Looking back: Final Fantasy VIII turns 22

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the North American release of Final Fantasy VIII, a game I’ve had quite a history with over these two decades. And, believe it or not, it’s taken me over 20 years now but — after a recent replay of the game — I think I owe an apology to the fans of Final Fantasy VIII after all this time. Allow me to explain.

Final Fantasy VII was my first exposure to the series, and I absolutely loved it. I even bought the soundtrack direct from Japan, and it wasn’t nearly as easy to do such a thing back at that time, either! So, when Final Fantasy VIII was announced, I was so eager for it that I even bought the game Brave Fence Musashi just because it came with a demo for FFVIII. And, on the day of its release (9/9/99), I didn’t have a car and so I rode my bike several miles in the Florida sun to my local Walmart to buy it. I passed over the brand new Dreamcast (also released that same day), far more excited for this new Final Fantasy title. I picked it up and eagerly biked home. My roommates had never played a FF title (they were more the Madden type), so they were eager to see what all the hype they’d heard me excited over was about.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t have the same intro as its predecessor, and no amount of time can change this fact. Whereas Final Fantasy VII has an opening cutscene and then places you almost immediately into battle and an ensuing siege of a nuclear installation (for lack of a better term), FFVIII’s opening cutscene places you in… an infirmary. After this, your next destination is a classroom where you go through tutorial screens. The bottom line is that it can be 15+ minutes before you’re finally able to make it to the World Map and your first objective, where you can get into actual fights. For my roommates hovered around our CRT TV, this was far too boring and they wandered off, grumbling about being let down.

Of course, I continued to play. After having used a strategy guide for the entire duration of FFVII, I resolved to going in blind for FFVIII and set about my way. And here’s the thing: I didn’t like it.

Yes, it had wonderful cutscenes. The music was top tier FF music, too. But I wasn’t a fan of the graphic style overall and I found the story to be atrocious. There’s a very specific plot point that comes about that had me all, “Oh, come on!” (SPOILER: click here for what this is). Nevertheless, I kept on playing the game. I hit a major hiccup, though deep into Disc 3. See, I had committed the most foolish mistake of all in my original playthrough, and that was to save in exactly one save slot the entire game. I now found myself at a spot in Disc 3 right before a crucial battle. Only, I had saved at a spot where I could not leave, and the only option was for that boss fight. But, as it turned out, my blind playthrough had left my team woefully underprepared. I finally looked up a guide on GameFAQs and saw so many references to items I had missed that I realized I was not going to be able to proceed — and so I started all over again from scratch, this time using multiple save slots and a guide.

When it was all over, I wasn’t sure what had really happened in the game. I heard about a theory surrounding the end of Disc 1 (spoiler link here again), and I liked it, because most of what I felt I witnessed didn’t make much sense to me. And so I never really returned to the game for quite a long time, often considered it bottom-tier (for its convoluted story), and did not give it much respect overall.

Even in 2012, I had made a plan to play through every main-line FF title that was available, one per month. So FF1 in Jan, FF2 in Feb, and so on. Although I didn’t include FF11 or FF14 for their MMO reasons, I still did technically play both that year, and I successfully made it to compete FF13 by the end of December. (Sidenote: it was during this process that FFX replaced FF7 as my favorite FF title). I had hoped that my replay of FF8 would make me feel differently about it all those years later, but it simply didn’t. I found it a slog to get through and, though I completed it, I didn’t walk away feeling any different.

Fast forward another number of years, and the FF8 Remaster is finally released on modern consoles. This is what I just finished playing again, and wow, I feel a lot differently now! For one thing, while I still feel that the initial story issues I had problems with remain (in that I don’t really dig the twist), I will admit that I feel like they did a much better job of explaining why. And I realize how silly that may sound, as the story presentation hasn’t changed, merely my own absorption of it. So I will speak to that now in a section riddled with story spoilers:

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I don’t know how I missed all this stuff on two previous replays. Maybe I was just beat by the end of it to pay attention. Let me stipulate that I still think the “omg dae realize we all grew up together?!” twist is silly, and blaming it on using GFs is a weak cop-out, I did realize as I played through more of the pieces all came together. For example, time compression never really made much sense to me but finally clicked here. And what finally brought it all home for me was a scene after the final battle, where Squall goes through a portal, sees Matron and Ultimecia, and Ultimecia passed on her powers to Matron. During this, Squall is telling Matron about SeeD and their purpose, and she recognizes him as from the future, right in front of his younger self. And this is what became the catalyst for creating SeeD in the first place to one day prepare to battle a Sorcerer… and we’ve come full circle now.

Again, I’m not sure how I missed all of this in two previous playthroughs. I can understand maybe the first one (I had NO IDEA what was happening in that ending, prior to the video cam footage), but the second one? I must have just checked out. But now, paying attention the entire way, it all makes sense! Granted, the Wika for Edea helped clarify things a bit for me but it explains the events of the entire game in that one scene, for the most part.

END OF SPOILERS

With this in mind, I like it a lot more now! Like I said, there’s still issues with it for sure (and I’m happy to discuss them), and it’s not automatically a favorite of mine, but I used to hold it in such low regard (among bottom tier). Now, it’s definitely moved on up. Hell, I still think this game would make the best movie adaption of all of the titles, since it’s the most “real” (up until the end). And that music? Still in my head a week later.

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