Final Fantasy VII is frequently lauded as one of the best games of all time, being the JRPG that introduced many-a-young gamer to the world of JRPGs. But there are those who believe firmly that its predecessor, the aptly-named Final Fantasy VI, is actually the better game. I played FF7 recently and didn't think too highly of it, but wanted to get some more perspective on the series, seeing as I had virtually no experience with Final Fantasy. So FF6 seemed like the natural place to start.
Approximately 35 hours later (spread out over the course of eight weeks), I've now finished FF6 and can confirm that it does in fact have better gameplay mechanics than FF7. The main things FF7 has over FF6 is its improved graphics and its more "epic," more dramatic presentation. What I'd really like to see if FF6-style gameplay with FF7-style presentation, and then I think we'd have the best of both worlds. As it is, it's difficult for me to say which I prefer as the overall better game, so here are just some of my thoughts on how Final Fantasy VI holds up on its own and how it compares to Final Fantasy VII.
The most obvious difference with FF6 is the graphics; FF6 is in 2D with top-down camera angles and character sprites, and FF7 uses pre-rendered backgrounds with 3D character models. I'm certainly not a graphics whore, but this is one case where the greater fidelity of FF7's pre-rendered backgrounds contributes a lot to that game's appeal. It was just easier to feel immersed in FF7's setting because it's filled with more detail and felt much more atmospheric. On the other hand, though, the 2D character sprites actually show a far greater range of emotion than the clunky 3D models; since they look a little more cartoonish, they can act more humorously and dramatically, whereas the 3D models were far more rigid.
Another crucial difference lies in the fact that characters actually have unique abilities in FF6. While not ostensibly using the "job system" known from the earlier games in the series, the unique skills serve the same basic function of distinguishing characters and giving you an incentive to use one character over another. The unique skills also introduce different gameplay mechanics for each character; instead of just mashing the "attack" button, characters like Sabin require a series of button combinations to execute attacks much like in a fighting game; with Setzer, you can time strokes on a roulette wheel for various attacks; Gogo mimics the last action performed by the previous party member; and so on. In FF7, all the characters were basically the same, and the materia system further removed unique qualities from characters.
It's also nice that the esper system from FF6 (the thing that seemingly inspired the materia system in FF7) allows you to make permanent alterations to characters' stats and skills. In FF7, all the skills and stat bonuses of materia were temporary and disappeared once you unequipped them, but being able to permanently boost characters' stats depending on what esper you have equipped adds a lot more depth to the leveling system, since it matters how you choose to equip espers. You can have characters learn all different kinds of skills, too, finely customizing how you want your ideal party to function. In that sense, it felt kind of like FF7 had the training wheels on and did a lot of stuff automatically and without consequence for your actions/decisions.
Kefka, meanwhile, makes for a slightly more refreshing villain than Sephiroth. Kefka still falls victim to the biggest of all villain tropes, where he's just some raving lunatic hellbent on seizing power and destroying everything (as illogical and senseless as that might be), but it's nice to see him actually doing things in real time, like poisoning the water supply at Doma and burning down villages. Besides that, he does something relatively uncommon in video games -- he basically achieves his goals midway through the game and plunges the world into ruin. It was just so cool to roam around the ruined world, seeing all the change that's occured because of Kefka, trying to reunite with your party members, instead of always fighting against some sort of theoretical threat that might happen while Sephiroth sits off-screen moping and doing basically nothing.
One thing that I feel wasn't executed as well with FF6 is that I didn't feel as personally involved in the setting/story. The first few hours of FF7 really drew me into the experience and made me feel like I was Cloud, but that didn't really happen with FF6. Part of that may be because you're constantly changing protagonists in FF6 and don't have a single character with whom to identify as "yourself," but the world itself felt a little more generic to me as well. The idea is supposed to be that magic is a bygone practice replaced with modern machines and technology, but the game didn't seem to explore that conflict as prominently as I would've liked. Visually, the whole world felt kind of like a standard fantasy realm to me, and nothing impressed me as much as places like Midgar, the Golden Saucer, or the city of the Ancients.
Other than that, the only other complaint I have is that I fucking hate random encounters. Random encounters may be the sole and primary reason I find most typcal JRPGs so unenjoyable. They should really be called statistically improbable encounters, because it gets so damn annoying constantly being interrupted and sent to a separate battle field when you're lost and wandering around; you'd think after fifty encounters you'd have killed everything possible and be left alone to go about your business, but shit continues to infinitely spawn on you. But at least playing FF6 only took me about half as long as FF7 did, so it wasn't quite as overwhelming.
In the inevitable discussion of "which one is better," it's difficult for me to choose. It seems to me like FF6 is the better game, but FF7 is the better experience. In terms of gameplay and RPG mechanics, FF6 gets mostly everything better, but FF7 wins in terms of sheer spectacle -- things like the dramatically longer game length, the plethora of mini-games and available side-quests, all of the cinematic cutscenes, the atmosphere, and the improved aesthetics of everything. So if FF6 and FF7 had a child together, that might be a very good thing.
PS: I really like Terra's theme song.