By Michael W. Harris
Every great tragedy or drama or opera needs a great villain, and boy does Final Fantasy VI deliver. It is almost a given that on any list of greatest video game villains that FFVI’s Kefka will make an appearance somewhere.
Part of what makes Kefka such a great antagonist is that he doesn’t actually start out as the main villain. Initially he is the evil second in command of the empire, but is secondary to the actual Emperor. He is the Vader to Gestahl’s Palpatine. However, all that changes when Kefka steals the power of the espers, becomes a god-like being and essentially brings about the apocalypse. It is the amazing mid-game shift where not only do you have a completely new world map to navigate, but the villain actually wins.
However, before I talk about Kefka’s signature boss fight music, “Dancing Mad,” I want to talk more about Kefka as a character and probe just what makes him stand out in the pantheon of villains.
Let’s begin with his character design. From the beginning one thing that stands out about Kefka is that he is drawn as a sort of jester character. He has a white face with red lips and a brightly colored costume. While none of this really comes out in the original sprites seen in the game, the character designs that were widely circulated with the game clearly shows him as a jester. Inspired by, if not directly based on, another famous jester: The Joker.
Yes, that Joker. Batman’s Joker. And like the Joker, he just wants to watch the world burn. But unlike the Joker, Kefka actually succeeds in burning the world. Literally.
And let me be clear, Kefka, like the Joker, is not a clown. He is a jester. A character type that has a long history. Traditionally the jester was the one person in a noble court who could openly mock the king and point out his flaws and mistakes. Furthermore, the jester was the one person who could see the world as it truly was, leading to a somewhat jaded, pessimistic, or otherwise negative view of it. This is what makes the jester a somewhat tragic figure. They were fated to be an outcast wherever they go because they alone would know/see the truth of the world.
But in the nineteenth and twentieth century this tragic aspect took on qualities of madness, famously seen in the poems and melodrama Pierrot Lunaire. And once the madness began to be associated with the jester archetype, it paved the way for the more notorious and darker portrayal we see today—of which an offshoot is the more disturbed and frightening take on clowns in general.
In Kefka’s speech prior to the final battle in the game, we see his world view come into shape. And while he is clearly mad and unhinged, there is a logic to it, even if it is rooted in a deep pessimism about the world. Here is the video of his final villain monolgoue, complete with his creepy laugh, from my own save game:
Perhaps the most telling part is: “Why do people rebuild things they know are going to be destroyed? Why do people cling to life when they know they can’t live forever? Think how meaningless each of your lives is!” Kefka is entrenched in a nihilistic worldview which has caused him to devalue life itself. He worships death. This is a stance he directly articulates when he claims that he will build a “monument to non-existence.”
But to prevent Kefka from being so over-the-top nihilistic and evil, his character is always balanced by a sometimes comical insanity. Much like The Joker, there is always a more humorous undertone that balances the madness, which in many ways makes him appear even more frightening. And as such, he has a rather unhinged and off-kilter main musical theme which you heard at the end of the above video.
But the final boss music for FFVI, “Dancing Mad,” is so much more than just an expanded arrangement of Kefka’s music. It is nothing less than a four-part musical tour-de-force, and these four parts are synced to the FOUR PART BATTLE that is the final boss confrontation. In it you have to not only defeat the three bosses that you literally just defeated making it through the final dungeon, but then you have to battle Kefka with a weakened party, depleted HP/MP and provisions, and just for fun Kefka has a spell that will immediately take your entire party’s HP down to 1.
There are already a number breakdowns and analyses of this piece on the internet already, so I will not recap it here. But know that it is sometimes hard to actually pay attention to the music while you are fighting for your party’s life. I have probably died during this battle just as many times as I have actually beaten it.
It is interesting to note, though, that the piece begins by taking the player straight back to the very beginning of the entire game: the dramatic organ chords present from the very first screen. It is almost like being tossed right back to square one.
Note: Once again, this is video of me playing my 22-year-old save game. My general strategy to beat the game was to teach every member of my party Ultima and pummel my enemies with it until they were dead. Not exactly elegant, but it was mostly effective.
There have been numerous realizations of this piece, both orchestral and otherwise, but I want to focus in on two here, though make sure to check out the fairly straightforward Distant Worlds recording.
The first version I want to highlight is a simple piano arrangement from the album Piano Opera Final Fantasy IV/V/VI, arranged and performed by Hiroyuki Nakayama. The performance is solid, and the arrangement works, though it lacks some of the energy found in a more robust instrumentation. Still, it is worth a listen for fans.
But far and away the best arrangement of “Dancing Mad,” indeed the best Final Fantasy music arrangement yet in my opinion, goes to the Black Mages rendition. Just listen for yourself…
While not so far off of the original version at times, largely due to its heavy reliance on Uematsu’s synths, there are moments in this metal arrangement that just soar. None more so than the last section where the lead guitar just goes into straight up rock ballad mode like something out of Queen, Dream Theater, or even Guns and Roses.
But I think what makes this version work so well, and why I do consider it to be the best arrangement of a FF tune, is that the metal/rock band instrumentation truly amplifies the song’s already epic qualities.
“Dancing Mad” is truly the culmination of fifty plus hours of game play. The high point of what all of the player’s work was leading to. It is the final battle with evil and confrontation with your opponent. It is the moment of apotheosis for both Kefka and the game, and “Dancing Mad” delivers on that promise and much needed catharsis from the emotions that the player had built up.
And afterwards, all that is left is the concluding action. The resolution. The return. The final chorus.
Until next time.
~End Act IV~