Final Fantasy IV opens in medias res, on a scene of soldiers robbing and killing innocent people. The captain of these murderous soldiers is Cecil, the dark knight, but he isn’t the villain of the story—he’s the hero. This premise subverted player expectations in a big way in 1991, but in the same stroke, it also helped to do something else: It solidified Final Fantasy IV as the quintessential Japanese role-playing game.
Of course, Final Fantasy IV was not the first JRPG to have memorable characters or a daring story. But it was the first to perfectly assemble all of the elements we have come to expect from the genre. Colorful characters, expansive worlds, cerebral turn-based fights, a commanding soundtrack, melodramatic twists and betrayals—Final Fantasy IV encapsulated all of these things more effectively than earlier efforts.
Discussing the development and success of Square’s Final Fantasy IV is not so simple though. First of all, was it even a successful game when it released? It depends on whom we ask, and in which country we ask it.
Here, I would like to touch upon the inspiration, development, reception, and legacy of Final Fantasy IV—both in its original Super Famicom form, and in its highly modified international release for Super Nintendo as Final Fantasy II.
In the Shadow of Dragons
Final Fantasy now stands as one of the most hallowed franchises in video game history, but in Japan in 1990, Square thought of itself as the underdog. They released Final Fantasy III for the Famicom in that year, and it sold 1.4 million units. That is a great number, except that the original Dragon Quest, released in 1986 by rival developer Enix, had sold 1.5 million units in Japan. Dragon Quest II had sold 2.4 million units in Japan after its 1987 release, and Dragon Quest III had sold 3.8 million units in Japan after its 1988 release. When looked at strictly as a numbers game, Enix was the clear champion, the Mike Tyson, and Square was Little Mac.
Takashi Tokita—who would do the main planning, scenario plotting, staging, script writing, and even some pixel art for Final Fantasy IV—felt that Dragon Quest had a “strength” just because it had existed before Final Fantasy. But Final Fantasy was never a Dragon Quest clone, or even inspired by that series. On the contrary, Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi had wanted to create an RPG long before Dragon Quest released, because he and his team were all fans of Wizardry and Ultima. It was only after the success of Dragon Quest though that Sakaguchi was able to convince Square executives that an RPG could be profitable.
Nonetheless, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest became inexorably intertwined, all the way up until Square and Enix merged to become Square Enix in 2003. Akitoshi Kawazu, who worked on the original Final Fantasy team and created the SaGa series, appreciated the rivalry and believed that it pushed them to work harder on Final Fantasy. And in 1990, Square was indeed working harder.
The Forgotten Fantasy
After Final Fantasy III, Square actually set out to create two new games—Final Fantasy IV for the Famicom, and Final Fantasy V for the Super Famicom. This Famicom Final Fantasy IV would eventually be canceled to focus all resources on the Super Famicom title, which would become renumbered Final Fantasy IV. It is uncertain how much development went into the Famicom title before cancellation though.
For years, the official story was that the Famicom Final Fantasy IV never proceeded past the planning phase. But a transcript from an alleged Dengeki Super Famicom magazine interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi can be found online. In it, Sakaguchi admits with shame that the Famicom game was actually 80 percent complete at the time of cancellation. The authenticity of the interview has yet to be confirmed, so this means it is hard to say definitively what—if any—influence the Famicom title had on the Super Famicom title.
Building the Ultimate RPG
The development team for Final Fantasy IV consisted of approximately 14 people and was helmed by Tokita. The goal of development was to create the “ultimate Final Fantasy” by combining the best aspects of the previous three games. They wanted to take the story-driven nature of Final Fantasy II and infuse it with the variety of character classes/jobs available in Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy III. They achieved this by creating a cast of diverse playable characters with unique classes—but the plot would dictate which characters were in the party at any given moment.
Having the narrative govern the shape of the party introduced a new level of excitement and unpredictability into gameplay. But the tradeoff was that party customization was now at its lowest point in series history. The development team was aware of this problem, and they believed they could compensate for the loss with something completely new to RPGs—the Active Time Battle (ATB) system.
Systems designer Hiroyuki Ito built the ATB system, and Square found it valuable enough to patent it! Up until this point in the series, all battles had been turn-based, and actions for all party members would be selected before those actions would actually play out. With the new ATB system, combat was still turn-based, but actions for individual party members were now selected on the fly as time passed in pseudo-real time. Some actions took longer than others to execute, and some characters were naturally faster than others, allowing them to act more often. Thus, actual rhythm was introduced to menu-driven combat.
Ito said only half-jokingly that the theme of ATB was “an action-like game with no action elements.” ATB had the feeling of action, but without requiring the actual reflexes of an action game. Ito’s inspiration for the ATB system was entirely action-packed though—it came from watching Formula One racing. He saw how cars would surpass each other on the track. He then thought it would be compelling if character speed in combat could differ depending on the agility of the particular person, and the rest is history. The ATB system would be used with various modifications through Final Fantasy IX, and then revisited many more times in other games–such as in Chrono Trigger, one of the greatest masterpieces in gaming’s history.
This system was unquestioningly Final Fantasy IV’s most memorable technical achievement, but the development team looked for other ways to exploit the new Super Famicom hardware too. Chiefly, they used its Mode 7 technology to tilt the angle of the world when players were flying around in an airship. Like most Mode 7 effects, this was ultimately just a flashy parlor trick, but still an enjoyable one. The development team also took the Super Famicom’s increased sprite capacity as an excuse to expand the playable party to five characters. Curiously, why this number never stayed at five for future series titles is unclear even to Tokita.
It’s All About the Presentation
For decades now, Final Fantasy has been known for its cinematic storytelling, and much of that began with Final Fantasy IV. In the pursuit of generating more drama with the narrative, the development team applied a movie-editing perspective to how they plotted scenes. For instance, they did not want every part of the narrative to fall neatly into a town-dungeon-boss pattern, so exciting scenarios like the siege on Fabul came into being.
But what really set the presentation of Final Fantasy IV’s narrative apart from that of other RPGs of the era was the soundtrack. The artistic quality of Nobuo Uematsu’s music for the game was outstanding, and the game’s “Theme of Love” track would go on to be taught in Japanese music class over a decade later. However, equally important to the quality of the soundtrack was the timing of the soundtrack. The development team made a conscious decision to have music change at specific moments in order to best reflect the mood of the story, just like in a movie. This amplified the emotional moments and improved the overall pacing of the narrative.
Something else that improved the pacing, albeit by accident, was a hardware limitation. The original script Tokita had written for Final Fantasy IV was far too massive to fit in the allotted space. In response, he went back and streamlined the script down to a quarter of its original size without removing any plot elements.
Collectively, all of these improvements to the narrative presentation in 1991 made it easy to overlook one little thing—Final Fantasy IV still had a pretty simple story at its core. Tokita himself has admitted as much. Yes, Cecil is a tortured character in search of redemption, but the truth is that redemption comes pretty quickly and painlessly for him. By comparison, even 1994’s Final Fantasy VI completely eclipses IV (and most other video games) for richness and complexity of storytelling. In other words, Final Fantasy IV’s reputation as an RPG of top-level storytelling was brief at best.
But the narrative continues to be celebrated by its fans today, because the characters are all memorable in spite of their two-dimensionality. Kain is the cool maverick who never sticks around as much as we would like. Golbez is a fantasy Darth Vader brought to life by some of my favorite pixel art ever. Tellah is a stubborn old man who learns the hard way that revenge is no way to live.
Additionally, as Tokita notes, the playable party included such wide diversity of age and gender. Every player could identify with someone in the story, whether it was Rydia or Tellah. This was another concept that future Final Fantasy titles (especially VI) would incorporate well.
Ultimately, Tokita’s intended theme for Final Fantasy IV was, “Brute strength alone isn’t power.” This is why Cecil, freshly reborn as a paladin, starts over at level 1 in spite of this form ostensibly being an upgrade over dark knight. It is also why Cecil trades his self-mutilating “Darkness” ability for the ally-rescuing “Cover” ability. And presumably, it is why FuSoYa and Golbez killing Zemus has the unintended consequence of making Zemus even stronger. Destroying him in his Zeromus form requires everyone to set hate aside and believe in the hope that comes from working together.
Basically, this theme was a roundabout form of “the power of friendship” cliché that is pervasive in JRPGs. But in the year 1991, that was good enough. Final Fantasy IV sold approximately 1.5 million units in Japan, still falling far short of Dragon Quest numbers, but a good showing all the same. It seemed that Square had to settle for second place in Japan, but could they reap bigger profits in North America?
Lost in Translation
The original Final Fantasy had actually sold better in North America on the NES than in Japan on the Famicom and lesser-known MSX2. It had sold 700,000 units in North America versus 600,000 units in Japan. The natural reaction to such sales figures would have been to localize Final Fantasy II next, and in fact, a very rough English translation of that game was produced for North America. But ultimately, the release was canceled, and neither the original Final Fantasy II nor Final Fantasy III would come to North America in any official form for many years. Why? Because the original Final Fantasy did not arrive in North America until 1990, and if Square was going to release a sequel to that game, it might as well be the hottest and most exciting game that they had to offer—Final Fantasy IV.
However, Square believed that selling this game to North America would demand more than simply a translation. After all, Final Fantasy IV was the culmination of experimental ideas and systems that had been honed in Final Fantasy II and III, all of which North American audiences had never seen. Square feared Final Fantasy IV would just feel too new and too complicated, especially to the younger children whom Square was also hoping would play the game. As a result, Square chose to rebalance the game in a way that they felt made it feel more like a sequel to the original Final Fantasy.
Or in other words—Square dumbed the game down, a lot. Many character-specific special skills, like Cecil’s aforementioned “Darkness” ability, were removed from the North American version and not replaced with anything else. Many items and magic spells similarly vanished. But these things did not always disappear completely. A few of them appeared in scripted battles, for instance, tantalizing North American players with exciting powers that they would never get to use themselves. And on top of all of those changes, the game’s difficulty was toned down in general. In essence, a lot of the battle mechanics’ charm and texture were steam pressed out of the North American localization.
The translation of Final Fantasy IV into English came with its own headaches. For starters, the game was naturally rechristened Final Fantasy II for North American Super Nintendo, which would cause confusion among gamers for years to come between that game and Famicom’s genuine Final Fantasy II. But this problem was negligible. The real problem was getting an English script to even fit on a Super Nintendo cartridge.
Japanese is a much more compact language when written compared to English, meaning much more Japanese text can fit in a given chunk of data memory than English text. This physical limitation was the single most challenging aspect of translating text-heavy Japanese games in the early era of gaming. So much information had to be truncated or simply discarded in order to make the script fit in the given space. The English translator of Final Fantasy IV, Kaoru Moriyama, has attested to this herself. She once said that, in those days, it was “never really ‘translating’ but chopping up the information and cramming them back in.”
Moriyama’s words might have been truer than she had realized. Ted Woolsey, who would later become the translator of Final Fantasy VI, recounts that a senior VP and a person in finance at Square looked at the screen text of the freshly translated Final Fantasy IV and found so many problems that it left them flabbergasted. The duo spent “some 24-hour blocks of time late into the evenings, trying to rewrite the [game] text as best they could without ever having played the game.”
For these various and complex reasons, Final Fantasy IV’s English Super Nintendo translation is functional but unremarkable. It conveys the narrative with few genuine mistakes, but it does little otherwise to warrant praise. The one thing in the translation seemingly all fans of the game rally around is Tellah’s legendary (and goofy) insult to Edward: “You spoony bard!” Amusingly, this phrase has remained intact in every subsequent English translation of the game.
Lastly, it is important to note that some changes to Final Fantasy IV were not the result of technical limitations or Square’s tampering—but rather of Nintendo of America’s rigid censorship rules. Among other things, references to religion were removed, as well as language directly pertaining to death. Pixel art that could be perceived as too sexy got touched up. Little references to alcohol were casually glossed over. And weirdly, pixel art for a large blade looming threateningly over Rosa was replaced with a large ball, because getting smashed to death by a ball is apparently less violent than being cut in half by a blade.
Learning the Wrong Lessons
In November of 1991, Final Fantasy IV (going by the name Final Fantasy II) released for Super Nintendo in North America. The Super Nintendo itself had only been on sale in North America for roughly two months at that time, so the install base for the console was inevitably low. Thus, Final Fantasy IV went on to sell 300,000 units—a respectable number for a niche genre on a new machine, but lower than what Square had wanted.
The game’s quality, for all its questionable alterations, could not be blamed for the game not selling better. The truth was that even this neutered version of Final Fantasy IV was an outstanding game, and game publications of the era reviewed it favorably. GamePro’s Monty Haul probably offered the highest praise, writing, “Final Fantasy II truly redefines the standards for fantasy adventures games.”
Square had ambitions to make Final Fantasy a million-copy-seller in North America like it had become in Japan, so they plotted what they could do to better cater to the North American audience. One solution would have been to simply increase their marketing efforts for the upcoming Final Fantasy V, but Square did not go down this path.
Instead, they continued to fixate on Final Fantasy IV’s complexity, somehow convincing themselves that it was the reason for the game’s inadequate North American sales. In essence, Square decided that North America did not yet have enough education and training on how to properly play JRPGs, and this lack of understanding had hurt their sales. This conclusion is both short-sighted and comically insulting, but it led to a decision to create a much simpler JRPG geared at educating North American audiences: Final Fantasy Mystic Quest.
In short, there is no demonstrable evidence that Mystic Quest, released in 1992 in North America, did anything to educate the public on how to correctly play a JRPG. Instead, all the overly basic game did was alienate and disappoint the people who had loved Final Fantasy IV. Even worse, plans to localize Final Fantasy V for North America fizzled out, in large part because the game was just deemed too hard for North American audiences.
Ultimately, the relationship between Square and Final Fantasy IV in North America was like that of a critical stage mom and her pageant contestant daughter. Square honed Final Fantasy IV to unparalleled heights, but when it did not win as big as the company had hoped, they stopped celebrating the game’s strengths and could only obsess over its problems (real or imagined). In retrospect, it is amazing that Final Fantasy VI, released in 1994 in Japan and North America, underwent no major changes to its gameplay during its North American localization. We can all thank our lucky stars for that one.
The Story Is Not Final
To Square’s credit, at least they released Final Fantasy games in North America at all. Dragon Quest V and VI for Super Famicom never released in North America. That lack of big competition allowed Square to leverage Final Fantasy IV to become synonymous with JRPGs in North America. This position would be fortified by Final Fantasy VI, and then set in stone by the meteoric arrival of Final Fantasy VII, which would finally deliver multi-million unit sales and establish Final Fantasy as the premier JRPG series internationally.
Thus, one might say Final Fantasy IV’s legacy is that it enabled everything else that came afterward. It is the foundation upon which its sequels—some of the finest video games ever—were created. It has also influenced countless other video games, RPGs or otherwise. And most importantly of all, Final Fantasy IV served to ignite the imaginations of thousands of children and adults in an era when nobody expected a video game to tell a good story.
Final Fantasy IV has been remade roughly half a dozen times at this point, appearing on the PlayStation, WonderSwan Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PSP, PC, and mobile devices. It also received an episodic sequel in 2008, Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, for mobile devices and later for Wii, PSP, and PC. Basically, if a gamer has played one numbered Final Fantasy title that precedes VII, it is probably IV.
And that is probably the way it should be. The original Final Fantasy is a bit like the original Street Fighter, in that it is revered for existing at all but not that thrilling to actually play now. But Final Fantasy IV, like Street Fighter II, manages to be strangely timeless. Yes, better iterations of these games exist now, but players can still sense something sincere and primordial in them when they sit down to play them. That is what Final Fantasy IV is—a quaint bundle of joy that reminds us where video games have been, and a compass needle to remind us of when, maybe, they should come home.