I still meet people who insist Final Fantasy IV has one of the greatest videogame stories of all time. It doesn't, but the grip this game has on a certain generation of people fascinates me. I remember speaking to a friend once who claimed that while later Final Fantasy games improved significantly on storytelling, there was just something about Final Fantasy IV that made it better. That "something" is clearly nostalgia, but it raises an interesting question nonetheless. Why did Final Fantasy IV firmly entrench itself in the minds of so many people as the definitive console role-playing game (RPG)?
We can all ask ourselves this question again with the release of Final Fantasy IV Advance for the GBA. While slightly enhanced from its original form, Final Fantasy IV Advance is virtually identical to the game that was release in the West as Final Fantasy II 15 years ago. It has the same 2D graphics, the same symphonic score, the same random combat system, and the same story of Dark Knight Cecil's quest to save both the Earth and the Moon from destruction.
Gameplay in Final Fantasy IV Advance is surprisingly varied. As technology has grown I've come to loathe the repetition of RPG random combat but on the GBA somehow these old conventions make sense again. I didn't mind walking around on yet another map hitting invisible enemies in Final Fantasy IV Advance. This partially has to do with how quickly paced the game is— Final Fantasy IV was probably one of the fastest moving RPGs ever. It hits the ground running, piling on dramatic event after dramatic event. We get a handful of surprises and betrayals in the first hour alone, and things just escalate from there.
Another thing that helps the monotony is the reliance on "gimmick" bosses and dungeons. Unlike most RPG's (and, curiously, most other Final Fantasy games) Final Fantasy IV Advance adds a variety of puzzle-like elements on top of your standard RPG stat crunching. Some enemies can only be killed by attacking in a certain order, and some dungeons require special strategies that cannot be bypassed simply by leveling up. This extra layer of complexity was unusual both then and, I must admit, now as well.
Final Fantasy IV Advance's graphics don't impress compared to some other GBA games. Textures have been sharpened slightly, but overall Final Fantasy IV Advance is pixel-for-pixel true to its first-generation Super Nintendo original. Don't expect any modest tricks designed to create depth or organic-looking spaces. Final Fantasy IV Advance is strictly about sliding a dude around on what might as well be a paper map. Still, this system retains a bit of its old charm. The makers exploit their limited character animations in clever ways. Anger, jealousy, joy, depression—they somehow cram all these emotions into what should be lifeless little sprites and manage to tell a complex story with multiple characters.
Final Fantasy IV's story is hard for me to judge. I was a big fan of the Final Fantasy series until recently, when its sense of creative discovery was finally crushed under the weight of financial desperation. For my money, Final Fantasy VI-VIII were the franchise's highpoint, both in terms of gameplay and story. I remember loving Final Fantasy IV's meat n' potatoes "save the world" plot when I was 14, but in retrospect it is absolutely no contest for the soul searching poetry of Final Fantasy VI or the genre-bending bravado of Final Fantasy VII. Still, coming back to it all these years later I have to admit it works nicely on the small screen. It knows how to introduce memorable characters and thread them through the fabric of colorful melodrama. It's all pretty light stuff by today's standards, but that's why it's perfect for a portable device. This isn't a story worth sitting down in my living from for, but it's just about everything I want out of a story I'm going to experience primarily on the toilet.
I enjoyed playing Final Fantasy IV again, on and off at a comfortable pace on my GBA. It's a good RPG with varied gameplay and an interesting story that unfolds at a nice pace. If that doesn't sound incredible, well, that's because Final Fantasy IV is actually of a time when having all those qualities in one game was unusual. Final Fantasy IV was originally released at a time when story was typically not the central feature of a game. Its dominating narrative, combined with its then next-gen graphics and sound, is probably what made such a huge impression on people. If players wanted a big dramatic epic it was literally the only act in town, and for many gamers it likely constitutes the first emotional experience they had with a videogame. It was the right game at the right time, providing just the right stimuli for the right age group to trigger their imaginations of what videogames might become. Ironically, that trigger was so strong that some to this day fail to realize how far games have come since. For the rest of us, Final Fantasy IV Advance remains a nice review of videogame history, a perfectly serviceable adventure that, by today standards, is just the right size for your pocket.