The Final Fantasy Project: Final Fantasy IV, part 1
There’s no game in the series that’s had a more tortured path coming over to non-Japanese markets than Final Fantasy III, but Final Fantasy IV certainly deserves a nod, especially as it’s the subject of a lot of rumors and aspersions that simply aren’t true. Everyone knows that it was released as Final Fantasy II originally, that the version released in the US was easier than the one released in Japan four months earlier, that a lot of it was censored… you get the idea. And, unfortunately, even with the ability to clear up a lot of misconceptions now, they persist just the same.
Let’s start at the beginning. Final Fantasy IV started development after Final Fantasy III‘s release simultaneously with Final Fantasy V… sort of. Square was working on two titles for the two Nintendo consoles: Final Fantasy IV for the Famicom, Final Fantasy V for the Super Famicom. Limitations of resources meant that the idea of another Famicom game was scrapped, and instead all of the resources were brought over to the retitled Final Fantasy IV. The Famicom game was apparently about 80% done and some elements were supposedly reused, but it’s never been stated what, exactly, got reused. (I have speculations, but that can come later.)
It’s important to note here that Final Fantasy I was only released in the US in 1990, a full two years after its release in Japan. Final Fantasy IV came out in 1991 in July, just before the Super Famicom launched in America. While taking the time to localize Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III was considered, it just wasn’t smart from a financial standpoint… not when the company could localize their newest title right around the same time that the new console launched.
Of course, there were concerns raised about whether or not American players could really get used to playing Final Fantasy IV, since it was the direct product of years of development. The game was made easier, and an even easier version of the (fairly hard) game was released in Japan, which a lot of people still think is the version we got over in America. (It couldn’t have been due to development time and how long localization takes, but that’s not nearly a satisfying enough conspiracy theory.) The game was rebranded to Final Fantasy II, Nintendo of America was happy, and Square was certain that years later they would not be accused of thinking that American players were dumb.
That’s been this installment of Longstanding Fan Misconceptions; join us again when we reach Final Fantasy V, when “because Americans won’t get it” is actually the reasoning. I’m expecting March of next year.
But all of that is just so much window-dressing. It’s not the game. Which itself was the birth of a new paradigm, something that hadn’t been attempted before, a fusion of the elements that defined the first three games with movies and racing. No, really.
For starters, the game is meant to evoke the best of its predecessors – the scope of Final Fantasy III, the story energy of Final Fantasy II, the straightforward nature of Final Fantasy I. It also was designed to mix up what was, at the time, the standard format of RPGs. Rather than having a strict flow of town to field to dungeon and so on, Final Fantasy IV cut all of these elements together, blurring the lines between them, creating a sense of pacing more like a movie. Battle sequences could play into the narrative, and rather than expecting players to wander about and grind monsters to level, the game was structured so that players could progress more or less unhampered from start to finish. If you’re not running from random fights, you can take on the next dungeon and keep advancing, grinding only if you’re having particular trouble.
Moreover, the battle system made an important change. Instead of selecting actions and then just watching things go, a new system was put into place with an active element. Characters have a bar that fills up over time, and when the bar is full, they can act; faster characters fill the bar faster, while slower ones have to wait more between turns. This ATB system is one of the most definitive parts of the franchise as a whole, to the point that it’s easier to list the games without some variant upon it. (For the record, X, XI, XII. Yes, that’s indicative of something.) Suddenly, spells like Haste and Slow have a very tangible effect on the battle, and a character whose main attribute is speed actually feels distinct.
The fusion of elements here – the emphasis on story and mechanics, on a steady flow, on cutting together battles with story and mixing up progression – have informed every single subsequent game. So I feel a little weird saying that I’m not a huge fan. Not that I dislike it, exactly, but I missed playing it when it was new, and so the nostalgia for the game has never quite hit me in the same way. I don’t have a deep and abiding love of the game and would prefer if the sprawling sequels went over to, say, Final Fantasy VI.
In fact, this is the one game of the franchise that I have not beaten prior to this project. So this should be an interesting experience for all of us. I’m playing on the PSP version, because while I have many ways to pick up Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, only this edition contains the interlude between the core game and the sequel episodes. The PSP release has updated visuals akin to the rereleases of FFI and FFII, a little brighter and larger than those you’d find on the SNES version. In the SNES version, the sprites were… well, they were close cousins of the NES sprites, let’s say. I kind of suspect that more than just ideas were lifted from the original Famicom version, basically.
So. At a thousand words in, let’s start talking about the actual game in more than conceptual terms.
At the start of the game, you’re placed in control of Cecil, Captain of the Red Wings, returning from a successful mission to steal one of the Crystals from Mysidia. Right from the start, Cecil is clearly characterized – he’s got a sense of duty and obligation, but he’s not happy about what he’s being forced to do. The storyis told in a way that’s much more familiar to fans of the later games, with an extended scene right in the beginning where you see Cecil but don’t get active control over his actions. It ends when Cecil speaks out against the king and gets demoted to being a messenger to Mist Valley. You’re introduced to some of the cast members along the way – Kain, Rosa, and Cid. It’s very organic, watching characters enter the field rather than being told outright who these characters are from the outset.
To be fair, the resulting exposition is a bit clumsy in places. But, hey, it does the job.
Kain and Cecil head to the Valley of Mist, complete with some explanation of the setting in an opening crawl clearly meant to evoke images of the first game’s bridge-crossing moment. It falls a little flat, since you haven’t actually done anything yet. You can also explore the castle town, although not much happends there. Northwest, then, to the Mist Cave!
Being in the cave is actually a great sign of just how much the battle system really did change. Far from the slower experience in older titles, the battle hurtles along at an almost frightening pace, although the tactics are largely unchanged. It helps that Kain and Cecil can clear their way through the whole region mostly just by smacking things that are far, far slower. After a short exploration, the duo encounters the Mist Dragon, which serves as the first boss. It turns to mist a few turns in, forcing you to hold off on attacking until it’s back to normal, and as trivial as it might seem now, the idea of managing the timing of your attacks was pretty novel at the time.
Once the dragon is defeated, you can reach Mist, at which time the ring given by the king unleashes an army of Bombs to set the town ablaze. Cecil and Kain are both stunned and desperately search for survivors, at which point they realize that the dragon had been summoned by a woman to protect the village and killing it also killed the summoner. This is related by a girl sobbing over the body of her dead mother, who Kain realizes needs to die as part of the King’s wishes.
It’s dark, in other words.
Cecil refuses, and Kain agrees that killing the girl is too far, so they try to grab her and get out of the burning wreckage of the village. Since that wreckage is something they caused, she’s reluctant to come along, and she summons Titan, who unleashes a massive earthquake. When Cecil comes to, the village is sealed off by a new mountain range and Kain is nowhere to be found, so he picks up the now-unconscious girl and decides to head for the nearest town, having now lost literally everything in the world aside from a sweet set of armor. Cecil’s life is kind of crap.