It’s difficult to pinpoint one defining aspect that makes Final Fantasy III (known as Final Fantasy VI when not plugged into Super NES consoles) stand out among most other Japanese role-playing games. Perhaps it’s this lack of a single defining factor, and its breadth in multiple aspects, that make it one of the best in its series, and in the genre: how it focuses the story on many key characters; its vast and versatile inventory of weapons; its attention to detail to all locales, gorgeous and desolate alike; its beautifully varied soundtrack. There’s plenty to pick from, as Final Fantasy III delivers on all fronts to fans of “old-school” and “new-school” JRPG’s alike.
Square almost always enraptures with its introductions, and Final Fantasy III’s opening sequence is no exception. This time, it’s an opening bell toll and a solemn three-note string phrase set to a grim narrative explaining the world’s near collapse a millennia ago, laid over an accompanying montage of scenes–including one eerily reminiscent of the Third Reich. We learn that the Emperor of a military nation seeks to find the secret to reviving and using magic, an ability lost as a result of the chaos so long ago. Following a short cutscene and dialogue, we’re treated to a bleak scene of the Emperor’s soldiers trudging through the snow in lumbering mechanized units, set to an almost depressing rendition of one of the principal cast’s theme music… complete with a credit roll.
Not only does the introduction set up the plot, it also sets high expectations for the aesthetics and production value. The game world is visually arresting down to its tiny details. The tile-based artwork gives color and depth to something as seemingly insignificant as grass, and a craggy disposition to mountain sides. Meanwhile, the sprites–even in super-deformed status–emote with vibrant charm. Seeing Prince Edgar’s grinning, sideways glance and finger wag for the first time is a moment to remember, especially upon the realization that it’s coming out of a 24×16 sprite.
Even still, the music arguably steals the show. Legendary Square composer Nobuo Uematsu plucks elements–instrumentation, phrasing, rhythms–from a wide swatch of musical archetypes including jazz, cowboy Westerns, Vaudeville, baroque, and romantic. Every composition fits the character, scene or environment it accompanies, and oftentimes the melodies are powerful enough to coax a strong emotional response. There’s even a mini-opera in multiple movements thrown in for good measure. The soundtrack is so masterfully varied, in fact, that it takes a minute to realize that it almost never blatantly relies on ethnic or world music styles–a somewhat cliché (though harmless) tactic used for many soundtracks.
Perhaps it’s because the story is never truly set up to take you on a journey between different faux-ethnicities. With the exception of the noble swordsman Cyan, and his Queen’s English, you won’t come across obvious replicas of classic stereotypes that reach the level of Fabul’s Asian kung fu practitioners from Final Fantasy IV or Red XIII’s tribe in Final Fantasy VII’s Cosmo Canyon. At first glance, the worldwide Pan-European motif may seem a bit mundane (if not offensive to some). The result is on the contrary: Even where some characters aren’t entirely fleshed out, they’re not without their idiosyncrasies. Joining Edgar and his finger wag is his twin brother Sabin’s predilection for flexing his muscles; Locke’s resentment of being called a thief (it’s actually “treasure hunter” if you ask him); and Cyan’s aforementioned British tongue.
On the side of treachery, there’s plenty of room for comedy, with wise-cracking octopus villain Ultros providing much of the legwork. Then there’s principal villain Kefka’s insatiable lust for power. Kefka, actually, is a brilliant creation and perhaps one of the most memorable villains in franchise history because you can never just call him deliberately evil. At least, not without addressing the fact that he’s very likely clinically insane and a sociopath. He wants power and will poison innocents to get it, but he’s not the prototypical badass with a sword; just take a glance at the nutcase, and you’ll find he looks more like a clown than anything, an image he solidifies with an iconic whooping laugh.
Taking things further, much care is taken into crafting meaningful back stories for the majority of the game’s principal cast to the point where this is reflected in the gameplay structure–a successful blend of exposition and gameplay, indeed. No single character steals the stage for the entire story. The emphasis will shift between several characters’ back stories and current plights, brought to light in flashbacks, present cutscenes, and playable sections during which you’re limited to only one or two of the cast–allowing you not only to witness, but also experience events as seen from the perspective of many characters. Final Fantasy III spices some of these character-driven scenarios up, asking you to sneak around (alone as a single party member) an occupied town undetected and donning a disguise; catching fish–while avoiding sick ones–to feed a dying friend; and even give line prompts during the aria of the aforementioned opera. Being made to play through these vignettes (as opposed to simply watching them) establishes a much stronger connection with the characters involved.
Though much of the focus is on connecting you with the world and its characters, Final Fantasy III doesn’t leave a gaping hole where its gameplay systems are concerned. Active-time battles return here, forcing you to make quicker decisions and spend less time wading through your menus. (Naturally, this is an option you can turn off.) You don’t get quite the level of customization of the Job systems found in its predecessors (and successors), and there’s not a whole lot to consider when developing your characters’ abilities, but it’s not for a lack of options. Restrictive “job types” are somewhat de-emphasized this time around, so some weapons and armor can be equipped across characters, giving you a bit of freedom in choosing how to prepare for battle. Each character can also equip two “relics”–special items that give the bearer special buffs such as increased speed, constant regeneration, dual-wielding and the ability to strike four times in a single turn (combine the last two on someone adept at melee, and you’ve got an eight-hit killing machine).
A potential point of concern is that Final Fantasy III arguably started the “everyone can cast everything without restriction” motif found in the Materia and Drawing systems of its two most immediate Playstation sequels. Magicite, the crystallized remnants of powerful magic-using creatures called Espers, are the key for learning spells. Each piece of magicite allows its bearer to learn a certain set of spells, as well as enjoy certain stat bonuses upon leveling up. Any character can equip any magicite, and with enough work, every single character in your roster will have learned every single spell–or at least, the game’s most powerful spell, Ultima. Armed with particular relics that reduce magic point usage (or even reduce each spell’s cost to a single magic point) and allow you to cast two spells in a turn, you can easily upset the balance of the game by spamming with your most powerful spells. In all fairness, if you’ve worked hard to the point where you’ve found all the appropriate relics and learned the right spells, this can just as easily be considered a reward for your efforts.
That said, Final Fantasy III is a bit easier than its predecessors. Thankfully, this means that it’s not entirely demanding with regards to level grinding, and while some of the major enemies are far from pushovers, the game as a whole is more accessible to a wider audience. It stays appealing to genre and series newcomers and veterans alike by providing the typical battle speed adjustment options, saving some of the more challenging battles for optional side quests and handsomely rewarding those who choose to challenge themselves. Still, there are plenty of monumental battles to be found throughout the main game, with Square using its trademark fantastic artwork and brutal attack patterns to get the message across. Getting to the finish line will take anywhere from 20 to 30 hours (with a handful of additional hours netting you hidden characters, the most premium of items, and coveted Level 99 status).
It’s truly not enough to say that Final Fantasy III’s greatness is due to Kefka as a villain, or its epic boss battles, or its aesthetic presentation. It’s not just due to its main character’s touching story arc, seeing as there is no true single protagonist. Indeed, it’s the combination of things that it does so well–the multiple stories that it tells and experiences that it offers–that makes it not only a defining moment in the series, but an important piece of role-playing history. By now, Final Fantasy III is well over a decade old and has been re-released on multiple platforms (under its proper name of Final Fantasy VI), but in that time it hasn’t lost the character, charm or memories that–to this day–inspire people to debate fiercely on its behalf during the heated “Best JRPG” discussions we’re all so fond of. Truth be told, it can count on at least one vote right here.
From the Trigames.NET Archive
Originally posted September 2nd, 2009