How do you follow one of the biggest games in history? As Final Fantasy VIII’s development began, its older sibling was released and took the industry by storm, propelling the PlayStation to a pedestal from which it has yet to fall. Expectations were high after VI and VII, and Kitase’s team had a herculean task before them. Their successor to the biggest RPG of all time stands today as one of the more divisive games in the fan community (and my personal favourite, second only to VII itself); at the time, it was seen as superior to its own successor, but since then the tables have turned and Final Fantasy IX has stolen its thunder. Let’s discern why so many fans now give it a dismissive “…whatever.”
Welcome to the third installment of Sins & Triumphs, where we analyze the reasons why a particular Final Fantasy is scorned (“Sins”) and point out their redeeming factors (“Triumphs”).
FINAL FANTASY VIII
Release Date: 1999/02/11 (JP), 1999/09/09 (NA), 1999/10/27 (EU)
Original Sales: 7.86 million
Director: Yoshinori Kitase
Platforms: PlayStation, PC, PSone Classic, Steam
Sin #1: Junctions, Drawing, and Grinding
Let’s get this out of the way: your enjoyment of Final Fantasy VIII is going to hinge entirely upon how much patience you have for its Junction system. Drawing 100 uses of a spell for each of your three party members is incredibly tedious – there, I said it.
Like Final Fantasy II’s usage-based stat growth and Final Fantasy XII’s License Boards and Gambits, Final Fantasy VIII’s Junctions have not been attempted again in the franchise. Magic didn’t depend upon magicite or materia here, but was rather extracted from enemies in quantities, making magic function like stolen items. All of your abilities, short of basic attacks, were granted by whatever summon that character had equipped; it was the Guardian Force that granted the character all of its options in battle. If a GF possessed the ability or passive boon, it could be equipped upon the character who had the GF equipped. Furthermore, depending on the GF’s junctionable stats, a player could slot in a certain spell from their inventory, and the more uses the character had stocked the higher the corresponding stat became.
Like those other well-meaning systems, the Junction system lost a lot of players between its complexity and the tediousness of drawing so many spells (up to max of 9 at a time). Many players simply trudged on without using the mechanics to their full potential, while some gave up on the game entirely.
Weapon upgrading also took a weird turn. Instead of purchasing new weapons in keeping with genre conventions, Squall’s party upgraded or modified their trademark tools with designs found in issues of Weapons Monthly magazine, scattered across the globe – or unlocked by chance if you happen to have the right obscure components on-hand. This seems a weird attempt to subvert the notion that any given weapon shop has the right variety of merchandise to suit your party’s needs, but instead it was an even bigger example of flawed logic – why does this magazine only feature items my characters use, and why isn’t there a modification shop in the military academy my heroes use as a base?
Sin #2: Orphans, Time Travel, and Plot Holes
At first, Final Fantasy VIII is the tale of a group of militarized mercenaries who get caught up in the struggle against an evil sorceress. Everything is centred upon SeeD, the organization who employs five of six of your party members. Sounds simple, right? As the story goes on, however, it becomes a bit muddier, and many players have gotten bogged down in the muck.
The first problem we encounter are the Laguna scenarios, where the party is forced into a dream world to revisit the memories of an unfamiliar soldier. By the end of the game these flashbacks make sense, but at first they do more harm than good to the overall flow of the story by stalling it.
But then there’s the orphanage twist. On disc two, the party learns (or rather, remembers) that all of them save Rinoa were once residents of the same orphanage run by their bitter enemy, Sorceress Edea. Using Guardian Forces is blamed for the altering of their memories, and they head to the supposedly final battle with their former matron bearing this somber irony. Further justification comes for this twist at the end of the story, but in the middle of the story it seems both convenient and problematic at the same time. On one hand it allows the story to grant the illusion of further depth to most of the playable characters and the two main antagonists at that point; each character briefly gets the spotlight at one point or another but this scene quickly fills in their backstories with the same sad tale.
At the same time it raises many questions and quickly shoves them under the rug. What’s all this about the Guardian Forces tampering with memories? Is that true or just a cop out to draw the curtain over some plot holes? What GF did Selphie discover at some point in her early SeeD training? How did they all end up at the same orphanage in the middle of nowhere and all end up in the Gardens at some point? Why does Irvine bring this up before fighting Edea if it might cause them some personal conflict? How awkward does Rinoa feel, standing there silently while everyone suddenly realizes they grew up together? The scene is presented as a moment of epiphany but it’s the first scene I ever hear or read cited when Final Fantasy VIII’s story is discussed. It feels like it was used like a “get out of one writing jam free” card to propel the story forward, but ultimately it comes across as a cheap plot twist that raises more questions than it solves.
It’s not until the end of the game that any clarity comes from the orphanage epiphany, but unfortunately it’s tied up in the confusion and chaos of a time travel narrative. It’s incredibly hard to do a story involving trips to the past; I can’t think of a single attempt that someone hasn’t nitpicked and found glaring errors in. In the case of Final Fantasy VIII, we see the defeated Ultimecia return to the past to pass her powers on to Edea, and our Squall follows behind, telling Edea about SeeD and the Gardens in the first place.
The concept of Time Compression was a unique twist on the time travel motif and a refreshing motivation for a Final Fantasy villain, after a spree of “destroy the world to rule over its ashes” antagonists like Sephiroth, Kefka, and Exdeath. In the end, Squall creates the very organization he’s served through the whole game and we’re left with a plot resolution that is best not explored in depth.
(I’m nitpicking a few particular blemishes here as they’re moments that even big fans of this game lament. The story is one of the more divisive aspects of the game; much like the Junction system, people either loved it or were apathetic to it. Some didn’t appreciate the unique perspective where we actively participated in Squall’s internal monologue and would count it as a flaw, but I personally love it, and consider Squall my favourite protagonist. I counted story as a Triumph for Final Fantasy II and a Sin for Final Fantasy XII; here, I count the overall story as neither, but these examples I’ve cited are definitely Sins.)
Sin #3: Unexplainable Absurdity
Despite its record-high level of realism, there are a lot of absurdity and just plain bizarre aspects in Final Fantasy VIII – beyond the use of time travel, that is. Let’s start this tour with the orphanage. Namely, why are these children sent to an orphanage on the tip of an island in the middle of nowhere? The entire geography of this game is particularly strange. Much of it is barren, with a few population centers like Galbadia and Esthar, and smaller towns like Balamb and Fisherman’s Horizon. And yet, after Squall’s mother passes away in Winhill, on the same continent as Galbadia, he is sent to some derelict orphanage hundreds of miles away, on a desolate peninsula south of a ruined civilization, as though no one in Galbadia looked after orphans.
Unlike the heavy Industrial Revolution influences present in Final Fantasy VI, or the bleak world outside of the uber-developed Midgar in Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII’s setting has a level of technology that’s hard to define. Galbadia could have passed for a city from the real world in 1999, high-speed trains connect continents, and SeeD candidates use cars and attack boats. There are schools designed like giant, mutated conch shells that can suddenly uproot from the ground and hover over land and sea. There are swords mounted to the barrels of guns that cause explosions when triggered for some reason. It’s almost like steampunk with more magic and fewer fantastical gizmos and gears – until you get to zip around the world in a sleek alien spaceship.
Then there are the Shumi and the Moombas. We meet the Shumi via Norg, the financier of Balamb Garden who attacks the party for their failures. Later on it’s possible to visit his homeland and the other Shumi, almost as if the sidequest was designed to explain the boss’ strange physiology. Somehow these giant slug-people can be reincarnated as small furry Moombas, in an attempt to inject some philosophical depth to the game’s world.
Some find resolution to these moments of strangeness in the theory that Squall dies when Edea attacks him at the end of disc one, meaning all the game that follows – the Shumi, the strangely futuristic nation of Esthar, the aliens, the Lunar Cry, time compression and generations of sorceresses – is the last flashes of his dying mind. It’s obviously a subject too deep to dissect here, but if it was the intended reading of the plot, more evidence needed to be supplied to bring the idea to the forefront. Much like the meaning of the orphanage reveal, the ending of the game might then have brought more satisfaction and resolution for all the absurdity.
This wasn’t the first or last Final Fantasy to mix realism with the bizarre, but something about it doesn’t gel in this case – perhaps because disc one is very grounded, while the weird stuff really starts on disc two. We spend the first leg of the game being drawn into a very realistic game by fantasy standards, and suddenly the strange creatures start crawling out of the woodwork. By the the time the Propagator aliens (and their jarring musical theme) arrive, we no longer know what to expect.
Triumph #1: Technological & Theatrical Growth
Aside from these “WTF” moments (albeit none as “WTF” worthy as the entire Don Corneo plotline in Final Fantasy VII), the eighth installment of the main series is an impressive leap forward in terms of realism and technology. For the first time we see fully rendered 3D characters that maintain their proportions between the world map, locations like towns and dungeons, and the battle screen – we had seen this more or less in Final Fantasy VI but in 2D. The prerendered backgrounds and FMVs were a big step up from the previous game and still look pretty great today. Granted, there are points where character models look a little bit wonky from the wrong angle or if you stop to really stare at them. In retrospect this game seems like the awkward teenager phase of the series, where Final Fantasy VII was the beginning of its maturation from 2D childhood and VIII was the full-blown pimple and voice-breaking phase. Final Fantasy IX would go on to fully realize the potential VIII had, and then we saw the giant leap forward into our modern age with X and the PlayStation 2. But the amazing graphic realism that now dazzles us in each new trailer for Final Fantasy XV began here, in Balamb Garden.
Final Fantasy VIII’s technical improvements aren’t just about the improved graphics, but the overall presentation as well. Earlier games had always done well with making their 2D sprites gesture and perform, as much as they could with a handful of poses; Final Fantasy VII had made huge strides forward in this regard as well, adding many different gestures and actions to each character’s repertoire, including victory poses. Final Fantasy VIII was another great leap forward in this regard as well, since characters could move much more fluidly and realistically. We still saw a lot of the same gestures, like Irvine’s casual flourishes or Zell’s air-boxing, but there was something novel about seeing realistic people sitting authentically on a train, or amping themselves up before a fight, or curl up and hug their knees when worried.
Right from the onset, Final Fantasy VIII made it clear that the presentation bar had been raised with its famous opening sequence. Waves crashed on a beach while a chorus ominously chants a pseudo-Latin phrase, and then we were whisked away to watch Squall and Seifer’s fateful practice duel, each man scarring the other other with a gunblade as the chorus sang of the Liberi Fatali, the children of fate. Final Fantasy VII had astounded audiences with its FMVs, but VIII took the torch and really ran away with it. It imparted a sense of theatricality and drama that the series has retained since.
Triumph #2: Sidequests and Diversions
Side-quests and mini-games became true trademarks of the series with Final Fantasy VII, and VIII followed with one of the most beloved mini-games ever, the card game Triple Triad. Within the first ten minutes of the game you’re granted access to this simple but fulfilling diversion, where certain NPCs could be challenged to a spontaneous duel at practically any point. This game has such a following that it returned in Final Fantasy IX as a slightly different game, Tetra Master, and over the years both games have seen several official and fanmade physical releases, and been ported to PlayOnline, Final Fantasy XIV, and the Final Fantasy Portal App. It practically warranted its own game.
(One flaw with Triple Triad almost earned Sin status in itself: the nefarious regional rules. Different regions had their own twists on the rules, which could be spread by the player. These cruel changes made the game infuriatingly harder and nearly sabotage the whole endeavour.)
Accompanying Triple Triad was the epic “Queen of Cards” side quest, where Squall could battle his way through a whole club of card fanatics throughout the game. This was one of many involved sidequests available by the end of the game. Final Fantasy VIII brought depth and intrigue to these late-game diversions. The reward for most was a powerful Guardian Force, and they stand out as some of the game’s most interesting challenges – like the gauntlet of Tonberries in the Cetra Ruins, or the descents into the Deep Sea Research Center to obtain Bahamut and Eden, and the battles with Ultima and Omega Weapons.
There’s lots of replay value here, as well, for players who like to challenge themselves, thanks to the quirks of the battle system. With the mechanics that scale enemies in proportion to the party’s level, you can try to clear the game without fighting a single non-essential battle, or obtaining any GFs beyond the first essential three. It’s also possible with extreme diligence, some grinding, and the GFs’ item refinement abilities, to obtain Squall’s ultimate weapon, Lionheart, on the first disc of the game. If you don’t find the Draw mechanic a chore, Final Fantasy VIII can eat many hours off your life.
Triumph #3: The SeeD Sprouts “Challenger Roots”
Despite the general apathy toward its battle system, Final Fantasy VIII granted players a huge amount of depth, which was refreshing after Final Fantasy VII’s simplistic ability system. Few games in the series get as much flak for “tape down the button” gameplay, and compared to the depth and involvement of the Job-based games, FFVII had very little complexity in character customization. Equipping materia was as complex as it got, juggling slight adjustments to stats which I have never found to affect my progress much.
Final Fantasy VIII corrects the course by allowing direct customization of each individual stat for each character if the proper combination of GFs is equipped. The magic inventory takes a little manipulation and a lot of grinding, but the result is incredibly empowering for JRPG fans. Omega Weapon, the superboss, is worlds beyond his subordinate, Ultima, and without judicious application of the Junction system and the right manipulation of Limit Breaks it’s nigh impossible to beat – meaning that there’s an actual challenge worthy of mastering the game systems and obtaining ultimate equipment. Knights of the Round in FFVII made the rest of the game a cheese-fest, and beating the optional Emerald and Ruby Weapons required more trickery than mastery.
Moreso than any other entry in the ATB era, Final Fantasy VIII made you actively involved in battle. In some ways it felt like an action-RPG without actually straying into the genre. During battle you did more than “press X to attack;” you triggered Squall’s gunblade for basic attacks, mashed buttons to boost each summon’s power, and manipulated each character’s Limit Breaks in unique ways (like entering fighting game combos for Zell’s, reshuffling Selphie’s random but epic spells, or pulled the trigger for Squall and Irvine). Even the choice to Draw presented some unique choices, as many bosses possessed spells that were not yet readily available to you – do you draw and stock up on the Double- and Triple-cast spells from Cerberus, or draw and cast them on yourself to give him a magical beatdown, or do you ignore the goodies altogether and press on? It’s telling when you play Final Fantasy VII or IX after playing VIII, and are left a little bored by their relative simplicity.
Final Fantasy VIII presented you with a convoluted, highly original battle system and let you approach it your own way. You could skim through the game with minimal grinding, or throw yourself into it wholeheartedly and tweak everything, and it provided a worthy proving ground for demonstrating your results. Either way you were less of a spectator to the whole affair, simply sitting on the sidelines and pointing out targets, but more of an active participant – in some of the more unique and interesting boss battles of the golden PlayStation era. Those who weren’t discouraged by grinding found an incredibly deep and involved sandbox for the time.
Maybe I’m a Lion
Like its teenaged protagonists, Final Fantasy VIII represents an awkward transitory phase. If I may trot out the same weird allegory the game tries to employ, the “seed” of the series established in the 2D entries was planted in Final Fantasy VII and would bloom beautifully in Final Fantasy IX, leaving VIII as the first signs of sprouts emerging in the “garden.” (Okay, that was hokey, but so are the game’s attempts.) It doesn’t help that this was also one of the experimental phases, like the second and twelfth games; as we’ve seen in this column already, the games which take gameplay and character development into new territory so abruptly don’t hold up to popular consensus as well, despite their contributions and the lessons learned from their trials.
It’s the technical and theatrical innovations of Final Fantasy VIII that have had the biggest impact on the franchise since. This is where the promise of the PlayStation’s hardware was fulfilled, and Square’s lessons learned on this project have proven priceless for laying the foundations for all their successes to follow. In many ways it’s the perfect follow up to Final Fantasy VII and the launching pad for IX and X. It has the essential “challenger” mentality that Sakaguchi claims is the heart of the franchise, challenging you to embrace its systems, its atypical protagonist, and its quirky mix of realism and fantasy.