I should start by clarifying: Final Fantasy IV (1991, Square) was not the first RPG I ever played, but it was the first one I finished. The first RPG I ever played was its venerable predecessor, the original Final Fantasy (1987). I was so young when I first played it that I barely even remember it. I know that my friends and I couldn’t even beat the first boss, and we had no idea what the phrase “critical hit” was supposed to mean. We barely had third-grade reading levels and concepts much more complicated than “walk to the right and save the princess” boggled our young minds. It just had too many words and numbers, so we quickly gave up in favor of Little Nemo: The Dream Master (1990, Capcom). That one was incredibly hard, but at least it made sense, at least a twisted sort of video game sense where feeding animals candy lets you befriend them.
Later when I was in sixth grade I did my best to play Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996, Nintendo). Nintendo Power had advertised it to no end, and despite my earlier failure at and subsequent disinterest in role-playing games, I decided I had to at least give it a try. Mario wouldn’t let me down, right?
Wrong. Oh so wrong. The first major boss, a crazy hat-wearing dinosaur named Croco, completely destroyed me with his dirty tricks. I couldn’t believe that the game expected me to waste time fighting random battles over and over just to overcome one boss. It seemed like too much time commitment for a single game, especially for a Mario game of all things. I shelved it in favor of Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (1995, Nintendo), which had concepts I was familiar with like hit the reptile with the barrel of TNT.
It was my sophomore year of high school before I gave RPGs another shot. I borrowed Final Fantasy IV from a friend (in those days it was known as Final Fantasy II in the US — long story). The game immediately wowed me with its extended opening cutscene depicting a group of knights flying around the world on their terrible airship, slaying innocents and stealing magic crystals, all with sweeping epic music providing a vivid backdrop. I had read Lord of the Rings by this point, and the epic fantasy stylings made me think I’d be playing some furry-footed Frodo Baggins type,an inexperienced youth ignorant of the ways of the world. Instead I’m the commander of these horrible crystal thieves, a dark knight wracked with remorse for all of his violent murders. This, I thought, is the way all games should start.
Now that the story had me hooked, I set about deciphering the intricate menus that had previously put me off RPGs. They really weren’t too hard once I sat down and thought about it, leading me to wonder just how much of an idiot I’d been when I was younger (incidentally, this is still something I wonder about a lot). I had to learn patience, not something that had ever been required from my old pals Mario and Sonic, but learn it I did. I quickly realized that the true joy of an RPG is being able to organize and customize your characters however you want. Because character growth in RPGs simulates real life mental and physical development, watching these characters become stronger through patient effort allowed me a measure of escapism. It was like if I could only wait and gain experience, I could level up the same way my characters were. Minus the magic spells and giant steel swords and such.
It was slow going at times figuring out how many experience points I needed and what the optimal equipment setup would be for a particular dungeon, but it helped that the plot absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Cecil’s quest for redemption and then reconciliation with his heritage provided the impetus for the plot, but the vibrant cast of supporting heroes and villains are what really round the game out. No console RPG before this game had fleshed out its characters to the extent that Final Fantasy IV did. This was thanks to the efforts of three people: producer and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi for his story direction, lead designer Takashi Tokita for his scenario development, and long-time Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu for his music.
Uematsu in particular deserves all the credit he gets. FFIV was the first game to incorporate the concept of “leitmotifs,” an operatic technique which composer Richard Wagner used extensively. Every character in FFIV has its own theme, each painstakingly crafted to evoke the emotions and traits of the person it represents. Locations, vehicles, and even plot elements also get their own theme songs, allowing a game with a relatively light script (compared to modern RPGs) to induce strong emotional responses in the player. By the end of the game the player’s mind is conditioned in the Pavlovian fashion to feel terror, affection, or sadness depending on which song is playing.
I loved the game, but it was extremely difficult. I mean it. It is a hard freaking game. If you’ve never played it before, you can’t fathom just how tough this game is. No console Final Fantasy is harder, except for maybe Final Fantasy II, but that’s only because of the game’s nightmarish character growth system. Regular battles in IV are tough because of the introduction of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, now a staple of the franchise. What the heck does “Active Time Battle” mean? In a nutshell, it means that enemies continue to attack at regular intervals, as do your characters, so you have to act quickly before a hoard of goblins completely wrecks you while you decide which spell to cast. The biggest difficulty of the game is the amount of grinding you have to do. By the time you hit the final boss you’ll probably be twenty levels too low. Square actually dumbed the difficulty down considerably for the initial American release of the game, and it’s still crazy-hard. For a real challenge, try playing the original Japanese version, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you can find the DS remake of IV, definitely pick it up. The updated graphics and new cutscenes are splendid, and the original difficulty is brought back with a few new abilities for your characters which make things much more manageable.
I guess what I like most about the game is its straightforwardness. While it lacks the complexity of later games, this is actually somewhat to its benefit. The later Final Fantasies have become bogged down in extensive cutscenes and menu micromanagement which can sometimes leave a player too exhausted to see them through to the end. FFIV’s ease of gameplay and sophistication of story made it a great jumping on point for me. Not too complex, not too simple, Final Fantasy IV is just right.