To this day, Final Fantasy VIII remains one of the least popular Final Fantasy titles in mainstream gaming culture — despite its great performance on the market both in its original release and the remaster. Detractors often claim two major gripes with the game: the complicated Junction system and the story’s focus on a teenage romance.
However, once you get past the urge to agree with mainstream sentiments, it’s easy to see that the details of FFVIII’s failings have been greatly exaggerated.
The Junction System Is Innovative
Junctions, FFVIII’s system of managing stats and abilities, remains one of the most criticized aspects of the game. However, many remain in staunch defense of it, and rightfully so. In a contemporary mediascape of successful but formulaic RPGs, FFVIII dared to do something different.
Unlike previous FF titles — and RPGs in general — FFVIII did away with mana or magic points in favor of a more tech-based system of spell “stock.” Each character had the ability to stock up to 100 of any given spell and expend a stock to cast the spell instead of spending mana. Players were also confronted with the decision to use powerful spells in battle or junction them to make the characters themselves more powerful. GFs (Guardian Forces) provide the ability to junction magic to certain stats, and the nature of the spell/the amount of stock that spell has affects how much the stat is increased.
Yes, it’s a complicated system to explain — but not as complicated to understand. Once you get past the unfortunately tedious tutorial, the Junction system is actually very intuitive. Healing spells increase the HP and defense stats more than the offensive stats. Protection spells increase the defense stats more than the HP stat, and so on. The game also has a helpful auto-junction function that calculates the optimal stat increases based on your available spells and junctions them for you.
Junctions can seem daunting, but they're not nearly as finicky as some poeple have made it out to be; if you give it a chance, the micro-managing can even be fun simply because it remains one of the most creative takes on how magic in a sci-fi setting would manifest in gameplay functions. Its finicky, micromanaging aspects actually lend themselves well to the particular sub-genre of sci-fi that FFVIII occupies: Cassette Futurism.
On TV Tropes, Cassette Futurism is described as “a technological aesthetic reminiscent of the early 1980s as popularized by the IBM Personal Computer,” a notable example being Alien: Isolation. The defining aspect of the genre is a very 80s/90s sensibility of sci-fi: wondrous, out-of-this-world things are possible through technology, yet the actual devices and the mundane things they are capable of are limited to what would have been imaginable at the time.
FFVIII prominently features this sensibility in its lore — technology has allowed for the use of magic by humans, yet all of the technological interfaces in the game are slow and clunky. A powerful self-repairing war machine is juxtaposed to the revelation that live TV broadcasts are not possible except by radio waves in this world.
Based on the premise that magic is only made available through the technology in this world, the Junction system makes sense. It’s finicky, limited, and requires a fair deal of manual micro-managing, just like an IBM computer back in the day.
Yes, it’s one of the most criticized aspects of the game, but give it a chance, and it’ll prove itself to be a fun, wonderfully creative, and original way of managing magic in a JRPG.
The Story Is A Lot Deeper Than Players Might Think
The other point of contention that FFVIII suffers from is its main plot: there is a large focus on the romance between Squall and Rinoa, the principal protagonists featured in the logo for the title. On the surface, it seems like your run-of-the-mill wangsty teen romance between an emotionally constipated Bad Boy and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who he’s paired with.
Scratch the surface, just a bit, however, and you’ll find a compelling story about emotional vulnerability and the fear of abandonment that plagues the human condition. Though never officially confirmed, it’s safe to say that FFVIII was meant to reference the motifs in tarot card number VIII, “Strength.”
The tarot card and the game share a roman numeral as well as a visual motif of a woman embracing a “lion” — an actual lion in the card, and a boy named Leonhart in the game. Coupled with the fact that the games feature “tarot” cards as a minigame mechanic, it’s certain that the comparison was intended.
“Strength” does not denote the physical strength of the lion — it represents the inner emotional strength and compassion of the woman taming the lion. Not so coincidentally, Squall and Rinoa’s emotional journey revolves around finding what true strength means to them.
Squall is an orphan. When he was five years old, his foster sister, who had taken care of him since his mother died shortly after his birth, was suddenly taken from him without explanation. The pain of abandonment was so great that he resolved to never rely on another person like that ever again — he convinced himself that strength was the ability to stand on one’s own, and it is only through his connection to Rinoa and his other foster siblings that he is able to overcome this fear of vulnerability and open his heart to others.
Rinoa, conversely, was raised by an overprotective father who became distant after her mother died in a car crash. Despite their estranged relationship, she was influenced by the fact that he was a military general and interpreted strength as the ability to achieve great things. However, she had never been taught self-reliance, and so was wholly unprepared for the hardships she confronted as she accompanied trained mercenaries on their journey. It’s only through her resolve to keep up with her newfound friends — and love — that she learns how to keep her head up in spite of misery and gains the emotional discipline to hold her own.
FFVIII’s main story isn’t just a teen romance — it’s a story about the different forms emotional strength can take, and how the love of others, as well as ourselves, is the key to overcoming our fears of failure and vulnerability in order to form meaningful connections with others, and in turn, be happy. While the quality of execution can be debated, the story in and of itself is much more complex and meaningful than many critics have made it out to be — like many other aspects of the game.
In short, FFVIII gets a lot of unfair flak for elements that were creative and innovative — perhaps too much for the audience at the time. Now, with hindsight and a much more developed scope for the creative potential of games in today’s mediascape, perhaps FFVIII Remastered will finally get it the recognition it truly deserves.
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