Summons, Aeons, Espers, Astrals, or Primals — whatever you call them, summons have always been one of the key parts of Final Fantasy in my mind. As a little girl, I would watch as the characters called upon otherworldly beasts to tear the battlefield asunder. For such a huge series staple, you might think summons have been around since 1987. While Bahamut made an appearance in the original Final Fantasy, it wasn't until Final Fantasy III that summoning was introduced as a mechanic to the series. This granted any one of your characters the ability to call upon the power of an ethereal beast.
In every mainline game since, at least one character has been able to summon these creatures: in Final Fantasy IV, IX, X, and XV, there are designated summoners in your party; in VI, VII, VIII, and XII, anyone can summon as long as they have learned the relevant skill or equipped the right stuff; then there's V, XI, and XIV, where you have to be the right class or job; XIII is the only game where everyone in your party has one set summon. Over the years, we've seen the classics get reimagined, some forgotten gems, and some one-hit wonders. Summons are an important part of Final Fantasy's 30-year history, and they deserve to be duly recognized.
This is a celebration of those who don't always get as much of the limelight. We all know about Ifrit and Shiva, but what about those summons that sometimes get pushed to one side? There will no doubt be ones that people recognise and love, but I'm sharing the series' more diverse entities that I've both loved and questioned.
I want to bring up two summons who have been fairly prevalent throughout the series, but often don't get as much attention as the classic seven. These two are some of my favourites, whether it be for their designs or just how they've appeared, and while they've made regular appearances, I just don't feel they get the attention they've earned. They're worthy of an upgrade, and deserve to be under our command on the battlefield again.
Now, let's get this out of the way — Alexander is my all-time favourite summon. There's something bombastic about a huge protective wall imbued with the power of holy that just captures my imagination. He's always slow and lumbering, but he's also deadly. The last time he appeared as a useable summon was FFXIII, under Hope's command, and he also made a brief appearance as an airship in FFXII. However, it's his FFIX appearance which is his most memorable, as he's a major part of one of the most amazing cutscenes in the entire series. Watching Dagger and Eiko call upon their powers to turn Alexandria Castle into Alexander is beautiful, and has remained one of the most enduring images in any video game I've ever played. I wanted nothing more than to be able to call upon him in battle. The MMOs have shown him due respect. In FFXI, he’s the final boss of the Treasures of Aht Urhgan expansion, and in March of 2010 he was made a summonable Avatar. FFXIV's Alexander might not be under your command, but he's a sight to behold, and the stage of one of the sternest challenges in the Heavensward expansion. I'm so glad Alexander's started getting the attention he deserves, because the fans deserve to see more of this giant.
Putting this giant to one side, I want to pay attention to something much cuter — Carbuncle. He's probably one of the smallest summons throughout the series, but he's definitely the most adorable. Carbuncle, or Carbunkl if you're a fan of the SNES era, isn't intended to scare the enemy; rather, he's there to protect you. Ruby Light bestows a reflective barrier on your party. FFIX changed this up, and depending on what gem Eiko has equipped, Carbuncle changes his function: a diamond enables him to cast Diamond Light, which grants Vanish, for example. It's really nice to see a much more supportive Eidolon. However, more recently, Carbuncle has been pushed to the sidelines: In XIII, he's a fal'Cie who gives the crowds at the Palumpolum food; and in FFXV, he's Noctis' guide. If you're itching to take command of the little guy again, look no further than the MMOs. In FFXI, he's one of the Avatars, and if you complete a series of side quests, he grants you the Summoner job and becomes your first companion. Similarly, the Arcanist class from FFXIV can summon either an emerald or topaz Carbuncle to attack their enemies for them, and they have an adorable, sleek design to boot. I really want to see more of Carbuncle in light of the MMOs and earlier games, because he never fails to bring a smile to my face.
These summons are a bit of an odd bunch. Most of these have only made one or two appearances throughout the series, and it's usually when Square Enix want to change up one of the elemental representatives. A couple of these deserve a bigger slice of the action, and some of these have been put to one side for the better.
Thunder has always been the element that's undergone the most changes. For a start, Odin swaps his neutral/dark embodiment in favour of thunder in FFXIII, but there have been some really interesting substitutes for Ramuh. In FFVIII, the first Guardian Force Squall acquires is Quezacotl — not something I would immediately associate with the fury of the skies. He grants the user the ability to change any enemy into a Triple Triad card, and that is the deal breaker for me. Jokes to one side, the more popular thunder elemental is Ixion from FFX. We've seen Unicorn as a summon in FFVI before, but Ixion packs a lot more punch. Its striking plaits and thunderous neighs are enough to send shockwaves, and its lightning-fast movements will send enemies into a spin.
Next, we're jumping right back to FFVI with Bismarck. This one's only been a summon in the aforementioned game, but he's actually made appearances in two other mainline entries. I can see why he's hardly been utilised — he's not the most glorious of Espers, and yet another hulking summon is unnecessary, especially when Leviathan is already so adored. Yet, I have a soft spot for Bismarck because I love sea creatures. In VI, he's one of the first magicite the party picks up, and he grants the wearer each of the main three starting elements, along with Raise. FFXIII saw him briefly appear at the Sulyya Springs, protecting the waters, but his crowning achievement has been with his appearance as a Primal in FFXIV. No longer king of the ocean, he soars through The Sea of Clouds near the Kingdom of Ishgard, with feathery fins and an almost angelic redesign. Let's hope the rest of the series doesn't miss out on the resurgence of this mighty whale.
If we're talking about replacing the summons, why not look to FFXII and its long list of Espers? XII threw out all of the staples in favour of a mix of new summons, the Lucavi from the Tactics series, and those inspired by previous series bosses. These are all based on the twelve Zodiac, plus a thirteenth for good measure, and some of the optional ones are extremely hard to get. Some of them have small nods to their Zodiac sign, such as Cúchulainn, whose head is pierced by a poison barb, alluding to Scorpio; but others are more obvious, like Famfrit, who bears a huge jug of water like Aquarius. Some of these Espers are making an appearance in the new Ivalice raid for FFXIV, which is fantastic news. And if you want to know where all of the classics are, then look no further than the Empire's airships. The final dungeon even carries Bahamut's name!
Now it's worth looking at FFXIII's replacement fire and earth Eidolons. First, we have Sazh's Brynhildr, who replaces Ifrit. Her design isn't my favourite, as she shifts into a sports car whenever Sazh uses her (and don't even get me started on the ridiculous Shiva bike.) It was a brave move to replace one of the most iconic summons. Titan is perhaps a little less loved, so Vanille's Hecatoncheir is less bold, but his design is much more interesting. While it embraces XIII's more mechanical style, it's still the most bizarre looking Eidolon; multiple arms sprawl out of his shoulders, but he can also be ridden like a mech, almost like a Magitek armor. XIII tried to go a little bit different with its Eidolons, and I like how they match FFXIII's feel and environment, but some of them just aren't for me.
I've already alluded to it, but there are some very weird summons in some of these games. The concept of calling on a would-be god is already bizarre enough, so why not make it even more unusual? If flying whales, female cars and giant castles aren't enough, then this is the section for you.
FFVIII has the strangest mix of summons in the whole series. While the standard staples are mostly retained, there are a few odd bods that really stand out. One I want to give special mention to is Doomtrain. Remember that train you suplexed in FFVI? Why not call on it to run over your enemies! It's definitely a favourite just for the idea that you can summon the very train that leads you to your death. And then there's Eden, the game's ultimate summon, which is drawn from the Ultima Weapon of all things. It's essentially a Garden — think Balamb, but with god-like powers and a conscience of its own. And lastly, I don't even know where to start with Pandemona — if you can look at its design and tell me it's a wind elemental without looking it up, you deserve a gold star.
FFIX has two rather bizarre Eidolons that have never made an appearance as a summon ever again. Atomos first debuted in FFV as a boss, but in FFIX he has some actual screen time, being responsible for the destruction of Lindblum. Pleasant is not a word I would use to describe this beast: his appearance is that of a huge gate whose mouth is a gaping hole into the abyss. Then there's Ark, a magical airship that transforms into a Gear from Xenogears. I'm not kidding. It's also the most powerful Eidolon in the game, causing huge shadow damage to every enemy on the battlefield. The best thing I can recommend is to not sell those Pumice pieces.
Let's move on to FFX. I've already touched on a couple of the classic designs, but X has some of its own weird and wonderful creatures, and they're all optional. The biggest culprit is Anima, who is the most powerful Aeon in the International and HD releases. Anima is the stuff of nightmares, wrapped in bloody bandages and writing around in pain, and to summon her, Yuna literally pulls her from the depths of hell with a chain. Then you find out Anima is actually the fayth of Seymour's mother, who volunteered herself to this fate so Seymour could become a summoner. Perhaps the reason Anima's never made an appearance outside of FFX comes down to her origin, but I think she'd make a great addition to any other entry.
It's not just the 3D games that have had some bizarre summons. FFVI's myriad of Espers has its fair share of odd ones. Zona Seeker, for instance, is a floating skeletal creature with a gold mask and a black cape, and it casts Shell on you of all things. Not that that isn't helpful, but it certainly wasn't what I was expecting the first time I saw it. You also need to buy its respective magicite from the Auction House in Jidoor. I dread to think what those pundits would do if they saw what was inside that magical crystal.
Summons might not always be the most effective and powerful way of taking down your enemy, but there's no denying their continued presence in the series has been a joy to behold. In every new game, I always like to imagine what each summon will look like, what they might collectively be called, and when you'll get each one. FFXV didn't disappoint with its Astrals, and with every new update to FFXIV (and every new Primal), I get more and more annoyed that I haven't resubbed yet. The variation in these creatures is pure magic to me, and calling upon their help every now and again will never get boring.
Now here's a challenge for you, and one last summon I want to bring up. Try reading this article up against the series' longest summon animation, and see how well you do. Oh Knights of the Round, you're such a pain to max out, but so worth the effort.