Posted by: seanmalstrom | December 28, 2013

22 years later… Final Fantasy IV

I got hit with major sickness before Christmas. When you feel really bad, you don’t want to sit at the computer. You even get bored just watching movies or TV shows. Yet, you’re in no shape for intense video games. What do you do?

You do what I’ve been doing whenever I get sick for twenty five years: play a JRPG.

Proving Yamauchi’s saying right that only depressed people play JRPGs, I am so sick that I can only press a few buttons at a time. Yet, the slow pace of the turn based combat keeps my mind occupied with the math calculations. My characters get stronger so I feel like I am progressing. So which game to play? I noticed I hadn’t played Final Fantasy IV in a long time so I fired up the emulator, cloned it to the big TV, and played on that. (Can’t play it on the Nintendo system because there is no account system. Stupid Nintendo.)

When I think back to Final Fantasy IV (II in the US), I think back to one of my favorite periods of gaming. The SNES had just been released. There was so much mystery about games back then. You see these beautiful screenshots of games like Castlevania IV or Super Ghouls and Ghosts and go, “Man, oh, man, that looks wonderful.” I would drool over these images in the Sears Christmas Catalog. (No joke! Sears had a Christmas Catalog, and there was a video game section in it.) Those 16-bit games looked like legendary artifacts in the ads with their really pretty images. You younger kids don’t realize how big of a jump 8-bit to 16-bit was!

Part of the mystery, I believe, was just how seriously high quality the games were back then. Take the delorean back with me to 1991. The SNES has just been launched. Super Mario World is on display at major retailers with Yoshi (his introduction). Other games you see are F-Zero and Pilotwings which are amazing for the obvious reasons. Other ones are Actraiser, Darius Twin, Final Fight, Gradius III, Hyperzone (WTF was HAL doing with that? hahaha), Paperboy 2, Populous, SimCity, Super Castlevania IV, Super Ghosts and Goblins, and Super R-Type (as a huge fan of R-type, I obviously drooled over this one). And then there was Final Fantasy II.

Final Fantasy II (SNES) seemed extremely mysterious to me since I could never get my hands on it. I was a MASSIVE fan of Final Fantasy I on the NES. At the time, I didn’t know this was Final Fantasy IV. Regardless, it was a sequel to my favorite game. Yet, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to sell the game. It was in stock nowhere. When I did find it in stock, it had the retail price of $90. “How can a game cost so much!?” I cried against the gaming gods. The lonesome Final Fantasy II would sit behind the glass panel like some gold in a vault. I would eventually buy the game, but it would be many years into the SNES lifecycle. The only way for me to play it would be to RENT it. And I rented it, rented it again, and again, and again. When you rent games, other people’s save files would be on them. Curious, I would load them up and the mystery of the game only grew. One save file had me when the party attacks Rubicant. Who is this Edge guy? Why does Rydia look different? Why does Cecil look different? What is going on!? Imagine that one time I load up a save file at the end of the game, and I find not only am I in a majestic palace full of the crystals, but if I walk outside I discover I am on ANOTHER PLANET!!!!!!! This game just fired up my imagination like nothing else. (I did purchase Final Fantasy VI (III) day one when it came out in the United States. It was also very expensive game. It was also TOTALLY worth it.)

The game has such a brilliant opening.

The title screen is very minimalist with its pretty scale-like harp theme. Classy. If there is anything that has been lost from the older Final Fantasy and the newer, it is the class. Comparing Final Fantasy to other games, back then, is like comparing an orchestra to a punk rock concert. Both are fun, but only one exudes a type of class.

What steals the show is the music. The music is the main vehicle of conveying emotion throughout the game. What emotion is being conveyed? Heroism of the epic sort. This has been lost from games of today. While people might say, “Malstrom, these are cutscenes, the things you say you hate!” But the characters don’t say anything. All they have are single lines. The music carries the viewer through.

Classic gaming also has the ‘endless plains’ feeling with the world design. Mode 7 with the Airwings might seem cheesy today, but I feel like I am flying over an epic world. The epic world was on display within the first ten seconds of the game! You were flying over it! And it wasn’t ‘background fodder’. You could, and will, walk around throughout that world. Even places like Mysdia where you take the crystal is a place you get to play in later. There is nothing shown that doesn’t exist to the player. The characters might run around, nod to each other, but there is no disconnect between the gaming world and the story world as cutscenes do.

Lastly, the character designs are just… great. I always thought Kain and his ‘jump’ being super cool, and I still do today. Cecil was a dark knight. It is rare when you start the game as the bad guy!

While the game starts you off fenced in and leading you to areas, this was no different from Final Fantasy I except it used harder and harder monsters. It isn’t so much the story that kept me playing as it was the constant surprises. Oh? The box opens and you torch the village. Oh, the boss you killed was the girl’s mother? Oh, the girl summons a Titan and creates a giant earthquake wiping you out? All of these were unexpected surprises. They were certainly nothing I experienced in Final Fantasy I.

When I first played Final Fantasy IV, I thought it being ‘II’ meant that it was a continuation of Final Fantasy I’s universe. In other words, the civilizations had been rebuilt, and airships in the sky was a normal thing. There were crystals of the elements just as there were in Final Fantasy I. There were bosses of the elements too. Interestingly, the first time I finished Final Fantasy IV, I thought it explained the high technology of Final Fantasy I being from the Lunarians and that in Final Fantasy III, we might see what happened to the moon or Cecil and Rosa’s descendants. (This continuation of the main world is something that is done in the Ultima series so I expected the same. Imagine my disappointment when the fantasy world kept resetting with each game. Oh well…)

I STILL love this overworld theme. Makes me feel like I am in a fantasy world full of magical things.

As I replay the game 22 years later, I think I hate everything Edward in the game. Some of the dungeons’ difficulty seem uneven. The Dark Elf dungeon and battle seems harder than it should. But once you are done there, you go to Golbez’s futuristic temple thing.

As I replayed Final Fantasy IV, I realized it wasn’t the ‘story’ that I found intriguing at all. To the contrary, I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED that the bosses chase you! In reality, the gameplay is set up where the boss sits there and where you walk past a certain point, the boss battle begins. However, the game tried to cover that up as if the bosses had personalities of their own and were just sitting in a room waiting for you to come to them. Milon, the fiend of Earth, ambushes you as you get to the top of Mount Ordeals. When he dies, he ambushes you again! The Water Fiend is actually the King of Baron. And the Air Fiend ambushes you right after you rescue Rosa. All these elemental boss attacks are unexpected or supposed to be. Rubicant tries to do ‘honor’ by healing you all up and then attacking you.

I really don’t think game makers realize how important it is to make their villains have personality and be perceived to be active agents in the world. I would love the Koopa Kids to fly around, chase Mario, cause mischief, instead of just sitting in a room at the top of a castle. Regardless, Final Fantasy IV pulled off villains with personalities and none of theme seem to wait for you to come to them. The game’s script has them chasing you.

I was blown away the first time I went underground. To this day, it is my favorite part of the game.

Ahh, the Tower of Babel music. You hate the dungeon but love the music! Am I the only one who kept stopping just to listen to the music? Was I the only one who hated the random battles because they kept resetting the music? hah!

Classic Final Fantasy appealed to me because it did mythology correct. Dragon Quest and others did the fantasy thing well enough. Western context is placing the past as primitive and the future as having ‘better technology’. But in nearly all mythology, the ‘better technology’ is in the past while it is the present and future that is primitive. It is the Golden Age to Silver Age to Bronze Age thing. Very few games pulled something like that off. Ultima did by accident (technology decays throughout the games. Ultima I had merchants who sold laser guns and space ships. Exodus was a computer.)

This song melds with the battle to create something like a drugged experience. There is nothing like when Zeromus uses Big Bang right when the song crescendos. It’s like your party is flying through the universe, you have Meteos, Big Bangs, and all this other sort of stuff going off.

The game ends in mass weddings and the warriors becoming kings and queens of their own kingdoms (which is exactly how most mythologies end).

I still enjoy this game. It is consistently fun. There is not one bad song in the entire game. With the exception of Edward, there are no characters I hate. I like Palom and Porum hitting each other. I like Edge being a cocky son-of-a-bitch. One thing I don’t see games do anymore that I really, really love is your own party members conversing among themselves. (One of the reasons why I love Ultima VII so much.) It is nice to see that you aren’t commanding a bunch of satellites but personalities.

I believe that Final Fantasy II SNES version is the easy version of IV. That has probably made the game age better since the turn based gameplay hasn’t aged as well. (Seriously, how many people replay Final Fantasy I on the NES aside from me?)

I expect to replay Final Fantasy IV years from now. What keeps me coming back? Perhaps it is the constant variety in settings. Perhaps it is the wicked cool 16-bit sprite design. Perhaps it is the ‘endless plains’ feeling the overworlds project. Perhaps it is the awesome music. And perhaps, it is a combination of all of these to create an experience where you constantly feel heroic at every part of the game.


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