Final Fantasy III
"Final Fantasy VI: End of an Era"
For many in English-speaking countries, myself included, FF6 (released here as Final Fantasy III) was the start of something magical. RPGs until then had been few and far between. For Squaresoft, it was only the fifth console RPG released stateside since its inception (following Final Fantasy; Final Fantasy IV, released as Final Fantasy II; Final Fantasy Mystic Quest; and Secret of Mana). Its main competitor, Enix, had released quite a few more (including four Dragon Warriors and the recent Illusion of Gaia). For me, FF6 was my first real RPG ever, and it captivated me completely. However, for the good folks in Japan, who'd been playing these games for over a decade already, FF6 signaled the end of an era more than the beginning of one. In fact, in the perennial "old-school" vs. "new-school" debates, FF6 practically incorporates "old-school".
The series had been progressing steadily since its humble beginnings as a set of four nameless warriors out to "Revive the power of the ORBS!". Each game in the series added something new; FF2 gave an actual plotline to the goings-on, FF3 rejuvenated the job system; FF4 provided well-defined individual characters, as well as the Active Time Battle (ATB) system; FF5 redid the job system yet again. FF6, on the other hand, was simply a consolidation of everything up to that point. There were a few points of interest, such as the bestowal to summons (Espers) a much more active role in both gameplay and plot; the small if significant "desperate" attacks which later would become Limit Breaks and Overdrives; the refining of ATB as a continuous time gauge. None of these points revitalized gameplay in any way, however. All FF6 did was to take the tools already given and perfect them.
Others have pointed out how these limited tools are used to great effect in FF6. Essentially, Squaresoft delivered a game whose story was (finally) an engaging and interesting part of the game all on its own; whose characters were multifaceted and realistic (or at least realistic enough to provoke empathy); whose gameplay was immersive, whose music was orchestral, and whose style was classical. Few games before or since have come close to giving the kind of experience provided by FF6. However, it was, as it were, a swan song to the past. The same way its spiritual successor, FF9, was a fond farewell to the game's roots, FF6 was (to a lesser extent) a send-off of history.
The first and most obvious departure was that of Yoshitaka Amano, the illustrator of all Final Fantasy games up until that point. His style evoked strange and otherworldly qualities in otherwise mundane subjects. When pixels were the medium, such a style translated well to the small screen: the player's imagination could fill in the blanks and give Amano's vision wings to fly. However, with the advent of three-dimensional real-time imagery, imagination could no longer be the force it once was. Amano was replaced by Tetsuya Nomura, a more contemporary anime-schooled artist, whose characters were cool rather than warm, trendy rather than melancholy. The face of Final Fantasy had changed.
With that change came more changes. Although Final Fantasy 7 remained, as its forbears, a fairly traditional RPG, Squaresoft began tinkering with its tried-and-true format. Characters began to lose the battle-phase individuality fostered in FF4 and FF6, instead giving players the same options for all party members. The hallowed ATB system began changing as well. FF7's introduction of materia was the first foray into complex ability configuration, later to be followed by FF8's Draw system (which eliminated MP entirely), FF9's equipment system, and FFX's sphere grid. Mini-games began popping up and drawing attention away from the main story. Moogles, the little bat-moles whose iconic status were entirely predicated on FF6's success (having barely shown up in earlier installments), slowly began to disappear or mutate. Chocobos began mating, racing, and treasure-hunting. The purity of the gameplay was gone.
I am not lamenting the past. Final Fantasy VI and its contemporaries were truly great games. However, there are many modern inheritors of their legacy who do admirably well, even besting them in many ways. Change is inevitable in anything at all; those who refuse to listen to modern music because it isn't The Beatles are missing out on masterpieces. However, what once was will never be again. As trends move on, it is fitting to take a look back and remember what used to make a game great.