Final Fantasy IV: But I Sure Do Miss the Nineties
by Pitchfork

   

Note: the screenshots are from a fan-translation of the Super Famicom original. The alternatives were the SNES "Easytype" version and the ultra-glitchy Final Fantasy Anthology PlayStation port. Despite the seriff font and oversized command boxes, this was actually the best of the three choices.


1991. The Super Famicon/SNES drops, ushering in what gaming historians, critics, and nerds of all stripes consider the high-water mark of video games: the 16-bit era. Everything was in near-perfect alignment. The hardwarewas powerful enough to enable bigger, better-looking and more complex games than previous consoles had allowed, but still imposed enough limitations that developers had to be clever in designing their games. The industry was making money, but production costs and stakes weren't so high that an underperforming console release could wipe out a studio. Games were still games, not cross-promoted, multi-million dollar spectacles. It was also the Golden Age of SquareSoft: having nailed down a design formula on the NES, Square spent the 16-bit years putting out (almost) consistently great console RPGs, starting with Final Fantasy IV.

The early 90s were also some of the most divisive within the gaming scene (which was then populated almost exlusively by grade-school boys and teenage geeks), evinced by the Nintendo/Sega console wars. My experience was that unless you were one of those rich little snots whose parents bought you both systems, you picked a side, stuck with it, and spent entire lunch periods shouting at your friends across the table about why your games were better and they were idiots.

Enticed by Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, and Shining Force early on, I cast my lot with the Genesis camp, and therefore didn't play Final Fantasy IV for several years after its 1991 release. By then I'd already played through most of VI, so IV always felt like a step backwards to me.

Running through it now was different. For the past few months, the only games I'd been spending any time with (aside from dated 2D fighters) were the 8-bit Final Fantasy games. After playing virtually nothing but RPGs that could only display up to twenty-five colors and play only four different bleeping sounds at once, I was admittedly a little dazzled when I began a new game and watched the Red Wings fly over a height-distorted world map as the opening theme rose to a crescendo. It's not hard at all to see why Final Fantasy IV made such an impression when it first came out in '91.

Final Fantasy IV exhibits Release Title Syndrome in that it looks and feels a lot like a game from a previous console with a few new gimmicks and better graphics. Nevertheless, it represents a tremendous step forward for the series. The beefier hardware (and undoubtedly beefier budget) allowed Square to experiment with all sorts of new stuff. This is the first instance of the Active Time Battle System, which disposed of the static, round-by-round battle sequences used by Dragon Warrior and duplicated by virtually other JRPG developed in the last twenty-five years. Not only did the ATB system completely change how battles play out in Final Fantasy, SquareSoft's brilliant manuever of patenting the new mechanic gave it something to set its games apart from its competitors' for years to come. Equally important were the improved graphics and sound. Even though Final Fantasy IV looks like an NES games with higher resolution and more colors, even this relatively small difference allows for a much more effective execution of character-driven storyline than the unsuccessful experiment that was Final Fantasy II.

Even though SquareSoft was interested in trying new things, it was also restricted by the business sensibilities of the sequel. Developing Final Fantasy IV meant determining what people liked most about previous installments and cramming the new one with of more of those things. In this case, Square gave the fans more airships, more chocobos, more characters, more abilities, more maps, more spells, a new set of Elemental Fiends, more crystal MacGuffins, etc. In 1991, several years before the law of diminishing returns began catching up with Square, this approach wasn't only adequate. It was perfect.

When I was about 25% through the game, I was talking to a friend who hasn't played any Final Fantasy titles predating VII and trying to explain why IV would be worth his time to check out. "It's so cool," I told him. "You get these two little wizard kids who can team up and cast gigantic spells and you gotta climb this mountain covered with zombies so you can Class Change and there's this demon you gotta kill at the top and then he comes at you from behind, and..."

The first question he asked: "yeah, but how's the story?"

Then I remembered how much time has passed and how much video games have changed since 1991, and how different players' expectations are today. And I realized something else, too: as groundbreaking and special as Final Fantasy IV was at the time of its release, it simply wouldn't fly if it came out today.

There are a few reasons for this, but the biggest is that today's players seem to pick up console RPGs primarily for their story content. Everything between the cutscenes is treated like a half-grudging obligation -- something the developers and players have to slog through in order to make the plot progress. (Cases in point: Kingdom Hearts II, Xenosaga Episode I, and .hack.) In 1991, the opposite was true: people played console RPGs to fight random battles, level up, and kick the crap out of massive bosses with their hard-earned abilities and expensive equipment because it was fun, dammit. The story wasn't so much the main course as a flavor -- something to evoke sense of purpose and discovery in players during the EXP grinding and dungeon crawling. Though Final Fantasy IV's story was much more sophisticated than that of virtually every RPG preceding it (and likely marks the beginning of the genre's shift towards a greater emphasis on characters and story), it remains obvious that more of the developers' time and attention went into designing the dungeons and battles.

Another aspect of Final Fantasy IV that wouldn't go over well with today's audience is its revolving party roster. The last time a Final Fantasy installment killed off a player character was in VII, and even then people were scouring every nook and cranny of the Planet, convinced there had to be a way to bring Aeris back to life. All that trouble for the sake of getting to use a defunct character again (and not a terribly useful one at that). In Final Fantasy IV, party members are constantly getting blown up, turned to stone, swallowed by sea serpents, and sacrificing their lives to cast that sealed spell that might be powerful enough to defeat the villain once and for all (but isn't). You never have a say in who joins your party, and there's no way to stop someone from leaving when the time comes. Today's character-fixated audiences definitely would not appreciate this sort of thing. (In fact, Square Enix tweaked Final Fantasy IV Advance to allow players to switch party members during the endgame.)

Final Fantasy IV's other problem is that it just doesn't have enough of a certain something with which today's games are overbrimming. That something... is zazz.

Final Fantasy IV's zazz factor is decidedly low. It has a quasi-medieval setting (devoid of steam, cyberpunk, space age, or any other sort of anachonistic science-fiction influence) populated by knights, wizards, and dwarves (no bunny-eared amazons, Geohounds, cyborgs, or evil parodies of Christ). Cecil wears a suit of armor (without even one decorative zipper, pouch, or patch of fashionably exposed skin) and fights with a sword (instead of a gunblade, keyblade, chainsaw-sword, etc). By today's standards, this is unacceptable.


Digression

JRPGs -- and many other Japanese games, and anime too -- are in serious danger of fatal zazz saturation.

Some zazz is good to have. Think of it like putting sugar in coffee. A sugar cube or two makes a cup of coffee less bitter, while some zazz adds flavor to a game and its characters. But just like you can ruin coffee by pouring in too much sugar, over-zazzing your game makes it irritating instead of bland. Remember back when anthromorphs with 'tude were in vogue? Sonic's 'tude levels were within acceptable parameters, and it's still hard to deny the appeal of his Sega Genesis incarnations. But then you also have Bubsy the Bobcat, who was pumped full of more focus-group tested 'tude than any single piece of intellectual property should ever be asked to contain, and if anyone actually remembers Bubsy, I'm sure their memories are not pleasant.

Here's an example of the progression of zazz saturation: a timeline of SNK fighting game flagship characters.
Terry and Ryo look like two guys out of a martial arts flick. Iori and K' look like they're from an anime. Alba and Luise look like they're from a Japanese fashion magazine. I understand that with so many other products on the market, designers have to make their franchise and its properties stand out, but it's starting to get ridiculous. Other examples include the gulf between the characters and aesthetics of Mobile Suit Gundam and Gundam SEED, Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) and Shadow the Hedgehog (2001), and to cite a stateside example, the differences between the 2D Prince of Persia titles and The Two Thrones. Style over substance.

Anyway -- let's talk more about Final Fantasy IV.

CHARACTERS

Final Fantasy IV featured some of the most memorable characters of its era. That said, most of them would be laughed off the casts of today's JRPGs. Today we will look at what made them popular in their heydey and the reasons why they wouldn't make it in today's scene.


The Heroes


CECIL
Dark Knight


Orphaned at a young age and raised by the king of Baron, Cecil rose through the military ranks to become captain of the Red Wings, Baron's elite air force. Though trained to wield the weapons and powers of a Dark Knight, Cecil is a man of honor and integrity. After returning from pillaging the defenseless town of Mysidia and stealing the Crystal of Water under royal command, a guilt-haunted Cecil voices his objection to the king and is promptly dismissed from his post. He soon undertakes an assignment to deliver a parcel to the village of Mist, torn between his duty to his kingdom and his sense of justice. As a Dark Knight, Cecil can use the Darkness command to inflict moderate damage on multiple targets at the expense of his own HP.

Why he worked in '91: Finally: an RPG where your main character starts out as a walking death machine instead of a blithering wimp with no skills or equipment.
Why he wouldn't work today: The Dark Knight thing is cool, but the armored look is so four generations ago. Needs more skin, straps, and tattoos. A keen fashion sense can provide just as much protection as plate mail.



CECIL
Paladin


You knew that getting to play as a Dark Knight was too good to be true. Somewhere along the line Cecil decides he doesn't want to be a terrifying death machine anymore, so he undergoes the time-honored JRPG Class Change ritual and becomes a Paladin instead. The process involves climbing Mount Ordeals, wading through hordes of zombies, doing battle with his own dark side, and most importantly, adopting a flowing-haired bisho look that ensures his becoming a trillion times stronger than he was as an armored, masculine son of a bitch. Though he loses his Darkness command when he becomes a Paladin, Cecil gains the ability to case low-level white magic and the Cover command, which allows him to physically shield teammates from incoming attacks with his face.

Why he worked in '91: Yeehaw! Class Change!
Why he wouldn't work today: He might, actually. The prettyman look is exactly the kind of zazzing up Cecil needed. His outfit's still a bit bland, though - attach some unnecessary zippers and some angel wings, however, and we'll be in business.



KAIN
Dragoon


Another orphan raised by the King of Baron. As a young man, Kain went against his adopted father's wish that he train as a Dark Knight to follow in his birth father's footsteps as a Dragoon. As a result, Cecil won prestige and rank over Kain, who began harboring feelings of jealousy towards his adopted brother and best friend. Cecil's bagging Rosa, with whom Kain was secretly in love, did little to stymie his resentment. The dark forces behind Baron's recent militarism waste no time taking advantage of Kain's latent hostility toward Cecil and setting the two against each other. As a Dragoon, Kain only has one special command: Jump. He needs nothing else.

Why he worked in '91: Of all Final Fantasy IV's characters, Kain probably has the most impact. You spend the entire game going back and forth between thinking he's the coolest guy ever and hating his traitorous guts.
Why he wouldn't work today: Kain was the original JRPG Judas. Of course he'd still work today - and he does! Only now he's younger, not a Dragoon anymore, and he hangs out with Mickey Mouse.



RYDIA
Summoner


A young girl from Mist village whose life takes an abrupt turn for the tragic after Cecil and Kain accidentally murder her mother and set her town on fire. But Rydia is a real good sport about the whole thing and joins Cecil on his journey anyway. Despite her age, Rydia is fairly adept at casting both white and black magic, and her Summoner heritage allows her to communicate with and conjure phantom beasts.

Why she worked in '91: So wait. An adorable little child who casts spells? Like some sort of "magical girl?" BRILLIANT! Why has nobody though of this before?!
Why she wouldn't work today: She might, but you can bet her loli appeal would be exploited to its fullest extent. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.





RYDIA
Summoner


Hey! Rydia's grown up now! And she's hot! Oh, and she's also pretty much the best character in the game. When she rejoins the team after a long absence, Rydia loses all her white magic, but can learn every black spell in the game in addition to an extensive Summoner's grimoire. (Side note: Final Fantasy IV gives magic-using characters "chant" animations for when they cast spells, a neat little touch that appears only in the SNES games.)

Why she worked in '91: See above.
Why she wouldn't work in today: Loli Rydia is more valuable.





ROSA
White Mage

Cecil's girlfriend and moral support unit. Like most JRPG heroines, the full extent of her repertoire consists of healing, getting kidnapped, and gushing to the hero about how great he is and how nothing bad can happen to her when she's with him. I'm almost positive this is what the ideal Japanese woman is supposed to be like. Anyhow, Rosa has access to Final Fantasy IV's entire white magic grimoire, and can also use the underwhelming Aim and Pray commands.

Why she worked in '91: Neat! Not only do you get to play as a rad Dark Knight, but you're also boffing a cute White Mage!
Why she wouldn't work today: Doesn't look Japanese enough. The hero always goes with whatever chick looks the most Japanese. Also, she and Cecil are already a done deal before the game even begins, leaving too little room for Ranma/Akane hijinks and/or overblown Heero/Relina melodrama.



TELLAH
Sage


Part revered Mysidian sage, part revenge-driven old crank. Cecil first finds him searching for his daughter Anna, who ran off to elope with Edward When Anna is killed during the Red wings' attack on Damycan, Tellah swears to avenge her death at any cost. His major claims to fame are dishing out one of the most famous spells and one of the most famous insults in Final Fantasy history.

When he first joins the team, Tellah knows some white and black spells, and can use the Recall ability, which randomly casts one of his "forgotten" spells. Later on, he remembers all of his magic, causing him to lose Recall but allowing him to cast almost every spell in the game. There's a catch, though: his MP total is locked at a relatively low 90, necessitating a careful rationing of his strongest spells.

Why he worked in '91: Say... doesn't he look sort of like that Turtle Hermit guy from Dragon Ball?
Why he wouldn't work today: Turtle Hermit who? SSJ3 TURNKS 4 LIEF BABY!!!! Besides, you don't see that many old men characters in JRPGs anymore because they're not young or pretty enough.




EDWARD
Spoony Bard


The petite, small-pored, bouncy-haired, and rosy-cheeked prince of Damycan, who sometimes likes to disguise himself as a wandering bard and prance anonymously through his kingdom. Edward is possibly the most maligned character in Final Fantasy, with the possible exceptions of maybe Quina or Cait Sith. I don't see how anyone could have thought Edward was a good idea. "Okay, so Final Fantasy II's weakest character was Gordon, and Final Fantasy III's most useless class was the Bard. You know what I think would be a good idea? COMBINING THEM." Edward's stats are pitiful and his special abilities include singing to inflict pointless status ailments, consuming items to heal the team's HP by a sliver, and sneaking away to hide while his teammates deal with the monsters without him.

Why he worked in '91: He didn't. By the way, his Japanese name is "Gilbert," which somehow makes him sound even more useless and wimpy.
Why he wouldn't work today: Because he sucks. Although -- I could totally see a contemporary reimagining that has him dressing like a Japanese glam rocker and fighting with a magical guitar, and it scares the hell out of me.



YANG
Monk


Fabul's head karate man is one bad mother. One bad mother. One one bad mad mother mother mother mother. Okay, I got nothing. Yang's got the standard JRPG monk profile: polite, humble, self-sacrificing, and a hell of a hard kicker. The only person in the world stronger than him is his wife. His special skills include the multi-targeting Kick, the defense-raising Brace, and the strong (but slow) Focus attack.

Why he worked in '91: He's like the Black Belt class from the original Final Fantasy, only he's not boring as hell! And he makes stuff dead fast.
Why he wouldn't work today Monks are so passe. Barefisted fighters nowadays either have to be hip badasses or hot chicks.




PALOM
Black Mage


The male half of Mysidia's dynamic duo. Black mage prodigy Palom is loudmouthed and ill-behaved, in stark contrast to the manners of his twin sister Porom. He and his sister are assigned by the Mysidian elder to guide Cecil to the summit of Mount Ordeals. In addition to casting black magic, Palom can concentrate to increase his magic attack power and synchronize his magic with Porom's.

Why he worked in '91: Chock full of what was then referred to as "'tude."
Why he wouldn't work today: Maybe he would. The magical twins concept still pops up now and then.









POROM
White Mage


Palom's twin sister is syrupy sweet and polite all the time, except when she's shouting and physically abusing her brother (which is a fairly frequent occurence). Porom's special powers include casting white magic, pretending to cry, and combining her magic with her brother's to unleash large scale devastation.

Why she worked in '91: Cute as a button.
Why she wouldn't work today: Two magical lolis in one game? The fanboys' brains would shut down from oxygen deprivation as their entire bloodstreams flooded into their groins. Killing your customers is bad business.






CID
Engineer


Final Fantasy's first Cid to appear as a player character is an energetic, somewhat eccentric bearded fella from Baron who builds airships. He acts like an old bachelor uncle towards Cecil and is very protective of Rosa. His Engineer class works like a combination of the Scholar and Viking jobs from Final Fantasy III, allowing him to check enemies' HP and weaknesses before pounding them with giant hammers.

Why he worked in '91: They don't come much quirkier. Plus, you'd played Final Fantasy III, you'd recognize that he's a cross between the Scholar and Viking jobs.
Why he wouldn't work today: Nomura would never let Cid get away with a beard like that. He'd also probably stick him in a pink spandex jumpsuit or a cape that's also a pair of boots or something.






EDGE
Ninja


Prince and heir to the throne of Eblan, a nation whose entire military force consists entirely of ninjas. It sounds cool, but isn't terribly effective, if its swift decimation at the hands of Rubicante is any measure. Eblan's people were driven into exile and its king and queen went missing. Against everyone else's advice, the headstrong and fiery-tempered Edge sets off on his own to kill Rubicante and rescue his parents.

Why he worked in '91: The dual-wielding, ninpo-casting, shuriken-throwing, swag-stealing Edge has abilities out the wazoo (even in the neutered Easytype version first released in North America as Final Fantasy "2."). And like Palom, he's got that precious commodity of the early Nineties called 'tude.
Why he wouldn't work today: Imagine: a gawkily-animated Edge flailing around the screen in 3D, acting out some bizarre Japanese non-sequitur with a lousy voiceover and equally bad lip-synching. If Nomura ever decides to draw some extra zippers on his outfit, we're in trouble.


FUSOYA
Lunarian


Eons ago, an "extra" planet with an orbit running between Mars and Jupiter was destroyed by an unspecified cataclysm. Its inhabitants used their advanced technology to fashion a satellite and set it into orbit around the "Blue Planet" as a second moon. This alien race (now called the Lunarians) sleeps in stasis within the satellite's core, awaiting a time when the people of the Blue Planet evolve to a point where communication, trade, and eventual coexistence between the two civilizations becomes possible. FuSoYa has been assigned to remain awake and make sure no harm comes to his slumbering people. As a party member, he's a lot like Tellah -- able to cast every spell in the game, but hampered by a low MP cap. He's also got the Regen ability, which you will never use.

Why he worked in '91: Sweet merciful crap will you just look at his spellbook.
Why he wouldn't work today: You're no longer allowed to be an "old man" character in an RPG unless you are quirky, and FuSoYa is definitely not quirky. Also, his eyebrows are freaky.


Villains


THE ANTLION

   

Does Edward ever get tired of being wrong all the time?

Why it worked in '91: Final Fantasy IV was the first JRPG to use the ATB system, and the Antlion was the first boss to take advantage of this and go crazy with physical counterattacks.
Why it wouldn't work today: Oh, why not. Every RPG needs a few throwaway bosses before the ominous metrosexuals in black coats start showing up.


THE DARK ELF

   

Astos lives! But he seems to have abandoned the cunning machinator shtick in favor of a role as a mentally deficient, screaming goblin. While Cecil and Golbez race to collect the crystal, the Dark Elf inconveniences both sides by stealing the Earth Crystal from Tororia for himself. Then, to dissuade any intrusive do-gooders from trying to get it back, he creates a magnetic forcefield inside his cave to make metal weapons and armor too heavy to wield.

Why he worked in '91: The magnetic field was a damn cool idea.
Why he wouldn't work today: It was also damn annoying. Today's audience is more concerned with story progression than challenge and wouldn't appreciate a speed bump like this.


THE MAGUS SISTERS

   

The faithful minions of Barbariccia, the Wind Fiend. Cindy, Sandy, and Mandy's signature tactic is the infamous DELTA ATTACK, though in its first appearance here it's nothing more special than Mandy bouncing level two elemental spells off the Wall'ed Sandy.

Why they worked in '91: What part of DELTA ATTACK aren't you understanding?
Why they wouldn't work today: Needs more -- you guessed it -- more zazz. I'm thinking, I dunno... bug costumes.


DOCTOR LUGAE

   

When Cid refuses to develop any more technology for him, Golbez throw him in the dungeon and hires this nutjob to take his place. Dr. Lugae is responsible for both the modified Red Wings and the giant cannon in the Tower of Babil, but despite his engineering prowess, he has more of a penchant for wetware.

Why he worked in '91: Yeesh. This guy still creeps me out -- especially what he does to Edge's parents.
Why he wouldn't work today: Everyone would accuse him of being a Hojo ripoff (even though the reverse is more accurate).


SCARMIGLION

   

Final Fantasy IV gives the Four Fiends of the Elements makeovers and new Dante's Inferno monikers for their first (and only) 16-bit appearance. Scarmiglion is Lich version 2.0: an undead Earth Fiend wielding necromantic powers and commanding hordes of shambling zombies. Golbez dispatches Scarmiglion to intercept Cecil on Mount Ordeals, knowing that Cecil's dark sword is useless against the undead.

Why he worked in '91: Oh my god he isn't dead and he's coming at me from behind! Thrilling! Awesome!
Why he wouldn't work today: Oh my god he isn't dead and he's coming at me from behind! I didn't think to save! WTF HAX


CAGNAZZO

   

The Fiend of Water, who seems like he's supposed to be some kind of evil turtle thing. In addition to his tidal wave-summoning powers, Cagnazzo has the same tenacity as his pal Scarmiglion and knows a thing or two about disguise.

Why he worked in '91: Forcing children to sacrifice themselves in order to save their friends is pretty high up on the villainy scale, no matter how you slice it.
Why he wouldn't work today: Just look at him. Severe zazz deficiency.


BARBARICCIA

   

Probably better known to older fans as Valvalis. Barbariccia the Wind Fiend lives in the airbone machine tower of Zot, doesn't wear a lot of clothes, and becomes very hard to deal with once she starts twirling around and flinging spells. She might also have a thing for Kain, depending on which of the seven dozen versions of Final Fantasy IV you're playing.

Why she worked in '91: Must stop her spin!! Kain... JUMP!!
Why she wouldn't work today: She might, though I suspect she'd be one of those insufferable OHOHOHOHOHO chicks.


RUBICANTE

   

The strongest and the coolest of the four. Though the Fire Fiend Rubicante works for Golbez and Zemus, he's one of those honorable and chivalrous villain types who always fight fair and exhibits a fondess for the heroes.

Why he worked in '91: Was it Flame? I WILL SHOW YOU HOW!
Why he wouldn't work today: He might -- his Cloak of Flames is already pretty zazzy. But knowing how Square Enix works, he would also be beautiful, temperamental, and in love with Edge.


GOLBEZ

   

After Cecil's demotion and subsequent defection, the king of Baron appoints this shadester to succeed him as the Red Wings' captain. As Golbez's influence increases and the king's behavior grows more erratic, Baron's people begin to suspect that Golbez is the one really calling the shots in the castle. (Insert Dick Cheney joke here.) Golbez is demonically cunning, harder to kill than a cockroach, commands incredible magic powers, has the world's most powerful military under his thumb, and commands the Four Fiends of the Elements. Some people doubt he's even human.

Why he worked in '91: Golbez might be the most competent villain in Final Fantasy. The guy never loses. Though he does occasionally get caught off guard when a powerful magic user shows up and blasts him without warning, Golbez always manages to turn the circumstances of his defeat into an advantage. The heroes never achieve a definitive victory over Golbez: the guy just decides to stop fighting Cecil and go after Zemus instead.
Why he wouldn't work today: No flowing white locks. Doesn't show enough skin.


ZEMUS

   

A powerful Lunarian who would rather conquer and populate the Blue Planet rather than sit around and wait for its inhabitants to evolve. The other Lunarians didn't see things Zemus's way and forced him into stasis against his will. Over the centuries, the dreaming Zemus has telepathically manipulated events on the Blue Planet, patiently engineering a cataclysm that will eradicate terrestrial civilization.

Why he worked in '91: He's such an evil bastard that even Golbez wants him dead. He must be bad.
Why he wouldn't work today: Necron Syndrome. Not that it would stop most JRPG developers anyway, but nowadays it really should.


ZEROMUS

   

Death only increases Zemus's hatred toward all lifeforms, and Zeromus is the product of his hate. No, I don't understand it either. Regardless, you'd better be up for some power leveling before facing off against this guy.

Why he worked in '91: Seeing all your teammates and friends appear to revive and cheer you on before the final showdown began was pretty awesome before a.) every other JRPG started doing it b.) you had to sit through it 5,000 times because Zeromus kept Big Banging you to death.
Why he wouldn't work today: Phantasy Star called: it wants its critter back. Needs more angel wings, too.


TO BE A REAL PALADIN...


In the original Final Fantasy, four generic warrior classes with no names or pesonalities of their own served as the player's characters. Final Fantasy II had the player controlling Frioniel, Maria, Gus, and all their pals, all of whom had individual backstories and characteristics. This experiment worked so well that Final Fantasy III gave players four identical orphans with no default names or any sort of distinguishing qualities, and there is little indication that fans were complaining.

In setting out to make a Final Fantasy IV, Sakaguchi and co. decided to give the pre-designed player characters another shot (after all, Dragon Quest was doing it), and the results were much more impressive this time. Except for its MMORPG outings, Final Fantasy never took the "build your own characters" approach again, and it's not unreasonable to suppose that IV's success cemented the decision.

This is a turning point. The early 1990s were when the trajectory of the Japanese RPG completely deviated from that of the Western RPGs that inspired it. Western RPGs retained "blank slate" player characters and sandbox scenarios, while Japanese RPG designers began making more tightly-scripted games with increasingly complex (not to mention talkative) player characters. One design philosophy certainly isn't inherently better than the other; after all, this was when Final Fantasy and SquareSoft began taking off, even outside Japan.

At any rate, Final Fantasy IV mostly seems remembered for its characters and storyline. If you scour the Internet for Final Fantasy "2" reviews written before 2002 or so, you'll read a few dozen to a few hundred old players gushing about how it was the greatest video game story ever told, reminiscing about all the time they spent laughing, crying, and falling in love with Cecil, Rosa, Rydia, and Kain. Final Fantasy IV's characters and story are not without their charm. But the fact is that the game's having such characters and such a story is more significant that the characters and story themselves. Frankly, when you take of the nostalgia-colored glasses, both are pretty damned ridiculous.

Don't get me wrong. I like Final Fantasy IV's characters. They say and do a hell of a lot more than the cast of pretty much every 8-bit RPG combined, and they're a memorable and fun bunch. But they're all anime stock characters and cliches. Most of them spend the whole game singing the same damn songs. In a nutshell:


ROSA: Cecil! Save me!

RYDIA: Innocence! Kindness! Innocence, kindness!

EDGE: Arrogant and boisterous! Arrogant and boisterous!

CID: Loud and Crude. Damn!

RYDIA: Innocence?

CECIL/KAIN: I am a noble warrior trying to atone for my stained past.

ROSA: SAAAAVE ME, CECIL!


And then there's the plot itself. I can say with total confidence that Sakaguchi and Tokita were making the whole thing up as they went along. Not a thing in it suggests that anyone working on it had anything more than a vague idea of where it was supposed to be going.


DEVELOPER #1: Okay, so the bad guys just snatched all the crystals and we're about out of space on the world map. I think it's about time for an earth-shaking cataclysm followed by a climactic showdown and final boss fight, right?

DEVELOPER #2: Naw, dude. Sakaguchi says the final product's gotta be at least sic hours longer. Any ideas on how we go about doing that?

DEVELOPER #3: I got it! Why don't we just say there's four more crystals out there and they're all underground?

DEVELOPER #2: Works for me. I'll start palette swapping enemy sprites and programming them in as stronger "dark" versions of overworld monsters.

[ONE MONTH LATER]

DEVELOPER: So, uh... we can't think of anything else to have the player do in the underworld, we're still a few hours short, and we can't think of a way to wrap everything up. Sakaguchi-sama?

SAKAGUCHI: [looks up from sniffing glue and doodling a bedroom-eyed Rydia in his notebook] Well, duh! Isn't it obvious? NOW WE GO TO THE MOON! And check it: let's also make it so the good guy and the bad guy have been long lost brothers ALL ALONG and now have to set aside their differences to battle a common foe! How's that for some riveting storytelling?

DEVELOPER: Brilliant, sir. But, uh... who's gonna be the last boss, then?

SAKAGUCHI: I don't know. Some guy living on the moon, I guess. Go ask Tokita, why don't you? Tell my secretary to hold my calls, I'll be passed out in the pachinko parlor bathroom.


Such sentiments coming from a lifelong Final Fantasy nut might seem akin to apostacy, but let's try approaching this without the nostalgia-tinted glasses here. With all the "VIDEO GAMES ARE NOT ONLY ART BUT THEY ARE THE BEST ART" talk flung across reader comments sections all throughout cyberspace, we have to remember that the designers of these early games with which we grew up weren't trying to create new media masterpieces or tap into the communicative potential of a developing technology. They were trying to make video games. That's not to say Final Fantasy IV and its contemporaries are devoid of merit (which is certainly not the case), but we should approach them with a more honest and critical mindset than "I played Final Fantasy IV when I was nine and it changed the course of my life forever and I still want to cry when I think of the scene where Rydia overcame her fear of fire."

Analogous to these early games are the Batman and Superman comics of the 1940s and 50s. These were very popular, very lucrative pieces of pop culture, but they were very clearly written and consumed as pulp pieces created with children in mind. Bob Kane was never thinking about symbology and mythology when he sat down to write a story about Batman fighting the Joker; that came later on, when the kids who grew up reading reading comic books and taking them seriously arrived on the scene with ideas of their own. We see American comic books becoming increasingly more sophisticated and legitmized, eventually reaching the point we're at now: a superhero comic (Watchmen) is included on a list of the Twentieth Century's best novels, grad school literati and talented writers are opting to write comic strips and graphic novels rather than short stories or poetry collections, and skilled artists are choosing to draw Wolverine and Magneto instead of aspiring to get their oil paintings into art galleries. The point I'm trying (and probably failing) to make is that comic books were never approached as anything more than popular shlock -- by readers, critics, and creators -- until their creative reins were taken up by the generations that grew up with them, who not only understood the medium's potential, but could recognize the artfulness and mertis of the "campy" Gold and Silver Age comc books.

The comic serials of the Fifties and Sixties probably wouldn't appeal to the average reader of today. But there's still a particular artfulness about them -- they're cultural products of a certain time and place, speak in a unique language, and were created by some very talented professionals. The "Joker's Millions" story from 1952 isn't going to sell anyone who comes to it expecting something akin to Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, or Peter Nolan's takes on the character and mythos, but when approached on its own terms, it is in every respect a brilliantly-realized piece that achieves precisely the effect for which it was created.

Final Fantasy IV and it ilk should be approached similarly. It is clumsy, cliched, and contrived, and there is no point in arguing otherwise -- especially since it never makes any kind of pretense to the contrary. It was conceived and designed as video game, and does an excellent job at what it was made to do. It should not be approached by today's standards, not should it be presumed that it was developed with the same intentions as today's games. (This is why the pre-release press for the DS remake got on my nerves. "There were three hundred pages of script that we had to cut out from the original game, but now we can present Final Fantasy IV as it was originally intended, in all its towering splendor!" Bullshit. Not to keep hammering the point, but even though Square Enix proclaims itself a shaper of unique multimedia interactive art experiences, the SquareSoft that created Final Fantasy IV in 1991 made video games.)

Square Enix is mistaken in its belief that the characters and stories of the old SquareSoft games were the key to their popularity. The truth, I think, is that people fell in love with the way these things were conveyed. All of the old JRPGs' potential for and successes at storytelling came about as the result of experimentation with a new kind of narrative that came with just as many restrictions as possibilities. Film and literature, having been around much longer, already possessed well-developed and defined languages, techniques, and rules for conveying information as eloquently and effectively as possible. Video game narratives had no established foundation; the developers had to figure it out as they went along, making the best use of the tools they had available.

It's no coincidence that JRPGs stopped being interesting when the technology improved to the point where fully animated and voice cutscenes became possible. All the clever tricks and techniques game designers used to employ as a matter of necessity stopped being used. And the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. I'd rather leave it up to the more dedicated and clever game design theorist types to define and describe these techniques; but if you're reading this, you probably understand precisely what I mean.

It is equally important to point out that Final Fantasy IV's plot and cast weren't the sole reasons for the game's success. It did so well and is remembered so fondly because it was a really good video game. The dungeons are deep, new gear is expensive, and the foes are tougher and craftier than in first three games. The fights are brisk and challenging. The revolving door team requires players to routinely examine and adjust their tactics to compensate for the strengths and weaknesses of its new roster. Moreover, Final Fantasy IV is the last installment we see for a long time that places such strict controls on character customization. Your team members can't change their classes, can't be swapped out for other characters, and can't choose what spells or abilities they learn or when (with the exception of Rydia's optional summon spells). Though IV doesn't afford the player much freedom, it might be the last totally unborkable game in the series, and that counts for a lot. (It also goes a long way toward explaining why Final Fantasy IV consistently ranks so highly with polled Japanese gamers.)

They just don't make 'em like they used to.

   



CONCLUSION!

Final Fantasy IV -- with its stubby characters, straightforward ability system, fairy tale setting, and admittedly dated production -- bears very little resemblance to today's JRPGs, and that might not be such a bad thing. It's old school enough to have that inimitable retro charm, but still far from feeling primitive and dated, and will undoubtedly feel much more familiar and playable to newer players than the 8-bit games.

This is Final Fantasy the way Allah intended. It's cartoony, fast-paced, packed with monstrous bosses, and while it's got a story to tell, it's more interested in striving to be the best video game of its kind than the best interactive storybook. If you're a younger video game enthusiast who sometimes wonders how the hell Final Fantasy and Square became such a big deal to begin with, this game will tell you pretty much all you need to know. Man, I want the SNES back.





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