Final Fantasy IV (originally released as “FFII” in the West) exists on a strange plane. We originally played FFIV immediately after Final Fantasy II, and in doing so, Kyle and I entered an era that neither of us knew very much about at all. They’re not like FFI or VI, which I knew the general plot of, or FFVII – X, which Kyle knew. Neither of us had really played the games from FFII – V. Kyle had played enough of IV to know a major plot event about a quarter of the way in, but he’d forgotten most of what preceded and never got further. What makes IV different from more recent games is that IV is widely considered a SNES classic. It makes sense that we haven’t played, say, XIII, since it was so new and came after Final Fantasy’s heyday. It also makes sense that we had never played the games that weren’t translated until late (II, III, V). It doesn’t make sense that we had never played IV. Well, time to rectify that.
We played the game on the Complete Collection, which is a bit of a misnomer. It includes both The After Years (the sequel) and Interlude (a short bridge scenario), but as far as the main game is concerned… Final Fantasy IV’s version history is an article unto itself. The Complete Collection is similar to the original Japanese version of FFIV in terms of difficulty, meaning it’s harder than the original international release, but factors are borrowed from easier versions to make the game more complete that make the game easier (like permanent stat-boosting items). It also includes content from the GBA (bonus dungeons) and DS (music) versions, but not all: it’s missing a lot of the DS version’s new content, it has none of the 3D version’s rebalancing (for better or worse), or even the 3D version’s bonus bosses. For us, this version will more than serve, and I like the new pixel art, but if you really wanted to play FFIV “Complete,” you’d have to play virtually every version ever made, since they all have something unique to them.
Screenshots in this Journal come from Parazzing’s longplay of the J2E translation of FFIV on the Super Famicom, available from World of Longplays (YouTube). If you’re not familiar with the complicated official and fan translation history of FFIV, I recommend the in-depth Legends of Localization comparison by professional translator Clyde Mandelin.
Final Fantasy IV begins not long after the invention of the Airship in its world, and is the first time the series has ever consider the ramifications of a world-changing technological development beyond “it causes environmental problems.” This game’s Cid comes from the improbably named Kingdom of Baron. The king was so impressed by the airship that he had it incorporated into his army and begins to conquer territory. The soldiers in the Airship division are called the Red Wings, and they’re currently captained by Lord Cecil Harvey, the king’s foster son. Cecil is a Dark Knight (the class’ true debut after the Mystic Knights of FFIII Famicom), a role that involves using Dark equipment, Dark energy, and an all-around bad attitude. Unfortunately for the King, Cecil is having outbreaks of kindness and is beginning to doubt his mission. More vocal than Cecil are his marines, who are so loud about their complaints that it’s a wonder they haven’t been arrested for sedition.
(Ed. One of the major issues with this opening is that it isn’t clear how long the King of Baron has been waging his campaign against the rest of the world. How many Crystals have been stolen? A lot of people act like the monsters have become regular sights lately. It turns out this attack on Mysidia may have been the very first attack in the entire campaign, so as much as that confuses the dialogue about monsters, it does explain why no one has been arrested yet.)
Cecil has just finished stealing the Water Crystal from the village of Mysidia. Yes, like in Final Fantasy II. IV is filled with Final Fantasy II references: either Square was trying to connect the series with more than just Cids, or IV was considered a sequel in rough draft and the references were just left hanging. The Mysidians barely resisted, and Cecil shoved the giant Crystal into his pants like it was a shipment of mythril. By the way, why the Mysidians didn’t resist is never explained – in fact, when you meet them, they act like they did fight back and some died, making it certain that Square wrote this first scene so Cecil could mope about abusing power and the later scene so he could feel guilty about murder, even though they both rely on a different root scenario and so can’t both be valid. I know that Cecil’s early development is beloved by fans of this game, so I hate to be talking about it like this, but seriously, sit back and look at this: the entire opening sequence is manipulative to the point of contradicting later plot details.
As the scene progresses, the airship is attacked by monsters, which Cecil vaporizes with items to save the cinematic programmers the trouble. Fun fact: these items don’t even exist outside this cutscene in many versions of the game, like the original western SNES release. Cecil and his men wonder if the monsters are punishment from The Gods That Likely Won’t Show Up In This Game, but it’s pretty obvious to the player that they’re here because Baron is messing with the Crystals, gods or no gods.
When Cecil returns home, he’s greeted by a noble named Baigan. Baigan either picks up on Cecil’s wariness or is scheming to ditch him, so he reports to the King that Cecil is losing his loyalty. Cecil hands over the crystal to the King, a man that “raised him like a father” but doesn’t have an in-game portrait, has less than five frames of animations and doesn’t even share more than twenty words with Cecil, leaving no doubt in my heart that he is of critical plot importance.
Unfortunately, Cecil can’t stay quiet about all of Baron’s recent atrocities, considering that the writers have been swatting him with a newspaper about those atrocities ever since the game began. Cecil asks the King what the deal is with seizing the Crystals. The King does not answer, but instead demotes Cecil and removes his command. He then orders Cecil to kill an “Eidolon” sighted nearby, and after that, to go on a fetch quest: deliver a signet ring to the village of Mist. Not much later in the game, everyone will act like it was common knowledge that Mist is full of gifted Summoners, but this portion of the game is determined to be low-detail and mysterious, so you go into the valley not knowing a thing about its residents, the portrait of military intelligence. Hell, I still don’t even know how to pronounce “Eidolon.”
At this point, we meet Kain Highwind, who bursts into the throne room. Kain is Cecil’s foster brother or best friend or something to that effect (this version of the game never makes their relationship clear), and is nominally the leader of Baron’s Dragoons. Besides Kain, we will only see two other dragoon in Baron’s military, and they never do any fighting. I like to think they’ve been frittering away the King’s budget in an empty barracks, wondering how long it will take anyone to notice. Kain tells the King that demoting Cecil is unfair, and so the king orders Kain sent on the mission as well. Kain and Cecil cheer one another up about the mission by taking bets on who will kill the Eidolon. They briefly talk about how Cecil became a Dark Knight because it was the best way to get a promotion in the Baron military (oh that’s not suspicious at all) while Kain just became a Dragoon.
(Kain later inspired the name of the little boy from Deist in FFII, “Kane,” who was not named in the original Famicom FFII).
On the way to bed, Cecil runs into the local Cid, who is an old friend, and also Rosa, a White Mage and also his girlfriend. Rosa’s just a little pissed off that Cecil is back after a long trip but is only allowed to stay for one day. Later that night, Cecil talks to Rosa to complain about the king’s manic drive to get the Crystals. After a long conversation, Rosa goes home and Cecil goes to bed. Like every other Final Fantasy character, this involves walking into the bed sprite, the sheet covering his torso and his sprite still showing him in plate mail and helmet. It was acceptable in the NES games but now it just looks stupid.
In the morning, Cecil and Kain headed to the nearby town, where they watched some woman dance for far too long to really be interesting to the player. There were a few obvious later-game secrets scattered about as well. The weapon shop was locked, so we hit the road to the northwest and the “dark valley” of “Mist”. Yeah, visibility’s gonna be awesome.
Time to talk about mechanics. Cecil and Kain are both Level 10. …Wait, “Captain” Cecil was only level 10? I suppose it’s better than Level 1! This is a world without war. The captains were, at least, heavily equipped, making the local monsters a joke and giving us time to get used to the controls, as I feel is ideal in the early game of a turn based RPG. The game is the first to use Square’s Active Time Battle system, a system found primarily in the SNES trilogy of Final Fantasy games. This system essentially replaces the multi-attacks system from the NES game. Characters fill a bar that appears on the GUI in real time. The bar fills a rate based on their stats, and they can only be given orders after the bar is complete. At this point, another bar has to be filled before the action takes place (though common actions fill the second bar almost immediately). Enemies also work on this system, though you can’t see their bars at all. Abusing Marathon rules, we disabled the feature to have the bars continue filling when we’re on the complex Item or Spell menu (referred to by later games as “Semi-Active” mode), and enabled what we think is an After Years feature to swap between charged characters by pressing Triangle.
FFIV also introduces or re-standardizes a large number of soon-to-be modern RPG conventions. Characters gain levels the old-fashioned, level-based way again in this game. Unlike almost every other game (but like Super Mario RPG, of all things, despite that game being created five years later!), those characters that do gain magic gain it by levelling, not by shopping. Unlike FFIII, spells are MP based again. Characters also have skills tied to their class, making each character unique in its own way: Cecil has a group Darkness-element attack, which hurts him to use and is therefore useless (no splitters in this game – or at least, none that are nullified by dark attacks), and Kain has the Dragoon’s famous Jump attack. Characters cannot dual wield unless their class allows it, equipment is again class-locked, inventory space is limited and inns charge a flat fee.
In a way, the game is so modern that it almost comes off as flat. This is the template everyone else would follow during the RPG boom of the PSX era! FFIV feels like a companion to FFI in that regard: in setting a standard, FFIV gave up much of what makes the other Final Fantasies feel unique. It does have more depth than FFI, so anyone looking for a straightforward RPG may appreciate that, but it’s no surprise that the 3D remake rebalanced the entire game in its hurry to add new gameplay features! Unfortunately, I’m only playing FFIV 3D right now, at the time of editing, and this journal won’t be covering its particulars.
About the only antiquation still left in FFIV (that is to say, after many basic faults were fixed by the Complete Collection) is a mechanic borrowed from FFIII: the world map can only be seen by casting a spell, which means we’re never going to use it again, more than likely.
We sent our duo to the Mist Cavern, which no one so much as mentioned being on our route. They mentioned a valley, but absolutely not a cave. We set to work stripping the place of its treasures while some ghostly voice threatened us. Finally, we reached the far side and were attacked by a Mist Dragon, which our heroes decided (“eh”) was the Eidolon we were looking for. At the time, Kyle and I still weren’t sure what an Eidolon was, but we were easily swayed by this charismatic shoulder shrug. It turns out the term refers to summoned creatures in this game as well as in Final Fantasy IX and XII… which means there’s no way to tell what they look like at a glance, and Cecil and Kain really were just guessing! We killed the Mist Dragon, which frankly didn’t have a chance of killing us in turn after the game outright told us not to attack it in mist form. Thanks, ghostly exposition! Someone is dead because of you.
But seriously, thanks exposition: the 16-bit bosses finally have the ability to do more things than absorb HP damage and thunk us in turn. The Mist Dragon would have retaliated on us if we had attacked it in mist form, and similar complexities will dot many the bosses to come. Thank goodness for next-generation depth.
We reached the town of Mist on the opposite side of Mist Cave, and were only just starting to admire its startling lack of usable buildings (lacking front doors and the like) when the signet ring unleashed a wave of flame that destroyed the town, explaining the startling lack of usable buildings. In a dark but cutesy bit of self-reference, the flames from the ring looked like the reoccurring Bomb enemies from the series. I probably shouldn’t be calling the flaming deaths of dozens “cutsey” but there you are.
Cecil walked about with his armoured jaw on the floor at being used as a weapon of mass destruction. What, instead of being used as a weapon of darkness? He and Kain searched the town and found a girl mourning her mother. As it it turned out, she wasn’t a casualty of the bombs: the girl reveals that her mother was dead before the firestorm, as she was a summoner, and died at the same time as her Eidolon. Cecil, lacking volume control, started shouting about how they totally did that, wow, that wasn’t very cool of them too do that, was it Kain? You know, killing this little girl’s mother and leaving her an orphan. Oh, and then burning her town down. That wasn’t nice either, was it Kain? No? No? By the way, did we mention we’re responsible?
Still right in front of the little kid, Kain says they’re going to have to kill her too, since the king obviously wanted all of the summoners dead. When Cecil reacts badly to the idea of child murder, Kain says he was just joshing and wanted to make sure Cecil realized the King has to be stopped. But by this point, the little girl had started the world’s most justified panic attack, and when Mr and Mr Killed-Your-Mom tried to escort her out of town, she freaked out. I’m embarrassed to say this, but Kyle and I initially weren’t sure of why. This game will advance text at a rapid clip for the dumbest reasons, and so we keep missing lines of dialogue. Hell, it treats the D-pad as a valid button to advance dialogue, meaning we keep missing any text that shows up when walking (Ed: indeed, this is so bad that the latter is still happening to us during the After Years!).
Enough about GUI issues. Let’s tune in with our heroes, who at this point were beating a small child with bladed weapons to stop her from panicking. Kain, jump down on her from the sky with your spear! Cecil, go for the face!
…You can see why me might have been confused about that text we missed.
After causing almost 300 damage to a small innocent child (fairly hefty at this point in the game), the girl summoned a Titan and caused an earthquake so strong it actually wiped out the mountain pass to the east (by raising more mountains, as earthquakes do)… though it only did about a hundred damage to our party? Cecil woke to find that Kain was gone, the way home to the king that hates him and the woman that loves him had been destroyed, the girl was unconscious at his feet and, oh yeah! He’s in a desert. This is the best day ever!