By Michael W. Harris
I first heard about Final Fantasy VI (or III was it was called back then, and for the sake of my sanity, I will just call it VI in this post and the ones that follow) in an issue of Nintendo Power. I’m not sure of the date, but it was probably back in 1994, when the game was first released. I, of course, was already aware of the series, but was by no means a die-hard player. I had already played the first two Final Fantasy Legend games for Game Boy when they were released (though never actually beat them) along with Final Fantasy Adventure (which I did beat), and I remember having played the original game on NES before I sold the system to buy a Super Nintendo. However, my RPG roots actually lie in a different franchise. Dragon Warrior (or as it is now known in US by its original Japanese name: Dragon Quest).
(N.B. – Yes, I know that the Legend series is actually the rebranded SaGa series, and that Adventure is the Mana series, but in my heart I will always think of them as Final Fantasy.)
I first got the original Dragon Warrior game as part of a subscription giveaway for Nintendo Power magazine. Using the included game hint guide, my sister and I worked our way through the game together (a rare display of co-operation for us!), until we basically hit a wall at the final boss and never beat the game. This giveaway happened in 1990 and is what originally hooked me on RPGs.
My sister would later buy the original Final Fantasy, but for some reason I don’t remember playing it that much at the time. I can’t remember why either. Maybe it was because I was already engrossed in the Game Boy, but regardless, my exposure to the Final Fantasy franchise prior to 1994 did nothing to prepare me for the world of Final Fantasy VI.
As I have said before in this blog, I love a good story. This is what attracted me to RPGs over all other game genres: I wanted engrossing narratives with characters that grow and a story that develops. Not just the simple plots of side-scrolling platform games. I also didn’t want a game to rely on my reflexes and coordination. I want to think about what I would do, plot my strategy, make a plan, and then execute it.
When I first read about FFVI in Nintendo Power, I knew I wanted the game. When it was finally released on 11 October 1994 I bought it and the guidebook because I didn’t want to mess around with flying blind. I was in it for the story first. And to my credit, I still have my original cartridge, though the original book has long since vanished and eventually replaced by an Amazon Marketplace purchase.
And did the game ever deliver on everything I could ever want in an RPG. An engrossing story that takes surprising twists and turns, developed characters who you genuinely care about, a vast world that has distinct cultures, an epic narrative of life and death with a backstory to make it feel real…and oh my god the music.
Of course, I will talk more about the music throughout this series, but for now, let’s get back to my history with the game.
I remember quite clearly playing the game in the Fall and Winter of 1994. I was so engrossed in it that when my family when on Christmas Vacation, I packed up my SNES and took the whole thing with me just so I could keep playing the game. I had to know what happened next.
But then something happened. I gradually lost interest and I can’t remember why. It could have been that I entered high school (the game came out when I was in 8th grade), or it could have been that I had less time (I was doing more and more activities), but I really think that it was that I hit that point in the game where you have to just work really hard and build up the experience points of your party before you go beat the final boss, something I now know is called “level grinding.” Probably because of the guidebook I was using, I had sailed through most of the game without doing much exploring, but I was getting close to the end and my party was starting to struggle in fights.
Periodically throughout high school, I would go back to the game—partially out of nostalgia, partially out of my desire to actually beat it—and grind out a few more levels, but could never sustain it. There was a desert in the World of Ruin where you could fight some pretty nasty monsters and boost levels pretty quickly, which is where my party was permanently camped for some four years. So I level grinded off and on for most of high school, but by the time I entered college in the fall of 1999 I still hadn’t beaten the game.
I made a vow to beat the game before the end of my freshman year.
Coming back from Christmas break, right after the turn of the year 2000, I traveled back to Truman State University armed with a TV and my Super NES…and a plan. I knew what characters still needed to get to a certain level and which ones I also needed to get to learn the spells Ultima, Life 3, and Cure 3. I wanted to make sure that my party could basically just blast, cure, and revive without needing to use any equipment other than some assorted potions. And dammit if I didn’t beat that game by the time February 2000 rolled around. It had taken the better part of six years, and over 55 total hours of game play, but I finally got to see that twenty-five-minute long closing scene…and it was glorious and earned.
Part of what spurred on this desire to beat FFVI, though, was playing and beating FFVII (in its PC incarnation) during the first semester of my freshman year. I still remember being up late one night and seeing Cloud omnislash Sephiroth for the final time and beating the game. Finishing VII just made me hunger to finally conquer VI.
I would go on to buy a used copy of II/IV for my SNES, along with FFIX for my PlayStation a few years later and also beat them—the latter of which I beat in roughly 55 hours as well, but instead of 55 hours spread over six years they were spread over three weekend during the summer of 2002 when I was also taking summer classes…but that is a story for another time. However, nothing quite compared to finally beating Final Fantasy VI. Everything about that game was perfect in my mind, and the ending felt like not only a culmination of everything that had happened during the course of the story, but also like the culmination of a chapter of my life. Stretching from eight grade to college freshman, FFVI had been a companion, sometimes one that just sat in the background, for the bulk of my teenage years, yet somehow it never showed its age. And I am certain that no other videogame moment will ever compare with my beating of VI—though that might be challenged when/if I ever get around to beating Final Fantasy X. I still have a save game sitting around for X that I last played in 2006.
But this seven part blog post series is going to focus on the music of the game, composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu. Discovering Uematsu’s music for FFVI was the second most influential moment in my life causing me to fall in love with media scoring. The first, of course, being Star Wars. Uematsu’s music was sweeping, touching, exciting, moody, and catchy as all hell. I still hum, sing, or whistle the music for Zozo. The off-kilter theme for Kefka still sends me right back to watching his unhinged actions and hearing his maniacal laugh. And then there are the soaring heights of the opera. Two of these three things will be explored in the posts to follow.
I once had the chance to see Uematsu in concert live with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It was March of 2012 and he was doing his “Distant Worlds” tour. When Uematsu walked out on-stage it was like a rock star was appearing. The crowd, many of who were dressed in cosplay, roared. Even before the concert started, there was a buzz, a hum. This was not your typical sedate classical music crowd. Everyone was talking to people and reminiscing about their favorite Final Fantasy moments. This was a happening, almost like a reunion, though almost no one knew each other.
We all had Final Fantasy, though, which almost made us family. Or at the very least “dear friends.”
But that is from a different game entirely…