Thursday, February 6, 2014

On Wistfulness: Final Fantasy VI for iOS

Final Fantasy VI has just arrived on the iOS App Store, and I'm thrilled. There's been a lot of hubbub over the graphical changes, and, playing it on my 5th generation iPod touch, I can see a few problems already–namely that the sprite colors have too much low-contrast pastel, the “high-res” graphics are still pixelly on retina screens that were introduced four and a half years ago with the barely-supported iPhone 4, and, most egregious, the graphics seem noticeably stretched on my wider 4-inch screen from what I've seen in screenshots (especially when the background graphics don't seem stretched at all). The last problem will probably be fixed in a coming release, my other two observations just the price of expediency and taste.

There's been a lot of complaining that the graphics are upscaled at all, but really, that doesn't bother me. I'd have loved to see retina-level graphics based on the original character art, but I know that the sprites I'm used to were only based on the original art, not downscaled from them. That's not how pixel art works. I've been playing a lot of Cave Story+ lately, and I feel a similar vibe: the new graphics are higher-resolution from the original, but still pixelly enough to try to satisfy “old school” purists. Of course, those people can never be satisfied, but I'm not complaining. The original release had bugs and the PS and GBA rereleases had bugs, and our notion of perfect art is clouded with nostalgia, that most dangerous of drugs.

But they didn't mess with the music. They didn't mess with the music. Back in 1997 or 1998 I imported the soundtrack from Japan. I love it. It remains one of the best pieces of game music to this day because it is both beautiful and appropriate to the world. Most video-game music is one or the other. I love Keiichi Suzuki)'s Earthbound soundtrack too, but I don't know if I'd use the word “beautiful” to describe it. Yoshitaka Amano's art is the star of the show, but Nobuo Uematsu's score is its soul.

At the heart of Final Fantasy VI is the opera scene. It's poignant, but it's really great because the entire game is an opera. There is a large cast of characters, each with their own motivation. Strong characters with strong personalities and strong motivations go throughout. Much has been written that Kefka, the main villain, acts more like a protagonist than many of the playable characters. Even characters without personalities have backgrounds (Gogo), and characters without backgrounds have personalities (Mog). The stories are epic, not in that bland, overdone “we have to save the world” variety, but “we have to save each other.” The story is epic not in the way that Final Fantasy, say, is epic, but in the way that the Ring Cycle is epic, the way that the Iliad and Odyssey and Aeneid are epic. Even the townspeople, easy to underrepresent as cardboard cutouts, change from moment to moment as the world changes politically, ecologically, and geographically around them. The music is operatic from the notes of the chorale prelude and opening background scene. Then a windy silence, as we overlook a hill, then the opening credits, with a fuller overture of the main theme, Terra's personal theme, and the overworld theme. You can't skip past this section or speed through it, ostensibly so you can appreciate the nice people who made the game, but also so you must soak up every bit of the score as the three soldiers trek slowly through the blizzard. The blizzard is the game.

The main emotion of Final Fantasy VI is wistfulness, as seen in its perfect score, but also in its story. The world is destroyed. Evil is defeated, but lives are still changed, in many cases ruined. People gain redemption and struggle for hope, but it is a ruined world they struggle in, and the memory of a world forever lost is what gives them hope for the future. The world is never remade, just improved. The cataclysm is never undone, merely mitigated. When characters die, we feel for them, but others fight on, make lives for themselves, and care for the next generations.

I can tell why so many people complain about the sprites. The game is amazing, and playing through it the first time changed how its players saw the genre and the medium. The wistfulness that the game employs is close to nostalgia, but what we once felt is gone. Those of us that played it as teenagers or young adults back on the SNES were changed by it. Those that first played on the PlayStation or GameBoy Advance or in emulation feel a pull back to that earlier time, but those of us who played it back in the mid 90s feel something greater–its original North American release was 20 years ago this year, and we are all different people now, with jobs and spouses and kids. We might not be as idealistic as we were in our teens, and the world has changed around us. Yet, transported back to that time, we shouldn't long for those romantic days gone by, but embrace the new world we live in. The World of Balance is a memory, but not all hope is lost.

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