Final Fantasy VIII sucks. Right? Worst Final Fantasy Ever. Right? Am I right? Come on, you all hated that game, right?

Well, I did.

I mentioned previously that Final Fantasy VII was the first “real” Final Fantasy I played, so I wasn’t really expecting the change-up in both the presentation and tone of Final Fantasy VIII. Nor was I expecting a much more complicated character advancement system.

So as I continued to play the game and Squall refused to act like a hero (i.e., like Cloud) I became more and more frustrated. My frustration increased as battles got tougher and tougher because I wasn’t using the Junction system properly. The result was that I ended up borrowing a Game Genie and cheating in order to finish the last boss so I could finally see the ending. And while the ending was nice, my feeling was not of elation, but “I’m glad that’s over.”.

But I recently began to feel a bit of nostalgia for FF8. Had I really given it a fair shot? Could I get more enjoyment out of it with another playthrough? I remembered the game having some wonderful characters – I hadn’t cared much for Squall, but Selphie, Zell, and Quistis were all great characters. And there were some aspects of the storyline – the Gardens, the Sorceress – that I thought were really well done. Was I up for trying it again?

And the answer was yes. I booted up Disc 1 and started a new game. This time I paid a lot more attention during the Junctioning tutorials and realized that I had neglected a vital aspect of the game – basically, drawing magic from enemies and junctioning it to character statistics.

Character advancement in Final Fantasy VII was very much like a ladder. Get enough XP and you (and your materia) get more powerful. Use your Limit Break 100 times and you get another one. Pretty simple.

Final Fantasy VIII’s advancement is much more like a graph on two axes. On the axis going up, you’ve got your level. Yes, gaining a level will make you more powerful in FF8. But on the other axis, you’ve got your junctions. Drawing out tons of magic from enemy characters and junctioning it well can make characters much more powerful without having to level. This is important, because in FF8 monsters level up as you do – you’ll never get the upper hand on a powerful monster just by levelling, because it will level with you. You need the extra edge that good junctioning provides. And high-level characters that also have good junctions are godlings. This was what I was missing in my first playthrough – drawing magic can be very tedious, so I didn’t do it. But levelling up is tedious as well, and you don’t have to draw nearly as much as you level. And if you’re smart, your Guardian Forces can learn abilities that allow you to refine magic from items, which means you have to draw even less.

But what about the whole “Squall is a jerk” aspect?

I’ve heard tell that Squall didn’t translate well from the Japanese, which is a possibility. But even so, on my second playthrough I’m finding him a much more interesting character – much deeper than the “obvious hero” type. Why is Squall so introverted? Why is so abrupt and hostile, even to his friends? He’s scared! He’s terrified in the way that only a teenager with the rest of his life in front of him can be. He’s afraid of death, and afraid of the rest of his life. Once you realize this, a lot of his behavior (like his sudden outburst upon learning of Seifer’s death) becomes easier to understand.

So in the words of my good friend Moof, I was doing it wrong. I was putting my own expectations on the game rather than taking what it gave me. Once I stopped doing that my characters became superpowerful and the game overall has become much more enjoyable.

But I still think Metal Gear Solid 2 sucked.