Did you ever notice that Final Fantasy VIII is the yin to Final Fantasy IV‘s yang? The latter entry mirrors its classic predecessor in oft-subtle ways. I’ve replayed most of the Sakaguchi-era FF games in the past few years, and having that retrospective drove the duality home. Now I’m wondering if the developers did it intentionally or not. Well what the hell, according to one of my old English teachers, symbolism counts whether the author intends it or not. Besides, I played the bejeezus out of these games when I was a kid and they’ve no doubt had some effect on on me as a writer, so I might as well get it out of my system: let’s have a chat about Final Fantasy.
The franchise has fallen on dark times: Final Fantasy XIII is a mediocre, half-finished rehash-on-rails, its direct sequel Final Fantasy XIII-2 somehow makes me look back on Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years more fondly, and the less said about the disaster that was Final Fantasy XIV’s online launch, the better. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 90’s, the Final Fantasy series was a console kingmaker, boosting the NES, Super Nintendo and Sony PlayStation in their respective contests. The fourth and sixth games appeared on the SNES in the States, and if they didn’t make the series “mainstream,” their popularity within a sizable niche is proven by a glance at a Nintendo Power from the era. I still have my copy of the original Final Fantasy, published in America by Nintendo and released on the NES in 1990, but then I was a huge nerd as a kid. It was the series’ debut on the PlayStation that introduced FF to the masses.
Final Fantasy VII was the Star Wars of JRPGs; it’s up there with Ocarina of Time and Metal Gear Solid on the list of 32-bit classics that revolutionized the way games told stories. But the gameplay remained fairly true to the formula at the core of every FF since Final Fantasy IV: watch some story scenes, travel to wherever they told you to go while killing monsters for experience and gil along the way, use the gil you win to buy better weapons and armor (and often magic), proceed with the next plot point until a new path opens up, repeat. With the series winning more mainstream success in the late 90’s, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi set out to revolutionize the genre’s gameplay in the next sequel. The result, Final Fantasy VIII, purposefully eschews traditional JRPGs concepts of the time.
At some point in the series’ history, it became customary for each entry to offer a new “system” by which the party could buff up. Like VII’s Materia system, VIII‘s Junctioning borrows liberally from the job/class systems found in III and V, though Junctioning tones down the extent to which characters can be made the walking uber-gods of the previous game. Our hero Squall encounters several Guardian Forces, or “GFs,” over the course of the story. These creatures can be “Junctioned” to one character at a time, and each bestows its user with a unique list of new abilities. Through the use of GFs, characters can also Junction stacks of magic spells to raise their vital statistics, so casting the same powerful spell repeatedly can have its price, even in a game without MP or cooldown. Magic is neither purchased/equipped (as in FFI-III, V and VII) nor learned (as in FFIV, VI and Tactics) but can be “drawn” from enemies and draw points around the world or refined from various items and other spells using GF abilities, as limited a resource as the party’s items, and swappable between characters like equipment in the previous games. The Junction system provides a bevy of options–immunity to various ailments, auto-activation of buffs, not to mention complete character stat customization using the level-up bonus abilities. The ass-covering accessories of previous games like ribbons and reflect rings are gone, but their effects are replicable through proper Junctioning. I do find it a bit odd that there’s no auto-regen ability, but it’s a small oversight.
Oh, and keep in mind that the game gives players access to the whole shebang right out the gate. You have to advance the story to set points before GFs with certain abilities become available (or you find items to teach your existing GFs new abilities), but it’s nothing like XIII, where there are arbitrary caps on your progress and you get a tutorial on basics like switching party members 30 hours into the game. Squall gains his first two GFs from his classroom desk at the very beginning of the game, and you can max out their ability lists by running around in circles on the beach outside the first town if you want to, though that would be rather silly.
The old grind-and-shop is gone because Junctioning removes the need for much of a traditional RPG party’s inventory. Monsters don’t even drop gil. Squall receives his pay at regular intervals, and how much he earns depends on a “SeeD rank” that rises or falls depending on the party’s conduct. Not that there’s much shopping to be done anyway, beyond keeping a supply of healing items. Weapons are the only equipment, and they can’t be bought or sold, only modified, a process that generally requires items won or stolen in battle. There are scads of items in the game, but most aren’t for sale. Some can be won or stolen from monsters, some can be refined from cards, some can be made from other items, some items can be leveled up, and so on. Many items can be refined into ammunition, spells, or scrolls that teach GFs new abilities. Looking back, I feel like VIII operates under the influence of the survival-horror genre. The need to seek out items and modify weapons, the emphasis on fighting single powerful foes as compared to previous FF games’ parties of cannon fodder, even the art direction, remind me of the early Resident Evil games. Capcom’s zombie series was a runaway hit on the PlayStation while VIII was in development, and RE inspired VIII‘s cousin, the survival-horror-RPG Parasite Eve, which was arguably as influential on VIII as Chrono Trigger was on VII.
For those attached to grinding, random battles will earn the party quick EXP, but leveling up alone does little to make Squall and crew seem more powerful because monsters rise in strength along with the party. Most combat is technically optional; the Diabolos GF, unlockable a few hours into the game, has the ability to turn off random encounters altogether. Compare this to the constant level treadmill, even the need for level-building before advancing the plot, in the older games. In Final Fantasy II, where one’s abilities rise with “use,” one of the most effective ways to gain strength is to have your characters attack each other in battle. In VIII there are a few major points where it feels natural to let the characters gain a few levels while they explore: after reaching Deling City on disc one, when most of the western continent and its three major cities lie explorable; after Balamb Garden becomes mobile on disc two; after the Lunar Cry and recovery of the Ragnarok on disc three. Like previous games in the series, VIII rewards exploring off the beaten path; finding out what new parts of the world map have opened up since the last plot twist often leads to new GFs, rare cards or monsters who hold the items necessary to improve the party’s weapons. But much of the exploration in VIII is social in nature, and although this is a story about a paramilitary organization staffed by child soldiers that fights witches for a living, a number of the side missions are solved with words, not fists.
Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi said in an interview years back that Final Fantasy V, the sandboxiest of the classic games, was his old favorite before IX (the nostalgia-overload entry that closed the classic era). Even discounting cameos from V like the Brothers and Gilgamesh GFs, the influence on VIII’s gameplay is apparent. Much like V, there’s no “right” way to play VIII. Want to avoid leveling up as much as possible, keeping the enemies at beginning-of-the-game strength for the entire game? You can. Want to charge right in and bump everyone up to level 100 on the first disc? You can do that too. Want to turn off combat and mostly just play cards and talk to people the whole game, outside the occasional boss battle? Sure, why not? One of my favorite playthroughs over the years involved assigning each character a classic “job” and distributing GFs based on that concept, so Squall was a Dark Knight (with Diabolos’ Darkside), Zell was a Monk (with Ifrit’s Counter), Irvine was a Paladin (with Brothers’ Cover), and Rinoa, Quistis and Selphie filled in the various mage/jack-of-all-trade roles.
All that said, it’s not perfect. Having Squall required in the party for 90+% of the game is a bummer because he tends to out-level everyone else, which is a big pain in the butt when enemies level up along with you. And while there’s no “right” way to play VIII, there are arguably some “wrong” ways, or at least ways that’ll make the game frustrating and time-consuming. And you can’t soft-reset during Triple Triad. And even when you set the battle mode to Active, the time bar’s still pausing all the time. There’s no way to review what Triple Triad rules actually mean once you’re mid-game. And so on. All that said, back in the day VIII might have had a reputation as the dark horse of the series, but nowadays it feels like one of the last classic FF games. Gameplay-wise, its successor is clearly X, the last great game in the series, and I suppose more distantly, XIII. It deserves credit for trying to turn the JRPG genre on its head, and in retrospect it and X did just that, for better or worse.
But I don’t think it was enough for Sakaguchi and Kitase to subvert the gameplay norms established by past games in the series. VIII subverts the story and characters of Final Fantasy IV, the prototypical episode that did so much to influence 16-bit console RPGs, in so many ways that I’m wondering if it was intentional. Both games tell the story of a pair of men who start on the same side of a war. One chooses rebellion, one chooses obedience. One rises in power and gets the girl, one falls from grace and winds up alone. As I’ll show, several of the plot details in VIII even mirror those in IV. It’s almost like the two are complimentary opposites, like…
Final Fantasy IV is the tale of Cecil Harvey, orphaned as an infant and raised as a son by the king of Baron, the most powerful nation in the world. His best friend is Kain Highwind, fellow orphan and ward of the king. The king of Baron asks Cecil to become an elite “dark knight,” and Cecil does so to honor his adoptive father. When the king asks Kain to study as a dark knight as well, Kain refuses and trains as a “dragoon” to honor his deceased father. Though Kain keeps it to himself, he’s in love with Cecil’s squeeze, their mutual childhood friend Rosa Farrell. As the story begins, Cecil faces ethical woes over his recent orders as captain of Baron’s “Red Wings” airship fleet, and after being stripped of his command for voicing those concerns to the man who raised him, he swears to himself he won’t murder any more innocents, even if ordered. When the king of Baron makes Cecil a patsy in the murder of more innocents, Cecil forsakes his former loyalties and takes up a personal war against Baron’s aggression and the man apparently behind it, the sorcerer Golbez.
The hero of Final Fantasy VIII, Squall Leonhart, is a child repeatedly abandoned his entire life. When Squall is very young, his mother dies while his father is off playing hero in faraway Esthar, and he and his adoptive sister are sent to an orphanage. Later his sister, Ellone, disappears as well. The proprietors of the orphanage, Cid and Edea Kramer, found Balamb Garden, a school that trains child soldiers. Squall is surly, yet he follows orders and he’s a gifted fighter, so Garden becomes a home that fits him. Squall’s longtime rival, Seifer Almasy, is more rebellious, yet with a strict sense of right and wrong that he’s quick to enforce as head of the “disciplinary committee.” Seifer also came to Garden via the orphanage, and like Squall he’s a candidate to join “SeeD,” the elite mercenary company stationed at Balamb Garden. Unbeknownst to Squall, he’s fate’s pawn, on the verge of leading a pre-destined war against a sorceress from the future, and he’s also about to fall for Seifer’s last-summer fling, Rinoa Heartilly.
As both stories open, the pairs are sent on a mission where the one in charge chooses to disobey their orders–Cecil chooses to save Rydia from Baron’s genocide (and Kain goes along at the time); Seifer chooses to abandon his post and follow his curiosity during the battle at Dollet (and Squall goes along at the time). Note the coincidence of the consequences here: Kain and Squall are both welcomed into the fold back home after these events, while Cecil and Seifer both become persona non grata. IV’s narrative follows rebellious Cecil as he flees Baron’s assassins and travels to other nations warning them of his homeland’s ambitions. Kain comes and goes from the narrative, often acting as an agent of Baron. It’s a morality play; the “good guys” don’t want to fight, but the “bad guys” are all, well, bad, and so it goes. It seems Kain is being mind-controlled by Golbez for most of the story, and Golbez is in turn the puppet of Zemus, a sorcerer on the moon. Cecil builds an international (and interspecies) coalition to fight an alien invasion, sticks his nose in all kinds of business that wasn’t originally his, and pretty much nobles and goody-two-shoes his way to the final battle.
But VIII turns it around, following Squall, the taciturn soldier who does what he’s told. During a mission to assassinate Sorceress Edea early in the story, we hear Squall’s thoughts on morality in war. Squall hops around the globe aiding insurrection movements and attempting to assassinate dictators because that’s what his superiors in SeeD tell him to do. Would Squall have a problem with storming into other countries and taking their crystals? Not if the headmaster ordered him to do it. It’s Seifer who believes in causes, Seifer who has a “romantic dream,” Seifer who leaps headfirst into international politics. He goes rogue on live TV, and afterward through some twist of fate becomes the lackey of the apparent villain, Sorceress Edea. The sorceress puts her “knight,” Seifer, in command of Galbadia’s impressive military. In response, the other characters hand command of SeeD over to Squall. At first this may seem to finally give Squall a degree of freedom, but the truth is he’s caught in a never-ending time loop. Our hero’s fated target is Ultimecia, a sorceress who lives in the future and mind-controls people like Edea in the present; after her defeat, Squall will briefly travel back in time to the orphanage where Cid and Edea Kramer raised him, and he will give Edea the idea to found Garden and SeeD in front of his childhood self. Everything he’s doing has, in a sense, already happened before. Hell, “Liberi Fatali,” the title of one of VIII’s main musical themes, translates to “fated children.”
So in IV, Cecil follows his heart, lives his dream, even commits treason, and gains everything he ever wanted. During the ending, Cecil and Rosa are married and crowned king and queen of Baron. Frienemy Kain spends most of the game doing what he’s told (magically or otherwise) and misses the party because he’s alone up in the mountains, “training” (which looks like sulking). But in VIII, Squall keeps his head down, does what he’s told, and despite having to break out of prison because he’s gullible, becomes commander of Balamb Garden because, well, time travel is funny like that. Putting Ultimecia in the ground conveniently involves dating Rinoa, Seifer’s ex, and Squall learns to lighten up.
Meanwhile, Seifer follows his heart, lives his dream, turns against the home he knew, gains everything he ever wanted for a short time, then loses it all and winds up an outcast by the end. Just as Cecil’s appearance changes (from dark armor to paladin get-up), Seifer visibly falls from grace, his posture stooping in later battles, his jacket tattered by the time Squall catches up to him in Lunatic Pandora. The developers even make a joke at Seifer’s expense during this final battle–Odin appears, something that normally happens to easily-dispatched non-boss enemies. To Seifer’s credit, he one-shots Odin, but then Gilgamesh takes him out, and that’s embarrassing for its own reasons if you know your FF. This is an inversion of the type–Seifer wants to be the hero of his own story, but he’s more quirky minor antagonist, closer to V’s Gilgamesh, VI’s Ultros or VII’s various Turks than the leads of any of those games. At least his best buddies Fujin and Raijin come back to hang out with him in the ending, which is more than Kain gets.
The major aspect of Cecil’s tale inherited by Squall’s is the father quest that fills in the backstory. In IV, Cecil is shipwrecked and washes ashore near Mysidia, a village of mages and soothsayers. They challenge him to take the trial of Mt. Ordeals–and to everyone’s surprise, Cecil succeeds. He encounters a light that calls him “my son,” and he is magically transformed into a paladin (think: badass knight with cure spells). Later in the story Cecil discovers this light was what remained of Kluya, his extraterrestrial father. In VIII, Squall and his allies slip into the “dreamworld” at several points in the story. Squall always finds himself in the role of quirky-go-unlucky Laguna Loire, a Galbadian soldier turned freelance journalist whose passion and charisma help him power through life even though he’s something of a dumbass. Besides giving chunks of the game’s backstory, the Laguna segments give Squall a fresh perspective on life and love, fill in the backstory on Esthar, Adel and Ellone, and explain why Squall’s father abandoned him.*
There are a number of other crossovers between IV and VIII outside the Squall/Seifer-Kain/Cecil tangle. Other characters and even whole story scenarios seem to be lifted from IV and twisted around. Just to name a few that stuck out to me:
For another obvious comparison between towns in the two games, listen to the theme song from Mysidia…
…and compare it to the theme from Esthar.
Hear the similarities? Story events in both these towns pertain to the hero’s father and the hero’s need to reach outer space. The difference is the level and manner of technology in the two stories. In IV, Mysidia is one of the most “advanced” civilizations on the planet because it’s a town devoted to the study of magic and lore. In VIII, Esthar is a city of super-science in a world already crawling with sci-fi tropes. Cecil’s quest begins in Mysidia; Esthar is the last stop on Squall’s world tour. The Esthar section of the game in particular features several inversions of IV’s tropes.
Speaking of the final dungeon, VIII’s creepy castle is also a subversion of IV’s subterranean maze. The end of Cecil’s journey comes after a journey through space. He descends into the Lunar Subterrane, going deeper and deeper until he reaches the moon’s core. Along the way the party can face optional bosses which have “sealed” some of the best equipment in the game. It’s possible to defeat Zemus without this equipment, but skipping those chests makes the final confrontation more difficult than it needs to be.
Squall’s final challenge follows a trip through time. Since VIII does away with most equipment, Squall finds his abilities sealed the moment he walks into Ultimecia’s castle. And when I say “abilities” I mean just about every damn thing the party can do besides attack over and over. Even menu options get locked out. The only way to unseal these abilities is to hunt down the optional bosses spread throughout the sorceress’ lair. It’s possible to take down Ultimecia without unlocking the party’s abilities–but why do things the hard way?
When Cecil finally reaches Zemus, the fiend transforms into a more dangerous being called Zeromus, and even then he’s not done changing forms. This trope has become a staple of Final Fantasy, but Zeromus was the first FF final villain to pull off a transformation in-battle.
That said, he certainly wasn’t the last. Ultimecia is fond of switching forms too.
And what do the heroes do after saving the world in both stories? Have a party, of course.
Is there anything hard-and-fast that you can point to as a sure-fire sign that VIII was meant as a complement to IV? Of course not. It’s entirely possible that all the similarities are coincidences. It doesn’t matter to me either way; noticing what seemed to be references to IV made my last run through VIII that much funner, and I’m not about to complain about that. Agree or disagree with the hypothesis as you will. Though I’d love to hear other thoughts on links between the two games.
If nothing else, I can say without reservation that I enjoy Final Fantasy VIII. I went back and forth on that for years. Looking back, maybe Squall–an introverted young man who seems to think he’s above his peers, who has major abandonment issues and seems to have “missed out on everything good in life” in his youth by self-defensively rejecting others–just hit too close to the mark when I was younger because boy does Squall remind me of myself when I was his age (and even a little older). Thank Eris I’ve since matured into more of a Laguna.
At least I think that’s an improvement.