Author’s note: This article will be discussing full spoilers for the events of Final Fantasy VI. The author believes that this is a quintessential JRPG that should be played by any fan of the genre, and as such, would like to warn anybody who might be reading this that they should absolutely play the game before reading this entry in our retrospective series on the Final Fantasy franchise.
While Final Fantasy IV was the series big breakout hit in terms of video game storytelling, and went on to set the template for JRPG stories, it’s fair to say that the series as a whole was fairly unoriginal in terms of pure plotting. For the first five games—excepting the equally ambitious Final Fantasy II that wasn’t available worldwide until the Playstation era—the plots largely revolved around saving, or using, the elemental crystals from being used, or destroyed, by the antagonist. In the first game, there was a whole bunch of time traveling shenanigans involving Chaos. The third game utilized floating continents but had a paper thin cast. The fourth fleshed its cast out, and was among the first games to have the story really impact the gameplay (i.e. party members that were taken out of commission in the story could no longer be used), and the fifth game had Exdeath, a weird dimension-hopping dude who was kind of a prototype for the villain of the sixth game. Each game has something to offer, but the sixth game was where everything came together and broke the mold. It introduced brand new lore, an expansive set of characters, and a jaw dropping plot that still stands as one of the most unique and bold in all of gaming history. Final Fantasy VI was where the creative team gave it their all and delivered not just a great game, but a game that moved the industry forward with confidence.
Taking an ensemble-based approach, Final Fantasy VI opens with the arguable-protagonist Terra on a mission to retrieve an Esper, a race of beings with powerful magic abilities that act as the source of magic in this world. She’s eventually freed from her mind control by Celes, a Rune Knight in the employ of the empire that recognizes their mad grab at power for the tyranny it is. It’s made clear in the opening that this will be a different Final Fantasy tale. For one, the opening sees soldiers using Magitek suits, which are large robots that are able to replicate elemental abilities and are used to oppress the people the empire sets its sight on. It eschews the high fantasy with some industry aesthetic of the first several games in the series and instead goes full on steampunk. The aforementioned Magitek robots are big and clunky, and look like something straight out of a wild 1800s inventor’s head. Airships are now more prominent than ever, with the party piloting several throughout the game. And the lore is entirely unique to this game, with no mention of crystals anywhere, instead going for something more unique, which would set the tone for all the entries to follow.
The empire, in all its fascist ideals, seeks more and more power, eventually setting their sights on the Warring Triad, which were apparently three warring gods whose power all matched one another and now sit in perfect balance in the form of statues that have all been placed in a perfect triangle. Throughout the game, more and more characters join the party and become embroiled in the fight against the empire by joining the rebel group known as the Returners. Depending on the version of the game you play (like the fifth game, my experience largely lies with the GameBoy Advance version), there are up to 14 characters that can join the party, each with their own backstory and motivation. For instance, Locke is a thief who sees a chance at redemption when he comes across Celes and Terra, having lost a loved one to the empire. Meanwhile, Cyan is swordsman who seeks vengeance against Kefka, the mad jester of the Emperor that poisoned his entire kingdom’s water supply just for the fun of it, killing everyone, including his wife and daughter, in the process.
As mentioned above, Terra is arguably the protagonist, being half human and half Esper and thus holding immense magical power, as well as acting as a bridge between the two races, but this is really more of an ensemble story about people from all different walks of life coming together to end the tyranny of the empire, and this is even reflected in the gameplay. Each character can learn any spell depending on the Magicite (in-game items representing Espers), but each one has a unique ability that makes them stand out. Sabin, for instance, is the Martial Artist, and able to perform powerful moves by entering certain button combinations like in a fighting game. His brother, Edgar, is a Machinist, and is able to wield a whole bunch of tools, including the chainsaw which has a chance to instantly kill enemies. There are even several optional characters, some of which can join depending on decisions you make in the story, such as the Ninja Shadow (who formerly acted as an antagonist but carries a personal history that’s among the most emotional in the game), or Mog, who is tied to a side quest and is the Moogle dancer of the group (side note: I will always and forever love Mog, as he performed a dance during a difficult two-part boss fight that instantly killed one of the bosses). You come to love the characters and empathize with their struggles and back stories and they’re all fun to use in their own way in combat, which is the standard ATB fare.
The aforementioned Magicite adds a unique wrinkle to the game, too. It allows you to customize and power level characters as much or as little as you want, and kind of functions similarly to the Job system from Final Fantasy V. Each Magicite not only makes characters’ stats grow a certain way (one might lean more towards strength while another leans more towards magic power), but they also level up and permanently learn spells by earning a separate EXP type from battles. You could argue that, with enough grinding, characters lose something of their individuality (I personally grinded enough until everyone learned Ultima), but it’s a remarkably flexible system that allows for your party to grow in any way you see fit. You can power level and have everyone know every spell, or you could have specific characters learn specific moves and have each one serve a different function (healer, black mage, support, etc.). It all depends on what the player wants to do, and seeking out new Magicite also allows for a pretty significant amount of side quests where you can gain powerful, unique pieces of Magicite.
For a good chunk of the game’s run time, Final Fantasy VI functions as a traditional JRPG. You go from town to town, fighting the Empire and seeing how they’ve negatively impacted the world and usually gain a party member along the way. The game seemingly builds to a final confrontation with the Emperor and Kefka, where they attempt to seize the ultimate magic power of the Warring Triad by throwing the statues out of balance. I’m about to spoil a significant portion of the plot now, so if you haven’t played this game and have had the good fortune of not knowing much about the story, I urge you go stop reading and go play it right now. You’ve been warned.
I’m assuming that if you’re reading this paragraph you either don’t care about spoilers or you’ve played the game. It’s at this point that the story, which seemed to be wrapping up, plays its ultimate trump card by letting the bad guys win. Kefka is revealed to be insane and hungry for power and he murders the Emperor, throws the Warring Triad out of alignment, and seizes their power for himself. The party must make a desperate escape from the mountain they’re on, which starts coming apart at the seams (it’s here where, if you wait long enough, Shadow, whose previous motivation was purely monetary, will finally see all the wrong he’s done and join your party—the alternative is that he stays behind and dies, in what proves to be an early example of player choice affecting different parts of a game). They escape, but Kefka proceeds to use his newfound power to break the world apart, throwing it into pure chaos and turning the story from your standard Good vs. Evil tale into something infinitely darker and more complex.
Not only does the story shift tones, but the entire way the you play the game changes dramatically from this point on. What was a fairly structured and standard JRPG from a gameplay perspective turns into an open world game. See, after the player witnesses a suicide attempt by Celes (although this, and the fate of this game’s Cid can actually be changed depending on the actions you take), she comes to the realization that her friends, the last remnants of the Returners, are still out there, and she sets out to rebuild the party from the ground up. This is an odd thing to say, but considering you can tackle any of the numerous quests presented to you in almost any order you choose, and considering that it’s technically all side content (you can choose to take on the final dungeon more or less at any time you want, although that’s extremely ill advised), this second half of the game must have had a gigantic impact on games like Breath of the Wild since it adopts the similar philosophy of letting the player do as much or as little as they want before taking on the game’s big bad.
I struggle to think of another RPG, or game in general, that pulls off a similar mid-game twist with as much confidence as Final Fantasy VI does. I’m sure such a game exists out there, but I don’t know of it. It’s in this twist that the game marries its story to its gameplay in a way that few other RPGs can. By this point in the game, most players will have grown attached to the main cast, which makes this notion of them being splintered all the more heartbreaking. And in seeking out your fellow party members, you explore the world and see the outcome of Kefka’s reign over it. Once bustling or charming little towns might now be run down, or, in a few instances, outright destroyed. People live in complete fear of Kefka and the power he wields (which takes the form of a giant laser beam he can fire at any point in the world from atop his giant tower—yep, he essentially controls a nuclear lighthouse). You, as a player, see everything he’s done, and want to put an end to it. The game stops being a story about saving the world and instead becomes a story about salvaging whatever is left. In essence, it’s post-apocalyptic, and it carries with it all of the bleakness that implies.
Kefka is also a testament to the idea that sometimes, less can really be more. He is purported to be inspired by Jack Nicholson’s performance as the iconic Joker from Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit Batman, and that comes through in spades. Weirdly enough, he arguably could have served as an inspiration of Christopher Nolan’s take on the character, who was an anarchist for anarchy’s sake. Kefka isn’t given all that much of a back story. Outside of him being the first person to be experimented on with Magitek, he is largely an enigma. It’s heavily implied that these experiments broke his sanity, because he lives for mayhem and destruction (there’s even a scene where he uses a mind controlled Terra to burn 50 Imperial Soldiers alive, which is shockingly dark, especially for a game from this era). He craves the power to bring chaos to everything, but that simplicity is what makes him such a compelling villain. He is widely considered to be one of gaming’s best antagonists and it’s because he is as much of an embodiment of anarchy as he is a total madman. He steals the show with every scene he’s in. He’s someone you love to hate. He is, simply put, an antagonist that wholly lives up to his reputation.
All of this combines with the content-rich second half of the game for a JRPG experience unlike any other. There are almost too many quests to count. On top of finding all of the party members, there are some bonus ones to recruit as well (including Gogo the Mime, returning from the fifth game, and a Yeti that acts as the party’s berserker). On top of that are character-specific quests that unlock new abilities for them (new gadgets for Edgar, new moves for Sabin, new dances for Mog), as well as plenty of Magicite pieces to find, and powerful pieces of equipment to wield. The fifth game has a somewhat similar approach to its endgame, with there being quite a few different quests available to the player before taking on the final dungeon, but this is the full actualization of that idea. Rich JRPG gameplay meets compelling, unique storytelling in the game’s second half.
Everything builds to a climax that carries real weight. By the time you take on Kefka’s tower, you’ve likely invested quite a bit of time in rebuilding the party and tweaking their spell loadouts and equipment so they’re just right. Even though you can only have up to four people in your party at a time (which inevitably means you’ll have preferred party members), the final dungeon makes use of all the time you’ve spent by forcing you to make three parties to take on different parts of the dungeon. It’s an absolutely massive, epic buildup to the final confrontation with Kefka and the Warring Triad, and pays everything off beautifully when you finally silence the mad clown and bring balance back to the world.
To say that Final Fantasy VI was ahead of its time is, I believe, a massive understatement. The SNES saw developers really doubling down on previous entries in their respective series and arguably creating the best version of whatever came before, and Final Fantasy VI proudly stands tall against the likes of Super Mario World, Super Metroid, and A Link to the Past as a shining achievement of what its genre is capable of. Rather than seeing yet another straightforward Good vs. Evil tale involving a bad person going after some crystals, Square instead showed the world that, yes, RPGs can stand against the best high fantasy novels with their own unique lore, and compelling cast members that tackle very real and very human subject matter like insanity, grief, and remaining optimistic in spite of overwhelming odds. It has what might be the greatest mid-game twist I’ve ever seen, and delivers an all-time great RPG experience from beginning to end. It is, to me, perhaps the best old school RPG ever created, and easily my favorite in the series. Granted, I haven’t played every single main entry, but out of the ones I have played, it holds its own as something beautifully unique. And yes, I do, in fact, like it more than Chrono Trigger, although that game is a masterpiece in and of itself.
This is a game I tell people they need to play if they like RPGs, value stories in games, or are just looking for something different. It succeeds at all of the risks it takes and stands as an example of just what makes the video game medium so special. Plus, its villain is essentially the Joker if the Joker became a literal god, and if that doesn’t sell you on the game, I don’t know if anything will.