Sort of like a dry run

Yesterday, I hosted a one-hour live stream of the original Metroid for USgamer. It went pretty OK.

I mention this here because, for all intents and purposes, this is a rough draft of a video version for The Anatomy of Metroid. Until I can actually put that together, this has a lot of the same information arranged in a far more scattered and confusing fashion. Might be worth a watch if you’re really bored and want to kill an hour?

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 2 | First contact

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No sooner does Samus land in the space station which comprises the entirety of Fusion‘s world than she comes across the first of many Navigation rooms. And that’s the beginning of the end for many people.

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By far the most unpopular element of Fusion, the station’s Navigation rooms are compulsory stops where Samus has to stop and communicate with her mission “commander,” a computer which she nicknames Adam. (There’s a dumb plot twist around this later on, because the Metroid universe is incredibly tiny and basically consists of half a dozen named characters.) You can’t avoid these conversations, and they spell out every portion of your mission in excruciating detail until the point at which they don’t. For the first several hours of the game, Metroid Fusion offers very little sense of discovery as each and every goal is handed to you explicitly, not just through text but also with mini-map highlights as well.

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On top of that, Adam is a patronizing, paternalistic, and sometimes condescending robot who talks to battle-hardened huntress Samus as if she couldn’t be trusted to visit a toilet unsupervised.

This marks a radical change in tone and style from previous Metroid games. Even at their most linear, the original Metroid trilogy dropped players into a silent labyrinth of space monsters and left them to their own devices. Not here. You’re marching to the orders of a computer, who sends you scurrying from point to point to do its grunt work: Investigate this, kill that, repair something else.

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Mechanically, though, it’s very much Metroid. Samus runs and jumps, shoots, and finds her way through the space station maze. As soon as you receive your first mission objective from Adam, you come across this: The classic red door. Metroid veterans know the score here, of course. You can’t crack this door without a missile, which Samus doesn’t wield at this point. So regardless of how progress is doled out, there’ll still be opportunities to backtrack and navigate through previously inaccessible paths as you acquire new powers.

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Speaking of new powers, Samus comes with one by default: The ability to grab on to ledges and pull herself up. This opens up a number of new puzzle design opportunities, but it ultimately comes from a place of practicality, an attempt to solve the Metroid II conundrum: Being on a portable system, Fusion suffers from diminished vertical pixel resolution compared to previous console entries (160 pixels versus 224). Metroid II’s solution to the Game Boy family’s scaled-down size was to make Samus bigger and then double down by giving her an infinite jump skill, often leading players to go leaping into danger without sufficient warning time.

Fusion goes the other route: It makes Samus’ sprite smaller than in Super Metroid, then diminishes the maximum height of her jump. Her reduced hang time makes for a faster-paced game, less floaty than earlier games. But the scale and proportions of the platforming remains similar to that of Super Metroid; Samus’ ability to grip ledges makes this possible. She can’t jump directly onto high platforms as in older games, but she can still reach those areas of the screen by pressing up against them and grabbing them. It’s a smart way to work around the platform’s inherent challenges while switching up the feel of the action and reinforcing the narrative conceit that Samus’ powers have been partially crippled.

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The same shaft includes two other doors of a different color: Green, for Super Missiles. So multiple backtracks, then. The colored doors also mean that, for the moment, the game is strictly linear; there’s only one door you can go through, and it leads immediately to your objective.

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Said objective is a small critter in a darkened room. This entire sequence, with Samus exploring a seemingly deserted space station, echoes Super Metroid‘s atmospheric beginning, but it’s far more brief, crashing to an abrupt ending here.

This encounter serves a much different purpose than Samus’ landing on Zebes in Super Metroid anyway; that involved a return to familiar territory and the slow build-up of tension. Here, you’re entering a never-before-seen locale in order to advance the story. The tension comes later.

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Destroy the creature here and it spawns an X parasite, just like on SR388. This time, though, it doesn’t hurt Samus; instead, when Samus touches it — and the entrance to the room automatically locks and refuses to open until Samus makes contact with the parasite — she absorbs it harmlessly, taking it out of play.

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As it turns out, Samus is now an X-destroying machine. Her metroid infusion allows her to soak up any class five full roaming vapors she may come across, converting them into life-sustaining energy and missile juice.

And here’s the central mechanical hook of Metroid Fusion. No longer do enemies drop standard energy and missile capsules; instead, a destroyed monster transforms into a free-flying parasite that can be absorbed to acquire similar effects to old-school capsules. But parasites have other traits as well, which changes the nature of certain areas of the game.

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And here’s another change of pace: At key points in the story, Adam will unlock specific doors. This isn’t entirely without precedent, of course. Metroid II did something similar, with inexplicable earthquakes making new areas accessible as you worked your way through the metroid species. The similarity may not be an accident, as Metroid II informs much of Fusion‘s design.

The opening of Level 0 hatches allows Samus to travel beyond the very small entry areas.

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You immediately meet another creature like the one in the darkened room. This one’s even easier to shoot, since it appears on a raised section of floor directly in Samus’ line of sight (you had to target diagonally or drop to the ground to shoot the first one). It’s your proper introduction to combat in Fusion, as the parasite this beast releases on its demise can be sucked up without incident or even ignored. A quick, simple, repeat encounter to denote the fact that you’ll be experiencing live combat from here on out.

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And, with the introduction out of the way and combat encounters, you finally get to save. Just in case you screw up once the real monsters make their debut.

The Anatomy of Metroid Fusion | 1 | Disempowered but not disenfranchised

Metroid revolutionized action games. Metroid II proved that you could make a satisfying and substantial sequel to a console game within the bounds of a portable system. And Metroid IIISuper Metroid — advanced the state of the video game art considerably, relaying both an engaging story and the workings of a complex, non-linear platform shooter with barely a word. The third entry in the series was so good that many people declared it the greatest game of all time, period. And then… Metroid skipped a console generation, foregoing the N64 and Game Boy Color altogether.

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Metroid Fusion, the fourth game in the series, wouldn’t arrive until 2002, more than eight years after Super Metroid‘s debut. Needless to say, it arrived with grand expectation in tow; sure, Nintendo was also publishing Metroid Prime on the same day, but that was a first-person shooter made by a bunch of Texans. This was the real Metroid sequel; not only was it directed by one of the key creators of Metroid and Super Metroid, Yoshio Sakamoto, the title screen even said Metroid 4!

Within a few days of Fusion’s release, however, many fans had unilaterally declared Fusion a disgrace to the Metroid name and Prime the true successor to the torch, interquel status and shifted genre designation notwithstanding. Fusion was deeply reviled for its linearity, its lack of atmosphere, and its constant dialogue and restrictions. Also, for Samus’ weird new blue suit.

But was Metroid Fusion really the garbage many disgruntled fans would have you believe? Yes, it’s very different in many ways than Super Metroid, but in hindsight these changes seem neither haphazard nor spurious. Nintendo deliberately set out to create a very different game than Super Metroid here, leaving the slavishly faithful approach to design to Retro with Prime — which is not a criticism of Prime. Retro took Metroid into the third dimension by following the Ocarina of Time template, carefully reproducing a 16-bit masterpiece not from laziness but rather to guarantee a rock-solid basis for a radical shift in play mechanics and possibilities. Prime is a 3D carbon copy of Super Metroid in many ways, and that superior foundation made for a brilliant work that excelled in its own right. It was a smart and effective approach.

But with Super Metroid being copied so meticulously by Prime, the team at Nintendo R&D1 needed to do something other than churn out a second direct reiteration of the Super NES classic. Their solution, not uncontroversially, was to create in Fusion a game that was in many ways the inverse of Super Metroid. It holds true to almost all of the fundamental tenets of Metroid, but it presents them in a different fashion in an unusual context.

In breaking down the design of Metroid Fusion, I’m not simply going to look at how the game reveals itself; I’m also going to demonstrate how Fusion is a worthy successor to Super Metroid by knowing when to mimic its predecessor and when to throw out player expectations. This won’t be an uncritical analysis, though. Fusion has flaws, and it has subjective failings that don’t appeal to all players. But on the balance, Fusion is a smartly designed game that plays with the rules of the series in order to prevent coming off as a tired rehash.

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Eight years is a long time in video games, and the span between 1994 and 2002 proved to be particularly tumultuous. Games went 3D, gaining a new dimension; and with that new dimension, they developed a new vocabulary and a new way of communicating with players. Characters and narrative grew more important; abstraction began to fall out of fashion; and the find-your-own-way approach of Super Metroid gave way to tutorials and mechanical exposition.

Metroid Fusion came into a world that had little patience for its predecessor’s style. Super Metroid expected observation and patience and mental synthesis of its players; it offered copious clues, and its design nudged players in the proper direction, but it was rarely explicit about directions or even expectations. Masterful as Super Metroid‘s design was, its subtlety was no match for a new generation of gamers who preferred telling to showing, explanation to experimentation. Fusion had to be different — and, as Sakamoto has explained, the team wanted it to be different. Nintendo R&D1 was always about playing around with new ideas, and they’d already made the best possible Super Metroid imaginable with Super Metroid. The sequel needed to be something separate.

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So even before the game begins, it throws you off guard by nearly killing Samus Aran.

For three games, the implacable, unstoppable, genocidal bounty hunter Samus Aran had taken the central role in Metroid adventures. Wordlessly, she defeated no end of creatures, always finding a much-needed tool to advance further and destroy new and more dangerous threats in the nick of time. At the end of Super Metroid, she basically functioned as death incarnate, supercharged with a metroid-powered energy beam capable to tearing through any enemy in a single blast.

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So Metroid Fusion begins by tearing her down again to the weakest state the games had ever depicted her in. Metroid Prime did something similar, but it half-assed the idea, damaging Samus’ systems at the end of a prologue sequence but by no means stripping her of all her capabilities. Not Fusion, though. It commits cheerfully to the concept of Samus being disempowered and makes it the entire premise of the entire adventure.

At the same time, it also develops the concept of who Samus is. Through prose and pantomime, Fusion‘s prologue depicts Samus’ fall from power, but it also shows hints of the larger world of Metroid. The title screen animation begins with Samus’ distinctive fighter craft flying alongside a frigate before crashing into an asteroid field; shortly after, a cut scene shows her leading a team of soldiers, driving home the idea that she really is the toughest and most capable bounty hunter around: She gets hired to take charge of the dirty work.

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But that vanguard position also renders her vulnerable here, as a parasite set loose by her killing of a hostile creature on SR388 latches on to Samus and nearly destroys her.

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Fusion‘s introductory cutscene plays out as a sort of twisted parallel to Super Metroid’s introduction: Samus narrates as white-clad technicians perform operations.

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But in this instance, it’s not a baby metroid being put under the microscope but instead Samus, who lies at the brink of death after her parasitic encounter. Rather than playing the role of outside observer, Samus has instead become the subject herself.

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And here, as in Super Metroid, the baby metroid’s advanced capabilities come into play as the lab workers discover the creature’s curative properties: It alone can push back the infection that threatens to end Samus’ life.

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The infusion of metroid DNA into Samus marks the big conceptual change behind Fusion’s story and play mechanics: Samus becomes part-metroid herself. The creatures that have existed as the central threat and motivating device for the duration of the Metroid series may be extinct, but their legacy lives on in the form of the woman who destroyed them.

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The metroid-infused Samus is fundamentally the same character, but she plays differently. She shares the same weaknesses as metroids — ice will freeze her solid — and she’s fundamentally weaker. Her attacks don’t hit as hard, she can’t juggle multiple powers, and she suffers far more damage from enemy attacks than  in previous games. Even her profile changes, losing the bulky Power Suit/Varia components that defined her silhouette an adopting a slimmer profile reminiscent of her look in the original Metroid. More than that, Samus’ posture changes, with a ragged hunch to her stance that suggests weariness and fatigue.

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The game goes to great lengths to convey Samus’ newfound vulnerability, in both subtle and dramatic ways. Most famously, Samus effectively becomes her own worst enemy; but her weakness is presented in other ways as well, some less obvious than the deadly SA-X.

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Some of this is conveyed through game design, but much of it comes across in dialogue and monologues — quite different from Super Metroid‘s laconic approach. Still, they’re from different eras of game design, and Metroid Fusion does a lot with its dialogue to reinforce story and game concepts.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 15 | Kefkaesque

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This is it: The big payoff for everything that’s come so far. The three diverging story paths converge once again, with everyone arriving in Narshe — some admittedly by a more circuitous route than others. All that Final Fantasy VI has presented to this point comes to a head here, and after the upcoming battle the nature of the game changes considerably.

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One of the nice things about FFVI is that it does its best, despite its limited memory constraints, to explore as many permutations of its expansive cast as possible. For instance, the reunion in Narshe sees plenty of interaction between characters known to one another, as you would expect…

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…but, at the same time, it also takes pains to show new combinations of histories and motivations. For example, Locke’s blithe introduction of Celes as a high-ranking officer of the entity responsible for the death of pretty much everyone in Cyan’s life doesn’t sit so well with him. Of course, Locke can’t possibly realize that for this old dude he’s never met, Celes is (not to get all Godwin here or anything) the Hermann Göring to his lone Holocaust survivor.

The game does as good a job as you could possibly expect of exploring the resentment and distrust the party has for Celes, and it doesn’t get dropped immediately like it would in, say, Final Fantasy IV, where interpersonal strife would occasionally get you turned into a magic pig, but that’s about it. It takes a while for Celes to integrate into the group… though the sequence ahead goes a long way toward smoothing things over with a thoughtful marriage of narrative and play mechanics.

Meanwhile, Terra is just trying to figure out if she and this other woman who can use natural magic are, like, sisters or something.

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In any case, in the time it took for Sabin and Cyan to unseat the foundations of every major religion in the world and teach a feral child how to transform into an electrical monster, Kefka managed to round up the biggest army the Super NES could possibly handle. That’s one more Magitek Armors than in the Empire’s previous assault on Narshe.

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Which leads to a reprise of the three-team battle from the very beginning of the game. By this point, that’s probably about five hours in the past, so…

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…a Moogle comes out to remind you what the rules are here. The choice of a Moogle avatar instead of a Kappa is surely no coincidence; it’s a subtle reminder of the last time you broke the team into three groups in the caverns and hills behind Narshe.

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But this time you’re not automatically handed three preset groups of Moogles and set about your work. Instead, you’re taken to this screen, where you must break your massive party into three teams. Until now, you’ve gotten about in groups of four or fewer characters, so there’s never been a need to ask what happens if your collective group exceeds the maximum size of an active party. Now you’re stuck with nearly twice as many characters as can fit into a single group, so you have to divide everyone into more manageable groups.

You’re allowed to regroup and save as much as you like before kicking off the fight, so it gives you some latitude for trial-and-error, should you need it. The seven current characters are definitely not created equal, and finding the right balance for this holding effort demands careful consideration.

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For example, a good half of the enemies you face here are human soldiers, so Edgar’s Bio Blaster is basically your “instant win” button for many of the encounters.

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Likewise, if you did even a small amount of training on the Veldt and experimentation with Gau’s Rages, you can face battles equipped with powers for pretty much every occasion.

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Of course, you can’t realistically take on every battle with Edgar and Gau, as the entire point of this sequence is that the enemy assault is multi-pronged, and everyone has to participate. Fortunately most encounters here (unless you get unlucky enough to face a Heavy Armor) are fairly easy.

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Other things to note: Around this point in the game, you’ll probably start to realize that Terra (and Celes) gain new magic skills as they level up. Unlike other magic you can acquire later in the game, these are predetermined and fixed according to character and level. Terra, for example, learns Poisona at level 6 and Drain at level 12; for now, this grants you access to powers no other character possesses.

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Which isn’t to say Terra can precisely steamroll the bad guys. For a living weapon whose powers the world desperately wants to take control of, she can’t flambé an army the way, say, Edgar can. Her one purely offensive spell, Fire, becomes much weaker against groups. She’s good for single-target attacks and healing, but that’s about it… and since magic is her main draw, she’s essentially useless against the boss of this sequence.

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Actually, this scenario features two bosses. The first is comparatively easy: The Hell’s Rider, whose most interesting trait is his ability to use something called Reverse Polarity. This power causes the party members’ rows to shift, forcing the rear guard to the front lines and the front-row fighters to the back. But since most characters in Final Fantasy VI tend to use special techniques that ignore row, this power is considerably less troublesome than it would have been in an older game like Final Fantasy IV. With Hell’s Rider defeated, you can reach the Imperial commander the sub-boss was protecting: Kefka.

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Kefka can be a bit of surprise here. Where your previous encounter with him painted him as a cowardly weakling who ran at the first scratch, here he has command of a huge range of devastating magic spells. Muddle, for instance, causes one party member to become confused — a more targeted version of Edgar’s Noiseblaster, and just as troublesome for the heroes as Edgar’s tool is to bad guys.

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More troublesomely, Kefka has access to the second tier of magic spells, such as Blizzara. Terra and Celes wield only tier-one elemental magic, meaning Kefka massively outstrips them in terms of power. Remember how hard Tunnel Armor’s first-level magic hit a single character?

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Kefka makes that look like amateur hour.

With the ability to wipe out any party member in a single shot, reduce an entire fully-healed party to critical status, and throw around status ailments that interfere with your ability to heal up and fight, Kefka by far represents the deadliest threat you’ve yet faced in Final Fantasy VI.

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But, fortunately, one neatly mooted by Celes’ Runic ability. Kefka doesn’t rely entirely on magic — he’ll occasionally hit a party member for moderate damage, but that’s nothing compared to his magical power. Tossing Celes into the mix to soak up his spells every turn completely defangs Kefka; the hardest boss to date becomes one of the easiest, with the right character in the party.

All told, this battle is your first real test of synthesis. The game has been throwing tutorial moments at you from the start, and here’s where you’re thrown in with actual choices to make, to see how well those lessons stuck. If you’ve been paying attention to the game’s workings and the distinctions between characters, Kefka should pose little challenge. Otherwise, he’s a brick wall that forces you to come up with an effective strategy. Brute force can work, but you kind of need to get lucky for that to happen. Much better to finesse it with the proper powers.

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As ever, a graceful loser.

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The game comes full circle as Terra is reunited with the frozen Esper to see what happens.

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“What happens” is that Terra suddenly transforms into a wild-maned pink creature.

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With a shriek, she blasts the entire party aside, going a long way toward explaining why everyone is so eager to press-gang her into their faction despite her paltry showing in the recent battle.

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And the first act of the game comes to a close, with the initial process of party-building and Terra-obsessing having led a group of six to Narshe, where the newly inducted Returners must venture into the larger world. From here the adventure becomes much less predetermined than it’s been to this point. While you still have a fairly linear tale to work through, you’re given more freedom to roam…

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…and freedom to build your own party. Only four characters can team up to form a party, so your first task upon striking out to find Terra is to figure out who gets to warm the bench for now.

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And, best of all, you can finally explore Narshe. The final piece of the puzzle falls into place at last.

This seems like a good point to take a break from The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI; I estimate we’re at about a third of the way through the series, even if this is probably about an eighth of the way through the actual game. (Remember that this is a design survey rather than a Let’s Play, so much of the discussion was front-loaded.) 45 entries at 1500-2000 words a pop is a lot to write about a single game, and frankly I could use a break. So please look forward to… something else. Soon.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI will resume at a later date.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 14 | Dive alert

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Sabin’s chapter is surprisingly lengthy. Even after teaming up with Shadow, sneaking through an Imperial base, fighting through Doma Castle, and undermining the supernatural order of the human race’s afterlife, there’s still more to do.

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Shadow won’t take part in it, however; if you’ve managed to hang on to him to this point, here’s where he’ll part ways. Apparently a journey by train into the underworld was cool, but a leap from a waterfall is where he draws the line.

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And no wonder: This leg of the journey consists of Sabin and Cyan plummeting thousands of meters in freefall next to waterfall as freakish monster fish take a moment from laddering their way back up to their freakish monster spawning pools in order to attack.

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It’s all capped off with an obligatory boss battle, though this one feels a little perfunctory; it’s just a more difficult, more purple version of the other freakish monster fish.

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Once again, Sabin finds himself washed ashore, unconscious, where a new party members awaits. Other characters find allies through hard work and learning to share a common objective; Sabin drowns his way into them.

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It’s Gau (or Wicket, if you prefer), and his special technique is as potentially valuable as Cyan’s is inevitably lame. But you have to earn Gau’s techniques, every step of the way.

Sabin and Cyan have washed up in an isolated region of the world called the Veldt. In the real world, you’ll find veldt in Africa, but in FFVI it seems more like a pastiche of Australia. Not only is it shut off from the rest of the world, it also contains all the most horrible creatures on the planet.

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The Veldt’s sole outpost of habitation comes in the form of a town named Mobliz, which has a bustling trade primarily in courier pigeons that connect the village to the larger world. Internet isn’t really a thing here, so news, rumor, and innuendo are all essentially the same for the inhabitants of Mobliz. The citizens’ musings about the outbreak of war abroad help convey the fact that the Empire, while far-reaching, hasn’t completely conquered the world yet. They also set into motion a small little side event — it’s too small to properly call a quest — that gives Cyan some additional character development far in the future.

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You can volunteer to help this wounded soldier write to his sweetheart Lola if you like. There’s no obvious benefit to it, but who wouldn’t want to act from a place of compassion?

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The most important thing about Mobliz is the fact that the Item Shop sells a new consumable good: Dried Meat. It heals a modest amount of hit points — more than Potions, which already are growing woefully underpowered by this point — but more importantly, it functions as food.

Interestingly, Gau appears in the purchase/equipment window despite not being in the party. By now the fact that you could name him should clue you into the fact that he’s a future party member, but seeing his sprite active and potentially benefiting from certain gear purchases you can make in Mobliz gives a stronger cue: He’ll be joining soon.

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Someone in Mobliz mentions the fact that there’s only one way to escape from this region, by water, and that the necessary equipment for doing so has long since vanished. For the moment, this means all Sabin and Cyan can do is wander around the Veldt, fighting a motley assortment of monsters.

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However, after a random number of battles (but generally just a couple), Gau will show up once all the monsters have been destroyed and complain about being hungry. If you attack him, he’ll get angry and vanish for a few battles, only to show up again. Of course, his rumbly tummy is your clue here: Gau wants food. Being a cool dude who’s beaten The Legend of Zelda, the solution should be obvious for you: Buy some Dried Meat and feed it to (i.e. use it on) Gau. He’ll join the party and add his not-inconsiderable talents to the mix.

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Much like Street Fighter‘s Blanka, Gau is a wild child who was abandoned as an infant and learned to live as the animals. In mechanical terms, this means he can use monster abilities. His Rage command is probably the most complex character skill in all of FFVI, but it’s incredibly versatile: Once you select Rage, you’re allowed to pick which Rage you want to use from a menu of abilities he’s learned. Like Mog, he’ll then enter a berserk state, using random abilities from the selected Rage until he’s slain or battle ends. In a given battle, he has two abilities to choose from for his current Rage, but where Mog can learn eight dances Gau can learn more than a hundred different Rages.

In practice, this makes Gau something of a hybrid of Final Fantasy VI classes: Berserker, Beast Master, and Blue Mage. The Rages Gau can access consist of skill sets tied to a specific monster — for instance…

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…if you learn to attack like Magitek Armor, Gau will randomly use skills specific to that enemy, such as Magitek Laser. But Gau sometimes gains special powers that those enemies don’t demonstrate; the Stray Cat Rage is always highly popular for the way it gives Gau access to some insanely deadly abilities early on.

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Actually learning the abilities, however, can be tricky and requires a fair amount of grinding. The unique property of the Veldt is that every non-boss enemy you encounter in the game can appear in random encounter formations. When on the Veldt, Gau gains the Leap command, allowing him to fling himself into a pack of foes. This ends the battle immediately, temporarily removing Gau from the party.

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After a few more random encounters, he’ll reappear at the end of the fight, automatically rejoining the team after a moment. Upon his return, however, he’ll have added Rages for all the monsters in the bookend encounters to his repertoire: The monsters he leapt into, and the monsters he resurfaced with. Those become permanent additions to his arsenal of Rages; by the end of the game, if you take the time to train on the Veldt every once in a while, Gau has by far the broadest skill set of any party member. Not all Rages are created equal, and there are plenty you’ll never want to touch. But some can be situationally invaluable, while others can carry you through to the end of the game.

This is all fairly complicated, so Kappa returns to explain Rages in detail. Even so, there are factors that Kappa doesn’t explain. For example, Gau’s Rages don’t just lend him new powers — they also buff or afflict him with that enemy’s special traits. For example, the Magitek Armor Rage gives Gau Protect status for as long as that Rage lasts, protecting him from physical damage… but it also gives him vulnerability to lightning. When you Rage a flying enemy’s skills, Gau gains float status and an invulnerability to Earth elemental attacks.

And status effects obey their usual rules, too. Protect only lasts until the end of the fight, but Float is a “permanent” status and will continue after the battle ends. This can be handy in certain situations. And in any case, it makes Gau a powerful (if sometimes unpredictable) ally; many enemy elemental skills don’t count as Magic and therefore can’t be nulled by Celes’ Runic ability, giving you a potential “magic” backdoor against various magic-slinging enemies. The strategic possibilities of Rage are enormous, but the game doesn’t give you much guidance on how to use them, leaving you to sort out the specifics of each Rage and the secret benefits of the technique for yourself.

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Story-wise, Gau is essential to the party’s progress because he alone knows where the sole diving helmet belonging to Mobliz has been hidden. Once the party ventures to Mt. Crescent to the south of the Veldt, Gau will dig up the helmet, allowing the party to travel the Serpent Trench between Mobliz and Nikeah (a seeming nod to Serpent Road in Final Fantasy IV) — though how three people get about undersea with only a single diving helmet between them is one of those little plot details that you’re probably better off not investigating too carefully.

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This plays out like an undersea version of the Lete River, with the party zooming along through an impressive-once-upon-a-time Mode 7 view of the ocean floor and occasionally picking a route, some of which loop back.

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Enemies in this area are, fittingly, aquatic in nature. They’re fairly easy to trounce, but you have to proceed with caution as the tiny jellyfish foes, Aspirans, have a counterattack called Gigavolt that can and will kill a party member in a single blow. Since you can’t access the party menu to heal up between battles in the Serpent Trench — the automatic forward motion negates that — this can be extremely dangerous, potentially putting you at a massive disadvantage when you enter a battle with a party member or two dead. You can avoid Gigavolt by taking care to use only basic attack commands, but by this point you’ve probably long since learned to use special techniques…

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This is a chance for Gau to shine, though his potential here is something you have to figure out on your own. If you choose a Rage that grants Gau lightning immunity (or even absorption), he can pummel any Aspirans you encounter with impunity and soak up their electrical counterattacks. This goes a long way toward keeping you alive until you automatically reach Nikeah. Speaking of which…

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You’ve got to be kidding me.

No new party member shows up this time, though, so that’s different, at least.

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Nikeah, too, is isolated from the rest of the world, not unlike Mobliz. Unlike, Mobliz, they have discovered the fun technology known as “boats,” and a ferry here will take you back to Figaro.

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But not before a woman who evidently thinks of her breasts as giant sentient eggs from a nursery rhyme comes on to Cyan, much to his indignation. And then, there’s nowhere to go but back to Narshe, along with the rest of the team, bringing this extremely lengthy portion of the game to its close.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 13 | Triple triad (part the third)

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With the introduction of Cyan comes a weird new special command: Bushido (formerly SwdTech). It’s almost really interesting as a command, but it suffers from a deep flaw that renders it largely useless — or, at the very least, ensures you’ll never make use of its advanced permutations. Weirdly enough, the otherwise dreadful iOS port of FFVI changes the workings of Bushido with a single, small tweak that makes it massively more valuable. In its vanilla permutation, however, it’s largely a waste of time.

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The problem with Bushido is that it preempts the rest of the game. Once you choose the menu command, a new action meter pops up, slowly advancing from 1 to 8. Press the input button again and the currently highlighted number becomes Cyan’s command; each number represents a different sword technique for him to execute.

For example: Bushido level 1 yields you Fang (formerly Dispatch). This action is a single powerful sword strike that you can basically execute immediately; it’s a single button press more complicated than the basic Attack command, yet works out to be far more powerful, especially in the early game.

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Bushido level 2 gives you Sky (aka Retort), which places Cyan into a defensive state from which he will perform a counterstrike against any enemy that hits him with a physical strike.

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This counterblow is even more powerful than Fang. Higher Bushido levels yield instant death attacks, multiple strikes, status effects, and more.

The problem is that while Cyan’s Bushido meter is filling, so is every other meter. Your party continues to accumulate ATB charges, and so do enemies. Unfortunately, since the Bushido meter dominates the command interface, you can’t give any other party members commands while it’s active. Your enemies, of course, have no such limitations; they’ll continue to attack with impunity while you’re tied up with Cyan.

To FFVI‘s credit, though, it does a nice job of introducing you to this new skill while at the same time encouraging you not to get hung up in pointless encounters. Cyan leads a counterattack against the Imperial assault on Doma Castle, facing off against groups of soldiers singlehandedly. It’s a great chance to learn about the different abilities offered by Bushido; since Cyan is the only playable character here, the Sky command is super valuable — everyone’s going to target Cyan, meaning lots of opportunities for counters.

However, every enemy here has an extremely high chance of using a final attack: A free action performed as a counter once you land the killing blow, regardless of that enemy’s ATB status. These death attacks hit much harder than standard attacks and quickly wear down Cyan’s health in short order, and they break the rules of the game’s counterattack mechanics: These soldiers can use final attacks even if they die from Cyan’s Sky technique (typically no one in FFVI can counter a counter). So you have a chance to get a handle on Bushido in a fairly safe setting, while at the same time being encouraged to hustle along to finish off this sequence by taking on the boss to prevent Cyan’s health from being worn down completely.

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Meanwhile, your main party has to sneak through an Imperial encampment that’s set up camp in front of a bridge blocking the road to Doma and the world beyond. This is a light stealth section, and you can largely avoid conflict if you follow the dialogue cues and sneak past enemies. Of course, you can also fight your way through the encampment like you just don’t care, too.

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The game rather unsubtly contrasts the two remaining Imperial generals here: General Leo commands the uncompromised respect of his men for his integrity and compassion. Kefka, not so much. But Leo gets called back from the front lines, leaving you to face off against Kefka.

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For a general, he turns out to be less impressive than one might expect, scurrying in retreat as soon as you land a blow on him.

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Kefka manages to throw his underlings in your way long enough to make a break for it and enact the dumbest plot event in the entirety of FFVI: The poisoning of Doma. It’s a tragedy, yes, but it also makes no sense. Kefka poisons the water, which causes everyone in Doma to suddenly drop dead… except, inexplicably, Cyan.

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But, unfortunately, including Cyan’s family.

The idea here is sound — showcase Kefka’s wretchedness once and for all, while giving the party a new ally with a profound motivation for hating the Empire — but it’s borderline nonsensical. The way Cyan’s son flops out of bed just makes the whole thing seem goofy, too. This is one of those cases where Square’s designers really needed more than the Super NES could offer in order to express their ideas….

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Nevertheless, this does lead in to the most intense character recruitment in the game: Cyan goes full on berserker, fighting the entire Imperial camp on his own, leaving Sabin (and, optionally, Shadow) to sit in as more or less bystanders to the event who mostly offer moral support. Eventually, Cyan begins to wear out and accepts the other men’s help, and they all scramble into Magitek armor.

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All three men, of course, only have access to the basic functions that were available to Biggs and Wedge. Terra’s enhanced capabilities are nowhere to be seen, once again reinforcing the fact that she’s basically awesome.

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The road leads to the Phantom Forest, where everything is undead. Observant players may have noticed the holy elemental nature of Aura Cannon; this makes Sabin the star player by far, with Aura Cannon doing ludicrous damage to everything in sight.

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Observant players may also have noticed that the reflective pool here restores your HP and MP, similar to the recovery buckets in Final Fantasy IV though far more elegantly rendered.

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As you continue to venture into new territory during this phase of Final Fantasy VI, the game rather unapologetically railroads you in a specific direction. In this case, like it or not, lunkheaded Sabin wanders into a haunted train because what could possibly go wrong? By and large, this is how FFVI works: It features plenty of nonlinearity, but mainly in the sense of backtracking or revisiting familiar ground. As you push into regions you’ve never explored before, however, the firm hand of Game Design presses at the small of your back to prevent you from wandering off-path.

Not only are you pushed enthusiastically into the Phantom Train whether or not you like it, the subsequent adventure is probably the most literally linear sequence you’ll encounter in the entire game (at least until the Fanatics Tower, I suppose). It’s a train, a dungeon literally on rails.

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But you do get to see a rare treat if Shadow hasn’t abandoned you yet: Even the unflappable ninja warrior has a surprised sprite.

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Even if you’re down to your two core characters Sabin and Cyan here, however, you can still take on the Phantom Train with a full party. The train is populated by character sprites, some of which are enemies as you’d expect… but some are ghosts who will tag along and participate in combat. It’s quite kind of them.

In fact, they’re so kind that they’ll even commit the ultimate sacrifice for the party. A ghost’s special command is Possess, which causes it to self-destruct, taking any target with it but also removing it from the party. You can return to where you recruited the ghost and team up with it anew afterwards, though this isn’t particularly practical if you have to backtrack all the way to the start to find the ghost… and impossible after the point of no return.

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Despite the simplicity of this dungeon’s “design,” the Phantom Train features enough unique events to make it memorable. The setting alone is fairly unique, but then you deal with events like being pursued by a legion of undead who can only be defeated by unfastening the train’s car junctions and leaving the rear cars behind… which presumably damns every soul aboard to eternal damnation or torment or wandering or whatever, since the Phantom Train ferries the dead to the afterlife. Probably best not to think too hard about the theological ramifications.

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You can optionally stop to restore your party’s health in the train’s dining car. You’re given the choice not to do it, which might seem wise — don’t want to go all Persephone here, right? But actually, there are no ill effects, and it’s a nice little character-building scene for the devil-may-care Sabin and skittish, uptight Cyan.

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There’s also a completely useless boss battle against a pompous swordsman who ambushes you, flails about pathetically, and makes off with a treasure. Siegfried’s role or nature is never explained; it’s just a bizarre one-off encounter against a foe whose mere presence makes no sense whatsoever.

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More difficult is the palette-swapped spirit enemy Apparition, which is the first time in this leg of the adventure that you’ve faced a foe casting legitimate magic spells — something that will grow much more common from here on out. Magic, at least for now, hits your party tremendously hard and poses a major threat.

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Any ghost companions you still have in tow will leave the party once you reach the engine car. Wouldn’t do to instantly-kill the upcoming boss, right? On the other hand, your erstwhile partner’s departure sends a clear signal that you need to brace for a big fight.

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To engage the boss, you need to complete a small puzzle… which isn’t really much of a puzzle, since the instructions are given clearly. A weirdly pointless little exercise.

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The Phantom Train culminates in a fight against… the Phantom Train. In a pretty fun twist, the final boss of the dungeon is the dungeon itself, annoyed that you’ve been ordering its denizens to commit eternal suicide and relegating half its passengers to eternal purgatory. Even though this boss is probably best know for the fact that…

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…Sabin’s Meteor Strike maneuver…

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…allows him to suplex a train

…it’s worth remembering simply for its creativity. The Phantom Train attempts to run you down as you scurry ahead of it, gaining the rear-attack advantage and using a variety of abilities against you, including a particularly nasty attack that only seems to appear if you no longer have Shadow in the party — which is a weird design choice, because you’re already at a huge disadvantage with only two party members against this boss.

Then again, like everything else in the dungeon, the Phantom Train is undead and will crumble at the touch of curative powers, and dies instantly if you hit it with a Phoenix Down.

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At the end of the dungeon, Sabin notices that Cyan looks like he’s seen a ghost. Because he has.

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Completely unique to this sequence, this scene ends only after a specific amount of time has passed — a moment of silence, as it were. You can’t leave the dungeon of your own volition, and you can’t stick around. Cyan reflects mournfully for several seconds while you control Sabin (Shadow advises giving the other man some respectful distance), then the scene fades to black before dumping you on the world map. This unusual presentation adds a subtle emotional punch to this sequence. You can only move along when Cyan is ready to move along. It’s little details like this that make FFVI so effective at character and story development despite its overall simplicity; not how much is said, but how smartly what little it does say is presented.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 12 | Triple triad (part the second)

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Locke and Celes’ path takes them from South Figaro back to Narshe. You know this route; you’ve already traveled it in the other direction. The prevailing theme of the game so far has been “retrace your footsteps,” and this sequence doesn’t disappoint. In this case, you need to pass through the cave between the desert and South Figaro.

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To keep it interesting, though, the designers have stocked the caves with enemies more appropriate to the current party’s (presumed) levels. These two could steamroll the hornets and other puny enemies from the previous trip, but the upgraded foes pose more of a threat. Why exactly the monsters here have been replaced by more dangerous creatures is never really stated — maybe there was some sort of ecological apocalypse while the team spent years locked in the Lete River experience loop? — but it makes this sequence into something more than just a perfunctory trip through known territory. It also provides attentive players with a cue: You’re on the right path, even if it seems like you’re just covering old ground, because here’s something you haven’t seen before.

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Throughout the trip through the cavern, the screen occasionally vibrates in sync with a strange rumbling sound. As you approach the exit, the source of this sound becomes clear: The Empire has attempted to stop you by sending a magic-slinging tunneling weapon after you.

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This is a nice little bit of setup; Final Fantasy games usually see you fighting a boss in dungeon scenarios like this, but unless the boss is specifically story-related, what you face off against usually just amounts to a random super-powerful creature that happens to reside along your path. In this case, the “random” boss isn’t quite so hard to explain, and it even comes with its own built-in foreshadowing.

The Tunnel Armor is by far the most powerful opponent to have appeared in the game so far save the Heavy Armors, which were optional. Unlike them, you have to pass Tunnel Armor to get to your next destination… and it comes at the end of a dungeon with no mid-point save opportunities, so the stakes for loss are higher than usual.

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The Tunnel Armor battle poses a challenge in its own right, but it also serves as a tutorial battle for Celes’ mysterious Runic skill. As the fight begins, Celes tells Locke that she can shut down many of Tunnel Armor’s attacks with her Runic skill. While this ability served zero purpose in the passage beneath South Figaro, where no enemies used magic, here it has tremendous value — though Runic alone can’t win this fight.

Runic is an entirely passive skill, which is why it seemed so useless in South Figaro. Celes’ class is Runic Knight, and Runic basically works like a magical Cover skill. Rather than acting directly for a turn, Celes will instead use her spell blade as a sort of lightning rod…

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….literally, in this battle, wherein the Tunnel Armor frequently casts the Lightning spell.

While the Tunnel Armor’s magic attack power is sufficient to make this spell a one-hit KO to a single-targeted character and bad news if it splits the spell across both party members, with Runic active Celes is able to absorb the spell. It hits her sword and disperses, doing no damage.

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And, as a bonus, the absorbed spell restores to Celes the number of magic points the caster expended on the spell. She will continue to suck spells from the air for as long as she maintains the Runic stance, no matter how many spells are cast. Once her turn comes up again, she’ll lower her posture until you select Runic again. This means that Runic is a rare instance in which Slow status can be a boon: Because Celes remains in her Runic state until her ATB meter refills, if you slow down her charge time she’ll maintain her defensive posture longer.

However, Runic does have some downsides. It only works on “normal” magic — that is, spells the party can learn. Special magic-like attacks, which most enemies favor over straight spells, won’t be affected by Runic. Worse yet, Runic absorbs all spells during that turn, both the enemy’s and the party’s. Forget about casting Cure or Raise while Celes holds her sword high. Sure, you can use this factor in a pinch to restore some MP to Celes without using an Ether or a spell like Rasp, but it greatly limits her efficacy in the latter half of the game, when the entire party has access to all kinds of crazy magic spells and uses them on the regular. Still, Runic does have its uses, and in battles like this it proves invaluable.

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However, as I mentioned, Runic alone won’t win this fight. While Celes wields her Runic blade, all her other skills are unavailable, placing both attacking and healing duties on Locke’s shoulders. Tunnel Armor doesn’t strictly use magical attacks, so healing plays a role here; the machine has a Magitek Laser that bypasses Runic, and its physical Drill attack inflicts major damage to a single character. Thankfully, it has fairly low HP, so Locke can beat it down on his own despite his low attack power, but it can be a tough fight — especially if Celes’ Runic falls out of sync with the Tunnel Armor’s spell-casting and it manages to slip in one of those powerful spells during the brief interim between her turns.

This would also be a good time to mention the importance of the evasion stat, which didn’t work correctly in the original Super NES version of FFVI (FFIII) but saved my bacon in this battle on GBA. Locke managed to evade two consecutive attacks in his critical state, giving him enough time to revive Celes and heal up before launching a final salvo of winning attacks against Tunnel Armor. Some armor and Relics and most shields boost a character’s evasion stat; the importance of shields here makes their value far more apparent than in many RPGs, and turns tactics like duel-wielding or two-handed grips into a tradeoff between defense and offense.

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With the Tunnel Armor defeated, Locke’s scenario ends — you don’t actually need to travel to Narshe on your own power, because as much as this game likes for you to retrace your footsteps it has to draw the line somewhere.

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And for our purposes, that leaves just one final scenario to explore — by far the lengthiest and most involved sequence of the three, spanning far more ground than Terra and Locke’s scenarios combined and introducing two new permanent party members (plus a third semi-permanent member, and a weird guest as well).

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It begins, as so many Final Fantasy scenarios do, with Sabin gaining consciousness after having washed ashore. This isn’t an Ys game, so there’s no winsome local lass to find him. Instead, he simply pulls himself to his feet and heads out.

There’s a small house in the wilderness immediately to the side of Sabin’s landing point on the coast — an optional stop, but one you’d be foolish to pass up. There’s a merchant here, along with that guy from the pub in South Figaro.

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The merchant offers some standard wares, but he also sells a few new items whose value isn’t immediately apparent: Shuriken and scrolls. No one can equip these, but the other part of this little puzzle is standing immediately to your left:

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Shadow. Despite his dark reputation, he seems a fairly affable fellow. He’s just hangin’ out in front of some crazy old dude’s house, offering advice to passing martial artists and even offering to tag along. How convenient, and equally handy that there just happened to be a merchant here ready to sell you consumables for Shadow’s special skill. In fact, this entire scenario relies heavily on narrative convenience, coincidence, and downright implausibility.

Shadow isn’t a permanent party member at this point; as he warns, he can potentially leave the party at (almost) any time, bugging off at the end of a battle and leaving Sabin solo. That’s only happened to me once in all the times I’ve played FFVI, though. Normally, he sticks around until the fixed point in the story at which he goes his own way no matter what.

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Shadow doesn’t travel alone, and his dog Interceptor wasn’t given his name by coincidence. Besides whatever statistical chance Shadow has of evading enemy attacks, there’s also a pretty strong chance (even odds, based on my experience) that Interceptor will leap in to parry any physical attack that targets Shadow, all but nulling the damage. Not only that, but from time to time Interceptor will follow one of these parries with a counter, dashing into the battlefield to deliver an insanely powerful strike in response to the attacker. While there are some limitations to Interceptor’s aid — there’s a chunk of the middle game where Shadow travels solo and doesn’t benefit from Interceptor’s help, and you can lose the dog forever due to a weird status-swapping glitch late in the game — this added defensive element makes Shadow an incredibly valuable party member.

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However, that’s not Shadow’s real special technique. Interceptor’s just a bonus! No, his unique secondary command is Throw, which works exactly as it did for Ninja characters in previous Final Fantasy games: Shadow is able to throw any edged weapon at an enemy for considerably greater damage than it would inflict when used for a standard attack. The downside, however, is that once you toss a weapon, it’s gone forever. So while you could theoretically chuck a one-of-a-kind sword like the Atma Weapon at a foe, that would be deeply foolish.

Luckily for Shadow’s utility, you can buy relatively inexpensive consumables like Shuriken to use with the Throw command. They don’t hit as hard as high-level weapons, but they do the job regardless… and won’t break the bank.

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Shadow can also “throw” scrolls, which work as special ninja techniques. An invisibility scroll, for example, causes Shadow to become invisible, making him ineligible for enemy AI to target with single-target attacks.

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However, group effects and multi-target magic will still hit him, bringing his invisibility status to an abrupt end.

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He can also use a Shadow Scroll, which basically works like the spell Blink: It creates an illusionary image that confuses enemies.

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While they can target him, they can’t land a hit. However, his “blink” state wears off after evading a couple of attacks.

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Shadow suggested to Sabin that the only way forward was to traipse through a haunted forest, but this is a video game, and that means there are always obstacles to deal with before you reach the other obstacle before your main objective. In this case, the Imperial Army has set up camp en route in order to stage an assault against the castled town of Doma.

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It’s not a very effective assault, as it consists of a handful of soldiers ramming the wall, trying to climb it, and comically failing. Still, the Empire has been remarkably industrious of late: Besides their small assault on Narshe, they’ve also conquered South Figaro and now are making a move on this kingdom.

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More importantly, though, the cut to Doma reveals that Sabin’s going to have another hungry mouth to feed soon. His name is Cyan, but you can call him “Obi-wan.”

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 11 | Triple triad (part the first)

Until now, Final Fantasy VI has treated Terra as the game’s main character. Even in the brief sequence where you controlled Locke, you didn’t really control him — he made his way through the Narshe caves on auto-pilot, and the entire multi-party battle transpired with Terra unconscious in the background. She’s been a constant presence through the story, but that changes in a big way here and we finally get a true sense of FFVI‘s ensemble cast structure.

The story at this point splits into three, allowing you to follow Terra and Edgar, Locke, or — somewhat surprisingly — newcomer Sabin. Along the way, they katamari themselves some more party members, and by the time the group reconvenes in Narshe your list of available protagonists will nearly have doubled.

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Not only is Terra no longer the sole lead for FFVI, her branch of the triple scenario is by far the shortest and least interesting. You head back the way you came, toward Narshe, retracing your footsteps through previously covered ground once again.

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You can wander through familiar ground if you like, but there’s even less point to it than the first time you came through this way: Figaro Castle remains submerged beneath the sands. Edgar must have left his remote in his other pantaloons.

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While your goal is Narshe, you can’t enter through the main gate — the guards are still salty about Terra killing off a few dozen of their friends. I suppose the fact that they simply won’t let you into town is them letting you off lightly, all things considered.

You can swap to different lead party members here, but it makes no difference. These guys don’t know Banon, and they understandably assume that Edgar claiming to be the king of Figaro is this world’s equivalent of claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte.

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At this point, the game doesn’t explicitly tell you the next step in progressing the plot, instead relying on your ability to remember how things went the first time you were in Narshe. While it’s a bit of a risk to hope you’ll remember Locke’s secret exit from several hours ago and make the connection that it doubles as a secret entrance, the game design doesn’t leave you a lot of other options. There’s really nothing else to do in this region, and it’s clear you need to make your way into the city somehow. The one flaw here is that it hasn’t been possible to activate this secret door until this very moment — so if, for example, you tried poking around with Terra (or even later with Edgar and Locke as well) to re-enter the caves only to find no interactive elements in this cliff, it might not occur to you that suddenly the passage has become available as an option.

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Inside, there’s more retracing of steps, though the game tries to mix it up a little. Here in the large cavern, where you formerly fought a multi-party battles alongside a bunch of moogles, you’ll now find a security system. A light appears and travels along a specific path, which you need to follow precisely lest you trigger a battle and get dumped back to the entrance. This could be interesting, but there’s no discovery here: Edgar straight-up tells you that you need to follow the light. So rather than becoming a puzzle, it’s just a small bit of busywork.

On the other hand, an older RPG would have forced you to figure out the route without the aid of the light, resulting in tedious trial-and-error and massive frustration. Progress isn’t always perfect, but a small chore sure beats a lengthy and tiresome hassle.

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The back entrance to Narshe leads you, not surprisingly, to “old man” Arvis’ home, where it all began. And… that’s it for Terra (and Banon, who will make one last cameo or two in the story ahead but never as an active party member). A simple and uninspired diversion that could just as well have been explained in a sentence of narrative.

The other scenarios, on the other hand, are considerably more extensive and imaginative. Of the two, Locke’s is the most compact, so we’ll begin there.

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Locke, of course, headed to South Figaro to cause interference with the Empire’s conquest of Figaro, which obviously serves as a foothold for the advance on Narshe and a larger-scale attempt to take the frozen Esper in the caves. He left before the party ventured onto the Lete River, and in a small nod to continuity and timelines, we rejoin him after he’s done his sabotage. Now the task is simply to escape from the city…

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…which is more difficult than it sounds thanks to these advanced Magitek armors stationed about the city at all the exits. Any time Locke talks to a soldier in town, he’ll enter a fight. Regular soldiers he can defeat easily enough, but a Heavy Armor will destroy him in about two turns. With the equipment and items you have at this point in the game, you can’t simply attack and heal your way to victory; you need to spend every turn restoring health, meaning there’s no way to sneak in some damage. While they look like Magitek Armors, which you’ve fought and beaten before, Heavy Armors are far more durable and powerful… though the fact that they’re balanced so as not to kill Locke instantly is a nice touch. If you wander into a fight assuming you can steamroll through, you’re in for a nasty surprise, but you still have time to flee.

For all intents and purposes, though, Heavy Armor is unbeatable at this moment, forcing you to find a more indirect route to the exit.

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If you took the time to poke around in South Figaro before, when it was a neutral space, you probably have a good idea of what you’re meant to do: Find the underground passage and sneak out that way. This is more easily said than done, however, as the rich man’s mansion is now under heavy garrison, serving as a makeshift headquarters for the Imperial incursion. This initiates a trading quest of sorts as you need to find your way into the mansion, which involves getting past certain Imperials and a kid blocking the path through town.

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This doesn’t seem like much of an obstacle, but this is an RPG. Children are even more indestructible than Heavy Armors.

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South Figaro has no random encounters, but you can still get into battles with enemy soldiers, Heavy Armors, and… merchants? Yes, it’s possible to fight merchants, which seems pointless at first — they offer little in the way of experience or gold, go down in about two hits, and attack with all the force of the losing contestant in a slap-fight. But if a thief-by-any-other name is going to fight a merchant, wouldn’t you want to see what happens if you try stealing from them? Who knows what kinds of goodies you could pilfer!

The answer, it turns out, is that you can basically steal their best armor (and occasionally their best weapon), the Plumed Hat and the Main Gauche. These are worth having by hook or by crook — especially the Main Gauche, a dagger that increases Locke’s defense (just like a real-world main gauche, which has a special guard that allows for parrying despite its small blade size). But when you steal from a merchant, you also get the bonus of stealing his clothes, leaving him to scurry off in embarrassment… and also in his undercrackers.

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This allows you to get about town as a merchant, which soldiers will give you passage to areas that Locke couldn’t reach. However, you’re pointed toward one specific merchant, who carries a special stock of cider, which is mentioned conspicuously by an old man who in turn is mentioned conspicuously as a means of gaining access to the north mansion. If you approach this merchant while disguised as a competitor, he’ll go on the attack, allowing you to acquire the all-important cider.

You can also use the steal trick on green-garbed soldiers, which allows you to swipe their uniform and relieve certain soldiers at key points in the city. You still can’t slip past the Heavy Armor, but getting about in disguise is generally the way to go here.

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Once you have the cider, you give it to the old man, who… does nothing for you. Weirdly, the game drops you into a guessing game, since the old drunk forgot the password to get through town. Still, this does open up a dialogue prompt with the kid obstructing the stairway that leads to the back part of town and the mansion’s service entrance, which is the real point. But you have to take a wild guess at the password to get through. Though there’s no penalty for failure, so again, this is one of those instances where FFVI puts up a semblance of complexity without really delivering.

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Inside the mansion, however, there’s a nice touch of sound design. Duncan’s wife, who lives in the city, mentions that there are secrets where draught excluders don’t live, and it’s pretty easy to put together two and two and deduce that you need to look for a secret passage in a drafty room. When you enter the rich man’s study, the game music fades away — conspicuously, as this is the first time in this South Figaro sequence that the background melody has disappeared entirely — and as you approach the bookshelves in the west end of the room you begin to hear wind noises fade up. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s a clever use of audio to create a clue while still allowing the player to draw his or her own conclusions.

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Behind the bookshelf is a cellar that’s been turned into a makeshift cell: A woman has been locked up here by Imperial soldiers. You can name her if you like, which obviously means she’s about to team up with Locke…

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…despite ostensibly operating on the other side of the law. Locke and Celes (or Han and Leia, if you prefer) have a lengthy conversation right in front of a sleeping guard before making a hasty exit through the cellars.

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You’ll find an even more secret passage leading forward if you wind the broken clock. If you spoke to the rich man’s daughter, there was a clue here… though the game won’t let you out the other way, and this is a dead end, so it’s not like you have a lot of other choices here.

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In a nice little touch, the treasure chests in the hidden passage appear to contain Celes’ armor and weapons, which the Empire obviously stripped from her when she was put into prison for being insufficiently horrible.

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The so-called secret passage also plays home to a lot of soldiers and guard dogs, making this one horribly-kept secret. However, the combat sequence here does allow you the chance to get a sense of Celes’ capabilities… sort of. Like Terra, she can use magic — her specialty is ice versus Terra’s innate fire skills. Once again, this serves to highlight Terra’s uniqueness; Celes is one of the few humans capable of casting magic, and she was installed as a high-ranking soldier in the Empire as a result. None of the mooks you take on here can use spells. At this point, Locke has become best pals with the two most powerful ladies on the planet in the space of a few days.

Unlike Terra, Celes also has a special command unique to her class (Runic Knight) to complement her spellcasting: Runic. At this point, however, Runic appears to do nothing whatsoever besides wasting a turn. This is actually true of most of the game! But Celes’ unique skill does have its uses and will come into play soon enough.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 10 | Down the dolce vita

The other side of Mt. Kolts doesn’t offer many points of interest to choose from. Two or three hours in, FFVI is still very much in “linear” mode as the story’s premise continues to unfold.

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The only point you can travel to here is the Returner hideout — which, if we’re still going with the Star Wars parallels for this one (and we should be!), is basically Yavin IV.

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You have one task here, which is presented in fairly explicit terms by the Returners hanging out and blocking passages: Talk to a guy named Banon. You can wander around a little before doing so, but the base is small and mostly obstructed, and there’s nowhere else to go here but to Banon’s office.

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Banon is a wild-haired old man who relays a healthy amount of exposition despite his unkempt appearance. His monologue brings all the disparate plot elements we’ve seen so far together into a single nexus of party objectives: The Empire is awful and mean, the Returners aren’t particularly happy about that fact, and they hope to capitalize on Terra’s inexplicable resonance with the creature in the ice caverns — an “Esper” — to give themselves a leg up on the bad guys.

Terra (and thus the player) is given a choice of whether or not to help the Returners’ cause.

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The characters give this “choice” some nice lip service, admitting that forcing Terra’s compliance would make them as crappy as the Empire, but in practice it all works out the same. You the player can’t advance the game or go anywhere beyond the ground you’ve already covered unless you commit to the Returners; until you join the cause, all you can do is wander sadly through the world as a lonely Terra. While it might be interesting if you could make an active choice here and potentially march off to join the Imperial cause, that’s not really how Final Fantasy rolls. (Or should I say, “roles”? No, never mind.)

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That being said, your decision here does count for something. Banon gives you a gift — a Relic — once you join his team. If you say “no” several times before acceding to the cause, you’ll receive a precious Genji Glove, which lets you dual-wield single-handed weapons. Sadly, I didn’t say “no” enough and only received the lesser reward, a Gauntlet, which does the opposite: It allows you to wield a single weapon in both hands for extra strength. But that’s OK, too: If you give a character a Gauntlet and a Knight’s Code, they essentially become a classic Final Fantasy Knight-class warrior. As I mentioned before, Relics represent about one-half of the game’s Job System substitute.

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Whatever choice you make, narrative convenience asserts itself and this messenger collapses in the Returner hideout to announce that South Figaro has fallen to the Empire. Almost as though the city had a traitor in its midst. If only someone had caught wise to their plan….

At this point, the party divides up: Terra, Banon, and Edgar head back to Narshe to meet with the Returners there and hang out with the Esper, while Locke scurries off to run interference in South Figaro and hinder the Empire’s inevitable assault on Figaro Castle (and Narshe). This has the side effect of Locke leaving the party, which incidentally opens up a slot for a new companion to join…

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Locke leaves the scene, and the game continues to follow Terra’s tale, further cementing the idea that she’s the main character of the piece. The party now consists of her, Edgar, Sabin, and new arrival Banon. You’ll notice that there was no rename prompt for Banon; he’s in the party, but he’s not a true member, taking part only in this portion of the game.

Before we discuss Banon, though, it’s worth looking at Sabin’s Blitz skill, to which we were so indelicately introduced at the end of the Mt. Kolts excursion. While Sabin’s Monk class is the first “standard” Final Fantasy character class we’ve seen in FFVI, his actual skill set is a decidedly unconventional take on the role. The Monks we’ve seen in previous games were defined by their raw physical power and inability to equip heavy armor or traditional weapons, which is largely true of Sabin as well. His weapon choices are largely limited to the Claws Yang used in FFIV… though unlike Yang’s Claws, Sabin’s tend to add to his attack power rather than simply adding an elemental or status modifier to his attacks.

But Blitz bears very little resemblance to Monk skills of yore. In previous games, the class’ special traits consisted of passive modifiers and buffs: The ability to double attack power at the expense of defense or vice versa, or simply stat modifiers that boosted that character’s health. Blitz’s, however, mostly consist of various special attacks, largely directed at single targets.

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Raging Fist, for instance, allows Sabin to launch a vicious physical attack against a single foe. Aura Cannon lets you blast a single foe with a holy-element beam. Rising Phoenix hits the entire enemy party with a fire-based attack. All handy, but the only skill in the entire Blitz repertoire similar to those of FFV‘s Monk class is Chakra, which raises another party member’s HP to whatever Sabin’s current HP is. While powerful and free (in terms of mana cost), Sabin’s Blitzes have downsides; many of them are based not on his physical power but rather his spirit (magic) stat, which is terrible by default. Many of them hit only a single target, and in most cases this target is selected at random. That makes some skills practically useless in certain situations; for example, Meteor Strike doesn’t have any effect against certain foes (e.g. flying enemies), and there’s a chance the game could randomly select a null target like that if one is present in a battle.

The biggest drawback has to do with the way Blitzes are input, though. As discussed last time, you execute these actions by punching in memorized sequences of controller commands, similar to fighting game commands. It’s a clever little addition, given the nature of Sabin’s skills (Aura Cannon is essentially a Hadouken and the input is exactly the same), but it doesn’t feel very Final Fantasy-ish. The game can also be rather persnickety about timing these inputs, which can lead to this error message:

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…at the worst possible times. A fumbled input equals a wasted turn for Sabin.

On the other hand, while Sabin’s skills don’t seem to have much to do with the Monk class as it existed before FFVI, he became the template for other Monk-type characters in subsequent games. Tifa, Zell, Amarant, and especially the Monk class in Tactics all use skills patterned around Sabin’s. So there’s that! Still, despite being a fairly amazing character at this early stage in the game, you really have to custom-build Sabin to make him a long-term contender… and given that he’s one of three mandatory characters in the end game, it’s important to understand how the advanced game systems work to maximize his potential. Something the game doesn’t go out of its way to explain, unfortunately.

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Banon, on the other hand, is much easier to explain. His class is listed as Oracle, but his powers don’t really resemble the strange abilities that Oracles in FFV Advance or Tactics command. Since he only appears in this brief sequence on the Lete River and shortly after, his skill set consists of a single ability: Healing the entire party for free. Why have Terra waste her magic points on Cure when Banon can recover the entire party for more HP without cost?

And there’s really no reason not to have Banon use his healing skill on every turn. His physical power is laughable, and more to the point, you’re given a key condition for this raft ride at the very beginning: If Banon dies, it’s game over.

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And since he’s super weak, it doesn’t take much to do him in. Of course, if you paid attention to how row positioning works, you can move him to the back to cut the physical damage he takes in half. This also halves the physical damage he deals, but since he’s basically your healbot, that shouldn’t matter.

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It might be worth mentioning how Game Overs work in FFVI, because loss is handled differently here than in any other Final Fantasy: Namely, there’s no such thing as a Game Over. If your party falls, or you fail to meet a victory condition, you hear a sad little tune and your party leader collapses despondently… and then immediately respawns at the last save point, with all experience you’ve earned since that save point intact.

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This is more a Dragon Quest approach than Final Fantasy but is even more generous than in DQ games, since you don’t lose half your gold for dying. It’s not a bad design choice, but it’s very unconventional in a Final Fantasy game.

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As for the Lete River itself, this entire sequence is the first of several in the game where you have no control over your progress. Your team drifts down the river on the current, encountering random battles as usual but otherwise helpless to act (you can’t even access the menu screen while on the raft). Your only chances for interaction come at a handful of forks with decision points that allow you to pick the direction you’ll advance. Generally, one direction takes you forward, while the other sends you back up the river in a loop (which some people exploit to grind for gold and experience).

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Eventually, you’ll make it far enough downstream to engage the interest of the game’s most memorable recurring boss, a weird octopus named Ultros.

While this fight works as you might expect, Ultros is considerably more powerful than previous bosses. He uses primarily physical attacks, generally hitting the entire party at once for moderate damage — something Banon can easily negate by using his Pray command.

However, he’ll occasionally turn his attention to a specific party member for a focused attack, which almost always hits hard enough to knock that character out of action. You can cheat this by putting the entire party in the back row and using only secondary commands (most of which ignore row modifiers), but even if you play it straight the game still gives you a fighting chance.

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Ultros betrays his intentions with his combat banter, giving a hint of which character he’s about to target. You can act quickly and set this character to defend, which will minimize the damage they take from a single attack.

Also, it’s here we learn that Ultros is a gross pervert.

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This is the message you really don’t want to see, since it means Banon is the next target. And even if you have Phoenix Down with which to revive him, the instant his HP hits zero you lose the fight.

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His chattiness also betrays a certain weakness to fire: If Terra casts Fire on him, he responds with indignation and counterattacks. However, his counter is to squirt ink, which does light damage and potentially inflicts Blind status on Terra. But since spell accuracy isn’t affected by Blind, this doesn’t actually matter. You can keep hitting him with Fire to end the fight rather promptly.

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You don’t really win, however. Ultros simply bails on the fight when he realizes he’s in trouble, and Sabin jumps in after him, only to be flung to parts unknown. Edgar, ever the loving brother, shrugs and heads along the river with the remaining party.

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All of this has been a contrivance to introduce the next game mechanic: The split scenario system. Once again, you have multiple parties to control, but this time it doesn’t work like it did in the battle of the caves at Narshe. You can’t swap between parties here. Instead, you use Mog to pick a party, whose scenario you follow to its conclusion. In previous Final Fantasy games, the secondary scenarios probably would have simply played out in a cut scene, but here you’re given control over both each party and the order in which you experience their tale — adding a neat bit of player agency to what ultimately is an arbitrary narrative direction.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 9 | Martial law

There’s a lot to say about South Figaro, considering it’s a totally optional space in this portion of the game. However much time you spend there, though, all roads will eventually lead you to Mt. Kolts, the path leading to your next story objective: The base of the rebellious Returners. Coincidentally, a new party member happens to be hanging out along the way. It’s a small world.

Although, in fairness, Mt. Kolts makes the world somewhat larger than it has been until this point. Every area you’ve visited to here in Final Fantasy VI — Narshe, its caves, Figaro Castle, its caves, and South Figaro — are places to which you will eventually return. As such, every part of the game you’ve seen until now has an unusual amount of substance and a remarkable number of inaccessible features (such as, for example, pretty much the entirety of Narshe). With Mt. Kolts, however, this is it. Blink and you’ll miss it, because there’s no good reason to come back this way unless you really screw up with some of the one-way transit features within the world.

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The theme of the caves of Mt. Kolts is “martial arts.” Several people in South Figaro mention the fact that local martial arts master Duncan likes to hang out in this area, and that probably accounts for the fact that most of the enemies in the interior portions of this region are kung fu dudes named Zaghrem. An interesting fact about these guys is that — although there’s no way for you to know this without hacking the game’s data — Zaghrems are always under Berserk status. (Though the fact that they have red faces could be meant as a tip-off; berserk status causes party members to become tinted with red.) This means they always use physical attacks rather than any of their special abilities, and they hit harder than their base stats would suggest. In practice, this is completely opaque to the player, though; enemies in this game almost always attack a target at random (one of the factors of the berserk condition), and since you never see any of their alternate techniques, it makes no nevermind anyway.

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The other encounter inside the caves of Mt. Kolts are these mammoths called Gorgias, which use a powerful counterattack to physical strikes. Like Zaghrems, Gorgiases are much more powerful than enemies you’ve faced until this point. If you bought a Knight’s Code in South Figaro, it’ll probably get a workout here at some point or another. But the real point of these enemies is to help reinforce the importance of not just mashing “Attack” over and over again — special abilities like Tools and Magic aren’t simply powerful, they also don’t trigger counters.

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The layout of Mt. Kolts is quite involved, though; in addition to the caves, it also consists of outdoor spaces that you need to traverse in order to advance. This allows the layout of the “dungeon” to be fairly complex without being too confusing; the caverns and hillsides alternate, creating visual variety that makes it much easier to keep track of your progress and not become lost. Compare Mt. Kolts to the previous dungeon, which was much smaller but more confusing due to its monotony. There’s only so much a game with 24Mb of data and so much ground to cover can provide in terms of visual variety, so the designers compensated here by mixing up the layouts between two different tile sets.

Also, a mysterious shadow appears a couple of times, vanishing into the background ahead of you. How strange!

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And the mountain pass really does get intricate: You’ll spot inaccessible chests and out-of-the-way entrances along the route, prompting you to explore as much as possible. You can find the main path through the dungeon easily enough, but when you’re taunted by chests like this, you’re more likely to take the time to poke around for alternate routes and even backtrack if you miss something.

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In the outdoor spaces, you won’t encounter any martial artists; instead, you’ll encounter much more varied creatures with some unique traits. Trilliums, the green-and-purple plants, introduce you to poison status: There’s a one-in-three chance Trilliums will use an attack that causes its target to become poisoned. You’ve potentially seen poison in action against bad guys thanks to Bio Beam and the Bio Blaster, but this is the first time it’s been directed at your party. Poison does the same thing to player characters as to bad guys, but there’s an important difference: It sticks. While poison basically just helps you kill bad guys faster, it’s a long-term irritant when used against you. Poison doesn’t disappear at the end of a battle, and any affected character will continue to have their health sapped as they walk outside of battle until you use an Antidote or Terra’s Poisona spell.

That’s something worth mentioning: As Terra levels up, she occasionally learns new spells. The first additional spell she gains beyond her starting point is Poisona, which clears up Poison status in one target either in or out of battle. It’s essentially an Antidote, but it operates on Magic Points rather than being a consumable item.

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The enemies in Mt. Kolts’ outdoor areas tend to attack in fairly large numbers, which makes Edgar’s Noiseblaster useful; it inflicts confusion status, which causes enemies to attack one another. Against large groups of enemies, it offers a good, cheap way to minimize the number of attacks they direct toward the party. Edgar’s Auto Crossbow can’t kill the enemies here in a single hit, so it’s better to tie them up attacking one another… which has the double benefit of keeping them from damaging the party while chipping away at their hit points to soften them up for Edgar.

Noiseblaster has another interesting trait: It makes the bird enemies here, Cirpius, more likely to use their special attack Beak, which petrifies its target. Petrification is effectively like instant death: A petrified target is taken out of action, unable to attack or move, and if all members of a party become petrified it’s as good as them all being killed: You win if it happens to the enemy, and game over if it happens to your team. Anyway, when a Ciprius is confused, it’ll frequently use Beak and petrify a fellow enemy, which neatly takes that foe out of the battle for you in a single shot.

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Near the exit from Mt. Kolts, a man stands in your way: The dungeon boss, Vargas.

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This is a different battle than what’s come before, because Vargas himself is untouchable. He sends out a pair of trained bears (Ipoohs) as his frontline fighters, and they create an impenetrable wall between you and him. Physical attacks, magic, Tools, even Steal — it’s all intercepted by the Ipoohs.

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Well, the Ipoohs aren’t entirely impenetrable. Vargas has no trouble blasting your party despite the meat wall standing in front of him. His physical strikes have plenty of power, but his Gale Strike is especially devastating; it hits all three of your party members to devastating effect. But you can’t do anything about it until both Ipoohs are down.

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Thankfully, they take arrows quite well. Being boss-class characters, though, they’re immune to basically every kind of status effect (a standard state of affairs for bosses in RPGs not developed by Atlus), so you can’t do anything devious like Noiseblaster them to get them to turn on Vargas.

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Once you have a clear shot at Vargas, you can dogpile him as you like. After he absorbs a few hundred hit points of damage, a cut scene begins. The mysterious shadow appears in the flesh, and — again, small game world — it turns out to be Edgar’s brother Sabin. This is what the hint about Edgar looking like Duncan’s pupil was about.

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At this point, Vargas uses his Gale Strike to blast everyone but Sabin out of the party — in the middle of the fight, your playable team completely changes and you’re controlling a character you’ve never used before. That’s pretty bold! Unfortunately, this gambit isn’t pulled off quite as smoothly as it should be.

Incidentally, the trick Vargas pulls off here (blowing party members permanently out of combat) is something a number of enemies can perform throughout the game. It’s presented as a plot event here, but it actually is your first glimpse of one of the more devious mechanics you’ll face in FFVI.

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Once Sabin and Vargas face off mano a mano, your foe immediately uses a special technique called Doom Fist which initiates a one-minute timer for Sabin. This is one minute he has to defeat Vargas; when the countdown hits zero, Sabin dies. Vargas is pretty tough and you probably couldn’t beat him in a straight fight (he has a ton of hit points), but it’s a moot point because there’s no way to grind down his health before Doom Fist takes out Sabin. And since you’ve been reduced to a single party member, once he dies, it’s game over.

So what’s the secret to victory? You need to read dialogue cues to figure it out. Vargas is bitter because he thinks Duncan selected Sabin as the heir to his school of martial arts rather than his own son (that would be Vargas). So the secret is to use Sabin’s techniques versus Vargas’.

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At the moment, Sabin knows two skills: Aurablast and Raging Fist. Aurablast is basically a Street Fighter hadouken… literally. Blitz attacks aren’t typical RPG command selections where you pick an action from a menu and it happens. Instead, you choose Blitz, input a button combination, and then press select to execute the command. If you blow it, you waste a turn. If you perform the inputs correctly, though, you’ll perform a powerful martial arts move for no cost.

Aurablast uses a hadouken command: Down, down-forward, forward. However, that won’t do anything for you. It’ll hurt Vargas, but not enough to win the fight.

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Instead, you need to use the technique Raging Fist (forward, backward, forward). This actually hits for less damage than Aurablast, but it destroy’s Vargas right in his self-esteem. Devastated that dear ol’ dad taught Sabin this move but not Vargas, he crumbles and you instantly win the battle.

OK, cool. Dramatic intro to a new character, and an interesting way to introduce a new mechanic. Unfortunately, Square sort of bungles it here. This is an opaque, unintuitive conclusion to the battle; even if you take out the Ipoohs and Vargas perfectly, the second phase of the fight can cause you to lose simply for not knowing what to do or how to perform an action that isn’t explained, demonstrated, or presented in-game until your time has almost run out.

Not only that, it represents the first-ever change of input modality in a Final Fantasy game. Until this point, not only FFVI but the franchise as a whole has operated through menu-based actions. Blitzes, however, work with fighting game button combos. This is not explained in-game until Doom Fist runs down to around 20 seconds. Even then, it’s hard to intuit the precise method of using Blitzes, including the fact that you finish them off with an unprompted press of the confirmation button. You reach a story point in a boss fight that expects you to perform an unknown action in a style you’ve never seen before, at which point you’re expected to figure out how this new command technique works with enough time for two or three before your timer runs out. Frankly, it sucks.

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On the other hand, victory results in Sabin joining your party. Finally, a traditional Final Fantasy class! Whose class skills are deeply unconventional. No status quo for this Final Fantasy, thank you.

The Anatomy of Final Fantasy VI | 8 | Anatomy of a town

Once you get to South Figaro, you can…

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…skip right past it, as a matter of fact. For the moment, nothing in the city is mandatory; in fact, you don’t even need to stop there at all once you complete the cave linking the city to Figaro Castle (or at least its former resting spot in the desert). By why wouldn’t you? At this point in the game, South Figaro is simply a resting point where you can recover from the journey and stock up for the future. Plus, it’s conveniently located between the cave you’ve just completed and the caves you’re about to explore.

So while you can head on to the destination shown above, the layout of the world map shows that the game designers clearly want you to stop in and see what’s hopping in South Figaro.

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And here’s the first thing that’s happening, aside from the obvious future party member who totally blows you off for now: The first proper equipment shop of the game. This is actually pretty weird. Most RPGs let you go shopping within minutes of initiating the story; in fact, a properly old-school RPG makes a trip to the store your first task once you finish talking to the king/mayor/regent/whatever; dude gives you a mission and a pittance of gold and lets you buy gear.

Not so in Final Fantasy VI. The starter gear each character entered the game with has served you in good stead until this point, and it’s only now that you’re moving on to more challenging scenarios that you need to upgrade your equipment. This actually makes good sense from a narrative standpoint; what kind of sad sack adventurer begins an epic quest with no gear whatsoever? Locke and Edgar had a sense that they were heading into action, and Terra was presumably kitted out by the Empire, so why would you need to blow cash right away on gear?

However, the downside of this is that you went to the shop in Figaro Castle — the only that sold only tools for Edgar — without knowing about some of the helpful iconography of FFVI‘s shopping interface. (Unless, of course, you stopped in the tutorial rooms outside Narshe… but that was a lot of information being firehosed at you, and it’s easy to forget or overlook small details until you see them in action.) So it’s not until here that you’ll probably appreciate one of FFVI’s nicest innovations: When you go shopping, you can see every party member and get a sense of not only who can equip a specific piece of gear, but whether or not it represents an upgrade.

When an item is compatible with a specific character, that character’s sprite raises his or her arms. The relative effectiveness of a new item is denoted with a small icon: A green arrow (pointing upward) means it’s an improvement, a red arrow (pointing downward) means it’s weaker than your current gear, an equal sign means it’s a wash, and an E means it’s already equipped. This is a simple, brilliant way of making transparent something that traditionally was a confusing, unintuitive mess in RPGs, and any post-FFVI that didn’t or doesn’t adopt a similar system deserves to be kicked in the pants.

This system isn’t perfect. The relative stat indicators are based on the item’s most fundamental stat — Attack Power for weapons, Defense Power for armor. It doesn’t account, for example, for a sword that boosts its user Magic Power stat, or for a breastplate that improves your Evasion stat. It’s always a good idea to do a granular comparison by item. Especially if you come to a new shop and find a weirdly expensive piece of gear that nevertheless has a red arrow icon. There’s probably some sort of special trait to it that doesn’t factor in to the icon calculations — a fact the game doesn’t really explain.

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The other new kind of shop in South Figaro — and this is a doozy — is the Relic Shop. Let’s look at Relics, shall we?

Final Fantasy VI dispenses with the Job System of FFIII and FFV, but unlike FFIV it doesn’t lock your characters into a single, fixed class. Instead, it splits the difference; each party member has his or her own specific, assigned class, and that class comes with a set skill (Edgar’s Tool, Locke’s Steal, and Terra’s Magic — well, seemingly Magic for now, though sharp-eyed players may have noticed that Magic occupies a different action menu slot than the other heroes’ class skills). This never changes, even after many class skills have been rendered obsolete in the late game.

However, FFVI dives head-first into the idea of character customization through two different mechanics. One of those won’t become available until you’ve traveled a fair distance into the game, but other becomes properly available here: Relics.

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Relics look like standard equipment, but there’s an entirely separate menu slot dedicated to equipping them. In other RPGs, these might be designated in the accessory slot, but while Relics do often confer the same sort of boosts and buffs that traditional RPG accessories do (a stat bonus here, a status immunity here) many Relics can completely change the nature of your character. In short, with the proper combination of Relics, you can effectively grant characters a subclass.

You get the first proper taste of that here. The Relics available in South Figaro mostly offer passive bonuses: Silver Spectacles prevent Blind status, Sprint Shoes allow you to move twice as quickly while exploring (moot in this remake, where you can sprint by default), and so forth. However, the Knight’s Code does something completely different; rather than buffing your stats, it instead gives you permanent “Cover” status.

Final Fantasy veterans would immediately recognize Cover as a trait of the Knight class, beginning with FFIII. Even Americans in the ’90s, who missed out on FFIII and FFV, would have known it: Cecil gained the ability once he became a Paladin in FFIV. By equipping a Knight’s Code, that character will always jump in to take a physical hit for any other character in critical status, preventing the critical character from dying while absorbing the damage with a defensive bonus. So, with a Knight’s Code, a character gains a key trait of a Knight, even if they can’t become a Knight in the literal Job sense.

A few plot points from South Figaro, you can potentially acquire a second relic called a Gauntlet, which allows a character to wield a weapon with two hands for extra attack power (though of course without the defensive and evasion perks of a shield, which can no longer be held in the off hand). By putting both a Knight’s Code and a Gauntlet on a single character, you’ve effectively created a Knight. It’s not the Job System, as you don’t level up your Relics through use, but it’s an attempt to provide a similar sort of flexibility.

While the game doesn’t explain the Job connection directly, it does once again trot out a Moogle to explain the mechanic so there’s no chance of you failing to understand this equipment’s importance.

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Besides capitalism, the other role South Figaro plays at this point is expository. You can wander through the (surprisingly large) town, chatting with citizens to get a sense of the world beyond the limited view you’ve seen so far. While much of it has to do with the omnipresent threat that the Empire poses, you also get some local color; apparently a martial artist named Duncan is a big deal.

It’s not clear from this dialogue box, but this is meant to be directed specifically at Edgar — a hint for an upcoming plot twist, though one that unfortunately makes sense only in hindsight.

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Mouthy kids giving away the big plot twist after that one.

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Clearly the citizens of South Figaro are all quite upstanding. This, as it happens, is a bit of eavesdropping you do in the home of the city’s richest man. Evidently simply being the wealthiest man in town isn’t enough for the guy and he’s trading state secrets. Or is it that he’s the wealthiest man because he’s trading state secrets?

In any case, Edgar seems oddly silent on what is clearly a matter of border security.

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Although it’s currently optional, poking around through the streets, shops, and homes of South Figaro is the first chance you’ve had to really roam freely in FFVI. Everything up until now has been blocked off, locked away, or otherwise pushing you inexorably forward. Here is an entirely discretionary location filled with dozens of people with information and tips to relay; it’s a chance to dabble in some world-building, to establish some context for the adventure ahead.

You can also stumble across sights like the room above. It seems innocuous enough at first glance, but armed with hindsight of having experienced the game, a returning player knows the more ominous role this room will play. You’ll be revisiting South Figaro in the course of the game (and really, not too far out), and the fact that you can poke around in places that have a crucial story role while they’re still in a blank, neutral state is pretty cool. Usually games lock you out of plot-specific locations until they become relevant, or else the first time you visit a place is the only time it is relevant. FFVI‘s team put in a little extra effort to render this city in multiple states, and the game world is richer for it in a way that few people will even consciously notice.