Greatest Game of 1994: Final Fantasy VI

[Editor’s Note: Final Fantasy III was originally released in Japan as Final Fantasy VI. From here on, this article will refer to the game as Final Fantasy III, the name used in the United States.]

Before Final Fantasy III, I approached video games as nothing more than a fun way to waste time instead of doing chores or homework. This was the first game that convinced me that video games could be a respected artistic endeavor. The attachment I felt to the characters in Final Fantasy III, the effect the music had on me, and the overall emotional investment I felt with the game can’t compare to any game that came before it, and has no difficulty holding up with even the best games of today. In Tyler’s article on The Legend of Zelda he states that “you can argue the role of music in a game, but to me, a game is all about emotional attachment, to the characters and to the story.” I could not agree with him more on this point. Although my comment on the Loadcast that no game ever had better music than Final Fantasy III received more than a few laughs from the rest of the group, my point was what Tyler was talking about. The emotional connection the music helped create with the characters and the story has not been matched by another game I’ve played. With that, I have crafted this article around the characters and the music that accompanies them.

An analysis of the characters and music in Final Fantasy III has to start with Terra, the main protagonist. The game opens with her under imperial control, marching toward the peaceful town of Narshe and searching for Espers, a race of magic users. Terra is able to use magic as well, and this is the reason for her enslavement. As the game progresses, she is rescued by Locke and the Returners, and she eventually learns that she is the daughter of an Esper father and a human mother. Terra’s character introduces you to the power of Espers, the game’s magic system. The Esper system is a unique device within the game that allows all characters to learn magic by equipping an Esper and gaining experience points. Another interesting aspect of Terra’s character is that she actually disappears for long stretches of the game, often unexpectedly, taking her items and Espers with her when she goes. Two musical pieces I often associate with Terra appear at the very beginning of the game. The first is the Opening Theme, which sets the perfect ominous tone for the game. The second is her theme, aptly named Terra, which follows the opening. I can still hear the slow drum intro and immediately be transported back to when I first played the game.

My favorite character is Locke, the treasure hunter (aka thief) who is charged with being the protector of the group. His motivations for fighting start with Rachel, his love interest, who you learn through flashbacks died at the hands of the Empire. After Locke was unable to save Rachel during the attack, he goes to fight for the Returners, an underground resistance group seeking the liberation of conquered city-states. As the story progresses, it is easy to grow attached to Locke and his reasons for fighting. You find yourself rooting for him as a relationship between him and Celes grows toward the end of the game. Beside his theme, Locke, and The Returners, the song I most associate with his character  is Forever Rachel, a beautifully sad song that plays during the flashback when Rachel dies. You can hear aspects of Locke’s theme woven into the song.

If Locke is my favorite character, then Celes is a close second. As with Locke, tremendous care is given to her backstory, which explains her motivations and forms an emotional connection between the player and the character. Celes is a former general in the Empire. She is rescued by Locke before her impending execution over protesting the poisoning of Doma Castle. The sheer amount of adult themes the game touches on is really quite astounding, and often Celes is right in the middle of them. Love is central to her character: she loves Cid like a father, and she falls in love with Locke later in the game. Death is rampant throughout, but one of the most impactful deaths is that of Cid. He can die if you are unable to care for him, and if he does, the moment is very touching. After Cid’s death, Celes contemplates suicide as well. There aren’t many games on the market today that touch this wide swath of human emotion, but Final Fantasy III does it across all characters but most markedly with Celes. She is by far the deepest character in the game, and in addition to all of this, she’s literally front and center stage for the most memorable moment in the game, the opera. The opera scene has often been called one of the greatest moments in video game history. Celes is tasked with playing the body double of a famous opera singer, and the player must accurately memorize and sing the performance. The plot of the opera mirrors that of Celes’ life as she finds the will to live through her love for Locke. The scene is beautiful and touching. It is remarkable to me that the entire song, which is over 23 minutes long, appears in a 16-bit cartridge. I encourage you to find it on YouTube and listen to it for yourself, either with the game’s original sound chip or with live orchestration.

Edgar, the young king of Figaro and twin brother of Sabin, is a character you meet early in the game. He loses a coin toss and reluctantly assumes power to allow his brother freedom. Publicly he maintains alliance to the Gesthalian Empire, but secretly he provides support and aid to the Returners. When Kefka torches Figaro Castle, this alliance is broken. The politics and backstory in Final Fantasy III run incredibly deep, and Edgar and Figaro are at the center of this, especially in the first half of the game. Edgar’s main theme, Edgar and Sabin, is a neat piece that portrays the regalness of the character. In addition, The Emperor “Gestahl” is a song that is played during a political meeting between Edgar and the Empire. Coin Song is very contemplative and sad and illustrates the difficult decision Edgar made for his brother.

Sabin, the twin brother of Edgar, leaves Figaro after he loses the coin toss (which Edgar rigged with a double-sided coin). He goes to learn Martial Arts and, upon encountering the Returners, with Edgar accompanying them, decides to join the fight. The coolest aspect of Sabin was his special move. Every character in the game has a special skill associated with their character. For example, Locke can steal, Edgar can use tools, and Sabin, using his Martial Arts background, can perform “blitzes.” Basically, these are Street Fighter-style moves that can pummel enemies. Sabin’s character has one of the more boring backstories, but with his incredibly powerful blitzes he was an integral part of any party. His main theme, Edgar and Sabin, is the only song I strongly associate with his character.

The character lineup in Final Fantasy III was huge and every character brought something to the table. There weren’t many throwaway characters, but in any game like this you tend to find your main characters and stick with them. Mine were Locke, Celes, Edgar, and Sabin. One aspect of the game that certainly hurts it today is the sheer amount of leveling, or grinding, you have to do. You’ll find yourself battling random monster after random monster, trying desperately to power your character and your magic up. The game would also split up your parties rather frequently, so it was important to level up all of your characters, not just your main party. With a big open map that you are free to explore, you find yourself in towns often, restocking your supplies and resting. Each town seemed to have its own personality, as they were laid out differently and often had different items for sale. With all this leveling up, I still stuck with my main group whenever possible. As a result, many of the songs in the game that I don’t associate with a particular character I do associate with this group. Mines of Narshe is a mysterious-sounding track that appears early in the game, when you’re first meeting the characters. ZoZo is the theme for the most interesting town in the game. First encountering ZoZo was a different experience because all the towns you encountered previously were bastions of safety. In ZoZo, enemies would attack you and everyone you talked to lied. Speaking of that calm that was typically associated with the towns, Kids Run Through the City, is a beautiful song that perfectly embodies these emotions of safety and innocence.

Although I relied heavily on the four characters named above, I also was emotionally invested in a large number of the rest of the cast.

As the king of Doma, Cyan is fighting against the Empire. Kefka poisons their water supply, killing Cyan’s troops and his wife and child. You deal with Cyan’s grief aboard the Phantom Train, where he sees the spirits of his family and is forced to say his goodbyes. Cyan is another character that works your emotional heartstrings, and the evil that was perpetrated against his family helps display the true nature of Kefka. Along with his main theme, Cyan, both the Phantom Forest and Phantom Train, have strong associations with Cyan for me. The trip through the Forest and the Train are two of the coolest sections of the game, and the music really helps associate the magic of the Espers in the Forest and the surreal nature of the Phantom Train.

Shadow is an assassin who is always encountered with his dog, Interceptor. Quite the mysterious character, Shadow can be controlled for only short periods of time during the first half of the game, and you’ll see him working for the Empire from time to time. As noted earlier with regard to Terra, it is not uncommon to see characters come and go in Final Fantasy III, but what happens halfway through the game is what makes Shadow truly unique. As the Floating Island is about to explode, you have a choice of whether to wait for Shadow or let him perish aboard the Island. If you leave without him, he is dead and not a playable character in the second half of the game. In addition, any gear he had equipped is gone for good as well. The fact that the world blows up at all was pretty revolutionary at the time. The entire second half of the adventure is played in a world that has been shattered and bent to the whim of the maniacal Kefka. Shadow’s main theme, Shadow, with its use of a jaw harp, may be the coolest theme in the game.

Gau is a wild child that you encounter on a certain area of the map called the Veldt. You learn through the story that his father tossed him into the wild when his mother died in childbirth, labeling him a “demon child.” This is all pretty heavy stuff for a character that is pretty ridiculous. He basically talks in broken English and you have to bribe him into your party with some special meat. His special skill allows you to learn the attacks of other enemies, which can be cool, but requires you to let him leave your party for a number of turns while he “learns” the attack. Gau wasn’t my favorite character in the game. While the idea of learning the enemies’ attacks is fun, it never really seemed to pay off. The theme of the Veldt, Wild West, has a pretty kick-ass beat, though. Gau’s theme, Gau, is mournful and I feel his character could have used a bit more fleshing out to really drive home the impact of the song. You can hear the loneliness in the song, but it doesn’t work on the same level Forever Rachel does.

Setzer owns the airship in the game and is a gambler. He is also the second main character in the opera scene. As Celes acts as a stunt double for Maria, the opera singer Setzer loves, he kidnaps her. The double-sided coin that Edgar used with Sabin with earlier in th e game makes a reappearance as the crew is able to “win” the coin toss and convince Setzer to let them use the airship. The airship allows a freedom of movement around the world that simply wasn’t possible in previous games. The landscape is huge, and especially in the second half of the game the individual player is free to choose how to approach the game. One area of the map that I spent a considerable time with in The World of Ruin is the Colosseum. Here you are able to gamble any item, and if you are able to survive a fight, you will trade it in for something different. Sometimes you would get something incredibly powerful such as the Genji Glove or the Offering. When combined, these two items allowed you to attack 8 times (4 times per hand). The Colosseum did not have a fail-safe, however, and you could bet away your most powerful weapon (The Atma Weapon) with no recourse and the item would be lost forever. I associate a couple of songs pretty strongly with Setzer. Searching for Friends is a very upbeat take on the main theme and gives you some of your first hope when you get the airship in The World of Ruin. Johnny C Bad, the song that plays while you’re in the Colosseum, is a really fun ragtime piano song that invokes images of Setzer’s gambling nature.

Strago and Relm are introduced toward the end of the first half of the game. Strago is an elderly man who lives in the village of Thamasa with his granddaughter, Relm. Both of these characters are magic users by birth; however, as this is socially unacceptable, they keep it secret. When Kefka learns the town may be hiding Espers, he attacks, killing one of his generals in the process. Strago and Relm’s contribution to the story underline the game’s ability to tackle adult issues like prejudice and fear. Their theme, Strago and Relm, is lovely and light and stresses both characters’ naivety and innocence.

I mentioned that most of the characters have deep backstories and are multifaceted; however, three of the characters don’t add much to the game. In fact, two of them, Gogo and Umaro, are completely optional and you can beat Final Fantasy III without them. As such, I don’t blame the game for de-emphasising their backstories, as they feel more like a cool bonus in a gigantic game. Mog is the third character that doesn’t add a whole lot to the story, and I generally left him out of my party when I played. He is a reappearing character in most Final Fantasy games, however, so I’m sure the developers felt they needed to fit him in somewhere. The themes for Gogo and Umaro aren’t all that memorable, but Mog’s theme is fairly unique and interesting.

In addition to the playable characters, there are a couple of non-playable characters that add to the depth of the game. I mentioned Cid above in my discussion of Celes, and his emotional impact on the game should be recognized. Whether the player is able to save him or not, the impact on Celes and the story is significant. The song Dark World is somber and underlies the feeling of hopelessness you feel when you wash up on an island in the World of Ruin and begin caring for Cid. In addition, one of the recurring bad guys in the game is Ultross. He is a giant purple octopus who appears multiple times in the game. He threatens to eat you, and you pummel him. He provides some necessary comic relief. Ultross  provides a touching moment, however, when the innocent Relm paints a picture of him and he realizes how hideous he is. Despite his minor role, he leaves his mark on the game, even crashing your trip to the Opera House.

A discussion of the characters in the game would of course not be complete without touching on Final Fantasy III’s main antagonist, Kefka. To give you some background on his character, here is an excerpt that I amended slightly from his Wikipedia page: Kefka first appears as a general under the game’s primary antagonist, Emperor Gestahl. Prior to the start of the game, he was the first human to be experimentally infused with the magic-like craft ‘Magitek,’ which granted him the ability to wield magic, although the imperfect process warped his mind and made him into the nihilistic psychopath he is during the course of the game. Kefka enslaves Terra, sets fire to Figaro Castle in an attempt to smoke Terra out, poisons the water supply at Doma when he grows impatient with General Leo, goes to Thamasa to kill the Espers, kills Leo when he intervenes, boots Gestahl off the Floating Continent to his death, and then uses the power of the Espers to shatter the entire world. He then, while ruling over the Dark World, uses his Light of Judgment power to incinerate millions who dare oppose him. Finally, he threatens to destroy all existence unless the player is able to put a stop to him.

Kefka is arguably the most evil antagonist in gaming history. Just re-read that breakdown. He’s poisoning water supplies, kicking people off floating continents, threatening to destroy the entire world, SUCCEEDING, and then threatening to destroy every living thing that survived the first attack. Kefka also has a lot of great music associated with him. Catastrophe, Kefka, Fanatics, and Metamorphosis are all great tracks, but none of them compares to Dancing Mad, one the greatest video game musical tracks of all time. Dancing Mad checks in at over 17 minutes and is, as this amazing article written for on Destructoid put it, “the best fucking final boss theme in history.”

The ending to a video game is often a terrible letdown. You’re never sure what to expect, as sometimes you’re simply greeted with a “The End” screen after playing for days. Even great current games fail in terms of a great payoff. Bioshock, for example, is one of the greatest games of all time, but it has a miserable ending. Final Fantasy III’s ending, on the other hand, hits all the right notes. After a 50+ hour adventure and a 30-minute final boss fight, you are treated to a 23-minute ending that touches on all the characters you’ve come to care about, ties up any loose ends, and leaves you feeling satisfied that you have indeed saved the world. The accompanying music also does not disappoint, as the Ending Theme touches on all of the great themes you’ve heard throughout the game.

One final note on the music in the game: The official soundtrack is available as well as full orchestrated versions of the main themes. Also, a Piano Collections CD  that covers a number of the songs on piano and gives all the tracks a different but equally awesome sound is available through Amazon.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Nintendo Player’s Guide for Final Fantasy III that I used to help remind me of all the great moments in the game. My brother and I would use this guide when we played the game for not only the walkthrough but for spell, Esper, and enemy guides. In addition, we used it to determine what we could win at the Colosseum. The size of the guide helps to underline the size of the game, as there are 75 “events” not including all of the side missions you can mess around with. The guide also revealed some of the cooler tricks hidden in the game. I remember casting a Repel on myself in the Tower of Fanatics by wearing Repel rings. I also remember “breaking” the game by casting Vanish and Doom spells on even the toughest enemies. Also cool was using Sabin skills to Suplex the train and then casting revive on it to kill it (since it was already dead). One final trick that was available to players was to cast Doom on party members with the Relic Ring on. This would give full health to the entire party. While these “cheats” aren’t in the spirit of the game, when going back to play it, they’re fun to use. As I mentioned, the game requires a fair amount of grinding and leveling, and  these tips can make that aspect of the game much more bearable.

This article was, by far, the most difficult one I’ve written for our site. I love Final Fantasy III so much and for so many reasons that it’s difficult to put into words. The game had such a strong emotional effect on me that to this day I can re-experience it just by hearing the music. I felt like I owed it to others who love the game as much as I do to write an article that expressed this as accurately as possible. I’m sure entire articles have been written on aspects that I didn’t even touch on. The steampunk setting and the amazing art that surrounds this game add to its greatness. For those who have played and loved the game as much as I did, you already know what I’m talking about. For those who have never played it, Final Fantasy III comes with my highest recommendation. And if you get stuck, I can always lend you that Nintendo Player’s Guide.

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