#FFVI20Years: My Star Wars
This is an introspective I’m doing for Final Fantasy III, better known as Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo. While the game was first released in Japan on April 2, 1994 and I first owned it on December 24, 1994, the North American release was on October 20, 1994. That’s a good place for North American readers to go back 20 years ago to when they first could play the game. I’ll be discussing everything from my thoughts of playing the game again to its impact on the industry to why more games should be like Final Fantasy VI. I know I haven’t written anything since November but shut up. Enjoy #FFVI20Years
Final Fantasy VI is my Star Wars.
I never got into Star Wars. It wasn’t really my cup of tea. I liked the neon swords and the magic powers in space but it just never connected with me. I wasn’t old enough to see the films originally in theatres but subsequent viewings on VHS didn’t do much for me. There was a basic story there, a story told many of times, that really didn’t sell for me there. I guess it might have been the fish out of water “son of destiny” stuff.
Final Fantasy VI is pretty much the Final Fantasy version of Star Wars. You have an evil Empire that eventually has the power to destroy towns (a smaller scale of an evil Empire that destroys planets), an Emperor who sends his most powerful Lord to do his bidding (Gestahl sends Lord Kefka as if he was Vader) and a plunky group of rebels that are the only group to stop them (Returners, a term I want to use if I ever own a bar). In replace of the Force, you have magic.
Of course, it isn’t like Square just went out to make a fantasy version of Star Wars (George Lucas beat them to that himself with Willow). Final Fantasy VI presented back in 1994 a character that was destined for great things, but not because of a family tie to the army they were fighting. What the war was all about, the War of the Magi, was about Espers and Men. The connection, the marriage of Man and Esper was one woman: Terra.
A New Hope?
Terra begins the game in the control of The Empire. It was extremely rare for a video game to begin with you fighting as the bad guys (Final Fantasy IV opened with you as the Dark Knight of Baron but it isn’t as clear). The game begins with ominous “Imperial March”-esque music (“Omen” and “Troops March On”) telling you what the Empire is before characters Biggs/ and Wedge (named after Star Wars characters!) explain who Terra was. More importantly, that she’s a weapon of The Empire. She knows magic.
It didn’t make much sense to me why she had a slave crown. They never explained that she was rebellious to the Empire and had to be fitted of the crown. Later in the game there’s the powerful scene of the Emperor Gestahl kidnapping Terra as an infant and kicking her mother right in the stomach. It’s a pivotal scene that brings all of the big magic/Esper business to a very human level. It helps you realize that the Empire was always about power. It’s odd that the game begins with her brainwashed instead of like Celes or Leo, generals who fought for the Empire until they saw them go too far.
But it’s beginning as a part of The Empire which lets you see that Terra is pulled by both sides. She’s saved by The Returners, who admit to wanting to use her to swing the war in their favour. She can use magic. She used to be in the Empire. But the Returners have morals and conscience. They never want to force Terra to fight for them like the Empire did. They want her to choose on her own. One of my favourite “game mechanics” is at the Returner’s Hideout, where Banon (leader of The Returners) asks you if you are ready to fight for them. It’s a Yes or a No. In most games, saying No is a dead end and it feels like it in this. Saying yes gets you a Gauntlet, a relic allowing two handed weapon strikes. But to say no three times causes Banon to be dejected by your refusal. An anonymous member of the Returners will come up to you and talk about strength and doubt before giving you the better relic: Genji Glove, allowing you to wield two weapons at the same time.
That moment of doubt is one of my favourite moments of any video game. There’s agency and reward in your doubt, even if fighting for The Returners is ultimately the right thing to do. In most mediums about war, doubt is death. You fight the bad guys and that’s it. But in this, doubt is strength. The game doesn’t just tell you that the Empire is bad while they try to fight you in Figaro Castle. Soon you get word that the Empire found the Hideout but your character is so confused. You eventually slip through the Lete/Lethe River and the quest is broken up.
The team breaking up is what made Final Fantasy VI feel so unique for me, and allows the focus to come off Terra to build up the other characters in Final Fantasy VI. This point allows Locke and Sabin to thrive.
From the start, Locke is unlike any male character in video game history. He’s protective of women without sheltering them. He warns Terra of Edgar’s womanizing tongue instead of just standing around. He doesn’t tell Terra what to do but lets her choose. In most games, this would all be to develop Locke as a love interest for Terra. That’s not the case.
Locke goes to South Figaro to spy on the Empire, now occupying a once free city. After some costume play, he finds Celes in a dungeon being punched by Empire soldiers. The soldiers call her a traitor and mock her once powerful status in the Empire. Locke unlocks her chains and says he’s going to protect her. We now have a pattern. Something is going on with Locke.
At the time, I thought he was just the superhero type. The game doesn’t delve too deep at this point. There is even a point where Celes and Terra recognize that Locke has said similar things to them both about protection. There’s something about Locke trying to defend women.
You get a small bit of more story when you goto the town of Kohlingen, where you find out some creepy apothecary is keeping this young woman Rachel alive with herbs and flowers. It’s a creepy scene that plays the “Kooky’ music and gives you some odd background on Locke. It isn’t until much further in the game that you find out that Locke once failed to protect his girlfriend, and since then has been ridden with guilt. So much guilt he goes to the edges of a dead world to find anything to resurrect her and right his own wrongs. Locke isn’t simply defending women. He’s wracked with guilt.
I’ll talk more about Locke later, but Locke’s relationship with Celes is more than him simply protecting her. The game doesn’t do a good enough job of it in the story, but through game play, once you get weapons and armour on Celes, it’s clear who is protecting who. Celes is a tank, a Magitek general with a sword and infused with magic. When you get to the Tunnel Armour, it isn’t Locke protecting Celes. It’s Celes using her Runic technique to nullify the magic of the Tunnel Armour to protect them both. One could say this is Locke failing to protect someone again, only this time they are strong enough to protect themselves.
Sabin was by far my favourite character in Final Fantasy VI as a kid. Not so much anymore, but I still have an affinity for him. He’s basically John Cena. He’s this muscular dude who suplexes dudes and does the right thing. It bugs me today that Sabin and Edgar are blonde haired white/Asian dudes living in the desert (seriously, why couldn’t they be Arabic?) but whatever. Sabin is fun. He does Street Fighter moves as a special ability. He hits big. Give him the Black Belt and the Genji Glove and he two claws everyone in his path.
Sabin is also a true fish out of water character. He’s a bit empty but that allows him to be supportive of everyone. He’s the big rock. And as a big rock he meets up with some of the most flawed and unique characters in the game. Sabin is perfect for these characters. He’s the child in you playing the game and being introduced to people you might not understand so well, and having a big kid like Sabin accept them allows you to accept them.
The first is the mysterious Shadow. Shadow works with Sabin free of charge despite being a mercenary. He can leave the group at any time. It makes sense for this to be some of your first interactions with Shadow, who develops as a multi-faceted and fascinating character of his own. With Sabin here, this is just his introduction.
With or without Shadow, you head to a small desert camp for the Empire. Here you meet General Leo (I don’t care what his pixel looks like. Leo will always be black to me due to the character art) for the first time since the opening prologue. You find out that Leo is an honourable and respectable man. Sabin even ponders how he’d be your friend if he wasn’t fighting for the other side. This is one of the most powerful character developments in the game. In Star Wars, you had to wait until Jedi for a member of the Empire to fight for you. Here you’re introduced to a general with compassion and heart. He talks a soldier out of throwing his life away for the Empire. He’s the antithesis for Kefka, a deranged psychopath with zero morality. Leo helps a young mind understand that not everyone you fight is a bad guy. In Locke’s scenario, the Empire’s general you work with was already turned on. Here, Leo is calling the shots. That is, until he’s whisked away by the Emperor and Kefka pushes himself in charge.
What comes next is the horrific poisoning of Doma. I know I mentioned earlier about the Emperor kicking Terra’s mother in the stomach but that comes much later in the game. The poisoning of Doma is the first true atrocity you see in the game, and that haunts you as a child. It’s your introduction to Cyan, a shogun for Doma Castle and your introduction includes watching his wife and child die and his king go blind before falling to the poison. You never really understand why Cyan lives through it but his blind rage leads him to destroying the first wave of soldiers at Doma, leaving the castle unprotected and heading to the desert camp to blindly fight soldiers. You calm him down enough to have him work with you, but him going on the adventure with Sabin leaves Doma unprotected and eventually seized by the Empire.
The sadness of Cyan’s story doesn’t end there. Final Fantasy VI takes a trip to the Phantom Train, one of the oddest experiences of any game. Sitting is a seemingly uninhabited forest on the way to a waterfall is the Phantom Train, a 19th century style locomotive that ferries the dead to the other side. Allegedly inspired by the song “Spanish Train” by Chris de Burgh, it’s an amazing area full of ghosts and switches. Eventually you fight the Phantom Train (and suplex the Phantom Train) before it lets you off and tells you it has to make another stop. That stop is to allow the poisoned dead of Doma to board the train, including Cyan’s wife and child. As a child it spooked me. As an adult it horrifies me. Cyan just dealt with the death of his family and the destruction of his kingdom. Now he has to see his loved ones one more time enter a train and leave him forever. It’s these traumatic experiences that follow into “Cyan’s Dreams” in the World of Ruin, presenting one of the first examples of a game character having PTSD. Cyan’s story takes a backseat from this point on, but he does have a confrontation with a bar maiden who flirts with him in Nikeah and then nearly fights Celes to the death when finding she was a member of the Empire. It’s Cyan who speaks of his mistrust of Celes, but it’s Locke who confirms it later on.
Finally you meet Gau after a “Why not?” jump off the Crescent Mountain waterfall. Gau is a monster child abandoned by his crazy father, who expects you to fix everything in his house when you first play Sabin’s scenario. Gau is bizarre and friendly, one of the most difficult characters to play as in Final Fantasy VI due to the fact you choose which monster he fights as and goes on auto-pilot when you do. The leaps and rages system was daunting when I was a kid. Playing today, it’s a lot more fun now. The World of Ruin covers the depressing tale of Gau more, but here you learn he’s regarded as a monster by his peers with no family and no friends. He’s a survivor, and while Sabin and Cyan take their time with him (after feeding him animal meat) because he can get them a breathing apparatus to get to Narshe, they still accept him.
There isn’t much to say on this scenario. The remaining characters have had quite a bit of development already. It’s all about protecting Banon and getting to Narshe. It did, however, establish these characters as sort of leaders in the story for me. I don’t know if Edgar was ever really an established leader, but he always felt like it to me. Locke pushed himself into stories. Terra was the main protagonist. Celes was heavily involved in storylines and is the main protagonist in the World of Ruin. But Edgar? Edgar is a king and always felt like a major character. Also he becomes super powered when he gets the chainsaw and I always liked having the brothers together. Maybe it was just my brain deciding to put the alpha males there.
It’s at this point the crew comes together and tries to convince neutral, steampunk Canadian Narshe to fight with the Returners. They get their decision made for them when the Empire decides to invade. It’s here that every character collected fights on the frozen landscape of Narshe, bringing the game back to its prologue of Terra in a slave crown. It’s also your first fight with Kefka, who goes down easy and drops a Peace Ring.
When you confront the Esper, it once again reacts with Terra and causes her to turn into a bizarre white/pink creature with glowing skin, eventually ripping across the sky and landing in a tower you have never seen before. This is the New Hope. A small battle won against the Empire, but no Death Star is destroyed. Instead, the game throws you in more uncertainty than before. At one point, The Returners were trying to convince this magic girl to fight for them. Now they don’t know what she even is.
My Star Wars
When I talk to people who grew up loving Star Wars, I see a love of rogues like Han Solo, feisty princesses like Leia, mysterious bounty hunters like Boba Fett, conflicted anti-heroes like Lando, boys of promise like Luke and bringers of evil like Darth Vader. They live in hopes of being the chosen one, to grow up and be the child of greatness. There’s a sense of friendship and family, but it’s us vs. them. Underdogs vs. Empire. It can be great.
I never really related to that. I related to Terra, a character pulled in two directions before knowing who she was. I related to Locke, a flawed hero with an ulterior motive of guilt. I related to Sabin, a free spirit who accepted everyone. I related to Leo, realizing that “the other side” doesn’t always mean the evil side. I related to Cyan, too focused on his past to have a future. I related to Celes, physically strong but yearning for connection. I related to Edgar, a king with a higher purpose. I related to Banon, a leader who understands human reluctance. I related to Gau, weird but friendly. I related to underdogs that didn’t always win, an Empire evil in its sum but not in its parts, and I related to the fact that not all wars are fought on a battlefield. Some wars are fought inside, against things you didn’t know existed in you.
20 years later, I still fight this war. We all do.
Featured Art by Robin Tran, Locke art from Final Fantasy III instruction booklet, Phantom Train suplex by unknown