Since great gaming began in earnest with the launch of the NES, there have been many titles ascribed a legendary status. But few receive universal praise. Final Fantasy VI is one of those games.
The lineage of Final Fantasy runs deep in my family. From the first moment my brother, my cousin and I stepped foot into Midgar as Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, we were hooked. Since then, many hours have been well spent discussing our favorite characters, moments, and games in the long-standing franchise. We have devoted time to playing it. We’ve devoted time to writing about it. We’ve devoted time to broadcasting it. We’ve also spent a lot of time watching videos about it from other content creators on YouTube and other sites. And we’ve certainly spent a lot of time stratifying them and reading and watching others do the same. Without fail, no matter what video you find on YouTube ranking the series’ entries, Final Fantasy VI appears at the top of the list. I’ve never seen even one exception.
One thing that sticks out to me about Final Fantasy VI is how unique it is in its storytelling. When you first boot up virtually any other Final Fantasy title, you’re hooked from the very beginning. Whether it’s Aerith stepping away from the lifestream and walking under the Loveless sign or Tidus and Yuna watching the sunset in Zanarkand, these games have a way of sucking you in from the first scene. But in order to really appreciate Final Fantasy VI, you really have to play it all the way to the end. I’ll admit, after going from more cinematic entries in the series, it took me many hours before I could fully recognize the perfection that Final Fantasy VI provides. It’s the ultimate slowburn game that starts with mystery and intrigue, before slowly building to an ultimate pay-off as the credits roll. This structure isn’t built for mainstream appeal; this is a game made for RPG fans determined to see it through to the conclusion. It is the pinnacle of that approach; I’ve never felt more satisfied at the close of any other game I’ve ever played.
Intriguingly, it isn’t necessarily the overall main plot of Final Fantasy VI that makes it an enduring classic for all time; it’s the intersection of all of the 14 main characters’ intersecting stories. Saving the world isn’t an original idea, but what about saving the world using a child prodigy, her ninja father who abandoned her when her mother died, two re-united brothers separated by their heritage of rule, a heart-broken thief working endlessly to bring his lover back to life, a mortally depressed former imperial officer, a wandering gambler with an airship the size of the Hindenberg, and a half-human half-magical being ripped from her parents from birth thinking for herself for the first time in her life? These unique individuals are all there, waiting to be discovered and utilized at will in Final Fantasy VI, each with a more fleshed out and gripping backstory than the last. I often found myself staring at my roster unsure of which combination I wanted to use next, not because I wasn’t interested in the characters but because I wanted to use every single one of them. And unlike other, more recent RPGs, Final Fantasy VI gives you ample reason to explore just about all of their strengths and weaknesses in addition to their personal stories, thanks to their varied advantages on the battlefield and the game’s ingenious Esper-focused magic system. Also, while the game obviously lacks the cinematic appeal that modern Final Fantasy titles boast, enduring scenes like The Opera Scene and the opening of The Esper World were major steps in that direction before Square was able to go all-in with Final Fantasy VII on the Playstation. Nobuo Uematsu’s indelible score is a significant contributor to this game’s shift toward a more cinematic focus; he gets an unbelievable amount of gut-wrenching emotion out of the limited resources available to him on a 16-bit game and is an unsung hero in the game’s more dramatic moments.
At this point, everybody knows that midway through the game, the world ends. But there’s a reason this is so famous; nothing so drastic had ever been attempted in a video game of this scope before. The world players had been exploring for hours on end was suddenly uprooted, decimated, and changed forever as the main characters scrambled to find closure for themselves and scrape together a ragtag group capable of taking the maniacal Kefka down once and for all. Celes, who is the first character the player controls following the cataclysmic event triggered by Kefka’s rise to dominance, is a particular source of dark subject matter as she attempts suicide after being stranded alone on an island with no knowledge of the fate of her friends or even the rest of the world. It’s an unbelievable moment in a game filled with them, and a dramatic step forward for storytelling in games beyond the simpler narratives the pre SNES period was known for.
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact that Final Fantasy VI has left on the RPG genre and even gaming as a whole. Universally beloved by Final Fantasy fans, it does require a significant time investment before it really starts to sing as one of gaming’s all-time greatest achievements. But when it does, it’s an experience that’s virtually unmatched in our medium.