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The Pitch-Perfect Storytelling Of Final Fantasy VI’s Opera, And How The Pixel Remaster Missed A Note

Image: Nintendo Life / Square Enix

When reminiscing on Final Fantasy VI, what first comes to mind?

It’s possible your answer is Kefka’s iconic maniacal laugh, or a final boss battle that makes you dance madly, or searching for friends in a world of ruin. But somewhere in that mix—and for many, probably foremost—is the majestic-yet-silly Opera House scene.

On the surface, it’s strange that the Opera House is, for many fans, the most revered part of the notably melancholic Final Fantasy VI. The musical performance is pretty set dressing on a plot device to get our party an airship while driving home Celes and Locke’s relationship on the side; there’s no plot relevance to the big to-do of performing an opera.

Further, the main point of tension revolves around the reappearance of the game’s comic villain, Ultros, whose big villainous moment culminates in declaring himself “octopus royalty” (in the English localization, at least). Despite its position only a handful of plot beats prior to the world-ending events that define Final Fantasy VI’s legacy, this glorified tangent has been remembered so fondly that it was remade in Square Enix’s HD-2D engine for Final Fantasy VI Pixel Remaster, a treatment exclusive to it across the entire Pixel Remaster series.

FFIV Opera Scene 1
Image: Nintendo Life

nailing the performance results in a blissful synchronization that provides the illusion of agency and deepens personal connections to the game

There are quite a few reasons one could provide to explain this reverence. For one, Final Fantasy writing shines brightest when focusing on intimate character moments, something the Opera House provides to greater effect than many of Final Fantasy VI’s more tonally serious scenes. Along these same lines, levity is the soul of drama, and the sequence provides respite enough that the audience can come to love the world and characters before ripping it all up with a swift punch to the gut. It was also a virtuoso moment for Nobuo Uematsu in which he flexed the diversity of his compositional chops. But there’s a reason more potent than all of these that the Opera House shines bright: it showcased the power of interactive storytelling.

Put simply, the opera scene is a cutscene you can play. This may not seem so impressive in the modern age wherein the latest Final Fantasy entries showcase set pieces that rival those from blockbuster films. However, it was revelatory to 1994 audiences for whom ‘set piece’ wasn’t yet part of their gaming vocabulary. It thus makes sense that Final Fantasy VI presents its interactive set piece as a play, helping players contextualize their roleplaying duties through the lens of an actual set.

For the uninitiated or those that need a refresher, here’s the set-up (spoiler alert): the party’s ploy to access an airship in their pursuit of the imperialistic Gestahlian Empire requires the magic-wielding knight Celes to play the role of Maria in an opera, setting up the airship’s owner to abduct the wrong woman. You are tasked with acting out Maria’s aria with only the opening number by Maria’s lover, Draco (which acts as a tutorial of sorts), and a quick glance at the script to guide them. This enactment involves choosing the correct lyrics for Celes to sing, moving her in time with Draco to simulate dancing, picking up the roses he leaves behind, and running to the upper balcony to throw the roses into the moonlight.

It’s a lot to take in but nailing the performance results in a blissful synchronization between scripted sequence and player control that provides the illusion of agency and, with that, deepens personal connections to the game.

FFIV Opera Scene 1
Image: Nintendo Life

If your familiarity with Final Fantasy VI stems from its Pixel Remaster, this may sound like overblown conjecture or just straight-up inaccurate. The reason for this harkens back to the use of the HD-2D engine to recreate Maria’s aria. This allowed for visual enhancements like shifting camera angles and rendered lighting effects, resulting in a presentation more recognizably cinematic for today’s audiences.

However, it does this at the sacrifice of its interactive roots. While the player still chooses Celes’ lines, everything from the dance with Draco to running up the balcony stairs has been reduced to one press of the ‘A’ button. Contextual prompts like these give the scene a feeling more akin to the infamous quick-time events of many games from console generations to follow. This change is likely due to the HD-2D recreation not being coded to allow player control over characters; the opera’s script notably still implies you have to perform the actions yourself, backing up the theory that this concession was one of necessity. Regardless, the result is a remake of the scene that doesn’t entirely capture the original’s accomplishments.

It’s an interesting (if unintentional) commentary on the beneficial qualities of abstraction in JRPGs. Just as turn-based combat and overworlds came about to circumvent the limitations of early console generations, so too did playing out Maria’s role in the opera require your mind to fill in the gaps. Allowing you to perform the part sells the illusion; because the player moves Celes in a way that implies dancing, they more easily believe that the circles they’re walking around Draco’s sprite as the music swells amounts to a romantic tango. It’s the same mental trickery the ATB system uses to make battles feel less like two sides courteously taking turns wailing on one another. While the directorial tricks the HD-2D remade scene employs are smoother and more dramatic, simplifying the actions to a few button presses ultimately undersells the illusion of actively participating in the play.

FFIV Opera Scene 1
Image: Nintendo Life

Of course, this is a rumination on a fleeting moment within a broader sequence that still sings no matter what version you play. In fact, the HD-2D remake of the Maria aria has its own upgrades such as environmental visual splendor, more emotive sprites, and music with a vocal track. The non-interactive sections of the play are similarly compelling as they provide depth to the stage and auditorium that truly make the Opera House feel grandiose. It seriously makes us want the full game remade in this style. This is to say nothing of how enthralling Locke’s rush to thwart Ultros’ plan to ruin the play is. Shifting perspectives between party groups is a trick Final Fantasy VI employs well across its run time but it’s perhaps never more thrilling than here.

Maybe it’s best put this way: 30 years after the original SNES release of Final Fantasy VI, we have a version of the game that accurately reflects modern trends and in many ways is the better for it. The few in which it isn’t—such as with Maria’s aria performance—do little to truly detract but rather provide us with an opportunity to appreciate the ingenuity in how early-1990s Square worked within hardware limitations to achieve groundbreaking interactive storytelling.

Do you fondly remember the Opera House scene, or is there another moment you think deserves the spotlight? Let us know in the comments as we gear up to celebrate Final Fantasy VI’s 30th anniversary on 2nd April!

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