Final Fantasy VIII Was Always Weird. But That's What Made It Great.
In my sophomore year of high school, a friend bought me a replica of Squall Leonhart's "Griever" necklace. It never left my neck, not even after its cheap lobster clasp disintegrated. I always wanted it, like Final Fantasy VIII has always been, close to my heart. Now, twenty years since the game's PlayStation debut, I still feel the same way. Final Fantasy VIII was the first entry in the series (beyond, of course, the magnificent Final Fantasy VII) that helped me truly grasp that the landscape of video games was changing—and fast.
But among fans and critics, FF8 is consistently treated as the punching bag of its own franchise. It’s continually snubbed by way of re-releases, ports, and compilations. Sony skipped adding it to the PlayStation Classic, and Nintendo apparently opted out of bringing it to the Switch alongside Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX. Players complain endlessly about its "tedious" mechanics, "angsty" characters, and laughable melodrama. And sure, it takes itself a little too seriously. It can be needlessly obtuse. But it’s a big, beautiful melting pot of ideas that culminates in a delectable weirdness that sticks with you for life.
It’s clear from the opening credits—a bombastic sequence set to the ethereal Latin chanting of "Liberi Fatali" (inscribed on my high school class ring, natch)—that this game is going to be different. And I hold one truth to be evident from childhood all the way into my late twenties: Final Fantasy 8 is one of the best games the series has ever produced. It’s a hill I’m willing to die on.
The story follows the stoic Squall, a student-in-training at Balamb Garden, which essentially amounts to an academy for child soldiers. Squall is a new member of the mercenary organization SeeD, and alongside friends Zell and Selphie, instructor Quistis, and rival Seifer, the team takes on their first real mission in the city of Timber.
While there, Squall meets a resistance leader named Rinoa, and they join forces to drive the enemy Galbadian soldiers away from the town. Things are going splendidly—until Seifer splits to work for the wrong side, of course. They soon find themselves tasked with assassinating a sorceress named Edea, and shit just gets weirder from there. How weird? Take a villainess who wants to become the only living being on the planet through something called "Time Compression."
It's nuts, of course. But that's precisely what makes it so good. It’s a thrill ride that moves a mile a minute. One moment you’re traveling through time to prevent a horrible catastrophe; the next, you’re jetting off into space. It's like plot roulette. You never know where it’s going next, but you can’t wait for it to get there.
The game was innovative from a technical standpoint as well. Take the graphical jump from Final Fantasy VII to Final Fantasy VIII. In just two short years between releases, the cutesy character models of FF7 were replaced in favor of highly-detailed renditions of each cast member. Finally, the characters we were playing were more than just tiny sprites and low-polygon blobs, and it was spectacular.
On the combat side, the Draw system completely changed the way your party could utilize magic. Available after being assigned a Guardian Force—a powerful being capable of dealing massive damage to enemies—the Draw command makes it so any character, with a little effort, can become a devastating force of nature. Want a healer character who can also strike terror in the hearts of her enemies? You can do that. It's a system that doesn’t hold your hand, but it lets you experiment. Does that take some figuring out? Sure. But the challenge makes victories even sweeter.
And let us not forget Final Fantasy VIII’s glorious game-within-a-game: Triple Triad. The jaunty mouth-harp and handclaps of “Shuffle or Boogie” will always haunt my dreams, but the addictive card game is more than a fun distraction from the main story—it actually makes a meaningful impact on the game itself. Cards won from others can be refined into items and magic, making them useful for more than just hustling random NPCs. With its own subplot and in-game references, Triple Triad feels like both a living, breathing aspect of the world, and another way to power up your characters for the next boss encounter.
With its unique and surreal plot, fresh approaches to combat, graphics, and just about everything else, Final Fantasy VIII remains a title that any self-respecting RPG lover should dive into at least once. Perhaps it was too ahead of its time to warrant the appreciation I think it’s deserved over the past two decades, but with recent games like NieR: Automata being so well-received specifically because of their weirdness, maybe that door will soon be open for Final Fantasy VIII as well.
After twenty years of aging like a fine wine, maybe 2019 is the year that others will see the light. Maybe fans will learn to appreciate the game's contributions to the series and stop proclaiming FF6 the be-all, end-all of the franchise. Maybe they'll finally be able to see what I've seen for most of my adult life. I won't hold my breath, but... maybe I’m a lion, too.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.