We’re at least a year out from the release of Final Fantasy XV and a lot of us are nervous to see if Square Enix can get it together and deliver the kind of definitive RPG experience we used to expect from the franchise after two underperforming MMO’s and a reviled trilogy that has turned all but the most hardcore fans away from the series. In the meantime, we’re getting a console remaster of the well-received PSP title Final Fantasy: Type Zero. Type Zero is the first M-rated game in the series to date, but if what I hear about the the atmosphere of XV is true, it may signal a new direction for the series towards more modern, gritty storytelling.
That’s all well and good, but I hope they don’t forget what brought us here in the first place: great characters on fantastic adventures that push the artistic limits of video games as an interactive art form. So to help us all remember why we should still care about Final Fantasy after almost three decades and dozens of main titles, spin-offs, sequels, re-releases, and even films and television series here are ten definitive moments in my long history with the games that dropped my jaw, blew my mind, and brought tears to my eyes. The kind of moments you never forget and keep you playing game after game, always searching for another. These are the most memorable Final Fantasy moments I’ve experienced.
Getting your eidolon on.
I know, I know; a lot of people hated Final Fantasy XIII and now you’re already mad at me for including it right off the bat. But here me out. If nothing else, the game was freakin’ gorgeous and featured a pretty sophisticated mythos. It’s just too bad that they didn’t bother explaining the latter until some 30 hours in. Still, this cutscene in which our outlaw heroes invade Cocoon is not only action packed and awesome, but it also showcases the game’s coolest feature: the summons. Each character is bonded to a Transformer-esque eidolon they can summon and control in real time and each of them are put on showcase in this eye-popping sequence.
A night at the opera.
One thing that the series has always had to its credit is the best scores of any series of games. Sure, we all remember the themes to Zelda and Mario, but Final Fantasy was on a different level of musical sophistication from the get-go and only in the last decade have other games finally caught up to the kind of musical epicness that’s always been a hallmark of this series. In Final Fantasy VI there was an honest-to-goodness musical number many years before decent voice acting was a possibility. With an unforgettable haunting melody combined with beautiful onscreen lyrics, a reluctant Celes played her part on the stage and created an interactive scene (you need to remember your lines) unlike anything else in gaming at the time, and one of the best parts of one of the best RPG’s of the 16-bit era.
May I have this dance?
Historically speaking, there’s usually not much to say about video game romance. Boy loves girl, girl gets kidnapped, boy saves girl, maybe the sprites smush together for some kind of hug/kiss thing at the end and that’s about it. As we’ll see later, Final Fantasy VII definitely upped the dramatic stakes, but VIII was the first game to really capture the essence of romance in this cutcene where our awkward hero Squall is wooed by Rinoa (dat smile….) with a dance that was another exceptional landmark in a series that is largely made of gaming landmarks. It was unlike anything else that had come before it in games and a moment where motion capture, music, and character blended together into something really special and emotional in a whole new way for the medium.
Ready to party.
It kind of seems wrong to leave out the original game in spite of the early 8-bit titles’ lack of really memorable story moments. Final Fantasy was Square’s last ditch effort to make something memorable before folding, and, as we all know, the fantasy ironically turned out to be anything but final. But what made it such a smash? I remember the early days of video RPG’s and how awesome the idea of doing it all digitally was at the time. Growing up watching Thundercats and He-Man and the usual stuff, it never occurred to me that I would one day assemble my own team of heroes on my television. Being able to handpick a diverse crew of warriors with different abilities and skillsets is now a typical gaming trope, but back in the day the concept was epic. Western PC games already had this covered, but the original Final Fantasy is the moment that JRPG’s really blew up on consoles and made us all take notice. You always remember your first, and for a lot of burgeoning geeks, this was it.
Here today, gone tomorrow.
The storytelling leap from the 8-bit era to the 16-bit era was a quantum one. III sported an incredibly sophisticated job system that has been reused many times over ever since, but in terms of story and character….meh. But IV on the SNES remains for me not only the moment that RPG’s became an unhealthy obsession, but my favorite game of all time as customization took a backseat to make way for genuine characters with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. If I was feeling self-indulgent, I could easily have drawn this entire list from just that game. But one of the biggest moments takes place a good way into the game, having spent the entire game thusfar meeting the cast and filling your party ranks with friends. Just as you have your party all leveled up and oiled into a lean mean combat machine, disaster strikes on a voyage and Leviathan sinks your ship. Cecil wakes up having been washed up alone on a distant shore with the fate of his friends unknown. It was the first time I ever felt loneliness from a video game. The unexpected tragedy and resulting melancholy made this one of the best moments of a perfect RPG.
Downward, to glory!
Final Fantasy X stands to a lot of people as the last great title in the series, in spite of its linear nature. Whether it will end up being the last great one or not, its quality is pretty hard to argue against. Modern gamers have labeled the heroine, Yuna, as a damsel in distress since the story revolves around a group of guardians tasked with protecting her, but the truth is that her combination of magic and summoned monsters is indispensable in combat, and she’s an incredibly strong character all around. Case and point: her epic escape from her own wedding. While Tidus and company swoop in to save the day, Yunie shows them that the wedding was part of her own scheme and she didn’t need their help before jumping off of the airship like a total boss into the wings of her summoned aeon, Valefor; saving herself in epic fashion. Damsel that!
Final Fantasy IX was a return to form for the series after VIII’s departure into realism, angsty drama, overlong summons, and terrible magic systems. Not to be too hard on VIII, but I was extremely pleased by this. The moment I remember having my jaw dropped in this one was the unleashing of Bahamut. To put into perspective how amazing this was at the time, you should remember that this came out on the same console as Final Fantasy VII. PlayStation gamers were geeking out over VII‘s graphics a few years before, so imagine how amazing it was to experience the above scene in all of its destructive glory. The dragon has been a series mainstay since the very first game, but he was never more awe-inspiring than he was here.
All grown up now.
On to my favorite moment from Final Fantasy IV, this was the first video game scene that broke my brain. It actually links to the fifth pick on my list where you lose your entire party to a Leviathan attack. Part of that crew was Rydia, a little girl with fledgling summoning powers who was among the first characters you encountered. In spite of her magic pedigree, she was almost helpless when you took her on as a charge and was just beginning to come into her own when you were separated. Fast forward to later in the game as you confront the archvillain Golbez, who paralyzes your entire party before casually striking them down one by one. Seconds before he delivers the coup-de-gras to Cecil, a summoned monster appears and blasts Golbez before a mysterious offscreen character heals you. Epic boss musician kicks in as your savior steps into rank to help you fight. It’s Rydia, now a young adult with a nuclear arsenal of black magic and summons. I pretty much completely freaked out the first time this happened and it still gives me goosebumps every time.
No future for you.
When you ask about memorable FF moments, this tops a lot of lists. For a lot of people, Final Fantasy VII is remembered as the first game to make them cry and the death of Aeris still carries a lot of weight all of these years later. We all know how this damseling thing works: I explained it in my third pick. But not this time. Cloud confronts Sephiroth fully confident that he would beat the baddie and rescue his girlfriend. Instead, he got to see her get speared through the back and die in his arms. And just to rub salt in a wound that never closed, Square scattered items specific to her throughout the rest of the game, as if she was supposed to be there and you, the player, just freakin’ failed and now you have to play the game without your healer. Loser. Gamers were certain that this couldn’t be and searched feverishly for some theoretical secret way (finding the bead that fell after she was stabbed was a popular one) to bring Aeris back for years, but nope. She was just gone and not even the pleasure of destroying the evil bastard who killed her could bring her back.
This is it, the Apocalypse.
Final Fantasy VI had its issues, but it still stands as an amazing game and features probably the most epic and gutsy development I’ve ever seen in a RPG. VII may have been the game that broke our hearts, but that’s only after VI destroyed the whole world. VII had to aim for intimate because it doesn’t get any more epic than Armageddon. The villainous Kefka and his mocking laugh turned traditional video game plotting on its head by actually succeeding in obliterating civilization, leaving the player to watch the lush world they’d just explored be blown up and reduced to a barren wasteland, where Celes wakes up all alone, the fate of the game’s main heroine, Terra, and the rest of the characters unknown. It was similar in tone to IV‘s Leviathan attack, but with the stakes so much larger and the added wrinkle of a missing protagonist. Even today in the age of grittiness, it’s rare to see your heroes fail so utterly. In the 90’s it was practically unheard of, and that’s what makes this the ideal anchor for this list of Final Fantasy epicness. If XV can give us at least one more moment for the pile, I’ll be satisfied.