And thus we enter the Golden Age…
Let’s get this out of the way first: not only did the game come out in the US as Final Fantasy II (and really, in the dark primordial age before the Internet, most of us who weren’t able to read Japanese or didn’t have subscriptions to trade magazines thought it really was Final Fantasy II), but Square sent us the “Easytype” version of the game. Back in the day, Square had a low opinion of American RPG players – perhaps with reason – so they gave us a version that not only was made easier, but had less combat options for the characters, because apparently having a main protagonist with a special attack that depletes his Health Points would melt our delicate brains.
Despite all that, Final Fantasy IV was a revelation. For the first time (okay, fine, extremely arguably*), we had an RPG that was as much a work of fiction as it was a game. It had a wide cast of characters with diverse personalities, motives, and backgrounds; multiple plot twists; dramatic dialogue that expressed *gasp* feelings; and villains who, while mostly rather cliched (with the notable exception of Rubicante, who was portrayed as the classic “honorable bad guy”), had motives and goals beyond just “Destroy the world!” True, for the sake of gameplay the plot had to make some rather bizarre turns, like the various random tragedies that befall your party just to explain why you never have more than five people in your party and the engineer Cid committing one of the most unnecessary (apparent) suicides in history, but it still felt like a cohesive story just as sophisticated as one you could find in a novel or a film. I was enthralled and it’s no exaggeration to say that I played the hell out of the game throughout my teenage years. It got to the point where I was even remembering characters’ dialogue.
From the very start players saw just how much the series had evolved. Instead of starting out with a group of warriors who pop up out of nowhere or a bunch of orphans, we begin with Cecil, who has a very well-established past as the airship admiral for the Kingdom of Baron (he even starts off at a much higher level than 1, which is a really clever touch). By the time the game starts, Cecil is worried about Baron using military force to steal the elemental crystals from other cities and kingdoms, but for the time being his loyalty to his monarch outweighs his ethics. This changes when Cecil and his friend, the dragoon Kain, is sent to deliver a package to the tribe of summoners in the valley of Mist, but the whole thing turns out to be an elaborate pretext for genocide against the summoners. However, trying to trick his two best commanders into wiping out an entire tribe is the proverbial straw, but in the chaos Kain ends up missing and Cecil is stuck with Rydia, a young woman who justifiably blames him for the death of her mother. Riddled with guilt, Cecil sets out to somehow stop the Kingdom of Baron – and the man who is apparently pulling the strings, the sorcerer Golbez.
The game has gone through various re-releases, many adding new elements to the gameplay and new sidequests. It even got a direct sequel, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (see, Square Enix, doesn’t using a subtitle to designate a direct sequel make more sense than just calling it Final Fantasy IV-2?). But in my opinion the original still holds up extremely well. Even the “Easytype” version is worth playing, although admittedly it does take quite a bit of the fun out of the game. The game is just beautiful simplicity, using the “new” graphic technology of the Super Nintendo to create detailed character portraits, unearthly multi-layered towns populated with monsters, dungeons with a bizarre quasi-organic look, and a truly monstrous and grotesque final boss. I’m sure some tech snobs would complain that the gameplay really hadn’t changed much from the 8-bit years, but Final Fantasy IV still stands as proof that, while change is good, you don’t have to completely revolutionize gameplay for every installment in your megapopular video game franchise (hint, hint). Anyway, I don’t want to end on a negative note, but, yes, this game is an indisputable classic and is still worth playing, even if it’s the watered-down American SNES version. Sadly, though, even though Final Fantasy IV was both a commercial and critical smash when it first appeared in the United States, Square kept writing off their American fan base, so we wouldn’t see another real Final Fantasy sequel for another three years and instead we got…well, that’s for next time.
*That was mostly for you, Phantasy Star fans.