• When the Twin Moons shine, a Legend will be Born.

    I know it's been awhile since the last article, it has been difficult getting back to this particular game because this is the first FF title which holds a very special place in my heart. It doesn't help that I already wrote an article on this game a few years back for the 25th Anniversary Fan Project, which I frankly felt was a pretty good article. I almost decided I should just write up a few more elements from the original uncut version of said article and just release it for this series, but that just felt incredibly lazy to me and I felt I could do something more for this series of articles than just talking about how they are great, instead focusing on why they are great and how the series builds upon itself and other games in the genre. So I decided it would be best to take another look at the game and maybe expand on some points I made before, but bring it together into a larger narrative.

    The other problem here is that we're entering my favorite generation of the series. As a whole, I feel the 16-bit era represents the best qualities and potential of the franchise, and while I agree it can be great to read something written by someone who really loves the subject, I also feel it can be really grating as well, especially if your views are very opposing. This is the other reason I didn't use the other article as I felt it was a bit too... "fanboyish" and it's sometimes difficult for fans to really put into words why something is amazing because they simply understand it to be so, whereas others will find it difficult to understand if they don't feel the same passion. Like listening to someone talk about sports when you have never cared, /watched/participated in your life. So instead, we're going to break this down a bit and try to explain why FFIV is so damn memorable. With that all out of the way, please enjoy this article and I apologize ahead of time that it is ten pages long...

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    In 1990, Square released what would ultimately be the last numbered Final Fantasy on the aging Famicom. A new project had been set up for the next installment and this one involved going back to an early idea of what Final Fantasy was going to be. The biggest change was the game was going to be a foray into the Action-RPG realm, but due to internal squabbling, it was decided that Final Fantasy IV would not change genres mid-shift into the franchise's life span due to not feeling like Final Fantasy anymore. Instead, the developers decided to release this Action RPG as a new series known as Seiken Densetsu. With that finished, Square turned their attention to Nintendo's newest console, the Super Famicom.

    The developers decided what they wanted to do was create the ultimate Final Fantasy game by incorporating the best aspects of the 8-Bit era entries: the story aspects of II, the variety of job roles in Final Fantasy and FFIII. The decision was also made to make the game easier in terms of figuring out what to do and where to go next. To accomplish this feat, Takashi Tokita and Hironobu Sakaguchi placed a greater emphasis on the narrative, to do this they decided to incorporate a movie editing aspect to the game with tightly controlled, scripted scenes that told a cohesive story focusing on characters. Part of their success in doing this came from the use of the better hardware to try some new techniques not really seen before in the genre. In Final Fantasy, you read some text telling you about a legend and what you need to do and then the game opens with your characters on the map. In Final Fantasy II, you read some text and then your party is in a battle they quickly lose, and then youíre in a town where some important NPCs give you the low down. In Final Fantasy III, you read some text and then you find your character falling down a hole and awakening in a cave you explore before fighting a boss, meeting the crystals and listen to it explain to you what you need to do.While the second and third installments at least had some action and surprises going for them, neither of them moved away from the fact that all three games begin with some omniscient narrator giving the player context as to what is going on. If the player simply jumped straight into the action, they would find themselves a bit confused about what was going on and why they should care. The lack of a story context simply reduces the experience to just being a game about numbers and stats, as oppose to something that stirs the imagination.

    Final Fantasy IV opens up with airships traveling over the world map in a stunning psudeo-3D visual trick accomplished by the Super Famicom's Mode 7 chip. The player is introduced to a number of figures on the ship, but despite all of them being allied together, the player is clued into who the main character is from the start because his sprite design and color are different from his peers. Like film, FFIV tries to tell its story using every aspect of the medium by showing instead of telling. The scene itself fades in, a film transition not really done before in earlier installments or RPGs in general. The game begins not with the soothing Prelude theme but a bombastic military march piece, The Red Wings. Even Final Fantasy IV's version of the main Final Fantasy theme has more of a dark, military styling to it than its previous incarnations. The story of IV unfolds not by some narrator, but by supporting cast members murmuring about the dreadful deeds they had just accomplished, and the guilt they now feel. In this sense, IV is like a play, where a Greek chorus fills the audience in on what is going on, creating context through narration, but disguised as an actual part of the story, as opposed to some unknown omniscient voice sitting you down and explaining the details.

    Cecil, then quiets his men and does something unexpected, he has a flashback. Taking cues from film and animation, the scene is played in yellow filter to signify we're seeing a flashback, they didn't necessarily have to do this, but since it is a popular technique in film, they went for it and it gives the scene better clarity. Witnessing this scene, the player is surprised to find out a key piece of information: Cecil is the bad guy. In a reversal from Final Fantasy II's Good Rebels vs. Evil Empire, the player finds themselves in the awkward position of playing some high ranking official in the world conquering evil empire. This is the first time Final Fantasy will use this trope, but by no means will it be the last time. Still, this was quite a bit of a shock back in 1991, as it was generally the norm in games that you are the valiant hero sent forth by destiny itself to save the world, but here the player finds themselves in the role of a conflicted officer in an evil organization. In the first fifteen minutes of Final Fantasy IV, Cecil proves to have more depth and interesting conflict than the medium was able to produce in the decade before it. The extent of Cecil's conflict is played out by the characters around him, and the action he chooses to take. Cecil's discussion with Baigan and the King of Baron showcase that Cecil's been doubting the empire for a while, Kain jumping to his aid when the King strips him of his position says leaps and bounds about their relationship without the need for flashbacks and long winded dialogue, solidifying how he is a comrade for life. Cecil's interaction with Cid and Rosa also detail Cecil's relationships to the Kingdom of Baron and the other cast members and gives us better insight into his melancholic nature.

    At this point I would like to draw the reader's attention to another interesting aspect of IV: the fact that all the characters in the script are given an impactful intro. Final Fantasy III played with this concept with its NPC characters, but Final Fantasy IV uses it as a chance to not only establish the characters on multiple levels to the player, but in the case of the Baron natives, it wonderfully establishes their interpersonal relationships with each other. The game accomplishes this through dialogue, action, musical themes and most importantly: what is and isn't said. Kain, Cid, and Rosa all think highly of Cecil, his demotion is treated as a serious matter by all, but many of them quickly try to sooth Cecil's doubts and worries, showing they all care for him, Rosa actually gets a different theme from the rest, signifying her uniqueness from her male companions, and the theme itself is a soft and emotional piece known as Theme of Love which plays when Rosa and Cecil are together discussing their feelings for each other and Cecil lamenting his conflicting loyalties. What's interesting is what is not said. Cidís dialogue gives the impression of having grandfatherly style affection for Cecil and Rosa, yet he never mentions Kain. Even as the game goes along, it's shown that while Cid has no animosity towards Kain, he doesn't share the same feelings for him as he does for Rosa and Cecil. Likewise Kain never mentions Cid in his introduction, but more importantly, he doesn't talk about Rosa either, even though it's later revealed that he has hidden feelings for her. Instead this works as a bit of foreshadowing to Kain's true relationship to Cecil, he admires him as a soldier and leader and thinks of him as his equal, but his animosity for him largely stems from Cecil's exclusive relation with Rosa and his beloved status among Baron, despite the backstory explaining that Kain and Cecil were raised as orphans together.

    While some of this may have been mere accident rather than planned, there are signs of a deliberate design to the opening segments of the game in terms of introducing the player to the world of FFIV in a more cinematic way. The start of FFIV is not about righting some great wrong or vanquishing some great evil like the previous installments; the starting conflict is Cecil's personal demons of what he has done, his doubts about the direction his nation is going, and the turmoil of doing what is right when he has so much to lose. IV does not start us at the point of saving the world; it starts us with a person and his personal struggles. With that, Final Fantasy is changed forever.

    Final Fantasy IVís intro is also unique from its predecessors for being fairly linear, especially the first ten minutes of the game. Cecil goes into battle to show off the new battle screen with actual full backgrounds and more detailed sprites, but he also does something not really seen in the series before: he engages in two scripted battles the player canít control and unleashes some serious powerful attacks. While the battles may feel like a bit of a bait-and-switch considering Cecil is using items and not actual moves, it does give the player a visual taste of power, again the purpose of this is to show off the fancy new hardware and how far along weíve come since the days of the NES. So in the first ten minutes, the player is both railroad into a linear story that is visually better than what they may have played before and the story is more about personal human conflict instead of fighting off great evils. At this point the game feels more like the openings of Phantasy Star than Final Fantasy or its rival Dragon Quest. Yet, Square was able to take this concept and actually make it work for the genre, largely in part because of the advancements in technology and the company growing from a bunch of college kids making games in their dadís company basement and now working as a full-fledged gaming studio making games that have appeal in Japan and abroad.

    This focus on story permeates throughout the game. Unlike its predecessors, Final Fantasy IV is a far more linear experience. According to Tokita, in order to maintain the story aspect of the game as well as address fan feedback concerning previous installments lack of good direction on where to go; FFIV was designed to be a linear experience with the story used as a tool to direct the player to where they needed to go. Despite that, FFIV still manages to incorporate a bit of side tracking and a sense of freedom to it. Baron Castle is filled with hidden rooms and a basement area you canít reach until later; the world map around it has the town by the castle, which is entirely optional, and even a hidden chocobo forest. The game also takes a chapter out of FFIII and fills the game with new modes of transportation to ďopenĒ the world to the player. The Hovercraft and Chocobos let you move around the region youíve explored much easier, the first airship gives you access to an optional town and even let you get a sneak peak of later places, the second airship lets you explore the underworld and both airships get upgrades that expand more and more of the world for you to explore, all accumulating with the Big Whale that lets you visit an entirely new world. Despite these expansions, the world is still dictated by the story. You can visit the town of Agate the second you get the airship, but you canít sequence break the game like you could in the first game. This unique setup is ultimately what gives birth to what modern gamers would consider to be the atypical JRPG design.

    With all that said, itís not to say that FFIV is somehow a storytelling powerhouse. In fact the gameís plot is probably remembered for its overly melodramatic soap opera and bizarre plot twists stolen from Star Wars and terrible vintage Sci-Fi films of yester year. Yet in 1991, it was difficult to find a game that told a really compelling story that wasnít ninety percent in the gameís manual. IV ultimately found a way to touch people despite these faults, as Nomura has mentioned in interviews that one of the goals he wanted with FFVII was to create a cast of characters fans still talked about like with FFIV.

    With the design decision to change the focus of the game to a more linear story driven direction, the game itself needed a new gimmick to make it stand out from its predecessors. FFIII had already revitalized the job class system while FFIIís leveling system was being incorporated into another project by Square called Romancing SaGa. Sakaguchi tapped a relatively unknown debugger named Hiroyuki Ito to work on coming up with an engaging new gameplay mechanic. Using his love of Formula 1 Racing, Ito cleverly came up with a simple but unique idea to make turn based combat more exciting. Instead of every character and enemy getting there turn to trade hits and then start over choosing everyoneís action and pray, battles no longer paused for taking action, instead if the player sat too long trying to make a decision, the enemy would start beating the playerís party to a bloody pulp. By controlling the speed of the battle and letting characters and enemies take turns once a hidden turn value had been met, players would have to think on their toes and start planning out their overall battle strategy in advance, similar to a chess player who always thinks two or three steps ahead. Thus the birth of the Active Time Battle System was born, and became the longest running battle system used in the franchiseís history. In fact, with a few exceptions like FFXís CTB mechanics and FFXVís ARPG mechanics, the other systems are simply new variations of the idea. In fact some of the later inventions brought back elements from FFIV such as the idea that the type of actions would affect how long it would take for the characterís turn to come. Spells like Meteor and the Twin Magic often would take several seconds longer to charge before the characters took action, making them powerful but risky moves. This lead to interesting quirks not seen in some of the later installments where certain spells and abilities would be more often used due to quick turnaround time such as the Bio spell, despite being significantly weaker than end game spells. This added a new layer of strategy which made the new battle system much more interesting and engaging compared to not only the older FFs, but other RPGs still using the classic turn based system.

    Another unique mechanic used in IV was how characters were utilized in gameplay. In order to meld the story and gameplay together for the better, characters were assigned classes from the get go which served to help establish the characters better in the story and give them value in gameplay. Cecil is a villainous character, so he begins as a Dark Knight with the power to sacrifice his life to defeat all of his enemies. This shows how his evil power is self-defeating because while it allows him to fell a greater amount of foes, it ultimately weakens him. Even more meta when you realize the power damage output of Dark Wave is not strong enough to fell anything in one hit other than weak mobs, showing that his power is only good for the subjugation of the weak as opposed to a true power to fell powerful enemies. Contrast this with his change to a Paladin. He now gains the ability to heal characters and restore their status as well as a spell to leave dungeons with his team. He loses Dark Wave and instead gains the power to Cover his allies from immediate danger. This shows a transcendence of Cecilís character, who used to think that sacrificing a bit of his own life to destroy others was the way to go, a subversion of his selfless personality. Now he realizes he can better use his nature to block and intercept blows meant to harm allies, protecting them defensively instead of offensively.

    This use of the class to tell the story extends to other characters. Kainís Jump command shows his crafty darker nature by appearing to disappear, leaving his comrades to get hurt, until he swoops in to save the day by doing ridiculous damage. Rosaís healing shows her compassion and her Aim skill shows her focus on achieving what she needs to do efficiently. Rydia begins with the power to use all three magic types which signifies her age and her potential. When returns as an adult, she loses the ability to use White Magic, but suddenly doubles her magic potential in her remaining fields of magic. Tellah has the Recall spell which he uses to try and remember one of his old spells from his youth, and in a fun inversion his physical stats actually decrease instead of rise due to his frailty from age. Itís an interesting fusion of writing and gameplay.
    Because of this, characters donít really change classes within the game barring a certain exception, but after playing through the class changing shenanigans of FFIII, it would be boring to trudge through a redo of a game like FFI where the player is stuck with the same party the whole game. Instead, the game changes the party based on the part of the story the player reaches. This adds some interesting dynamics to the gameplay as the inability to choose the party often times leaves the player in a situation where they may be using a less than ideal party set-up. Still, not only is this a clever nod to FFII which constantly switched around the fourth party member, but this also added some more tension to battles and exploring dungeons since the player would never be too comfortable at first, again going back to how ATB by its very nature being a system to leave the player feeling vulnerable and less in control.

    Speaking of dungeons, FFIV tries a few really clever ideas with dungeon design compared to the mazes of FFI and II or FFIIIís love of invisible paths. While it keeps some of these elements the game toys around with a few unique ideas. The three most notable aspects are damage floors, in which the Float spell is used to bypass and save your party precious MP and potions while traversing the dungeons they lay. One dungeon decides to give an ode to Dragon Quests Mimic Chest monsters by having an entire dungeon dedicated to having Door Monsters and the final boss being the infamous Wall Monster boss. The most notorious unique dungeon is the Dark Elf Cave, or Lodestone Cavern in the new translations, which featured a gimmick where the characters would be inflicted with paralyze if they worse any armor with metal in it. This might be one of the coolest dungeons in the game despite so many fans hating it. This is because the game forces the player to use probably one of the weakest party set-ups in the game and removes Cecil from his usual active role as damage dealer to being a mini-Rosa. Itís that real sense of keeping the player on their toes that makes FFIV exciting despite everything on paper saying it shouldnít be.

    One aspect often overlooked by FFIV is how balanced the game is in comparison to the rest of the franchise. While itís not impossible to break the game, Ito did some interesting things to keep it within reason. This is because damage is calculated by a three tier system instead of a dual one like almost every other entry, and Ito made sure that the one stat that really matters is the one dependent on the other two. Damage is calculated by a characterís base stats, their equipment, and the attack/defense modifier which is derived by stats and equipment. This last stat pretty much determines everything and only rises based on getting several points in a stat and what equipment the character is using. By balancing it like this, even if the player over-levels a bit or finds a pretty strong weapon early in the game while the character is still weak; the results are not nearly as spectacular as one would hope. This helps keep the gameís difficulty curve in check, though players who know where all the best loot are and power level can still make this game a cakewalk. Another element of the gameís design that is quite clever is the enemy A.I., which is programmed to counter the player when they use specific moves, preventing the player from sometimes spamming overpowered moves. All these elements together give FFIV a reputation for being one of the last challenging entries. Granted it is still a cakewalk compared to its 8-bit ancestors, but IV may be the last legitimately challenging entry that doesnít have to resort to cheap tactics or unfair game design that places the player at a disadvantage in order to give a sense of artificial difficulty.

    Finally, FFIV is the point where Nobuo Uematsu truly started to blossom as an artist. The enhanced audio capabilities of the Super Famicom/Nintendo allowed him the ability to expand the range of what could be done with the music, and eventually he would pioneer a new method of utilizing MIDIís to create a sound that comes close to mimicking real instruments. While the technology was not there yet for IV, Uematsu composes a strong score befitting the more narratively driven work that IV had become. While the player is introduced to the game by the classic Prelude theme on the title screen, the game opens with Cecilís theme, The Red Wings, which is a dark and foreboding piece with its heavy use of percussion and military march stylings, but held together by a melody line that is softer and more heroic. Even the Kingdom of Baron has more of a military feel to its musical theme to showcase to the player what the place stands for. With these harsh military marches and dark themes, itís almost a sense of relief when Rosa appears with the Theme of Love playing, which starts as simple soft melody before cascading into a more operatic sweep. Even this early, players could sense that Uematsu was pushing the hardware into a more symphonic scale that is more fitting for the larger than life character the franchise was shooting for.

    The music of IV helps to elevate IVís story and feelings. Unlike the absorbent theme of the 8-Bit era, IVís themes often gave direction to the feel of the story. The Main Theme of FFIV, which plays on the world map, starts with s sense of urgency not felt in the older entries, but eventually it loosens up like Cecilís theme and eventually expands to a theme of wonder, beautifully melding the idea behind the map themes of II and III together. Taking a cue from Star Wars as the creators always do, Golbez is introduced into the plot with Uematsuís own take on the Imperial March theme, being a perfectly sinister organ theme that lets the player easily identify him as not only the villain but someone to be feared. IV actually utilized character themes to help the player keep track of the cast of characters, but also to again, add layers to the story and cast. The first few seconds of Cidís theme made you know something fun was about to happen and lighten the mood, Rydiaís Theme or Edwardís Melody of Lute theme added a certain tragic depth to the moments they plays as Rydia forgives Cecil and tells him her name or as Edward slips away to quietly mourn his wife Anne. The soundtrack even introduces unique battle themes to display importance like Battle of the Four Fiends to make the player feel tense as they battles something usually reserved for end game bosses. IVís soundtrack laid the groundwork for a lot of the audio design choices that would be a hallmark of the Golden Age of the franchise, while also giving players a taste of Uematsuís budding growth as one of the premier composers for video games.

    In a lot of ways, itís no surprise that IV is one of the most well regarded ďclassicĒ entries across the world. In many ways, Final Fantasy as most people know it began with this entry. The more cinematic design, the focus on character over high adventure, the introduction of a retooled battle system that would define the series, clever innovations in enemy A.I. and dungeon design, as well as the better utilization of the music as a an extension of the characters and story would all become hallmarks that the series is known for. Despite how simple and silly the game is by todayís standards, there is just something magical about FFIV. Sakaguchi once said that the reason why some games resonate so well with fans is because they can feel the love and effort the designers placed into it. I feel this is the case for FFIV, as the game proved to be a real turning point for Square, as the game defined what the series could be to the world. In my own experience, despite starting on later RPGs with more robust mechanics and stories, there is something about FFIV that Iíve always found entrancing. Perhaps itís just nostalgia but I really do feel IV is a magical experience that every gamer should play.

    This article was originally published in forum thread: When the Twin Moons shine, a Legend will be Born. started by Wolf Kanno View original post
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