Late to the Party: Final Fantasy IV

The reason I keep doing all these “LTTP” posts is partly because I have a massive backlog of games, many of them very old. On top of that though, I think a good way of examining how well classics hold up today is to go into them completely blind. It’s only recently though that I’ve gotten to games as old as this.

I probably bought my Game Boy Advance copy of Final Fantasy IV at least five years ago and went through it bit by bit, finally finishing the main quest (and most side quests) earlier this week. It is the first “classic” Final Fantasy game I’ve finished, the only other ones I’ve beaten being X, XII, and XIII – the most recent main single player entries.

It’s also about time that I really got something done from the frankly ridiculous pile of classic and handheld RPGs I have in my backlog. Like a lot of people I’ve had my frustrations with where Japanese RPGs have gone (or not gone) in recent years, and only very recently have I come to realize I still like classic JRPGs a lot, as evidenced by several games, FFIV included.

One of the main contrasts between then and now for the genre has been its narrative devices and probably narrative content as well. Simply put, FFIV is a game from an age before console games had lavish cut scenes to speak for them, and they had to speak for themselves. I was honestly surprised at the lengths to which FFIV tried to do this.

These were the days when developers were basically forced to tell a game’s story in the same view in which the gameplay transpired, and FFIV did not only this but used its gameplay mechanics to do this. I was particularly impressed with how the game enacts “cinematic battles” – basically battles that take place automatically between NPCs simply to convey the plot. The way they used the game’s actual moves and spells to give players a functional hint of what was going on, in my opinion, drove home the nature of some of the characters in ways FFIV’s modern successors haven’t.

The best example is probably the protagonist Cecil’s battle to become a paladin – played out as a boss fight where the player must be passive against his former dark knight form. This, along with how Cecil’s original form used magic that drained his health felt like a very functional method of story-though-mechanics. Things like this also show how Square was really able to play with RPG systems in their older games in order to convey certain challenges or story events. This more than anything else reminds me why they were considered masters of the genre in those days.

Back in the day things like that may have been seen as a crutch because that was literally the best game developers could do. During this console generation this has actually become a trend for developers again, well mostly western developers who were already doing it on the PC, but it’s kind of surprising to see Super NES games that did basically the same thing 20 years ago before they possessed the power of CG and the CD-ROM.

All that said, narrative mechanics are only part of the deal – the actual content of FFIV’s story is pretty simple compared to most of today’s RPGs. The story more closely resembles children’s fairy tales (and maybe Saturday morning TV) than what Square and many other developers put out post-FFVII. Despite this, I appreciated the setup as well as the central characters.

Actually, the first time I read about FFIV’s story was in some bygone gaming guide many years ago back when it was still called “Final Fantasy II” in the US. The way the book’s story primer described the main characters as distressed soldiers fighting for their reputations made them seem more mature than simple heroes. Finally digging into the GBA version I was pretty quickly interested in how the story starts out in moral ambiguity which probably would’ve felt unique and cool to a kid playing this game in 1991.

Looking back though, possibly a major thing that allows me to think this way about FFIV’s characters is how basic their depictions are. If you look at Cecil’s 3D character models that Square made for more recent versions of the game he looks like your standard bishonen. Rosa and Kain also at the very least follow common anime and JRPG tropes in their design.

This is what has turned a lot of people off of post-PlayStation Japanese games, but for all we know this is what the developers were imagining all along. We couldn’t know because back in the 8 and 16-bit days all we had to go on were tiny sprites. It was a couple steps removed from reading a book – you could imagine whatever badass Tolkien-style characters you wanted. The difference between Western and Japanese box arts for a lot of these games didn’t help either.

Anyway, the point is, despite older JRPGs feeling very sparse by today’s standards, it’s nice to go back and be reminded why we enjoyed the genre so much in the first place. FFIV is a game that knows how much I’m going to interact with it and plays that up as much as a 1991 console game can.


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