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Final Fantasy IV: 30th anniversary

Thirty years ago today, Final Fantasy II arrived on the Super Nintendo. What we didn't know at the time was that we were getting a slimmed-down version of the Japanese Final Fantasy IV.

It's a tragedy that II and III got skipped here, but the reason was valid at the time. Final Fantasy didn't make it to the U.S. until 1990, three years after its Japanese release. A complete prototype translation of II was made for the NES, but Square Soft decided a Super Nintendo sequel in 1991 made more financial sense. Every major NES hit was getting a Super sequel at that time. Had II been released here, it probably would've been slammed for looking dated and being hard-as-nails. No one in America was disappointed when we instead got Final Fantasy IV (disguised as II) on Super Nintendo in 1991!

One of the game's strengths is the wide cast of rotating characters. Instead of rolling up a custom party at the beginning à la Dungeons & Dragons, you get to experience all the classes as people come and go. The main character, Cecil, is the only constant, and even he undergoes a class change. Each character has a unique personality and role to play in the story. The downside of this rotating-character system is that you don't get to customize your party at all.

Final Fantasy IV also introduced a key innovation: Active Time Battle. Instead of inputting everyone's commands at once, then watching the action, battles take place in real time, with different actions having different charge times. This makes battles less predictable and more interesting.

FF IV has long been heralded for its epic plot, which seemed very intricate by the low standards of 1991: a mysterious villain named Golbez is trying to acquire the iconic Crystals of the four elements, which will give him frightful power. Each Crystal has a corresponding Elemental Lord [Fiend] (like in the original FF). In the opening cinematic, Cecil is ordered to steal the Water Crystal from the peaceful mages of Mysidia, sending him into a crisis of conscience. The story has romance, death, betrayal, a cartoonish villain, and unexpected revelations that will take you into the underworld and the heavens. When you play it as an adult, you realize how silly and clichéd most of it is, but it made an impact at a time when video-game plots bordered on non-existent and were often confined to the instruction booklet. Even as a kid I rolled my eyes at how many characters sacrifice themselves only to miraculously survive!
Like its predecessors, this game has a lot of random encounters and wandering through labyrinthine dungeons opening treasure chests. This can get tedious, but the story elements, frequent boss fights, and humorous script help keep you engaged. It helps that none of the dungeons is very long and you never have to grind for levels or money.

The Cast
Many of the things that were novel to Westerners were in fact from the previous two Famicom games. Cecil was not the first Dark Knight: that was Leon from II. Similarly, his upgraded Paladin class is functionally identical to a Knight (the upgraded form of the Warrior [Fighter] from Final Fantasy) with the Knight's Cover ability from III. Cover lets him take all hits a selected ally would receive and automatically protects anyone at critical HP.
The coolest character is Kain the Dragoon. Again, we didn't know it at the time, but the first spear-wielding Dragoon was Ricard in II. The Dragoon's ability to Jump off screen—skipping a turn and avoiding all attacks to deal double damage when he lands—likewise was added in III. Kain is infamous for falling prey to the villain Golbez's mind control and betraying Cecil and friends!

Rosa is the stereotypical female White Mage. Cecil's supportive girlfriend and kidnap victim (of course), she uses a bow and arrow, which reminds me of the Ranger class from III, which also had access to low-level White Magic. Her Aim ability increases her accuracy with a bow.

The only other female character is Rydia. She is a green-haired, green-clad Summoner [Caller] (another class from III), who can summon powerful magical beings, which have become staples of the series. Rydia is one of my all-time favorite FF characters.

Edge is a Ninja you get late in the game. In the original FF, the Ninja was a class upgrade obtained by the Thief, which is why Edge has the Steal ability (again from III). Instead of being able to cast low-level Black Magic, however, Edge has his own unique set of offensive and defensive spells called Ninjutsu [Ninja]. He also has the Throw ability from III's Ninja, allowing him to throw weapons and Shurikens [Stars] for massive damage. You want to save these for the final boss, Zeromus. Edge was the only character who could rival Kain for pure awesomeness in the eyes of young boys of the early 90's.
Tellah is a Sage on a quest to avenge the death of his daughter, Anna, who eloped with Prince Edward. As in III, the Sage is the ultimate magic-user, able to cast all White and Black Magic spells. Since this would be too strong at the beginning of the game, Tellah is very old and has forgotten all of his powerful spells! He gets them back later in the game, but due to a plot point about him seeking the ultimate Black Magic, Meteor [Meteo], he can never get more than 98 MP. This is annoying since you have to keep feeding him Ethers!

On the menu, Edward's class is listed as "Prince," but he's really a Bard (yet another class from III) with the Sing ability, which may put an enemy to sleep, confuse it, or silence it. Edward can also Hide, which removes him from the screen for a round. These abilities are terrible, and since Edward's physical attack with harps is weak, he's become infamous as the worst character.

Yang is a Monk with the Kick ability, which hits all enemies. Nintendo of American forbade religious imagery, which is why the Monk class was called Black Belt on the NES and Karate here! Yang has a funny side quest about waking him from a coma using his wife's Frying Pan.
Palom and Porom are Black and White Mage twins, respectively, who have the Twincast [Twin] ability. This lets them cast one of two powerful offensive spells. Palom and Porom are comic relief. Palom is arrogant and rude to his elders, while Porom struggles to keep him in line. They are in your party only briefly, as they turn themselves into stone to save everyone. 

Cid built the Red Wings air force and helps out with all things airship-related. An airship-builder named Cid was also found in II and III. Cid is an Engineer, which is just a renamed Scholar from III, with the Scan [Peep] ability. This reveals an enemy's HP and weaknesses. Cid is a strong fighter who uses hammers and has an outrageous personality.

The final character, whom you get very late in the game, is FuSoYa, a mysterious lunarian (moon-dweller). Mechanically, he's a Sage with all spells and high MP, so he can do some serious damage. However, he quickly leaves the party to make room for Kain's return. 
Changes for America
Besides lowering the difficulty, the SNES version removed many minor abilities and items that were seen as making the game too complicated for American children. At that time, RPGs had not been successful in the U.S., so the prevailing opinion was that they had to be dumbed down for Americans. Every character except Kain lost an ability, and Yang lost two. The opening scene still shows Cecil using his Darkness attack. Since it looks awesome, it was both sad and confusing to us Americans that he didn't have it in-game!

Like II and III, IV has a cornucopia of spell-casting and ailment-removing items, all of which were removed. To compensate, Remedy [Heal], which cures all status ailments, had its price radically slashed, so you could stockpile them. The White Magic spells Protect, Shell, and Dispel were also removed.

In retrospect, these deletions were unfortunate and unnecessary. However, none of these abilities, spells, or items adds much in terms of gameplay. It's just a little lost flavor.

Remakes
FF IV is so popular it has seen four remakes in North America. The first was released on the Sony PlayStation in 2001 and is simply a re-translation of the original Japanese game with no American changes. At the age of 18, I found this amazing. At last to be able to use Cecil's Darkness! I also appreciated the harder difficulty, which made the game more like its NES predecessor.

The first true remake came out for the Game Boy Advance in 2005. It brings the spell and item names in line with the modern English naming conventions introduced in Final Fantasy VIII (e.g., Firaga instead of Fire2). It adds two bonus dungeons and, most importantly, it gives you the ability to choose your party members after the Giant of Babel! In 2008, Square Enix made a 3D Remake for the DS that completely rebuilt the game with many changes, melodramatic voice acting, and a high difficulty level. It also adds Augments, which when equipped give a character a new ability (e.g., Jump, Twincast). This lets you customize your party, similar to III, V, VI, and VII. This is an excellent version that is still for sale on Steam and mobile. In 2011, the PlayStation Portable got an updated version of FF IV Advance. Although the gameplay was the same, everything was redrawn in higher resolution, so it no longer has a pixel look.

Two months ago the Pixel Remaster version debuted on Steam and mobile. It has numerous upsides, including a fantastic orchestral rendition of what was already a top-tier soundtrack, beautifully enhanced 16-bit-style graphics, and auto-battle. The only downside (besides the fact that it's not on Switch yet) is that it lacks the party customization and bonus dungeons of the GBA and PSP versions. But I think Square Enix had the right idea in staying faithful to the original. The point of the Pixel Remaster series is to create "definitive editions" of the original games. At this they have succeeded with flying colors.

Probably every RPG fan already knows that Final Fantasy IV is an absolute classic, regardless of version. Grade: A+
Linked Reviews
"There's still something quite charming and engaging about the classic, a testament to its staying power, and any RPG fan who might have missed out on this legendary title need only give the game a try to see what all the fuss is about."
— Corbie Dillard, NintendoLife, 8/10

"Final Fantasy II is a quintessential example of how a game can marry spellbinding narrative with compelling combat."
— Kyh Yang, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the SNES Library, 4.5/5

"Final Fantasy IV is all about character development, with copious amounts of dialogue and back stories for each of the wildly different fighters on your team: the young wizard twins, a kung-fu master, a girl who can summon crazy gods to kick butt."
IGN, #14 of Top 100

"What FF2 has to sacrifice in terms of freedom and flexibility, it more than makes up for with its rich-for-its-era storytelling and its well tuned battle mechanics."
— Jeremy Parish, Super NES Works


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