Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: SNES, GBA, PS
You may not remember this, but gamers in North America had to wait an extra three years for a sequel to Final Fantasy. By then, Nintendo had already moved on to its new console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and so what we got was a renumbered version of Final Fantasy IV. For what seemed like an eternity, I headed every weekend to the video rental store, hoping to get my hands on the game and try it out. My perseverance eventually paid off, and, three days later, I purchased my own copy.
The first thing that struck me about Final Fantasy IV is that the gameplay starts immediately: no memory slot to pick, no name entry, no character selection. The various adventurers that join your party each have a set class, and all their comings and goings are based on the story. They usually show up to lend a hand when you least expect it, and, unlike your cannon fodder friends from Final Fantasy II, most manage to exit the narrative without dying right in front of you.
Back then, I already considered myself somewhat of an expert in the realm of videogame RPGs, and so I thought I knew how every entry in the genre worked: walk aimlessly near a town, and fight your way through random encounters until you gain enough experience points to enter the next dungeon. I spent about an hour powering up my characters before I tackled my first big hurdle: the Cave of Mist. That’s when I realised I’d wasted my time. You see, the enemies in Final Fantasy IV increase in difficulty at about the same rate you gain levels fighting them, making for a smooth gameplay experience that cuts out all the busywork.
On the subject of smooth gameplay, Final Fantasy IV revolutionised the way RPGs handle combat. Before this pioneering game, players would give orders to all of their characters and then watch the heroes and monsters go at it for one round; rinse and repeat. This made combat clunky and artificial, which is why Square introduced the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Simply put, each character can attack when his or her ATB meter is full, and the enemies don’t have to wait for your selections to strike, so you have to be ready at all times and make quick decisions. This results in an action-packed battle experience, something previous games could never deliver.
In traditional RPGs, magic is at a premium, and players should only cast spells when the situation is dire. As such, I was expecting a few of my characters never to see any action. Once again, Final Fantasy IV proved me wrong, as black magic users no longer have to wait in the back until a boss battle occurs. Even if you run out of juice, the spell “Psych” (or “Osmose” in later versions) allows you to drain some magic points from the enemy and replenish your meter.
As for the plot, well, it’s a Final Fantasy story. It starts slowly, as your character rebels against his kingdom in its quest to acquire all the elemental crystals. Your travels soon take you to the underworld and the moon. Then, as is tradition, you’re assaulted by a bunch of plot twists as you near the end. The whole of the story still makes sense, mind you, but the pacing is a little wonky. Without going into spoilers, let’s just say I hate it when characters are introduced in final act to spell everything out for you.
Despite this minor failure in storytelling, Final Fantasy IV is a spectacular game that every fan of the genre should play. If your Super Nintendo is on the fritz, the Game Boy Advance and Virtual Console have excellent releases, with a couple of extra dungeons that are perfectly balanced to your characters, testing your knowledge and mastery of their abilities. It beats getting a job (in the game) or a couple dozen jobs, but we’ll get to that when I review Final Fantasy V.