8-Bit Theater is a completed sprite comic created by Brian Clevinger, and published in 1,225 episodes from March 2, 2001 to June 1, 2010. The webcomic is among the most popular sprite comics, winning various awards, and is part of the Create a Comic Project.
The plot of 8-Bit Theater is loosely based on that of the video game Final Fantasy, in which four adventurers, the Light Warriors, must save the world by defeating four powerful demons that represent the four elements, thus relighting four magical orbs tied to the same elements, and, finally, defeating the personification of evil, Chaos. However, while many of the original plot points and characters are present, the way they come about is often radically different. The Light Warriors themselves tend to cause far more harm than good on their travels and mostly have to be blackmailed, bribed, or threatened into accepting quests.
The comic is also not a serious epic; the protagonists and many of the supporting characters are based on and a parody of exaggerated role-playing video game stereotypes to the point where many characters are actually named after their character classes, and much of the humor displayed in 8-Bit Theater is derived from the ineptitude of characters as well as from the interactions between four protagonists who are travelling together but do not actually like each other very much. The range of comedic devices 8-Bit Theater employs includes droll humor, running gags, word play, and slapstick, and another significant portion of the humor results from creating reader anticipation for dramatic moments which fail to come. Clevinger has stated that "[his] favorite comics are the ones where the joke is on the reader."
8-Bit Theater was originally intended to parody a variety of classic 8-bit video games, like Metroid or River City Ransom. The popularity of the Final Fantasy manga convinced Clevinger to abandon this idea. However, 8-Bit Theater does contain occasional references to other video games as well as comic books, television shows and movies, such as thinly veiled superhero parodies Arachna-Dude and The Sulk.
As a sprite comic, much of the art in 8-Bit Theater is sampled from video games, particularly Final Fantasy I and Final Fantasy III. Some art is also obtained from public clip art sites and unspecified Google image search results. Original artwork is created by Lydia Tyree and Kevin Sigmund, who contribute hand drawn art and custom sprites respectively. The comic itself is assembled by Clevinger in Adobe Photoshop.
The epilogue of 8-Bit Theater was hand drawn by Matt Speroni.
Final Fantasy allowed players to pick their own four-person party from six character classes and name them individually. 8-Bit Theater features six characters that each represent one of the six classes; four of these characters make up the comic's protagonists, the Light Warriors.Black Mage — A wizard who is highly proficient in black magic and makes an active effort to be as evil as possible.
Fighter — A warrior who is extremely skilled in swordfighting, but also naïve and childlike.
Thief — Thief, also known as the Prince of Elfland, employs trickery and argumentation in his pursuit of money. His biggest motivation is greed.
Red Mage — Red Mage is versatile almost to the point of obsession and firmly believes that the world is a tabletop role-playing game. He is quite knowledgeable, but also completely delusional.
White Mage — A priestess specializing in white (healing) magic. White Mage was assigned by her order to protect fate and to help the Light Warriors save the world. She discreetly follows the Light Warriors around the world for a lengthy portion of the comic to achieve this goal.
Black Belt — A talented martial artist and travelling companion of White Mage. Black Belt had an extremely poor sense of direction, to the effect that the laws of physics and spacetime tended to rearrange themselves around him. He was killed by the Fiend Kary in the course of the series.
Sarda the Sage — An omnipotent wizard who forces the Light Warriors to retrieve the four elemental orbs. He claims to be "The Wizard Who Did It" and uses his powers in an immensely irresponsible and careless manner.
The Dark Warriors — A group of villains based on minor enemies from the game. They consist of Garland, Bikke the Pirate, Drizz'l the Dark Elf Prince, and Vilbert Von Vampire. They plot the downfall of the Light Warriors, but are depicted as even more inept than the Light Warriors themselves.
The Four Fiends — Powerful elemental beings that guard their respective elemental orbs. They are Lich, Kary, Ur, and Muffin. They were individually killed by the Light Warriors, and then, following their resurrection as a group, killed by Black Mage.
For a plot summary of the game the comic parodies, see Final Fantasy (video game)#Plot.
8-Bit Theater opens with an introductory sequence that explains how the Light Warriors initially meet and decide to form an adventuring party in the kingdom of Corneria, where King Steve's daughter, Princess Sara, is being held captive by the knight Garland in the nearby Temple of Fiends. After her rescue, during which both the Light Warriors and Garland himself are shown as so incompetent that Sara has to orchestrate her kidnapping and rescue herself, the king has a bridge built that connects Corneria to the main continent.
Here the Light Warriors meet the witch Matoya, who blackmails them into recovering her stolen crystal. In the port town of Pravoka the party defeats the pirate Bikke (accompanied by Garland) and uses his ship to travel on to Elfland. There, they discover the King has been poisoned, apparently by the same person who stole Matoya's crystal, and Thief is the prince of Elfland. The Light Warriors retrieve the antidote and Matoya's crystal from the dark elf Drizz'l, who is shortly thereafter recruited by Garland and Bikke. Upon his recovery, the Elf King sends the Light Warriors to save Elfland by retrieving the Earth Orb from two undead beings, Vilbert von Vampire and his father Lich, the Fiend of Earth. Vilbert survives the battle and is later recruited into Garland's Dark Warriors, while Lich goes to hell. White Mage then sends the Light Warriors to meet Sarda the Sage, an omnipotent wizard who takes the Earth orb and proceeds to draft the group into quests for the other three elemental orbs.
The Fire Orb is held by Kary, the Fiend of Fire in Gurgu Volcano, who kills Black Belt before the group can defeat her and retrieve the orb. A subsequent side quest to the Ice Cave on Sarda's behalf, during which the Light Warriors encounter squid-like Doom Cultists, is ultimately fruitless. A second side quest, however, involves the Light Warriors meeting the dragon god-king Bahamut, who sends them to the Castle of Ordeals to obtain a rat tail. There, the Light Warriors each face their own internal demons: Sloth (Fighter), Pride (Red Mage), Greed (Thief) and a doppelgänger of Black Mage, who is the only thing that can represent his evil. The Light Warriors present the rat tail to Bahamut, only to find that it is an ingredient in a virility soup his girlfriend Matoya makes for him. The party is rewarded with class upgrades: Red Mage becomes a Mime, Fighter becomes a Knight, Thief becomes a Ninja, and Black Mage becomes a Blue Mage with some help from a Dark God.
Returning to the task of retrieving the elemental orbs, the Light Warriors travel to the cities of Gaia and Onrac and use a submarine provided by Sarda to reach the Sea Shrine, where they meet the Doom Cultists a second time. After defeating them, they accidentally summon the third Fiend, Ur (known in the game as Kraken). The Light Warriors kill Ur, retrieve the Water Orb and travel on to Lefein in search of the Air Orb, where they meet Dragoon, the last Dragon Knight, and the evil dragon Muffin, the fourth Fiend, who guards the Orb of Air. During a battle in Muffin's Sky Castle she is killed by Dragoon. The Sky Castle itself explodes after Fighter and Black Mage take the Air Orb.
Upon presenting the final orb to Sarda, he dismissively orders the Light Warriors to return to the Temple of Fiends, where they find that the Dark Warriors have made the temple their base of operations. During the night, Drizz'l summons the Four Fiends from Hell and has them confront the Light Warriors. Black Mage, using evil energy he absorbed from his doppelgänger, kills the fiends, absorbs their evil energies as well and turns on the other Light Warriors. Sarda interrupts the fight and reveals his intent to destroy the Light Warriors himself.
Sarda explains himself to be the grown-up version of a child that suffered great harm as a result of the Light Warrior's actions around the world. Young Sarda became so focused on revenge that he studied to be a great wizard and travelled back in time to the beginning of the universe to remake it without the Light Warriors; after discovering that changing the past was impossible even for him, he decides to settle for making the Light Warriors into the warriors of legend, for no other reason than to further humiliate them in defeat. Sarda absorbs the orbs' magic energy as well as Black Mage's evil energy and easily unmakes not only the Light Warriors' class changes, but also removes their original abilities. Sarda's power quickly becomes erratic and unstable, and Chaos, the King of Demons, takes the opportunity to possess Sarda's body and announce his plans to annihilate the universe.
However, before a final battle between the Light Warriors and Chaos can begin, he is destroyed off-panel by a group of four White Mages, a party combination that was dismissed in one of the earliest episodes as ineffectual for the game, and all credit for saving the world goes to a group of bystanders, the Dark Warriors. The Epilogue picks up three years later. White Mage visits Red Mage and Dragoon at a restaurant, where they have started up an extremely unsuccessful support group for sole survivors of ancient sects. Afterward, White Mage visits King Thief in Elfland, who has been trying to locate Black Mage and Fighter, in an effort to obtain more riches from their adventure. Black Mage and Fighter find themselves poor and out of work in a remote town, trying to make money by taking job postings in the town square. The epilogue ends with Fighter suggesting that they resume their search for the "Armor of Invincibility" that Fighter has been searching for since the beginning of the comic.
One of the most popular webcomics, it won the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards for best fantasy comic in 2002. In its feature on gaming webcomics, 1UP.com described 8-Bit Theater as the sprite comic "that took the style to its fullest expression and greatest popularity." Larry Cruz of Comic Book Resources considers 8-Bit Theater the "last great webcomic", pointing out that no sprite comic has gained mainstream attention since 8-Bit Theater ended in 2010.