Following the release of Final Fantasy 3, Squaresoft started up on Final Fantasy 4 in 1991 for Nintendo’s newest console at the time, the SNES. However, no Final Fantasy had been released Stateside since the original, so, to keep fans from being confused, Final Fantasy 4 was released in the US as Final Fantasy 2.
It was heavily promoted in Nintendo Power and many of Nintendo’s guide and magazines, but since JRPG’s still only had niche appeal at the time, there weren’t as many sales as in Japan. However, those who picked up Final Fantasy 4(2) for the SNES found something unlike any other game at the time.
The introduction of the Active Time Battle System, a cast of unforgettable characters, outlandish environments, and a truly spellbinding score made this game an instant classic among RPG fans, earning no less than three ports, on the GBA, Wii, and on the Playstation as Final Fantasy Chronicles, as well as a full remake on the Nintendo DS.
However, while the DS did improve graphics and sound quality, Final Fantasy 4 was so well crafted, hardly anything was changed in subsequent ports. So, without further ado, let’s look back at one of the greatest RPG’s the SNES had to offer.
Crystals, Golbez, and the Dark Knight Cecil
The story and characters of Final Fantasy 4 were among the most intricate at the time, dealing with themes of betrayal, guilt, redemption, responsibility, sacrifice, and countless other moral issues. The basic story starts off with the Kingdom of Baron, whom the main character, the dark knight Cecil, works for. Baron is raiding other countries for their mystic crystals, slaughtering innocents and doing as they please with a fleet of airships.
Cecil gets cold feet on the matter and is sent off on a suicide mission by his king. Realizing the corruption of the crown, after Cecil inadvertently destroys a village of innocent summoners, he begins a quest to save the other kingdoms from falling to Baron’s might, which is under the sway of the evil wizard, Golbez.
The story starts out pretty stock, dark empire, quest for redemption, but Hironobu Sakaguchi threw in some amazing turns along the way. Cecil taking in an orphaned summoner, his comrades being under siege in a castle, being separated by a giant leviathan at sea, and then having to journey to a sacred mountain to see if you’re worthy of redemption, at which point Cecil gets an entirely new class. And that’s just the first few hours. Along the way, players will journey to the center of the earth, outlandish fortresses in the sky, and even to the moon.
The character chemistry is what makes the journey so amazing though. Cecil and the others act with real human emotion, at least with as much as 16-bit character can act. Cecil is constantly trying to save his best friend from a dark, evil force, keeping track of his love, and agonizing over friends he had to leave to die to fight. Characters come and go quickly in the game, but they are all likable and their departures can be pretty emotional.
Players will really feel attached to these characters and their fates will weigh on them, creating a more emotionally effective adventure. Sakaguchi clearly learned from his previous excursions and took the amazing story from Final Fantasy 2 and the character dynamics of Final Fantasy 3 and mixed them together, creating an engrossing story from start to finish.
Active Time Battle System
Gameplay wise, a great deal has changed since Final Fantasy 3. Now, enemies and characters fight in real time, a bar next to their name telling when they can attack, adding new elements of speed and decision making to battle. Also, jobs have been removed, but each character has unique abilities only they can use, like Cecil, who can defend allies, Kain, who can jump on enemies, or the twins Palom and Porom who can use devastating combination moves.
Finally, one of the biggest changes are characters will seldom ever stick with Cecil for the whole game. New characters with new abilities come and go, some strong to enemies, others weak. Players need to work out how best to use their new team each time they change, adding layers of challenge to the emotional story.
That being said, there are some problems with the combat. Not many, but a few. First, there are a copious amount of random battles that can make the game slog along. And there is a huge amount of difficulty jumping. The original Final Fantasy 4 in Japan was undeniably difficult, requiring intense grinding. The US version was far too easy, capable of being beaten in 20 hours or less. There is seldom ever a good balance of challenge and mercy in the game.
However, this is almost excused by a fair amount of extras. Rydia, the summoner of the group, can gain new allies by finding and fighting them. There are hidden items, like the tails, which can be used to gain powerful items. Optional bosses abound especially in the last part of the game. It’s not filled to the brim, but these side quests are a nice touch.
To the Moon and Beyond
As with previous games, Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Uematsu return on art and music, outdoing themselves on nearly every level in Final Fantasy 4.
First, art. Amano really outdid himself here. The characters are all very well designed, the 16-bit color scheme really helping to bring out their unique qualities and appearances. Some of the enemies are rehashed and used, like the flan enemies, but on a whole, the monsters, especially the bosses, are some of the most unique from any Final Fantasy.
The environments too also deserve notice. The overworld is very bright and verdant, while players will eventually head to the center of the Earth, surrounded by rock and lava. Eventually, they will even head into space, which is suitably barren. The real things to notice are the dungeons, which range from an underworld town, crystal palaces, giant robots that have to be climbed, etc.
Music is quite good. Perhaps not as iconic as the original Final Fantasy, but leagues above Final Fantasy 2 and 3. All the music fits well with what’s going on. Character themes such as Golbez or the Calbrina are suitably menacing and creepy, the main theme is timeless, and the overworld and environment themes are powerful, such as the mystic sylph cave, the mountain climbing of Mt. Ordeals, and the barren loneliness of the moon. Uematsu’s pieces hold up remarkably well considering their age.
Even by today’s standards, the graphics are considered classic and have aged well. While not very realistic, they invoke a whimsical quality of the golden age of RPGs. Likewise, the music is very well done. The added power of the SNES allowed Uematsu to bring new emotional depth to the Final Fantasy series. While the graphics and sound were redone in the DS remake, with added voice acting, the music and design didn’t change much, a tribute to the power Final Fantasy 4 had.
Final Fantasy 4
Final Fantasy 4 started the golden age of Final Fantasy games. While it didn’t popularize the series like Final Fantasy 7, it showed just how epic an RPG could be with grandiose storytelling and character dynamics, a well polished battle system, and improvements to sound and graphics design. To this day, it remains an endearing classic, whereas the first 3 Final Fantasy games have aged somewhat. While not the best, by any means, Final Fantasy 4 is easily in the top 5 Final Fantasy games and is one of the most remade titles ever. It is also one of the few Final Fantasy titles to receive a direct sequel on the Wii.
Following Final Fantasy 3, Final Fantasy 4 was an unforgettable entry into the series. It’s a pity that it would take roughly 18 years for the sequel, Final Fantasy 4: The After Years.