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We’ve reached the last group in our first round of Final Fantasy March Madness, the ultimate contest of Nomura-doodled champions to determine which party member would fight his or her way to the top of this legendary franchise. Let’s lay out the recaps and today’s matchups:
1. Cloud Strife ('VII') vs. 16. Selphie Tilmitt ('VIII')
Matchups like this are why we have our rules that stress lore abilities over gameplay exploits. So no, Selphie faithful, she may not The End everyone to oblivion and win this tournament with enough time to catch the NCAA games. She’s instead a cute pair of gardening tools up against a half alien, half super-soldier batch of hyped-up DNA that swings an oversized meat cleaver around as if he were the one twirling nunchaku. Cloud is a freak. There’s no simpler way to put it. And it’ll take all kinds of abilities to so much as slow him down, even without some of his Advent Children improvements. Cloud wins and cues the series’ catchiest victory fanfare.
8. Rydia of Mist ('IV') vs. 9. Ignis Scientia ('XV')
Last time, we mentioned XV’s aversion to outright magic and how that limits their supporting characters. Rydia is most certainly someone who can exploit that weakness. Ignis’ cleverness in battle can’t be understated, and I imagine he’d have just the solution to outmaneuver the mage in this duel. The scrappy tactician would likely push the summoner to her breaking point. But we’ve seen the damage Leviathan can do to the XV universe. Even Noctis had to learn some new tricks to take on the beast, while Ignis zipped by in a boat struggling to fend off an imperial mech. Once Rydia’s powerful magic buys her enough time and space to properly summon, Ignis is out of his league. Tonight’s menu loses, but Rydia wins.
5. Kain Highwind ('IV') vs. 12. Snow Villiers ('XIII')
This is a surprisingly heavy hitting 5-12 matchup. XIII characters have the ever-present threat of a babysitting Eidolon to deal with. Between this and Kain’s magical disadvantage, Snow has every chance to overwhelm the opponent. The only thing leveling the playing field is combat expertise. Despite his position of importance, Snow’s helplessly overeager approach is beyond punishable against one of Final Fantasy’s premier generals. Kain’s composure is as advanced as his combat, allowing the series’ quintessential dragoon to dismantle foes that may wield a greater firepower. He has a surprising task on his hands here, but outmaneuvers the glacial brute with blinding agility. Kain wins in underdog fashion despite being favored here.
4. Vaan ('XII') vs. 13. Aerith Gainsborough ('VII')
Jobs meet materia, but everyone’s a peasant in this charming matchup. I imagine Vaan and Aerith can swap some slummy tales of hunger and corruption. Gameplay versatility, as it so often does, creates an even enough matchup to judge these combatants by plot roles. Vaan, despite the franchise’s clear attempts, has a minimal impact on XII’s actual narrative. He’s more of a player-insert that almost suggests writers were afraid to let more mature leads like Ashe or Basch run the show. So we get an Aladdin stand-in that leaves the story with surprisingly little to show for it. Nothing suggests Vaan packs all that much of a punch on his own. Aerith, despite her lesser screen time, is an immensely significant party member that wields a hidden power. The character herself doesn’t explore all that much of it, which of course limits her tournament ceiling, but the ancient Cetra wield a superhuman energy. By VII’s own lore, one or two tweaks to the character could’ve more closely resembled Sephiroth himself. Let’s be glad she’s so nice. That potential, as well as her top-tier white magic to top off materia’s basic offerings, is enough to force our first protagonist defeat. Aerith wins and, in this story at least, survives our first disc.
6. Oerba yun Fang ('XIII') vs. 11. Lulu ('X')
I’d opt not to mess with either of these ladies. Even pregnant Lulu intimidates me. In fact, pregnant Lulu doubly intimidates me. But in the grand scheme of black mages, Lulu isn’t exactly the deadliest. X’s black magic isn’t the best source of efficient attack power, and most Lulu fans have their hearts broken after the early stages of the game when you realize Spira doesn’t seem to care all that much about the class as a whole. Fang, on the other hand, is a beast. Her strength is second to none in XIII’s party, and her Eidolon is casually Bahamut. The skilled dragoon simply outmuscles the competition, and Fang beats Lulu with ease.
3. Tidus ('X') vs. 14. Krile Mayer Baldesion ('V')
Tidus, that’s tide-us in case there’s any confusion (there’s a tutorial on how to lose half of your readers), speeds into the fray. I’m sorry. Final Fantasy often names protagonists after elements. The kid literally washes in with the tide on several occasions. The whole world is water-based. And then Dissidia went and said some nonsense to ruin my entire perspective. You can almost see how Square reluctantly stands by the decision, as if they’ve never canonically fixed a typo in Sector 7. A fight for another day, I suppose. Krile fittingly inherits Galuf’s place in this tournament, but inherits a similar result as well. She’s a quick mage, but Tidus is a significantly faster physical attacker. There’s not much time or room to cast anything decent with this slashing blitzballer in your face. He’s a support character at heart, which we’ve said limits contestants in this format. But for now, the Abes star’s athleticism is enough to compensate. Tidus darts around and laughs his way to victory, complete with goofy narration about his story.
7. Celes Chere ('VI') vs. 10. Oerba Dia Vanille
Two hardened backstories clash in a magically supercharged encounter. Vanille, much like her teammate Hope, suffers from being a team player in an individual’s tournament. She packs a greater punch than her XIII co-star, but is still best utilized alongside some allies. Split hairs aside, the analysis here can stop relatively early. Celes is a powerful mage herself, but she also absorbs the would-be magic of opposing mages. So this is a matchup made in hell for the girl from Oerba. Celes is a Magitek super soldier, genetically enhanced to rival the power of VI’s espers. She was created to seek and destroy, is mentally shattered, and then pieces herself together to become stronger than ever. That’s a resolve matched by few in this entire field. Deadly with both swords and spells, Celes wins this one decisively.
2. Warrior of Light ('I') vs. 15. Penelo ('XII')
The modern Warrior of Light contains elements from multiple roles found in this legendary franchise’s debut. He still clearly leans in the fighter’s more physical direction, one capable of sturdy defense as well. But he’s among the tournament’s more well-rounded threats. Much of my criticisms that applied to XII’s Vaan earlier are of course applicable to Penelo here as well. There isn’t much suggesting she factored into the team’s journey, and she certainly didn’t lead the charge against Garland and Chaos itself. That Chaos is a heck of a line item on your relevant experience. And dispelling said Chaos is what this tournament calls a marketable skill. Most Final Fantasy entries make their toughest bosses optional, therefore not necessarily making them canon. We can’t say for sure that Cloud punted ancient weapons around on his way to Sephiroth. I like to think he did. Regardless, the Warrior of Light has the skills and rightful claim to this victory, becoming our final contestant to reach the second round.
And with that, half of the Final Fantasy March Madness field has been slaughtered. Some came down to nitpicking and extensive speculation; others were obvious so I used the space to write some jokes. As we roll on, the research shall cause greater headaches and the results greater debates. I apologize in advance, and we’ll see what goes down in the second round of Final Fantasy March Madness.