Thursday, August 28, 2008

Final Fantasy VI

When Final Fantasy VI debuted on Super NES in 1994 (under the name Final Fantasy III), it was a thing of wonder. It also gave rise to endless debate: Was it the best RPG ever made, or was it a sloppy hack-job of a game? Did it have a brilliant English localization, or did Square U.S.A. butcher it? Was the massive cast of warriors impressive, or did the dozen-plus party members result in weak characterization and unbalanced skill building? In short, was it underappreciated genius or overrated crap?
There's merit to both arguments, actually, and you can be certain that the release of Final Fantasy VI Advance is bound to bring the whole brouhaha bubbling to the surface again.
Even the GBA version of the game is bound to irritate as many people as it pleases. As with Tose's previous Final Fantasy Advance remakes, FFVIA offers a number of improvements balanced by a ledger full of flaws. The game treats fans to new content -- several new Espers to teach you new magic spells, new dungeons full of new monsters, and new gear to use while exploring (but no new playable characters). Bugs and glitches have been tidied up. There's quite a bit of fan service in play, with appearances by both familiar faces and a monster infamously cut from the original version of the game. And the localization has been heavily revised, restoring the depth and nuance lost by necessity due to the space constraints of SNES cartridges.
But the sound quality has been severely compromised -- a real tragedy, considering that FFVI's score was among the best on SNES. Now it's staticky at times, slightly slow and out of tune at others. There's a touch of slowdown in places. A tiny hint of censorship has been imposed where it wasn't seen before. And the localization has been heavily revised, robbing the game of charm and quirkiness added by translators who had to make the most of limited space.
Still, even with these issues, FFVIA is the best GBA Final Fantasy conversion yet. The added content and revised script don't add as much as they did to FFIV, but that's mainly because it was considerably more polished on SNES than its predecessor. Meanwhile, the technical details come off much better. The Active Time Battle glitches have been ironed out, and the slowdown is mild. It's too bad about what happened to the music, but the fault there lies with Nintendo's cost-cutting hardware design.
As for the underlying game -- well, most gamers' minds are probably already made up as to whether they like it or not, and it's unlikely this new rendition will change that. As a masterpiece of a game with significant flaws, it has an impressive ability to polarize opinions.
FFVI has the distinction of being a transitional game, the keystone between the series' old-school roots and the stylized, cinematic style that became its trademark with FFVII. Its in-between nature is evident in the development staff; it was the first chapter headed up by FFVII/VIII/X/XIII director/producer Yoshinori Kitase rather than by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. It's evident in the story, a complex narrative told from multiple perspectives riddled with epic disaster and high drama. It's evident in the presentation, with graphics far beyond the primitive sprites and tiles that were typical of the genre. And it's evident in the gameplay mechanics -- especially in the way it's possible to turn everyone in your party into godlike bruisers without resorting to cheats or exploits.
These highs and lows are the result of the game's greatest strength: Its sheer ambition. FFVI was hardly perfect, but it aspired to be bigger, more epic, more involving, yet more accessible than anything that had come before. For all its flaws, it was precisely that. Console RPGs didn't catch on in the U.S. until FFVII came along three years later, but aside from the eye-popping graphics made possible by PlayStation, everything that would ultimately make Final Fantasy an international blockbuster is right here. And even the simpler graphics work to the game's advantage -- they're a fine example of the 2D art form, and they lack the excessive flashiness that bogs down 3D Final Fantasys.
FFVIA is a mostly great port of a mostly great game, and that makes it entirely worth having. If this has to be the end of the GBA's lifespan, we can't think of a better way to go.

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