Why Final Fantasy IV Remains a Masterpiece After All These Years «

Final Fantasy IV has become so ubiquitous, so overly repackaged, so frequently and redundantly remade, that it can be difficult for one to put the game in its proper perspective and remember exactly how big a deal it was 20 years ago. The fourth chapter in the Final Fantasy series was a significant departure from its predecessors — not to mention the greater role-playing genre as it existed in 1991 — and not simply because it leapt ahead to the powerful Super NES. FFIV wasn’t as much as game of firsts as it’s sometimes treated in glowing retrospectives, but that shouldn’t be seen as a lack of innovation. Other games certainly paved the way for FFIV; Phantasy Star II blazed a 16-bit trail, while Dragon Quest IV broke new ground by recontextualizing the grand, sweeping quests common to RPGs into a character-driven linear odyssey. What made FFIV so engrossing is that it rounded up the best ideas put forth by its competition, reworked them into a new whole, and in doing so owned those concepts.

From the opening moments of the game — literally, as a cart with no save files on it will boot immediately into the introductory cinematic — FFIV has a story to tell, and it isn’t shy about showing off a little as it presents that tale. Ominous music plays as a fleet of airships (not the single airships of previous Final Fantasy games, a whole flotilla of them!) advances in formation. The landscape speeds past below. The scene shifts to the player’s avatar, Cecil Harvey, captain of the Red Wing air fleet, pride of the Kingdom of Baron. Right away, this sets the tale apart: Cecil isn’t a young kid, a nameless nobody, or a feeble amateur. He’s a leader, an elite soldier who’s risen through the ranks as a Dark Knight to take command of an entire nation’s military powerhouse. Neither is Cecil a blank slate; he’s conflicted about his actions, torn between duty and morality.

Cecil’s clearly defined personality and uncertain musings fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that role-playing protagonists should be voiceless blank slates onto which players can project themselves. Rather, FFIV takes a page from the growing influence of film that was taking root in gaming as the ’80s came to a close. Rather than simply lean on stale tough-guy dialogue in the fashion of something like Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden games, though, FFIV looked to Hollywood and Broadway as much for staging and structure as for flash, thanks in large part to designer Takashi Tokita’s history in theater. FFIV’s characters didn’t simply spout one-liners or relay plot-essential information; they conversed, they shared their feelings, they existed as characters. Sure, they were shallow little caricatures of real people whose motivations and interests could easily be summed up in a single sentence, but even that surface-level kind of writing was a stunning revelation in a video game of that vintage.

So while it’s easy to look back unkindly on FFIV’s contrivances — the betrayals, the fact that one major party member’s only real role in the story is as a hokey damsel-in-distress plot device, the way the casualness with which characters volunteer to sacrifice their lives is matched only by the ease with which they somehow manage to come back from the dead — you’d be remiss to downplay the impact the game had on anyone who played it contemporarily. It was one of those rare works that represented a tremendous leap forward in the role of narrative within the medium, like Zork, Donkey Kong, or Half-Life.

The roller-coaster plot was only a part of its success. Had FFIV merely been another stodgy Dragon Quest clone, its storytelling ambitions would probably be overlooked — or at the very least, it would remain a somewhat obscure footnote in the genre, like Phantasy Star II. The real innovation in FFIV was that it managed to make its role-playing mechanics feel as lively and unpredictable as the melodramatic tale that played out around, between, and even during battles. Thanks to its cleverly revamped battle order system, FFIV transformed the turn-based RPG into a pulse-pounding test of nerve and on-the-fly planning.

For all that FFIV’s staged drama inspired other RPG designers to rethink how they approached the idea of exposition and plot as game structure, its Active-Time Battle combat system completely transformed the concept of RPG combat. Prior to 1991, role-playing games clung to the Dungeons & Dragons style of turn-based battles, with fights broken into rounds. Generally turn order within a round was determined by the combatants’ agility or speed rating, though not always (the first three Final Fantasy games essentially used agility to determine the number of blows a character could land per round). FFIV stripped away the division represented by rounds, recognizing that it had always been an invention of necessity for ease of play in tabletop games. The ATB system went a step beyond that, though, disposing of the courtesy of waits and pauses in battle and moving toward something that resembled real-time combat. It wasn’t true real-time play — players still selected actions from menus, and each combatant acted in turns according to their speed stats — but it was a remarkable forgery.

Tokita says that the game’s battle mechanics were inspired by F1 racing, the visual concept being that faster combatants would “lap” slower ones; this became more self-evident in later games, where characters’ turn order was depicted through the charging of ATB meters that filled at a different rate for each character. But even in FFIV, where those details were hidden invisibly away, fights were nevertheless infused with the excitement of a race.

The element of real time to battle made for intensely strategic combat. FFIV attached a time cost to every kind of combat action, and learning to manage the delay on skills like Kain’s Jump or high-level spells such as Curaja or Flare became as essential to combat as simply selecting the proper commands. The introduction of ATB also allowed new and unusual additions to battle, such as the Doom spell’s death countdown or the infamous Demon Wall’s slow advance across the screen. Perhaps it was this facet of battle that inspired the game’s creators to explore the ultimate logical outcome of the combat system, using it to advance the story with small dramas that played out between combatants. FFIV used this concept to full effect, with characters leaping into battles packed with scripted dialogue. Whether used for tutorial information, character development, or general plot advancement, these pre-packaged fights broke through the barrier between story and battle and went a long way toward reuniting the limited computer RPG format with its free-form tabletop roots.

It certain didn’t hurt that FFIV was the most impressively presented RPG that had yet been seen. Although previous 16-bit RPGs on PC Engine and Genesis had looked and sounded pretty respectable, FFIV blew them away. Its player character sprites were still tiny little munchkins, but everything else was rendered with remarkable detail. The game world may have been built of small, square tiles, but those tiles were rich in color and animation. Yoshitaka Amano’s monster designs were finally done justice, bursting with detail and color once freed from the constraints of 8-bit palettes. And Nobuo Uematsu’s score was astounding, tapping into the Super NES’s extraordinary sound chip to create a dark, swirling symphony of atmospheres, mood, and leitmotifs unlike anything previously heard. Uematsu shamelessly tapped the stylings of John Williams and progressive rock, but his borrowing lent FFIV an immense majesty unmatchable on competitors’ consoles.

The one dark mark against FFIV was its English localization. The game was published in the U.S. as “Final Fantasy II,” but this was the least of that version’s issues. Square worried that its fans, having missed out on the relative complexity of the real FFII and III, would be overwhelmed by FFIV’s complexity, so they stripped out much of the game’s depth and decreased its difficulty considerably. This on its own might have been forgivable, but they also — less intentionally — saddled the newly rechristened Final Fantasy II with a nigh-incomprehensible English script. Not only was a significant amount of content and context stripped out to allow for ROM size limitations, the localization editing was seemingly non-existent. FFII read like a raw Japanese-to-English translation of the game had been shoehorned into it; about the only thing you can say in its favor is that its character and place names were consistent, which puts it a step ahead of Final Fantasy Tactics.

Fortunately, the historical significance of FFIV means that Square has been only too happy to return to the well with it time and again. The game has been rereleased and repackaged more than half a dozen different ways in the past decade, and most of those reissues have made their way to the U.S. with revamped scripts and restored play mechanics. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a pure definitive version of the game; the DS edition has the most refined script but suffers from too much “buy the strategy guide, please!” design. The recent PSP remake is the most comprehensive, but it lacks the DS plot embellishments and has hideous graphics. To FFIV’s credit, though, it’s a good enough game that any version — even the original U.S. release for Super NES — should make for a memorable experience. Sure, it’s dated, and most of its accomplishments are diminished in hindsight due to how vastly influential it’s been.

But isn’t that so often the case? Final Fantasy IV isn’t a standard RPG; it’s the RPG that defined the standard.

 

 

 

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