With a trilogy of beloved Famicom JRPGs under their belt, the once-struggling Squaresoft became industry juggernauts able to stand toe-to-toe with Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest series. Upon completing Final Fantasy III in 1990, Square planned to develop two games: one for the Famicom and another for Nintendo’s forthcoming Super Famicom console. They were to be called Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V respectively. Unfortunately, due to the company’s small size at the time, they ended up stretching their resources thin, and the former project was canceled. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the series’ creator claimed in an interview that the game was nearly eighty percent complete when it was scrapped, but outside of his word and a single screenshot, very little information about it exists.
As a result, Final Fantasy V was renamed Final Fantasy IV, and some of the ideas that came about during the halted project were reused for it.
With a development team consisting of fourteen people, Final Fantasy IV took a single year to develop. It was released in Japan in July of 1991 whereupon it received the most critical acclaim of any installment thus far. Sales of the original Final Fantasy in North America surpassed those of Japan. Therefore, Square saw this as a perfect opportunity to appeal to their unexpected, newfound fanbase. They decided not to localize the remaining Famicom games in favor of focusing on their newest work. To avoid confusion, Final Fantasy IV was dubbed Final Fantasy II. Released in the same year as the Super NES’s launch, it became a hit overseas as well, and is considered to this day one of the finest efforts in the system’s library.
Playing the Game
Final Fantasy IV would appear to be a typical JRPG of its era. Despite the noticeable update in visuals, anyone fresh off of Final Fantasy or its two sequels would recognize the top-down, tile-based presentation immediately. As an RPG, the game is primarily story-driven. You begin in a large castle. Here, you can gather information from the residents by talking to them. Whether you’re interacting with NPCs or searching an area for a helpful item, you need only one press of the appropriate button to execute the desired action. This is standard procedure for every settlement you stumble upon.
Once you’re ready to advance the plot, you can leave. This takes you to the overworld. This map, along with any dungeon you may find, is a hostile region, meaning that every step you take has a chance triggering a random encounter.
When you find yourself in a fight, you’ll soon realize that the rules established by the first three Final Fantasy installments have been thrown out the window. Combat is still turn-based, but it no longer operates on a round-by-round basis. Instead, a command window will pop up and a party member will begin to flash. From here, you select an action, and the character will then carry out your order immediately. Every character in the game has their own set of commands, and the frequency of their own window appearing depends on their speed stat.
As indicated in the screenshot above, Kain has the ability to attack, jump, or use an item. The options are self-explanatory, but the “jump” command is unique to Kain, as it’s tied to his class. It allows him to leap into the air, and land on an opponent, inflicting twice the normal damage. While in the air, he cannot be targeted by enemies, but jumping also takes far longer to fully carry out than the standard attack.
It’s through this new mechanic that the true nature of the combat system becomes clear; there is a real-time element involved. If you take too long to select a command, there’s nothing stopping enemies from attacking your characters again and again. This new mechanic is known as the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, and it would go on to be Square’s signature engine throughout this console generation.
It was conceived by designer Hiroyuki Ito, who drew inspiration from Formula One racing. Around that time, semi-automatic transmissions were being introduced to the sport. Consequently, racers were shifting gears without the use of a clutch pedal, meaning they would either step on the accelerator or the brake as the situation warranted. Observing how the vehicles would pass each other at different speeds prompted Mr. Ito to translate that experience into Square’s newest project. To reflect this, there are quite a few instances where you must wait for an opportunity to strike rather than selecting an action. He felt placing too much emphasis on action would alienate the fanbase they had established by that point. Therefore, with this ATB system, he accomplished the paradoxical task of helping to create, in his words, “an action-like game with no action elements”.
The Famicom-era Final Fantasy installments were good efforts for their time, but the round-based combat engine often slowed the pacing down to an extent which makes them difficult to revisit all these years later. The ATB system is exactly the innovation the series needed to distinguish itself from its contemporaries. Though it’s not an action game by any stretch of the imagination, the new combat engine encourages players to think carefully and on their feet at the same time. In addition to knowing each party member’s role inside and out, you also need to consider how frequently they can act and whether or not you can afford to choose a certain command on a given turn.
Another aspect which sets Final Fantasy IV from its predecessors is that you can have a total of five characters in your roster instead of four. Formations are also a bit more rigid than in any of those games. You can either have three characters in the front row and two in the back or the other way around. The better one to use depends on your lineup at the time, but it functions similarly to the older games. Characters in the front deal more damage with physical, non-ranged attacks in exchange for taking the brunt of the enemy’s assault while the opposite holds true for those in the back. It’s best to exercise caution, as enemies can sneak up on your characters, instigating a battle with your formations reversed. Should this happen, you can sacrifice a character’s turn to have your entire party switch rows.
Every 8-bit Final Fantasy game featured a degree of customization. In the original Final Fantasy, you were made to create your characters before the proceedings began in earnest. Though Final Fantasy II was the first in the series to feature defined protagonists with each having different starting stats, you had to determine what they specialized in. Lastly, Final Fantasy III took a middle ground by featuring defined, if flat, protagonists, but bringing back the original’s class system with the added bonus of being able to change them as long as certain conditions were met. The reason I mention this is because Final Fantasy IV dispenses with this notion entirely.
If you have been following the series up until this point, you will see familiar classes assigned to each party member’s profile. It’s as though the designers examined the job system in Final Fantasy III and decided to create real characters from various classes. However, as these professions are ingrained into their background, you cannot change them. Because of this, towns no longer have magic shops; mages only learn new spells once they have reached certain levels.
The switch to more static characters is something of a point of contention, as much of the series’ appeal lied in customizing your party members. I can see why some fans would be disappointed over this development, but I would argue it was a choice made for the better. The job system in Final Fantasy III was a novel idea, but it would make players switch classes too often when confronting bosses susceptible to only one course of action. Because your roster is dictated by the plot, you always have the means by which you can achieve victory, and most of the time, the characters outside of the one who can exploit the enemy’s weakness aren’t rendered superfluous.
One of the biggest problems with the series thus far was the sheer number of tasks you were forced to accomplish between saves. Final Fantasy II was a step in the right direction in that you could save on the overworld, but it still meant having to complete dungeons in a single run under the penalty of restarting should you fail. Mercifully, Squaresoft learned from their mistakes and introduced save points to the series. They come in many forms, but these areas have been enchanted with a powerful spell, preventing monsters from intruding. When you’re standing on one, you can use a tent or cottage to restore the party’s health. The best part is that long dungeons feature more than one, and the last one is typically placed just before a boss fight, so you don’t have to worry too much about conserving magic. Along those lines, the magic system reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons has been replaced with the MP stat once again. As the previous game had very few means of restoring magic in the middle of a dungeon, this is all greatly appreciated.
Even if Final Fantasy IV is a marked step up from its predecessors, there are some issues that remain. Dungeons are still bland mazes in which you must scour every dead-end in order to find all of the treasures. There is plenty of visual distinction between them, but it nonetheless translates to doing the same thing in practically every region.
A more objective issue with the game involves the various party member lineups you will have. Though I admire Square for featuring such a large, diverse cast, it doesn’t always meld with the gameplay so well. On your first playthrough, you will not know which characters are temporaries or mainstays. This is a problem because throughout your adventure, you will find rare items capable of boosting characters’ stats, and if you use it on a character who ends up leaving permanently, it would waste the valuable resource. More pressingly, the roster changes mean you will have to employ different tactics to accommodate the new team. This isn’t always a bad thing, but occasionally, it results in a squadron with crippling weaknesses that you must endure until a new character joins. I wouldn’t consider the game actively bad during these portions, but it does skirt the line.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers.
The kingdom of Baron has begun a military campaign against other countries. Captain Cecil Harvey was ordered by his liege to seize an artifact known as the Water Crystal, which resides in the city of Mysidia. Though Cecil and his legion of troops, the Red Wings, proved victorious, they were forced to slaughter many innocent people in the name of the king. Cecil attempts to justify their actions to his men, but is secretly disturbed by the actions they took. Upon handing over the artifact to the king, Cecil questions his orders. Not allowing even the tiniest shred of doubt, the king strips Cecil of his rank, and when the latter is defended by his best friend, a dragoon named Kain, the two of them are ordered to travel to the village of Mist to deliver a signet and kill its guardian.
Without consulting the instruction manual, the average player wouldn’t know of the ATB system until their first random encounter. Even if they were to jump into the game right away, it would take but a few minutes – before they’re given proper control of Cecil – to realize what Final Fantasy IV has to offer is radically different than anything that preceded it. All of the Final Fantasy games from the third console generation placed you in the role of unambiguous heroes tasked with saving the world. They were only slightly more than stand-ins for the player, a point Square enforced by giving their audience a chance to name them.
With Final Fantasy IV, no such option exists upon starting a new game, turning Square’s template on its head before you’re shown the first cutscene. From the onset, the protagonist is a high-ranking solider in the evil empire, and his greatest atrocity of slaughtering innocents is depicted onscreen. Though he regrets his actions, his loyalty to his country and liege come first. In fact, somebody who doesn’t know the course the game ultimately takes could be led to believe that Cecil is a villain protagonist. Make no mistake, the person you’re playing as is a good person at heart, and this is demonstrated once he completes this task. Upon arriving in Mist, the signet releases Bombs, which are living fireballs. They then proceed to raze the village to the ground. To make matters worse, killing Mist’s guardian causes the death of its summoner, orphaning a young girl named Rydia. Horrified that they were sent to slaughter a village, Cecil and Kain decide to defect.
With this development, Final Fantasy IV succeeded in elevating the level of storytelling not only its own series, but in this medium as a whole. This is one of the earliest instances of a game whose protagonist goes through a definable character arc. Though Square had dabbled with the idea in more subtle ways in their earlier canon, this effort goes several steps further. Cecil can’t truly be considered the hero until he well and truly earns the title. This culminates in what is arguably this game’s defining moment when he returns to Mysidia and must personally deal with the fallout of the heinous war crime he committed during the prologue. Contrary to a vast majority of the towns one visits in JRPGs, the protagonist is not welcome, and the citizens’ outrage is completely understandable.
To hammer home the enormity, even once he redeems himself by undergoing a sacred trial, some of the citizens still can’t find it in their heart to forgive him for what he has done.
Though Cecil’s arc is the most integral to the plot, the story leaves time to develop his companions as well. Rydia casts aside her fear of fire brought on by the incident in Mist, circumstances cause Kain to switch sides multiple times, and Cecil’s love interest, Rosa, manages to hold her own in battle after spending a portion of the game as a damsel in distress. It doesn’t stop when it comes to the main cast either; Golbez, the character presented as the game’s primary antagonist, would appear to be nothing more than a stereotypical, armor-clad, evil overlord reminiscent of a character from a certain world-famous science fiction franchise. In the end, it turns out there’s more to him than one would initially suspect as well – a far cry from his megalomaniacal counterparts in older installments.
With nearly everything that made Final Fantasy IV great in 1991 laid bare, some people reading this might wonder how well it holds up with time. I feel the answer to such a question is a matter of how familiar one is with the medium. It’s clear decades after the fact that Final Fantasy IV had an indelible impact on what people expected out of JRPGs, and within a few short years, it became the rule rather than the exception.
In other words, as an unavoidable consequence to having been a significant turning point, the story comes across as generic by today’s standards. Even if there are extra steps involved in how the plot actually develops, it still boils down to a JRPG wherein the ultimate goal is to save the world from an evil force. As a result, it can be somewhat difficult to appreciate this game’s innovations after many other artists studied what made them work, putting their own spin on the tropes Mr. Sakaguchi and his team popularized to an often superior effect.
I feel that one of the weakest aspects of the story is how there are a few instances in which the heroes are saved through the power of author intervention. At one point, they confront Golbez, and just before his minion can finish off Cecil, he is saved by a character who disappeared earlier in the plot. Though it makes for a climactic scene, there was absolutely no foreshadowing this character’s sudden appearance, making the moment feel cheap in hindsight. There were similar moments wherein characters who were in fatal accidents made miraculous recoveries, although they were a bit easier to overlook due the fact that we never actually saw them die. If anything, it made the few legitimate deaths more effective.
There’s also one controversial moment nearing the end of the game when Cecil and his crew have discovered the evil entity responsible for the story’s central conflict. When they’re departing, Cecil orders Rosa and Rydia to leave, letting himself and his two male companions to fight the final battle. Some people have accused this scene as being sexist, and while I don’t think I would go that far, it doesn’t present Cecil in a flattering light. I personally feel that it was meant to drum up dramatic tension for the final encounter and show how much Cecil cares for them, but it falls flat. It’s a case where the game mechanics themselves don’t enforce what is being said in the story. Although Rose and Rydia aren’t as physically powerful as the men, their spellcasting abilities proved invaluable time and again up until this point. With different wording on Cecil’s part, it could have been salvageable. As it stands, it comes across as an astonishingly stupid decision that is, at best, borderline suicidal. Luckily for both him and the player, the two women stow away on his vessel and talk some sense into him when they arrive.
Fortunately, I don’t think any of these transgressions are severe enough to ruin the story. To this day, I can still appreciate the amount of effort that went into the story in a time when it generally wasn’t considered important.
Drawing a Conclusion
To establish the proper context for Final Fantasy IV, it bears mentioning that in a vast majority of console releases, stories were an afterthought. The blurb on the back of the box could tell you who the hero is and what motivates them, but players didn’t need to know this information when the primary objectives were “go right” or “kill the monsters”. Final Fantasy IV shattered this status quo, and while I wouldn’t consider it the best-written game of all time, the medium benefited from its creation, as it blazed the trail for countless masterpieces to come.
Similar to how the first Final Fantasy deserves credit for introducing role-playing games to a mass market, Final Fantasy IV has its place in history for convincing the same group of people that it’s entirely possible for video games to be epics. Minor grievances aside, it has actually held up reasonably well for such an old effort, and anyone used to a modern RPG would have no trouble adjusting to its somewhat slower pace. Having said that, it is a little difficult to recommend the original SNES version, for its translation is stilted and suffered from Nintendo of America’s strict censorship policies at the time. If you’re at all interested in this game, I recommend either the Game Boy Advance or DS versions because they provide far more streamlined experiences. Should you try either version out, keep this piece of trivia in mind. A majority of console games in 1991 had a plot that could be printed in an instruction booklet. Due to cartridge space limitations, Square had to abandon 75% of their script when designing Final Fantasy IV.
Final Score: 7/10