Illustration by Angelica Alzona

In the first few minutes of Final Fantasy VI, just when you think you’ve got a sense of the game’s rhythm, everything changes. Your amnesiac hero Terra, who you’ve been controlling for half an hour and are probably assuming will be your protagonist for the long haul, falls down a hole and passes out. And then you meet this guy:

This is Locke. He’s a treasure hunter. His job, on the orders of the strange old man who helped rescue Terra from being controlled by the malicious Empire (which you know is evil because it’s called the Empire), is to go help Terra.

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Seconds later, you’re given control of Locke, who meets up with a gang of 11 friendly white cat-birds called Moogles in an attempt to save this unconscious girl. Since only four characters can be in a party at once, your group of 12 splits into three parties, and you have to use them all to protect Terra’s unconscious body from monsters.

As enemies trudge up through a maze of narrow paths, you’ll have to swap back and forth between the three parties, putting each group at a chokepoint and fighting monsters as they approach. The stakes are high: If one of the monsters reaches Terra, it’s game over.

Today, this is one of the easiest encounters in Final Fantasy VI. But in the early 90s, it was mindblowing. Most RPGs put you in control of a single party; Final Fantasy VI gave you three.

“This,” the game seemed to be saying, “is not ‘most RPGs.’”

For years, the standard formula for role-playing games was as follows: you, the player, take a party of characters to a town, which gives you a quest, which takes you to a dungeon, which holds a boss battle, which gets you new levels and equipment, which lets you progress to the next town, which lets you take a new quest, which takes you to a new dungeon. Rinse, repeat.

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Final Fantasy VI was different. In Final Fantasy VI, you’d sing in an opera, take a first-person ride through underground train tracks, steal clothing from merchants, catch a train that ushers dead souls to the underworld, talk your way into getting sweet rewards at a treacherous banquet, collect fish for a sick old man, fight off an imperial air force, and try to figure out how to piece together a group of people’s lives in the wake of earth-shattering disaster.

Like I said. It’s not most RPGs.

This is part six of Kotaku’s Final Fantasy Retrospective, in which we take a look back at every mainline FF game.

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Let’s take a trip back to 1994. The Super Nintendo and Sega are battling it out for console supremacy; tiny developers like Blizzard and id are dominating our computers; and a small Japanese company called Squaresoft is about to release Final Fantasy VI, the sixth installment in the series that had saved them from bankruptcy seven years earlier.

This one is a little bit different. Final Fantasy VI trades in the Tolkien for a healthy chunk of Jules Verne, replacing the fantasy tropes we’d accepted as standard—elves, dwarves, medieval castles—with a desolate world that blends machinery and magic. One of the first places you visit in Final Fantasy VI is Figaro Castle, a hulking chunk of pixelated rock that might seem like your average medieval fortress if not for the fact that it can turn into a submarine. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games, which gently sprinkled sci-fi on top of their big fantasy sundaes, FFVI goes full steampunk. I mean, you start the game in a robot suit.

That’s not what’s remarkable about Final Fantasy VI, though. What’s remarkable are moments like this:

This scene—which is optional and only triggered when you put the brothers Edgar and Sabin in your party and bring them to Figaro Castle—reveals the tragic backstory of two characters who have, until now, seemed sort of like jokes. Sabin is a feeble-minded musclehead; Edgar is a lecherous engineer.

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As you learn in the flashback, however, they’ve been through some shit. Their father died a decade before the events of Final Fantasy VI, and in his dying wishes, he asked both Figaro brothers to rule over the country in his stead. But neither Sabin nor Edgar want to be king. Sabin tries to talk Edgar into abandoning Figaro, but Edgar points out how cowardly that would be. Their father, whose shadow looms large over both of them, would be disappointed if they fled the country. So Edgar makes a proposition.

“Let’s settle this with the toss of a coin,” Edgar says (according to the Game Boy Advance translation, which trumps the garbled SNES version). “If it’s heads, you win. Tails, I win. The winner chooses whatever path he wants… no regrets, no hard feelings.”

Sabin agrees, and then the camera follows the coin up in the air for a few seconds before fading to black. We know what happens, of course. Edgar rules Figaro for nearly ten years. Sabin, meanwhile, spends the next decade training to be a martial artist. In the present, they share a few sweet words, take a drink, and then carry on with the adventure.

A little later, this happens (start at 29:36):

In an attempt to convince the wandering gambler Setzer to help their crew fight the Empire, Edgar pulls out the coin once again, proposing that if he flips heads, Setzer joins them. The coin lands on heads, Edgar wins, and Setzer immediately notices that it was a trick. Edgar is using a double-headed coin. Outside of a quick throwaway line that you’ll only see if Sabin is in the party (“That coin…”), Final Fantasy VI lets you put the pieces together yourself: Edgar let his brother win that life-altering bet all those years ago. Edgar, a character who until now was best summed up as a horny creep, intentionally threw away his entire life for Sabin. And Sabin never knew.

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Final Fantasy VI is full of moments like this. Nearly every character in your 14-person ensemble is more complicated than they seem—except perhaps Umaro, who seems like a dumb snowman and is, in fact, a dumb snowman. From Terra’s tragic heritage to Cyan’s secret pen-pals, Final Fantasy VI has character depth that even today would be rare in a video game. In 1994, it was unprecedented.

That’s not the only reason Final Fantasy VI is so incredible, but it is the biggest reason. At the beginning of the game, when Locke is running through the mines of Narshe to save Terra, he’s actually thinking about the fact that he couldn’t save Rachel, the woman he loved. Although Locke comes off as a carefree rogue, he’s secretly haunted by a compulsion to try to save people—especially women—and it drives everything he does. A modern JRPG might beat you over the head with that fact, maybe throwing in some thought bubbles or lengthy monologues about how Locke just wants to save people, but Final Fantasy VI likes to stay subtle, which is one of the reasons it’s so great.

Well, there’s also the incredible music, the zippy combat system, the horrifying villain, the gorgeous 16-bit art, and so on. Let’s discuss, shall we?

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The story: So hey, it turns out that Terra, our amnesiac protagonist, can use magic, an art that Final Fantasy VI’s citizens thought was extinct. It also turns out that Locke is a member of the Returners, a resistance group fighting to take down the evil Empire. Recognizing that Terra’s magic powers would be useful for their cause, Locke takes her on a journey to meet up with the Returners and their grizzly leader, Banon, the only character in the game whose death leads to an instant game over, probably because he is old. After some hilarious diversions and a Rush Hour-style adventure starring Sabin and Cyan, the group all meets up at Narshe, where they have to protect a frozen magical beast called an esper from invading Empire forces led by a lieutenant named Kefka.

The Returners win the battle, but Terra suddenly flips out, morphs into a naked pink monster (same), and flies across the world, leaving the rest of the crew to chase her down. They find her in Zozo, a city filled with monsters where everybody lies all the time, and meet an old esper named Ramuh who asks Locke and crew to go rescue his esper bros from a facility in the Empire where Kefka is draining their power. To get to the Empire, the Returners need an airship. The only working airship belongs to someone named Setzer, who has coincidentally just sent a letter to the nearby opera house, warning them that he plans to kidnap their star, Maria.

Kidnappers don’t usually warn their victims, but hey, Setzer isn’t very good at kidnapping. And hey, what do you know, the Returners have a member who looks a lot like Maria: Celes, a reformed imperial general who Locke rescued during one of those pre-Narshe diversions.

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The crew devises an insane plot to have Celes dress up like Maria, perform in the opera, and intentionally get kidnapped by Setzer, so they can all get on board his airship and convince him to let them borrow it. It’s a dumb, convoluted plot that leads to one of the best scenes in video game history, an interactive opera:

The plot works, and Setzer joins the crew with his airship. Once they’ve rescued the espers and battled a pair of giant, evil cranes, the Returners return (heh) to Ramuh, who reveals that Terra’s mom fell into a portal to the esper world as a teenager (!) and decided to bone an esper named Maduin (!), making Terra half-esper (!!!). The gang heads to the entrance to esper world, just in time to watch the evil Emperor Gestahl and Kefka rip open the sealed barrier that kept all those espers inside. The espers are pissed and go destroy the Empire’s capital city, which leads Gestahl to suddenly have a change of heart and ask the Returners for a peace treaty. Then he begs the Returners to go talk to the espers and apologize on the Empire’s behalf.

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Of course, Gestahl did not actually have a change of heart, and soon enough it’s revealed that he and Kefka are actually after a super-powered set of statues called the Warring Triad. With these three statues, Gestahl and Kefka rip a giant continent out of the ground and turn it into their own super-powered floating island. So you head on up to the island, thinking maybe you’ve reached the final dungeon, only to see Kefka betray Gestahl, kick him off the floating continent, and use the Warring Triand statues to take over the world. Your party runs away, escaping the floating continent just in time to save the mercenary Shadow (unless you are a dick). Then, Kefka destroys the world. Game over.

Just kidding. But everything has changed now. A year after the events of the floating continent, playing as Celes, you wake up alone in the newly forged World of Ruin, where Kefka sits in a giant tower all day, using magical laser beams to zap anyone who makes him angry. For the next few hours the game turns into a series of optional, non-linear quests to go find the rest of your allies and defeat Kefka. Along the way, you’ll help Locke try to bring his ex-girlfriend back to life, teach Terra how to love, fight magical paintings, get swallowed by an island, participate in auctions, battle tentacle monsters, collect espers, rescue an old man from a cult, and eventually bring Kefka down.

Character with the best tragic backstory: Setzer, who lost his best friend in an airship accident, which is revealed when you invade her tomb, which is infested by monsters for some reason. The scene is constructed perfectly:

Such a good presentation.

The saddest scene: At the beginning of the World of Ruin, there’s a brief mini-game that asks Celes to feed fish to her sick grandfather Cid. If she fails, he dies. Then this happens (start at 4:47):

I mean HOLY SHIT. What a haunting scene. (Fun fact: the track playing in this scene is a slowed-down version of the Opera House song. More on that later.)

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The funniest scene: I know I keep talking about how sad this game is, but Final Fantasy VI is also a genuinely funny video game. The dichotomy is yet another thing that makes it so great. The game plays up some of the characters’ sillier personality traits, like Cyan’s stuffiness, for goofy moments like this scene where the feral child Gau joins the party (start at 1:14):

The main villain: Kefka, a sadistic clown who’s sort of like the more successful version of Batman’s Joker. What distinguishes Kefka from other JRPG villains is that instead of going around and bragging about how he’s going to destroy the world and become a god, Kefka actually destroys the world and becomes a god.

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When we first meet Kefka, he seems like comic relief. He stomps through the desert, complains about getting sand in his boots, and gets punked by Edgar in Figaro. A few hours later, however, we watch the malevolent clown stick poison into the water stream of Doma Castle, instantly killing the guards and civilians inside (including Cyan’s wife and son). At this point it becomes clear that something just isn’t right in Kefka’s head. Turns out he was an early victim of the Empire’s experiments with magic, flipping a few of his brain switches the wrong way.

Kefka has no real motivation or goal. He just wants to destroy things. But because he’s such a constant presence, taunting and tormenting your characters all throughout the game, he sticks in your head.

The gimmick: Every character in the game can use every magic spell in the game, thanks to objects called “magicite” that are essentially the crystallized corpses of espers. By equipping a piece of magicite, a character can learn all of the spells that belong to that esper. Take enough time to grind and you can deck your entire party with the best spells in the game, turning them all into walking nuclear weapons, and if that sounds like it makes the game too easy, well...

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The biggest problem: Final Fantasy VI is way too easy. If Square ever releases a remake—and after seeing what they did to the iOS/PC versions, I’m not sure I ever want that to happen—they need to add a New Game Plus or at least a hard mode.

Speaking of crystals: There are none! This is the first Final Fantasy that ditches the crystals in favor of other MacGuffins, namely the three statues.

The best magic combo: Vanish + X-Zone/Doom, which will kill almost any monster in the game. Bosses included. It’s a speedrunner’s dream combo!

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The other gimmick: Each character has his or her own special ability. Edgar can use tools. Sabin can use martial arts attacks (entered through Street Fighter-style combo button inputs). Locke can steal from enemies. And Gogo, a masked mimic who you can recruit in the World of Ruin, can copy commands from every other character, turning him into a genuine superpower and making Final Fantasy VI even easier.

Why the cut-scenes work so well: Today, when we use the word “cinematic” to describe a video game, we’re usually talking about photorealistic graphics and big explosions, like we’d see in Uncharted or Call of Duty. But it was Final Fantasy VI that pioneered cinematic storytelling. Director Yoshinori Kitase, a huge Star Wars fan with a background in screenwriting, maneuvered the game’s camera as if he was making a movie, using clever sweeps and pans to make the world feel bigger than it actually was. One early scene as you escape Figaro Castle is straight out of a heist movie, with clever camera tricks and cinematic flourishes. A later sequence, when Sabin teams up with Shadow and Cyan to escape Doma Castle, could be spun out into a buddy comedy film.

Scroll up and look at that Setzer flashback, or Celes’s suicide attempt, or the Opera House. Pay attention to the way things are presented. How the camera pans up and down during important moments, or how Setzer’s memories pop up in an old-timey box as you’re descending down the stairs of the tomb. In 1994, other games just didn’t do this.

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Best obligatory sacrifice: General Leo, the noble lieutenant of Emperor Gestahl who tries to challenge Kefka, then gets promptly dunked on. It felt like there might be a burgeoning Thing between Leo and Terra before he dies, too, which makes this particularly sad.

Best character: There is no way to answer this question. Terra and Locke and Celes and Edgar and Sabin and Cyan and Setzer and Shadow and Relm and Strago and Gau and Mog and Gogo are my best friends.

Worst character: I guess Umaro kinda sucks.

Where the hell did Banon go? Seriously, where does he go in the World of Ruin? Does anybody know?

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Series tradition: Wedge and Biggs, who made their first appearance in Final Fantasy VI and would go on to appear in every subsequent Final Fantasy game. (Sadly, the Super Nintendo version called Biggs “Vicks”—thanks, Ted Woolsey!)

The best dungeon: Kefka’s Tower, which calls back to the very beginning of the game by asking you to again control three parties. You have to swap between these parties as you go, alternating to fight bosses and solve puzzles, so it’s important to keep them all somewhat balanced.

Fun fact: People always wonder why today’s RPGs have such a hard time comparing to Final Fantasy VI. One easy reason: nostalgia. But here’s another possibility.

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Said director Yoshinori Kitase in an interview with Edge Magazine: “It’s maybe strange to say [this], but I miss the limitations of making games in those days. The cartridge capacity was so much smaller, of course, and therefore the challenges were that much greater. But nowadays you can do almost anything in a game. It’s a paradox, but this can be more creatively limiting than having hard technical limitations to work within. There is a certain freedom to be found in working within strict boundaries, one clearly evident in Final Fantasy VI.”

The best piece of music: Other Final Fantasy games had excellent soundtracks, but in Final Fantasy VI, composer Nobuo Uematsu took things to the next level. FFVI’s soundtrack is transcendent. There are too many stellar tracks to pick just one, but what’s particularly impressive is the way Uematsu played with motifs and callbacks throughout the game.

Forever Rachel, for example, which plays whenever we’re learning about Locke’s sad past, is a slower version of Locke’s Theme.

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Epitaph, which plays during Setzer’s flashbacks, is a slower version of Setzer’s Theme.

And the Coin Flip song is a slower version of Edgar and Sabin’s Theme.

Best boss: Ultros, whose charm is best summed up by this video:

Another fun fact: Remember when all those AOL message boards falsely claimed you could revive General Leo? Well, as it turns out, YOU CAN REVIVE GENERAL LEO. You don’t have to farm dinosaurs or beat all the bosses without saving, though—you just have to break the game.

Best Woolseyism: “My life is a chip in your pile. Ante up!”

What is it with the clocks? For some reason, nearly every clock in Final Fantasy VI has an Elixir in it. Is this an inside joke? Some sort of gag I’m not getting?

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Does the game still hold up? Yes!!!!!!!! Dear lord, yes. It’s still the best. Go play it right away. Just stay away from the PC and iOS versions, which look horrible.

Next time: Clones and slap fights...