Week Two: Our Heroes
SPOILER ALERT!! This feature by its very nature contains spoilers for every Final Fantasy game. If you don’t want your cherry popped, make sure to skip the bits about games you haven’t played yet.
No story is complete without its protagonist, and those of the Final Fantasy series really run the gamut. Some are dark and brooding, others light and chipper. Some are blank slates, some are overdeveloped to the point of absurdity. Some are thieves and criminals, others are knights and soldiers. They range from gaudy to beautiful, manipulated to manipulative, heroic to cowardly and everything in between.
They pretty much all use swords, though. That one thing, they all have in common.
This week’s entry takes a look at the FF heroes, ranked in order of my personal preference. We’ll start with my least favorite and work our way forward to the grand prize winner of Best Final Fantasy Hero In The Universe Ever.
Final Fantasy XI: This Guy
The world of Vana’diel has about 500,000 protagonists which can be divided into two groups: you, and some butthole who will yell at you for wearing the +1 Agility boots instead of the +2 Agility boots.
Okay, that’s an unfair generalization. Not everyone who plays MMOs are socially retarded grognards; if you play one long enough you’re bound to meet some genuinely cool people and form some worthwhile online friendships. Still, it’s a pretty cutthroat world out there and the potential for explosive drama is very high. For American players it’s actually worse than a lot of other MMOs in this regard, thanks to being shoved into general population along with the Japanese. For example: back when I played, it was considered rude to check out a player’s equipment without asking them politely first. This is common practice in pretty much every other MMO; an immigrating player could inadvertantly offend someone by just doing the things they’re used to doing.
The biggest strike against [your FF11 name here], though, is a complete lack of integration into the game’s plot. Because everybody is part of the same story, the story needs to be able to include anybody. You’re a mute observer; a blank avatar. It’s possible (and perhaps inevitable) to become very attached to your character, of course… but that happens for reasons completely divorced from what the game is.
Final Fantasy I: The Light Warriors
The original Final Fantasy doesn’t really have characters, let alone a protagonist. In the beginning of the game you build a party consisting of four fat-headed dudes chosen from a stable of six classes. Then it’s… off you go! They’re nameless, pointless heroes who aren’t connected to the plot or setting at all.
The only reason I rated them higher than the FF11 avatars is their visual style. The FF1 sprites are attractive, distinct, and legendary. FF1’s character sprites defined many aspects of the six of the core jobs which would return throughout the series, from the red mage’s stylish pimp hat to the black mage’s unsettling glowing yellow eyes.
Viewed as characters, though, the Light Warriors are sorely lacking. The protagonists only exist as a means to execute commands in battle. I guess it’s possible to be a fan of the game mechanics themselves, but you know, there are twelve other games in this series with those same mechanics. The pimp hat is great, but it ain’t enough. Sorry guys.
Final Fantasy X: Tidus
My brain had a hard time allowing me to rank Tidus above FF1’s Light Warriors, but in the end I just couldn’t justify placing blank slates above a real character with a well-defined personality… even if that personality is utterly terrible.
There’s a lot of dislike about Tidus. He looks like he dresses himself by stumbling about randomly inside his closet. He has a grating, obnoxious voice which wears on the nerves after 0.2 consecutive seconds of listening to it. He spends most of his game whining about his daddy issues. He lacks the situational one-hit kills that define most of the rest of FF10’s cast. His name isn’t even pronounced the way you’d think it’s supposed to be: TEE-dus, not TY-dus.
Tidus’s backstory is pretty dumb even by Final Fantasy standards. It involves him being from a thousand-year-old civilization which is not quite dead thanks to the collective subconscious of some manner of quasi-spiritual god-creature… but it essentially boils down to him not being a real person. Actually, now that I think about it, FF10 ends with Tidus evaporating and making his detestable girlfriend cry. I could bump him up a couple spots for that alone.
Final Fantasy VII: Cloud
We’re still pretty low on the list, but the truth is Tidus is the only defined FF hero I actually dislike. Cloud, honestly, is a pretty cool guy. (He doesn’t afraid of anything.)
It’s hard to get a bead on Cloud’s personality since one of FF7’s central plot elements is that he’s not the person he believes himself to be. At some point in his past Cloud’s brain got scrambled up with his buddy Zack’s, causing him to (partially) assume Zack’s identity and demeanor. Zack, we are led to believe, was kind of a cocky badass — and therefore Cloud is also a cocky badass.
In reality, Cloud is kind of a loser nobody. This is revealed in one of the game’s pivotal story sequences, in which his well-endowed best friend mines the depths of his psyche and uncovers his real personality. After this Cloud is never really the same; he’s not the arrogant snot he was for the first half of the game, nor is he the overly-ambitious kid desperate for the cute girl’s attention. By the game’s end he becomes something in-between. I suppose this is what you’d call “character development”, even if it’s completely forced; you are literally going into Cloud’s head for the explicit purpose of rearranging things.
Visually, I’ve always found Cloud to be fairly boring. The baggy purple pants don’t do anything for me, and I’m having a hard time figuring out which is gaudier: the giant metal pauldron or the spikey blond hair. I will give the man points for his giant Buster Sword, though, which is likely the single most iconic object in the entire FF series.
Final Fantasy VIII: Squall
I should save myself some time and just type “Cloud, but better.” I suppose there’d be no excuse for that level of laziness, though.
Squall shares Cloud’s arrogant, often angsty disposition. His claim to fame, however, is a pervasive inner monologue. Since the player spends so much time in Squall’s head, his words and actions often have a context which Cloud’s do not: his reasons for prefering to be a loner, his disdain at being constantly appointed to leadership roles he is suited for but does not want, his all-encompassing contempt for the other party members. There’s not really a lot to like about Squall, but that’s the way he was designed. If you knew a guy like this in real life, you wouldn’t like him very much either, right?
Like Cloud, Squall does lighten up a bit over the course of the game. His is a more natural change, though, as he grows more accepting of his friends over time and winds up falling for the overbearingly cheerful Rinoa despite his best attempts to the contrary. We even get a smile out of him during the endgame FMV. Well, half a smile. Okay, it’s a smirk. But it’s something.
Squall edges ahead of Cloud in style and fashion sense. I’ve always liked the fur trim on Squall’s jacket, and as a red-blooded American I can identify with a man who wears jeans when it’s time to go save the world. His gunblade in particular is the very definition of Rule Of Cool. A sword that is also a gun? Bad ass. Arguments to the effect of “no sword could ever have a hilt like that” or “what does the trigger even do” or “okay now seriously that doesn’t make any goddamn sense” are missing the point entirely.
Final Fantasy III: Onion Kids and/or Luneth
FF3 has the distinction of being the only game in the series to have different heroes depending on which version you’re playing. On the NES you were given a group of Onion Kids who were more or less identical to FF1’s Light Warriors. Feel free to scroll up and re-read that entry, if you are so inclined.
When the DS version came out, the Onion Kids were nixed and in their place were four more-or-less traditional RPG youths, the first of which is Luneth. All of these kids have fairly thin personalities; this is still FF3 after all. Luneth’s is the mildest of the four, as he takes on the role of Generic Courageous Party Leader. The instruction manual describes him as “adventurous” and credits his curiosity with his decision to go bounding down a mysterious hole.
Because what else would do do with a mysterious hole, right? Such is the life of an RPG hero.
I don’t really have strong opinions about Luneth, because he’s not really designed to be the kind of character one can have strong opinions about. I admit it took me some time to come to terms with his wispy silver hair, as it’s of a style typically reserved for badass villains. (The more badass the villain, the longer the hair, natch.) I placed him above Cloud and Squall because his tepid, inoffensive nature never once got under my skin the way Cloud’s detached callousness or Squall’s emo bellyaching did. Besides, the kid really has quite a bit of charm, and there’s something to be said for simplicity. “Here’s a crystal, here’s your magnificent destiny… get to work.” I’ll take it.
Final Fantasy II: Firion
Like Luneth, Firion is an orphan who grew up with his best chums and was pretty purposely designed to not have much in the way of personality or backstory. In fact, most of FF2’s character-driven plot revolves around Firion’s teammates Maria and Leon, leaving him in the same Generic Courageous Party Leader rut as Luneth.
My first experiences with Firion were with the Famicom version of FF2, where he was basically just an FF1 FIGHTER as far as I was concerned. Seriously, same sprite and everything. Come to think of it, the fan translators had his name pegged differently, too: Frionel. Which was shortened further to simply Frion thanks to character limitations. Anyway, FF2 is terrible, so that experience didn’t last long.
My second experience with Firion was in Final Fantasy Origins where I saw his character sprite, blinked a few times, and said “That doesn’t like like an FF1 FIGHTER. He looks more like a THIEF. Specifically, he looks like Locke.”
Actually, I decided he looks cooler than Locke. More colorful, for one thing; I love the red armor and speckled bandana. As for the blue lipstick… well, I’m not one to judge.
I’ll cut to the chase though: my #1 reason for loving Firion is because he’s my favorite character in Dissidia. In a game where most of the characters are Big Dudes with Big Swords, a guy who carries an entire arsenal on his back really stands out. (He loses the red armor, but gains a flowing cape, which I’ll call a fair trade.)
Perhaps I should have left his Dissidia showing out of my factoring, but then I’d have to leave him languishing at the bottom of the list with Tidus. And man, he really doesn’t deserve that. I really hope they fix your shitty game someday, buddy.
Final Fantasy V: Bartz
Generic Courageous Party Leader #3 is Bartz. While FF5 as a whole is very much a callback to FF3, Bartz himself is more of a callback to Firion: heroic youth with a strong sense of duty whose job is to explore the breadth of the game’s ability and equipment options without doing a lot to call attention to himself. Also similar to Firion, he is a hero in a game with a much more interesting supporting cast. Other than “I’m traveling around the world with this chocobo!” I’m having trouble coming up with a definitive character trait Bartz possesses.
Oh! No, wait — he’s afraid of hieghts. That gets played for laughs in a few scenes.
A lot of Bartz’s personality comes out in the constant banter between FF5’s cast. One of the themes of FF5 is the strong bonds of friendship, after all, and that really comes across. Much or more of the dialogue in other FF games involves the characters responding to events in the plot. In FF5 that energy is much more focused on the characters interacting with each other in their (adamittedly strange) everyday life.
Bartz is the most boring character in the series to look at, with his plain white pants and plain blue shirt. I remember my first reaction to his map sprite: “He looks just like the dude from Mystic Quest.” Fortunately Bartz changes jobs like we change socks, so before long you’ll get to see him in a pointy hat or a blue facemask or a wolf skin. My personal favorite is his open-shirt Flamenco dancer outfit, which marks the first time in the series where I forced a character to stick with a lame job because I just couldn’t bear to change his clothes.
Final Fantasy XII: Vaan
So we’ve gone through the non-entities, and the emo clique, and the Generic Courageous Party Leaders. Now, at last, we come to the legitimately good characters of the FF series, beginning with Aladdin. I mean Vaan.
I actually scratched my head for a while on whether or not to include Vaan. He’s not really FF12’s protagonist, you know; that would be Princess Ashe. Nor is he the game’s leading man, as Balthier is quick to remind us. FF12 is not the story of Vaan overcoming adversity to meet a destiny thrust upon him by the Great Whimsy of the Cosmos. Hell, it’s not even the story of Vaan period. There has been much muttering about how Vaan is just “kind of there” in FF12’s plot.
But you know who else is just “kind of there”? Frodo Baggins. Samwell Tarly. Oddyseus. I, for one, found it refreshing to play a huge, epic story starring the small group of people that just so happened to be caught up in it. I find scenes where you discover your hero is the Big Bad’s son, or the villains had been controlling him all along, or all his memories were implanted by the government to be quite tiresome.
A character need not be implicit in a story other than “he was there when the events went down”. Unless, I suppose, you subsist entirely on a diet of anime and Japanese video games. Not having a secret horrible destiny in those worlds is sort of like not having lungs in ours. What do you mean he’s not the great-grandson of the legendary Black Knight of Bloodlandia? Does not compute.
That’s what I liked most about FF12’s cast, though. They’re all stereotypes, sure, but they’re stereotypes as seen from a slightly different angle as is the norm. Here’s the real lowdown on Vaan: he invites himself along on someone else’s lofty quest because he has lofty, unobtainable ambitions of being a sky pirate… not unlike your childhood ambitions of being an astronaut or rock star. Wouldn’t you have leapt at the opportunity to go with a real-life astronaut into real-life outer space when you were a kid? And if that astronaut just so happened to be busy saving the world at the time, more’s the better! Let’s not begrudge Vaan his supernatural luck. Hmm… Vaan’s actually more like Aladdin than I originally thought.
Final Fantasy VI: Terra and Celes
If trying to pick a protagonist from FF12 was a head-scratcher, trying to pick one from FF6 was a nightmare. No single character is present for the entirety of the game’s story. None of the three characters you’re required to finish the game with are there at the game’s start. Trying to define a protagonist by saying “this is _____’s story” or “this story is told from _____’s perspective” is doomed to failure.
Terra and Celes both stand immediately out, though. Each one is present during the opening scenes of one of FF6’s two worlds. The characters are similar enough, in a lot of ways, that one can stand in for the other. They’re both women (rare enough in the FF series), they’re both former Imperial soldiers in a world that hates Imperials, they’re both magic-users in a world that is unaccustomed to magic.
They’re both vulnerable. That’s a character trait we don’t really get elsewhere in the FF series, isn’t it? Probably because all the other protagonists are men. Let’s chalk it up to Square being full of macho pigheaded jerks. Really though, the vulnerability works. Terra awakens with a clouded memory in the middle of a power struggle between two factions that seek to control her magical powers — powers she herself is terrified of. Celes awakens to a desolate world where everything she knew and loved has been obliterated by her arch nemesis. Their frailties are worked into their characters without rolling them completely over into damsel-in-distress territory, a fact for which I am very much appreciative. By the time FF6 came out I was looking for a little more in my RPGs than rescuing princesses from towers.
This segues into a broader point, actually: not only are Terra and Celes uncharacteristic of FF protagonists, but of female party members on the whole. The gals of FF4 were the typical squishy back-row types who lived and died on their MP. The ladies from FF2 and FF5 could all use big-boy weapons as part of their game mechanics, but they weren’t defined by them. (Except perhaps Faris, who spends most of the early game pretending she’s a man.) Terra and Celes are both soldiers. They’re tough. When the dashing male lead tries to act the overprotective hero, it comes across more as a character flaw on his fault. These ladies can take care of themselves.
Terra’s backstory involves being part Magical Girl, which is one of the central pillars of FF6’s story. Celes is more involved in the game’s present, which is to say the actual sequence of events the characters move through. Both plotlines are handled much better than in previous games, as FF6 is the first game in the series that plays at being cinematic. Much of this is achieved simply by having larger, more detailed and more finely-animated character sprites. Like every other PC, both girls have unique sprites to convey anger, shock, or amusement. It’s amazing how much closer you can feel to a character simply because of a two-frame laughing animation. Terra and Celes have a range of expression that wouldn’t be possible again until, gosh, late in the PS2 era. The grainy polygon people of FFs7-10 just don’t hold a candle to them.
Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning
Well, let’s discuss the importance of expression a little bit more. I’ve spent a lot of time harping on Cloud and Squall for being arrogant, angsty, and generally unlikeable. (Unlikeable on purpose… but unlikeable nonetheless.) And here we have Lightning, who was specifically designed to be a “female Cloud” — and she’s right up at the top of the list. What gives!?
Squall does this thing in FF8 where he puts his arm behind his head, cocks his weight back onto one foot, and goes “Whatever.” He does this 653 times over the course of the story. What we’re meant to get out of this is that Squall is detached from the scene playing out in front of him, as though the scramblings of people with base emotions are beneath him. We know this isn’t the case, of course, because of his inner monologue. But that’s how he comes across to the player. You can set your watch by it. “Oh, Zell said something weird. Here it comes — lean back, arm behind head, ‘whatever.'”
The minor difference between Squall and Lightning is that Lightning has no inner monologue. She doesn’t need one; she wears her heart on her sleeve. If she’s pissed at you, you can expect her to knock your ass to the floor. If she doesn’t care about you, she’ll show it by picking up her pace and leaving you to be gunned down by soldiers or eaten by forest creatures. Squall might have done these things too, if his circumstances had been different, but he wouldn’t have talked about them.
The major difference between Squall and Lightning is: Lightning has a voice. And facial expressions. She can move. She can tailor her reactions to the situation rather than pulling them from a bag of canned animations. Because she can do these things she comes across as a much more nuanced character than Squall, who had a tough time eliciting much of a response beyond “Oh, Squall’s being a dick again.”
Because she has the luxury of more powerful hardware, Lightning gets some of the best action scenes in the series. She’s probably second only to Cloud, but Cloud cheated because his were all in a movie. Lightning dances around the battlefield and travels almost exclusively by backflip. I have no reservations with saying she’s simply one of the prettiest characters to ever grace the series.
So that all boils down to “just like Squall, but with better graphics”. There’s one more spot, though, where I feel Lightning shines through where Squall fell flat. Both characters inevitably drop their armor, warm up to their companions and become the heroes the game needs them to be. Squall’s transformation is like flipping a card over; one minute he’s unconcerned and disconnected, and the next he’s fawning over Rinoa like a lost puppy.
Lightning develops quite a bit smoother. A lot of FF characters have been military, but Lightning is the first that really acts the part. She’s a soldier, but not a leader — great at following orders, bad at putting together a plan. She eventually finds herself with a group of civilians looking up to her for direction. Unable to provide them any, she strikes out almost at random. She sets the most violent, destructive goal she can and dives at it headlong. It’s only after she gets halfway there, when she realizes she’s dragging a preteen kid along on what is essentially a suicide mission, that she starts to wise up. Her progression from cold, unfeeling badass to determined, capable leader is something you might see in a real person. Or, at least, in a real fictional person with a good writer behind him.
Final Fantasy IX: Zidane
(We are, for purposes of this article, selectively forgetting about the “You’re Not Alone” scene in Pandemonium. My theory is that was originally written for FF7, but got lost in a folder somewhere, and some intern shoved it into FF9 without knowing what he was doing.)
Zidane was a breath of fresh air after years of Cloud and Squall. Zidane doesn’t mope, bitch or complain. He invests himself willingly in the story and in the lives of his teammates. He’s the plucky, cheerful, easygoing hero no other JRPG would dare to have back when FF9 came out.
Sure Zidane is a lecherous, overconfident little snot. But he’s so gosh darn lovable. He’s worldly, clever, witty and fun. Every other FF hero up to this point has been so preoccupied with rescuing princesses that none of them stopped to think about how great it would be to steal one. Well, that’s precisely how FF9 opens. Oh, sure, FF9 does have the dour straight-man character, the one who diligently follows orders and eventually learns to think for himself. He’d have landed the protagonist role in virtually any other entry, but FF9 subverts that trend. Zidane runs circles around that guy. Mocks him. Causes him no end of hell.
When you root for Zidane you’re rooting against every other FF hero you’ve ever played. FF9 is well-known for its callbacks, but it doesn’t play all of them straight.
In many ways Zidane is the character Bartz could have been, were FF5 a more story-driven game. Like FF5, FF9 focuses a lot on the hero’s social interactions with his companions. Zidane is at once Vivi’s big brother, Garnet’s mentor in the ways of the world, the thorn in Steiner’s side, Amarant’s flippant rival, Freya’s old war buddy and Eiko’s childhood crush. He fills each of these roles with ease, and the supporting cast of FF9 feels all the more vibrant for his efforts. An FF hero whose best asset is his charisma… who would have thought it possible?
Zidane remains the best FF hero to date. Unfortunately for him, I own a well-worn pair of rose-tinted glasses. Which can only mean one thing…
Final Fantasy IV: Cecil
This will become a running theme during these thirteen weeks, but when I first played FF4 in the early 90s it blew my mind. Its protagonist was no exception. Think about it: Cecil was the first JRPG hero.
Before Cecil it was all blank slates or player avatars. Your little Dragon Quest guy wasn’t really a character, was he? He was just a jumble of pixels with a status screen. The only real competition up to this point had been Firion… who had a name and not much else. Firion was pretty much still the player.
Cecil is not the player. Cecil is Cecil. He starts the game by doing things no reasonable player would be considered heroic. Imagine two players talking: one who had just finished the opening scenes of FF1, and one who had just finished the opening scenes of FF4. “So I beat up an evil knight, rescued a princess and built a bridge. What’d you do?” “Oh, well, I robbed an old man, got yelled at by my boss and burned some little girl’s village down.” “Wow. You’re kind of a bastard.”
“Actually it wasn’t me. It was Cecil. Cecil did that.”
But then Cecil goes on to save that little girl. He struggles with the evils of his past, and eventually conquers them. Cecil is the first character in the FF series to be driven forward by motives rather than fetch quests. He doesn’t scale the giant tower because there’s some ancient powerful macguffin at the top — he does it for the woman he loves. He doesn’t storm Baron Castle so he can find the thing to get the thing to get the other thing — he does it because there is evil rooted there, and he sees it as his duty to destroy it. He was once complicit in that evil.
And so, therefore, was the player. That bastard.
Cecil possesses few unique character traits, the strongest of which is duality. He’s a very black-and-white character, symbolized by his transformation from Dark Knight to Paladin. Both Cecils are iconic; the Dark Knight for harnassing the debilitating powers of evil in his blade, and the Paladin for selflessly guarding his hurt comrades. Both of these jobs were introduced in FF3, where changing between them is as simple as spending some CP. Cecil does it by successfully resolving a crisis of faith. Future FF heroes would wrestle with various shades of grey in their personalities, but it almost never works well for them. The simple, stark contrast between good and evil is a fantasy staple, and it’s more noticable in FF’s first real protagonist than anywhere else on the JRPG landscape.
Either that, or Cecil is awful and this is all just childhood nostalgia at work.
Of course, a game does not live and die by its hero alone. I really do like the majority of FF10’s cast, you know! I get more enjoyment out of FF1’s gameplay than I’ve ever extracted from FF6’s very moving and well-scripted Opera House sequence. And as much as I love Lightning, I got tired of watching her stupid gun/sword-holster thing bang against her legs for sixty hours.
That’s two weeks in a row now FF11 has languished at the very bottom of the list. I need to show it some love. In particular, it has a wonderful soundtrack. Methinks week three shall need to focus on some of the musical aspects of the series.