To the horror of some, until very recently, I'd never played a "good" version of SNES/SFC classic Final Fantasy VI. Back in the PS1 days, I did manage to make it through the Final Fantasy Anthology version of the game, but the obscene load times left me feeling a little sour on the experience, even if I'd pretty well liked the game itself. I enjoyed the cast (the most multitudinous of any numbered Final Fantasy) and the idea of Mog quadruple jumping on gods, but spending hours staring dead-eyed at a black screen as I swapped Espers and relics and taught eight people how to cast Ultima left me pretty happy to be done with the damn thing.
Then, as part of my ongoing effort to play some of my childhood favorites in their native Japanese, I picked up the 3DS Virtual Console release a few weeks back and wrapped it up just the other day, a cool 35ish hours later.
I'm glad I did. FF6 is one of those titles that gets thrown around whenever people start going on about the death of the series and how it'll never be as good as it used to and whatnot. I don't buy into the doomsaying, but I do think there's a particular sensibility and flavor to the game that the series hasn't seen much of since. Can you imagine if an entire half of Final Fantasy XIII's plot were just straight-up optional?
FF6 has an interesting narrative structure, operating ostensibly without a "main" character. Different folks take the lead at times, but the real guiding force is the Empire and, later, villainous Kefka himself. Hardly five hours into the game, you're dealing with three separate, ever-growing groups of people, and it's in this protracted sequence that I think the real genius behind "no main character" shows itself. With no Cloud and Sephiroth/Zidane and Kuja/Cecil and Gobbles binary between a singular character and the villain, instead you have a huge, diverse group of people, all with their own reasons for wanting to join the rebellious Returners. This works well, except when it doesn't. Because the game can't count on you having people with you (except for some special events where certain folks are compulsory members of the party, which end up being the best-written stuff), much of the dialogue on the hero side ends up being generic "all of us speaking"-type stuff. The game often cheats this by having certain folks leave the party, only to show up again during the important cutscene (Shadow and the Forbidden Continent, for example). Ultimately, I saw that as a good thing, though, because your whole party shouting a nonspecific "No Kefka Don't Do The Thing!" only gets so much emotional mileage before it stops working.
The early game is pretty linear. There's the occasional extra city or bonus Moogle to bolster your ranks with, but for the most part, everything up to Kefka ruining everything is a ride on the rails. As a result, the pace in the first half is much better, because a whole lot is happening-- the Returners are growing, the mystery of the Espers is unraveled, and Kefka grows more and more unhinged. Once the world ends, there really isn't much left to say on the "critical path." It's quite literally "get an airplane and go kill Kefka." On the other hand, that's absolutely fascinating. After an hour in the World of Ruin, you've got four people and an airship, and you could theoretically run off and end it.
That's not to say there isn't any story in the World of Ruin section-- far from it. The individual narratives and the way things intersect in the World of Ruin ensure that each and every character has a detailed, personal send-off to their story arcs. The pacing of these send-offs can be kind of wonky (show up, Terra is conflicted, come back twenty minutes later with an airship and kill a monster, Terra has overcome all her problems), but in the long run, it's really great to get a sense that most of the party grows in some way before running off on the suicide mission up Garbage Mountain.
The idea that Square in these days was bold enough to say "okay, everything in this half of the game is optional, and it's almost all character-based stuff" is super cool, and it means the atmosphere in the second half of FF6 is unmatched by anything else in the series. It's also why FFXV copping out and driving you in a car through its own take on the "World of Ruin" was so disappointing. Getting to hear firsthand the broken hopes of the inhabitants of the world and contend with ancient monsters stirred from within its depths is haunting and makes the quest feel so very personal.
I was also pleased at how relatively few signs of its age FF6 shows. The pace is snappy (boy, did I miss that on PS1), and systems-wise, it's a total blast. Espers tie into the plot AND the character growth system in a way that the series has struggled to replicate since this entry. Swapping before level-ups for optimal stat growth and watching your characters grow into villainy-smiting machines is a pleasure, as is the slow trickle of new magic that becomes ever more potent. It's in this way also that the game succeeds in making the player believe in the story's assertion that magic is a power worthy of the Empire's mad hunger for more and more Espers.
A few oddities here and there do date the game. Who was the monster that decided hiding character names and portraits in the Esper menu (such that you can't see whose magic or Espers you're modifying without backing up a few levels in the menu and away from whatever change you might be considering) was a good idea? Also, I can't quite tell if it was my imagination or not, but some areas (and basically the whole second half) need to calm down with the encounter rate. By the time you're flinging Holys and Ultimas left and right, fights are over fairly quickly, but the "blink and you're in another battle" thing is a reminder that this game has a few years under its belt.
One of my main reasons for replaying the game was to experience the original script myself. FF6 has been translated into English twice. The first translation was handled by Ted Woolsey, and that's the one you'll see if you play the SNES/SNES Classic original or the PlayStation version. The second, a more "true-to-the-Japanese" pass for the Gameboy Advance version handled by Tom Slattery. Both have their merits, and I maintain that Woolsey's characterizations for Kefka in particular are as inspired as anything in the Japanese. I personally prefer the GBA's retranslation since it unifies a lot of item and term names with other entries in the series, but ultimately, any English version of the game has plenty of charm.
Playing in Japanese was an excellent bit of practice for me, because there's a lot to compare between the localized versions and the original, and plenty to learn from how each translator chose to tackle the text. Cyan/Cayenne's dialogue is fascinating to compare (as is the Sabin/Mash joke in which he accidentally starts talking like the former) between versions, and it's also interesting to compare Kefka's shrill sociopathy between English and Japanese.
I posted about this on Twitter recently, but one of the most curious localization decisions made deals with Cyan's final quest, in which he faces off against the manifestation of his guilt and sorrow over his failure to protect his family. The team goes to sleep in Doma Castle, lost to time since everyone inside of it was killed when Kefka poisoned the local water source in the first half of the game. What follows is the introduction of 夢の三兄弟, or 'the three dream brothers,' demons that devour the dreams and souls of those suffering intense emotional distress, and a neat little dungeon sequence in which you fight the demons and later free Cyan from his guilt. This sequence is meant to be a poignant coda to Cyan's emotional journey, the final stop in his journey towards self-forgiveness, and it really works.
I'm fascinated, then, by the motivation behind choosing to retitle these brothers 'the Dream Stooges' in the SNES version. While their names are Sueño (Spanish), Sogno (Italian), and Rêve (French), all words that mean 'dream,' the SNES localization opts to rename them Moe, Larry, and Curly. A compromise was made in the GBA version, restyling them as Moebius, Laragorn, and Curlax.
It's important to note that in game localization, hard choices often have to be made when choosing how to render terms and words as they make the trip from one language to the other. Often, I find myself asking questions like "what's the intent of this line?" or "how do I feel after playing through this scene?" in the original. There are also always other factors to consider, like character limitations, space issues, and more, so you can never be certain why a certain choice might've been made. That said, this is a scene clearly meant to represent Cyan's last steps towards recovery, a poignant and satisfying finale for a man tormented by the death of his crown, country, and family, and yet here we have a Three Stooges reference!
To me, this reads against the scene; many of the original localization's jokes were context-appropriate (and in the case of most of Kefka's dialogue, quite funny), but for some reason, we've got Moe, Larry, and Curly in the middle of medieval samurai man's heart-rending goodbye to his family. I'd love to be able to pick the translator's brain on this one and ask what inspired the choice not to just go with straight translations of the French, Italian, and Spanish words, which to me seems like an easy out. That's not meant to be a condemnation of the "Dream Stooges,' but something I'm genuinely curious about.
*Whew* That was a long one. I'm glad I finally had the chance to play through a better version of this classic. There's so much one could discuss in regards to where it sits in the Final Fantasy franchise and its ongoing influence on the games that came after it, and I feel my fumbling attempts to talk about a few things that interested me don't even come close to touching all there is to say. You've got some of the best music in the series, some of the most charming and sharply-designed characters, and one of the top villains of all time (as is so often mentioned online, Kefka basically wins). Bottom line, this one holds up, and if you're a language learner or even someone more advanced, there's plenty of interest to be had in giving the very first version of Final Fantasy VI a shot.