Final Fantasy VI: Comic Opera

I’ve acquired the airship that inevitably appears in every Final Fantasy. In this installment of the series, the inevitable airship is owned by one Setzer, a notorious gambler and ne’er-do-well with a sideline in abducting attractive young opera singers. Still, the moment he’s mentioned, it’s completely clear that he’s destined to join the good guys. It’s clear because of the way he’s introduced: like all the playable characters, you get a brief scene of him standing against a black background with a few lines of text summarizing his character, and then you get an opportunity to change his name from the default if you like.

I wonder how many players actually take advantage of the renaming option? It seems like it would just create confusion. If I were to change Setzer’s name to something else — Jasque, for example — I’d still have to remember that Jasque is really Setzer whenever I talk about the game with anyone else or read online hints or anything like that. I guess that’s essentially what I ran into when I gave individual names to all my pokémon, but that strikes me as different. Those things didn’t have personalities. Setzer is a distinct character, with an author who isn’t me.

At any rate, Setzer’s in my party now, and has quickly taken over the Han Solo role. This part was previously played by Locke, the party’s thief, but his qualifications are merely that he’s a rogue with a heart of gold, whereas Setzer is a rogue with a heart of gold and his own ship.

But what about the attempted abduction of Maria, the opera singer? Surely kidnapping someone in the middle of a performance is more the sort of thing you’d expect from a deformed sociopath in a mask than from a charming rogue! Well, maybe. At one point before the performance an entity known as Ultros forges a letter from Setzer, hoping to mislead the heroes, so I had some suspicion that he might have also forged the letter announcing Setzer’s attempt to take Maria away (which, when you come right down to it, is a pretty stupid thing to write). But after consulting various wikis, I have to conclude that it’s not so.

Who is this Ultros character? When I first saw him sneaking around the opera house, my only thought was that he was a goofy-looking purple spider. But once I engaged him in battle, and got his full character portrait rather than the squashed-down 16×16 version, he turned out to be a goofy-looking purple octopus. Apparently I already encountered him once, but had completely forgotten about it, even though it had to have occurred less than a week ago. An octopus as a boss monster at the end of a river travel sequence is forgettable; the same octopus sneaking up into the rafters of an opera house and threatening to drop a four-ton weight on the prima donna is somewhat less forgettable.

To fully appreciate the situation, you have to understand that the opera content is played more or less straight, and is actually pretty impressively staged, given the 8-bit theatre. The music is convincingly impassioned and operatic, and even though the arrangement is for videogame console, it conveys enough to let us imagine the orchestra that should be playing it. A synthesized approximation of a singing voice accompanied by lyrics on the screen tell us a story taken from the gameworld’s history, one which I have a sneaking suspicion is going to tie into the main plot at some point. Like the overplot, it’s a story of the injustices of conquest. But even without the octopus around, there’s the matter that it’s all being done by 16×16 super-deformed sprites that emote, to large extent, by jumping around. During the normal course of play, I accept this as just a part of the medium, but here, the whole presentation has changed enough for the strangeness, the incongruity of form and content, to call attention to itself again.

AKA GourdskiIt all reminds me a little of Osamu Tezuka, the renowned “god of manga”. Tezuka’s comics often addressed serious themes, but he never forgot that he was ultimately a professional doodler. His characters were always these softly rounded caricatures, their gestures often ludicrously exaggerated. And whenever he felt things were getting too heavy, he’d throw in some gratuitous visual silliness to break the tension, most often the sudden appearance of a “hyoutan-tsugi”, which is something like a patched-up gourd with a piglike snout. Sometimes he’d suddenly have a multitude of them suddenly rain from the sky and bounce off people’s heads. Tezuka basically created the Japanese animation industry; as such, he’s indirectly responsible for the style of much of today’s imported Japanese culture, including Final Fantasy. Tezuka died when the Final Fantasy series was still in its infancy, so we’ll never know what he would have thought of what it became. But I think he would have approved of Ultros.

3 Comments so far

  1. Merus on 23 Nov 2008

    A minor correction – Final Fantasy VI is 16-bit, not 8.

    The opera scene was one I was curious to see your reactions to. It’s still one of the high watermarks of that era, partly because you can see Square struggling to overcome the technical limitations of the SNES, something they let get completely out of hand later in the series.

    I’d suggest, if you want to do anything more with Gau, going back to the plains where you found him and learning more attacks. Square is a big fan of making things permanently missable because they do a brisk trade in strategy guides, and I believe Gau will lose the opportunity to learn some of his potential attacks at some point after where you’ve reached.

  2. katre on 24 Nov 2008

    My father loves the Final Fantasy (and Dragon Warrior) games, and always takes the opportunity to re-name the characters after family members. Which has led to some surreal experiences when I’ve gone home, watched him play a bit, and realized that characters named after my brother and sister were trying to find dark elves to kill and level up.

  3. paul on 24 Nov 2008

    My sister and I always rename the characters, and we have trouble connecting the official names – Cloud, Tifa, Steiner – with the melange of names that have become canonical with us – Crumbcake, Noontime, Javert. Also, when Caolan played FF1, she named the four characters after people from the life of Admiral Nelson. But that’s a different situation because I don’t believe FF1 characters have default names.

    I recently played VI for the first time, and I was very impressed with the synth-operatic soundtrack of this scene, which was, on some notes, very convincing.

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