Final Fantasy IV is one of the greatest games of all time. I think I like it too much.
I have beaten Final Fantasy IV, start to finish, twenty-nine times. Twenty-four of those times were on a Super Nintendo cartridge, as "Final Fantasy II." Two of those times were on a PlayStation, as "Final Fantasy IV," and in Japanese. One of those times was on a Super Famicom, also as Final Fantasy IV, and in Japanese. The other two times were on my American PlayStation2, as Final Fantasy IV, in English.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to buy Final Fantasy IV: Easy Type for Super Famicom. Chris Kohler and I were in Akihabara, gawking at Sega Saturn games, when we chanced upon an Easy Type cartridge for 1980 yen. Chris Kohler told me how he'd found one in Osaka, in a shop just outside DenDen Town, for only 400 yen. Hearing this, I decided not to buy that 1980-yen copy. Besides, I was homeless, and I needed money for the train ticket home.
Now that I think back on it, I should have bought that copy. Akihabara is only a three-minute jaunt from Ueno, and from there all I have to do is follow the Keisei Line up past Nippori for about three hours, and I'd be home.
Final Fantasy IV is one of those games I love so much I feel compelled to buy it every time I see it, even when I know I don't have the money to spare. I have a lot to say about Final Fantasy IV -- lots of stories to tell about it -- that I'd rather not tell in the interest of space.
When my friend Carl slept over at my house -- four feet away from his house -- it wasn't to sit and tell stories about Final Fantasy IV. It was to play Final Fantasy IV. It's that kind of game. And, more importantly, it's that kind of RPG.
Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, when we last left him, was grinning at me via a tear in space. His mouth was full of ice teeth. High off his semi-hit Final Fantasy, he'd let risky artistic tendencies not entirely his own take a hold of Final Fantasy II with mixed results. The critics of the day agreed the game was better than the original, if a little too difficult. For the sake of keeping his job, Sakaguchi opted to make the next Final Fantasy a "system" game rather than a "story" game. So it was that young, bold, intrepid Squaresoft chose to rip off competitor Enix's Dragon Quest series for the second time in three years: 1989's Final Fantasy III, with its job-class system and hollow save-the-world-from-evil wallpaper storyline, is an edge-of-the-moment revision of Enix's Dragon Quest III, and for the most part, it works.
People who play exclusively Psikyo shooters and Turbografx-16 might try to tell you that Final Fantasy III is the "only Final Fantasy" game they like. These people are, for the most part, shitting you. My evidence of this is quite simple, and irrefutable:
Final Fantasy III can't be anyone's favorite Final Fantasy, because anyone who has access to Final Fantasy III also has access to Final Fantasy IV.
Sakaguchi would feed you the story, if he were still around. He'd tell you how the odd-numbered Final Fantasies are "system" games, and the evens are "story" games. I'd tell you he's making that shit up. This "system" game versus "story" game thing -- it was less of Square's "plan" than the way the making of the games naturally fell together.
I was more or less Dragon Quest with a party of four. II was Square's effort to do something "different" -- and that meant a cinematic kind of story. III was another journey of discovery for the programmers -- a journey over to their local game stores and a copy of the job-class-endowed Dragon Quest III. IV was another attempt to do something "different." Unlike II, IV's making was blessed by programmers who were now, through years of imitation of competitors, more or less "experienced."
What Final Fantasy IV does that Dragon Quest IV almost does is combine a "storyline" with "customizability." Around 1991, it was pretty vogue to give everyone in a Role-Playing Game a "job." Dragon Quest III and Final Fantasy III trusted players with choosing which character took which job. Trusting the player with such a choice requires making the choice-making interesting. Trekking to the town guild in Dragon Quest III to enlist new party members, seeking out the books to unlock new classes -- it's all part of the game, and it's enjoyable. This deepening of system requires liberties to be taken in the "compelling story" department. Sure enough, the struggles in the third installments of the world's greatest RPG franchises star boldly drawn lines between good and evil, conflicts always resolved by beating your opponent to death, and hours-long quests ending with the finding of a key that unlocks the door at the end of the tunnel to the next continent.
Final Fantasy IV's characters are people; as people, they're hard-wired with behaviors that make them people. They're hard-wired with "jobs." We don't have to choose what they are, or what they'll become.
When Final Fantasy IV begins, we meet our hero, Cecil. Cecil is a "Dark Knight" of indeterminate age. He's never had any parents, he makes his living as a murdering soldier, and he has conscience issues. He also has a girlfriend, the "beautiful" white mage Rosa. I put "beautiful" in quotes because we never really get a good look at her -- she's a tiny little square sprite, just like everyone else.
Anyone who's played and beaten Final Fantasy IV, however, can tell you that it's neither the size nor resolution of the square sprites -- it's what they say and do that counts.
When Cecil questions his king's increasing insistence of ruthlessness when it comes to procuring the five magic crystals, he's demoted from captain of the Red Wings -- the Kingdom of Baron's elite airship brigade -- to a common messenger. His mission is to deliver a bomb to the Village of the Mist, which is populated by Summoners -- wizards who specialized in calling forth giant mythic beasts -- who threaten the Empire's expansion. When leader of the Dragoons, Kain, tries to defend Cecil, he too is demoted.
Cecil is the kind of guy to apologize profusely to his friend; Kain is the kind of guy to tell his friend to stop apologizing. Cecil is the kind of guy to tell his girlfriend to leave his bedroom the night before his first assignment following his demotion. Kain is the kind of guy to later be corrupted by the Great Evil and steal away his friend's girlfriend.
Early in Final Fantasy IV, Cecil and Kain kill a Mist Dragon, in turn killing the woman who had summoned it. The woman is the mother of Rydia, who just so happens to be the only Summoner who survives the bombing of the Village Mist. Rydia, as a mere child, can't control her emotions, and takes it to our would-be heroes by summoning a Titan, which causes an earthquake that splits the characters up. Cecil awakens alone in a field with an unconscious Rydia. Out of the kindness of his Dark Knight's heart, he carries her to the closest desert town to get her back to health. That night, soldiers find Cecil, demanding he hand over the girl. Cecil kills them all; Rydia awakens just in time to see it go down. Seeing that Cecil is in truth a good man, Rydia offers to help him. And he's going to need some help -- the next day, Cecil just so happens to find Rosa, his woman, in a house in the very village he'd sought refuge in -- here, she tried to cross the desert to warn Cecil, and ended up falling ill.
So it is that before anything really happens in its story, Final Fantasy IV is departing on a tangent. So it is that before this "find a cure for Rosa" tangent can become too tangential, we end up entangled in the Sage Tellah's quest to save his daughter Sara from the no good bard Edward, whose castle just so happens to be in the middle of a bombing raid by the Empire of Baron. When Sara dies, Tellah and Edward grieve their separate ways, Tellah runs off to kill the imperial bastard who killed his daughter, and Edward offers to help Cecil find the Sand Ruby -- the only thing that can save Rosa. By the time we've gotten Rosa into the party, we've trekked three dungeons, killed three boss monsters, lost two party members, and seen two important NPCs die. By the time we meet Kain again, he's turned evil, and we've toured half the world, and saved a quarter of it. By the time Cecil realizes his destiny and becomes a Paladin, we've seen the entire story fall apart, and killed the first of the Four Fiends of the Elements.
Oh, you thought the Fiends of the Elements were from Final Fantasy I? Well, they're back. Only they have different names. And different shapes. And they find us, as weapons of the story's enemy. We're not finding them, as enemies of the story's evil.
Final Fantasy IV takes us over and under the surface of its earth. As a Dark Knight, we run away from our past, eventually boarding a vessel destined for shipwreck. As a Paladin, we acquire one airship after another. When it comes time to seek the Crystals of the underworld, we go to the underworld. When we get there, we find our ship can't fly over lava without a Mithril coating. At a certain point in the story, one airship is outfit with a hook for lifting and carrying the hovercraft we used pitifully briefly earlier in the game. At another point, another airship is outfit with a drill, which opens a hole from the underworld to the surface. Eventually we acquire the spaceship that takes us to the Moon, where we fight the massive final battle. Somewhere between the humble beginning and the final battle against a cosmic evil in the core of the moon, we'll join forces with an intergalactic wizard to invade a giant robot and destroy it from the inside.
We'll meet the young Rydia again in the underworld, where she's been since the shipwreck. When we meet her, we find she's aged fifteen years as a result of a bizarre time-flow; she is now an adult. She explains that she'd spent her time in the Land of the Summoned Monsters, where all a Summoner's monsters come from. Under the tutelage of King Leviathan and Queen Asura, Rydia has abandoned her studies of white magic, learned more black magic, taken to wielding a whip, and grown attractive enough for the ninja-prince Edge to lust after. By this point in the game, the players of 1991 no longer noticed that Rydia was a tiny square sprite -- if Edge likes her, she must be good-looking.
Edge -- who has to kill his own parents at one point, when they're corrupted by The Evil -- isn't the kind of guy who'd just fall for any girl. He's got a personality of his own. He's also one of our final five party members.
Rosa, Cecil, Edge, Kain, and Rydia flesh out the roster at the end of the game. A white wizard / archer, a Paladin, a ninja, a Dragoon, and a Summoner / black wizard -- it's a pretty full party. If we'd had the choice to pick our own classes, we'd probably end up with something like this, anyway. Besides, we've come through enough battles with enough oddball party members to feel like we've gotten a full meal of gameplay. It's time to settle down with our perfect five characters, and tackle that final dungeon. If anyone claims to like the wizard FuSoYa -- with your party for precisely a dungeon and one-quarter -- better than all others, that person is entitled to their opinion. In fact, it's probably Squaresoft's intention to make such characters more lovable by making them playable for only short periods of time. Cecil's so cool as a Paladin that friends back in the day would converse fondly as they traversed the final dungeon: "Remember when Cecil was still a Dark Knight? He was awesome, wasn't he?" All the while, it was never lost on such children that Cecil became a Paladin by defeating a doppelganger of himself by not attacking at all -- the first Final Fantasy battle won by not attacking.
All these grand things considered, I feel justified in saying that Final Fantasy IV is the Final Fantasy series. If Final Fantasy has become what it is by constant and drastic reinvention from sequel-to-sequel, Final Fantasy IV is where that reinvention itself was reinvented. The first three entries in the series were made by a team lacking in "experience;" the blunders of Final Fantasy II's battle system are the products of a team that really, honestly, wanted to make something cool, and failed. I can imagine members of the team huddled around a long table on a summer day in Tokyo, drinking bottles of cold barley tea, sweating, both over the heat and over the direction their game was headed: "Should we put this in? What about this part? Should we trim this part? Should we liven up this boss battle? Should we . . . make it easier? Harder?"
Final Fantasy IV's maturity lies both inside and outside its protagonist's moody, regretful nature. It exudes maturity in its every event, its every boss battle, its every technicality. No event of Final Fantasy IV lacks confidence. When the team sat around the table talking about the project, I can imagine much gesturing, arm-waving, and emphatic speech: "This would be so cool! We should make it possible for the player to get a common Goblin as a summon spell!" And I can imagine Sakaguchi pointing a pen at that guy, and saying, "Yeah -- we're gonna put that in here somewhere."
That is to say: Final Fantasy II was made by people who were whispering, all the while, something along the lines of "It . . . might not be bad if we did . . . this."
Final Fantasy VI was made by a high-on-success team confidently (and correctly!) boasting around the water-cooler, "This game is a goddamned masterpiece."
Final Fantasy IV's developers' mantra was "This is . . . definitely going to be a good game -- if we keep our heads on straight."
Final Fantasy IV is stuffed full of young, yet mature, risky, yet elegant ideas. It's stuffed so full of them that future Final Fantasy games start to look kind of silly, or redundant -- their "everybody comes out alive" mentality of letting us select any characters we choose comes to mind as one way the games have lost focus. Final Fantasy IV proves, a decade and one-fifth after its initial release, that stricter is better. The producers even went so far as to borrow atmospheric elements from Phantasy Star II without gleaning one ounce of the moodiness that put off some weaker gamers: Final Fantasy IV is big, hard, dark, cold -- and warm and inviting at the same time.
The handling of the Rydia character is especially of note: early in the game, she loses her village to a fire. Slightly later in the game, when we reach a mountain the stands between our heroes and a country in need of saving, we realize Rydia can't use fire spells. We realize this because a wall of ice stands before us, at the entrance to the mountain. Rosa, ever the sensitive female, now revived and ready to help us, talks Rydia into using a fire spell. Rydia complies, and the path is opened.
This serves multiple purposes:
It develops the Rydia character: in showing Rydia overcome a fear of fire, the game is foreshadowing that Rydia might also be able to overcome her hatred, anger, and sadness regarding the past.
It develops the Rosa character: by showing her to be caring, kind, and gentle. We knew this already -- in the beginning, she confronted Cecil in his bedroom on the night before the big first assignment. At that time, however, we see Cecil rejecting Rosa, telling her to leave him alone. When we see Rosa's charms work on Rydia, we learn something about Rosa -- and Rydia, and Cecil. This is the game's way of sketching its plot hierarchy -- very delicately, and very effectively.
It enhances the game's system: following this event, Rydia can now use fire magic. It's . . . like magic.
It obeys the Law of Miyamoto: The Law of Miyamoto states that, early on, a game must show a player something he cannot do. In the case of Final Fantasy IV, it is possible to enter this mountain area long before Rosa joins your party. With just Rydia, Cecil, and Edward, this would be useless -- Rydia can't use fire magic, and won't. Our characters can't push her to do so, because they just don't have the right chemistry. When we get Rosa, and Rosa helps us help Rydia unlock her inner power and turn away from her fear -- the next dungeon is opened to us, and we proceed.
This is light-years ahead of Final Fantasy II implementation of the Law of Miyamoto -- at the very beginning, we fight several Dark Knights that can not be killed. We are hit for 3,000 damage, when we only have 40 hit points. We spend many tens of hours of game building up to a level where we can safely fight such monsters. Final Fantasy IV's virtue is that it shows us what we cannot do shortly before allowing us to do it. It keeps the things we can't do mostly hidden, and its story is thankfully more than enough of a reward for continuing to unlock dungeon after dungeon. Epic battles even take place in towns, utilizing scripted events -- the battle to save the kingdom of Fabul, early on, is among the first and most effective.
Any RPG following Final Fantasy IV would thrive on moments like Rydia and Rosa's dialogue at the mountain (Atlus' Lennus comes to mind). It could build an entire first act around guiding a scarred little wizard girl from town to town, unlocking her spells and abilities as the storyline sees fit. God knows we've seen this device exploited in other RPGs since -- many of them fellow Final Fantasy titles. What sets Final Fantasy IV apart from the coming pack is its highly emotional exuberance -- we get over the mountain, we reach the city, we defend the city, we get on board a boat, and there's a shipwreck. Cecil wakes up alone on a beach. Rydia is lost for many, many hours of game play.
On the one hand, we can imagine Final Fantasy IV's creators as grinning when they thought up this twist of storyline. On the other hand, I can attest that I grinned quite widely when I first witnessed it. Even at age twelve, such a twist appealed to me. It's now, at twice that age, that I realize the deep impact this exuberant storytelling had on Final Fantasy and RPGs in general.
At the time they made Final Fantasy IV, Squaresoft wasn't thinking of the impact they'd have on the future. Nor were they thinking with yen-signs for irises. They'd already established their series as a contender; now mature in understanding why they were making videogames in the first place, they were intent on redefining how; the result was the best-made game of their collective careers.
For another thing, these developers were no doubt thinking of how to exploit the new Super Famicom system. With clearer graphics and better sounds, Square knew all along they had the ability to put together a longer, more detailed, more fulfilling adventure than ever before. By the day's standards, Final Fantasy IV was a masterpiece and three-quarters: though lacking in definition or voice-acting, the square-sprited characters bow their heads when sad, spin around when excited, and raise their fists when triumphant. The boss monsters -- the Demon's Wall and the final boss Zeromus spring immediately to mind -- are appreciable renderings of Yoshitaka Amano's exquisite character designs; the upgraded sprites used for characters in battle animate well, and clearly. Special effects are used sparingly, and to tasteful effect: when an airship takes off, the world map tilts in a way that's supposed to make us think of 3D. It's mostly successful. When we use the Big Whale ship to blast off into space, we're treated to a Mode-7 zoom-in to the moon's surface that made my friend Carl and I scream "Whoa!" the first time we saw it.
I don't scream "Whoa!" anymore when I zoom into the moon. Yet I can still understand the feeling. I can still get the drift of why we'd screamed at the TV before. It's a big part of the story. To suddenly learn you have to go to the moon, then to be presented with a vehicle that will take you there: it's asking a lot of the player in terms of believability, feasibility, and total non-suckiness. Going to the moon in Final Fantasy IV is the exact opposite of everything that has ever sucked in a videogame. It is the first time you ever reach the final level of Contra, and get killed by the third enemy from Red Falcon, the final boss. And when you die -- you want back in. You play again. When you get kicked off the moon and back to earth, your desire to get back up there is on the same level as the characters'. Your characters want to get back to the moon to get revenge, to undo the ancient evil. You want to get back up there as the player of a videogame you love playing, a videogame that loves you for playing it.
Not having to worry about character classes is one of the things that makes Final Fantasy IV so playable. Upon arriving in a new town, the player only has to walk into a shop, look at the items for sale, and weigh the prices against the money he's currently carrying. If he doesn't have enough money, he goes outside and fights a few battles. If being blessed with the right equipment doesn't help him conquer the next dungeon, then he fights some more, gains some levels, and tries again. In a lesser, more cluttered RPG, the player would have to worry about assignment of abilities, magic spells, cooking ingredients, support items, statistic-enhancing summon-beasts, and/or magical musical melodies. In Final Fantasy IV, you have nothing outside the characters you've been given and the task at hand. Using the characters, you purchase equipment, accomplish your task, and witness the storyline move on.
Some people today might call this "linear." And they'd be right. However, many people fail to notice that "linear" does not mean unsuccess for an RPG so long as the linear quest is interesting -- we don't mind the length of a walk if the path has interesting scenery. Final Fantasy IV's constant exuberant plot reinvention is, if nothing else, interesting scenery. Even more luckily for the player, the trip down the story path is made more than just bearable by implementation of refreshing new vehicles and all-around addictive gameplay.
Final Fantasy IV's battle system is, on the one hand, something you don't have to think much about. Enemies are on one side, characters are on the other. Your warriors fight the enemies with physical attacks. You mages use magic spells to either kill or heal. The dragoon, Kain, can jump into the air, disappearing for one round of combat, before landing with a brutal physical attack. The ninja, Edge, can throw any bladed weapons you have lying around your inventory, ideal for taking down tougher, flying, or harder-to-hit enemies.
This all sounds interesting enough. On the other hand, the fact that the battles flow in semi-real-time elevates them higher than merely "interesting" -- it's the implementation of the "Active Time Battle" -- or "ATB" -- system that made the Final Fantasy series legend. The ATB of Final Fantasy IV is a younger ATB than in Final Fantasy V or VI, to be sure -- there's no "agility meter" to show which character is coming up next, nor is there a way to manually hold off one character's turn until after another's -- yet everything is so sparklingly in place that it hardly shows. This rough outline of a soon-to-be detailed and fine-tuned battle system calls to mind the feel of a really good, solid, old sword hilt. A little strict and maybe lacking in elegance, it nonetheless gets the job done perfectly.
Future Final Fantasy games would have us spoiled. In VI, we can put characters in whatever rows we choose. We can put everyone in the back row, or everyone in the front row, if we so choose. We can also teach every character every magic spell, or make any character equip any weapon with some careful accessory manipulation. Final Fantasy IV doesn't give us this freedom. Even with a full party of five characters, we can only have three in one row. In a party with three physically weak wizard characters, we'll put them in the back row. Even if we only have Cecil in the front row -- it's better than nothing.
Future Final Fantasy games don't punish us for putting the wrong character in the wrong row. In Final Fantasy VI, you can get away with having a wizard in the back row physically attack a flying monster in the enemies' back row. In Final Fantasy IV, we're punished for such presumptuousness. We're punished with frequent misses when we try to attack the wrong enemies. We're punished with instantly-dead wizards if we leave them in the front row, or if we forget to switch them to the back row during an attack from behind. It's the high stakes and the lower rate of success that make Final Fantasy IV an RPG you can play like a shooter. Much as we don't argue that Ikaruga only involves us flying straight toward the top of the screen, we can't argue with Final Fantasy IV's lack of sidequests -- the main quest itself is so straight, to the point, and fun to experience repeatedly that we play the game again and again, trying to beat our previous times. The skill required of the battle system -- whether strategic when it comes to laying out attack plans against bosses or twitch when it comes to picking the proper commands in time -- is a large part of this.
The "Hard" version of the game, actually the original edition released in Japan, is one I didn't play until age twenty, in Japanese. My first play-through took me twenty-seven hours. I imagine it would have been more if I hadn't played the Easy Type version eight years before. My first play-through of the Easy Type version -- released in America as simply "Final Fantasy II" -- took me thirty-six hours. Years of playing the game would see me polish my best time down to nine hours and sixteen minutes. The "hard version" -- now available for slow, load-time-engorged play in a thankfully sparkling new English translation as half of Final Fantasy Chronicles -- still takes me upwards of sixteen to beat.
My first trek through the "hard version" was a real eye-opener -- mostly because it came at a time when I'd just finished slogging my way through Xenogears, dying only once in its eighty hours of play. Final Fantasy IV's as-of-yet untouched greatness occurred to me in full when I lost seven times in a row to Valvalis, the Fiend of the Wind, in the Tower of Zot.
I realized I'd need to level up some more. The catch: you can't leave the Tower of Zot. You're escorted there by the now-evil Kain, and your characters have no idea where they are. So it is that I felt the very walls closing in around me as I used up every tent in my inventory sleeping at the save point. When I ran out of tents -- and therefore, options -- I once again launched myself at the boss, winning by the skin of my teeth. I can't remember the last time I'd pumped my fist with such vigor following an RPG victory. The feeling was gutsy and visceral, and something more than mostly lacking from today's role-playing games. That I was playing the game almost ten years after its creation, and was still able to feel such a thrill speaks volumes for Final Fantasy's evolution. That the game was this difficult in the version chosen not to be released in America says something else about gamers in general. That I think back on it, now, and decide that I probably wasn't ready for this "hard version" back in 1991 teaches me something about myself.
That I am still in love with Final Fantasy IV's music more than a decade after my first play-through says something about videogames' power to stick with us as books and movies do. Accompanying Final Fantasy IV's one-track, clean, embarrassment-free story is an outstanding, focused soundtrack. The themes -- of Kain's anger, Cecil's coming-of-age, Rosa's love, the Empire's march -- come across as vaguely John-Williams-inspired in a most totally not-bad way; it's when series composer Nobuo Uematsu lays down the battle music that his individuality starts to shine. Of all the Final Fantasy games, I'd say, without a doubt, that this one has the best battle theme -- called "Fight 2," the music that plays when you fight a boss in Final Fantasy IV is my personal pick for best piece of videogame music of all time. Why, I like it so much, I use it as the theme song for Project FF Dog.
Do not, however, let the lack of skill in my acoustic performance fool you: the synthesizers used the create the bassline and smooth trumpets of "Fight 2" as it plays in Final Fantasy IV create feelings of intensity and struggle that are essential to any good big videogame conflict. The appearance of the track with sillier instrumentation in Super Mario RPG, while hinting at its historical significance, leaves something to be desired; I turn to my old SNES cartridge, with a save at the Moon's Core, with its "Fight 2"-blessed random battles full of Behemoths, whenever I want to rock out to the only fighting music better than Yuzo Koshiro's "Beat of Terror." Soon, you, dear reader, will be able to rock out to a hardcore live performance of "Fight 2" on Project FF Dog-- just let me get some more practice. We're experimenting with the presentation at the moment. We want to make sure to get it right. Hopefully, we're getting better with each installment.
Just like the first four Final Fantasy games got better with each installment.
If the first Final Fantasies were experiments in making a great videogame, Final Fantasy IV is that great videogame. Big and bold as it is sweet and focused, Final Fantasy IV is free of the reckless, immature nature of Final Fantasies I, II and III, and untouched by the bigheaded technical and literary pretentiousness (or comic-booky silliness) of most every RPG that followed and continues to follow. While its story is too exuberant and glad-to-be-alive to qualify as literature, it's a burly grab bag of an endearing tale, and one of very, very select few videogames I'd say are worth remaking from the ground up for a new generation to enjoy.
And enjoy it they must: Final Fantasy IV is the first title on my list of games you should play if you're just now looking into 16-bit RPGs, the best game to ever bear the Final Fantasy name, the third most important entry in the series, and easily the second-best video role-playing game of all time.
--tim rogers brings you a new promise with a bounty and mercy
[you're not done yet: witness FF Dog III]