Hello for the first time, whoever you are, and welcome to this exploration of the messed-up monster pantheon that is Final Fantasy VIII’s summoning system.
What’s that? You say we’ve done this twice already?
Oh, right; once to go over the normal, brain-devouring god-beings that live in all manner of creature and classroom computer, and again to discuss whether they represent the undoing of all reality and the eternal suffering of all who live inside. Sorry, my memory gets a little foggy sometimes. It’s been firmly established that these spirit beings can bend time and space to their will, but also that you can trap them with enough science, and that—all things considered—the fact that they definitely eat the brains of people who use them is actually a mercy in comparison with their true power. Also some of them are cute.
“So if we keep relying on the GF, we won’t be able to remember a lot of things?”
Right on time for a story that began in a school and is about to go into space, the way you find summons, and the summons themselves, begin to lose cohesion. Space is where they keep the giant magic dictator lady shrink wrapped for everyone’s protection, even though her mad thoughts still infect all TV and radio transmissions. At the beginning it was clear that these Guardians were powerful spirits which lent their power to those seen as worthy, but lately it’s beginning to look more like they might be manifestations of will not tethered to any particular ideology.
Do GFs even exist outside of the user’s mind? When we went to the Fire Cavern on the first disc, were we simply bringing Ifrit to life by thinking hard enough? That would certainly explain how every student is supposed to catch him to pass their exams, even though only one Ifrit exists. I need to centre myself if I’m going to unravel these mysteries. Let’s calm down and look at the next GF.
It’s a train with a skeleton for a head.
Doomtrain is a mile-long, fully functional steam train that also happens to be entirely organic and situated in the cold void of space. When summoned, a track made from magical fire stretches into the heavens and the cursed locomotive rockets through the endless nothing before slamming into the enemy at full speed. Doomtrain causes minor poison damage, but its main reason for being is inflicting every status effect in the game, all at once. Think of it as a giant, skin-covered STD carrier with a screaming humanoid face on the front. Yes, the bulk of this summon is actually constructed of bone and skin, presumably from the bodies of its many victims. Then again, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it also has a tail, meaning it must be a whole creature of some kind. Why the Doomtrain exists in space is unclear, but it can’t be a coincidence that the most likely time to pick it up is when the characters themselves are journeying into orbit.
Perhaps it exists as yet another reminder that the universe is vast and terrifying, filled with unknowable entities who care nothing for the petty squabbles of man. Maybe there are worse things out there than an angry sorceress who wants to make a time sandwich, and some of those things are trains.
Accessing the Doomtrain summon is only possible by obtaining an item called Solomon’s Ring and a collection of strange objects. All this information is found in a magazine called Occult Fan, which documents strange occurrences in the style of a trashy “aliens are real” tabloid. The four issues detail the existence of the ring, and obliquely refer to three types of item: tentacles from a Marlboro, an upgraded remedy, and steel pipes. Players need to grab six of each—yes, that makes 666, the number of the beast—and use the ring, which is definitely how you set up a satanic ritual and should not have been allowed. Nobody is supervising these children and so far they have brought at least four actual nightmare demons into the world.
Doomtrain is part of a long tradition of ghost trains in legends and folklore, and a similar tradition in Final Fantasy games. VIII in particular is full of trains; it has a train heist minigame, puts you on several trains as part of the plot, situates an entire rebel force on a train, and one of the main characters is dangerously obsessed with riding on trains. So perhaps it isn’t the most left-field thing to suddenly have a demonic train, rife with disease, rattling down from the cosmos to enact judgement on the enemies of the cause.
Let’s step back from the precipice of madness for a moment, shaken as we are by the spectre of an organic death train, and look at something a little more grounded. By Final Fantasy VIII‘s standards.
Late in the game, after you have your own personal spaceship, you can discover a hidden location out in the middle of VIII‘s vast ocean. Landing here reveals it to be a Deep Sea Research Center, a mobile facility designed to research draw points and replicate or improve existing para-magic technology. If none of that made sense to you, don’t worry, half of this information isn’t even available unless Zell is in your party when you land, because this game hates to just give you anything. Apparently, the researchers travelled all over the world looking for the largest magic draw point on the planet, and found it here. At some point it was a abandoned, and, given the researchers are still around, it’s safe to say they left on purpose.
What is it about mobile buildings in this universe? Both Galbadia and Balamb Gardens were "coincidentally" built on flying research stations, and now there's this research centre. Also the largest concentration of scientists in the present day live in space. I guess when the world is full of moon-spewed monsters, the idea of not having to walk around is very appealing.
Anyway, inside the station you can find a large glowing core that spits out an astonishing amount of random encounters. Approaching it will trigger a dialogue in which you must answer three questions. After the first two correct answer you need to fight Ruby Dragons, one of the most difficult enemy types in the game, and after picking the third invisible option (that’s right) you are thrust into battle with Bahamut. This dragon is blue, with red wings, and honestly fits fairly solidly into what one might expect from a fantasy dragon—except that it shoots energy beams from its mouth. Like Ifrit and a scant few others, Bahamut also speaks directly to the party; the aforementioned quiz confirms the creature as the archetypal “only those worthy may challenge me” sort of big bad.
At the beginning of battle, Squall refers to it as “the great GF,” which means this is a summon at least those trained at Brain Spirits University have already heard about, and that it’s considered to be one of the more powerful examples. Further information about the Research Center, as well as the fact that Bahamut is there at all, suggests the researchers were studying Guardian Forces there, and seeking to harness their power to aid their probably-sinister cause. Bahamut’s response to this is to be surprised by the use of the term “GF,” and the realisation that they are there to suck him non-consensually into their minds causes him to reveal his fear of humans.
This is strong proof for the idea that the people of this world are basically keeping summons as powerful slave workers, drip-feeding them experience and pet food in exchange for indentured servitude.
Before we move on to something else very weird, we should briefly mention the Phoenix, an avian Guardian Force that can be obtained by using a Phoenix Pinion in battle. A pinion is a round gear used in drivetrain mechanical systems; it’s also a word used to describe part of a bird’s wing. There’s no way to tell which meaning the item name refers to.
Phoenix, after being summoned the first time, will appear in 65/256 cases when the party has been killed or petrified, reviving dead party members. It does not cure petrify, because Final Fantasy VIII actually hates you and wants you to suffer.
Outside of Final Fantasy, a phoenix is a mythological bird which is either reborn from its own ashes or is born from the ashes of a dead phoenix, depending on who you ask. It seems thematically appropriate to have this creature constantly immolate itself to save the lives of teenagers thrust into the fires of war by adults who could not care less for their safety.
There’s a cactus wandering around the world map that is so gigantic it can be seen from space. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s out there, waiting, shooting needles across national borders, twirling its Dick Dastardly moustache. It lives on the aptly named Cactuar Island, which we can assume is an island so uniformly populated by cactuar that humanity decided to let the terrifying, dead-eyed plants hold sovereignty over the entire landmass. If you land on Cactuar Island and approach the giant cactus, you get to fight the Jumbo Cactuar, which looks exactly like the other enemies here except for the moustache.
It’s flipping huge. Defeating the big boy will automatically give you one of the small boys as a GF, perhaps as an offering from the Cactuar Nation in exchange for leaving them alone.
The line between Guardian Force and Just Some Monster We Keep in a Box gets a little blurry here, since the Cactuar GF is basically a cactuar that has to do your bidding. By now though, you should already be desensitised to the suffering of other living creatures so it doesn’t matter too much. Anyway, did you know the cactuar is called sabotendā in Japanese? Which roughly translates to “cactus pretender.” Whereas cactuar translates to “cactus you are.”
Continuing the theme of ordinary monsters becoming summon magic, Tonberry is another GF which requires wading through a bunch of normal enemies, then fighting a giant version.
Unlike the Jumbo Cactuar—which appears instantly on the map—the Tonberry King only makes an entrance after you kill at least 20 regular Tonberry in the Centra Ruins. Basically, once you are considered a Tonberry-themed serial killer in the eyes of these tiny green creatures, their leader and most powerful hero steps in to save their society. And you murder him too. Tonberry, when summoned, emerges from a sort of portal in the floor, slowly walks across the screen and stabs the enemy with a really big knife. That sounds truly awful, but it’s actually okay and even good, because the victim has a little cute sweat drop first and the knife makes a funny DOINK! sound effect that appears in a cartoon speech bubble. Funniest stabbing I’ve seen for ages.
There is an interesting rumour surrounding Tonberry which posits it might be the GF that Selphie junctioned when she was younger. When the party all realise they grew up in the same orphanage and just forgot because of the Ghost Brain Worms, Selphie admits to once junctioning a GF while training one day, but laments not remembering its name. Tonberry does have a quite high starting affinity with Selphie, and it is conceivable that her Garden sent her to train near the Centra Ruins because it’s a dangerous and stupid place to train literal children. Like most FFVIII theories, this is all unprovable and most likely correct.
Throughout this entire exploration, you’ve no doubt been thinking that these summons are not nearly bonkers enough; that their animations aren’t as outrageously long as they could be; that there’s room for so much more haphazard religious referencing and unhinged art design. Good news: we’re going to talk about Eden.
At the bottom of the Deep Sea Research Center, where you may have already captured Bahamut, there is a vast dungeon. Reach the bottom of this dungeon and you get to fight Ultima Weapon, one of Final Fantasy’s recurring challenge bosses, put in many games just so players can show off how much grinding they’ve done. Inside this weapon, you can find the Eden GF, which is a big disc that has wings and the body of some form of angelic torso on the underside. While the other summons, apart from Pandemona, have some sort of recognisable design which allows the human mind to comprehend their form, Eden is a nightmare of runes, body parts, allusions to technology, and vague shapes and colours. Its name is a twofold reference, calling to mind the Christian Bible’s Garden of Eden, where humans first learned to hate their bodies, as well as Final Fantasy VIII’s use of Gardens as a PR-friendly name for harsh military schools. Is Eden a failed attempt by the research teams to merge a Garden with a Guardian Force? Did a GF that resembles the Gardens manifest itself after the Garden schools rose to prominence? Are all Gardens a psychic memory of Eden, filtering through into the design ideas of the Garden architects?
Eden’s attack is called Eternal Breath, and it is frankly a little difficult to put into words. First, the screen fizzes with electronic static as Eden’s face (or face-like object) appears; Eden drops down into a digital grid, overlaid with satellite images and video screens of blueprints. The grid extends to encompass the enemy, then the unfortunate creature is dragged across the field of view until it lines up with the large blue gem on top of Eden’s disc. A strange symbol appears under the enemy, and we zoom out further to reveal that the entire planet displays the same symbol, and it transforms the celestial body into an impossibly huge magical egg timer. The symbols activate, firing the enemy out from inside the planet and into the void of space. The beam of energy carrying what must surely be the most unfortunate monster in the game continues into the centre of a nearby galaxy, which detonates violently and becomes a supermassive black hole. Nobody should ever summon this horrible thing, lest we all disappear, screaming and inside-out, ejected from reality forevermore.
Watching each individual moment of the Eden summon is upsetting, and trying to piece it all together is a fool’s errand. Parts of the summon suggest the entire world of Final Fantasy VIII exists within a simulation controlled by Eden, and that all concerns of sorceresses and teenage soldiers are petty squabbling conducted by worthless ants. If this is what the researchers pulled out right before shutting their work down, you can understand what made them run. If Pandemona and Doomtrain are harbingers of the cosmic end, Eden is the apocalypse of horror knocking on the front door.
End of the summons
That’s it. No more summons to look at, and the world of Final Fantasy VIII is eternally doomed by its inability to perceive the vast scope of nightmares that exist just beyond the veil of reality. May the gods have mercy on them all.
Actually, no, hold that thought, because there are just a few more Guardian Force-related issues to discuss. Next time we delve into the most unsettling, forbidden place of all: the mind of a teenage boy.