Mail Bad #1: You People Are Also Weird About FF8

Welcome to our first ever mailbag feature! The response from y’all about Final Fantasy VIII madness has been overwhelming, and we’ve got some great stories from people shedding light on some mysteries that have been raised on this blog.

This feature was going to be called “Mail Bag” but I accidentally misspelled it while I was making the WordPress category. IT’S TOO LATE TO CHANGE IT. NEVER LOOK BACK.

That Time I Wrote a Final Fantasy VIII Strategy Guide Against My Will

We got an unexpected message from Andrew Vestal, author of Final Fantasy VIII: GameSpot’s Unofficial Ultimate Strategy Guide from 1999. There’s a hell of a story behind it, which Andrew revealed in a letter he called “That Time I Wrote a Final Fantasy VIII Strategy Guide Against My Will.”

Hi Phil,

Thanks for a great site that reminds us all that Final Fantasy VIII is, indeed, the best. It was definitely not as maligned in the late 90s and early 00s, and I’m happy to see the kids are rediscovering its unique charm. Final Fantasy VIII has always been my personal favorite of the PlayStation trilogy and nothing in the past 25 years has gotten me to change my mind — not even when Square cancelled the sequel. [Editor’s note: There wasn’t actually a sequel to Final Fantasy VIII in the works, but we ARE going to talk about what the hell Final Fantasy Gaiden is in a future post.]

I imported Final Fantasy VIII at Japanese release and reviewed it for GameSpot. At the time, GameSpot was affiliated with Ziff-Davis, so when Expert Gamer needed a 24-page walkthrough for the US launch, I was their guy. I played the Japanese version twice more, then they flew me up to Chicago for a week and I played through the entire English pre-release version in 5 days. Plus wrote the walkthrough, took hundreds of screenshots, and helped lay out the pages. Most Ziffies lived at the office the week before deadline.

The issue of Expert Gamer with Final Fantasy VIII on the cover.

The walkthrough was Expert Gamer’s cover that month and I’m hugely proud of how it turned out. Everyone at the guide-focused magazine knew this could be their biggest issue of the year and went out of their way to make me, a 19-year-old kid, feel welcome. Once the guide was published, GameSpot, who was affiliated with Ziff-Davis at the time, asked to run it as an online strategy guide. And then GameSpot, who was further affiliated with a sketchy unofficial strategy guide publisher named Sybex, “asked” if they could publish it as a standalone strategy guide. I said no thank you, that’s not what I wrote and I didn’t think it would work. I was then told that Final Fantasy VIII would be their biggest guide of the year, and they were no longer asking. The book was coming out.

So my 24-page walkthrough was stre-e-e–e-etched into a 118-page strategy guide, like a tablespoon of peanut butter on a whole loaf of Wonder bread. An unofficial strategy guide, mind you, so all the beautiful artwork, screenshots, and sidebars of the magazine article were jettisoned and repurposed as what was basically a generic, black-and-white Word document with 36-point text and lots and lots of empty space. People who bought the guide were (rightfully) pissed, and I was deeply embarrassed that this book had my name on it. I’d written lots of articles, online and off, but this was my first book, and it was a disaster.

Time heals all wounds, and I’m mostly recovered — now, I see it as a mostly humorous story about a young kid being taken advantage of by multiple cascading licensing agreements and the unstoppable force that was the late 90s JRPG Industrial Guide Complex. Also, as much as the book sucked, at least it doesn’t tell you to constantly look things up on PlayOnline. What was that all about?

About that screenshot…

Amazingly, we heard from Phil Theobald, the reviews editor for GameNOW! As you might recall from yesterday’s post, GameNOW spent two years reprinting the same screenshot of Final Fantasy VIII over and over just to spite one of their readers. Phil shared everything he remembered about how that joke caught on…

When we got that first letter about the screenshot, we hadn’t even noticed its repeated use. Turns out the guy who typically grabbed random pics for the mag (the late Andy Baran) just kept using the same shot out of a combination of laziness and a love of FF8. Once the screenshot was brought to our attention, we decided to make it a running gag. When GameNOW moved from Chicago to SF and had a near-complete turnover of its staff (I was one of two editors who made the move), the new EIC (Tom Byron) thought the gag was hilarious and further encouraged it.

I remember turning the screenshot into an Animal Crossing pattern for readers to replicate in one issue. I think the hardest one to find was when we shrunk the image down and placed it over a stamp on one of the pieces of envelope art in the letters section.

Luckily (?) Ziff didn’t really care/pay attention to GameNOW, so we could do stupid stuff like this and nobody really noticed. We got real lucky with them killing off the mag just as we were finishing up the spine gag.

Readers loved the bit, though. We got a fair number of letters about it.

Phil also shared a picture of a T-shirt he has of The Screenshot!

Prize Sighting

We’ve also mentioned that Square once gave away a 2000 Toyota Echo to one lucky person who pre-ordered Final Fantasy VIII back in 1999. It’s been a long-standing mystery who won the car. The closest anyone got was game journalist Tim Rodgers, who heard back in 2019 from an employee at Electronic Arts (the co-publishers of FFVIII in the United States) that the winner probably took a $10,000 cash prize instead.

But yesterday, we received some SHOCKING NEW EVIDENCE! We heard from metaly on Bluesky, who believes he saw the car 22 years ago in Isla Vista, CA, just outside Santa Barbara:

in 2002 there was always an Echo with a moomba decal parked near my apartment and in my head that was IRREFUTABLE proof it was the contest winner. i never ran into the owner to confirm but it was unnecessary imo

A white Toyota Echo with a Moomba decal on the rear window.

Keep in mind, this was back in 2002, when it wasn’t as easy to just go on Etsy and get a high-quality Moomba decal. It is possible that a random hardcore Final Fantasy VIII fan with a Toyota Echo went out of their way to get a nice window cling. But this feels deliberate. I choose to believe this was the car, and the winner was in Isla Vista, CA.

Thank y’all for writing in! I will try to set up some kind of actual mailbox soon, but it’s gonna be hard to beat this first roundup.