In Depth Review: Final Fantasy II (IVj) [SNES]
No. Wait. That's not how Square put it... This, Final Fantasy 4 (or 2, in the US), was a game that took place before office buildings, before UPS, before cars, Materia and Guardian Forces. But enough with the stupid metaphorical intro and let's get down to the real shiznit, shall we? Final Fantasy 4 was a game that delivered innovations to the RPG genre, simple yet enjoyable gameplay, a soundtrack that swelled emotions, and a story that touched the heart long before rendered graphics played out poignant video scenes in full-motion. Final Fantasy 4 was and is a classic masterpiece.
At this point, questions may be flying around. "Why the near-perfect score? The game looked like crap. Where's my Materia??" Ask a true FFFanatic, and s/he'll tell you that visuals don't make a game. S/he'll also tell you that Final Fantasy 4 was the first game in the series to sport an active time battle system, in which you literally took turns in realtime -- when your character was ready, the command menu would be offered. If your enemy was ready, it'd attack you. It was the first game in the series to move away from its old turn-based system in which each character would be given commands, and then the round would play out. If you commanded your White Wizard to attack, but a character died in the round, what were you to do? No such worries in FF4 -- if your main character, Cecil, got smacked down, the White Wizard Rosa could cast Life on him when her turn came up. No psychic minds needed -- the game allowed for true, real-time reaction in battle.
"Well, alright, I'll give you that. But the game still looked dumb." Granted, FF4's tile-based graphics were far from pushing any kind of technological limits on the SNES. The characters in the map scenes were short and pudgy, only had two frames of animation when they walked, and didn't dress too colorfully. I offer: "So what." At the very least, it made some use of the SNES's extended color palette. The world map was colored appropriately and didn't look washed out (play FF1, 2, or 3 on the NES and you'll see what a difference the SNES hardware made). It employed some neat -- but not spectacular -- effects, such as the mode 7 during airship flight and screen "dizzies" while a character was walking around poisoned. And it was crisp and clear -- you could see where you were going and what you were doing; the tiling and level design didn't seem repetitive and dull, but rather cool at some points (such as the glowing lights and mechanical environments in the Tower of Zot). And consider: this game came out in 1991.
Knowing how old this game is, we can see how it scores high on originality. The "Fight -- Item" battle menus may seem ho-hum and standard now -- but this simple yet effective system (as well as the Active Time Battle system, original in itself) first surfaced on the SNES, in America, in Final Fantasy 4. It employed a penalty for running (losing gold pieces) -- a good idea that encouraged you to stick it out and fight for real, which was taken out of future Final Fantasy games. It also made use of front and back rows in battle, making for strategic placement of your characters. And what other game uses "spoony" as an adjective?
Of course, even if the game wasn't that original in other aspects, one thing that many players praise about Final Fantasy 4 is the magnificent story. The characters we encounter are deep and are well developed throughout the game. We grow with Cecil as he progresses forward from his role as a Dark Knight. We watch as an old man's quest for revenge comes to a bittersweet ending. We travel with our cast from the vast world above into the underground, and then all the way to the moon. And we receive a shock when true identities are revealed. The story has surprising twists and turns, but is never utterly confusing or outrageously convoluted. FF4's story is one of betrayal, tragedy, love, and forgiveness, and is truly the best one in this game series.
The story is further enhanced by the magnificent soundtrack provided by Nobuo Uematsu. Its tunes are almost as memorable as the splendid ones of FF6, and according to some, even surpass the sequel's soundtrack. Uematsu-sama blends touching, dynamic, quirky, happy and sinister tunes into the soundtrack and effectively and appropriately uses them where it is fit. To say that FF4's soundtrack is one of the finest of the role-playing game genre would be an immense understatement. As well done as the story is, the soundtrack helps to make it better than epic.
Thankfully, Square did not butcher the story with a horrible translation. It did, however, leave a few things out -- albeit small, trifle things.. When looking at the Japanese version compared with the Western one, Rosa and Cecil's relationship is less "obvious" (if you read the script). There are a few awkward phrases scattered here and there -- for example, Cecil's contempt for his actions is much better expressed if he were to have said, "I'm nothing more than a pathetic Dark Knight," rather than simply, "I'm just a Dark Knight." And of course, the infamous "spoony bard" incident. But otherwise, most of the game is translated well, and the story comes off fine. One minor complaint about the localization is that Square made FF4 "easier" for us westerners -- upon learning of this I felt a bit ripped off, but thankfully the game is still no easy cakewalk.
Trying to play through FF4 straight may leave you with some speed-bumps. Some encounters are somewhat difficult without leveling up beforehand (the Sealed Cave with the Wall may be irritating, for one) while small-time enemies can be defeated by sticking a paperweight on the "A" button and going to the toilet (most types of Imps). Furthermore, characters are not as customizable, as they are in FF7 or 8 (being able to equip any Materia on any character, or being able to draw any magic from any monster almost lets each character do whatever the player wants). Characters come already with a set character class, such as a White Wizard or a Dragoon, so you must work with the abilities they already have. It makes things a bit more challenging and strategic.
Common to Final Fantasy games, there are also things that you might miss that are unnecessary to complete the game. In the second half, there are things you can pick up, unexpected people you can reacquaint yourself with, and spells you can learn, that aren't really bluntly spelled out for you. There's even a totally hidden bridge of thin air that leads you to one of the games strongest weapons -- provided you can even find the bridge first. These little things will keep you returning to areas and looking around for more, so that you won't miss a beat. Other than that however, like many linear RPGs, Final Fantasy 4 may wear out its welcome quicker than something like Chrono Trigger, Metal Gear Solid or Resident Evil, with their multiple endings (or even fighting games which have secret characters to unlock).
Perfect-scoring replay value shouldn't be that much of a concern with FF4, though, because the game takes a healthy 30 to 40 hours to beat. Of course, you could try and rush through it in 20 or 25, missing quite a few things and struggling just to make a dent in the final boss as a result of not building up levels. But then there's no fun in rushing through games,is there?
Of course not. And Final Fantasy 4 is definitely not a game you want to rush through. It's a game whose moments need to be savored. The fact that Square didn't decide to fix up FF4 and bring it over in FF Anthology is a mystery, and a tragedy. Those who've kept the original FF2 (or FF4, depending) cartridge on your shelf for all this time, please for the love of god don't let it rot. You'd be doing one of Square's first classics a horrid injustice. I, for one, will never lose track of it, even if it's "just a videogame," and until and with Final Fantasy 9 as the only contender, Final Fantasy 4 will stay near the top of my all-time favorite games list, second to only Final Fantasy 6. Now go blow off that dust, and start reminiscing, or I'll send a spoony bard after you.