The Final Fantasy Formula: The airship, your flying castle.

While every world in the Final Fantasy series is different and quite diverse to each other, there is one common thread between them all. Namely, they all tend to be pretty damn big.

This makes sense, since each game takes place in a different world (again, as long as you don’t ascribe to the theory that they all take place in the same world at different points in time), and this means each game has a different collection of landmass. Since Final Fantasy games tend to be world-spanning adventures, all of these different lands are going to be quite thoroughly explored by the time you’re done playing. Of course, trying to get around these huge locations by just running on foot is only a good idea if you want blisters. It’d be a smarter idea to get some kind of vehicle, preferably one that doesn’t have to worry about the often difficult terrain between you and wherever you’re headed. Enter the airship.

The appeal of an airship, and why they’re so common throughout the Final Fantasy series, is obvious. The idea of flight is quite fantastical even to a modern audience, and the idea of sailing through the sky in some magically powered boat or futuristic jet takes the already powerful allure of flight and gives it an adventurous edge. This is all without mentioning that Final Fantasy is a series that has always been at its most comfortable when it’s nestled in the ‘magitek’ aesthetic that it popularised, and many of the series’ airships follow that kind of design. Besides just that, the airship is a practical choice for gameplay reasons: most adventures start you out on foot, with the various oceans and mountains acting as barriers to your progress. What better way to show that you’ve truly surpassed these problems than by letting you just soar over them, demonstrating that you’ve gone beyond the limits that once held you back from moving freely?

There is another facet to this idea, however. What if the airship was more than just your means of transport? What if the flying device was big enough that it could also act as your mobile base of operations, a secure home to fall back to during your travels? This is something that the Final Fantasy series sometimes goes back and forth on, with several titles forgoing the idea entirely and having your airship just be a method for getting around quickly. Despite that, it’s common enough that the idea of the airship being an area that you can enter even while it’s flying is something of a staple of the Final Fantasy games. In this sense, the airship has become more than just a mode of transport for the series, and it’s often a triumphant moment in each game when your own ship finally takes flight. They’re more than just the sum of their parts, and more than just an easier way to get around: Final Fantasy airships really are personal enough to be called ‘flying castles.’

Of course, the airship is not a static idea. Throughout the series, the player’s airship has seen quite a few designs, functions, and even different levels of being connected to the story. One of the differences to some of the other stuff we’ve covered in this formula series is that, while it greatly varies, there is almost always an equivalent to an airship in EVERY game in the series. To that end, just for the hell of it, we’re going to look at every entry and see how the feature changed throughout the series. So climb aboard, grab your air-sickness bags, and let’s take a look at the various airships throughout the series of Final Fantasy! (Some spoilers below)

(Also, just before we begin, I’ll say now that we’ll be skipping over the MMOs: while I’m told the airships in them do have some interesting points about them, I want to take a look at how the airships affect the more traditional RPGs of the franchise. We’ll also be skipping any sequels, both because they usually follow the first game in their collections, and because we don’t have all bloody day.)

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Like all great traditions, this one starts at the very beginning. In the very first Final Fantasy game, the party gain access to the air ship after levitating the entire thing out of a desert with a magic Levistone (though you could raise another ship out from a different location, this was the ‘main’ airship). It even gets a dedicated cutscene in the remake ‘Dawn of Souls’ to show it rising out of the desert sands, the machinery awakening like a slumbering beast. Like the many airships that would follow this Ur-airship, it could only land in the clear spaces of open fields, though it was still hugely useful for getting around quickly and overcoming impassable terrain.

In terms of appearances, this is as about classical as you can get. It has the body of seafaring boat, but is equipped with propeller blades instead a set of sails, a mixture of polished wood and metal machinery. It also comes equipped with its own unique theme, another staple that other airships would follow behind in. All of this is very familiar territory, and the airships that follow this one would often have more unique appearances, but that’s only because this is the progenitor of the entire airship line. It is only derivative because it is what other airships in the series were derived from, so the old gal deserves some respect.

Slightly more interesting than its appearance however is its lore, or rather how it changed. In all of its appearances, both in the original game and in the remakes, the ship was created by the ‘Sky Warriors,’ a  group that was formed by members of the Sky People race (remember that this game came out when you could get away with this kind of naming convention). It’s implied that the Sky People were the only ones that could have made the airship because of their advance tech, however the remake twists this in a particular direction. In the various remakes/rereleases, a few villagers remark that it was specifically a man by the name of ‘Cid’ that created the airship, though he has long since passed. Cid wasn’t actually mentioned in the first game, and thus the addition of his name definitely means Square Enix was trying to retcon him into the series at it’s very start. Still, considering Cid is always associated with tech, and especially airships, it’s only fitting the guy is named the true father of all airships.

Regardless of any point that you could bring up about this first airship, however, it bears mention just how much of a cool moment first launching the ship is. By this point in the game, you’ve definitely got a handle on the size of the world, and indeed explored a large part of it. However, when you first take off in the air ship, you get a real chance to zoom around the map and just take in just how much ground you’ve actually covered, and how much there’s left to explore. Combine this with the adventurous music and how damn fast the ship can move, and it’s easy to see why other games in the series would want to recapture such a unique moment.

Moving swiftly along, there isn’t a huge amount to talk about for the airship in Final Fantasy II. It shares a similar appearance to the series first airship in terms of appearance, and continues the trend of only being able to land in clear spaces. It’s notable for being the very first (excluding the retcon of Cid in the first game) connection of Cid to airships, since he’s the only guy in the world to own one before the game’s plot reveals the much larger ‘Dreadnaught.’ It’s also notable for being one of the few airships to not have a unique theme, though music albums released after the game do include a track that was likely planned to be the theme. The only other thing to talk about is that it looked a lot different in its concept art, otherwise this is a mostly unremarkable entry of an airship.

In a complete contrast to II, Final Fantasy III has a ton of new features related to airships, and indeed set a lot of the points that future entries in the series would follow. For starters, this is the first entry that the player receives several different airships of increasing power. The first airship you receive is, once again, Cid’s airship, and while useful it lacks the power to gain the altitude to go over mountains. The second is a ship that can land in water, which allows you to reach new areas, though this is quickly outclassed by the ‘Nautilus,’ a ship that can both fly and dive underwater. This was the first time in the series that you could explore an underwater environment with your airship, which meant that there was a huge amount to discover in FFIII.

The most impressive of your ships, however, is the last one you receive. A huge mammoth of a vessel, the ‘Invincible’ is completely unlike every other ship in the world, as it can fly over the mountains that all of the other airships were unable to conquer. It is also quite unlike any other ship in the series as well, as this was the first ship in Final Fantasy that had an area that you could walk around in as the player. This was a really rad feature, helped to sell the size of the ship, and was even useful in a gameplay aspect. The ship came equipped with a free place to rest your party, stock up on items, and even a space that you used to talk to the now legendary Fat Chocobo who could store items in his belly (which is kinda gross). Just to round out the ships features, it can even fire a round of cannons at the start of a random encounter to help speed you along when traversing the World Map. The only downside to the ship is that it’s actually slower than the Nautilus, probably because of it huge size.

While the ship isn’t the fastest around, the Invincible’s innovations are hard to deny, and many of the other airships in this article were following in the slipstream this fortress of a ship left behind.

There’s less to say about the first main airship you get in FFIV, the ‘Enterprise.’ Beyond the possible reference to a certain sci-fi series, the ship does gain the ability to actually pick up and store the game’s hovercraft, which marks it at the first vehicle in the series to be able to store another vehicle. Other than that, the ship is mostly basic in function and design, though with maybe a little more story presence than the previous entries.

Much more interesting is the final airship you find, the ‘Lunar Whale.’ It’s interesting because this thing is less of an airship and more of goddamn space craft. No, seriously, you ride this thing into space and land on a moon (how your characters breathe in space is a minor detail we shant dwell on). In function it has all the trappings of a final airship, with beds to rest in and a place to store items, but it‘s design is it’s most intriguing aspect. While all of the airships thus far have seen quite a few different designs, the Lunar Whale is the first to have a completely radical appearance. Made of black metal and with nary a propeller in sight, the Lunar Whale looks unlike anything in the series up until that point, and it would be a while before another airship with such a design came along. In an odd and roundabout kind of way, the Lunar Whale is a very early hint at the futuristic/sci-fi elements that other Final Fantasy games would have, and even a hint of what later airships would be like visually.

Final Fantasy V’s airship is mostly nothing to write home about, being fairly simple in design and its function. It does gain some points for being one of the few times in the series where you only have a single airship throughout the entire game, and it is merely upgraded rather than replaced. However it’s mostly unremarkable, even lacking a name.

Final Fantasy VI has two equally cool airships that you pilot through the game, the first being the appropriately named ‘Blackjack.’ Appropriate since the airship actually features a casino, an idea that is as great as it is probably impractical.  The second is a ship by the name of the Falcon, and while lacking in casinos, it makes up with it’s extremely high speeds, a facet that more or less saves the party in the end.

The ships from FFVI are notable both because of how tied they are to the characters in the story (fairly surprising, since Cid isn’t involved with either ship),and because their designs are actually somewhat reasonable for fantasy aircraft. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still fantastical as hell and probably wouldn’t be possible in real life, but their designs take a few more cues from blimps rather than simply slapping a couple of rotary blades to a boat.

While not as famous or as legendary as other ships on this article, few can boast such unique designs, ties to the story, or the fact that they have a fully functioning casino aboard. Seriously, the fact that Square Enix isn’t trying to push ‘gambling den airships’ harder is a huge missed opportunity.

And now we come to the first of many “big ones.” Final Fantasy VII actually takes a fair amount of time before it gives you the game’s airship, and even sends you on a wild goose chase beforehand that ends with you getting the game’s equivalent of a boat first. When the game finally does hand the aircraft over, it’s definitely given a lot of pizzazz and even it’s own grand FMV introduction.  It backs up this impressive intro by being a useful mobile base like many of it’s predecessors, with stations to rest, change party members, and even a place to store a Chocobo (an ordinary one, not a fat one). Bonus points for the fact that this is yet again another airship the party stole from one of the villains.

The Highwind is an intriguingly designed vessel, since it stands at the visual meeting point between the classic design of airships and what would become the more modern designs. It has two prominent propellers along its body, plenty of wires throughout its design, and the lower deck gives the ship a silhouette of the more blimp inspired ships from the previous game. Despite that, it’s made almost entirely out of metal, its bridge features modern looking screens, and it even has a freakin’ transformation sequence where it trades the propellers for jets. This mid-point of a design might reflect on FFVII itself in many ways: while effort to innovate on the series is present, it still shows much of the designs of its heritage, and the balance is appealing in its own right.

The Highwind also has the honour of being the first airship in the series to be rendered out in 3d, and to be the first to be involved in a character’s super attack: this game’s Cid has a Limit Break wherein the Highwind will fire a barrage of missiles at any poor sod unlucky enough to run into him, just one of the reasons why FFVII Cid is one of my favourite Cids.

FFVIII is quite the odd duckling in the series, and one of the more divisive entries in the series. Perhaps appropriately, it’s also the first games in the series to have what is an ‘airship equivalent.’ Make no mistake, you do get a more traditional airship by the end of the game (and indeed, it’s one that takes a few cues from the Lunar Whale, one of the more classic ships), but before that point you have a mode of transport that fills the same uses as an airship without actually being one.

[While this whole article is full of spoiler points, this is one of the bigger ones, if you haven’t played FFVIII before.]

You see, FFVIII features locations known as ‘Gardens,’ which are basically academies that train its students exclusively in the art of kicking ass. These aren’t small, out of the way schools either; the place is actually pretty damn sizable. What most people don’t realize, however, is that the entire school can lift off the goddamn ground and actually move. This is a crazy moment in the game, and is just mad enough to be pretty damn amazing. Balamb Garden, the particular school that you pilot, has the standout feature of the being the single largest ‘mobile base’ you get in the series. The school has an impressive number of floors and locations, including shops and training area, and of course all of the usual features that the final fantasy primary airships usually come with. It also has the added benefit of coming with what is essentially an army: while the student body hasn’t finished their training, the Garden’s entire curriculum is based around fighting, and thus they can reliably help out when the time calls for action.

FFVIII does have a more traditional airship in the form of the ‘Ragnarok,’ though it is unquestionably more of a spacecraft. It’s also one of the most colourful airships in the series, with its coat of shiny metal made of a vibrant red. Armed with the ability to shoot through space while still being large enough to house the party and the usual services of free healing and a shop, the Ragnarok is most similar to the Lunar Whale. In a contrast to the Lunar Whale, however, the Ragnarok definitely shows the sign of Square Enix’s changing designs to airships, being a sleek, futuristic, very detailed heavy ship compared to the airships that had come before it. While Square wouldn’t abandon the old designs (indeed, the next game would use a copious amount of them) most of the future entries would follow this kind of design…

…Before that though, it was time for a blast to the past with FFIX, as the game that went back to the fantasy roots of the series after the two very sci-fi inspired games.

Seeing as this game was a return to the series roots, we see a return to the older designs of airships, though there are quite a variety of designs in the game. One of the main ships is a vessel that doubles as a theatre and is lifted by propellers, another is a small cargo vessel that that uses a similar blimp-like system to the FFVI’s ships, and several other designs for ships the party sees in passing.

For the purposes of the player, there are two airships you gain control of. The first is the ‘Hilda Garde,’ or more specifically the Hilda Garde III (you get to see the first and briefly ride the second). The Hilda Garde is a pretty beautiful ship, being the final iteration of a line of designs by the game’s Cid. Regal yet practical, a mishmash of smooth wood and polished metal, and it even connects to the green-friendly themes of the game by being the first airship to run on steam instead of the much more dangerous Mist. Then again, this beauty of design probably makes sense, considering Cid named the ship after his wife. While its design is great, the ship doesn’t have a lot going on it terms of its uses, since it’s pretty by the numbers in terms of function. The same could be said of the other ship you gain, the ‘Invincible’ (which is actually a throwback to FFIII). It’s an intimidating large and yet oddly graceful looking ship, painted in royal purples and gentle blues. The one point that doesn’t gel with everything else is intentional: the jagged black metal on the bottom of the ship house the red “eye” that glares from the bottom of the vessel, a dominating gaze that can control even the god-like summons of the world. The Invincible, much like the other airship it’s name references, is a large machine that demands respect in all aspects of its appearance, and one can’t say it doesn’t earn it. Bonus points for, again, being a ship you still from a villain. The only problem is, like the Hilda Garde, the ship is pretty tame in its functions, and it doesn’t really do anything that hasn’t already been done by others in this list.

Of course, all of this might have been intentional, since FFIX was meant as a call back to the original elements of the series. With that in mind, it would make sense that the ships are clearly quite ‘by the numbers.’ At the very least, the airships are front and centre, and they continue the series tradition of letting you pilot them around the globe. I say ‘at least,’ because it’s from this point forward the airships start to get a little grounded.

Final Fantasy X marks the beginning of the series putting less emphasis on it’s airships. There is an airship by the name of the ‘Fahrenheit’ (though weirdly no one actually says it’s name in the game itself), but it’s kind of an odd example. Its design is definitely of the more fantastical style; though it is made of mostly metal, it is notably quite decorated with what can only be described as hair tassels, with a giant ring set into the back of the ship. It successfully evokes the idea that this ship was dragged out of some half forgotten age, and it was only by the effort of the tech proficient Al Bhed that it can fly.

It follows the example of the airships before it by mainly acting as the player’s mobile base of operations, and comes equipped with the usually points to shop around, save and rest up. It also has a moment to shine when it provides fire support for one boss fight, and is even the platform on which the actual ending of the game takes place on. The point it kind of lacks in is that, while it can be used to get around quickly, you don’t actually get a chance to pilot the thing.

Throughout FFX, you’re movement around the globe is actually tracked by a static map, rather than a World Map. When you finally get access to the ship, you simply chose a location via a menu to get transported to rather than actually getting there yourself. While this is certainly speedier, it also makes it a little bit more difficult to understand the scale of the world and where exactly your location within it is.

All of this relates to one key fact, namely that dropping the World Map was an idea that started to be implemented through most of the games after this point. While there’s no official word on why the World Map was removed from later instalments, I’m going to throw my bet on the rise of voice acting and the increasing graphical detail that the series had. Both of these factors are impressive innovations that RPGs as a genre were starting to adopt more heavily, but both factors also add a huge cost to the games. These rising costs means there’s less time and funding available to be spent on the often odd secrets and bonuses that you would normally find on the world map (like FFVII’s Wutai, or pretty much everything to do with FFIX’s bonus chocobo treasure hunts). As the secrets and bonuses dwindled, so too did the need for a world map, and an empty world map would just feel pointless at best. Besides all that, more and more games were trying to adopt an open-world design that, while not having the scale of an entire globe, was proving popular with the market. Its why later games like FFXV would try (and unfortunately fail rather expensively) to have the best of the both worlds, with the scale of the world map transposed onto an open world.

But all that theorising and speculation can wait for another day. The main point is that FFX was the first game in the series to completely lack both a world map and an airship you could pilot, and it wouldn’t be the last.

The main transport the player uses throughout FFXII is a ship by the name of the ‘Strahl,’ one of the many ships on this list that were stolen in some capacity. It’s quite a bit smaller than some other examples, which makes sense since it was originally intended to be a fighter plane, but it’s still big enough to comfortably hold the adventuring party. If I had to draw a comparison, it’s just a little bigger than the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars (if you think that’s a weird comparison, trust me it’s not the only thing reminiscent of Star Wars in the game). Its fighter origins shine through in its design, being a fairly compact craft with folding wings. Not that these detail matter too much, since most of the ship you’ll be seeing is the menu attached to it.

FFXII takes the minimising of the airships importance from FFX and runs another few yards with it. Not only do you not actually pilot the ship, but it can’t actually be boarded full stop. Any interior shots you see are from cut scenes, which means you only see the inside of the ship a few times throughout the game. Still, the game makes up for it by featuring a ton of other ships you see throughout the game, with an impressively extensive set of designs throughout. Not to mention, the game features some of the best airship battles in the series period, though I did kind of get the impression that someone at Square had been binge watching Star Wars before directing them.  In any case, at least the airships got some really neat scenes, and were made available to the player. It would certainly be a shame if that wasn’t the case…

Final Fantasy XIII. Whew boy.

While I’m not a fan of the downplaying, at least the previous entries made some effort to include a way of using your airship to get around. While not as fun as flying around, this still allowed the world to have some sense of scale and a sense of a layout, and allowed the game to have at least some method to revisit older locations.

Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XIII has…nothing. There is a single level set on a fleet of ships mid flight, and some of their designs are actually pretty good, but that’s about as far as their involvement extends.

This fact might have contributed to one of FFXIII’s more fundamental issues, namely that it’s unclear where the hell we are beyond just the straight corridor we’re currently running down. I’m not saying having an airship would have helped FFXIII’s kind of odd pacing, but I think it would have at least shown that developers had made an effort. That’s all I’m saying.

The most recent entry into the Final Fantasy series continues the modern trend of airships not having a huge role in the game (unless you count the ships that deploy random encounters, because then they have a fairly prominent role).However, FFXV does feature the spirit of an airship in the form of…well, a car.

While a bit mundane compared to an airship, there’s no denying that the ‘Regalia’ fills the same kind of functions that many of the previous airships in the series did. It will act as your main form of transportation throughout the game, has a shop you can access at any time (justified as the characters ordering items to be delivered to their destination), and has some ties to the characters/story. Likewise, even to a pleb like me, it’s hard to deny that the Regalia is a very beautiful car; it really does look like something a professional would design if they didn’t have to worry about costs or indeed the car actually being plausible.

Just for bonus points the car can actually transform into a flying model, turning into essentially a jet-car. While this is unfortunately only gained after the main story is over (it would have been funny to see writers try and make a flying car make sense in the story), it’s none the less a pretty cool feature. At least, when it can get off the ground.

It does come with a few issues, I’ll admit. Since it’s stuck to land for most of the game, getting around even short distances can take a while due to game’s winding roads, and thus fast travelling is actually your most optimal way around. Not to mention its use of a fuel gauge feels token at best, since fuel doesn’t cost enough to be an issue, and the upgrades make it a total none issue very quickly.

Still, at least the travelling you do does keep the world in a certain amount of perspective, and the Regalia is open to a fairly wide array of customisation, which helps you to get at least a little attached to the car. If the airships of the series have to be put aside, I wouldn’t object to other vehicles like the Regalia taking their place.

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Well, that turned out to be a lot longer than expected. Still, I hope you enjoyed this look through the series’ most prominent mode of transportation. While the airship continues to be a part of the games’ settings, I kind of miss the days when your airship was a bit more front and centre, though I wonder if that’s just me missing the days of the World Map.

Still, the inclusion of the Regalia in FFXV is a nice substitute, and I hope it might indicate that Square Enix isn’t against the idea of giving the future games some kind of prominent mode of transport. Airships (and their equivalents) were such a neat part of the earlier games, and it seems like a shame to just drop them out of use for the more modern titles.

In any case, I hope you had as much fun reading this brief look at the Final Fantasy series’ aircraft as I had researching and writing it. Until next time!

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