Nintendo and Square Enix have saved the best for last. After bringing enhanced ports of four of the first five Final Fantasy games to the Game Boy Advance, it's time for the last of the 2D Final Fantasy games to make the transition. Final Fantasy VI was first released in the US in 1994 as Final Fantasy III, but regardless of what you want to call it, this game is an unequivocal masterpiece and is arguably the pinnacle of the series. Everything about this game, from the beautiful soundtrack to the diabolical villain, makes Final Fantasy VI an unforgettable experience. It was an amazing achievement when it was originally released, and it's just as impressive today, almost 15 years later.
The story in Final Fantasy VI isn't especially original, but it's delivered so well that you'll want to relish each and every plot twist, character introduction, conflict, and line of dialogue. It takes place in a world that was nearly destroyed 1,000 years ago during a legendary war involving magic. In the aftermath of the war, the power of magic was lost. As a result, people started to develop technology to replace magic as the primary facilitator of "the good life." The technology certainly isn't rudimentary, but it's not quite what you would call advanced. The world has a very dingy, industrial feel, with locomotives, zeppelin-like air ships, and lumbering mechs. As is the standard in role-playing games, there is a powerful empire amassing strength and expanding its reach in an attempt to rule the world. Of course, an overbearing empire needs more than technology to assert its dominance over the masses, so Emperor Gestahl decides to revive magic and use it as a source of ultimate power. You play as a ragtag group of adventurers who team up with a rebel faction known as The Returners. You set out to put an end to the empire before Gestahl and his forces destroy the world.
The main arc of the story is interesting, but what makes this game so enthralling is all of the ancillary details, character backgrounds, and memorable scenes. This is the largest, most diverse cast of playable characters in any of the numbered Final Fantasy games. Each of the dozen-plus playable characters has a unique special ability, which means you'll have a very different experience depending on how you build your party of up to four adventurers. Sabin, the monk in training, has special blitz attacks that you perform by inputting specific button combinations. Gau is a feral child who was raised among wild animals, so he can learn and use the special techniques used by enemies you encounter. Edgar is a technology buff and can use powerful tools such as chainsaws and drills to inflict major damage on enemies. There's a lot of variety to the special abilities of each character, so no two parties are ever alike. Beyond the battle screen, each character also has a distinct personality and backstory, which goes a very long way in making the game feel much more personal and compelling than it otherwise would be. Although this game is rated E10+, it's not at all a lighthearted fantasy. There's no blood or cursing, but there's plenty of death, grief, and destruction to make for a very dramatic and mature story.
There are a number of memorable and endearing characters in Final Fantasy VI Advance, but the unrivaled star of the show is the villain, Kefka. He's one of Emperor Gestahls top generals and his ambition is matched only by his madness. He's a sort of insane clown with a god complex, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker in Batman. Kefka is a complete lunatic, but he's the kind of villain that you will love to hate. Also, his maniacal laugh is one of the greatest sound effects in any video game.
One of the most apparent changes made in bringing Final Fantasy VI to the Game Boy Advance can be found in the dialogue and other text. Much of the original text has been updated, so if you've played this game on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or the PlayStation, you'll notice many familiar lines have been changed. The dialogue changes are all perfectly reasonable, and much of what is said actually makes more sense now that it's been updated. However, purists and those who remember the original game fondly might find the changes to be a bit off-putting at first. Additionally, some of the spell, item, and skill names have been changed, but again the changes are mostly for the better.
The gameplay in Final Fantasy VI might feel antiquated if you don't have any previous experience with 16-bit era RPGs. When you're exploring a network of caves, traversing the wide-open spaces of the world map, rushing into a burning house to save a child, or even plummeting over a towering waterfall, you'll frequently be drawn into random battles...very frequently. Sometimes you'll end up fighting off a group of half a dozen enemies, only to take three steps and end up having to fight the same group of enemies yet again. The constant battles can get tedious, although the unique abilities of each character do make the combat at least slightly more involved than simply hitting the attack command over and over again. In addition to their special abilities, almost every character can learn and use magic by equipping magicite, which is the essence of magical creatures known as espers. There are dozens of different types of magicite to collect, and for Final Fantasy VI Advance, a handful of new ones have been added that weren't in previous versions of the game. This magic system lets you further customize your party, so you can turn an apparent brawler into a powerful mage or healer if you so choose.
Aside from the many, many battles, the rest of the game is spent partaking in typical role-playing activities. You can visit towns to chat with the common folk, barge into houses to loot treasures, tour the world in your very own airship, and go shopping for new items and equipment. There are also some less conventional sequences that break Final Fantasy VI out of the fetch-quest rut that so many other role-playing games fall into. In one scene, you have to eat dinner with the Emperor and carefully choose which questions to ask, and in another you have to memorize lines and put on an impromptu performance as an opera singer while fending off a mischievous octopus who's trying to disrupt the show. There's a lot of variety to be found in Final Fantasy VI Advance, but the gimmicky sequences come together well with the rest of the game and never overstay their welcome.
Adding to the charm of Final Fantasy VI Advance is the great style and artwork that highlights the visual presentation. The deformed character sprites are small and pudgy, but each one looks distinct and has enough animations and expressions to be surprisingly emotive. The hand-drawn enemy sprites aren't animated, but they all look fantastic, especially some of the huge, imposing bosses. The world has a cohesive look that is full of fine details, even on the relatively small screen of the Game Boy Advance. There are even some pseudo-3D touches that look primitive by modern standards but are a nice touch nonetheless. The Game Boy Advance hardware does a mostly excellent job of bringing the visuals to life, although there is the occasional touch of slowdown during some of the more spectacular battle animations.
The soundtrack in Final Fantasy VI is an eclectic mix of everything from somber melodies to thundering tribal beats. Longtime Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu created some of his best music for this game, with some memorable standout tracks like the overworld theme and the music for the opera scene. The only problem is that the Game Boy Advance hardware just can't do the soundtrack justice. It still sounds great, but this is the kind of music that you want to hear loud and clear, and that's not possible on the GBA. The music has also been rearranged slightly, so you'll notice some differences if you've played previous versions of the game. The battle theme in particular sounds a bit distorted, which is especially unfortunate because you'll hear it so often.
Final Fantasy VI Advance is a great addition to the extensive library of Game Boy Advance role-playing games. The game has been well adapted to the platform, and most of the minor changes add up to make an already great game even better. It could easily take you around 40 hours to finish the game, but there are plenty of areas to explore and side quests to complete to keep you playing. There have also been some extras added for this version of the game, including a quicksave function that lets you suspend your game, a bestiary, a music player, and a bonus dungeon that you can unlock later in the game. They are small additions, but they at least give people who have already played other versions of this game another reason to visit it again. Whether you've played it before or are just curious about how the series has evolved over the years, Final Fantasy VI is a classic game that shouldn't be missed. The fact that you can now take it anywhere only sweetens the deal.