There are roughly two types of Final Fantasy fans: people who think VI was the best game in the series, and people who think VII was. Needless to say, the latter should be strung from barbed-wire fences and beaten with sticks until they sincerely repent.
Kidding! As I’ll get to sooner or later, despite being an old-school snob about Final Fantasy I’ve grown to like VII, but, still, it’s a fact that VI is the pinnacle of the series.
VII gets pointed out – or, depending on your perspective, blamed – for steering the franchise away from its traditional JRPG, medieval European origins. However, in reality it starts with VI, which blends together eighteenth century France, Renaissance Europe, and Fascist Italy into one beautiful, cohesive world. With all the advancements in graphics technology that have taken place in the last couple of decades, the gorgeous, painted look of Final Fantasy VI still stands out to this day, from detailed overlooks you see as your party climbs and fights its way through mountains to the character portraits on the menu screen that retain a handpainted quality. Generally people didn’t speak about video games as an art form yet in the 16-bit era, but VI, if only for the care its designers gave to its graphics, was a step in that direction.
Then there’s the story. Who would have expected, right after V with its evil, demon-possessed tree trying to take over the world, that we’d have a tale where the villain wins and puts the world through an apocalypse – and that’s just the halfway point. The game begins with an emperor using soldiers infused with magical beings, obtained through brutal genocide against a race of mystic entities, to carry out his plans for world conquest. One amnesiac soldier, Terra, escapes, and joins a motley resistance headed by a thief…sorry, treasure hunter Locke; a kung fu student/bodybuilder Sabin; and a king who specializes in building death-dealing tools, Edgar. Unfortunately, the emperor is betrayed by his own deranged general, Kefka, who triggers the apocalypse and makes himself the mad god of a dying planet, and of course only your party has a slim hope of stopping him and salvaging what’s left of the world. It’s been more or less forgotten now, but VI really did take the series into a darker direction, and in a way that retained what had made the series great thus far.
One of the things about this game that VI takes from IV and runs with is the idea of a cast that’s diverse in terms of both story and gameplay. You join forces with a gambler who fights monsters with cards and dice, an abandoned orphan in a vast veld who can learn the abilities of monsters, a little girl who can paint living clones of enemies, an old wizard who can learn monsters’ spells, a female general of the empire condemned as a traitor, a paid assassin with a mysterious past, an honorable knight whose entire kingdom is wiped out by Kefka, a mime who can copy any of its teammates’ powers, a Moogle who can control the weather through dance, and finally…a yeti. The fact that different characters react to different scenes with their own unique dialogue, and that the post-apocalyptic world is a rare example of open-ended adventuring (for the most part) in a Final Fantasy game, does give the game a bit of replayability you wouldn’t expect. It achieves the perfect balance between a good story and a solid game; it gives you a vast world to explore and characters to interact with independently, while at the same time draws you into an unfolding narrative. Many contemporary video games still try to achieve that balance – and not all succeed, to say the least.
Of course, before there was Cloud and Aries we had Celes and Locke. It was arguably the first time the series tried at real in-depth character development. And before players got embarrassed getting emotional over seeing Aries being stabbed to death, there was a mini-game that had Celes pretending to be an opera singer, and the entire opera itself being a metaphor for Celes and Locke’s nascent love affair. And if that didn’t get you, there’s Celes being left alone in an island in a post-apocalyptic world, believing that she and the old man Cid were the last of the human race, and, depending on the player’s actions, her facing the death of Cid with suicidal despair…