Throwback Bit Thursday: Final Fantasy VIII

Final Fantasy VIII Box Art

In my lifetime, there have only been two game releases that had me more hyped up about them than I was back in 1999 for Final Fantasy VIII. Those games were Super Mario 64, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

That I expected Final Fantasy VIII to stand proudly with those two masterpieces should tell you how highly I rated the Final Fantasy series after its 7th entry. Final Fantasy VIII’s screenshots graced preview pages in both of my Magazine subscriptions at the time (Electronic Gaming Monthly, and GamePro).

The graphics looked like a clear step up from what I had seen in Final Fantasy VII, and SquareEnix (then Squaresoft) seemed in full command of the Japanese Role Playing Game genre.

Final Fantasy VIII would launch in 1999 to a sea of positive reception from critics. Consequently, the game holds a 90 Metacritic rating which is lower than both of its PlayStation siblings, but it is a higher  global number than any game in the series has managed  to score since Final Fantasy XII.

Despite all of that, Final Fantasy VIII ended up being my  least favorite game in the series, and it remained in that spot until the abysmal FFXIII arrived to forcefully take its place.

Visually, there is little that Final Fantasy VIII did wrong. But at the time, the novelty of pre-rendered backgrounds and awesome FMVs had lost some of its appeal to me.

FFVIII has one of the greatest intro sequences in history, and over 20 minutes of gorgeously rendered CG scenes. But, after playing Ocarina of Time, and other fully 3-D games of the era, I wasn’t mind blown by the game. Certainly, not in the way that I had been amazed by FFVII, even though FFVIII looked better.

To this day, I still remember the gorgeous Guardian Force sequences during battles, and conversely, how long and tedious they began to feel after a few hours of play (these sequences really needed a ‘skip’ option).

Then there is the Junction and Draw spell systems. These systems offered more complexity than any other character customization – and progression – system that the series had featured before. The lone exception being Final Fantasy V’s job class system.

Powerful characters could be developed when properly utilizing the system, and Square countered that by giving enemies in the game the ability to level up in accordance to the party’s power level.

Playing the remaster on the Nintendo Switch this week I have come to appreciate FFVIII’s intricacies a bit more than I did in 1999. Still, at the time the game’s junction system felt like a step back from FFVII’s easy to get into, but deep Materia system.

I had a hellish time during the last stretch of boss battles. Perhaps, I didn’t play to the Junction system’s strengths. The one thing that I did love about Final Fantasy VIII’s gameplay was its card game.

While the card game didn’t replace FFVII’s awesome collection of mini-games, it provided me with many hours of entertainment. I wish online gaming would have been a thing in those days, as that card game had potential.

Unlike FFIX’s purely recreational use of its own card mini game, in FFVIII the best cards could be turned into useful items using the Mod Card ability.

Collecting cards became a time consuming venture, and it is definitely one of the game’s stronger, and more memorable features.

More than the cumbersome Junction system, however, what irked me the most about FFVIII was its storyline. The game was a markedly visual improvement over FFVII, but in terms of storytelling it took a few steps back.

Squall, as a protagonist, was very hard to like. Even as a teenager myself – and perhaps in my own angst period at that time – I could never relate to a jerk like Squall.

Seifer was worse, but he wasn’t forced upon me as a protagonist. Truly, Squall had a decent back story that could be pieced together with Laguna’s own story, but that didn’t help matters.

Final Fantasy VIII was more ambitious in terms of what the writers at Square were attempting to do with its characters, than previous entries. But, the Sorceress didn’t present a compelling antagonist, and neither did Edea’s ‘time compression’ (What?) shenanigans.

I gave up in trying to find depth in its characters when it was revealed that equipping Guardian Forces was the culprit for the party’s lack of childhood memories. Yes, equipping and Junctioning GF’s caused a form Alzheimer’s in our teenage protagonists according to the writers.

It seemed like a boring, and lazy way for Squaresoft to treat the game’s cast. This flaw was more noticeable because FFVI, and in a greater way FFVII, offered a varied cast of party member, each with their own unique and deep backgrounds which tied into the game’s greater plot.

Final Fantasy VIII’s story could have endeared itself to me if Squall and Rinoa’s love story would have tugged at my heartstrings. But, even in its “teenage soap opera” phase, FFVIII failed horribly.

Final Fantasy VIII Squall and Rinoa
Squall and Rinoa’s love affair is not the greatest love story that a game has ever told.

It didn’t feel like Squall deserved the girl, and Quistis, seemed to me like a better fit for the co-protagonist role than Rinoa.

Either way, the following excerpt from my 2003 review of the game explains my issues with Squall, and Rinoa’s story:

There is one part in the game where Squall must decide whether or not to save Rinoa from sure death. Zell (who by the way was the most likable character), and other main characters had to practically yell at him to go save her, and even then, he had a hard time deciding whether to do it or not.

Now if the woman that I’m in love with were in danger I would do whatever is in, and beyond my power to save her with out questioning myself. Yet to this day, after four years since playing the game for the first time, I still wonder whether or not Squall would had saved Rinoa if the other characters wouldn’t have pressured him to do it.

The sad part about this is that a fair amount of time had passed already in the game when this scene happened. By that time, it was evident that he was in love with her, or so it seemed. Of course, at a later scene in the game Squall sort of makes up for his mistake. But to me, Squall never went through a noticeable change in the whole game that had me thinking he had matured. His attitude towards Rinoa changed at the end of the game of course, but it happened so suddenly, that when he actually did tell Rinoa that he ‘loves her’ it felt fake.

Thus, Final Fantasy VIII while an excellent RPG, left me somewhat disappointed with it, though going back in time through the new re-mastered version I have come to appreciate the game in a greater light.

The worst Final Fantasy of the Sakaguchi era, remains a better game than all of the Final Fantasy games that came after the series’ creator left Square. For that alone, Final Fantasy VIII is worth a play through nearly 22 years after it first saw the light of day.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.