When I first played Final Fantasy 8, I reveled in what it would like to be a cool teen — steeped in existential dread while wearing cool outfits and befriending moody-looking boys.
“I’d like to get Rinoa’s haircut,” I remember thinking, “and train a dog to launch off my arm like a crossbow bolt.” I was 11 years old at the time, and I was very impressionable.
Squaresoft’s 1999 PlayStation 1 game trades in series staples like castles and princesses for military academies and mercenaries, striking a strange balance between magic spells and sci-fi tech. It retains enough of the Final Fantasy franchise’s recognizable features, but deviates enough from its predecessors to earn its unofficial status as the “black sheep” of the Final Fantasy family. FF8 is a walking contradiction in so many ways, but the combination of technical achievement, memorable characters, and out-of-this-world plot twists left an impression on me. 20 years later, I’m still thinking about them all.
Despite the sweeping romance featured in its official logo, FF8 is ultimately a coming-of-age story. It follows a ragtag group of student mercenaries in their efforts to save the world from an evil sorceress obsessed with time compression. The game’s genre mashup paves the way for memorable sequences like, “There’s a monster who bankrolled our school and he lives in the basement,” and, “Your girlfriend is possessed by a sorceress from the future in a space station, what do you do?” The original PlayStation version spans four discs, and each one brings a new set of incredulous obstacles and plot devices. Infiltrating a presidential train car sounds fine, but what if your party passed out in the middle of a heist and had a shared dream? Also, what if that dream wasn’t actually a dream, but was something else entirely?
I accepted all of this without question or hesitation, as I did with many games when I was young, and now look back on these moments with a strange mix of fondness and disbelief. When main protagonist Squall Leonhart and his party succumb to mysterious fainting spells, they describe what happens next as shared dreams that take place nearly a decade prior in the Sorceress War. Squall assumes the role of Laguna Loire, a goofy but well-meaning soldier and ex-journalist. Everything about Laguna is wildly endearing — there’s a lengthy scene dedicated to mustering up the courage to talk to a beautiful lounge singer, cut short by a nasty leg cramp and a limp of shame back to his seat.
In so many ways, he’s the complete opposite of Squall. While Laguna is a romantic at heart, Squall is aloof and often skeptical of everyone’s intentions. During the dream sequences, players are able to see Squall’s commentary on the events unfolding in Laguna’s timeline. And it’s pretty clear: Squall thinks this guy is a complete moron. What’s even funnier is that this moron is Squall’s father, and neither of them even know it.
I’m still astounded that one of FF8’s biggest revelations is never made explicit. There are clues, like Squall’s time in the orphanage and his childhood friendship with a girl named Ellone, but we never get the satisfaction, that one juicy moment, where Squall and Laguna come face-to-face with this realization. The two of them eventually cross paths towards the end of the game — still unaware of their familial ties — and Squall snidely wonders how this man even became president of Esthar. It’s hilarious, to be sure, but not without a tinge of sadness. During the ending, Laguna visits his wife’s grave and has a flashback of the night he proposed to her. Her tombstone reads “Raine Loire,” a change from her maiden name, Leonhart, but that’s never mentioned in-game.
Squall himself comes across as a massive departure from previous Final Fantasy heroes. When we first meet him, he’s a 17-year-old loner at a military academy (referred to in-game as a “Garden”) who responds to pretty much everything with “… Whatever.” On the surface, he appears similar to Final Fantasy 7’s Cloud Strife, another terse and sullen JRPG boy who doesn’t like to rely on others. But unlike in FF7, we have access to Squall’s every inner thought and insecurity in real time. Even in the face of praise from his comrades and superiors, he questions his validity and shoots down every compliment he gets. Key childhood flashbacks and glimpses into scenes of abandonment, bullying, and loneliness resonated strongly with me. Not only were those things I could relate to, they were also some of the first times I saw a character in a video game tackle these kinds of issues. It may be easy to write Squall off as a mopey teen, but looking back, I always felt an affinity toward him. He’s a huge departure from Cloud, who never quite articulated his emotional struggles, even in the most dire situations.
This kind of storytelling drives home just how different this title was from its predecessors. FF8 emerged during a time of great experimentation for Squaresoft; it launched a year after Parasite Eve, a game based on a sci-fi horror novel. Along with writing the story’s dramatic shifts, the studio took big visual and mechanical risks with FF8. Most notably, the game introduced CG cutscenes to the series for the first time, as shown in its dramatic, operatic opening sequence. In-game characters grew to full-scale from FF7’s squat, blocky figures and the mini-pixelated sprites of the SNES days. A new (albeit divisive) battle system even emerged. And all those risks paid off: FF8 still holds its position today as the second best-selling title in the franchise, with 8.8 million copies sold worldwide.
Despite the impressive sales numbers, we probably won’t see a remaster of it any time soon (There’s speculation that the source code is lost forever.) But I continue to hope for one. For years, I thought I was the only one defending this strange game; sometimes I even felt ashamed to mention that it’s my favorite Final Fantasy. But now, in the week of its 20th anniversary, I’m delighted to discover how many people share my love for this ridiculous game. The more I’ve talked about it, the more people I’ve seen reply with their favorite memories and screenshots. And there’s something special about that — we may personally not know each other, but we have an instant kinship. We’ve lived it, and survived all four discs of it.
Final Fantasy 8’s small but fierce, enduring fanbase prove that its contradictions, high drama, and outrageously beautiful world-building can still stand the test of time. Its dramatic escalations combined with an earnest heart make it a game that shines among the rest of its medieval peers.
Read more: Polygon