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SummaryYou spoony bard!!
The GoodMany Western players became acquainted with the Final Fantasy series through its seventh installment. But while "number seven" was spectacular and brought many features of the series to perfection, it wasn't ground-breaking in terms of starting a tradition or introducing new forms of expression to the genre. Rather, it was following a tradition - that of the three 16-bit Final Fantasies, the first of which was the one that determined the entire future development of the franchise.
To understand the meaning of Final Fantasy IV, one must compare it to the previous installments of the series. The first three Final Fantasy were nice Japanese-style RPGs, with many interesting gameplay ideas, but they lacked that certain something that we associate with Final Fantasy now. The heroes didn't have much personality, the narratives were forgettable, and the gameplay was based on a rather simple turn-based engine.
With Final Fantasy IV, the series finally produced a game which was worthy of being called great. What we know and love in Final Fantasy games was first introduced here.
The first and most obvious change was the personal approach the game took to everything. The events were reflected through the visions and personal opinions of the game's heroes, and were not presented, as in earlier RPGs, as axioms which can't and needn't be proved. The tasks facing the heroes turned into conflicts. There were moral problems to face and solve. Personal conflicts, which were - since this game - used and shown in every next Final Fantasy installment, became the core of the story and of the game in general. The player needed to identify himself with the heroes and have understanding of their - often contradictory - opinions and judgments. Complex emotions and psychological nuances replaced the directness of earlier games.
Of course, all of this was scripted; but that has always been the particular charm of Japanese RPGs: interactive melodrama. The narrative of Final Fantasy IV is highly melodramatic, with soap-opera elements co-existing with "good vs. evil" epic. This style (most certainly derived from Star Wars in this case, but also, naturally, owing a lot to Japanese anime) defined the series; like it or hate it, it made Final Fantasy , and the fourth game was the one that opened the doors to it.
The gameplay is based on the revolutionary ATB ("active time battle") turn-based/real-time combat engine, the dramatic solution to the eternal conflict between strategy and action. Needless to say it spiced up things significantly, and made many battles more challenging. Of course, you should play the Japanese original, or, better, the Playstation Chronicles re-release instead of the butchered North American Super Nintendo port, which threw out gameplay elements and dialogues alike.
Many gameplay ideas which later became typical for Final Fantasy games were either first featured in this installment, or were most satisfyingly implemented in it - for example the summoning concept, the interesting character classes, the exploration of optional areas, vehicles, hidden powerful weapons, etc. It was also the only Final Fantasy (as far as I know) that allowed the player to have five active members in the party; I wish later installments of the series would follow it.
Graphically, the game is a great example of early "console-style" 2D, with nicely designed locations, and dungeons which manage to have atmosphere while being created with simple means.
And of course, a special award should go to Nobuo Uematsu for his excellent music.
The BadThere is really nothing wrong in Final Fantasy IV if we compare it to its contemporaries. Of course, the heavily Star Wars-influenced melodramatic narrative might not be everyone's cup of tea. Some players would perhaps also miss the more open character customization of the previous game.
As it was, sadly, the case with most Japanese games of that time, the official English translation is cringe-worthy. The famous "you spoony bard" phrase has become a cultural phenomenon; such outrageous instances of bad translation can be endearing, but for a real experience of what the game's story was supposed to be about, you should play the Chronicles release - which, by the way, nostalgically retains the "you spoony bard" part.