Final Fantasy VI: The Air Blade Trap

My last session ended at a wall: a confrontation with a trick boss. I haven’t yet got its measure down completely, but it cycles between two forms with different attacks and different weaknesses. I’m going to have to do some probing, then probably go back to the last save point (located conveniently outside its lair) and pick out more specialized equipment.

At this stage of the game, bosses of this sort are the only fights that present any difficulty at all. In particular, Sabin has a move called “Air Blade” that’s basically the “win fight” button, doing at least a thousand points of damage, and usually substantially more, to all enemies. Since it’s one of his moves that requires a hadouken-like rotating sweep of the D-pad, I don’t always execute it successfully, but that just means I endure one round of attacks before I get to try again. The rest of my party is basically just there to absorb damage, and sometimes to reduce the enemy’s ability to dish it out. Most of my characters have learned most of the spells available in the game, but the only ones I really use are the healing spells. Only the bosses force me to exercise my options more fully.

But then, I suppose that abusing Sabin isn’t my only choice. For example, I could probably do just as well through power-spellcasting. I got used to conserving mana in the early parts of the game, but that isn’t really a necessity now: my characters are rolling in the stuff, and pulling in enough cash to maintain a wagonload of mana restorative items. Ordinary melee attacks plus damage-enhancing items is also probably a valid approach; as it is, I’m keeping my characters mainly equipped with stuff to ward off status effects, which makes success in combat more certain, but reduces the variety of the experience. As I once said about Diablo, it’s important to have a strategy, but it doesn’t really matter what it is.

But personally, I find that once I hit on one approach that works, I tend to stick with it until it stops working. This may mean I’m the wrong sort of player for this sort of game, but if so, a lot of other players are in the same category. I remember this being a particular problem in Final Fantasy VIII. Summonables become available extremely early there, and were unusually cheap to cast, and for much of the game were as good a battle-ender as Sabin’s Air Blade. So a lot of players, it seemed, just used a summon in every fight, until they either got tired of watching the summon animations over and over and quit the game, or finally hit a battle where summoning alone didn’t cut it and abruptly had to learn to use the rest of the combat system. FF8 is usually considered one of the weakest of the series, partly (though not entirely) because of this problem. And I can see the same thing happening on a smaller scale here.

Final Fantasy VI: Now where were we?

It’s been over a year since my last session of FF6. I’ve spent a little while rereading my previous posts to remind myself of what was going on, so here’s a brief recap: Kefka destroyed the world. Characters in the game say as much. He continues to destroy it from time to time, clobbering towns with his destructo-beam for giggles from atop his unassailable mile-high tower, but the indomitable survivors continue to rebuild. Likewise, the player is rebuilding the party. You start with only Celes, who was once an imperial general, but whose main role in the story is that of girl. Before my hiatus, I had found Sabin, martial artist with his own special martial-arts-move interface, and I was stalking someone who looked exactly like Edgar, gadgeteer king, but who claimed not to be him. And by the end of my latest session, I had added Edgar to my party, as well as Setzer, shady gambler with his own airship. That airship was destroyed during the apocalypse, but once he was convinced to rejoin the old gang and topple the tower — something best attempted from the sky — he unveiled a replacement, called the Falcon, just in case you hadn’t caught on about the Han Solo wannabe thing yet.

Now, I hadn’t planned to take so long to get back to this game, but it seems to me that if there’s one spot in the game that’s ideal for an extended break, it’s here at the beginning of the second half. You get the player characters and their abilities introduced afresh, one by one, and until you get the airship, your choices about where to go are constrained, making it less important that you don’t remember what you were doing. My one regret is that I didn’t cut things off soon enough to get the full effect. If I had started this session with Celes still stuck alone on her island, I’d have essentially no immediate context to try to remember. As it is, I started off between a cave and a town, and didn’t remember which one I was headed towards and which I had just left — or, indeed, if I needed to go somewhere else entirely. I wound up wasting some time wandering around in a desert having random encounters. But I suppose I needed that time to refamiliarize myself with the combat mechanics, and, in particular, to relearn Sabin’s special moves (or at least the few worth using).

Still, I have to say that getting back into this game has been a joy, especially in comparison to the other games I’ve been playing lately. It definitely has by far the greatest sense of professionalism of everything I’ve hit so far in this year’s chronological rundown — in contrast to everything else, it doesn’t feel at all rushed or ill-conceived or technology primitive. Was 1994 some kind of turning point for the industry? Perhaps it’s the difference between console and PC games? Or maybe it’s just that I’m playing the 1999 Playstation remake instead of the original SNES version, which definitely has an impact on the UI, if nothing else.

Chrono Trigger: Mass Destruction

Having now been through scenarios past and future, I reach what seems to be a sort of time-travel hub. Described as “the end of time”, it’s your basic stone platform in an inky void, with a mysterious elderly guardian-of-the-balance type on hand to explain things. There are a few permanent time portals there, including one back to the present. (That is, the time period in which the game starts. To some of the player characters, it’s the past or the future.) But it doesn’t go to the same geographical location that you started in. It goes to Monstertown.

That’s not its real name. It’s just a more descriptive name than the real one, which I’ve already forgotten. Regardless, it’s the place where an evil wizard tried to take over the world 400 years ago, and it’s still inhabited by the descendants of his minions, who still bear a grudge against all humans for defeating him. Not an attack-on-sight sort of grudge like most monsters, just a seething prejudice and an active project to eventually summon a Godzilla-like lava monster to lay waste to all human civilization. And when I say “Godzilla-like”, I mean it’s an obvious metaphor for nuclear weapons. The future you visit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with starving survivors huddling in shelters and mutants in the ruins outside, and it was Lavos who made it that way. The present seems to be in a state of cold war.

It seems to me that East and West have different trends when it comes to post-apocalyptic scenarios. Japan is the only nation on Earth to be the target of a nuclear attack, and understandably has never forgotten it. America is the only nation to have launched a nuclear attack, and has done its level best to forget. Thus, in American games with post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Wasteland and the Fallout series, the details and origins of the conflict tend to be either lost to history or just not particularly relevant to the story — the world has moved on and developed new bad guys from the chaos following the war, and thus has more important things to worry about than who nuked who. Japanese games, on the other hand, are generally very clear that whoever activated the doomsday device is the story’s villain. We see this most clearly in the Final Fantasy games, where, as I’ve noted before, the world tends to get destroyed at the end of the first half. In FF5 and FF6, even after the world is shattered, the villains continue to target individual cities for destruction with city-destroying weapons.

Chrono Trigger: Special Attacks

Chrono Trigger‘s combat system is essentially the ATB system from Final Fantasy: each character has a gauge that fills up (at a rate determined by their Speed stat), and when it’s full, they can take an action, such as attacking an enemy or drinking a healing potion. When you use special “technique” attacks, however, things get a little different.

I talked recently about special attacks in Final Fantasy VI, including Cyan’s “sword techniques”. I mention this to avoid confusion: “Techniques” in CT have nothing to do with that. Instead, they take the place of spells. All Techniques require “Magic Points” to use, even the ones that clearly involve nothing more than swinging a sword around in a fancy way. Every character has their own unique set of Techniques. Some simply do more damage than a standard attack, while some have more spell-like effects, such as healing damage or putting enemies to sleep. But the special thing about them, the thing that makes Chrono Trigger combat different from standard ATB, is that many of them are affected by the geometry of the battlefield. There are basically two variants of this: those with ray effects, and those with burst effects. In either case, you target a specific enemy. Rays will effect anything in a straight line between your character and the target, while bursts affect everything within a certain distance of the target.

It’s not really a very advanced concept. Plenty of games before and since have had similar area-of-effect rules. But it combines oddly with the ATB system, particularly when you take into account two things: (1) You can’t move during combat, and (2) the enemy can. (Please understand that the player has absolutely no control over where the player characters put themselves when battle starts: even if you approach the monster from a different direction, the team will dutifully run to their assigned spots for that encounter when combat mode begins). The ultimate effect on gameplay is that you can wind up spending a little time waiting for the randomly-wandering foes to line up or cluster together in order to get the most out of your mana. Now, I complained about how Cyan’s sword techniques in FF6 forced the player to sit there and wait to use them, and considered that particular UI experiment to be a failure. But the CT system doesn’t force you to wait: it simply gives you an incentive to wait voluntarily. And I don’t often do so, but occasionally it’s worth it.

Voluntary waiting is also the effect of the other new feature of the Techniques: combinations. Specific pairs of characters — or even trios, supposedly, although I have yet to see this in action — can perform their Techniques together for synergetic effects. For example, Crono, the main character, has a “cyclone” Technique that lets him do burst damage by leaping into the middle of the enemies and swirling his sword around. Lucca, the tech girl, has a Technique that does a ray of fire damage. Do them together and Crono uses his swirling sword to deflect Lucca’s fire ray in all directions, doing a large amount of fire damage to all foes. (Weirdly, there’s another Technique where Crono does the same thing to Marle’s healing-aura Technique, in which case the deflected magic misses the monsters and hits all the PCs.) But in order to do a combo attack, all of the characters involved must be ready to act. Since everyone’s action gauge fills up at a different rate, this means sitting and waiting sometimes.

Final Fantasy VI: Boredom and Despair

Since nothing much interesting happened during my last session, let’s back up a bit and describe the beginning of the World of Ruin section of the game. After the dirigible wreck, the curtain opens on Celes waking up from a coma. Perennial FF bit-player Cid is looking after her, and she immediately develops a granddaughterly attachment to him. Yes, Celes, former General of the Imperial Army, has been reduced to childishness. This is really just par for the course for her, though. When we first encountered her, she was in a state of complete helplessness, imprisoned and interrogated by her former colleagues. Her one other big moment in the spotlight was one of forced feminization, shanghaied into impersonating a prima donna and singing about how she longs for a hero to rescue her. Progressive it ain’t. One imagines the producers saying “Whoa, Celes is career military? That’s not traditionally feminine at all! She might alienate female players, those delicate flowers. So we’d better wimp her up a bit more on the story level just to be on the safe side.”

But anyway, Celes is all alone in a broken world with Cid, who quickly takes her place in the sickbed. Cid says that there used to be other people on the island, but they “died of boredom and despair”. Once you leave the shack, you quickly realize two things about the world map: it’s radically changed, and you can’t reach most of it. You’re stuck on a small island with no way off. You naturally wander around for a while, but there’s nowhere to go and no goals to pursue. Perhaps you’re afraid at first of getting into random encounters, because you’ve got only one character and most combats are calibrated in difficulty for three or four. But in fact you have nothing to fear: the monsters on this island are so pathetic, they just die spontaneously even if you just stand there doing nothing.

I’m reminded a little of that essay about Metal Gear Solid 2, positing that it was designed specifically to deprive the player of expected rewards. On Cid’s island, the very activities you’re used to are stripped away: you can’t meaningfully explore, and you can’t meaningfully fight. All you can do is keep going back to visit Cid and monitor his deteriorating condition. Boredom and despair! Eventually Cid dies 1I’m told that there’s actually a way to cure him, but it’s obscure enough that most players are guaranteed to miss it unless they’re playing from a walkthrough. , and Celes attempts suicide by leaping off a cliff. This moment is accompanied by an instrumental arrangement of the aria Celes sang atop the castle in the opera scene, and the climb up the cliff is a visual echo of the ascent that set — reminding us again of Celes’ need to be rescued.

Of course the suicide attempt fails: she washes up on the beach, and shortly afterward manages to get off the island by means I won’t go into here. I’ve ranted before on multiple occasions about how the gameplay and the narrative in Final Fantasy essentially exist in different worlds. This whole sequence is a rare example of the opposite: the gameplay, including random encounters, reinforces the narrative and emphasizes the intended mood. It’s telling that this happens in a scene where you have access to only one character, giving the author more control than would normally be the case.

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1. I’m told that there’s actually a way to cure him, but it’s obscure enough that most players are guaranteed to miss it unless they’re playing from a walkthrough.

Final Fantasy VI: Time Limits

I’m progressing slowly, but I’m progressing. The latest roadblock is a scene with a time limit, recuing a child from a house that’s about to collapse. I don’t particularly like time limits at the best of times, and it seems to me that the Final Fantasy games have aspects that make them particularly annoying. Random encounters are delays, and they’re delays that crop up unpredicatably and uncontrollably while you’re trying to do something else. It makes me impatient, and once I’m impatient, I start bristling at little things like the seconds spent on uninterruptible UI actions like bringing up the combat interface and shutting it down again.

It follows pretty close on the heels of another timed sequence, too: the escape from the Floating Continent. There have been time limits in other Final Fantasy games, but not with this density. That escape wasn’t so bad, though, because the fights were winnable quickly: there was usually only one foe, so everyone dogpiled on and wiped him out without having to wait for their ATB timers to fill up a second time. In the new one, I only have one character to use, and she has to take on multiple foes at once. The closest thing I have to a power that can wipe out an entire group at once is the Esper summons, and if I use those, I have to sit through an impatience-aggravating summon animation. It may actually be worthwhile to run away from battles for once.

Final Fantasy VI: Special Interfaces

If Final Fantasy V was a big experiment in different character abilities, Final Fantasy VI is where they started experimenting with different ways to activate those abilities. Several characters have special interfaces in the place of the series of menus that is game’s standard for most interactions.

The simplest of these is Cyan’s “Sword Technique” interface. As he gains levels, Cyan gains a number of different sword moves, and each move has a number. When you select “SwdTech” in the combat interface, a progress bar starts filling up, waiting for you to press a button. The bar is labelled with numbers; pressing the button activates the technique corresponding to how long you waitied before pressing it. It’s an interesting approach to take in combination with the ATB system, because you can imagine weighing the power of the more advanced moves against the time you have to spend standing there waiting while the monsters still attack you. But since this also makes you delay giving orders to the entire rest of your party, it seems hardly worthwhile. So in practice, I almost never use anything other than Technique #1. Maybe this will change as I learn better techniques, but I’m tentatively willing to call this particular UI experiment a failure. And it seems Squaresoft agrees; I don’t think they reused this interface in any later game.

Sabin’s interface, now: that’s been passed on. Sabin is an expert in unarmed combat, and has a system apparently inspired by the special moves in Street Fighter-style fighting games. When you select “Blitz” in the combat interface, you have to press a series of buttons and/or D-pad directions, such as left-right-left or triangle-square-down-up, to indicate the move. If you enter an invalid combo, Sabin does nothing. And that’s a serious possibility. Not only does it require memorization (or, alternately, note-taking), but I find that the moves containing diagonals can be difficult to execute: a sequence like down-down/left-left pretty much has to be done in a rolling motion, and it’s far too easy to roll too far or not far enough with the controller I’m using. Still, it’s a lot easier than doing a special move in a real fighting game, because you can take your time and don’t have to worry about being interrupted.

Setzer’s special-move interface, on the other hand, is entirely timing-based. Or rather, if you’re me, it’s luck-based, but gives you just enough illusion of control to make it feel like you might be able to get the effects you want if you could just time it a little more precisely. It’s one of those slot-machine-like things where you get to stop the spinning wheels, one by one, by pressing a button — get them to match, and you can do a devastating magic attack, or summon a random summonable for free, or various other effects. Effects aside, the basic interface here is one I’ve seen as a minigame or bonus round in a few other Japanese games, including Pokémon and, in a slightly varied form, Super Mario Land. I suppose there are people who have mastered the skill and excel at getting Japanese bonuses. I personally can never do anything with it, and was glad when I acquired an artifact that replaced the Slots interface with something I could actually use: a skill that lets Setzer simply deal damage by throwing money at the problem. The interface to that? You just select it in a menu.

Final Fantasy VI: Repetitive Activity Revisited

I wish I could say that I made some real progress in my last session. I put together a team that could beat the ninjas and dragons of the floating continent — and I emphasize that these are not just your garden variety IronFists or WireyDragons or any of the other qualified variations encountered earlier in the game, but Ninjas and Dragons, the definitive versions, as befits the guardians of the secret source of all the world’s magic. But they’re not the only things keeping visitors out. The whole floating continent is a maze with trigger-spots that change it when trod on, and I managed to get into a position where a crucial trigger-spot for moving forward seemed to be no longer accessible. I had no idea that was even possible.

I had no choice to go back to the airship, and while I was there I figured I might as well check up on a sidequest that I hadn’t managed to finish, and that took me near the Veldt, so I figured I should take Gau and Strago out for a spin to see if they could pick up any new moves. 1I’ve described the mechanics around Gau and Strago in previous posts, but to recap: Gau is a wild-boy who attacks by imitating monsters. In order to learn how to imitate a monster, he has to observe it in the Veldt, which is kind of like a retirement home for things you’ve defeated elsewhere (even things that are highly location-specific, like security robots). Strago is a Blue Mage who can learn specific monster attacks as spells. Unlike Gau, he doesn’t have to learn them in the Veldt, but it’s a good place for him to pick up things he missed. Within three or four encounters, Gau learned the secrets of the Ninja. But the Dragon I encountered shortly afterward bested my party. And once that happened, I didn’t want to leave. Not until Gau could do the Dragon.

To change topics out of the blue for a moment: The first computer I ever programmed was a TRS-80 Model 1. One of the first simple BASIC programs I came up with was one that filled in randomly-selected pixels in an infinite loop. The slowness of TRS-80 BASIC (considered slow even in its day; serious TRS-80 programmers used assembly language) meant that you could sit there and watch it fill in the pixels one by one. Eventually it would fill in the entire screen, 2Years later, I tried replicating the program in GW-BASIC on an IBM PCjr, and was horrified to discover that it did not fill in the entire screen. The random number generator was so bad that you wound up with a bunch of neat diagonal stripes instead. but you could spend a while waiting for it to randomly select the last unfilled pixel. In fact, you could spend a while waiting for the second-to-last pixel to fill in, and then you’d spend on average twice as long waiting for the very last. 3Or, hm, maybe not. What I really mean is that the expected number of random choices to fill in one specific pixel is twice the expected number of choices to fill in either of two specific pixels. But the ratio of the expectation values is not necessarily the expectation of the ratio. But I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Such were the amusements we found for ourselves in the days before JRPGs. At any rate, I spent some time in the Veldt, doing the things that were tedious when last I played, but which just now seem lazily relaxing. (Such is the effect of context on one’s gaming experience.) Everyone’s learned more of the standard spells. Strago picked up a couple of blue spells that I didn’t know existed, in one case by watching Gau use it in animal-rage mode. I’ll have to remember that that can happen. Ironically, Gau is probably the character to benefit the least from the exercise. Yes, I did eventually meet the Dragon again (or maybe a different one), but the entry for it is so far down on Gau’s list that I doubt I’ll have the patience to scroll down to it often. Gau would be so much more useful if I could rearrange that list.

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1. I’ve described the mechanics around Gau and Strago in previous posts, but to recap: Gau is a wild-boy who attacks by imitating monsters. In order to learn how to imitate a monster, he has to observe it in the Veldt, which is kind of like a retirement home for things you’ve defeated elsewhere (even things that are highly location-specific, like security robots). Strago is a Blue Mage who can learn specific monster attacks as spells. Unlike Gau, he doesn’t have to learn them in the Veldt, but it’s a good place for him to pick up things he missed.
2. Years later, I tried replicating the program in GW-BASIC on an IBM PCjr, and was horrified to discover that it did not fill in the entire screen. The random number generator was so bad that you wound up with a bunch of neat diagonal stripes instead.
3. Or, hm, maybe not. What I really mean is that the expected number of random choices to fill in one specific pixel is twice the expected number of choices to fill in either of two specific pixels. But the ratio of the expectation values is not necessarily the expectation of the ratio. But I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Final Fantasy VI: Onward to Ruin

It’s about time I got back to this, don’t you think? Last night’s session was pretty short, and didn’t really accomplish anything, so let’s just have a brief recap and status update.

When last we left our eclectic band, they were stalling by finishing up side-quests before tackling General Kefka on the floating continent that’s the focus of all the world’s magic. As soon as they defeat him, they will plunge irreversibly into Part 2, which takes place in the wracked and riven remnants of the world they knew. I’m told is called the World of Ruin. And frankly, I think I’m ready for it.

I wish I could say the same for my characters. The party I sent forth to conquer the floating continent this time was repeatedly and frustratingly trounced by roving dragons, ninjas, and weird abominations. I know I managed to get past this bit before, but I don’t remember who I had in my party at that point — presumably someone more useful in combat than the combinations I’ve tried this time around. I’m pretty clear on the story so far: empire, magicite, espers, etc. But what was I doing with the party? I know I was trying to keep advancing all the characters, both in levels and in trainable skills, so I kept swapping them around and changing their equipment. It’ll take a little while to get back into this. Maybe I’ll know what I’m doing by the time I destroy the world again and start advancing the plot.

Final Fantasy VI: The peculiarities of Blue

Let’s talk about Blue Magic for a moment. Blue magic isn’t really all that important to the Final Fantasy series; it’s more or less a sideline for completists. All the really important magical effects — direct damage, healing, buffs and debuffs — are pretty much covered by normal spells. So what does that leave for the Blue Mage to discover?

One of the things it leaves is quirky effects that don’t play by the normal rules. Things like the “1000 Needles” spell (aka “Blowfish”), which always does exactly 1000 points of damage to its target, without the random element found in all other direct-damage spells. 1000 points may sound like a lot, but only if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy. The numbers can get pretty large; at the point I’m at in FF6, my regular melee attacks routinely do more than 1000 points without costing any mana, and it often takes two or three hits to kill something. So in normal circumstances, the 1000 Needles spell is pointless. Its advantage is that it always does 1000 points of damage, regardless of the target’s defense. Monsters with abnormally large defense ratings, and special attacks to overcome it, seem to be a big part of this game.

Regular magic has spells that heal an amount of damage based on the caster’s Magic Power stat, and deals damage on the basis of Magic Power and the target’s Magic Resistance and elemental vulnerabilities. Blue magic has spells that heal damage based on the caster’s current hit points, or deal damage based on how far you’ve walked throughout the game so far. I think my favorite examples of how absurd this can get is the suite of level-based spells. In FF6, this consists of L.3 Muddle, L.4 Flare, and L.5 Doom, and possibly others I haven’t found yet. Muddle, Flare, and Doom are all normal combat spells, respectively causing Confused status, massive non-elemental damage, and a chance of instant death to the target. The number indicates what sorts of creatures are affected: L.3 Muddle casts the Muddle spell on all enemies whose experience level is a multiple of 3, and so forth. This is a blatant intrusion of the stats into the reality of the world. Either the people in the gameworld are aware of the “experience level” mechanic, or they probably find it very confusing how these spells consistently work on some types of monsters and not on others, with no obvious reason. Back in FF5, there was a puzzle element to all this. The variables governing the effects were non-obvious and undocumented, but could be figured out through observation. FF6 uses a lot of the same effects, so the puzzle aspect is gone.

The least abnormal blue spells are the ones that simply do elemental damage on the basis of an element not used in the normal spell tree. From FF1 onward, there’s been a standard sequence of fire, cold, and electrical damage spells, each coming in three levels of severity. Spells doing air-based or water-based damage were outside of this tradition, and assigned to blue. By FF8, they had been folded into the regular spell list. Today’s quirky exception is tomorrow’s normal.

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