Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
As you may have guessed from my previous posts, I love the Final Fantasy series. It ranks among my most favorite videogame series, and quite possibly my most favorite series in any media. While I can’t speak for every self-proclaimed fan, more often than not I have found myself personally and emotionally attached to the FF, and especially its characters and mythology.
So much so that I’ve decided to dedicate this post to my top ten favorite moments in the Final Fantasy series. Unlike my previous “Essential Ten” lists, I’ve decided to list these choices in order.
I want to stress that my choices are of my own personal preference, so please don’t consider this an “undisputed” list of the best FF moments, and don’t be alarmed if you don’t see a few classic and universally celebrated moments left out. I had to leave out a few moments I especially loved out so I could break it down to just ten, and I also made a habit to (partially) exclude the openings and endings that the games are noted for, since that would just make my choices even harder to sort out; there are a few choices that lead to said endings, but I chose to list my moments by a collective whole, and not just one specific, prettily rendered FMV. I’ll also be including the wonderful music that helped each scene come to life.
So while Japan players and importers enjoy Final Fantasy XIII, let’s take a look at what I consider the hallmark moments of games past. Also be mindful that there will be spoilers present.
Final Fantasy X had a ton of great moments, making it really hard to pick a favorite. And yet, whenever I wax nostalgic about the game, my first thoughts almost always come back to one specific battle between the silent (and criminally underdeveloped) Blue Mage/Dragoon hybrid Khimari and two Ronso rivals who had scarred him (emotionally and physically) in the past. The battle is strictly a one-on-two fight, but doesn’t carry the frustrations of previous single-character battles of FF games past.
The real clincher is how the battle immerses you as you play, as Biran and Yenke continue to taunt Khimari while surrounding him on both sides, and the sheer satisfaction you feel when you give the bullies their comeuppance; from a gameplay aspect, this single fight also gives you the chance to catch up on Khimari’s skills, as you are given a whole arsenal of spells and skills to use during this conflict.
Even though this fight comes and goes quickly, as the plot returns to the group’s objective to save the world, for a brief moment it became the most important fight in the whole game.
Final Fantasy V and I have a strange history. Like most NA players, my first official experience came with the PS1 release, as part of the Final Fantasy Anthologies package. Due to the incredibly inept translation, the infrequent spikes in difficulty, and the painfully generic story(even by JPRG standards), I initially dismissed FFV as a black sheep title that was better off staying in Japan.
However, giving the game a second shot with the GBA edition really opened up my eyes; thanks to a new translation that was by all accounts a polar opposite of the PS1’s version, I had finally realized that FFV was meant to be a lighthearted story, as if it was aware of its tongue-in-cheek nature.
Regardless of how I view FFV and what it was originally intended to be, there was one moment in the game that really stood out for me. After the party has been ensnared by Ex-Death’s trap, the elderly amnesic Galuf, through sheer willpower, manages to break free from his entrapment to battle the big bad wizard to protect his granddaughter Krile (a name I’ll never be able to pronounce. Grill?) from a fiery death. After freeing the child, Galuf proceeds to go mano-a-tree with Ex-Death.
While he’s burning alive.
What results next is an automated battle that’s more like a punishment of Passion-level proportions. Ex-Death unleashes a flurry of the most powerful spells in the game, each attack dealing an overkill of damage to Galuf to the point that his HP should be read as -9999. Yet despite this, the old coot won’t stay down, and through sheer determination he’s able to send the spell-casting shrub (get it? it’s because he’s a tree. nyuk nyuk) packing. Only then does he allow himself to finally rest.
To witness a party member endure so much damage almost makes a sword stab through the back seem tame by comparison. And to further dispel along and tired meme, the surviving members frantically try to revive their fallen friend with every potion and spell in their inventory, but to no avail. And to think this predates the more famous FF death scene by two console generations.
Often billed as a love-letter for fans by incorporating many nods and references to past games, Final Fantasy IX certainly opens strong with its tribute to one of the most cherished moments in series history, as Zidane and his fellow theater group put on a convincing show for the queen of Alexandria while they make off with her daughter. Like FFVI’s opera, players are given control of the characters during the play, but rather than match up the correct lyrics, you’re participating in a pretend battle while casting crummy special effects, perform a fancy display of swashbuckling (the bigger the applause, the more coinage you can net from the audience), and sneaking around the castle in back to apprehend the lovely princess Garnet.
After two stellar but dark-themed entries, it’s a breath of fresh air to see FFIX’s charming graphics and style tell a lighter tale, and the sheer fun going on during this performance ranks as one of the best sequences in the series to replay.
For an MMO that encourages strong friendships with fellow online players, it’s somewhat ironic that one of the strongest bonds you’ll make in the game is with a virtual NPC. Chains of Promathia was the second expansion to the already expansive Final Fantasy XI, and many fans (myself included) still consider it the best that the game has to offer. Much of that is due to the well-written story, which actually places your custom avatar as the leader of a non-playable party. Among the group is Prishe, an Elvaan girl trapped as an immortal child due to her cursed destiny. Despite featuring much scorn and abuse from those around her, Prishe’s strong will (and sharp tongue) helped her overcome her stigmatic labels and rise up as a defender of her village.
Even with a skilled party of trusted friends, FFXI can be a very difficult game, and in its pre-patched days CoP was far and away the most frustrating to complete. Fortunately, the payoff was often worth it, as you delved deeper into the story, eventually facing off against the titular God in an incredibly memorable final battle.
When the dust settles, your character and Prishe share a tender moment alone (non-romantically, mind you), as the immortal Elvaan finally drops her stone-walled exterior to confess her sorrow, only to have that sorrow turn to joy as she realizes that she has become a mortal again. As she sits silently while her friends gather together one last time to watch the horizon, the curtain falls on one of the best bonds you’ll ever have in this online adventure.
Final Fantasy VIII had the impossible task of living up to people’s expectations after experiencing the then-revolutionary Final Fantasy VII. Whether or not you believe the game succeeded in its lofty task is entirely up to you, but at least Square was smart enough to focus the majority of its media on the best moment in the game.
Drawing much inspiration from FFVII’s Bombing Mission, Final Fantasy VIII ramps up the intensity along with the visuals (which are such a huge step up, it’s sometimes shocking to believe both games were made on the same hardware) to create an action-packed, adrenaline-fueled war sequence that begins on the outskirts of an evacuated town and works it way up to a showdown atop a huge communications tower, followed by a frantic escape back to the starting point while being chased by a persistent robotic spider that just won’t stay down.
The Dollet mission was also successful in catching players’ interests twice in a row; first used as a pre-release demo to promote the criminally underrated Brave Fencer Musashi, the final game revamped the already impressive mission by revamping the FMV clips with finalized clothing and party members, as well as replace the original music on the grounds that it coincidentally resembled the main theme from The Rock.
Whatever you feel about the game as a whole, there’s no denying that this sequence ranks among the finest on any RPG.
Even though the story eventually “chickens out” by having most of its previously martyred characters miraculously survive, Final Fantasy IV still ranks as one of the darkest entries in the series. This is evident right from the start, as main protagonist Cecil is a Dark Knight whose hands have been stained with the blood of innocent people, all in the name of his king. The young knight is clearly tormented by his king’s orders, but he doesn’t have the will to turn against the man he once respected like a father.
All that changes when Cecil and Kain are ordered to deliver a mysterious ring to the village of Mist, which upon their arrival immediately unleashes a flurry of hell-fire that nearly kills all of the village’s inhabitants, save for one small child who was already grieving the loss of her mother. Shocked to learn that the Mist Dragon that he encountered earlier was an Eidolon controlled by the girl’s mother, Cecil’s actions had robbed the young girl of both her mother and her village in one fall swoop.
Finally vowing to revolt against his former master, Cecil takes young Rydia to safety, and vows to dedicate himself to protecting the young girl, even if she forever hates him. Surprisingly, little Rydia sees the genuine kindness within Cecil, and a familial bond is formed between the two.
From victim to surrogate daughter in one fell swoop, the relationship between Cecil and Rydia is one of the darkest ever conceived in an FF game, but also one of the most endearing. Cecil continues to hate himself for his past deeds, but uses his terrible mistakes to fuel his will to defend the world from his former kingdom, while Rydia’s pure and innocent nature to both readily accept the person who ruined her life, as well as dedicate her own power to protecting Cecil and his future companions proves why she’s one of the most celebrated RPG heroines of all time.
While the dynamic between the two is sadly cut brief as the game moves toward a generic “save the world” plot (including a last-minute revelation that is literally “out of this world”), the tale of a Dark Knight and his Summoner companion is still one of RPG legend.
I really wanted to leave out the spin-offs, prequels and sequels when making this list, and focus only on the numbered FF titles, but Crisis Core’s defining moment was just too powerful to ignore. Even though the game at its core (sorry) was a love letter for FFVII fans, even players unfamiliar with the game’s lore or characters should have no trouble warming up to Zack, the spunky and overconfident SOLDIER who was, by all accounts, a polar opposite of main hero Cloud…which also meant he was much more likable.
Far from a lighthearted game, however, Crisis Core told a grim tale of how impossible it is to fight one’s destiny, and that message was abundantly clear as players were given full control over Zack during his final battle. A battle which even series newbies should know by now is one he doesn’t win.
But despite this, Zack never loses his indomitable will, and rushes to face his impossible odds with a smile. If that wasn’t enough to get you pumped up, the DMV system evolves from a simple and quirky game mechanic and reveals its true purpose…a gateway into Zack’s fading memories. As the DMV gauge continues to break apart and malfunction, you’ll most likely find your own heart break into pieces as the final image displayed is that of Zack’s bittersweet affections for Aerith, an adorable romance that was doomed the moment it started.
As depressing as the game’s message may seem, Zack’s cheerful nature, even on his last moments, inspires hope as he leaves his dreams to his most trusted friend. As Cloud takes up the Buster Sword and silently walks toward his future, the story of Final Fantasy VII comes full circle, and Zack lives on through Cloud, as well as a legion of teary-eyed fans.
Chalk another one for the depressing list. In Final Fantasy VI, there are no shortage of moments where Celes, the former Imperial general who joins the side of good, is suffering, both mentally and physically. The moment you meet Celes, she is seen bound and beaten due to her traitorous actions. For a Super Nintendo game, it was a surprisingly brutal moment during the 16 bit era (though the scene was drastically toned down for the GBA edition), but that was just a precursor to the events to follow.
After the world has been torn apart by the power-hungry madman Kefka, Celes finds herself alone in a deserted island, save for Magitek engineer Cid, who watched over the comatose girl for a full year following the world’s destruction. Grateful for everything he has done for her, Celes decides to fully accept Cid as a grandfather, but their newly strengthened bond is a short one, as Cid’s body has reached its limits from starvation.
While what happens next is purely optional, whether you manage to feed Cid the sufficient quantity and quality of fish to sustain him, the results from failing to save him are far too memorable to ignore. Swallowed by despair and the belief that all of her friends are truly gone, Celes slowly makes her way up to top of a nearby cliff. The few seconds of silence are enough to have gamers arched toward their TV, wondering “she wouldn’t really….”, then gasping as she slowly falls downward, 16-bit tears flying from her face as she plunges to the ocean depths.
Since this would have been the worst Game Over ever, Celes does survive the jump, and ultimately decides to continue forward, now convinced that her love interest Locke may still be alive, but the shocking moment will forever remain etched into players’ brains. It is, without question, the darkest and most depressing scene ever from a Final Fantasy game, and one that most likely won’t ever be outdone.
With what may be the most popular and most celebrated RPG of all time, it’s very difficult to pick one defining moment in Final Fantasy VII. Many fans have went with the tragic ending to the first disc, but for me it would have to revolve around the events of Nibelheim. The story of Cloud and Tifa’s tragic past, and the downfall of Sephiroth as a world-class hero along with his rise as the world’s greatest enemy remains my favorite flashback moment in any RPG. But it’s the restoration of Cloud’s memories that serves as the final piece of Nibelheim’s puzzle, offering closure to the events of the past and putting everything into perspective.
After nearly an hour of bizzare gameplay, where Tifa must interact with a number of ghostly Clouds that serve as representations of his shattered mind, a hidden memory finally reveals itself, showing that Cloud was indeed present during the Nibelheim incident, only not as the 1st Class SOLDIER he believed himself to be. Instead, Cloud was a no-name Shinra grunt who accompanied Sephiroth and Zack, but in the end became the protector that Tifa always dreamed him to be. After losing consciousness from her near-fatal injury, Cloud rushes toward Tifa’s aid and manages to catch Sephiroth by surprise with a sword to the back (oddly ironic considering how Sephiroth performed a similar feat earlier on). Being nowhere near Zack’s level, however, Cloud doesn’t leave unscathed, taking an even deeper sword-strike to the shoulder by an enraged Sephiroth. Yet through sheer rage, Cloud manages to gain the upper hand and fling Sephiroth to his (temporary) demise.
To me, this moment will always represent the best in FFVII, as by coming to terms with his failures and muddled past, Cloud remembers that even though he wasn’t the hero he thought he was, he still managed to do what nobody else could. For romantics, it also shows how important Tifa was to Cloud, and how much he sacrificed of himself in the hopes that he could win her affection. This revelation makes the following scene between the two as one of the most bittersweet seen in any RPG.
But I only have room for one more, and that honor goes to….
So yeah, in the end I’ve conformed and chosen a scene that is likely on many people’s “best ever” lists. Final Fantasy VII may be the most popular RPG, but Final Fantasy VI (or III as it was known back in the American SNES days) is most certainly the most beloved…if that makes any sense.
Despite the constant and rampant praising for the game, it does indeed deserve all of it, and so does this particular moment. The concept is simple enough, and so absurd that it had to come from Japan: In order to entrap the gambler rogue Setzer and sneak aboard his airship, Celes must disguise herself and perform in an opera, where she conveniently resembles the lead singer, Maria. Once you get past the notion that she is able to develop a perfect baritone in the span of five minutes, you’ll be treated to the greatest graphics and music that have ever existed in 16 bits.
A story within a story, the opera tells a familiar tale of two warring kingdoms, where the fair maiden Maria (played by Celes) is held captive, separated from her beloved Draco. During intermissions, players control Locke as he checks in on Celes before her debut scene, and the two begin to develop a budding romance. The defining moment is Celes’ solo monologue, where players must choose the correct line of dialog to continue the play. It’s a simple but incredibly rewarding moment of interaction, as you are literally making music together with Celes. Throw in a scheming octopus and some improvised dialog, and you have a sequence that is not only terrific to look at, but fun to play as well.
It’s amazing how a small, ultimately filler moment is remembered as the defining moment for Celes and Locke (the music performed by Celes eventually becomes her theme during the course of the story), but in truth it goes beyond that: I can say, with full confidence, that not only is the opera the greatest Final Fantasy moment ever, it’s the greatest moment in the history of videogames.