My Disappointment with Final Fantasy VI and Dealing with a GOAT Reputation
Just last week, Square Enix’s eagerly anticipated Nintendo Switch exclusive, OCTOPATH TRAVELER, was released. This traditional JRPG was mentioned excitedly in the same breath as the widely praised and landmark SNES game FINAL FANTASY VI (1994); OCTOPATH TRAVELER was to be, like the BRAVELY DEFAULT series of games, an ode to 16-bit classics that many consider to be the high point of the genre. With its release, many are walking back those comparisons, but the point really does still stand. OCTOPATH TRAVELER evokes FINAL FANTASY VI with its large cast of characters, gameplay, and art style (which has been updated into a beautiful 3D, diorama setting). And since I played the sixth installment of the long-running series for the first time just recently, it was really on the mind when OCTOPATH TRAVELER conversation spun up in earnest. But those thoughts concerned my disappointment with FINAL FANTASY VI, and how difficult it is for games (and most anything) to stand up to incredible (and at times exaggerated) expectations.
To be clear: I play plenty of old games. I have a long-running project, which you can find here on Medium itself, where I break down my favorite games of each year, beginning in the early 1970s. In this strange journey, I’ve played plenty of old-school RPGs, including all five previous FINAL FANTASY games. So my approach to FINAL FANTASY VI was not as someone unfamiliar with the series, or older games, or even older RPGs specifically. It was actually as a big fan of 2D FINAL FANTASY, someone who has eagerly dived into analysis of those games and their impact on the gaming landscape. But when I got to VI, a game often touted as not only of the greatest RPGs of all time, but also one of the greatest games (period) of all time, I got understandably excited. But I was never really satisfied in my many hours playing FINAL FANTASY VI.
FINAL FANTASY VI was praised for its storytelling structure because it weaves the disparate stories of unique characters together and allows for a customizable party, but I feel that some contemporaries, such as DRAGON QUEST IV and even BREATH OF FIRE II (!), do it better. The exploration of FINAL FANTASY VI, which opens up dramatically about halfway through the game, comes after a linear start that does not introduce notable side quests in a gradual manner. Instead, the game suddenly becomes open, which left me confused and overwhelmed. At this point, the grammar of RPGs was not so vague, and direction to other tasks was not so hard to come by. More than this, FINAL FANTASY VI itself did not lead me believe that much of the side content must be completed in order to really experience the game fully, or in fact to face the final sequences. This is really a larger problem with older RPGs; many allow for relatively challenging yet manageable progression throughout the game before requiring significant grinding in order to complete the overwhelming final dungeon/boss. But this is a genre/era quirk, and one I understand.
In fact, I really understand many of my problems with FINAL FANTASY VI. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as many of its biggest fans, people who often grew up with the game and have plumbed its depths. There isn’t a nostalgia factor involved for me, too, and there is accounting for personal taste in this case. At the end of the day, I felt that something was off about FINAL FANTASY VI, and was left with some dissatisfaction at the conclusion of my time with the game…which came about with that overwhelming final dungeon I mentioned. I simply prefer other FINAL FANTASY games, and other RPGs from the era, more. But some part of me feels some confusion considering the game’s reputation.
The problem with “greatest of all time” statements is that they put a burden on a game. Now, I’m not suggesting anyone stop using them; Lord knows I’m guilty of exaggerated proclamations all the time. And I’ve actually found myself buying into the claims with other games/media. The issue, at least with me, is that if something doesn’t quite live up to the hype, it can be even more disappointing. This is a common occurrence, and well documented in conversations about popular culture. Sometimes, things just can’t live up to the hype. Going into a high quality “something” with higher expectations can result in a more dissatisfying experience than going into something of lower quality while not expecting much.
This all being said, I like FINAL FANTASY VI. I do think it’s a great game, in fact. But I’m left considering the idea that I could have enjoyed it a lot more, and stopped drawing so many comparisons, had I not been aware of much of the discourse of the game. But I guess that’s the “burden” (being very sarcastic here) of following games and media so closely. However, I still got something out of that discourse. Knowing its significance to so many, I was able to enjoy the game’s historical impact, and how it did many things differently and laid the groundwork for things to come. There is no denying that FINAL FANTASY VI is an important game, and there’s certainly a joy to enjoying something with that impact. It just didn’t pan out for me the way it did for others, and that’s OK. FINAL FANTASY VI was a much-needed lesson in managing expectations, one I’ve had to learn before and one I’ll certainly learn again. But now that my expectations have been somewhat lowered by FINAL FANTASY VI, I’m now excited to check out OCTOPATH TRAVELER, a game that has been compared to it often, and see if its legacy has in impact on my enjoyment. Oh fuck, here I go again.
By the way, here’s my definitive ranking of the FINAL FANTASY games I’ve played so far: V>IV>II>VI>I>III. Sorry not sorry about the placement of II!