Final Fantasy IV
Developer: Square Enix/TOSE
Based on: Improving a game, then bogging it down with technical issues, thus ensuring there will never be such a thing as a "definitive version."
Nikolai Lenin once said, regarding the fragile state of a Soviet Russia still in its infancy, "We must take one step back in order to take two steps forward." The red ringleader must have been on to something, because Square Enix seems to have passed that very philosophy along to TOSE as they developed Final Fantasy IV Advance. Minus the mass killings, of course.
IV Advance is almost certainly not directly descended from the original SNES cart. More likely, it's a port of the 2002 Japan-only WonderSwan Color port of the game. That's a lineage troubling enough to give a genealogy nut the cold sweats, and the faulty genes show in the final product's congenital infirmities. For all the bonus and entirely worthwhile features that have been added to the game, so too it is plagued by many issues that hadn't been there before.
First, the good. The most noteworthy and noticeable alteration is a complete overhaul of the English script. While the version included in 2001's Final Fantasy Chronicles made the previously garbled dialogue coherent, the script remained dry and disconnected. By the time of IV Advance's release in 2005, Square Enix had assembled one of the greatest localization teams in the biz, and their talent is evident in their work. It's not exactly the work of The Bard -- Shakespeare, that is; not Edward -- but it sports a lot more color and personality then previous scripts. In-game terminology is also updated to modern series lexicon, too. "GP" are now "Gil"; magic hierarchies have been restored so that, say, the spells Fire1/Fire2/Fire3 are now Fire, Fira, and Firaga; and so forth. And the totally awesome-sounding "Meteo" is changed to the much more boring, utilitarian "Meteor." Amazing the difference a single letter can make. You can't win them all.
This text box used to read, "Octomamm many-arms! For killing we must."
The second alteration to the game is the exhaustive overhaul that has been applied to the endgame -- undoubtedly the best in the Final Fantasy Advance titles. After defeating the Giant of Bab-il, the player is now offered the choice of assembling his own group rather than facing Zeromus with the developer-mandated crew of Cecil, Kain, Edge, Rosa, and Rydia. Now only Cecil is required, and players can now freely swap in Yang, Cid, Edward, Palom, and Porom. Handily enough, the first of the game's bonus dungeon, the Cave of Trials, is nothing less than a vehicle to give the gang new, endgame-caliber equipment to match the ultimate weapons available for the original crew beneath the surface of the moon. FFIVA is an equal opportunity game; even Edward is a worthwhile choice. No, really, he is -- I even killed Zeromus with him, without even meaning to do so.
Sending each character through the final battle is encouraged, in fact; otherwise you won't be able to enter their exclusive zone in the new Lunar Ruins dungeon. The juiced up version of Zeromus waiting at the end is good, but the character-specific (and completely optional) trial portions truly make the dungeon shine. With Edge in tow, the gang must navigate a nonsensically-designed, maze-like castle "made for a ninja." Kain, on the other hand, must face his trial alone. Cid pretty much just plays Crazy Taxi with his airship. None are particularly difficult, but they're all well-designed and, most importantly, are worth playing either for the bonuses they provide or simply for added narrative depth.
No, Golbez isn't playable. That would violate the Law of Conservation of Awesome.
The third consideration is less an improvement than it is simply a restoration of justice: that this is the original Japanese version of the game rather than the "Easy Type" version we American heathens were originally given back in 1991. Back then, the few of us who did know about the difference lamented that we were totally gypped on all kinds of awesome character moves and extra stuff. I'm actually supposed to be able to do that thing that Cecil's mirror image does? Rip-off! Everything's supposed to be way tougher? Insulting!
But here's the dark secret of Final Fantasy IV: besides Cecil's aforementioned Dark Wave ability, every other character's special move is a complete waste of time. Porom sports a "Cry" ability, which appears to do absolutely nothing -- technically it lowers enemy accuracy or something, but you'd never know it from the way the bad guys continue not to miss your characters with their attacks. Tellah has a "Recall" ability that makes him randomly cast a spell that he doesn't currently have in his inventory...or else he casts nothing at all. Guess which happens more often. Go on, guess. Rosa sports a "Pray" skill that rarely does anything.
Yeah, thanks for nothing, Rosa.
Edward sports a healing ability that appears very useful...until you realize he's using up all your healing items to do it. Possibly the only other worthwhile skill now present is Yang's Gird buff, which allows him to deal double damage. He really packs a wallop with it, and turns him from a "not so bad" character to a "freaking awesome" character. It is worlds more useful then his stupid Kick attack.
And the difficulty level? So close, so far -- as it turns out, this game is just as likely to be easier this time around if you've played it already, due in large part to a brand new glitch that generally works in the player's favor.
And herein lies the downside of Final Fantasy IV Advance. Its single most glaring flaw is a handful of potentially mind-rending glitches that plague the otherwise excellent battle system, most of them having to do with turn order. For starters, it doesn't really matter the order in which your characters' timers build up; the game seems to give Cecil priority treatment. While this can be nice when you need to deal out hurt, it's not so nice when, say, half your party is dead and you really need to Rosa to cast Full-Life. For some reason, Cecil's meager Cura capabilities don't quite pack the same wallop.
Yeah, "Blizzaga." You happy now, you Pocky-munching Japanophile whiners?
Secondly, the game occasionally forgets about a character altogether, skipping their turn. This can lead to a blown battle strategy or, in a worst-case situation, death. Finally, different characters will sometimes be given another turn immediately after having just executed an action. While this is certainly helpful, it does leave one feeling a little like they're committing glitch abuse. But there's not a lot to be done to avoid it...and really, who's seriously going to pass up a free turn?
Beyond that, Final Fantasy IV simply just doesn't play well on the GBA hardware. The entire game in general runs slower, with plenty of slowdown in battles and shuddery animation when zooming about the Mode 7 skies via airship. Spell and summon animations are especially sluggish to the point where certain techniques (like the all-devastating Meteor and Kain's "Jump" attack) completely lose their visual punch.
The invincible Red Wings' only weakness: massive slowdown.
Finally, and most painfully, is the toll exacted upon the sound quality. One can tell TOSE did what they could, but the GBA simply lacks the horsepower (and proprietary hardware) to do the game's original music justice. Even the sound effects are not spared; sword slashes and spells that once had extremely satisfying striking sounds now sound tinny or muffled. This is all familiar territory to anyone who's ever played a Super NES-to-GBA coversion, but it's disappointing all the same.
All that said, is FFIVA worth playing? In point of fact, yes, it is. Despite its flaws, it's as close as anything to a definitive release of the game. It numerous problems range from trifling to bothersome, especially the butchered audio quality, but ultimately they can be overlooked for the game's fresh localization and wealth of new content. Download the original soundtrack off iTunes or something and call it a day.