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The Memory Card .43: Waiting for Shadow

4:00 PM on 11.06.2008 // Chad Concelmo

Have you ever loved a videogame character so much you were willing to die for them? Not in real life, mind you, but in the world of a game (although I would most likely take a real life bullet for Dr. Yang -- I love that guy).

There have been many characters that sacrifice themselves for others within the context of a videogame’s story. But this is usually during a cutscene or a scripted sequence. How many games have you played when this sacrifice is chosen by you, the player?

One such tragic choice occurs in easily my favorite role-playing game of all time, Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo. While this choice may not stand out right away as one of the most memorable moments in a game chock-full of so many classic sequences, looking closer it is unequalled in its revolutionary ability to connect the game’s incredible story with a player’s actual actions.

Hit the jump to revisit a moment that puts your real life courage (as well as your real life patience) to the test.

The Set-Up

This is the fourth time Final Fantasy VI has been featured on The Memory Card. And while that may seem a little excessive I have no problem with it. Frankly, the game will probably show up at least four more times -- there really are that many amazing moments in the Super Nintendo masterpiece.

Since you can go back and read more detailed accounts of how the early part of the game unfolds (click here, here, and here) I will take this opportunity to just focus on the specific topic at hand.

Like most RPGs, Final Fantasy VI takes place in an enormous fantasy world that is threatened by an evil force. As the player, you are tasked with controlling a large party of playable characters to bring peace to the planet in peril. Even though it sounds basic, Final Fantasy VI is one of the deepest and most emotionally complex videogames ever created.

Early on in the game, there is a very clever section that lets the player choose between three significant paths. While all three must eventually be completed, each can be tackled in any order.

One of the paths follows a character named Sabin after he is swept off a raft down a raging river and separated from his friends.

Upon waking up on the shore of a mysterious land, Sabin is forced to explore his new surroundings all alone. After wandering around for a short period of time, Sabin meets a dark and brooding assassin by the name of Shadow outside an isolated tavern. Showing no excitement at all, Shadow hesitantly agrees to help Sabin find a way back to the town of Narshe to reunite with his friends.

After Sabin chooses to welcome this new partner, Shadow and his trusty dog Interceptor join him and take off for Narshe.

Even though he is successfully reunited with his companions in Narshe, by the time Sabin arrives Shadow has already left his party. In fact, this becomes Shadow’s modus operandi throughout the first half of the game. At almost random times Shadow will leave and return to the party whenever he feels like it. Wherever the gil goes, Shadow follows.

After an epic amount of adventures without Shadow, the main party of playable characters reaches their (supposed) final confrontation atop a floating continent raised by the dastardly Kefka.

Although the path across the floating continent is treacherous, the party manages to reach Kefka. Before they even have a chance to confront him, Kefka aligns three giant statues in a triangle and uses their power to attack the group.

With a giant flash of light emitting from the statues, the party is thrown in all directions, some hanging for dear life off the side of the continent.

Right when all hope seems lost there is a whistle from the distance.

As Kefka questions the mysterious sound’s whereabouts, Shadow leaps out of seemingly nowhere. Without hesitation, the loyal assassin pushes the magic statues out of alignment and traps Kefka between them.

The minute the statues are moved there is another flash and the party is free from its binds. Unfortunately, the disruption also causes a cataclysmic chain reaction that threatens to destroy the entire floating continent everyone is standing on.

Without even thinking twice, Shadow tells his friends to escape as quickly as possible and that he will stay back and try to halt the destruction. Before being able to stop him, the party is thrown back by a large explosion and separated from their brave ally.

It is during this next sequence when the next Memory Card moment occurs.

The Moment

After tumbling down the side of a steep cliff, the party recovers and realizes they have only minutes to escape the floating continent before it is destroyed (six minutes to be exact, as the ticking on-screen timer indicates).

Since the party is on a whole new section of the floating continent, Shadow is sadly nowhere to be found.

What follows next is an intense race against the clock.

The path to the airship (and the party’s freedom) is not necessarily that long, but what amps up the difficulty so much is the fact that the timer continues to count down even during battles and when in the menu. Because of this, getting to the goal in the allotted amount of time is very challenging -- especially if you put into account retrieving all the hard-to-reach treasure chests.

Once the party finally reaches the airship, a choice is presented to the player:

“Jump!” or “Wait.”

If the player selects “Jump,” the party quickly leaps for the hovering airship and saves itself from being killed on the collapsing continent.

If the player selects “Wait” the party remains on the continent to either go retrieve more treasure or fight enemies.

After selecting “Wait,” once the party returns to the area above the airship again a second choice is offered:

“Jump!” or “Gotta wait for Shadow ... ”

At this point the player has to make a very hard decision. Since you don’t know how long it will take for Shadow to appear (if at all) and with only seconds left on the timer, can the party really afford to wait for their friend without time depleting?

By selecting “Gotta wait ... ” the party literally just stands there at the edge of the platform, the safety of the airship only a short jump away.

The timer ticks closer to zero.

Finally, with only five seconds left, Shadow emerges from the side of the screen and runs towards you. With no time to spare everyone leaps into the airship just as the continent crumbles around them.

As the party watches in horror as the world around them is destroyed, they find comfort in knowing that they at the very least stuck around to save their friend Shadow, the most unlikely of heroes.

You can watch the dramatic escape from the floating continent right here:

The Impact

Waiting for Shadow is a surprisingly tense and emotionally wrenching sequence.

I will never forget the first time I experienced it. I was much younger and playing through Final Fantasy VI for the first time. At this point in the game I had already pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I was playing the greatest role-playing game in existence.

I also fell in love with many of the characters, including the mysterious assassin Shadow.

After Shadow saved my party and I reached the airship I do remember choosing to wait to save him.

But the timer kept getting closer to zero and I started to get very stressed.

Twenty seconds.

Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds.

At this point I panicked. Maybe I didn’t reach the airship with enough time to spare?

Not wanting to have to go back and fight through an enormous boss battle and make the challenging run for the airship again, I decided to jump into the airship and leave Shadow behind.

It was awful. I killed one of the best characters in the game. And it was my decision to do so.

Luckily, when I played through the game again I, of course, waited for my brave friend and discovered that he appears at 5 seconds no matter how much time is left on the clock when you reach the airship.

I only wish I knew that the first time.

For a game on the Super Nintendo, this was (and still is!) a very intense and dramatic sequence. By not waiting for Shadow he really dies. Not, oh-a-character-is-dead-but-comes-back-later-in-the-story dead, but really dead. The ending of the game -- a beautiful montage displaying all the characters escaping the final fortress -- is altered depending on the choice you make. By saving Shadow the entire second half of the game is more or less changed. It’s pretty incredible.

The way the game makes you just sit there and wait is agonizing. And to have Shadow appear so close to the timer hitting zero is out of control! It is a pretty brilliant strategy and one of the most intense moments in my gaming memory.

Final Fantasy VI is revolutionary when it comes to creating experiences players have never encountered before in a videogame. Waiting for Shadow and the choice it presents is the perfect example of this and easily one of my favorite (and most memorable) videogame moments of all time.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41: The tadpole prince (Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars)
.42: Pyramid Head! (Silent Hill 2)

Chad Concelmo,
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