CW: Suicide mention
Both Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy VI were in the development stages at the time the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) era drew to a close. While V was critically overlooked upon its release, Final Fantasy VI garnered a much different reaction from fans. Released in 1994 (under the title Final Fantasy III overseas), Final Fantasy VI was met with universal critical acclaim from franchise enthusiasts both domestic and international. Despite being the first title to be helmed by someone other than series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy VI is still lauded by many fans as the best game in the series, with good reason.
Final Fantasy VI touts itself as an ensemble piece, weaving a complex and nuanced good-versus-evil tale about a war between magic and technology. The game boasts fourteen playable characters (the most ever seen in a Final Fantasy game), each with rich character backstories that are subtly peppered throughout the game. However, for the first time in franchise history, the protagonists of the story are women: Terra and Celes. Despite fronting as an ensemble, players of the game can clearly see how Terra and Celes’s characters drive the narrative and emotional arcs of the story forward.
Final Fantasy VI is divided into two parts: the World of Balance and the World of Ruin. The first part focuses on Terra Branford and her character growth. When players first meet her, Terra is being mind-controlled with the power of a magic crown and laying waste to the small town of Narshe. When she awakens, Terra admits that she is an amnesiac, and has no memory of her life prior to the crown being placed on her head. It turns out that the reason the empire was so intent on robbing Terra of her agency is because she can use magic, an art that was previously thought extinct. The first part of the story sees Terra coming into her own, learning about her true identity as a half god (or Esper, as the game calls it), and becoming more proactive in helping out the rebellion against the evil Empire as she reclaims her agency. While Terra’s presence in the second part of the story is not as strong, her character arc is nevertheless compelling. After the main antagonist of the game (an evil Joker-lite clown named Kefka) successfully becomes a God and destroys the world, Terra finds herself adopting a bunch of children in a small town in the aftermath. Through becoming their adoptive mother, Terra grapples with the concept of love, an emotion she had been previously incapable of comprehending. With the help of her friends and her children, Terra comes to understand love in all of its forms, and helps save the world.
The second part of Final Fantasy VI, the World of Ruin, picks up right after Kefka destroys the world. This part of the game opens with Celes Chere, the other main female protagonist, on a deserted island, desperately trying to keep her adoptive father alive. In the World of Balance, Celes was a former Imperial general who defected from the empire as her disillusion with them grew. She joins the rebellion and works through the complicated emotions of abandoning everything she’s have ever known for a cause that feels just. One of Final Fantasy’s most iconic moments features players getting to control Celes as she sings her way through an opera scene. (Fun fact – this scene was parodied in the indie darling Undertale!) Despite her efforts, Celes’s father passes away, and what follows is the first ever depiction of suicide ideation in a video game. Celes’s suicide attempt is raw and powerful, and it is a groundbreaking theme for a video game to explore in 1994. After Celes finds the drive to carry on in the wake of her prior hopelessness and despair, she proceeds to track down and gather up her old friends. Together, they team up to defeat Kefka and bring peace and balance to the world once more. All of those party retrieval quests are optional, and the player can attempt to fight Kefka with just Celes if they really want to. It is absolutely not recommended, as the Kefka boss fight is tough, but Celes being the only mandatory party member in the second half of the game cements her role as a protagonist.
Final Fantasy VI is a master class in showcasing the potential of video games as an art form. Video games are capable of nuanced storytelling, with rich depths that the player has to seek out. They are also capable of striking visuals and cinematic cutscenes despite graphical limitations. They are capable of slick, timeless gameplay that causes players to think and strategize. And finally, they are capable of telling stories about (though the game tries to hide it behind an “ensemble cast”) women. Final Fantasy VI is high art, and one of the greatest video games ever made.