A Final Fantasy Retrospective – Final Fantasy IV (Super Famicom)

IN KEEPING with my arbitrary commitment to play the original versions of these games, I went through the Super Famicom version with the unofficial J2E fan translation. There are about seven different versions of Final Fantasy IV and I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s a clusterfuck. The J2E translation is mostly pretty good, Shatner references aside, but it definitely sounds like poorly-worded fanfiction at times. Golbez really suffers in this one.

The back to basics approach of Final Fantasy III had reaped wonders for Square upon its exclusive release in Japan, riding the wave of critical and commercial acclaim all the way to the bank. Yet, despite its expansive world and involving mechanics, the third instalment felt held back by its hardware; the game was doing all it could not to snap the wheezing, spluttering NES console over its bloated, 512KB knees. Sakaguchi and co. had redefined the boundaries of what the NES could achieve. The question, inevitably, was: “Now what?”

The Super Famicom – or the Super Nintendo Entertainment System – was the answer. Released in Japan in the same year as FFIII – 1990 – the SNES would go on to achieve phenomenal worldwide success, spurred in part by its ferocious battles with the Sega Mega Drive for sales dominance and playground supremacy. Square, developing Final Fantasy IV for the NES, migrated the game to the SNES in order to capitalise on this expanded market and fiercely competitive console warfare as one of Nintendo’s finest third-party generals.

Among many others, make sure you listen to ‘The Dreadful Fight’. Just do it.

The advanced capabilities of the system are evident from the title screen, before a single word of text appears. Nobuo Uematsu’s ‘Prelude’ finally receives its beautiful second half, complementing the lilting arpeggio with soaring ‘orchestral’ strings, and the sheer depth of sound and instrumentation compared to the NES is overwhelming. The soundtracks for the 8-bit games were great, especially for their time, but FFIV’s score is phenomenal. As he grew more accustomed to the sound palette, Uematsu would only get better from here.

Along with its expanded sound, the SNES also boasted a kaleidoscopic palette of 32,768 colours. Yoshitaka Amano’s character/monster design is realised with striking, meticulous accuracy. Both sound and vision are employed to staggering effect in the game’s introductory sequence, as Airships soar across the world map to the ‘The Red Wings’. It’s a huge step up from the primitive graphics and chiptunes of its predecessors, made all the more impressive by the fact that FFIII was released only a year prior.

The story, too, evolved with the times. SNES cartridges were capable of storing far more data than their NES counterparts – a leap of 512KB to 1.5MB between III and IV – meaning that developers could literally fit more plot into their games. This is a good thing because Final Fantasy IV’s plot is ridiculous and involves apocalypse robots, dwarf-filled underworlds and a villain kept in perpetual stasis for eons, against his will, in the core of the Moon.

As the game opens – before the lunar lunacy kicks in – you’re no longer the plucky upstarts battling elemental forces or an evil empire of yesterday. This time, you are the evil empire, pillaging neighbouring townships and kingdoms as the conflicted Dark Knight Cecil, all to proffer a corrupt, ungrateful King with plans of world domination. From there, the story unfolds with a brisk pace and finds time to include the now-standard elemental Crystals of yore, but it sets itself apart very quickly from its predecessors.

For instance, it is the first game in the series (and one of the few, pre-voice acting entries) that doesn’t let you name the characters from the start. This is one of the more obvious indicators of the new focus on story – or a more sophisticated one, at least – with actual characters with truly distinct personalities. Unlike the failed narrative experiment of Final Fantasy II, the fourth game had a wide enough canvas to properly explore the concept, diverging from the blank slate template that had proliferated in the Western RPGs Sakaguchi had taken so much inspiration from.

It’s certainly a valiant effort, and a far more involved and impactful one than FFII’s half-cocked, one-note crew, but to the modern eye there’s a lot of hysterical melodrama on show. Even while the relationships and interplay between characters have a much greater depth than previously, and the cast is far more memorable and extensive than before, very few of them have a compelling arc to them. Once Cecil redeems himself and becomes a Paladin, for instance, he instantly loses all of the character that made him so initially interesting and just morphs into an ellipsis-ridden cipher as bland as his bishōnen hair is fabulous.

Rosa, Cecil’s White Mage girlfriend, exists to get kidnapped, offer him vague emotional support and wail his name every five minutes. Cid (in his third incarnation) is a grouchy, mallet-wielding gadget man who builds Airships and doesn’t take any shit. Edge is a Ninja overflowing with delicious 90s ‘tude. Gilbert (Edward outside of Japan) is an insufferable wet drip tool. Only the Dragoon Kain, the original JRPG traitor, retains even the vaguest sense of intrigue; the player is constantly second-guessing his motivations and loyalties right up until the endgame.

Despite their relative lack of development, FFIV does a lot to make these characters memorable, from the increased number of animations for bolder, more expressive sprites to the snappy dialogue that handily asserts each character’s defining traits. It’s important that we remember them because, much like FFII, characters continually come and go from the party. But this time it’s executed with far greater panache. This adds a welcome layer of unpredictability to the narrative and it means you actually miss them when they’re gone.

You’ll have noticed by now that I haven’t actually talked very much about the game itself. There’s a reason for that, which I’ll get to later, but FFIV‘s gameplay is the best yet. It’s all down to the implementation of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, which would lay the foundation for Final Fantasy gameplay all the way from IV to IX, and even beyond the series into games like GrandiaVagrant Story and modern titles like Child of Light. Designed by Square wunderkind Hiroyuki Ito, inspired in part by Formula One and NFL, the ATB transformed the previously static turn-based battles into a more dynamic but still fundamentally turn-based system. Enemies appear to react to your attacks and vice versa, all in real-time, as dictated by an invisible ‘action bar’.

This means that battles are in a near-constant state of motion. Counter attacks become a vital part of FFIV‘s battle vernacular – the player has to consider the enemy’s moves well in advance, on the fly, and it provides a thrilling layer of knee-jerk strategising. Bosses like the Mist Dragon and the Antlion, as well as regular enemies like the Behemoth, take full advantage of the system by incorporating counters that don’t count as their actual turn, necessitating careful thinking if you don’t want to get battered.

The Demon Wall takes this to the next level. It advances toward the party with every turn, inexorably on until it reaches them and triggers an instant Game Over. The only way to win is to attack it as quickly as possible, throwing everything you have at the thing. It’s an exhilarating fight that demonstrates the simple genius of the entire system in one fell swoop. The ATB also allows for the implementation of ‘cinematic’ battles, where scripted story events play out on the battle screen as opposed to the overworld. It’s a simple trick – and arguably overused – but it adds a dynamic bolt of unpredictability to these fights.

While III‘s interchangeable Job System has been shelved (for now), individual Classes are retained but restricted to specific characters – Dragoon Kain, Dark Knight/Paladin Cecil, White Mage Rosa etc. To compensate for the lack of customisation, your crew as a whole has been expanded to a full cast of 12 and the maximum number of people in your party has increased from four to five. This goes some way to mitigating the loss of Jobs, by expanding the immediate strategic depth with the extra slot, but it’s easy to mourn the overall narrowing of the series’ budding customisation mechanics.

Fortunately, many of the bosses step up to the plate by offering varied challenges for the player to overcome. Scarmiglione, for instance, is handily defeated in the initial fight, only to sandbag you from behind with a Back Attack and pummelling strikes, forcing you to swap your rows and frantically heal up. Cecil’s battle with his dark half can only be won by enduring Dark Wave after Dark Wave without hitting back. The game is constantly throwing curveballs at the player and seldom slows the pace of its brisk, 15-20 hour length.

Much of this time is spent dungeon-crawling, as you’d expect. The random encounter rate has never felt more random, and it can get intensely aggravating to walk one step in a lengthy cave before the screen swirls and a battle hits. Sometimes, you’ll walk 50 steps with nary a peep. Luckily, MP has again replaced the Spell Charge mechanic from FFIII, and it’s simple to replenish with inexpensive Ethers. Crucially, tedious spelunking is softened by the introduction of Save Points(!), mercifully allowing the player a respite and a chance to heal up with a Tent or Cottage. This is such an important, frustration-saving addition I can’t believe it took them this long.

But expectations were different in 1991. Back then, lengthy dungeon crawls and extensive random battles were part and parcel of the RPG experience. Weaving through caverns and treacherous mires was exactly what people wanted to do. The story, by contrast, was disposable fluff – the salad dressing on the buffet. FFIV marked a transitional moment where narrative and gameplay began to merge, via those cutscene battles, but it also marks the point where they began to diverge: There’s a hell of a lot more overworld text in this game than its predecessors, to be sure. A greater emphasis was being placed on story in videogames as the decade turned and, though often simplistic, a concerted effort was being made to integrate compelling narratives alongside cutting-edge gameplay.

Final Fantasy IV marked the beginning of the transition from traditional RPGs to ‘cinematic’ RPGs. These days players are conditioned to care more about multi-million dollar narrative design and cinematic gusto than tangible gameplay. I’m not strictly talking about RPGs here: titles like The Last of Us, The Walking Dead and Bioshock Infinite received huge praise for their storylines, not just for their mechanics. FFIV certainly didn’t start this trend, but it was at the vanguard in a time when games were only just beginning to take their plots seriously.

The partition between gameplay and narrative would become far more defined in future instalments, but the fourth game does a fine job in combining the two strands. It was designed to capitalise on the best parts of the preceding three games, consolidating them into one singular, series-defining masterpiece. It has the cavalier spirit of the first, the character focus and melodrama of the second, and the exploratory joie de vivre of the third. It’s got Airships, it’s got Chocobos, it’s got Summons, and a battle system so good they patented it. It represents everything that made Final Fantasy the success it was and is.

Which leaves the question of which version to get. At this point, Final Fantasy IV has been re-released on a plethora of systems ranging from the iOS to the Wonderswan, so you’re not hurting for options. For my money, it’s the Game Boy Advance version – for a trade-off in difficulty and audio fidelity, you get an extra dungeon on the Moon, some cleaned up story details, a cleaner translation, a Run button (thank God) and the ability to choose whichever party you want for the endgame, meaning you can mess Zeromus up with Twin Magic if you wanted to. As was the case with FFIII, I haven’t played the full DS remake but I hear it’s real good.

Phew. We’re really digging into the greats now – join me next time for the (sort-of) last hurrah for Jobs, Crystals and Warriors of Light: Final Fantasy V.

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