Retronauts Blog #12: Final Fantasy Four is Fifteen

I've just gotten a glimpse of what my future holds. See, according to my impossibly dense book o' Super Famicom lore, Final Fantasy IV celebrates its 15th anniversary today. And this sort of thing, where old favorites reach ever-higher chronological landmarks, is just going to happen more and more. Which means I'm going to feel old, old, old more and more frequently.

But if I can't fight mortality, I can at least drag you people down with me.

Final Fantasy IV
[ Squaresoft | Super NES | Released in U.S. as Final Fantasy II ]
[ Released: July 19, 1991 (JP) | November 1991 (U.S.) ]

FFIV is where Square's money-maker franchise truly began. Some would have you believe that the previous game, Final Fantasy III for Famicom, defined the series. They get away with this because most Americans have never played FFIII and don't know any better.

In a few months, their vile untruths will be laid bare. Enjoy your last few moments of deceit, jerks.

No, it was FFIV that inscribed the classic Final Fantasy formula into stone tablets ten miles high. This was the game that set the gold standard, deviations from which the more inflexible flavor of fan resents and decries. Earlier chapters had introduced plenty of concepts that would come to be recognized as essential FF components -- jobs, summons, spell names, character class designs, enemies and equipment -- but they didn't come together just right until FFIV.

The original Final Fantasy had a pretty ambitious storyline (for a console RPG) when it was released in 1987, but then Phantasy Star came along (literally) a week later and totally blew it away. It wasn't until FFIV that Square finally leapfrogged Sega with a massive tale of redemption and betrayal and all that stuff. Sure, it was generally corny, given to melodrama and would cause any self-respecting writer to be laughed out of his Bloomsday meeting group. You kids these days, with your Indigo Prophecies and your Psychonauts -- so spoiled. Can't you appreciate that for all its excesses, FFIV was turgid, gripping stuff for a 1991-vintage RPG? There wasn't a single Princess-to-be-rescued in sight, unless you count Edward -- and that was a bold departure.

Tiny sprite theatrics notwithstanding, FFIV had something called moxie. It boldly featured one of those videogame plots where things happen for seemingly arbitrary reasons and there's a lot of traveling back and forth and into dungeons on mini-quests to justify endless killing random monsters and fighting bosses. I guess that's not moxie, really. But whatever it was, it drove dark knight Cecil Harvey across the entire world, into the dwarf-infested depths and eventually to the frickin' moon, so it would be silly to split hairs. Especially since the game paused every once in a while to indulge in Final Fantasy trademarks, like a class change for the main character and a Crystal Legend text scroll above the misty the horizon at the adventure's outset.

Much of the story's appeal came from its focus on the game's characters, who were fairly well-developed. You know, for an early 16-bit console RPG. The cast cycled in and out of Cecil's party according to the whims of the plot, with some characters disappearing long enough to return more awesome than before and others making noble sacrifices in order to thin out the ranks and clear a menu screen slot for the final crew of Rosa, Cain, Edge and Rydia.

Perhaps more notable was the fact that even the bad guys had a purpose. Although a few sort of just showed up to provide a sense of closure at the end of dungeons, they were rare -- practically every single boss in the game was given either dialogue or a role in the story. Even minor bosses felt significant in some way or another: the Antlion did more than simply show up and attack; Calcobrena, the collective of living dolls, had a completely creepy intro sequence; and Dr. Lugae and the Delta Sisters were goofy leavening for the overly serious plot.

It's the Four Fiends who really won the day, though, at once echoing the major bosses of the original Final Fantasy while adding unique "gimmick" battles that demonstrated the versatility of the game's combat system. Scarmiglione came back to life for a surprise rear attack; only Cain could break Barbariccia from her spin attack; Cagnazzo... well, Cagnazzo kind of sucked. But Rubicante more than made up for his comrade's failure to be worth a crap, being at once a sporting foe (he healed the player's party before battle) and a real pain to defeat thanks to his ability to absorb elemental attacks when cloaked.

And while the true final boss of the game suffered from that alarmingly common FF cliché of showing up practically unannounced at the very end, the main villain who propelled the plot was a very, very bad man named Golbez, who was so determined to be completely evil that he even managed to thwart the heroes after being pulverized to nothing more than a disembodied hand.

Later it turned out that he wasn't completely evil after all, just misunderstood beneath that Vader-esque armor. Although he did ultimately hijack one of the moons, which is a pretty low-down thing to do to all those coastal dwellers who undoubtedly ended up devastated by the resulting tidal disasters.

As for combat -- well, perhaps more than any other innovation, it was FFIV's Active-Time Battle system that brought console role-playing games out of their early mundanity. An ingenious fusion of turn-based and real-time concepts, ATB was considerably more involving than the turn-by-turn combat the 8-bit generation had wallowed in. ATB forced players to make decisions on the fly, to build their plans around their characters' capabilities -- a fighter could only act when his or her ATB meter had filled, and not every action was executed immediately, so there was more to do than fight-fight-heal-repeat. Strategy! It's what's for dinner.

FFIV even allowed players to adjust the ATB system to fit their personal preferences -- the overall speed was flexible, and brave gamers could use "Active" mode, in which muddling through a menu didn't cause enemies to pause in their actions. Of course, since Square dumbed down FFIV for U.S. release (apparently under the assumption that we're all complete idiots), the more forgiving Wait mode was practically an embarrassing indulgence.

Annoyingly, there's no single "definitive" version of FFIV for us damn yankees. The original U.S. version was severely crippled and featured a translation that could generously be described as "rudimentary." ("Retarded" would be less generous, but much more accurate.) The PlayStation version featured in Final Fantasy Chronicles offered a much better English script and restored the missing elements and difficulty level, but it also suffered from emotionally damaging loading times.

For my money, last year's Game Boy Advance rendition is probably the best edition we'll ever see, with upgraded graphics, a beautifully rewritten script and excellent bonus content. Unfortunately there's a bit of jankiness beneath the surface, with odd slowdown in battle scenes and some weirdness involving the ATB -- characters getting turns or failing to execute actions, assorted uncoolness like that. Despite the quirks, though, it's definitely the most engaging version of the game ever released in the U.S. And if the upcoming remakes of FFV and VI don't live up to its standards, someone at Square Enix will have some serious explaining to do.

So celebrate 15 years of modern RPGs today by playing, well, just about any post-FFIV RPG you can think of. You'll be startled to find just how little they've evolved since this little masterpiece set the standard.

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