Square Enix has spent the past decade realizing that, much like the Rolling Stones, its back catalog would excite fans far beyond any new release ever could. This peaked last month with the iOS release of Final Fantasy VII, a game dedicated to the belief that humans were blocky jumbles of polygons all along.
Final Fantasy VII, Square’s breakthrough release, is the most popular game in the series, and earned the extensive commentary on its story and themes. And flaws. But it also marked the end of the glorious 16-bit history of Final Fantasy. The SNES installments—Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI—were the peak of the series. And I’m not just saying that because my mom wouldn’t let me have a Playstation.
The 16-bit era was so precious, Square was hesitant to even let it out of the country. After holding back the first two 8-bit sequels from American audiences altogether, it released Final Fantasy IV as Final Fantasy 2 in 1991 (which jumbles the numbering, so I’m going to use Roman numerals for the Japanese count and Arabic numerals for the American count), but not without major content reductions aimed at making it easier and more approachable to American audiences. Final Fantasy V’s intricate skill system was believed to be a bridge too far for American players, and the game didn’t make the U.S. lineup. Final Fantasy VI did come over in 1994, as Final Fantasy 3, but wholly intact. Well, except for the removal of some butts. Because Americans are afraid of butts.
Censorship, whether for sexual content or gameplay complexity, couldn’t slow the train down, and even in their bastardized forms, the SNES editions of Final Fantasy were works of art. Far beyond their contemporaries, the games offered mature, emotional content and deep, well-drawn characters.
It might be cartoon-y 2D graphics, and there were no polygons to be found, but damn if they couldn’t get a lot of expression out of a tiny sprite.
Final Fantasy IV gave the video game world a very early taste of major character death, admittedly at a rate rivaling George R. R. Martin. At a time when the player usually stuck to a single protagonist, and the cure for death was a green mushroom, the deaths here were poignant, permanent, and meaningful. There were narrative stakes beyond defeating the bad guy, and real costs to the player’s quest.
This pathos peaked with the sacrifice of Palom and Porom, twin magical wunderkinds who turn themselves to stone to save their friends.
Nothing had ever hit me like this before in a video game. The twins were bursting with personality: Palom was a show-offy wiseass, and his sister Porom was kind and dutiful, but not above slapping some sense back into her brother. They were powerful fighters, with unique abilities. And they were children—obvious peers to many players, myself included.
But when the walls start closing in, about to crush the entire party, they solemnly volunteer to make the ultimate sacrifice. The game plays the familiar sound effect for black magic as they cast Stone. And then is silent. The party mourns. The player mourns.
Twenty years later, the Internet is still full of searches for “How do I revive Palom and Porom?” Each is answered the same: “You can’t.” Heavy stuff.
They’re not alone, either. Cid the engineer detonates a bomb strapped to his chest to keep the party safe from villainous pursuers, and Yang the martial arts expert triggers a self-destruct mechanism in a superweapon, knowing he can’t escape in time. Edward, the “spoony bard”, rises from his deathbed to overcome a foe. Death looms large through the game, and extends to playable, well-defined characters.
The game cheats in the end. A little. Cid, Yang, Edward, Palom and Porom are ultimately healed and revived, although they never again join your party. However, Tellah, the sage yelling nonsensical insults at Edward, suffers a truly permanent death. The others’ self-sacrifice was intended to save their friends—Tellah, summoning all of his life force, sacrifices himself for an attack on the villain Golbez. He seeks purely vengeance for the death of his daughter, and the game presents a thoughtful morality by allowing Tellah’s death to be permanent, given this motivation.
The sacrifices made by these heroes return powerfully in the moments before the final boss battle—all these lost characters appear on the screen, for a final time, to give the party the last bit of strength they need to win. Final Fantasy IV switched between different character sprites in and outside of battle; in this sequences, all these lost heroes are seen as their battle sprites, invoking their memory not only as characters, but as party members.
Ultimately, Final Fantasy IV succeeds in telling a human-scale story in the setting of a sweeping RPG, centered not only on death and sacrifice, but on power, loyalty, redemption, friendship, and family.
When the sequel, Final Fantasy VI, made its American debut as Final Fantasy 3, it had big narrative shoes to step into. But like its predecessor, it told another pixelated epic, now replacing the central theme of death with love.
Love—romantic or otherwise—is another rare subject for video games, particularly in the 16-bit era. Mario usually ends up with a chaste peck on the cheek from Princess Peach, and Link occasionally has an uncle, but rarely a caring family. Final Fantasy VI put love at the center of its story, explored it in multiple contexts, and did it all in the context of a relentlessly fun RPG which holds up even if you never read the words.
Using an ensemble cast rather than a single protagonist and his or her friends, Final Fantasy VI gets to explore multiple relationships in many contexts. Romantic bonds pepper the story but do not predominate.
While only three of fourteen playable characters are female, the game is centered around its two heroines, Terra and Celes, both forced into the service of an evil empire bent on world domination. Terra is the product of the most significant romantic relationship in the game: her mother, Madonna, fled to the land of magical creatures called Espers, falling in love with one of their leaders, named Maduin. Their bond—and their child—serve as proof that the gap between humans and Espers can be crossed. But Terra, half-human, half-esper, is abducted by the Empire as an infant and used as a magical weapon under heavy mind control.
After she is freed at the beginning of the game, Terra struggles with her identity and powers, and worries that she has been denied the ability to love others and to experience that emotion. Once the Espers are gone from the world, she fears that she is a dangerous alien, beyond human connection. She finally comes to terms with herself, not from a romantic encounter, but by defending a village of orphaned children, and experiences love—which ultimately gives her the determination to rejoin the fight.
Celes is involved in the central contemporary love story, with the thief/treasure hunter Locke. While their mutual feelings are clear from their initial meeting, they do not canonically get together, even by the game’s ending. (This is the exact moment I discovered fanfiction.)
Inverting the usual gender stereotypes in games, Celes is the heavy fighter, wielding swords and wearing full armor, while Locke relies on cleverness and agility to make up for an arsenal of daggers and lightweight defenses. Their relationship develops via romcom and romance novel tropes at first: Locke first finds her imprisoned for treason against the Empire, and the dashing rogue breaks her out of jail by nicking the key from a sleeping guard. Later, Celes must—indignantly—put down her sword and trade her armor in for a gown, taking the stage as her convenient look-alike Maria, the world’s most famous opera singer.
Silliness aside, the issues keeping Locke and Celes separated over the course of the story earn the serious treatment they’re given, especially in the dangerous world the characters inhabit. Locke’s adventuring ways led to the death of his last girlfriend, Rachel, and the guilt of her death—particularly because his carelessness required her to put herself in danger to save him—causes him to seal himself off from those attachments. For her part, Celes, a former imperial general suspected of treason on all sides, believes that her past means that no one will ever fully trust her; a flinch of doubt on Locke’s part wounds her to the core.
The other characters struggle with love as well, underlying all major plots of the series. Twin princes Edgar and Sabin see their love for each other strained by the duties of monarchy once their parents are assassinated—after agreeing to settle succession with a coin toss, Edgar fixes the coin in his own favor, allow his reclusive brother to run free of the dangers and stresses of royal life. Gau, abandoned by his father to the wilds after his mother died in childbirth, vainly seeks to be reacquainted with Dad. The knight Cyan loses his wife and child after a chemical attack on his homeland—he bears the loss of his loved ones while endeavoring to move forward.
In the final battle, Big Bad Kefka taunts the heroes with his goal of global destruction. Where the strength of death and sacrifice powered the heroes to victory in Final Fantasy IV, love powers them here, as each identifies their loving connections to other people to defy the bad guy and save the world.
The 16-bit era of Final Fantasy was in perfect balance. Graphics were good enough to give characters intelligible emotional depth, without distracting either the player or the programmers, as was common in the 3D era. Freed to focus on story and gameplay, Square delivered masterpieces.
NOTE: Thanks to Crystal in the comments for setting me straight on the Figaro coin flip!