The Final Fantasy series is not a stranger to odd and sometimes bizarre mini-games. In nearly every game in the entire series, there is usually some kind of small distraction that the player can find to help break up the main gameplay in their journey. The biggest example of this is probably FFVII, which had so many freakin’ mini-games that it felt like the developers were working on some kind of commission scheme. Even the very first game in the series had a hidden mini-game that you could play after you obtained the ship. However, the complexity of and just how far reaching these mini-games are tends to fluctuate and change with each release, from one off events (like the instance where the party has to split up to defend Terra in FFVI) to mini-games that span the entire length of the title they were included in. In this update, we’ll be focusing on two of the most infamous of the latter, namely the card games of the series, Triple Triad and Tetra Master.
Unlike a lot of things we normally cover in the FF Formula, these features are only contained in singular titles, and aren’t really part of the ongoing formula of Final Fantasy any more than the other mini-games. Still, it’s interesting that the only card games in the series were included in sequential games, with Triple Triad coming from FFVIII and Tetra Master coming from FFIX. It’s kind of like a snapshot of the development ideas from Square at the time, since future games would eschew optional card games entirely. Both of these games came after the meteoritic success of FFVII (pretty sure I already made that joke, actually), and both show extremely different ideas of how to deal with the immense expectations at the time. Even if it’s only in a small way, comparing the two card games of the series might give us some insight into the games they hail from, and how they fit into the wider picture.
…Also, I’m a big fan of both and been looking for an excuse to talk about them for a while, so why not?
So without further ado it’s time to d-d-d-d-duel, and check out the FF series’ card games, and to find out which will ultimately come out on top of this mini-game grudge match!
Let’s start in chronological order, and begin with Triple Triad. We’re introduced to the card game fairly early in FFVIII, just as Squall is moving through the first few areas of Balamb Garden. He’s handed a starting deck of cards from a guy who’s not too invested in the game and is just looking to dump his cards off, though he’s nice enough to give Squall a basic run down of the rules. It’s worth noting that this is an optional conversation, and thus it’s fully possible to run past the guy and almost completely miss the card game entirely (there are other chances, but this is the main one).
After you pick up your starting cards, you need only press a button when facing another character, and you’ll challenge them to a card game. While not everyone plays TT, there are a staggering number of people you can challenge throughout the game, including several named and important characters. Heck, beating those characters can often net you some of the better cards in the game, in addition to being pretty hilarious in concept.
As for the game itself, it’s fairly simple on the surface. Two players take turns placing cards on a three-by-three grid, and whoever has the highest number of cards under their control by the time all spaces in the grid are filled is declared the winner. Every card has four numbers on it, each corresponding to one of the four edges of the card: if two opposing cards are placed next to each other, then a battle will take place, and whichever card has the has the highest value on the edge where the two cards meet is the winner. Due to this, one of the more important aspects that you have to learn early on is careful placement: a card with a weak spot can be covered if you place it against a wall or with its back to another one of your cards. Due to the transparency and intuitiveness of its rules, though, Triple Triad is a fairly easy game to grasp.
Things do get a bit more complex as time goes on, however: for one, it becomes increasingly vital that you bring a set of cards that compliment each other. While most cards will have some kind of weakness (a card with three strong sides will likely have an abysmally weak fourth, or a card with two strong sides with have lacklustre stats on the other two, for some examples), it’s possible to fill in for these weaknesses with careful deck selection. Bring a deck that can attack from any direction, and doesn’t have too many blind spots, and you’ll have a better leg up on your opponent. Slightly more complex is the fact that the game gains additional rules and conditions as you travel throughout the world, justified as local home-brewed rules for the game that change from region to region. In some instances, the elemental propriety of the card can have a limited affect on certain spaces on the board, and in others what would merely mean a draw instead leads into a sudden death mode. The most complex rules even allow for combos, and other instances where multiple cards can be captured or lost.
Another point to consider is that you can actually earn rewards that are useful in conventional gameplay through Triple Triad. Through one of the game’s many Guardian Force’s, Quezacotl, it’s possible to learn an ability that can turn the cards you earn through Triple Triad into items, including some pretty rare and useful stuff. In this way, it’s possible to use what is otherwise an optional mini-game to bolster your efforts in the main part of the game, meaning there is a ‘point’ to TT beyond just how oddly addicting it can be.
The other card game to consider is FFIX’s Tetra Master, a game that shares a number of similarities to Triple Triad. Much like Triple Triad, the player can pick up the game in an optional conversation towards the very start of the game, though this time from a multi-armed fellow (see the previous FF Formula for why that’s important). Unlike TT, it’s not possible to go through the entirety of FFIX ignoring the game; while only an extremely minor and extremely unimportant stop there is one point in the main story where you have to play a few mandatory games of the Tetra Master. It’s just the characters killing time, and they make it clear that there’s no real consequence to losing, but still. Wierdly enough, despite this, TM is actually more optional overall, since you can’t transmute the cards you get into useable items. This means that the only thing you win when you defeat an opponent in Tetra Master is just the increased ability to play Tetra Master, aka, the game is its own reward.
Like TT, you can attempt to challenge anyone you can physically talk to with a card game, and there are some pretty memorable encounters, such as the fact that you can challenge the infamous Fat Chocobo (who unsurprisingly uses nearly nothing but rare Chocobo cards). The two games are about on level with the kind of hilarity of challenging just about anyone to a card game, but FFVIII might just edge out a win in this department for the fact that you can challenge a reformed/no longer brain washed main villain to a card game and they actually accept.
In terms of the game itself, Tetra Master is noticeably different from TT. For one, the board is one set of spaces bigger at four-by-four, and has a much more randomised field: certain spaces on the board are filled with stone blocks that neither of the two players can use. This ties into the fact that the Tetra Master cards are also different from the cards used in TT, most notably using all eight of the cardinal directions instead of just four. Or at least, a chance to use the eight cardinal directions: cards in Tetra Master are randomised in what directions they have arrows on their edges. This tends to also be tied to how powerful the card is; since an extremely strong card will only have a few directions it has arrows on. This is an extremely important part of TM, since attacking a card in a direction where it has no arrows will always win you the card, regardless of the difference in power between the two cards. However, there are advantages to attacking where a card has an arrow: if you defeat a card via attacking an arrowed edge, the effect will combo onto any other card that is also joined via arrows. This fact lends itself well to game-turning combos and snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat, and thus TM could be considered the more spectacle of the two games.
In terms of strategies, it’s even more important in TM to have a pretty diverse deck of cards, both in terms of power but also in terms of how many arrows. Even a weak card might be useful if it can attack in literally any direction, thus good for attacking a stronger card’s weak points, but you’re going to want strong cards to combo out of otherwise unwinnable battles. This is especially true of later card game opponents, who will have exceptionally strong cards and who will mercilessly target your own cards weak points. Still, it’s pretty enjoyable to take down tough opponents, especially since the game gives you a fair number of options to do so.
There is one pretty big problem with Tetra Master, though, namely just how obscure the effect of the numbers on the cards actually are. When you first pick up the cards, you are directly told that the game is simply not going to tell you what those numbers actually mean. There is a character who tells you what exactly the numbers mean and how they relate to whether you win or lose a card vs card battle, but he only appears waaaay late into the game. For a large part of it, you’re kind of stumbling around, hoping that higher numbers result in better results, which might screw you since the there are many instances where that isn’t necessarily the case. Combining this with the frankly ghoulish hidden treasures in the game, and I half ponder if this wasn’t a move to try and sell the freakin’ strategy guide (which must have worked, since my older bro actually has one, in near mint condition, too). This is less of an issue in today’s internet age, wherein there are no more secrets, but it still feels like a bit of a kick to the teeth. This presents a big hurdle in actually enjoying Tetra Master, since it can feel like you’re relaying on luck for a large part of the run. Still, Tetra Master is still on the whole a pretty fun distraction.
So, the verdict.
In an overall sense, they’re both good side activities just to screw around with as you make your way around each game’s respective world; even though you can transmute the cards into useful items in FFVIII, it’s not really something you need to worry about, thus they’re about equal in terms of how optional they are.
In terms of which is the most fun overall is a slightly more tricky question. TT is MUCH easier to grasp, and the lack of randomisation elements makes it much more traditionally competitive. However, TM does have its share of flare and tension with its high frequency of combos, and it’s wider board and more randomised elements allow for a slightly more diverse set of options and strategies.
As one final piece to consider, which has the better music? Tetra Master’s theme is unbelievably chilled, and perfectly captures the light hearted side of the card game. But, there’s no doubt that the Triple Triad’s “Shuffle or Boogie” is nothing short of god-like: those claps are still with me, even until this day.
Enough screwing around, my final verdict for the better card game has to go to…
In the end, TT’s easy to grasp but hard to master nature, quick and addicting matches, and surprising depth won out for me. If I’m being 100% honest, I think I personally prefer Tetra Master more, but I believe that might be influenced by the fact that FFIX is my personal favourite Final Fantasy game. Not mention, I think even Square agrees that TT has earned it’s spot: when it came time to put a bonus card game in FFXIV, Square eventually settled on Triple Triad.
So here’s to you, TT. You’ve wasted more hours than many of us are willing to admit, and I don’t think anyone would have it any other way.
Thanks for stopping by in this fun side excursion in the Final Fantasy Formula; we might do a more in depth entry where we talk about mini-games on a series level instead of just a card game level, but that’ll have to come later. Thanks as always!
(Sorry for the slight delay: things have become a little busy in the lead up to the holidays, and thus it’s getting a little difficult to find energy to write some days. Hopefully things balance out soon.)