Hotly anticipated after the juggernaut success of Final Fantasy VII in 1997, Final Fantasy VIII, the eighth iteration of the beloved franchise about crystals and cool summons fell into our eager hands only two years later. It was all here, epic FMV sequences set to Nobuo Uematsu’s rousing score. A story about a school of young mercenaries, tied together by fading memories and the need for heroes against an evil sorceress. An enhanced but familiar battle system, adding in the wrinkle of resource management (drawing power from others to fill your reserves) to help keep the system fresh.
It even featured dual protagonists, for a while dividing our time between the loner mercenary trainee Squall Leonheart and the eager soldier Laguna Loire in a series of background-setting flashbacks. And yet, years later when the scores are tallied and our favorites lined up, Final Fantasy VIII is almost always an unruly stepchild. For what Final Fantasy VIII does well, it deserves another look. If not a phoenix down’d rebirth on the level of its predecessor.
Final Fantasy VII’s World Combined The Best of Old and New Ideas
In 1994, Final Fantasy VI blended the franchise mythos of magic, technology, and crystals with a thick layer of politics and military might. It added weight to the struggle of its characters (notably Cyan’s terrible losses and Terra’s brainwashing) and gave a reason to invest in the effects of the plot on the world around them. It’s a technique that’s been amplified to staggering complication in the entries since, from XII’s luxuriant plot of spymasters and omniscient manipulation to XVI’s Westerosian-style intrigues. VIII, in contrast, was a simple step up from VII’s ecoterrorist war against the corpos. It brought back VI’s geopolitical intrigues and potential collective doom.
It’s a background that enhances Final Fantasy VIII’s biggest themes, from love’s ability to tie us together despite the gulfs of time and war between us, and the mature look at the psychological damage suffered by child soldiers. Despite the lack of mechs, Final Fantasy put a little Gundam inside of itself, and it created an environment for character growth that later provided the template for the better-received Final Fantasy X.
Furthermore, VIII managed to not bog itself down with labyrinthian plots. Most of the greater chess moves are visible through the ground-floor perspectives of Squall, Rinoa, and the rest. The world itself is unnamed, and its handful of tense world powers don’t come with reams of backstory. Balamb is the underdog proving ground, Galbaldia is the war-hungry aggressor, Esthar is a reclusive technological superpower, whose stake in the central conflict is at first unknown. It’s a pleasant throwback to the pixel era. To populate it, Final Fantasy VIII takes the hero squads of old and twists them up. Countries of war-weary and frightened people look to the usual heroes, but these kids aren’t as seasoned as they’re trying to act. The reasons why take a little time to play out.
Final Fantasy VII Excellent Cast Was Comprised of Unusual Suspects
As befitting a bunch of kids hot-dropped into a war, most members of Final Fantasy VIII’s cast start off as an archetype. Seifer, the bully, is a kind of Stand By Me-era Kiefer Sutherland. Squall is the emotionally stunted introvert that thankfully missed the incel era. Zell is the sports guy and Irvine is “Cowboy Ken.”
The ladies have Qustis as the “Ice Queen” and Selphie as “The Pixie”. The adults, meanwhile, at first hide the nuance these kids earn, as Cid’s facade as The Teacher to his reveal as a genuine father figure parallels Laguna Loire’s Ditz-to-Leader routine. Even the Sorceress Edea is hiding a few layers of history between her and her rise as the game’s first Big Bad. And it’s worth noting that it’s the non-soldier Rinoa, with her innocence, stubbornness, and rebellious purpose, that jump-starts the internal growth of many of these characters. Aerith Gainsborough died so Rinoa Heartilly could fly.
The cast’s blank slate beginning also has a purpose that’s both harrowing and meaningful to the game’s protest against child soldiers. The very act of soldiering for SeeD, wielding the Guardian Forces and forcing magic to serve them, has gradually wiped their memories. Ironic that it’s conflict that sees them grow and remember. Now, though, it’s a conflict with a purpose.
It’s also a surprising early text about toxic masculinity. The duels and bullying between Seifer and Squall happen because there are few other emotional outlets in their lives. That’s especially true of Seifer who relies on his physical prowess to feel worthy. He ends up becoming a knight for Edea because it’s all he knows. Squall learns otherwise. In contrast to his predecessor, Cloud, his growth as a person isn’t triggered by his conflict. He must instead learn how to be a full person by accepting his memories, his emotions, and his need for love. He becomes Rinoa’s knight out of kindness and respect. That love saves his life in the final act, giving him a no-bullshit, no-bittersweet take-backsies, full-on happy ending. When was the last time Final Fantasy did that?
Meanwhile, a sublimated fear of feminine wiles is core to the game’s conflict, mirrored by Rinoa’s loving nature and the story of Ellone’s parents. The Sorceresses are often (but not always) feared and hated, even as their gift of magic is forcefully harnessed for others to use. Edea, under the sway of another Sorceress, Ultimecia, uses these fears to her advantage. She manipulates the war so that she can exact her time compression ritual, forcing all of time and space into a singularity over which she would have total control. Somewhere in Esthar is a guy yelling misogynistic slurs into a Est-Tube vid about this.
Final Fantasy VIII’s Lost Code, Remaster, and the Truth Somewhere in Between
Ask a Final Fantasy fan about the troubled PC ports of FFVII and FFVIII and the time it took for their remasters to hit shelves, and you’ll probably get a secondhand story about the time Square Enix lost all the programming code for their biggest games. It’s a legend that’s true, up to a point. In 2019, CEO Yosuke Matsuda admitted as much, telling the E3 audience that they were committed to digitizing their library, but that some game data was, in fact, lost.
What we don’t have is any first-hand confirmation that this happened to the Final Fantasy games in question. An anecdote from the former CEO of Eidos, which handled the PC ports, illustrates a call he got from Square asking after their master version of the code for Final Fantasy VII. His version of the story ends with his admittedly logical belief that the original code for VII was gone. From there, it was assumed that VIII experienced the same problem.
It’s a fair guess, extrapolated from an infamously bad PC port. Jank controls, shit music quality, and frequent crashing made Squall and Rinoa’s PC journey a disaster. In 2019, almost twenty years after its original release, the remaster finally dropped for all modern systems.
Well, a remaster.
Final Fantasy VIII: Remastered adds similar quality-of-life perks as the rest of the PlayStation era remasters released that year, along with the Pixel Remaster games that began releasing in 2023. Encounter rates, god modes, speed boosts, and more help a new SeeD soldier whip through the game and experience its great story.
But while the character models are improved (Squall really is the prettiest dude at the party now) the backgrounds remain a mess. Furthermore, the biggest critiques of the game aren’t addressed beyond those God Mode toggles. The junction equipment system, which relies on collecting multiple easily missed Guardian Force summons to shine, is totally untouched and, thus, still a head-whirling experience for new players. The related draw system, with a per-use spellcasting system that’s more like old-school Wizardry instead of modern Final Fantasy, also remains the same. Together, it’s hard to avoid the lure of those shiny easy mode toggles, wiping out the urge to tinker with what could have been an interesting and fresh way to buff the hell out of our main party.
There’s also a new angle to the old mystery of what happened to this game for so long: its signature song, “Eyes on Me,” originally sung by Chinese artist Faye Wong, had been mangled in the remaster. It’s assumed this happened due to a long-running copyright issue, but, like the rumors of the lost code, there are few facts to tell us for certain what happened.
Friends, this is not what a Final Fantasy game deserves. After decades of Zodiac Ages, Rebirths, Remakes, whatever mad practical joke Stranger of Paradise is, and sequels like X-2 and Revenant Wings, we politely demand Squall Leonhart and his team finally get some god damned respect.
The Final Fantasy VII Remake That Should Be
Final Fantasy VII Remake endured years of pre-production under the eye of a terrified, somewhat angry fandom attempting to prepare itself for the worst. What we got was a stunning experience that took the game we loved and dropped a fresh multiversal twist into the middle of it. “What if Aerith lived?” was no longer limited to fanfic prompts. Now it’s a possibility, as the last daughter of the Cetra is aware of her fate, despite the shadowy powers lurking at the fringes of reality that seem determined to make destiny repeat itself.
It’s a fresh hook for Cloud’s story, but it’s also a hook that could make more sense in a world of sorceresses capable of harnessing time and space. Do we know for certain that the threat of time compression is over? Is that the only demon in the box? There’ll be more sorceresses after Rinoa, and there were centuries of them before. They’re also part of this still-mysterious world’s creation legend about a God named Hyne, and Final Fantasy XVI has shown us that not everything we believe about a world of crystals and Gods is necessarily true.
It’s possible to bring the children of Balamb Garden back without undoing their good deeds and happy endings, looping them into another glimpse of a doomed future that could happen if they don’t get to work now. Maybe this time Squall is the Laguna, or the Cid,. Gradually a new story with a new cast takes over to explore just how the draw system works, how Esthar became a technological superpower, why most sorceresses live in hiding, and what could happen if that all falls apart. With those vague prompts come opportunities to refine that beleaguered battle system, turning the Junction system and the stressful hunt for Guardian Forces into something better. And today’s graphics could revitalize those too-long special attacks, and make them as active as Clive’s titanic throwdowns with enemy Ikons.
From Final Fantasy I to now, each game in the franchise is a landmark for somebody, a special game that arrived at a time they needed its comfort. Final Fantasy VIII is still one of these games, a monument to experimentation after the success of VII, and a cozy throwback to the vague but necessary politics of the pixel era. Despite its flaws, it remains one of my favorite games, with a cast that lives in my memory. It should, and could, be yours too if it’s just given the chance that some other contentious but fascinating adventures from gaming’s past never seem to get. To do that, let’s hope for a genuine attempt to remaster the game for a new generation of dreamers.