Final Fantasy IV, Part two: The Fifth Man

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Being the first Final Fantasy game for the Super Nintendo, Final Fantasy IV featured several technical advancements over the previous incarnations.  The graphical tile set shares some similarity with FF III, but 16-bit graphics and an expanded color palate give the objects more depth.  Everything feels a bit more real.  The added power of the hardware also allowed for two key graphical improvements.  The first is layering, which created better visual effects, filling the screen with fog or smoke, and lending atmosphere to the dungeons and other locations.  The second is Mode 7 graphics.  Mode 7 was an ability that the Super Nintendo had which allowed the background plane to be rotated against another object in a variety of ways.  This was used by the Super Nintendo to create the illusion of a 3D environment with 2D backgrounds.  FF IV uses the effect for airship sequences in the game.  As the airship takes off, the ground literally tilts and shrinks away, creating an appearance of altitude.  Square continued to refine and experiment with these effects in later games for the Super Nintendo.
The real thing that makes FF IV stand out in the series, however, is the battle system.  Final Fantasy IV is the origin of the Active Time Battle System.  In previous games, your characters would line up on one side of the screen, the monsters would take the other side, and you’d take turns hitting each other with swords and magic.  IV introduced a system where the speed at which your characters acted was actually based on their speed stats.  So faster characters wouldn’t just land more blows on their opponents, they acted more often.  This was another break-out moment for the series, and was a key part of the game for years, although players could still set the controls so that monsters would politely wait if you were called away during a fight.
The other unique feature was a five-person party over the previous games’ four.  This is the largest they ever got, and challenged the player with a difficult choice. Like in II and III, players could set characters in the front row to do more physical damage, or the back to boost defense.  But in IV, some slots were reserved for the front, and others for the back, letting the players choose, but preventing them from putting everyone up front or in back.  Again, the player had to familiarize themselves with the characters, and learn their strengths and weaknesses.  Usually this wasn’t particularly difficult with knights up front and wizards in the back.  However, some sections of the game gave you a party that favored one style over the the other, and left you with more vulnerable characters, or with choosing who to stick in the back for a while.
Final Fantasy IV is a game that focused on delivering one story, and challenging players to master it with very little of the customization offered by previous and later installments.  Still, it delivers it so well, and the mechanics are so deep, that it still remains one of my favorites in the series.

Final Fantasy IV: Part One: Marrying the Personal and the Epic

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Picking back up in my look at the Final Fantasy series, let’s take a look at the first entry into the Super Nintendo era, Final Fantasy IV.  Leaving aside the technical and nerdy depths of the game’s various versions and releases, today I want to talk about the game’s plot, and the huge step forward it represented for the series.

Final Fantasy IV is the story of Cecil, a Dark Knight of Baron, and the commander of the kingdom’s dreaded airship corps, the Red Wings.  The game opens with a lengthy cut scene of Cecil flying to the country of Mysidia, attacking, and stealing their crystal.  This is a unique opening for the series, as there is almost no game-play as the player is introduced to Cecil, his friends and subordinates, and his inner turmoil.  Cecil is caught between his loyalty to the king and his desire to do what is right.

When he questions why the kingdom is committing such horrible crimes, the king strips him of his rank and demands he deliver a message to a nearby village, alone and on foot.  Cecil’s best friend and Dragoon Kain stands with him.  This is where the adventure, and the game, really begin.  The first few hours of the game chronicle Cecil’s journey as he gains and loses allies, and fights to make sense of the world and his place in it.  Finally, he washes up alone and broken on the shores of Mysidia, coming face to face with the horror of what he did at the start of the narrative.

The only way for Cecil to atone for his crime is to climb Mt. Ordeals and become a Paladin, shedding the darkness of his past.  And in doing so, the greater motion of the plot is revealed, as he is opposed by fiends serving Golbez, a powerful, shadowy figure gathering crystals to himself for some purpose.  And in becoming a Paladin, he transcends his quest to save himself, and takes on a mission to save the world.

Final Fantasy IV marked a turning point for the series.  The quartet of tabula rasas with blank spaces for names were replaced by more fully formed characters that had a place and stake in the world.  They had their own drive and agency, and drew the story forward as they wove in and out of the adventure tale’s intricate story.  IV didn’t give the player any choice as to who was in the party at any given time.  It was dictated by the story and the actions of the characters rather than the player.  And all the characters had a reason to be there, be it a sense of obligation, a desire for revenge, or just a desire to keep the other characters safe.  Square eased up on the narrative drive in later games, giving the player a bit more control, but this is the game when the party really became characters.  It was a remarkable step forward, and it had a lasting impression on the series.

Next time:  The technical innovations of the 16 bit era, and the five person party.