Final Fantasy. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you love it. The Final Fantasy series is one of the longest running video games series ever created. The original NES game was released back in 1987 and the most recent release, a remake of the beloved Final Fantasy VII, was released in April of 2020. Between the first game and FFVII Remake, there have been 15 numbered mainline entries (including some direct sequels) and a dizzying number of spin offs. For most of us, that’s more RPG goodness than we’ll ever be able to really play through.
But what I really want to talk about in this piece is what is still to this day my favorite RPG ever – and possibly my favorite game of all time – and that is Final Fantasy IV. I love the entire Final Fantasy series as a whole, but I’ll just be talking about this one game in particular here. Released back in 1991 on the Super Nintendo, it was known in North America as Final Fantasy II due to the fact that the actual second and third entries in the series were never localized and brought stateside, so I grew up knowing it as II. From here on I will refer to it by it’s actual name of Final Fantasy IV. Still with me?
To attempt to briefly summarize the beginning of the story, we are introduced to Cecil Harvey, Dark Knight and Captain of the Red Wings of the kingdom of Baron. His men comment on how he seems disturbed and distant after their recent mission, in which they were forced to slaughter the stewards protecting the water crystal of the neighboring kingdom of Mysidia. Cecil chastises them, telling them their duty is not to question or defy the judgment of their king, only to carry out his orders. He doesn’t believe his own words, and after a monster attack on the airship he questions whether the increase in attacks is divine punishment for their actions. Upon returning to Baron, Cecil has an audience with the king and hands over the water crystal, after which he asks the king what his intentions are, saying that his men are confused and unhappy with what they’ve recently been tasked to do. The king, outraged, says he will not tolerate dissension or treason and strips Cecil of his command of the Red Wings and instead charges him with another mission. He is to travel to a place called Mist Valley and slay a creature called an Eidolon (a powerful summoned guardian creature, essentially) and then deliver a ring to the village of Mist that lies beyond the valley. As Cecil tries to reason with the king, his best friend and comrade Kain Highwind barges into the throne room and pleads with the king to reconsider, saying that Cecil has done nothing but what he has been ordered to do. The king is upset again and tells Kain that for his insolence he is also to accompany Cecil on his new quest, then orders them to get out of his sight.
At this point you are free to explore the castle and talk to various NPCs (non player characters) to gather information and collect items that will be useful for your journey. We get to speak to Kain and see the two men share a bit of friendly banter as Kain encourages Cecil and we see that they have a long history. We are introduced to the airship engineer Cid (who has a majestic beard and clobbers monsters with a hammer) who laments the fact that the king has been using his airships to slaughter innocent people and then tells Cecil to come back safe. And last but certainly not least, we are introduced to Cecil’s love interest, Rosa, who he confides in about his fears. “Soon, I won’t even feel remorse for my actions,” he tells her after recounting what they did in Mysidia. She does her best to reassure him that though he has done monstrous things, he isn’t a monster and will never be one, and through their interaction we see that they both care for each other a great deal, though as a Dark Knight Cecil feels he can never truly be free to love her back.
The next morning, Cecil and Kain embark on their journey and after venturing through caves battling all kinds of monsters, they come face to face with the Eidolon they were tasked with killing, a dragon that’s guarding the entrance to the village of Mist. Once they defeat the dragon, Cecil and Kain enter the village and suddenly the ring the king entrusted to them is activated and releases Bombs, sentient fireballs that raze the buildings and kill almost everyone in the village. Cecil and Kain are horrified that they were unwittingly used to slaughter an entire village, and resolve to do whatever they can to stop the king now. They find a young girl named Rydia crying and holding her deceased mother who, as it turns out, was the one who summoned the dragon our heroes had just killed. When they killed the dragon, they killed Rydia’s mother in the process, and in her rage and anguish Rydia summons another Eidolon called Titan who attacks Cecil and Kain by causing an earthquake. When the dust settles and Cecil awakens, Kain is nowhere to be found and only the unconscious body of the little girl is near. Cecil takes her to the nearest village to recover and here the story really begins in earnest.
At its core, Final Fantasy IV is a story about redemption, and I included this lengthy summary of the opening act to the game because I wanted to show that story and characters really matter here. This was the first game I played that really had a strong narrative to it, with lines upon lines of dialogue being even more important than bashing monsters with weapons and flinging fireballs at them. RPGS, or Japanese role playing games as games like Final Fantasy eventually came to be known, are all about the narrative, with the game play coming in a close second. If the story sucks, it doesn’t really matter how fun or inventive the combat is. In a game series like Mario, the narrative usually boils down to rescuing Princess Peach from Bowser’s evil clutches because he can’t handle rejection, I guess? Or he wants cake. The reasons don’t matter! All the plot needs to do is propel Mario and Luigi forth on their quest to run, jump, swim and fly through dozens of stages before pummeling Bowser and rescuing the princess. And for a Mario game, that’s usually all the incentive you need to pick up the controller and play.
For Final Fantasy IV, though, we immediately see a main character who, aside from his striking appearance, is also a fully realized character with his own thoughts and feelings and doubts as we catch up with him in the middle of his story. From what we already know of him, he’s been forced to do some evil things before we’re ever put in control of him, and then again when his and our actions lead to the destruction of a town. From a story telling perspective, Cecil isn’t immediately painted as a knight in shining armor and is instead shown to be a flawed person who, although he questions why, still does what has been asked of him in service to his king and loses his sense of self in the process. The many companions he meets on his journey are also fully realized people with their own ambitions and personalities, from the stoic Dragoon Kain – who himself undergoes quite a journey – to Rydia, the girl from the destroyed village, who grows into a powerful and strong willed summoner and magic user like her mother, to the ninja prince Edge who has a bit of an inflated ego and can’t help but flirt with beautiful women. This is a far cry from the previous Final Fantasy games where your characters were more or less blank slates. As you play the game, you see their individual stories unfold, and some of the scene are burned into my memory.
At one point late at night, a character named Edward is sitting by a lake strumming his harp as he mourns the death of his beloved Anna. He gets attacked by an aquatic creature named a sahagin and has to stand and fight, but being a bard he’s not a very capable fighter. The ghost of Anna appears to him as he’s about to give in to his despair and spurs him on, telling him he can’t give up and must fight. He finds his inner strength and defeats the monster, then pleads with the ghost of Anna not to leave, that he can’t go on without her. She tells him that he needs to care for the people of his kingdom the way he cared for her before she disappears.
Maybe it’s not the most original scene by today’s standards. But back in 1991, I feel like something like that being in a video game must’ve been unheard of! It had surely been done in movies and books and even TV shows, sure. I don’t know when I first played the game, ’95 maybe? But however old I was, that scene made such an impact on me, because not only is Edward a weak character physically (he fights with a harp and has a battle action that lets him hide, for crying out loud) but he’s sort of a mess after the love of his life got killed mostly thanks to eloping with him. But that moment by the lake was the start of his own redemption, when he had no choice but to fight or give up and let the monster tear him to shreds. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of the game’s over all plot, but there are a lot of character moments in the game; sacrifices big and small and even a major character death that you can do nothing to prevent. Your party members “die” all the time in RPGs, but you can usually revive them with a spell or a special recovery item, but when this character dies, he doesn’t come back. Worsening the blow, his sacrifice mostly ends up being for nothing! It really ups the stakes because as a first time player, you don’t know who else is going to die before the credits roll, and by this point the cast of characters feel like real people and you don’t want to lose any more of them. Their battles and struggles have sucked you in and as the hand that guides them, you need to make the best decisions in battle so that you can persevere no matter the odds.
The sign of a strong narrative is whether or not the reader, viewer or player is invested in the plight of the characters. If you’re reading a book or playing a game and don’t care about the characters or their motivations, what’s it all for then? As someone who wants to be a writer, I have to always keep that in the back of my mind when I write, and I often go back to drink from the Final Fantasy IV well. Not to retread old ground, of course, but for inspiration. All the things that made such an impact on me as a kid are the sorts of things I hope my own stories instill in potential readers. If there is a character who has a tragic past, he/she needs to be more than just their tragedy, because no real person can really be so simply summed up. And even though he’s just a video game character, Cecil’s journey of redemption as he goes from being a harbinger of darkness to a bearer of light that people rally around is something that I’ll always remember. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the game, Cecil has to face his own reflection in battle in order to rid himself of the shackles that have bound him to a life of darkness and blind servitude. No longer a Dark Knight, he emerges a Paladin and has a new sense of purpose. Cecil’s struggle against the darkness within himself isn’t so different from what you or I might face when confronted with our own reflections from time to time, though it is probably more fantastically heroic.
With games, as with most things, the music really adds to the experience. And in the case of Final Fantasy as a series, the soundtrack is nearly always fantastic. The main battle theme from Final Fantasy IV still gives me chills every time I listen to it. Getting into random battles in the game is always such a joy for me because I get to listen to this tune as often as I want. Just listen to that bass line! Nobuo Uematsu was the main composer for many of the early Final Fantasy games and I think his work on this one is just exceptional. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia, either. I still listen to the soundtrack regularly when I’m writing (not surprisingly, I’m listening to it now) and it still gets me in a good headspace. For me, Final Fantasy’s music is just as important at creating a tone and setting a mood as the actual setting and story itself. Important battles have appropriately important and dramatic music that really makes you feel like everything is on the line. You know a boss fight is going to be tough when this is the theme that plays throughout the battle. Likewise, dramatic moments in the plot wouldn’t soar as high if the music accompanying the scene wasn’t up to the task. Take moments between Rosa and Cecil, for instance. During these important moments, the Theme of Love plays and it really helps to establish the tone of the scene. I could gush for hours about Nobuo Uematsu’s music, but I won’t and will instead just say that of all the Final Fantasy games I’ve played, which all have strong music, IV is at the very top for me. And that’s very important because if the battle theme doesn’t pump you up and make you feel like you and the heroes are really fighting the good fight, battles can become a slog in RPGs. Not for me, I like the methodical nature of classic turn based battles, but I know they’re definitely not for everyone.
I guess really what it’s all about for me is that everyone will have their own opinions on the pros and cons of video games, and whether or not they’re enriching or just a waste of time. That’s a fair discussion. I have seen plenty of not-so-great examples of how people can negatively react to playing a game. But the opposite is also true, and I’d say is also the rule rather than the exception. Not all games are the same, of course, just like not all movies or books are. Some games might exist just to give you a power fantasy or sate some dormant blood lust as you riddle some demons or aliens with bullets. There are cases to be made for those games, for sure, as I’ve enjoyed many of them. But I feel that the narrative aspect to games often gets overlooked. Unless you’re someone like me who “eats Nintendo,” like my mom used to tell me, odds are you won’t really think that games actually have plots other than go here, shoot this, explode that. Some are like that because that’s all they need to be, and that’s fine too! But there are also games like Final Fantasy IV that tell a mostly relatable tale despite fantasy being part of the title. There are also many games that take you on such a ride that by the time the credits roll, you’re not even sure what to feel about it all.
I can’t speak for others’ experiences, but for me, Final Fantasy IV has helped to shape the sorts of things I enjoy. In fact, I credit games like this and Pokemon for why I enjoy reading so much. Back before games had full voice acting in them, you had no choice but to read if you wanted to progress through the story, not to mention if you wanted to know how to play the thing in the first place. The one thing I can say I’ve always enjoyed and been good at is reading, and I can’t overstate how important Final Fantasy IV was for my reading development and comprehension skills as a kid, because reading in this game and others like it didn’t feel like a chore and I learned many words and expressions as a result. It also encouraged me to think about my actions more carefully. Resource management is a staple of most RPGs, so I could either go all out in battle and use my most powerful spells and abilities, or I could play defensively and make sure I was always able to heal whenever my characters took too much damage. Add to that the fact that certain enemies are weak to certain spells, like undead enemies like zombies being weak to healing magic and fire, and you’ve got some options to help you out in battle. You just have to pay attention to the things you read and see during the game, which taught me to really take it slow and take note of the details that I may have otherwise missed. It also taught me that failure is just a part of the whole package, and that just because you get wiped out by a tough boss fight doesn’t mean you throw in the towel or throw the controller across the room in a fit of anger. Cecil wouldn’t throw his sword down and stomp away, and neither should you.
On top of all of this, I got to experience some really great and enriching stories that just wouldn’t be possible to experience in the same way if they were in the form of a book. Books are great, don’t get me wrong! I prefer fantasy books most of all, or at least fiction. My favorite periods in history are full of knights and pirates and legends of dragons and monsters and adventures, and my favorite games are about heroic journeys and stories of hardship, sacrifice and redemption. Most of us will never actually go on an earth spanning, world saving adventure like Cecil and his companions, and that’s for the best. So to play a game that transports you to another time and place like a good book does, while also putting you in control of the adventure and treating you to some excellent music and colorful visuals along the way really doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me.
Of course, all of this has been my experience with Final Fantasy IV, and with games in general. To many people, maybe the story of this game wasn’t nearly as profound and impactful as it was for me when I first experienced it all those years ago. Maybe the music never got anyone else pumped up or losing to a boss made someone bite their game in half and set it on fire. I never was able to finish it as a kid, and I don’t know how far I really got. But when it got released on a few different platforms years later, I bought it each time and finished it, enjoying whatever new stuff was added or the improved visuals, but still absolutely enjoying the story and its familiar beats most of all. I’m still waiting and hoping that it comes to the Switch one day so I can play it there, too. But I know that whenever the next time is I play through the story, I’ll be just as invested in the tale as I was the first time I read the words “You spoony bard!” And isn’t that really what you want from a good story?