Released in 1999, Final Fantasy VIII (FFVIII) seems to be one of the forgotten titles from the classic Final Fantasy era. Nobody is to be blamed from this, though, because its predecessor, Final Fantasy VII, was a cult hit that spawned multiple spinoffs and still is being spoken up to this very day.
Squaresoft had a humongous mountain to climb created by the success of their masterpiece, Final Fantasy VII. So I can only imagine the thought process of the developers over at Squaresoft going somewhat like “How do we top Final Fantasy VII?”
The answer was simple; walk off the beaten path. Squaresoft did just that, straying off from common mechanics and concepts that have been ingrained deeply into the Final Fantasy name. It sounds like a lost cause, to stray off a known path and venture to lands unknown, but in Squaresoft’s case, it gave us a masterpiece. It gave us Final Fantasy VIII.
I attended the recent Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy Kuala Lumpur, and thanks to the surreal experience of living my childhood soundtracks live, it had my gears running. I also came up with this epiphany: Final Fantasy VIII is the best classic Final Fantasy to this day.
Full-Blown FMVs and Plot
FFVIII is the first game in the Final Fantasy series to use FMVs in the game. The previous game had only rendered scenes, and the other game before that had sprites.
This is a huge advancement in terms of technology, and in terms of presentation. In fact, the compilations of the game’s FMVs over at YouTube can substitute for a good movie.
About the plot: yeah it’s a bit complicated, but not out of place for a Final Fantasy game. The game begins introducing you to Squall, who is a student at Balamb Garden. These students will join their mercenary group called SeeD which is trained to kill sorcerers. He then falls in love with another student, Rinoa.
Basically, this is your emo teenage anime created in a game form. But hey, I’m not complaining about that.
Furthermore, the entirety of the plot spawned many fan theories which are the sign of a great story, with special mention to the “time kompression” bits near the game’s climax. With plot twists and gripping tales and an inevitable romance gig, FFVIII has successfully created a wholesome story for fans like me.
The Magnificent Soundtrack
Nobuo Uematsu went all out with this one. The themes were spot on and conveyed emotions strongly. The battle theme “Don’t Be Afraid” was one of my favourite themes up until this very day.
Listening to it gives me flashbacks when I was a naive child playing this game.
Another interesting fact about this piece of the battle theme is that one of the local TV stations used this bit of song in their intermission. The moment it came on, my dad and I looked at each other and just laughed after recognizing this song.
“Liberi Fatali” is another song featured in the game, it is the intro FMV song. It has a sense of dread and buildup perfect to present the audience the game.
The song was performed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra at Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy, and it was one of the reason’s that sparked me the idea to write this up.
Squaresoft had one of the strangest ideas to tear up apart a working formula and supercede it with an experimental one. For starters, the game features massive differences compared to FFVII. Huge robots and ships, floating cities, weird plot.
If you haven’t noticed, magic does not cost MP now, but rather, each magic has its own quantity. For example, if you have 50 Fire spells, you can cast Fire 50 times before it runs out. It creates new strategies and gameplay styles. You can replenish the spells by ‘drawing out’ the spells from enemies or certain Draw Points in the world.
Weapons are upgraded through reading magazines and finding parts and material for it. Previous games had you spend only Gil to upgrade, but in this game, you had to unlock each upgrade by gaining information through reading. Sounds about right.
All of your characters’ abilities come from summoned monsters called GFs that you’ll collect throughout the game. Yes, this is a game about collecting GFs. Nope, not short for ‘girlfriend’, but Guardian Force. Another staple idea returns in the Final Fantasy series are summons, and GFs are your summons here.
It would take me another twelve paragraphs to explain what each of the summons do, and another ten to explain the GF progression mechanic. But for the sake of summing it up, you gain EXP for both your characters and their GFs, then your GFs will learn new abilities like Stat-J or Elem-Def-J or such.
I bet you’re wondering what those mean. And let me usher you to the next section.
This is one of the most innovative and highly divisive systems in the entire series. Squaresoft continued to develop more and more new systems post-FFVIII, but this one seems to be the genesis of the unique systems in the other newer series.
The Junction System is a pivotal system in your battles. It bolsters stats, unlocks abilities, and provide enhanced offensive and defensive capabilities.
The ability is tied to the equipped GFs, and the system can provide various effects. From example, Elem-Def-J (or Element Defence Junction) provides bonus defence against elemental magic damage.
Upgrading elemental attacks or resistances through Elem-Atk or Elem-Def, generally requires elemental magic. Junctioning Fire to an Elem-Def stat will increase a character’s resistance to fire-elemental attacks; the more Fire magic junctioned, the better the resistance. Some other magic will provide multiple resistances, notably Ultima that provides resistance for all elements. Junctioning elemental magic to the Elem-Atk stat will cause the character’s normal attack to possess an elemental property, giving an advantage against some enemies.
The system provides a vast potential for min-max builds, but the learning gradient is steep considering there are so many terms to understand before maximising your characters’ potential. At the end of it all though, it rewards players with the greatest feeling once players understand this mechanic.
An Ace In The Hole
The Triple Triad minigame consists of playing cards and trading them with NPCs around the world. The cards can also be converted from monsters from random encounters similar to how you catch wild Pokémon in tall grass.
Final Fantasy VIII is the first game to have featured such card minigame with deep mechanics, which then other games such as Witcher‘s Gwent and Dota 2‘s Artifact tried to emulate. This game has also been featured in the MMO, Final Fantasy XIV. Fans even made an Android version of the game. So to say that this is just a minigame won’t do it justice.
Like the rest of the game, this minigame has quite complicated mechanics. You play by placing cards on a 3×3 grid of blank spaces. Cards have 4 values corresponding to their 4 sides, and these values determine how powerful these cards are. So, when you place a card and your side is higher than your opponent’s card, you convert his card. You win by converting more cards than your opponent when the grid is full.
Let’s just watch a video on that, and see how the minigame goes.
Why does this card game matter, you ask?
Because cards can be converted through a Guardian Force’s ability, Card Mod, into valuable materials and items. For example, Final Fantasy fans know how rare a single Megalixer is, so imagine having a hundred Megalixers in your inventory.
You see that card up there? That’s Bahamut’s card. You have to beat him to get his card. So, what significance does this card carry? This card can be converted, or refined if you will, into 100 Megalixers. Simple. Just like that.
Get this; you can even unlock Squall’s ultimate weapon even before hitting level 30, all just by playing cards.
The Saddest Tale
With Final Fantasy VII Remake teased, receiving tons of positive response as well as a hype train larger than the GF Doomtrain itself, it’s a funny thought that why didn’t FFVIII get a remake itself? After all, this year marks its 30th Anniversary, and Square isn’t the type of boyfriend who forgets anniversary dates.
Just look at this:
It would be fun getting a remake of the cold and stoic Squall Leonhart as well as his party of outcasts.
Well, here’s the story for you: Arnie Roth, the conductor of Distant Worlds, revealed something before performing a rendition of Nobuo Uematsu’s Balamb Garden. He said that when he was talking to Uematsu for the music sheet for Balamb Garden, Uematsu replied saying that Squaresoft has lost the source code for FFVIII, so Roth had to transcribe and arrange the music sheet from the existing game MIDI.
There is a PC version on Steam, but it’s a bloody mess I won’t call it a remaster. But it’s worth picking up, and modding it with high-res textures and original music and what not, if you’re the tech-savvy type of person.
Knowing all of this is rather sad as the game itself isn’t cared for properly by Square Enix. Deep inside I still hope for one remake announcement to pop out of nowhere.
At Journey’s End
At the end of the day, having played Final Fantasy VIII since I was 4 years old, I can say it’s a game I’m willing to play again right now. In fact, I’ve just redownloaded the game on my Steam account, waiting for it to be modded.
This game has a special place in my heart. I understand the hate that it gets over the years but look past it, and you’ll see a gem of a game. It’s a game that shaped many future RPGs and JRPGs such as the successor, Final Fantasy IX, and Secret of Mana.
Nostalgia aside, it’s a strong classic JRPG game even by today’s standards.