Final Fantasy VI Revisted: The Path Forward
For many of the oldest-school fans, Final Fantasy VI still stands as the Last Great Final Fantasy—the ultimate expression of the series as it used to be, as it began, before FF7 came along and set things on a different course. But while it’s true that Final Fantasy VII changed an awful lot, I don’t think the separation between the Nintendo and Sony eras of the franchise is really quite so clean. FF6 does epitomize much of the series’s classic form, but it also lays a surprising amount of foundation for the games to come—and in particular, many of FF7’s big changes have their origins right here.
While Final Fantasy VI maintains the 2D, sprite-based presentation of the series so far, it’s still a major leap forward graphically. Now, each earlier game did show visual improvements over its predecessors, sometimes quite significant ones, but these were still ultimately incremental changes—up through FFV, each game mostly took what came before and made it prettier. Comparing the sprites from the first game and the fifth show a lot of familiar faces, especially among NPCs, just with more colors and details in the latter game. (Even Bartz himself is little more than a recolored Fighter, especially outside battle.) But FFVI makes a much larger change, switching to a taller, more detailed set of sprites for every character, playable or not, both in and out of battle. This does maintain some stylistic lineage, as these sprite proportions were used in the previous games’ battle scenes, but the amount of new art required to use these designs everywhere is significant. Not only was every character drawn anew, but all the background elements for towns, dungeons, and so on had to be produced from scratch as well to fit.
Beyond the larger sprites, FF6 also saw Square exploring the technical capabilities of the hardware in new ways. The color palette was—if I remember some ancient article correctly—larger than any SNES title released to that point. Square made heavier use of mode 7 for, among other things, the new pseudo-3D view for airship flight. The game also used geometry effects to produce some spell graphics not achievable with sprite animations alone, like the wavy vortex of X-Zone/Banish or the expanding dome of Ultima. On top of this were even some scenes with entirely unique presentations, like the snowy Magitek march in the beginning or the nighttime approach to Vector, just to help set the mood.
In most ways, FF6 is still a lot visually closer to its predecessors than it is to FF7. But what we see here is Square actively focusing on the presentation, trying to make the game look as good as it possibly can, even when this involves significant work and stylistic changes. It’s this mindset that drove Final Fantasy VII’s graphics as well—a desire to create a polished, cinematic experience, and a willingness to invest in both the art and technology required. The main difference, I think, is that the radical changes we saw in FF7 simply weren’t possible on the SNES. The ambition was the same, but the games were just working within different limitations.
One complaint I used to hear about Final Fantasy VII was that the characters all play pretty much the same. Because almost all customization comes from swappable materia, the characters themselves are little more than interchangeable pawns, differentiated mainly by their Limit Breaks. And this is essentially true, and I’ll get into it more when I play that game. But as with the graphics, this change has its roots in FF6 as well.
Unlike FF7, the characters in FF6 do have noticeable and significant differences, especially with their distinctive battle commands. However, their statistical differences—or at least the effects of these stats on battle—have been smoothed out considerably compared to previous games. For example, in most of the earlier games, the difference between a fighter and a mage was pretty severe. Mages had powerful magic but were very fragile, with practically ineffective physical attacks most of the time, and had to hide in the back row just to stay alive. Fighters were strong, but typically had no access to magic at all—and if they did, it was weak, limited, and generally useful only in emergencies. In FF6, however, few if any characters fall to either of these extremes. Even the mage-iest characters, like Strago, can still stand in the front row and deal reasonable damage with their weapons, while tougher allies like Cyan can learn any spell via magicite and get decent results out of them. Every character has their specialty, and is generally most effective if you focus on it, but anyone can fill any role if you really need them to (Umaro excepted).
Final Fantasy VII took this further, and you could argue that FF6’s characters were just different enough while its successor’s weren’t. But either way, this change—this red magening—began right here.
Finally, both games show a shift in setting beyond the typical medieval fantasy of the early era. Again, Final Fantasy VII goes further, with modern and futuristic elements at least as common as magic and monsters, but FF6’s industrial revolution-inspired backdrop was quite novel at the time. In both games, magic and technology are seen as compatible forces: FF6’s Empire commands a mechanized army ultimately fueled by magic extracted from espers, while in FF7, Shinra uses the magic glowy life force of the planet to produce electricity. While the games take place in different worlds, one could almost see FF7’s tech arising from FF6’s a hundred years or so down the line.
In the previous games, elements of advanced technology did appear here and there—even FF1 had robots—but they were usually presented as relics of a lost civilization. FF6 actually reversed this formula, presenting technology as part of the modern world and magic as a forgotten art, rather than the other way around. More importantly, it showed an understanding that “fantasy” doesn’t just mean knights and castles, paving the way for a wider range of settings in the games to come. Final Fantasy VI didn’t make the biggest changes here, but as in other areas, it signalled the start of some new thinking about the series.
Building the Bridge
I don’t mean all this to suggest that Final Fantasy VI is actually the game where Everything Changed, as it also carried plenty of traditions forward, and FF7 made many more changes on its own. But like Final Fantasy III before it, I see FF6 as a bridge between generations, representing the best of its era while also setting the course for the future. It is the peak of the classic, 2D, Nintendo-based age of Final Fantasy, I think… but the path from here to FF7 really isn’t that hard to see.