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If in the world of videogames superlatives were to be handed out in each genre for varying accomplishments, there is no question that Final Fantasy IV would receive my titular distinction. Though this thirteen-year-old first generation SNES title has long been surpassed in every category, almost any single development in the RPG genre since can be traced back to this monumental masterpiece.
Approaching this ugly-side first, in lieu of the user-to-game interface and bare-bones translation (complete with original adjectives!) one has to keep in mind that this game was released in 1991. The stagnant walking speed and limited inventory space was Windows compared to Phantasy Star II’s MS-DOS. And as unpolished as Final Fantasy IV is in these regards, it comes nowhere near the Dragon Warrior-level of decadence. Moreover this was the last title in this series to feature such hindrances to optimal performance.
That however is the worst of Final Fantasy IV. Before I delve into its innovations it is first important to note that this game is the singular embodiment of the 8-bit, "guys in front, girls in back" mentality of console role-playing. "Then why does game receive a 5 in originality, if it is nothing but a culmination of those that came before?" Thanks for asking. Because, like its progeny Final Fantasy IX would do nine years later, Final Fantasy IV took the best of the old and assimilated it with the new.
This is evident firstly with the characters, for the cast is truly one of the most memorable of the 16-bit generation, and history. For one, this was the first time in RPG history (or the first popular example) were you actually played as the bad guy! This, along with the ensuing transfiguring redemption, is of course a typical scenario nowadays. In the personage of Kain RPG's had their first "mysterious badboy," again a stereotype, but "you heard it first" here. Golbez, though appropriately labeled in his role as a "Darth Vader" clone, was at the tops in RPG villainy until he was bested by Kefka three years later. At this time it was fitting for villains to adopt the Ganon-esque, "I am evil incarnate, watch me as I wreak havoc whilst SITTING DOWN!" approach to their role. It was unheard of for a villain to be visible before the eleventh hour.
The story too is classic in its apparent originality. It explored themes and had a plot that was more than just a series of random, strung-together events, in an age were â€˜find the sword, save the princess, and collect the [insert number here] [insert miscellaneous artifact here] to slay the Demon Lordâ€™ was the norm. By exploring the fact that Evil existed only as a perversion of Good (and also originating in the mind), and having the player realize, overcome, and then destroy it through the personage of Cecil, Squaresoft presented a story that was quite powerful at the time of its release. Though frequent imitation and the long years have since softened and even belittled the plot, Cecil's transformation, Kain's betrayal(s), and Porom and Palom's sacrifice still stand as defining moments in Final Fantasy's rich history. For those who (rightly) surmise that Final Fantasy IV is rife with cliches and stereotypes, it was presented in such a way that it reminds us why such stereotypes still survive; the cinematic approach to RPG presentation was also first incorporated here - those who scoff need only witness the classic opening scene.
As influential as this game proves to be from the story/plot angle, its battle system is undoubtedly its greatest gift to posterity. The battle system is also steeped in 8-bit tradition (characters are strictly unique with no customization) with a twist; the Active-Time Battle system. This concept has been emulated so much that it needs neither description nor introduction. If you're not familiar with it, just know that any battle system in an RPG today that is not turn-based (where you pick all the actions and fight in "rounds") is derivative of the classic formula originated in this game. Grandia, Tales of Phantasia/Destiny, Star Ocean, Xenogears/saga, and of course the subsequent Final Fantasy games can all trace the core mechanics of their battle systems to this iteration.
I believe that the 16-bit era was the prime of Final Fantasy music, as evinced by this masterful soundtrack. Building on the musical direction Uematsu explored in Final Fantasy III, this game features some absolutely fantastic tracks. The opening theme/Red Wings theme speaks for itself! I don't believe I have to mention the Main Theme, Rydia's Theme, Theme of Love, the boss battle, or my personal favorite Troian Beauty. The arranged CD for this game, Celtic Moon, takes some of the best tracks in the game and records them Celtic-style, and is definitely a must-buy for anyone interested in videogame music. Sound effects are nothing special, as is the case in almost any game before the dawn of 32-bit.
This game is extremely short, probably the shortest in the series, but it is definitely not easy, considering that two versions of this game were released with varying difficulty levels (the Chronicles version on the PS1 is the hard type, whereas the SNES version is the "easy" type).
In all honesty (and no doubt, inevitably) one may argue with my giving Final Fantasy IV a 5 based mostly on historical merits and accolades instead of the actual game itself. However, it is so special and venerable a game that I would almost consider it to be disrespectful not to give it such a score. This was the first GREAT Final Fantasy, the first classic SNES and 16-bit RPG, and in my not so humble opinion, even though it is not my favorite RPG it stands as the most influential RPG of all time. Definitely a must-play.
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