Final Fantasy IV has been released and re-released many, many times since its 1991 SNES release – so many times that I really don’t care to count. One site listed seven releases. That may or may not be true, but it might as well be. Widely acclaimed on its release, FFIV is still variously called “a timeless masterpiece,” “revolutionary,” and, generally, one of the greatest roleplaying games of all time. Since the game has been re-released so many times, game reviewers have had many opportunities to reconsider their opinions. The game soldiers on undiminished, almost canonized. The quotes above are from reviews of the 2008 Nintendo DS version.
To steal a line from Tom Bissell: “This is, in a word, preposterous.” Any honest appraisal of FFIV cannot regard it much more than a simplistic fantasy story that alternates between juvenile storytelling and – at best – pretty-okay-for-a-video-game. A group of heroes must recover magic crystals to stop a bad guy who wants to destroy everybody, etc. FFIV‘s status as a “masterpiece” is even more dubious considering most English-speaking gamers played the notoriously awful American localization. Released as Final Fantasy II in the US, this version is perhaps most famous for the line “You spoony bard!”, but almost no conversation passes without characters delivering wooden, awkwardly translated dialogue. A re-localized version would not be released in America until 2001, a decade later.
Though the game is badly flawed (and, I’ll say it, sometimes just bad), one can’t deny the widespread affection gamers have for FFIV. Some of that affection can be chalked up to the fact that many people played this game as impressionable kids, but it would be too simple to wrap this up as a case of runaway nostalgia. I myself played the game growing up, but I have only the vaguest memories of that experience. Replaying the original American release recently, I found myself enjoying the game a surprising amount, considering the groan-worthy dialogue and tedious JRPG-isms. (When was the last time I had to grind for XP?) Though the game suffers from 20 years of hindsight, FFIV has much to recommend it, and for a game released in 1991, is admirably ambitious.
The game’s most apparent strengths almost go without saying: Square Enix (then called Square) has long been known for their excellent production values. Long-time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu provided the game’s soundtrack, which holds up well today and lends a certain weight to a game otherwise populated by chunky, cartoonish characters and often-dull, repetitive environments. (For example, listen to the classic Prelude, the Main Theme, or the Moon Theme.) Yoshitaka Amano, another frequent Final Fantasy collaborator and well-known artist, provided character designs that, though limited by the newly-released SNES, are still impressive.
Indeed, FFIV is an early example of those characteristics of the Final Fantasy series which give it its lasting appeal: high production values; memorable characters; and a strange mixture of fantasy and science-fiction totally distinct from the Tolkien/D&D tradition that dominates western fantasy. Whether you enjoy the Final Fantasy games or not, it’s hard to argue that they’re unoriginal. Instead of mage towers being dusty medieval spires, they’re industrial and near-psychedelic. You will meet an underground kingdom of dwarves, but these dwarves command airships and tank battalions. You will fight many monsters lurking in underground caverns, but these monsters are so bizarre as to be almost nonsensical. (And let’s not forget you eventually get a spaceship and fly to the moon.)
Beyond all of that, though, FFIV attempts to tell a story with a sophistication largely unprecedented in 1991. To describe the story in broad strokes, it sounds quite ambitious: a prominent knight in the service of a corrupt kingdom must repent for his ignoble past and stop a dark figure from capturing a set of powerful crystals. In the process, he meets a variety of interesting characters, travels to a variety of unique locations, uncovers startling new information, and experiences more plot twists than I can really remember. Characters join your side, leave your side, double-cross you, and die with a frequency that would make George R.R. Martin blanch. Besides Cecil, the main character, ten party members join your party throughout the game; nine of them are captured, badly injured, betray you, die, or are presumed dead at some point. Even Cecil undergoes a major transformation early in the game, transforming from a dark knight to a paladin.
One scene in particular exemplifies the unique sort of storytelling that gives FFIV its strange appeal. Late in the game, you encounter a strange pair of Frankenstein-esque creations in what seems to be a boss fight. One of your characters, the ninja prince Edge, recognizes these monsters as his parents: the king and queen of Eblan. It turns out that Dr. Lugae (a mad scientist who you had previously met) captured Edge’s parents and transformed them into hideous monsters. Over the course of this fight, the monsters gain some sort of consciousness and tell Edge that they cannot be saved and must die. During this entire scene, you (the player) are in a battle, and have full control over your battle actions – you can attack these monsters freely, though it quickly becomes unclear what you should do. Can you kill them? Should you kill them? Will you be forced to? It is a bizarre, confusing, and (somewhat) affecting scene that not only advances the story, but uses the game’s battle system to enhance the drama.
FFIV is packed with these sorts of unusual encounters, and to the game’s credit, they are admirable attempts at marrying game mechanics and story, and admirable attempts at telling a sophisticated story in an untested medium. Unfortunately, these scenes are not nearly as affecting as they are in concept, hindered by unskilled writing, thinly developed characters, and the difficulties inherent in telling a fantasy epic with chunky SNES sprites. (At one point, after a boss fight, a major villain is supposed to topple dramatically off a bridge – but this is represented by a small, generic sprite sliding downwards with a Wile E. Coyote-esque whistling sound.)
FFIV‘s ambition far exceeds its ability, but maybe in 1991 that ambition was enough, and maybe it still is today. While I think FFIV is too generously praised, I have a hard time criticizing it for faults I still see in games 20 years later. FFIV is much more evidently flawed than the RPGs of today, but are the RPGs of today truly improved, or are they just better at disguising their flaws? After all, game stories are still juvenile, still simplistic, and heroes are still searching for magical crystals – but maybe we call them Star Maps instead and think that’s better.