it may have been the interesting title (what was this fantasy, and why was it the final one?), or the dichotomy between the adorable Moogle leaning on a sword on one hand and a dungeon’s worth of the most abhorrent visages this side of Hell on the other.
A Baker’s Dozen, Plus One
Final Fantasy VI sported so much epic that each moment of it literally rocked my world for many months to come. It offered an immensely long quest across two vast continents. The player literally starts off in the dark, as the first character you take control of, Tera, has neither a name, a memory, nor her own free will. As she becomes cognizant of her surroundings and action, and her journey begins, so does the player’s; her recollections of the quest become yours. As the rich, deeply engrossing story begins slowly uncovering layer by layer, the party begins to assemble. The playable cast of this game is huge, and at 14 permanent characters (plus a few temporary ones thrown in here and there) is the largest of any FF game – or pretty much any game, period! Each character is unique, and the interrelationships between party members are good for hours of entertainment; you have the thief with a golden heart, the repentant enemy general, the amnesiac mysterious girl (this game predates what are now considered common RPG tropes), the estranged royal brothers, the grizzled swordsmaster with a haunted past. And these are just the more normal characters!
Your initial task was to stop the evil Empire from using Espers – mystic beings of power, and, coincidentally, summonable allies in battle – to further their corrupt ends. The story comes to a finale during a showdown with Emperor Gestahl on a floating continent in the sky, accessible only via airship. Ultimately, I made my way to the final confrontation, and was ready to close out the game; imagine my gleeful joy upon learning that the game was, in fact, only at the halfway point. The world broke apart, my party scattered to the four winds and flung to the farthest reaches of the world, and a whole new fantastic, post-apocalyptic quest of justice and vengeance began. This second half of the game has a much darker tone of loss and hopelessness; you regain control of one member of your former party, who has lain in a coma for a full year since the shattering of the world. For the second time in FFVI, you must set out to find your friends and “get the old gang back together”, again making your way through a wholly unfamiliar world.
One of the most memorable things about this game was the fact that, while it was a game you played, many parts were just fun to watch unfold, as you let your imagination be swept along the swift currents of the plot. The tongue-in-cheek rescue of General Celes early in the game, which is clearly a recreation of the rescue of a certain princess from a certain Death Star, even down to the dialog: “You’re awfully short for a soldier.” Your party being separated into three groups at the river, each being forced to go off into opposite directions alone. A 16-bit opera that you must perform in as the main star. One of your characters attempting suicide. The list of memorable moments goes on and on. All of this was made more beautiful through the visuals and music. FFVI came onto the scene at a time that was ripe for highly detailed sprite-based graphics, and characters could show a lot more emotion than had previously been seen. Even though subsequent games in the series moved away from sprites, FFVI retains much of its classic appeal precisely for this reason. An even more important component was Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliant musical score; each and every track remains a masterpiece, and it was the very first time I ever felt compelled to purchase a game’s soundtrack. To date, it’s still my personal favorite, even among Uematsu’s compositions.
Regardless of how great the game was, none of this explains why it made me an official “gamer”. In ’94, getting a brand-new game wasn’t a simple matter for a kid with limited financial means. FFVI was the first time I went to the trouble of taking on extra chores and indebting myself for weeks to come just to scratch up enough change, dollar by dollar, for the game’s $50 price of admission. A few days after starting the game, I started developing my first few friendships at my new school, based solely around trading gameplay tips and boss strategies with others who had fallen prey to this game. Even though the internet was still in its early infancy, I found my way to several fan-made game guides, each with about 60 pages full of stats and walkthrough information, and printed and studied each one. During my numerous playthroughs, I made it a habit to spend days and weeks grinding. By game’s end, I would make sure that every single character had learned each and every magic spell available to me.
I managed to find time the following year for Chrono Trigger, and became a die-hard RPG and Square fan for many, many years due to VI‘s overwhelming influence. However, even after playing just about every other FF title dating back to the original, I’ve never found another game that’s come close to replicating the hold this game had on me (Ironically, FFVII came pretty close, but that’s another story). So, FFVI, thank you for the memories, and thanks for showing me what lofty heights a game can ultimately ascend to. You are truly a timeless classic!