Continuing their trend of remaking past hits for the current generations of handheld consoles, Square Enix have now moved onto the sixth of the increasingly inaccurately named Final Fantasy series, seeing fit to release it on the Game Boy Advance. Indeed, this is one of the last big releases for Nintendo's somewhat neglected handheld.
Final Fantasy VI - But On The Game Boy Advance (or as Square Enix have dubbed it, Final Fantasy VI Advance) is a significant rerelease of the classic Super Nintendo RPG, originally released in 1994, but how significant this is depends on whereabouts in the world you buy your videogames from. Yes, it's the old chestnut of regions, one which Nintendo themselves pioneered back in the murky world of the mid-80's.
Let's take a tangent from reviewing the game itself to explore quite why, as a PAL gamer, this version of the game has me writhing about on the floor in giddy joy.
While North American gamers were somewhat neglected by SquareSoft until the mid-90's, here in Europe we didn't see so much as a whiff of a Final Fantasy game until Square and Sony decided it would be a good idea to have a crack at the PAL market, releasing Final Fantasy VII to acclaim and large sacks of money in 1997. This meant that while North American gamers at least saw three games in the series, here in the UK we didn't so much see even one of the spin-offs, such as Mystic Quest.
To make matters worse, one couldn't simply buy a cartridge from an NTSC region and expect the game to work. Thanks to Nintendo's ingenious combination of hardware region detections and physically different cartridges, getting an import copy to work became an interesting process of either modifying a PAL console or buying an NTSC one and convincing it to work with our power supply and televisions. (While most TVs these days understand PAL, SECAM, and NTSC, these were rarer beasts as little as 10 years ago.)
Final Fantasy VI finally saw a release in Europe on the PlayStation in 2002, and sold like reasonably warm cakes - not at all hindered by the fact that Square bundled a PS2 demo of Final Fantasy X with it. This was a frankly ghastly port - a few additional FMVs, a bestiary, and slightly prettier menus were grossly offset by load times long enough to make you slip gradually into a coma, where at least you wouldn't care that your save games hadn't been mysteriously corrupted.
But I'm going off-message here. This is not a rant about the PlayStation port, but a celebration of the GBA version. Pleasantly, I can do just that and only be slightly bitter.
The entire SNES original is here, presented with the original graphics and a reasonable approximation of the sound. Due to the nature of the GBA sound hardware, the music sounds different; but that's a necessary trade-off, and the music still sounds remarkably close to the original. I could sing the praises of the game's soundtrack for the rest of this review, but I'll leave it with the simple statement that it's still one of the best of any game, ever. Other sounds are fine, and Kefka's trademark laugh is reproduced exactly. Once the game has been completed once, a music player becomes available should you wish to replay any of the game tracks. Well, it's cheaper than hunting down the OST.
The design is preserved from the original, an epic tale of swords and sorcery mixed with steampunk technology and Victorian aesthetics. Remarkably, it all works. The mix of fantasy and near-present day themes has been repeated elsewhere, but FF6 sticks out as one of the pioneers and it's impressive to see how well it appears even today. The graphics are beautiful and still look good compared to other GBA titles.
The story is essentially unchanged, save for the translation - more on that later. Again, it feels remarkably mature, and the sheer wealth of characters available makes the game seem so much deeper than later titles in the series. There's arguably no one central character, and in addition, the game should be praised for its strong female characters and refusal to pander to simple stereotypes. The sheer number of characters to choose from, including those optional two, should ensure you can replay the game with significantly different parties, especially in the latter half of the game.
To bring this into enhanced remake territory, Square Enix have added the ability to explore the world after you've beaten the final boss, including a brand new dungeon in the form of the Dragon's Den. Harder than the original, this includes some treasures which didn't exist in the original and so are must-haves for the completists. In addition, new Espers (Summon monsters, with extras) have been implemented.
I could stop here. A portable port of my favourite Final Fantasy game. What's not to love?
Sadly, there are a few flaws in the plan. This is not a perfect port, if it could even be called a port at all. Most glaring is the slowdown evident during the more intensive magic attacks; this wasn't present on the SNES version, and despite the arguably limited hardware of the GBA, there must be ways of making simple sprite manipulation smoother than this. While it doesn't affect the gameplay, it's simply jarring.
Secondly, the game remains entirely too easy compared to other RPGs. While perhaps challenging for a newcomer to the genre, to anyone well-versed in Japanese RPGs, the game won't pose any particular challenges. Even the removal of some of the more exploitable bugs (the infamous Vanish trick, for instance) does little to increase the difficulty. But then, it does remove some of the pressing need to power-level your way through the game.
The music, while excellent, isn't the original, and some tracks just feel (hnng...) wrong in subtle ways. This is getting into nit-picking territory, and really shouldn't bother me. It never prevents the game from being anything other than enjoyable.
The cardinal sin, however, will only really touch upon those who hold the original so close to their heart. The original English translation was by none other than the legendary Ted Woolsey himself - a man responsible for Final Fantasy IV's "spoony bard" quip, among others. While he has been much maligned for some of his translations, I always found the SNES English translation to be charming in its way, not least because of the characterisation of everybody's favourite insane clown Kefka. Many lines have been re-written, and some of Kefka's best comments have vanished. Alas.
Despite those points I simply can't bring it upon myself to feel bad about (Final Fantasy VI Advance - Ed). It's still an exceptionally good game, now portable. It's the same FF6 I fell in love with when I played a ROM through a SNES emulator during my GCSEs - well, sort of - and for that I can't be harsh upon it. A worthy update to the classic, and well worth hunting down while you still can.