By: Alex Westphal
There are few titles throughout the history of gaming as divisive as this one, and for good reason. If Final Fantasy VII managed to break genre conventions (not to mention the conventions set forth by its predecessors), then Final Fantasy VIII SHATTERED them. Point-based spell-casting gave way to spell-hoarding to supplement GF and character abilities, “Summons” became “Guardian Forces”(GF’s), and the era of chocobo raising and racing ended - ushering in the most addictive FF card game (and only card game until FFIX came out).
Upon its debut in 1999, the gaming community became quickly divided over how the game fit into the overall series. Many of the mainstay principles of the series changed all at once, including fifteen-year-old core mechanics of the series. Despite all this, the game was a monumental success, and proved that even if the classic formulas were changed, that a game like Final Fantasy VIII could still find a large and diverse audience.
The first and most noticeable change to the core mechanics of the game was the absence of the classic exponential leveling system - now, it would only take 1,000 XP to break into any new experience level, which is a huge departure, and one so radical that it turned some fans of the series off immediately. Enemies leveled up with you, and traveling back to a place you had already been didn’t guarantee an easy fight.
Another major change which stood in stark contrast to other entries in the FF series was the new focus on Summons, or “Guardian Forces” (or “GF’s”) as they became known. Not only did you have to focus on supplementing the abilities of your party members, you also had to spend considerable time on building up your GF’s, who could also gain their own XP. You utilized both GF’s and spells through the brand new “junction system,” which was FFVIII’s version of FFVII “Materia,” though less straight-forward. Check out the video below, which includes a multitude of info on the "Draw" command:
To build the power of a junctioned attribute, you would build a pool of a particular spell that would supplement that attribute (like fire/blizzard/cure/life/holy/ultima). The stronger the spell, the stronger the attribute attached to that spell for equipping. This added many layers of complexity into the game’s point-based ability systems, and this is also where it got a bit strange for players in the monumental shift that was the FFVIII learning process - you had to “draw” the spells from enemies and spell pools that were scattered around the environments. In fact, bosses didn’t even have experience to give - mostly just good GF’s and spells you could draw from them.
My two best memories of the game involve two elements of play: Obtaining Badass GF’s, and Triple Triad. For the former, every person who has played knows about certain GF’s, like Diablos, who were used often and throughout the game. However, the latter - Triple Triad - truly set a new standard in autonomous side-quests in the RPG universe.
Triple Triad was a blast to play, and difficult to master. Laying cards on a 9-slot grid, you would try and use the values on either side, or the top and bottom of your card to beat out the values on your opponents cards on the corresponding edge. The concept was simple, but there were some cards that had inherent elemental attributes, which added a layer of complexity to the game. Choosing from a five-card hand, players would face off against numerous NPC’s by playing one card at a time, in alternating turns. Upon winning, you would get to choose an opponent’s card to take with you, which basically resulted in an incredible feeling of elated celebration when you found the rare GF cards.
Like most of the great Final Fantasy games, FFVIII had an engrossing, if not somewhat more plot-driven story than its predecessors. The characters - and even the auxiliary ones - had fully fleshed out stories, with origins and reasons for joining the fight. The main characters - Squall Leonhart and Rinoa Heartilly - made up the principle characters in the main story, but their story ran (seemingly) concurrent with another main character - Laguna Loire. The stories do intersect late in the game in very surprising ways, which I won’t spoil for you here…
If you have never played Final Fantasy VIII, I highly recommend you find a way to play it - with compelling characters, story, combat, and side-quests, this game is still considered a masterpiece. RPG’s as deep and original as this are few and far between, these days. As for JRPG’s, this is one that can be considered a gold-standard, and a must-play.
Bonus Video! Check out this "All FFVIII Summons" video below. Lots of great memories!