Genre: RPG
Year: 1999
Developed by: Square
Published by: Square
Platforms: PSX, PC, Switch, PS4, XBOX One
Feeling Like: Squalled Progress

Final Fantasy 8 was one of the first games I had to struggle with before pressing Start.

Kyle and Dobbo talked about it in the hallways at GNS. I wanted to know more but they rebuked my curiosity so as not to spoil anything for me.

It looked so different from Final Fantasy 7. The character sprites were bigger and it almost felt like a teen melodrama as opposed to a classic save the world adventure. The Full Motion Videos, which of course were what the commercials showed, were beyond incredible. The soundtrack was alluring. The narrator promised an epic love story.

I had to play it.

Problem was, I didn’t own a PlayStation and never would.

Shockingly, a port was announced for the PC in 2000. I purchased the game without even considering if my PC could handle it. This was a foolhardy decision, not my only one at age 15.

The game could technically run and seeing the opening video chug along at about 15 frames per second did little to deter my excitement. But I would have to tinker if I wanted any kind of proper experience.

I think I lasted a few minutes before calling Dobbo in a panic. He directed me to some useful forums and, for the first time in my life, I had to convince my computer that it COULD run a game. Some graphical tweaks here, a download of a potentially shady file here and it definitely improved matters. The graphical fidelity took a hit, but I didn’t care. I was a Final Fantasy man, and I was going to join Dobbo and Kyle’s conversation.

In terms of Final Fantasies, 8 is sort of the black sheep. It was a clear deviation from anything they’d tried before; the graphical leap was certainly evident and it’s still hard to believe how gorgeous some of the backgrounds and cities look even today. It was a love story, or at least Square’s attempt at one. I think history has shown it’s more Dawson’s Creek with gunblades than Romeo and Juliet, but as I get older I seem to care less about that.

The rest of the story takes turn after zany turn and I don’t think it really sticks the landing in all honesty. The combat system is fresh and tries hard, but I don’t think the game does a particularly good job at teaching you the inner workings. You receive these Guardian Forces (GFs) which are basically summons like Espers in Final Fantasy 6. They’re mega powerful. They can be summoned over and over. Why would I use any other tactic? Well, the Junction system was intended to ensure you had a variety of choice in combat and not just summon-spam.

By “Junctioning” a magic spell to a particular stat, it would increase it. The problem is once you junction it, you can’t use that spell in combat. Ok, that’s fine, most summons make spells irrelevant anyway. HOWEVER, this is, I think, the only game I can think of where spells aren’t used by your mana pool or energy points, but as items. So a spell never “costs” anything, but you have a limited amount of them. How do you get them? By “Drawing” them from enemies.

Over. And over. And over.

See, the more spells you have in your inventory, the greater the stats jump. And, naturally, you’ll want as many cure spells as possible for upcoming, bigger fights. The last thing you want is to “run out” of anything in an RPG. So, for many silly OCD JRPG addicts like myself, this meant drawing magic from enemies every single fight, particularly when you find a long-sought-after spell.

I don’t think this is how the game is meant to be played, particularly since some GF skills enabled you to turn items into magic. That’s the thing though, there’s an interesting system here but I think it collapses under its own weight. At least it did for me when I was a teenager.

Still, those GF summon videos looked fantastic and there was a huge incentive to explore to find them all.

So we have a romance that doesn’t really work, a story that is certifiably crazy and a battle system that is overly complicated. I know I’m not really selling you on this, but perhaps the biggest sin the game makes are the characters. Not a single likeable one in the bunch and that makes it really difficult to love an RPG.

I didn’t detest any of them, but I couldn’t really identify what personalities they were going for, aside from Zell, whose energetic and eager personality was a nice off-set to Squall’s cold standoffish behavior. But I didn’t really care enough for them to feel a sense of connection, or worry when they were in trouble. I was just going through the motions.

So, I’ve spent the entire post so far bashing the game. And, if you’re reading the 500 backwards as intended, this is so far the best entry of the entire list. Why?

Because the environments, soundtrack, and scenarios are terrific, and Final Fantasy 8 has among the best world building I’ve seen. It’s all so unique that despite the story, characters and combat being failed experiments, I can’t help but still feel an affinity towards the game. What can I say? I’m easily pleased.

You play as students for a school that has a T-Rex in their training ground and a secret monster as its headmaster. This school, which has to be up there with Xavier’s School for the Gifted and Hogwarts as one of the most dangerous educational experiences available, is your home base for most of the game and it is glorious. Looking at old screenshots and videos reminds me of how badly I wanted to visit this place, just to soak it all in. The design is creative and if GNS had music like this, I might’ve done better with my studies.

The school also sends out the SEEDs to do…mercenary missions? Or something? I don’t know, I did very little studying while playing as Squall but definitely killed a lot of enemies so Balamb Garden is probably more of a military college than anything.

Fisherman’s Horizon, the spaceship, the end dungeon and Esthar, the futuristic city, are just a few of the incredible locations present in Final Fantasy 8. I never got bored and was always intrigued. Each area seemed not entirely devoid of cliché, but the spin and style was unique to the point where I think this is one of the strongest RPGs when it comes to locations and cities.

The soundtrack really does take the crown, though. Maybe I’m a Lion has an unforgettable intro and one of the heaviest Final Fantasy songs I can remember. Liberi Fatali is an incredible. My favorite is The Man With the Machine Gun, good holy mother, this song is amazing. It made the pain of incessant random battles that much more palatable with this track kicking my ears in every few minutes.

Looking back on it, it might have one of the strongest soundtracks in the entire series and THAT is saying something since, as you know, the Final Fantasy series has the best collection of video game tunes. That’s non-negotiable. What, you think they’ll make entire rhythm games for Metal Gear Solids?

With some entries on the 500, I have a hard time coming up with much to say. With RPGs, it seems like I have to cut myself off before I really get started. Final Fantasy 8 is a complicated entry. I could have it 100 spots lower or higher and probably justify either. It’s not one of the best in the franchise, the lack of endearing characters really hurts it. But, the world building, mini-games and set-pieces are phenomenal. From trying to escape a berserk spider tank, to defending the school from an invading army, to going into space, to a failed assassination attempt, each plot point is highlighted by some fantastic action scored by one of the masters of the industry. It’s a peculiar, experimental game but I’m glad I dug in and saw it until the end, even if it did take me many hours just to get to the starting line.

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