Final Fantasy VIII’s Second Chance of Notoriety
The 90's RPG classic gets another opportunity of cultural relevance with its remastered release
*CAUTION: minor spoilers if you’re extremely sensitive to it*
Fun fact: Final Fantasy VIII was never one of my favorite Final Fantasy games, let alone role-playing games.
It wasn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. No, no, no. That could be further from the truth. It was just a game that was never my cup of tea. At the time of its original release on September 9, 1999 for the PlayStation One, FFVIII was an impressive technical achievement in visuals, presentation, and story but the gameplay felt a bit too complex for my liking and I never really connected with the characters — especially lead protagonist Squall Leonhart — and I just liked Final Fantasy VII better (later on it would be Final Fantasy IX that would manifest as my personal favorite in the franchise). To me, VIII was a good game but one of the weaker entries in the series and I didn’t have a general respect for it.
This opinion eventually changed when I went to college.
During my time at Penn State University, I met a lot of wonderful people who were gamers and one in particular became a close friend of mine because we were essentially one of the biggest blerds in school. My friend was an ambitious fellow. He had strong desires of making a name for himself and went out of his way to enter the foray of politics, public relations, and law. When he wasn’t trying to be the Que version of Lex Luthor, he was a huge gamer and I remember hanging out with him while playing with his Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii with several of our other friends. In one of our conversations, the subject of Final Fantasy came up and we talked about which games were the best in the series and which ones were our favorites. I stated my favorite was IX because of its nostalgia trip while embracing the new concepts from the previous PSOne entries and liked how it simplified the ability mechanics system where it wasn’t much of a chore as the Junction System was from VIII. No surprise, my friend chose VIII as his favorite game in the series and argues it’s the best game in the series. This was my response to his assertion.
We argued back and forth about the matter and I flat out didn’t want to accept his opinion but some of his reasonings did resonate with me. He stated that the Junction System forced players to gamble in terms of strategy. Add certain magic spells and summons to a character could decrease their HP but increase their attack power and defense. He also believed that Squall had one of the best character arcs in the series because the story forces him to look at himself and embrace some harsh truths about his perspective and how he handles things. At first I didn’t want to buy into his beliefs but I figured maybe he was on to something.
At some point I decided to give the game another go on an emulator on my old PC computer. I had to keep an open mind and a fresh point of view before jumping into conclusions. After spending nearly 60 hours in playing time I came away appreciating the game a lot more and while it still wasn’t my favorite it was something that was unique in a lot of ways that maybe a lot of Final Fantasy fans (myself included) took for granted.
Final Fantasy VIII had big shoes to fill when it was released back in 1999. Final Fantasy VII rewrote the rules of what could be done in a JRPG back in 1997 so Square Enix (then called Squaresoft) had a lot of pressure to deliver a follow up that could match VII’s massive success. What they got in the end was a game that while received critical acclaim and excellent sales had conflicting responses from fans like myself who either loved it or hated it. Since it’s original release the game never really received a remaster treatment or a subsequent re-release like the other popular Square titles. Games like Final Fantasy VII, IX, X, X-2, XII’s “Zodiac Age Edition,” and even the “Lightning Trilogy” of Final Fantasy XIII were all remastered and/or were re-released on current gen consoles to the satisfaction of fans of the series. VIII meanwhile was touted as the “black sheep” and never got any special treatment.
Nobody understood why Square hasn’t done much with VIII. You often see characters like Squall in other Final Fantasy spin off series like the Dissidia fighting games and the Kingdom Hearts series. So why not just remaster VIII to the public like they did with the other games? Rumors initially believed that Square lost the source code so it’s been difficult to port the game to newer consoles. Whatever the case, VIII just never really saw the light of day since its initial release.
That is until E3 2019 came when Square dropped a bombshell of a trailer generating massive hype to an already excited crowd. At long last, Final Fantasy VIII was getting a remaster and it was being released on the game’s 20th Anniversary.
At long last, fans of the original game as well as curious newcomers get the opportunity to play it.
This remastered edition of the game is the opportunity VIII has been waiting for as a chance to be recognized as an excellent RPG with a solid, gripping story and a creative battle system. The game follows protagonist Squall Leonhart as he graduates from a student to a mercenary soldier at the age of 17 and receives a contract assignment from another country to assassinate an evil sorceress. The game tackles some pretty heavy themes in regards to children inheriting the problems and wars of their predecessors, people being corrupted by power, the stresses of being an orphan, finding one’s place in the world, the struggles of being a child soldier, and learning to form relationships and not being afraid to rely on others for help. I didn’t understand these themes back when I first played the game but then again I was still early in my teen years so I didn’t grasp any of these concepts. Looking back at the game now with an adult perspective, it had some pretty impressive subject matter for a story about teenagers and what it means to grow up in a harsh world.
The often common characterization about Squall is that he’s a brooding, antisocial loner who’s not interesting as a character or someone the audience can connect with. It’s actually understandable to a degree because back then you used to see characters like Squall in video games a lot. So it’s not like there was anything different about him compared to the rest. However, that didn’t mean he didn’t have a strong character arc. His arc ironically was a deconstruction of the “lone wolf” archetype in stories. Squall grew up an orphan, never knowing the truth about his parents or how he ended up in an orphanage that eventually became the military school Balmab Garden. All he had was his adoptive sister in Ellone who stood by his side ever since he was little. When she mysteriously disappeared, he thought she abandoned him too like his parents and came to believe that he can learn to be independent as a coping mechanism for that loneliness. He didn’t need to rely on anyone and he can figure things out on his own. It’s a pretty childish interpretation of adulthood but that’s the funny thing: Squall IS a child. He came to this conclusion that this is what it means to grow up when he was six years old and he’s currently 17 at the start of the story. He’s carried this mentality for most of his life up until the point and never really grew as a person or learned much about himself. He closed off from the world and stuck with this belief.
Squall’s evolution of his character happens when he’s challenged in his beliefs not by the game’s antagonist but by his love interest, Rinoa Heartilly. She fits the bill as the infamous “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” as someone who’s brimming with life and wants to get the brooding boy to enjoy his life as well.
Rinoa herself didn’t have an easy upbringing either considering, like Squall, came from a military background since her father was a general of an army in a neighboring country and her mother passed away when she was young which led to her growing apart from her father. It’s possible this connection that made her attracted to Squall (or the fact that he’s handsome…either/or is possible). Rinoa forces Squall to come to grips about his life and how his introverted nature will not help down the road and it’s no shame for him to rely on others the way his party relies on him. She herself goes through a character arc about understanding the true horrors of war and learns that perhaps her father was afraid of her entering a world that is brutal and heartbreaking. She goes through this journey with Squall and that builds their relationship ever since they first met at Squall’s graduation ceremony and that sweet, yet awkward, dance.
And Squall goes through massive changes in the story as his nature as an introvert is challenged left and right. He’s a soldier so he would have to work with a unit as part of the job but he keeps his thoughts to himself and doesn’t give much support — both in a strategic sense and an emotional sense — which leads to some of his initial assignments being failures. He gets chosen as a party leader for his first mercenary contract much to his dismay and essentially becomes responsible for the lives of his comrades as well as being held responsible for its failure despite the fact that there were matters beyond his control. He later on becomes Commander of his entire school making him take on even more responsibility than he ever wanted. Rinoa is later charged as a criminal for helping a powerful sorceress escape from her moon prison (she was mind-controlled by the primary antagonist of the game…long story) and he makes the decision to free her and commit himself to her. By the end of the game, you wouldn’t believe the so-called “lone wolf” (or is it “lone lion” given his theme) is the same character. He embraces his role as a leader, learns more about himself and his friends, and finds love. Squall is arguably one of the best protagonists in the Final Fantasy franchise. For all his faults, his journey of opening up to others is a sweet one and it’s no wonder that his relationship with Rinoa is iconic.
As far as gameplay is concerned, the Attack Time Battle System continues from VII but serves as an evolution to that system. It’s still a turn-based combat system but MP no longer exists as you now stock up on magic and you can do so up until you reach a limit. The “Limit Break” special moves can no longer be accessed once you’ve received enough damage from an enemy before a “Limit Break” bar fills up and you can summon powerful attacks like you did in VII. This time around it’s something of a last resort when your HP is dangerously low you can activate your Limit Break that’ll give you an edge during a fight. It gives the player interesting options during combat. You could take a precautionary route and heal yourself or you could show your fangs, bite back, and use your special moves to fight back.
The Junction System is the new ability system for the game and here’s were things get…tricky. See, this is your “bread and butter” in regards of drawing magic and building up stats. Unlike previous games where the weapons and armor you put on grant you advantages in fights and how you handle certain situations, this system is entirely built on how you utilize the Junction System. Leveling up isn’t enough of boosting your skills. You utilize the system by junctioning your party member to a Guardian Force (GF), this Final Fantasy game’s version of the Summon Magic Monsters. What the GF’s learn, your party member learns as well. Plus, you can use the GF’s abilities for elemental and status ailments during enemy attacks. There’s a lot of depth to the system and it can definitely be daunting at times. For the most part, it forces the player to be more strategic when setting up their party for certain battles in the game.
One thing that often gets overlooked is the game’s impressive presentation. Visually it was one of the most stunning games in the late 90s and it certified Squaresoft as a technical powerhouse for gaming. It also found creative ways of seamlessly transitioning FMV videos into gameplay segments which other game companies would take cues from (be sure to thank Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi for that idea). For example, the opening FMV video features a morning training duel between Squall and his rival Seifer, crossing “gunblades” with each other while a Latin choir sings in the background and distorted images from the game pop up everywhere that serves the purpose of previewing the plot. It is one of the craziest, most “animesque” intros for a video game and it’s awesome.
It’s also impressive how much culture is in Final Fantasy VIII. As you progress in the game and explore the world, you discover other military schools and how they operate. You also see cities that have their own themes, transportation systems, and unique architectural structures. Speaking of transportation systems, you are given numerous options to travel as you progress through the game. You can drive a car, take a train, and eventually fly an airship. It’s pretty neat!
You also get to participate in activities that could ease the intensive story. You can play the card game Triple Triad where you can get into card battles with almost anyone in the game. Not to mention, if you want the best weapons in the game, it’s vital you play these card games because there are barely any other options. Plus it’s pretty fun so there’s no harm going all “Yu-Gi-Oh!” in Final Fantasy VIII.
So here we are 20 years after its initial release and Final Fantasy VIII gets another opportunity to get the shine that it deserves. One can’t help but feel that when this game first dropped in 1999 it was ahead of its time. The Final Fantasy franchise has always looked to reinvent itself in each game and push the nature of how RPGs can be played for each entry. VIII was a radical shift in terms of storytelling and gameplay. There was no other RPG like it at the time. One might say that Square Enix played it “safe” since VIII’s release. That’s not to say that they didn’t try out new things for future entries in the Final Fantasy franchise but honestly when was the last time we had anything totally weird like VIII? There have been plenty of video games that have been turned off initially by fans because they were radically different than what they’re used to playing but after some years look back it fondly and wish to play it again (Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Chrono Cross, DMC: Devil May Cry, Metroid Prime Trilogy, and Metal Gear Solid 2 are a few examples). VIII could be considered one of those games. Now that’s being released again, gamers can have the opportunity of playing one of the best, most inventive RPGs of the 90s.
*Kofi Amankwaa Jr. is a freelance writer who’s credentials include SportsRaid, VIBE Magazine, Thrillist Magazine, hibu, Amplify, Inc., and InDemand, Inc. He’s still trying to complete Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Judgment, and Mortal Kombat 11. He’s failing so far. He’s currently waiting on Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order and Death Stranding.*