“To me, Final Fantasy IV was the first game that made me cry.”
-Tomoya Asano, producer of Final Fantasy IV DS
If you were to trace the development of the modern RPG, taking care to measure the contributions of each game in your fascinating task, you would no doubt come to the conclusion that Final Fantasy IV is one of the most influential RPGs ever made. It may not be the game that too many people would say is their favorite Final Fantasy, but it was a landmark nonetheless. This was Square’s fourth installment in the franchise, and the second installment in the North American market (which explains why it was called Final Fantasy II in the original SNES release).
As the fourth installment, FFIV took the best from the three previous games on the NES: the job classes from Final Fantasy III, the narrative-focus from Final Fantasy II and the inclusion of the four elements as symbols from the original Final Fantasy. Yet, FFIV didn’t just borrow. It gave.
Final Fantasy IV was the first game in its franchise on the new Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It had to set its foot in the future of RPG gaming. It did. FFIV moved away from its predecessors in several ways. It included a large cast of interchangeable party members (a total of twelve characters) instead of the typical four playable characters in the earlier games.
FFIV featured a much more character-driven plot with more complex and mature themes, touching on depression, love, jealousy, hatred, loss, tragedy, betrayal, and self-doubt. It had a more complicated protagonist, psychologically speaking, with Cecil’s iconic self-transformation from Dark Knight to Paladin: a kind of self-realization-slash-redemption.
The game allowed for up to five party members in combat, as opposed to the four in previous games. Each of the party members in FFIV had assigned job classes that were unique to that character, and their classes could not be changed. This meant characters were stuck as a white mage or a monk, and the larger party member setup accommodated for greater strategy. This was both an embrace of the old job system and a departure from it, and this difference went on to influence later Final Fantasy games (like VI, IX, X).
Final Fantasy IV’s most significant gift to the RPG genre is perhaps its Active Time Battle (ATB) system. The idea was first inspired when a member of the development team was watching race cars passing each other and the concept of fusing classic turn-based combat with real-time decision making (the origins of the action RPG) was born. ATB meant that battles were now instantly tenser and more challenging, requiring more precision and timing and wit as an opponent would just keep wailing on your party unless you did something about it. The importance of the ATB system and its first appearance here cannot be denied, and it went on to influence many of Square’s other titles (Chrono Trigger, for example) and entries in the Final Fantasy series even so far as Final Fantasy XIII, in one advanced form or another. In other words, the Conditional Turn-Based system or the Gambit system or the Paradigm system all have their roots in the pioneering ATB system.
Final Fantasy IV opens with the doubts of Cecil, a Dark Knight in the employ of the kingdom of Baron and the captain of the flying armada, the Red Wings. Cecil was dispatched to Mysidia, home of the mages, and has robbed the defenseless people there of their Water Crystal under the orders of the king of Baron. Those who opposed him were murdered.
Once back in Baron, Cecil questions the king’s order and earns the wrath of the monarch, who then strips Cecil of his position as leader of the Red Wings and commands him to deliver a package to the Village of Mist, along with his close companion and friend, the dragoon Kain. Cecil confesses to his love, Rosa, that he regrets what he did in Mysidia, but he must obey the orders of the king.
On their way to deliver the package to the Village, Kain and Cecil encounter a Mist Dragon and slay it. Once they reach the Village of Mist, they’re horrified to discover that the package the king of Baron gave them contained Bomb monsters.
The fiery fiends surround the village and begin to explode, setting the tiny hamlet aflame. Both Kain and Cecil are outraged that the king wanted to eliminate the threat of the summoners, the people of Mist. Nearby, a little girl named Rydia cries over the death of her mother, telling them that her mother died because someone killed her summon: a Mist Dragon.
Kain and Cecil confess to their crime and the enraged girl summons a Titan to kill them. The entire Village is wrecked by the powerful creature. Kain and Cecil are separated. Cecil is left with Rydia, unable to return to Baron or the Village of Mist, his mind set on turning away from his service to the king.
Cecil, Rydia and many other companions will eventually confront Golbez, a new and powerful servant of the king of Baron who was promoted to leader of the Red Wings after Cecil’s departure. Golbez puts Kain under his control and two friends are forced on opposite sides, but Golbez isn’t the real enemy.
Zemus, a member of the Lunarian race, watches from an artificial moon and looks down upon the Blue Planet, Cecil’s planet. Zemus is the one controlling Golbez in the shadows, manipulating events so that the Giant of Babil, a genocide-machine, can be activated in order to wipe the Blue Planet clean and pave the way for colonization by the Lunarian people.
Final Fantasy IV is one of the best samples of the series and an exemplary RPG standard. It’s themes of turning from inward darkness to light in Cecil’s inner conflict and his wrestling with personal demons, and the value of friendship in sacrifice, still resonate even some 25 years later. It’s influence upon its genre is indelible and it spawned remakes for the PlayStation and the Nintendo DS, as well as a sequel entitled Final Fantasy IV: the After Years.
Even if you’ve never played Final Fantasy IV, odds are that you actually have played it. If you’ve played many RPGs at all that you have in fact played something out of FFIV in one of the many ways it has informed the development of role-playing games through the years.
The 8-Bit Review
Final Fantasy IV is not the best looking RPG on the Super Nintendo. Not at all. Its colors are darker and drabier than later titles and at times the graphics are even unpleasant, especially the battle backgrounds. Some of those tiles are blinding.
But think about this game: the first in its franchise on the SNES. It was a step up from its NES predecessors, with their 8-bit pixelation and black backgrounds and limited effects. Taking in its place in history into consideration, the graphics aren’t so bad. Further, FFVI was the first to have extremely detailed battle sprites for many enemies and bosses and the summons. Better graphics meant more articulation, even in the slightest, for the character sprites. The game also made use of SNES Mode 7 technology both to increase the visual appeal of battle magic and the tilt the screen when flying in airships, providing an awesome pseudo-3D scrolling overworld. As the bridge into the new 16-bit world from the 8-bit past, Final Fantasy IV was a triumph, especially as one of the earliest RPGs on the SNES.
Who else could write this soundtrack other than the legendary series composer, Nobuo Uematsu? Uematsu, the “John Williams of video games”, began working with Square in 1985 and composed the original soundtrack for the first Final Fantasy. The rest, as they say, is history. Uematsu’s distinctive focus on orchestral melody has shaped the sound of the Final Fantasy franchise and he has taken part in every numerical entry up until Final Fantasy XI, with SaGa, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy Legend as other titles under his belt.
With Final Fantasy IV, Uematsu exhibited his capability and diverse range. Synthetic strings and brass form the majority of the soundtrack, but there are songs that bridge upon metal and electronica as well as symphony. Such a great OST! When I heard the memorable “Battle 2” theme during the Culex fight in Super Mario RPG, I was overcome with delight. An instrumental version of “Theme of Love” was the song we danced to on our wedding day, so there’s that too!
The music of Final Fantasy IV remains iconic but most importantly, it served the game it was attached to. Could FFIV’s drama have been anywhere near as poignant as it was with an inferior soundtrack? Highlighting every scene with appropriate mystery, intrigue, tragedy, heroism and/or courage is a task that the man who wrote Final Fantasy’s Prelude theme in 5 minutes mastered.
Introducing a much more hectic and hurried version of classic turn-based combat meant that battles were less leisurely and more action packed. Having to act quickly made battles more engrossing and more lively. The way the storyline dictated the presence or absence of certain characters in your party also meant that battles were now more puzzle-like, demanding more knowledge of the tools you had available to you in the characters you had access to rather than being able to customize yourself out of a given situation.
Magic types White, Black, Call (Summon) and Ninjutsu, as well as special abilities that were unique to some characters came into play. The result is the solid gameplay of a standard RPG without the muddling of all kinds of bells and whistles. Lastly, one of the best things about FFIV’s gameplay was the measures it took to limit the amount of grinding. It’s experience rewards system balanced out the game in such a way as to almost totally eliminate the need to stop outside of a town and farm random battles. Thank God.
Final Fantasy IV had a story set on a grand scale with a larger cast of characters than almost any RPG up to that point, with multiple settings, different worlds, multiple antagonists and points of view. It was a layered, intricate and complex tale set nearly on a Shakespearean level of personality. Zemus of the Lunarians isn’t the most recognizable of the Final Fantasy villains but Golbez as a secondary antagonist is one of the more memorable figures from the game clad in his dark blue and gold armor.
Cecil himself is a more complicated person than Final Fantasy games had dealt with up to that point. Protagonists had previously been sounding boards for the expressions of the player, who could define them even down to their strength and defense stats. With Cecil, we got to step into the mind of a man who was torn in two between loyal patriotism and morality, between blind loyalty and freethinking, between his inner darkness and his sense of justice. When Cecil the Dark Knight climbs the mountain and descends the summit as a Paladin, forever changed, it’s one of the most refreshingly and satisfyingly cathartic moments in gaming history.
Further, the wide array of characters means there’s always a variety of personalities to maintain the comedic relief and the heightened sense of drama that was present here more so than in its predecessors. Prior to Final Fantasy IV, there was little emphasis on novel-esque storytelling. World’s were occupied by generic fantasy, instead. With FFIV we got the first steps in the direction of real narrative, plot, twists and turns, and emotional weight.
Being unable to read Japanese, I of course played the North American release in its original form. There were a few moments, boss fights, that gave me a bit of trouble but I was surprised to discover that the developers purposefully decreased the difficulty of this game for the North American version, under the assumption that American audiences wouldn’t respond well to the game’s challenges since they never experienced Final Fantasy II or III at the time. I’m not sure what that says about the original Japanese version, but that original form warrants a score that’s above above average.
Primarily the ways in which a traditional RPG garners replay value is with multiple endings, new game+, or with side quests. Final Fantasy IV only includes the last of those three, and in limited supply: hunting down additional equipment and summons. It’s not a whole lot but it’s more than was seen previously and it slightly offsets the linear plot. A giant explorable world as helped a tad.
Much has already been said about the significant differences of storytelling, combat, characters, and presentation Final Fantasy IV infused into its genre of gaming. We simply would not have the games we enjoy today without FFIV. That sets it on a pedestal. Coupled with the fact that it enhanced nearly everything about its predecessors and went well beyond their scope and gameplay means this fourth game is highly unique though it was a sequel in a franchise.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Final Fantasy IV set a new standard for RPGs and it set the bar very high indeed. The Final Fantasy series holds a lot of respect and prestige in the gaming community and that’s largely due to the influence of this fourth entry. Redemption is one of the most evocative, impactful, heartfelt and intimate themes any story can tell, as exhibited by the life of Cecil, captain of the Red Wings. I used to own the cartridge for this game but lost it somewhere down the road as the years passed. It’s one that I’ll be looking out for again. Final Fantasy IV is one of the most celebrated and significant RPGs in history and it could use a little more familiarity with this new generation of gamers. It might not be as popular as Final Fantasy VII, but we wouldn’t be here without it.
Aggregated Score: 8.8