By Pat R, originally seen at SMPS dot net

Final Fantasy IV / Final Fantasy II - SNES / Playstation / Wonderswan Color / Gameboy Advance / Nintendo DS (1991)


Japanese PSOne Cover

American GBA Cover

Japanese DS Cover

(Except where noted, screenshots taken from fan translation)

1991. The Super Famicon/SNES drops, ushering in what many gaming enthusiasts and nerds consider the high-water mark of console video games: the 16-bit era. The hardware was powerful enough to enable bigger, better-looking, and more complex games than what the NES allowed, but still came with enough limitations that developers had to be clever in designing their games. It's for this reason that a fairly wide margin of JRPG enthusiasts consider the 16-bit years the Golden Age of SquareSoft, if not the best time for the console RPG genre as a whole.

The early 90's were also the most divisive in gaming. Enter the SNES/Genesis console wars. My experience was that unless you were one of those rich little snots whose parents bought you both systems, you picked a side, stuck with it, and spent entire lunch periods shouting at your friends across the table about why you were right and they were wrong. Enticed by Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage and Shining Force early on, I cast my lot with the Genesis camp. I didn't play Final Fantasy IV until after having played through most of VI, and as a result, IV felt like a step backwards to me.

This time was different. The only games I've been playing lately aside from 2D fighters have been the 8-bit Final Fantasy games. After a month or two of playing virtually nothing but RPGs that could only display up to 25 colors and play only four different bleeping sounds at once, it was hard not to be impressed when starting a new game and watching those 16-bit airships fly over a height-distorted world map as the "Red Wings" theme rose to a crescendo. It seems fairly obvious why Final Fantasy IV blew so many minds when it came out in '91.

Final Fantasy IV is interesting in particular because it is such a step forward for the series and for the genre. The beefier hardware -- and undoubtedly beefier budget -- allowed Square to try out a plethora of new things with IV. The trademarked Active Time Battle system made its debut. Battles now required more complex stratagems than "do a lot of damage to bad guy." Perhaps most importantly, the improved graphics and sound allowed for a far more convincing execution of a story with a wide cast of characters and an involved plotline than Square's first attempt in Final Fantasy II. But even though SquareSoft was interested in breaking new ground, it was also obliged to take the same approach with Final Fantasy IV as any sequel: determine what people liked in previous installments and pack the new one with more of it. In this case, Square gave the fans more airships, more Chocobos, more character classes, more abilities, more maps, more spells, a new set of Elemental Fiends, more Crystal MacGuffins, etc.

When I was about 25% through the game, I was talking to a friend -- someone who hasn't played any Final Fantasy games predating the seventh installment -- and was trying to explain to him why IV would be worth his time. "It's so cool," I told him. "You get these two little wizard kids who can team up and cast gigantic spells and you gotta climb this mountain covered with zombies so you can Class Change and there's this demon you gotta kill at the top and then he comes at you from behind, and..."

The first question he asked was "how's the story?"

Then it occurred to me that console RPG genre is sixteen years older now, and people expect totally different things from it than when it was still taking shape in the SNES/Genesis era. I realized something else, too: as groundbreaking and incredible as Final Fantasy IV was in '91, it simply wouldn't fly if it were released on today's consoles.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that people seem to pick up console RPGs these days almost primarily for their stories. The actual gameplay, in many cases, is accepted as a necessary means of forcing the story to progress. (Cases in point: Kingdom Hearts II and .hack.) In 1991, the opposite was true: people played console RPGs to fight random battles, level up, and kick the crap out of massive bosses with their hard-earned abilities and expensive equipment because it was fun, dammit. The story was garnish -- something to give a sense of higher purpose to all the level grinding and dungeon crawling. Though Final Fantasy IV's story is much more sophisticated than that of virtually every console RPG that came before it and marked the start of a shift towards a greater emphasis on characters and plot in console RPGs, it's still evident that more effort went into designing the rest of the game. (More on that later.)

Another aspect of Final Fantasy IV that wouldn't go over well with today's audience is its revolving-door party roster. As of right now, the last time a Final Fantasy installment killed off a character and made them permanently unusable for the remainder of the game was in VII, and even then players tirelessly scoured every nook and cranny of the Planet to find a way to bring Aeris back to life. In Final Fantasy IV, party members are constantly blown up, turned to stone, thrown overboard during sea serpent attacks, and sacrificing their lives to cast that sealed spell that just might be powerful enough to defeat the villain once and for all (but isn't). You never have a say in who joins your party, and there's no way of stopping somebody from leaving (or getting themselves killed) when the time comes. Today's audience probably wouldn't appreciate having their having their favorite character -- whom they spent all that time leveling up and all that money equipping -- suddenly and unexpectedly become unusable for the rest of the game. Square Enix in fact anticipated this, tweaking Final Fantasy IV Advance to allow the player to handpick his or her party for the final dungeons, and adding the Decant system to the DS version.

The other factor that might alienate today's JRPG audience is that Final Fantasy IV doesn't have enough of a certain something that contemporary games are overbrimming with. That something is zazz.

Final Fantasy IV's zazz factor is decidedly low. It has a quasi-medieval setting (devoid of steam or cyberpunk influence) populated by knights, wizards, and dwarves (no bunny-eared amazons, Geohounds, cyborgs, or evil parodies of Christ). Cecil wears a suit of armor (without even one decorative zipper, pouch, or patch of fashionably exposed skin) and fights with a sword (instead of a gunblade, keyblade, chainsaw-sword, etc). BORING.

DIGRESSION

JRPGs -- and many other Japanese games, and anime too -- are in serious danger of fatal zazz saturation.

Some zazz is good to have. Think of it like putting sugar in coffee. A cube or two makes coffee less bitter; some zazz adds flavor to a game and its characters. But just like pouring too much sugar into a cup of coffee ruins it, over-zazzing a video game turns it from bland to obnoxious. Remember back when anthromorphs with 'tude were in vogue? Sonic's 'tude levels were within acceptable parameters, and it's still hard to deny the appeal of his Sega Genesis incarnations. But then you also have Bubsy the Bobcat, who was pumped full of more focus-group tested 'tude than any single piece of intellectual property should ever be asked to contain. If anyone actually remembers the Bubsy games, I'm sure the memories are not pleasant.

Here's an example of the progression of zazz saturation: a timeline of SNK fighting game title characters.

Terry and Ryo look like two guys out of a martial arts flick. Iori and K' look like they're from an anime. Alba and Luise look like they're from a Japanese fashion magazine. I understand that with so many other products on the market, designers have to make their franchise and its components stand out, but it's honestly starting to get ridiculous. Other examples include the gulf between the characters and aesthetics of Mobile Suit Gundam and Gundam SEED, Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) and Shadow the Hedgehog (2001), and to cite a stateside example, the differences between the 2D Prince of Persia titles and The Two Thrones. Substance is being eschewed for style.

And it's not like Square didn't try! Over fifteen years after the original release, they went ahead and redid the game in 3D, updating it for a more modern audience yet somehow managing to keep it from falling into trappings of modern nonsense. But we'll get to that later.

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

CHARACTERS

Final Fantasy IV boasted some of the most interesting and memorable characters of its era. That being said, most of them would be laughed off the casts of today's JRPG's.

Heroes

CECIL HARVEY
Dark Knight

Orphaned at a young age and raised by the king of Baron, Cecil rose through the military ranks to become captain of Baron's elite air force, the Red Wings. Though trained to wield the shadowed arms and powers of a Dark Knight, Cecil remains a man of integrity. After sacking Mysidia under royal command and stealing its Crystal of Water, Cecil voices his objection to the king and is promptly dismissed from his post. His new assignment is to deliver a parcel to the village of Mist...

Why he worked in '91: Finally: an RPG where your main character starts out as a walking death dealer instead of a blithering wimp with no skills or equipment.
Why he wouldn't work today: The Dark Knight thing is cool, but the armored look is so four generations ago. Needs more skin, straps, and tattoos. A keen fashion sense can provide just as much protection as plate mail.


CECIL HARVEY
Paladin

You knew that getting to play as a Dark Knight was too good to be true. After a while, Cecil decides that he doesn't want to be a terrifying death machine anymore. He undergoes the time-honored JRPG Class Change Ritual and becomes a Paladin, the reverse of a Dark Knight. The process involves climbing Mount Ordeals, wading through hordes of zombies, doing battle with his own dark side, and most importantly, adopting a flowing-haired bisho look which ensures his becoming a trillion times stronger than he was as an armored, masculine son of a bitch.

Why he worked in '91: Yeehaw! Class Change!
Why he wouldn't work today: Hold on, there: Paladin Cecil might still work today. The bish look is exactly the kind of zazzing up Cecil needed. His outfit's still a bit bland, though -- attach some unnecessary zippers and some angel wings, however, and we'll be in business.


KAIN HIGHWIND
Dragoon

Another orphan whom the King of Baron raised along with Cecil. Kain went against his adopted father's behest to train as a Dark Knight so that he could follow in his birth father's footsteps as a Dragoon. As a result, Cecil won prestige and rank over Kain, who began harboring feelings of jealousy towards his adopted brother and best friend. It also didn't help much when Cecil bagged Rosa, with whom Kain was secretly in love. The dark forces behind Baron's recent militarism waste no time taking advantage of Kain's latent resentment of Cecil and setting the two against each other.

Why he worked in '91: Of all Final Fantasy IV's characters, Kain probably has the most impact. You spend the entire game going back and forth between thinking he's the coolest guy ever and hating his traitorous guts.
Why he wouldn't work today: Kain was the original JRPG Judas. Of course he'd still work today -- and he does! Only now he's younger, not a Dragoon anymore, and he hangs out with Mickey Mouse.


RYDIA
Summoner

A young girl from Mist. Her life takes an abrupt turn when Cecil and Kain accidentally murder her mother and set her town on fire, but Rydia is a real good sport about it and joins Cecil on his journey anyway. As a full-blooded Summoner, Rydia has the natural ability to communicate with supernatural beings and deities.

Why she worked in '91: Let me get this straight. An adorable child who casts spells? Like some sort of, I don't know, "magical girl?" THAT'S JUST CRAZY ENOUGH TO WORK!
Why she wouldn't work today: She probably would, but you can bet her "Momo" appeal would be exploited to its fullest extent. Just thinking about it makes me cringe.


RYDIA
Summoner

Hey! Rydia's grown up now! And she's hot! Oh, and she's also pretty much the best character in the game.

Why she worked in '91: See above.
Why she wouldn't work today: Loli Rydia is more valuable.





ROSA FARRELL
White Mage
Cecil's girlfriend. Like many JRPG squeezes, the full extent of her repertoire consists of healing, getting kidnapped, and gushing to the hero about how nothing bad can happen to her when she's with him. I'm almost positive this is what the ideal Japanese woman is supposed to be like.

Why she worked in '91: Neat! Not only are you a rad Dark Knight, but you're secretly boffing a cute White Mage!
Why she wouldn't work today: She doesn't look Japanese enough. The hero always goes with whatever girl looks the most Japanese. Also, she and Cecil are already a done deal before the game even begins, and that leaves little room for Ranma/Akane hijinks and/or overblown Heero/Relina melodrama.


TELLAH
Sage

Part revered Mysidian sage, part revenge-obsessed old coot. When his daughter Anna runs off to get hitched to Edward, she gets killed in the Red Wings' attack on Damycan. Tellah is now committed to avenging her death at any cost. His major claims to fame are dishing out one of the most famous spells and one of the most famous insults in Final Fantasy history.

Why he worked in '91: Say...doesn't he look sort of like that Turtle Hermit guy from Dragon Ball?
Why he wouldn't work today: Turtle Hermit who? SSJ3 TURNKS 4 LIEF BABY!!!! Plus, you don't see that many old men characters in JRPGs anymore because they're not young or pretty enough.


EDWARD CHRIS VON MUIR / GILBART CHRIS VON MUIR
Spoony Bard

The prince of Damycan sometimes likes to disguise himself as a wandering bard and prance anonymously through his kingdom. Edward is possibly the most maligned character in Final Fantasy, with the possible exceptions of maybe Quina and Wakka. I don't see how anybody could have thought Edward might be a hit. "Okay," someone must have said at a SquareSoft developers' meeting, "Final Fantasy II's weakest character was Gordon, and Final Fantasy III's most useless Job was the Bard. You know what I think would be a good idea? COMBINING THEM."

Why he worked in '91: He didn't. By the way, his Japanese name is "Gilbart," which somehow makes him sound even more lily-livered and useless.
Why he wouldn't work today: Because he sucks. Although -- I could totally see a Tetsuya Nomura revamp that has Edward dressing like a Japanese glam rocker and fighting with a magical guitar, and it scares the hell out of me.


YANG FANG LEIDEN
Monk

Fabul's head monk is one bad mother. One bad mother. One one bad mad mother mother mother mother. Okay, I got nothing. Yang's got the standard JRPG monk profile: polite, humble, self-sacrificing, and a hell of a hard kicker. The only person in the world stronger than him is his wife.

Why he worked in '91: He's like the Black Belt class from the original Final Fantasy, only he's not boring as all hell! And he makes stuff dead fast.
Why he wouldn't work today: Monks are so passe'. Barefisted fighters nowadays either have to be hip badasses or hot chicks.



PALOM
Black Mage

The male half of Mysidia's dynamic duo. Black mage prodigy Palom is loud mouth and ill-behaved, in sharp contrast to his sibling Porom. He and his twin sister are assigned by the Mysidian elder to guide Cecil to the summit of Mount Ordeals.

Why he worked in '91: Chock full of what was then referred to as "'tude."
Why he wouldn't work today: Maybe he would. The magical twins concept still pops up now and then.


POROM
White Mage

Palom's twin sister is syrupy sweet and polite all the time, except when she's yelling at and physically abusing her brother (which happens fairly frequently). Porom's special powers include white magic, pretending to cry, and synchronizing her magic with Palom's to unleash large scale devastation.

Why she worked in '91: Cute as a button.
Why she wouldn't work today: Two magical lolis in one game? The fanboys' brains would shut down from oxygen deprivation as their entire bloodstreams flooded into their groins.


CID POLLENDINA
Engineer

A bearded fella from Baron who builds airships. He's like an uncle to Cecil and Rosa, and is very protective of the latter.

Why he worked in '91: They don't come much quirkier than Cid. Plus, you'd played Final Fantasy III, you'd recognize that he's a cross between the Scholar and Viking jobs.
Why he wouldn't work today: Nomura would never let Cid get away with a beard like that. He'd also probably stick him in pink spandex. I hate Tetsuya Nomura.


EDWARD "EDGE" GERALDINE
Ninja

Prince and heir to the throne of Eblan, a nation whose entire military force consists of ninjas. How cool is that? However, Eblan was easy prey for the forces of the mighty Rubicante. Its people were driven into exile and its king and queen went missing. Against all warning, Edge sets out on his own to kill Rubicante and rescue his parents.

Why he worked in '91: Dual-wielding, Ninpo, throwing shurikens, stealing...Edge has abilities out the wazoo. Plus, like Palom, he's got that precious commodity of the early Nineties known as 'tude.
Why he wouldn't work today: Imagine: a gawkily-animated Edge flailing around the screen in 3D, complete with lousy voiceover and equally bad lip-synching. If Nomura ever decides to draw some extra zippers on his outfit, we might be in trouble.


FUSOYA / FUSUYA
Lunarian

Eons ago, a planet existed whose orbit lay between Mars's and Jupiter's. When disaster struck and the planet was destroyed, its inhabitants used their advanced technology to fashion a satellite and set it into orbit around the "Blue Planet" as a second moon. These people, now called the Lunarians, sleep in stasis deep beneath the surface, awaiting a time when the people of the "Blue Planet" evolve to a point where communication, trade, and eventual coexistence between the two races becomes possible. FuSoYa alone has been assigned to remain awake and watch over his slumbering race.

Why he worked in '91: Sweet merciful crap will you just look at his spellbook.
Why he wouldn't work today: You're no longer allowed to be an "old man" character in an RPG unless you are quirky, and FuSoYa is definitely not quirky. Also, his eyebrows are weird.

Villains

THE ANTLION


I wonder if Edward ever gets tired of being wrong and sucking at life all the time?

Why it worked in '91: Final Fantasy IV was the first JRPG to use the ATB system, and the Antlion was the first boss to take advantage of this by constantly countering physical attacks.
Why it wouldn't work today: Oh, why not. Every JRPG needs a few throwaway bosses before the ominous metrosexuals in black coats start showing up.


THE DARK ELF


Astos lives! ...But he seems to have abandoned the cunning machinator shtick in favor of a role as a mentally deficient goblin. He inconveniences both sides in the battle over the Crystals by snatching the Earth crystal from Tororia and taking it back to his cave. Then, to make things tricky, he sets up a magnetic forcefield that make metal weapons and equipment impossible to wield.

Why he worked in '91: Magnetic field was a damn cool idea.
Why he wouldn't work today: It was also damn annoying. Today's audience is more concerned with story progression than challenge and wouldn't appreciate a speed bump like this.


THE MAGUS SISTERS


Cindy, Sandy and Mindy are the faithful minions of Barbariccia the Wind Fiend. Their signature move is the infamous DELTA ATTACK, though in its first appearance here it really just consists of Mandy bouncing second-level elemental spells off the Wall'd Sandy.

Why they worked in '91: What part of DELTA ATTACK aren't you understanding?
Why they wouldn't work today: Needs more -- you guessed it -- more zazz. I'm thinking, I dunno...bug costumes.


DOCTOR LUGAE


After Cid refuses to develop any more technology for Golbez, he is tosse in the dungeon and replaced by this nutjob. Dr. Lugae is responsible for the modified Red Wings and the giant cannon in the Tower of Babil, but prefers working with biologics instead of hardware...

Why he worked in '91: Yeesh. This guy still creeps me out -- especially after what he does to Edge's parents.
Why he wouldn't work today: Everyone would accuse him of being a Hojo rip-off.


SCARMIGLION


The Four Fiends of the Elements get makeovers and new monikers from Dante's Inferno, and make their first (and only) 16-bit appearance in Final Fantasy IV. Scarmiglion is Lich version 2.0: the undead fiend of Earth with vast necromantic powers and legions of shambling undead at his command. Golbez orders him to intercept Cecil on Mount Ordeals and prevent him from becoming a Paladin, knowing that Cecil's dark sword will be next to useless against him.

Why he worked in '91: Oh my god he isn't dead and he's coming at me from behind! Thrilling! Awesome!
Why he wouldn't work today: Oh my god he isn't dead and he's coming at me from behind! I didn't think to save! WTF HAX


CAGNAZZO


The Fiend of Water, who I guess is supposed to be some kind of evil turtle thing. In addition to being able to summon tidal waves, he's as tenacious as Scarmiglion and knows a thing or two about disguise.

Why he worked in '91: Well, he forces Palom and Porom to off themselves to save the rest of the party. That's pretty high up there on the villainy scale.
Why he wouldn't work today: Just look at him. Severe zazz deficiency.


BARBARICCIA


Probably better known to older fans as Valvalis. At any rate, Barbariccia of the Wind lives in the floating mechanical tower of Zot and doesn't wear a lot of clothes. It also looks like she has a thing for Kain.

Why she worked in '91: "Must stop her spin!!" "Kain...JUMP!!"
Why she wouldn't work today: She might, though I suspect she'd be one of those insufferable OHOHOHOHOHO chicks.


RUBICANTE


The Fiend of Fire is the most powerful of the four, and probably the coolest as well. (I will be honest: my AOL name in sixth grade was definitely RUBICANT8.) He's still on the bad guys' team, but exercises much more chivalry than his underhanded, sucker-punching cohorts. He even makes a point of healing your party before throwing down so you can fight him at your strongest.

Why he worked in '91: Was it Flame? LET ME SHOW YOU HOW IT'S DONE
Why he wouldn't work today: He might -- his Cloak of Flames is already pretty zazzy. But knowing Square Enix today, they'd also make him beautiful and in love with Cecil.


GOLBEZ


It's whispered that the mysterious cloaked figure placed in command of the Red Wings after Cecil's demotion and defection is the one calling the shots in Baron these days. (Insert Cheney joke here.) Golbez is demoniacally cunning, harder to kill than a cockroach, and commands incredible magical powers. Morever, he's got both the most powerful nation in the world and the Four Fiends of the Elements directly under his thumb. Whether or not he's even human is questionable.

Why he worked in '91: Golbez is arguably the most competent villain in all of Final Fantasy. The guy never loses. Though he does occasionally get caught off guard when a powerful magic user shows up and blasts him without warning, Golbez always manages to turn the circumstances of his defeat into an advantage. And unlike even Kefka, the heroes never have a definitive victory over Golbez: the guy just decides to stop fighting Cecil and go after Zemus instead.
Why he wouldn't work today: No flowing white locks. Doesn't show enough skin.


ZEMUS


A powerful Lunarian who didn't want to wait for the inhabitants of the Blue Planet to evolve, Zemus thought it would make a lot more sense to simply exterminate humanity and seize the planet by force. The rest of the Lunarians disagreed, and forced him into stasis against his will. Over the centuries, the dreaming Zemus has telepathically manipulated events on the Blue Planet, patiently and gradually engineering a cataclysm that will eradicate all terrestrial life.

Why he worked in '91: He's such an evil bastard that even Golbez wants him dead. He must be bad.
Why he wouldn't work today: Necron Syndrome. Not that it would stop most JRPG developers anyway, but nowadays it really should.


ZEROMUS


Death only increases Zemus's hatred towards all life. Zeromus is the product of this hatred. No, I don't understand it either. Regardless, I hope you're up for some power-leveling before facing this guy.

Why he worked in '91: Seeing all your teammates and friends appear to revive and cheer you on before the final showdown began was pretty awesome before a.) virtually every other JRPG afterwards started doing it b.) you had to sit through it 5,000 times because Zeromus kept Big Banging you to death.
Why he wouldn't work today: Phantasy Star called; it wants its critter back. He needs more angel wings, too.


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