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Why don’t we remember Final Fantasy 6?

Why don’t we remember Final Fantasy 6?

I’ve been on a bit of a classic gaming kick recently, mostly old SNES-era console games. It’s been rather fun, and I just now finished one of the all-time classics from that era, Final Fantasy VI (specifically, I played the Game Boy Advance version).

Before playing it, Final Fantasy VI was a game I heard often of in discussions enough to notice, but not so often as to run out and play right frickin’ now. In discussions and polls of the best game ever, it always had a few mentions, and in contests like GameFAQs’ Best Game Ever contests, it usually did pretty well. Going into it, though, I was somewhat skeptical, and for a very specific reason: Chrono Trigger. Chrono Trigger is absolutely everywhere in these discussions. I dare say Chrono Trigger is second only to Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time in popular discussions of the best game ever, and second only to Ocarina of Time in most polls. In the recent series of “Best Game of All Time, According to…” lists I wrote for GameFAQs, Chrono Trigger made more lists than any game except Ocarina of Time, 12 out of 20. Final Fantasy VI, by comparison, made six lists.

Why dd that make me skeptical? I had just finished playing Chrono Trigger when I started Final Fantasy VI, and I hated Chrono Trigger. Hated it. I thought it was garbage. No character development, a weak plot, a useless gimmick, an unentertaining battle system, boring locales, subpar graphics for the time, the works. I couldn’t stand the game. I didn’t understand its appeal except for nostalgia. Entering Final Fantasy VI, my thought was: if people regard Chrono Trigger so highly but I hated it, how much more will I hate a game that came out a year earlier and yet hasn’t had the same acclaim?

Fast-forward to now, and the result: I thoroughly enjoyed Final Fantasy VI. I won’t say I loved it, but I definitely enjoyed it. I looked forward to playing it and beating it wasn’t a chore like it was with Chrono Trigger. The characters were engaging, the plot was at least a little bit less predictable, the graphics were very impressive for the time, and the battle system was oddly engaging. I honestly don’t think there’s any comparison between the two.

I’m not going to base this article on Final Fantasy VI being objectively better than Chrono Trigger, though; instead, I’ll base it on a set of facts I think we can largely agree on. I think we can at least agree that Chrono Trigger, if nothing else, isn’t enormously better than Final Fantasy VI. You might like Chrono Trigger more, but I don’t think anyone’s going to say that Final Fantasy VI is the Kane & Lynch 2 to Chrono Trigger‘s Uncharted. Let’s at least say they’re somewhat similar. And secondly, I don’t think anyone will disagree that the disparity between how well the two games are remembered is disproportionate to the disparity between the games’ actual quality. All that begs the question: why don’t we remember Final Fantasy 6?

This article, although much more brief, is closely related to two pieces I’ve written in the past, “A Detailed Look at Final Fantasy VII’s Staying Power” and “A Detailed Look at Ocarina of Time’s Staying Power” (I had planned to write a third in that series about Chrono Trigger, but as you can probably tell, I’ll be damned if I know why that game has any staying power). In many ways, this is a detailed look at Final Fantasy VI‘s lack of staying power. Why don’t we remember Final Fantasy VI? Why do we remember Chrono Trigger so much better?

In my opinion, there are three primary reasons why we don’t remember Final Fantasy VI very well. When it comes to remembering games, we as people have relatively limited bandwidth for how a game “hooks” our memory. There have to be specific key things that are easy to remember and recall. You can see this in your own every day memory: in movies, do you remember the entire film, or do you remember particular scenes and twists? In books, do you remember the entire plot, or do you remember characters? Heck, can you remember anything specific about your shower this morning or leaving the house today? Likely not — it takes specific things to grab our memory. In my opinion, the reason why we don’t remember Final Fantasy VI very well is because it lacks three things that we as people commonly use to index into our memories of games. As a result, we forget it, even though we enjoyed it more than most other games, solely because it’s harder to immediately call up a face or scene.

No Strong Main Character

Final Fantasy VI has one of the strongest casts of characters in any game I’ve ever played. Of the fourteen characters you have to choose from, twelve of them have interesting back stories and relationships with the other characters and with the enemy, and nearly all go through some significant character development over the course of the game. They are all very human and very much relateable. However, there is no “main” character. At the beginning of the game, you think it’s going t be Locke; he fits the profile just fine, given Square’s obsession with scrappy young thieves as the main characters for this game during this time. Yet as you go through the game, Locke has relatively little actual impact on the plot compared to characters like Celes, Terra, and Edgar. I won’t insult Locke by calling him the equivalent of Vaan from Final Fantasy XII (a character that defines the term ‘useless’), but Locke doesn’t have quite the relationship with the plot one would expect from a main character.

It’s tempting to call Terra the main character, but can you really call someone a main character when they are vanished from the party for a substantial portion of the game? The same can be said, albeit to a lesser extent, about Celes; I don’t think there’s any question Celes is the main character of the latter part of the game, but it’s hard to call her the main character of the game as a whole. The game doesn’t do us any favors in identifying a main character either: in most games, the main character is the guy you actually, you know, see on the screen, but Final Fantasy VI changes that on us every time we change our party’s formation. We choose who the “main” character is.

I don’t think this is a bad thing at all, personally. Actually, I love this; seeing an entire cast of characters, having the flexibility to use them in different combinations, it all made for a very unique gameplay experience. But it may have had a negative impact on the game’s overall memorability. As humans, we remember things often by attaching human characteristics to them; it’s one of the things that allows us to feel empathy and survive. As a result, we often remember stories, in games and in other mediums, as the story of a particular character. Lord of the Rings is the story of Frodo. Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker. Final Fantasy VII is the story of Cloud. Each franchise has a very strong cast of characters outside the main character, but there is a main character that we come back to. That main character is the story’s “hook” into our memory.

In lacking a strong main character, Final Fantasy VI lacks a hook into our memory. It’s hard to give the game a face because it has so many faces. As a result, the game is not quite as memorable as others. Compare this to Chrono Trigger, where the main character’s name is in the flipping title. Sure, Crono goes through absolutely no character growth, doesn’t speak, and is completely unrelateable and pretty much worthless to the game’s story besides being the bastard with the sword slicing stuff up; but the fact that the game has a main character gives it a face to be remembered.

No Strong Villain

Kefka has his fan club online, and I suppose the character has some appeal as a counterpoint to the traditional RPG villain. In my eyes, however, he’s nothing more than your stereotypical gothic teenager going through a “everything is meaningless” phase, putting on weird makeup and clothes and listening to the Insane Clown Posse wondering why no one understands them. Kefka just doesn’t have any depth for me. Causing the end of the world wasn’t some grand scheme, he basically did it accidentally in an ADD-spawned fit of distraction. He’s not maniacally evil so much as he’s just insane, and not the good, intriguing, Silence of the Lambs kind of insane — just the unrelateable, inconceivable, bizarre kind of insane. Wildly convenient for plot purposes since it gives the writers a reason to cause graphics- and plot-friendly calamity without having to find a motive.

Now, that’s not to say that Lavos is the pinnacle of character development, or Magus for that matter. However, Lavos was at least interesting, and Magus was at least, for lack of a better word, cool. Kefka is just silly, and in my opinion, drags the whole game down. What’s even more a shame is that it wouldn’t be hard to substitute a better villain into the plot, or even make Kefka at least a bit more serviceable. Just give him the maturity of your average 20-year-old instead of your average 10-year-old and you’ve already corrected 90% of the problem. Hell, just let Gestahl be the villain the entire game and you’re golden — his plot to trick the main  party was gold. If Final Fantasy VI has one major problem, in my opinion, it’s that Kefka just isn’t a villain anyone wants to remember, in a genre where a game is often only as memorable as its enemy (I’m looking at you, Sephiroth).

No Gimmick

Here’s the interesting thing about Chrono Trigger. As I mentioned previously, I think Chrono Trigger‘s gimmicks suck. It has lots of them. Let’s count. Time travel? Nothing more than a convenient excuse to have cities look different, but really, there’s very little that time travel actually does for the plot. There’s very little manipulation of different time eras in the gameplay. It was an interesting idea to be sure, but the execution just made it seem like a meaningless chore. Freely-arranged battles (with characters and enemies moving around)? That’d be cool if it’s ever anything more than a distracting nuisance. Not being able to control where your characters move means that for any kind of proximity-based attack, you’re just waiting for that idiot on the screen, who you control otherwise, to randomly move where you want him. Team-based attacks? These might be cool if the system for developing skills was anything more than a simple level-up system. There’s no real thought that goes into skill development besides making sure to mix up your party every now and then.

But here’s the thing: in my opinion, the gimmicks of Chrono Trigger sucked, but at least it had gimmicks. Gimmicks are memorable in the same way that plot twists are memorable; they’re something that sets this game apart from all the other games in your memory. Gimmicks, even bad ones, help us remember games. And Final Fantasy VI lacked a gimmick. The change in the world map was interesting, but it was spoiled so much (down to including different maps in the game’s actual manual) that it didn’t come across as much of a twist. Freely gathering your party after the cataclysm was interesting, but not particularly memorable. By and large, Final Fantasy VI plays like your quintessential traditional JRPG, and as a result, it isn’t that memorable separate and apart from other JRPGs because it lacks a gimmick to set it apart. I can criticize Chrono Trigger‘s gimmicks until my face turns blue, but that doesn’t mean that the gimmicks aren’t what makes the game memorable.

 

Those, at least, are the three main points I have for why Final Fantasy VI isn’t remembered as well as Chrono Trigger. I think it’s a much better game, but it lacks those discrete qualities and characteristics that make the game easy to remember and recall, dooming it to pseudo-obscurity even by players that loved it when they played it. What about you? Am I wrong in my assessment of Chrono Trigger as merely on the same level as Final Fantasy VI? What do you remember about it?

4 Comments

  1. Very poignant article, as usual with your analyses. I loved your commentary on Kefka, and agree that he’s not a deep character. He’s the Joker with different makeup, but since the Joker’s a popular character, I guess that explains Kefka’s popularity as well. I, for one, enjoyed both games, and couldn’t definitively say which I liked better. I do think that I have another reason that might lead to the sharp contrast in popularity, though: mood.

    Just take a look at our culture. Look at the anime we like, the movies we like, and the video games we like. We (myself excluded) like goofy. Humor absolutely MUST be in something, even if it’s supposed to be serious. I feel that to be something that has detracted from both Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist. Even in the midst of an intense battle or scene, they’d always stop, go chibi, and make goofy noises and act like complete jackasses (for example, when a foe calls Edward Elric some derivation of short). At that point, you might as well kill the gigantic demon overlord with a slingshot or something, because the serious tone is dead. All of the rest of our media suffer from the same thing these days. Anything can be completely goofy all the time, but nothing can be completely serious. Perhaps its from the rising attitude of “You should do what you want all the time and anyone who tells you otherwise is a [sexual organ of your choice]”, which I saw much of in today’s youth in my teaching days.

    Now, let’s take a look at each game’s tone. Chrono Trigger is, by and large, a goofy game. Look at the little scenes leading up to many enemy encounters, Marle’s moveset, the entire Ozzie sidequest at the end, etc. Aside from Lavos destroying the world and Chrono’s sacrifice, and maybe the prejudice between humans and mystics, there’s really nothing serious about the game. By contrast, Final Fantasy 6 had its fair share of humor in the first half of the game, but I’d argue that it’s just a brilliant setup to create an incredibly stark contrast with the World of Ruin. Even one of the tavern owners in the former imperial territory (I believe it was in Albrook) comments on how happy things used to be. There is no room for humor in this new world. Yeah, a few characters like Mog and Relm occasionally try to shoehorn a few jokes in, but most of what you see is either those in despair or those striving striving not to. In fact, as a child of about 10, I had a hard time finishing the game, not because of difficulty, but because I was battling my first bout of depression and I just couldn’t emotionally get through the World of Ruin. From the overworld music, to the loneliness, to the fact that everyone’s dead, it’s just so incredibly and inescapably sad. Interesting that this attachment of personal narrative has made it the more memorable game to me.

  2. Your hatred of Chrono Trigger is a bit disheartening to me; I personally loved the game, and I also played it for the first time just recently. However, I’ll try not to let any of that influence the rest of my comments.

    I think saying that “no one remembers FFVI” is a bit of an exaggeration. Making six of your “Best Games of All Time, According to…” lists is still a feat few other games could match (my personal favorite game of all time has been featured on exactly zero of those lists). And like you, I’ve seen FFVI on a bunch of other Best Game Ever lists, usually towards the top. In fact, it’s the only Final Fantasy that I’ve seen ranked better than FFVII more than once. That said, it does seem that Chrono Trigger is mentioned a bit more often.

    While your first two points (“No strong main character” and “No strong villain”) may be good examples of why FFVI doesn’t get more attention, I think Chrono Trigger suffers from both as well, in a way. Yes, Crono (without the H) is pictured on the box art, and is the party leader for the first half of the game, but you mentioned yourself that he’s a pretty flat character. Plus, like Terra, he is absent for a significant portion of the game, and afterwards you can form a party out of whichever three characters you wish.

    As far as the villains go, I think both games have good villains. Admittedly, neither of them are complex; in fact, both are evil for the sake of evil. It’s just that one of them has a human face and the other is space-Cthulhu. But I think we need “pure evil” bad guys every once in a while as a counterpoint to more nuanced villains. Mr. Freeze, HAL 9000 and Andrew Ryan are all brilliant antagonists with understandable motivations, but there’s something to be said for nigh-unstoppable monsters like Joker, the Terminator and Ganondorf. The trick is in making the one-dimensional villains properly entertaining/terrifying.

    You’ve probably seen my theory for why Chrono Trigger is (slightly) more fondly-remembered at another venue, but I’ll repeat it here. People are generally more attracted to “new” ideas (or at least people who take art seriously, like us, do). David ‘BGH’ Kempe even cited this as the reason why the Legacy of Kain series never gained the popularity it deserved. FFVI is, needless to say, the sixth game in its franchise, whereas Chrono Trigger was a new intellectual property.

    I won’t say that one game is “better” than the other (they’re both fantastic games), and I don’t think that one game “deserves” more attention than the other, but I think being a new IP is one of the biggest reasons that Chrono Trigger seems to garner a bit more praise nowadays than Final Fantasy VI.

    In response to Alice, I think it’s definitely possible for a game to have a lot of humor sprinkled throughout and still be considered a serious game. It’s just that very few “goofy” things try to be serious, and even fewer are any good at it. For a couple of successful examples, consider Metal Gear Solid 3 and Mother 3. Both games have a bunch of quirky, goofy, funny things throughout the narrative. Incidentally, those are also the only two games that have made me bawl like a baby.

  3. Very well written article and it does bring up many points on a question I’ve always pondered on why FFVI gets the cold shoulder to Crono Trigger so frequently. I wouldn’t say it as unenjoyable as you experienced but I would say that the entertainment factor felt far less satisfying than the fun time I had playing FFVI. To myself, FFVI tried to keep a tried-and-true effective battle system and break the rules (of the JRPGs of it’s era) and 4th wall when your guard was dropped. While some of the experiences of these rule breaking were more subtle (like the moogle coming along to explain a situation as an in-game tutorial) to outright challenging the capabilities at the time (to me, the scene where Gau was befriended by “Mr. Thou” and Sabin was golden). Another feature that I remember fondly (and detested that FFVII felt SEVERELY lacking in comparison) was how each character actually behaved differently in battle. The stats felt individualized for their role across each character (I’ll admit characters like Sabin/Cyan and Terra/Celes did blend over eachother a lot) and each provided their own unique ability in battle (ex: Sabin you had to put in a special move combination while Gau had to “live with his new teachers” to Mog’s dances to the mimicry of Gogo). I will agree with you that it was great how they didn’t have a main character and back during the original release, there were many discussions on who was the main character. It was a very hot topic back then. Not only that, but there were some very interesting debates for some of the “lesser acknowledged for main character” selection (such as Strago and Shadow). Another thing that many “modern” players are probably missing out on are the mysteries behind Shadow and his dream sequences (speaking of other rare occurrences, did you get to experience one of the secret attacks?). I would say the aspect that made it most alive at it’s time either did not age well or was too ahead of it’s time…the mysteries and the gaps of information you had to hunt down to bridge together to get the full story behind the up-front story.

    As for your comment about the villain, Kefka had relatively more depth than other villains at the time. Breath of Fire I had an army general who wanted genocide of the Brood race. Breath of Fire II put you against a maniacal, all-consuming God (that is an allegory of Christianity from a non-Christian perspective). Final Fantasy IV’s “main villain” helps you to fight the “oncoming danger of destruction” while Final Fantasy V…well…Gilgamesh shouldn’t even count for nomination but more like Ultros in Final Fantasy VI. Dragon Warrior V was a monster wanting to destroy the world. Dragon Warrior VI wanted to rule over the dream world and real world. You already pointed out Lavos wasn’t developed much either (and was more about the plot around it). Secret of Mana might be your best choice because the “main villain” was Mana itself and you’re protecting it from itself (the Mana Beast is described between the 7th and 8th seed as incarnations of Mana and is related to Mana’s strength and I don’t mean the 8th spirit Mana). Illusion of Gaia…um..I can’t even think of someone to nominate as the “main villain”. Mother I have to admit I still need to leave no comment since I haven’t played yet but intend to soon. Super Mario RPG could be worth noting but the main villain does not make as much of an appearance as his henchmen (although can’t dispute it having quite a bit of gimmicks). I will give Kefka credit on being one of the very few to ACTUALLY SUCCEED in destroying the world (and goes for doing so again but gets stopped).

    I will agree with you that outside of each character having their own unique “style” for their special attack, that there is a little lacking of the gimmick…but to play Devil’s Advocate on the matter, how many other games have the world destroyed during the game (excluding the “first/last hour” as I would count that as part of the beginning/ending)? Also, I will add that the final battle was a wonderful experience but not enough to call a gimmick (maybe the 3-party dungeon system could be considered their strongest gimmick).

  4. This was a very enjoyable read. While I do in fact enjoy Chrono Trigger more than FFVI, I can agree with your observations in that I don’t feel that it’s better by any substantial amount, and that the ultimate quality of both games is perhaps heightened by its popularity. I wonder if the gap in acclaim can be attributed to the notion of choosing a favorite out of a particular genre and running with it, thereby allowing favorites from other genres to increase the distance between the two in order to better rationalize an overall depiction of individual gaming preferences.

    That said, I don’t agree with your dismissal of Chrono Trigger’s gimmicks. I very much enjoyed the time travel and the several overworld changes it provided while maintaining a base level of familiarity with geographical points of interest; and outside of the main story, I also felt that the time jumping was well incorporated thematically into the process of creating high-powered weapons for several characters. Furthermore, it acted as a level of rationalization for the types of enemies you faced where other games will have no such separation. Take the World of Ruin for example; there’s a small patch of forest where you can hunt a couple of dinosaurs.

    I’d also add that I disagree with the perceived limitations of the team based attacks, as learning techs also extends to one’s exploration of the world in tracking down the various magic stones to learn high powered triple techs, as well as incorporating various equipment/accessory strategies to maximize output.

    Lastly, I’m glad Ninrac mentioned Shadow’s mysterious character development throughout FFVI, as that was a great example of how much treatment was given to certain characters to increase their individual appeal. I’d argue the same treatment gets extended to several CT characters (thinking Frog, Lucca, and Robo in particular), but the idea was very well presented in FFVI.

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