Inside the oasis town of Kaipo, Cecil rented a room to heal the girl’s injuries, because Inns apparently really do work like that even in a narrative context. When she had slightly recovered, he tried to talk to her. She mostly ignored him, as is only reasonable, and he went to bed in defeat. He was woken in the middle of the night by Baron soldiers, who had arrived by airship to retrieve him and kill the girl, so he got up and fought them off, starting his rebellion.
You thought I was joking about the not taking his armour off when he slept, didn’t you?
In fighting off the Baron soldiers, it seems Cecil had gained the girl’s trust, and they exchanged names: she’s Rydia, the young woman who normally ordains this game’s promotional art. But for the time being, she’s like, eight, so we’ve got to treat her like a fragile egg. Hey, let’s buy her weapons for physical combat! No armour, though, that’d be silly. You don’t put a child in armour before you bring them into combat! She only has 30 HP, by the way, so the fight in the ruins of Mist? I think it might have been a sham. Geeze, you just can’t murder children these days.
After finally finding a way to put the level 1 child in the back row. This game’s row system is really weird. Instead of simply letting you place party members in the front or back rows as you please (like in FFII, and Final Fantasy game to follow that I’m aware of), in FFIV slots 1, 3 and 5 are the front row and slots 2 and 4 are back row, or you can swap them and make 1/3/5 the back row and 2/4 the front. There is no other acceptable party layout. As strange as it may sound, this will never bite you in the ass because FFIV tightly controls your party loadout (excusing the late-game in the GBA and Complete Collection versions)… maybe a little too tightly. I’m getting to one of the most infamous elements of this game’s design, but maybe it’s better you see her in action, so let’s hold off for now.
Scrounging town, we discovered that Cecil had another guest: Rosa had arrived during the night in hopes of finding Cecil, but had caught a fever and was now bedridden. The doctor (or homeowner, or whoever this was) told us to find a certain jewel to cure her. This sounded stupid up until someone explained it was a “jewel” in the way a pearl is a “jewel”: it’s a sparkly whatnot formed by the bodily processes of some animal. Pearls dissolved in wine were absolutely used in cockamamie medical remedies in history so this actually holds up fairly well! The animal we needed was an antlion from the north, past the “Underground Waterway,” which was the only passage to the north. Naturally, the only passage to the north turned out to be one-way, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The medicine man added that the antlions could be found in a pit only northern royalty can access, though he didn’t clarify why that was. Legal reasons? Magical? We never actually learn the details!
Dragging an 8-year-old behind us, we began to grind, a far more casual grind than we were used to during the NES era. This grind was designed to get Rydia to a decent level and build her spell set. We grinded until she stopped gaining spells for a time (also because her next XP requirement was just a bit higher) and went for the Waterway.
Just inside the cave, we found a man named Sage Tellah, who was off to stop his daughter’s elopement with “a Bard”. Wow, you’re off to ruin someone’s love life against their will? We’re off to ruin this kid’s childhood against her will! We should totally team up! Wow, yesterday sucked but today is looking up!
Tellah was an obvious guest party member. He had a few good white and black spells, well ahead of us, which is pretty much the typical definition of Guest mages. He also had the ability to cast a random spell, though this was more likely fail, and when it did work, only once cast something that wasn’t already on his default list. I have since discovered this move was trimmed in the original NA SNES release. I’m not surprised, it’s complete junk.
The three of us went through the cave and eventually got a tutorial on mid-dungeon save points/Tent points. Goodbye free saving, but also goodbye to FFIII’s “bite me” system of no save points at all! During this tutorial, Cecil and Tellah talked about Rydia in a way that would have been super creepy if she weren’t a child, and as you can imagine, still kind of was.
Part way through the cave we found a rod for Rydia that allowed her cast Blizzard at a single target at by using it as an item. This finally made her useful due to the game’s drought-like treatment of MP. This is important to understanding the way the game plays, so I had best explain in detail. While FFIV returned to the MP system of FFII (and the series has largely stayed there ever since), characters have very sparse MP bars compared to other games of the same sort, while Ethers and other forms of MP restoration are few and far between, Ethers not being available for sale until one of the last stores in the entire game, and for a huge price! This demanded some form of magical rationing at every point in the game (perhaps in emulation of the spell point system from FFI and III) either by strapping your primary caster to the back of the party with chains, or by using a secondary casters to supplement your healing so that your primary casters will still be primed for emergencies. This was one of the latter: Rydia’s new Ice Rod dramatically improved our combat potential, as she could now cast spells in every single combat, sparing Tellah’s MP for later.
Around this point in the dungeon, Rydia reached Level 10, after which I officially promoted her to Captain.
I told Kyle, as we trudged through this cave, that I curse the 16-bit generation’s mentality of making everything bigger, regardless of its actual impact on the gameplay. It’s the “Super” mentality. Super Metroid was a bigger version of the original Metroid, Super Mario World used “World” as a way of communicating that the game is bigger than Super Mario 3. The 16-bit generation saw the birth of what I call “content culture,” when games, as early as Sword of Vermillion (a Genesis launch title), tried to sell their games based on their length and feature count, no matter how vapid the features. How big was the Waterway? Between sheer size and slow, MP rationing battles with a party made up of mostly casters, it took us almost as long to pass through the Waterway as it did the entirety of Arubboth, the final dungeon in FFII’s Soul of Rebirth. The whole. Damn. Thing. The Underground Waterway was so long that we had to change our rules on when we passed the controller off to one another, a rule that had stayed constant over 11 Mega Man games, 6 Mega Man X games, the three predominantly single-player Trauma Center games, 4 Kingdom Hearts games, and 2 previous Final Fantasy games! A 26 game, fully reliable pattern torn up by the industry’s 25-years-and-counting dick measuring contest.
Luckily, encounter rates were low compared to previous games (that lesson was learned from the 8-bit era, at least), but that doesn’t make walking about a boring cave any less boring. Caves are perhaps inevitable in RPGs, especially with their over-reliance on mountains as obstacles, but they’re still going to be screen after screen of rock and earth, and the only thing unique about this dungeon is that this time, the earth is wet! And that won’t even hold up because they still reused this tileset later in the game, so it’s not unique at all! A comparison must be made to Phantasy Star 2, a contemporary to FFIV. As you may recall if you read my Classic Journal, the dungeons in PS2 were made of components that all looked alike; were filled with under-levelled monsters in the same repeating groups, making them boring as sin; and went on far too long. Additionally, PS2 dungeons often had a line that, once crossed, unleashed new monsters showed up that were still boring but were suddenly too powerful, a trick the designers used so that the super-long dungeons could keep up the content instead of just being smaller and less boring.
Thankfully, the Waterway was more visually interesting than PS2’s unending girders and pipes, but it was determined to frustrate our limited supply of MP. Zombies refused to die without at least 10 MP of magic thrown at them (or liberal application of Rydia’s new spell rod, saving the day). Enemies called Tiny Mages used Osmose to leach our limited supply of magic, while Tellah’s attempts to cast Osmose failed against them, as Tiny Mages do not actually have much MP of their own (also, because this version lacks the Osmose-related changes introduced in the DS version that make the spell actually useful). Later games in the series would give almost all enemies MP for purposes like Osmose, while FFIV gives most enemies 0 MP because they have no spells, not realizing the consequences!
We finally reached the boss, which was some giant octopus thing that dropped like a fly. It was another of those “what am I doing wrong” hair-pulling moments. The entire game up to the boss seems determined to tell us we were in trouble and doing something wrong, only for the boss to act like we were right on base. Heck, past the base. What can I add at this point?
With our party was finally on the other side of the dungeon, we went to the nearby castle of Damcyan, only to see it bombed off the face of the map by the Red Wings right in front of our eyes. Oh, that is record-breaking bad timing, right there. Inside, we found the castle full of the dead and dying, including Tellah’s daughter, Anna. (We apparently missed a treasure room while we were going in.) We also learned that the castle’s Fire Crystal had been stolen. Anna’s Bard fiancé was still alive, and Tellah went after him with his staff, uttering the infamous line “You spoony bard!” I had never even imagined that infamous, silly piece of localization was uttered in the middle of such a dramatic scene!
Luckily for the bard, Edward, Anna had enough strength for some last words. She told her father that her fiancé is a bard, true, but is also the kingdom’s prince(-now-king?). She died soon after. After her passing, Cecil and Tellah interrogated the bard, who told them that the Red Wings took the castle’s Crystal. He also told us that Cecil had been replaced as head of the Red Wings by a man named Golbez, who was terrifyingly powerful, and yet Cecil had never heard of the guy. Tellah stormed off to wreak vengeance on Golbez, and Cecil tried to stop him, only for Tellah to slap him so hard that, even though Cecil was decked in armour, he was pushed aside. Tellah left unopposed. No one was going to stop him after that. I sure wouldn’t.
It was about then that Kyle and I realized we had dragged Rydia into a castle full of butchered men and women, where she got to watch one of her allies’ children die in front of both him and her beloved. We… probably shouldn’t have been laughing through the rest of that scene.
Showing the level of tact that brought us into this situation, Cecil decided this was an ideal time to ask the Prince if he could direct them to the antlion pit. This featured the incredibly timely and even more hilarious scene of Rydia telling the Prince to suck it up and stop crying. After all, she says, if she’s not upset by what happened (like the piles and piles of human corpses), adults don’t have a right to be upset! Holy crap, I could not breathe. You cannot buy or plan that kind of comedic timing. The newly born in-joke about Cecil dragging Rydia into charnel houses combined perfectly with the actual dialogue in a moment of brilliance.
Realizing Cecil loves Rosa as much as he loved Anna, Edward decided to go with us, probably because everyone he knew and loved was dead. His stats are sub-par for our party (he’s only at Level 6) so we assumed he’d be permanent for the time being. Oh, and he gave us a hovercraft. I realize not everyone has a titan-slayer’s canoe in stock, but the shift feels wrong somehow.
That’s where we left off our first session of FFIV. Desensitized, angry child capable of reshaping continents. Depressed bard dragged away from his few remaining responsibilities to help someone else’s love life with an insectoid hairball. Best. Opening. Ever.