“The biggest omission in my backlog”

I always make a point of setting goals for the year, be it to diet and exercise more, or make sure to read a little more this year than last year, or simply get through games that I’ve missed.  2018 is no exception, as I decided to set a couple of goals targeting some of the most egregious gaps in my gaming “life”.

Over the last 3 years, I’ve finally gotten around to some of the iconic gaming experiences of the 90’s.  I’ve thwarted Mother Brain’s attempt to weaponize a bio-organism…again…in Super Metroid. I’ve traveled through the fabric of time to defeat Lavos in Chrono Trigger.   I’ve visited an alternate reality to save princesses and seal away an evil sorcerer in A Link to the Past. I’ve struck down a legendary vampire and his castle of minions in Super Castlevania IV. I’ve been to the moon and back while learning that there is a chance of redemption for our actions, even the worst ones, in Final Fantasy II/IV.  In every one of these cases, it’s felt so fulfilling to consume these games that are almost universally held in such high regard.

But this year was to be the year I address the biggest omission in my backlog – playing and finishing Final Fantasy III (or VI, for you purists).  

“…menacing with a hint of beauty…”

Although I do own the cartridge (and box/manual/maps – it was my first Midwest Gaming Classic purchase ever), I opted to go with the SNES Classic for this playthrough – more out of convenience than anything else.  I also took a cue from Caleb J Ross and found some beautiful artwork to serve as a wallpaper for the lock screen on my phone so I could look forward to returning to the game whenever I’d pick up my phone.

Visually, this game is iconic and shows exactly what late era 16-bit pixel art was capable of – from the opening trudge through the snow to the ascent of the final tower.  Even the smallest of sprites are so finely detailed and remain menacing with a hint of beauty throughout. This is especially evident once the enemies really start taking up more of the screen, and the final act has some of the most intimidating looking enemies and bosses – I’m looking at you, Demon, Goddess, and Fiend.

 

“Just about every track from this soundtrack resonates in some way with me”

 

I went into this game having heard most of the soundtrack, although I’d intentionally ignored track names for fear of spoilers.  Nobuo Uematsu’s work has never failed to please my ears, along the same lines of a John Williams or Hans Zimmer.  Just about every track from this soundtrack resonates in some way with me, some of the character themes now have even more significance: the cheerful, optimistic fanfare that is Locke’s theme, the driving pan-flute melody that makes up the theme for Terra (which to many has become the theme of the game itself), the emotional lullaby of Celes, and exuberant, royal overture that is Edgar and Sabin’s theme.  I was already fond of these tunes, but after spending time throughout the game and now understanding who and what they symbolize, I find myself now humming these on the regular, when the mood strikes me.

Party makeup is always an important component of any Final Fantasy games. Normally, I like to carry a party with 1-2 heavy physical damage dealers, supported by casters, one specializing in white and support magic, and the other far more skilled in damage dealing elemental spells.  I suppose unintentionally, the party members that fit those roles happened to coincide with ones having themes that stuck out to me – Terra, Locke, Celes, and Edgar/Sabin.

Now, I don’t often find myself getting attached to more than a handful of party characters in any RPG, and sometimes an overabundance of characters can dilute the experience for me.  In the case of Final Fantasy VI, I still found that most of the playable characters are uniquely interesting. Each has their own challenges and struggles, and the best part is that they can be molded to do whatever it is that they need to do in your party based on how you equip espers, learn magic, and boost stats at level up.  

Using espers as the vehicle to teach magic is interesting, but led to more grinding than I’d normally be ok with (although I should point out that I’m not against grinding in games).  Ultimately, you do what you have to do to get people the spells you need to win.

I can’t help but see some similarity in how FF8 handles summons, but reversed – in this, the character learns (and keeps) the magic skill even after unequipping the esper, where, in FF8, it’s the GF gaining (and keeping) junction, stat boost, and refine abilities regardless of which party member they’re junctioned to.  And let me rein this in before I start turning this into a conversation about FF8, because I most certainly could get carried away.

And while all of this flexibility in characters is a good thing, I still had some that I simply ignored when given the choice – the scholar/mage, Strago, the artist, Relm, and the barbarian teen, Gau, were uninteresting to me from a story aspect and I found some of their mechanics to be frustrating.  

  • Case in point – Gau is a barbarian version of a ‘blue mage’ (i.e. a class that learns enemy abilities – think Quistis from FF8 or Kimahri from FFX), but use of his primary Rage ability relinquishes control over him (effectively he’s berserked), and if you’ve selected the wrong rage type (say, one that includes an elemental attack for which the enemy has a resistance or the ability to absorb), you’re simply going to have to overcome that handicap for the rest of the battle or hope Gau gets taken to 0HP so you can resurrect and choose a new attack.  

Last thought on the player character front – I admit that I made a hasty decision about halfway through the game that eliminated my access to a character that everyone tells me is “So Cool”, but didn’t have a save that I could go back to remedy that mistake.  

 

“…my own world-altering incident”

 

And it was at that critical point of the game – when everything gets turned on its head – that I ran into my own world-altering incident.  We were going to list our house for sale, and needed to begin preparations to list and show the house. The SNES Classic, among everything else that I had on display, needed to get put away, and for the foreseeable future.  18 hours of progress with no guarantee of when I’d be able to pick it back up… I feared that the prospects of finishing this game this year, if at all, was in jeopardy. Walking away from an RPG of this scale can make it difficult to get reacclimated if/when you attempt to slide back in.

Months passed, the move occurred, a new game room was nearly finished being built up from a blank slate, and what happens to fall on the perfect week to serve as a nice bit of entertainment but Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ).  If you aren’t familiar with this speedrunning community’s semiannual week-long charity event, people speedrun some of their favorite games with donations going to charity. And lo and behold, what is the finale for SGDQ 2018? Final Fantasy VI

So I watched runner “puwexil” aim for a Glitchless Any% run through the game, and I used this opportunity to get all caught up on the story after having been away from it for months.  It was like watching the cliff notes – he didn’t waste any time with any more random encounters than he had to. I watched until the point where I knew I was (it was pretty obvious), and just like that, I was caught up to the story, and had a few new tricks in my bag.  I later came to find that his run was finished in under 7 hours, and that he’d turned it into a 100% run – DIRECT LINK

But it wasn’t until a few weeks later at C3, which I attended with my SNES Classic in tow, that I actually got back on the path toward finishing this game.  I knew there was no going back to retrieve this character I’d missed, so we could only proceed forward. There’s a moment, almost immediately following where I picked the story up with Celes (and Dean can attest to this) that I just sat with my jaw in my lap, hoping that what I just saw happen wasn’t real.  And thankfully, it wasn’t.

I sank maybe another 40 minutes in at C3, but that time got me moving again.  It was not long after I returned from Chicago that the game room was operational, and sinking my teeth back into this game was the priority – I needed to keep going, figure out what happened to the rest of my party and figure out what to do to fix what had gone so wrong with the world.  

Another 18 hours sunk into the game, and I came to a realization that I’d almost exclusively used the same party (Celes, Terra, Edgar, and Sabin) and had built them up quite a bit, but left everyone else in the dust with very few skills learned, which wasn’t going to set me up for the endgame very well.  So I worked through a few things, peppering in my unused cast of characters as much as possible:

  • I managed to find a cursed shield, and I worked to have the curse removed.  
  • I went after a few of the dragons, in the end leaving only 2 of them alive.
  • I grabbed some of the higher tier espers, and left a few (Odin, Bahamut, and a couple others) unclaimed.  I didn’t need Flare (and you’ll see why in a moment)
  • I skipped the Coliseum and the auction house entirely.
  • But I had all my friends with me, except the one – and found a couple new ones.

Looking back, I suspect that I ended up over-leveling.  I ended up at around level 45 for everyone heading into the tower, but with four of them able to cast Ultima.  To me, it was absolutely necessary for there to be parity across the whole cast, as the end gauntlet requires use of up to 12 of your characters, across 3 non-interchangeable parties.  Party makeup, item, and relic selection was critical.

  • How spread out should the groups be?  
  • Should I take Terra with Dualcast and pair her with Gogo to cast Ultima 4 times each round?
  • Maybe Sabin and Celes can provide a one-two punch and magic absorption necessary to shut down Behemoths and Evil Oscars?
  • Was it a mistake to give Locke Ultima – he’s not supposed to be a caster!?
  • Edgar, should he be a dragoon here, or my drilling armor buster?

In the end, what I thought may be a real challenge of a final run ended up being a bit of a steamrolling, but the crack as each new boss went down felt so good.  I know that I totally could have, but I’m happy that I powered through without having “min/maxed” each character.

Wrapping this up at about 44 hours, I truly enjoyed this game and am baffled as to why it took me this long to get to this point.  At the moment, I have a hard time determining where it sits among my favorite Final Fantasy games, or even my favorite games of all time, but considering that 24 years after its release, it still can have an impact.  This will not be the last time I play this game either, and I’d like to see if other editions of it have the same level of quality.

If you like turn-based RPGs at all and haven’t taken the time to play through this – it’s definitely one of the best, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

So now I look ahead at my other gaming goal for 2018 – Final Fantasy IX.  In the coming weeks/months, I’m strongly considering either “live-tweeting” about my progress on this game, or possibly streaming it.  Would love to have you along for the ride, in either case.

So here’s to closing gaming gaps – I hope you get around to some of your own, as well.