Review by Ashley Winchester
"Four Score (And Seven Hours to Make)"
Time and time again I'm told Nintendo's handhelds represent the last bastion of old school gaming; that if it weren't for Nintendo, 2-D would officially be dead. Funny thing though: the only deaths likely to occur are from now-geriatric gamers who played all these ports on their original platforms. As in if you're OLD, you probably played the game when you were in SCHOOL. At 23 years of age, just about every must have on Nintendo's GBA are things I experienced well over a decade ago-when they released on the Super Famicom. Sure it's great if you're a gaming newbie, but some people just want plain new'. Just like good old George Lucas, Square continues to tinker away and diminish its classics instead of doing the damn thing over from scratch.
A Jumbled History
By now most people know the story behind Final Fantasy 4's soap-opera history but in the event some don't, it's time for a brief refresher. Square released the Japanese version some 14 years ago but, feeling the challenge might alienate newcomers, put out the venerable Easy Type version a short while later. Featuring simplified gameplay, a consolidated item roster, and an overall lesser challenge, the kiddy version also came with a massive instruction manual/hint book and a redesigned box. When time came to release FF4 overseas, Square took the Easy Type version, removed even more content from it, then slapped the number 2 at the end in light of the fact that Final Fantasy 2 and 3 never released outside Japan. North American games finally got a taste of the real version (all of its scandalous nudy book content intact) with the PSOne port a few years ago.
Although purportedly based on the Hard Type version of the game, Final Fantasy IV Advance is suspiciously easy. Despite playing through the various incarnations of the game on multiple occasions-be it Hard of Easy Type, Japanese or North American, SFC or PSOne or Wonderswan-not once have I ever managed to slay the game's first boss (the infamous Mist Dragon) before it turned into its namesake. This time however, the creature went down without the key battle sequence. Even more alarming, however, is the fact that seemingly 95% of all combat for the first 5+ hours of gameplay is a breeze with enemies rarely attacking and, even if they do, your characters rarely getting damaged. The challenge picks up a bit later, but mainly because of cheap programming (constant The only real difficulty of this GBA installment seems to be tolerating the changes made to an otherwise fantastic game. I kid you not: the Japanese Easy Type version provided more of a challenge than this port does.
Within hours of release, message boards and discussions forums were already in an uproar about the noted ease. The defense against these heinous charges: If you want to challenge yourself, play it this way or do it that way. Come on people; stop making excuses for a company and product you neither own stock in nor have any relevant significance to. Easy is easy, and short is short. While I understand making a product accessible to all fans, there comes a point when things are just plain dumbed down for mainstream tendencies. Why not simply include a selectable difficulty option so that those seeking a real challenge could find it other than in a 50 floor bonus dungeon? It's not the gamer's duty to manually compensate for the publisher's languid efforts; if Square could add MULTIPLE difficulty options in Kingdom Hearts then why the HELL doesn't this simplistic throwback and base programming exercise not have at least ONE? Challenge should not be exclusive to those seeking outrageous accomplishments, to those making it a point to run from each battle, to those trying to get through the entire game without leveling up, to those who want to max all stats or any other I'm SO hardcore nonsense.
Artistic Atrocities and Graphical Glitches
Calling Yoshitaka Amano an artist is about as fitting as labeling Donald Trump an inspiration for hair dressers worldwide: everyone knows the style is absolutely "whack" yet both men have their devoted admirers. Last I checked, renown works of art typically consist of inspirational works, creative displays, or even somber settings. This man, however, created a new genre of artwork: professional baby scrawl, or as I refer to it, AmanoScribble. Those looking to become Square's next image illustrator (and antiquated character designer) take note: Visit a nursery school with some crayons and paper, ask the immature impresarios to doodle a few things, then put it in a game. Because let's face it: that's what we're dealing with here. Why this untalented hack has fans is beyond my comprehension, yet I will leave it alone and not provoke them further.
The graphics in FF4A are possibly the best seen in any of the ports, though unfortunately that's a horribly shallow sentiment. What you're looking at is unfortunately a game created for Bandai's grossly inferior Wonderswan Color console, but dumped into a GBA cart. To be fair, there are subtle little flairs of detail every so often: more colorful sprites (protagonist Cecil Harvey, for example, now sports a two-tone helmet) and redone character portraits that now appear in cut scene dialogue as well. Let it be understood that this incarnation does indeed look better than either the original 16-Bit incarnation(s) or the PSOne port. Unfortunately, it could have been done on the Gameboy Color for what it's worth. Think of just how crisp, colorful and creative the visuals are in games like Mario Tennis Advance, Zelda Minish Cap, Rockman EXE 6, even Metroid Zero Mission. Think of how detailed the characters are; Link alone was astonishing even BEFORE he got his talking hat. That's what the GBA can actually accomplish when programmers optimise their software. Why then, does Final Fantasy 4 Advance still seem dull and dreary on the BACKLIT SP models? Why are we still looking at squashed little sprites walking and talking on the various maps?
This visual deficiency, this lack of hardware optimization unfortunately manifests itself via a number of flaws and glitches; issues that go far beyond a simple obsession with graphics for they actually affect the gameplay itself. It's just absurd to even consider given the subject matter a first generation 16-Bit era release, yet here we go: Walking around the various environments, you can't help but notice how choppy everything is: nothing scrolls naturally. Movement looks as if you're watching a movie filmed at half-speed, then artificially accelerated to try and cover up the problem. I must say this low frame rate problem is a bit nauseating at times. Worse yet, during battles there are unnecessary pauses and consistency glitches when characters attack or cast spells, when you scroll through windows, when you target monsters. At times, the game won't even register your input creating all sorts of problems. Assuming Nintendo's GBA specs are legitimate, it leaves only one pertinent conclusion: Square put zero effort put into this port. Because honestly now: when you're dealing with slowdownissues on a 1991 port, something is most definitely wrong.
This is just ridiculous and just plain unwarranted; the point of enhancing ports is ideally improvement, not creating fluidity inconsistencies. Gamers need to open their mouths for a change and tell these greedy corporations to actually put effort into their products. Am I to understand that with all the capabilities of the GBA, Square is unable to do anything more with one of its best Final Fantasy games? That Metroid Zero Mission is an isolated case and shouldn't be used for any kind of perspective of a REMAKE? The FOURTH incarnation of this game and yet it's still the EXACT same thing we played over a decade ago? Come ON Square: If Nintendo can remake a game, then you most certainly can as well. Moreover, this IS Square we're talking about: THE graphics diva itself. THE company that created the modern FMV-RPG. It's practically an oxymoron to claim this game has bad graphics given the maker, and yet it's damn true.
Time Heals no Gamer (Like those Scorned)
One thing quite clear about Final Fantasy 4 is that, out of the entire series, only the first installment rival it's poor ability to hold up over time. Despite a brand new translation (though regrettably, a certain eating utensil reference remains), somewhat better visuals, and the trivial bonus dungeon junk thrown in to foster the illusion of effort, this is a terribly simplistic game. I've never understood why FF4 exists, because logically the 5th installment should follow gameplay-wise: there is absolutely nothing creative in this title whatsoever, it's the very definition of bare bones RPG and in many ways, serves as a spiritual remake of the original Final Fantasy. Whereas installments 2-3 and 5-12 all sport quirky-yet-amusing job systems, sphere grids, and now gambits, this one features absolutely nothing. Not that you can't still have fun, but it's quite apparent that Square took the easy way out of this port. Perhaps it's just me, but I think many people would have been pleased to see a *totally* revamped Final Fantasy 4, a modern one, perhaps on the DS no less.
Another time-tested fault lies in the battle system control scheme. Is it just me, or do other gamers find it frustrating that you can't make better use of your characters in battle? This particular version includes the trademark Active Time Battle system complete with an Action Bar that determines when your characters can participate. While the addition might sound fantastic, it just created problems because of (yup, once again) underoptimised programming. Why is it that you constantly have to waste a character's turn because the game doesn't let you shift between all party members with a full ATB gauge? What if you want to heal BEFORE ordering character X to attack? What if you want to use an item AFTER character Y casts a spell? Nothing happens, that's what. The only way to switch between characters is to literally waste their turn. This is such a nuisance as to actually render the ATB system broken, and all because Square was too lazy to map a Change feature onto one of the console's buttons. It's not really active when you're forced to play according to a pre-determined order.
In the modern era, Nobou Uematsu exists as a hack: He doesn't really do anything, seemingly making a living performing concerts based on his old work and receiving mass worshipping from legions of devoted fanboys. (You know the kind who picks daily arguments about what FF game has the best music.) It's fortunate, then, his old work is quite good. In many respects, Final Fantasy 4 is the game which first opened my eyes to the epic and entrancing nature of gaming music and as such, is to this day *the* game I think of when someone mentions the phrases battle music or world map. While there is nothing too dramatic to speak of, note that the score is slightly remixed, sounding far better than even before.
Unfortunately while the music shines, the actual sounds do not. For reasons unknown, Square opted to completely redo all of the various noises heard in the game, in the end creating a truly unnatural sounding product. Rods and staves are just plain irritating to use (all the more so when they miss) with obnoxious effects yet other weapons (such as Yang's claws) are practically muted. Talk about inconsistent and unnecessary: if you want to remake things, how about the damn GAME itself?
A Great Game, A Pointless and Plagued Port
It truly saddens me to issue a low score: for over a decade FF4 stood as my favourite installment in the series, as well as one of my most memorable RPG experiences ever. The trouble with memories, though, is that they're only fond when you're forced into a nostalgic mentality. Such is hardly the case when a game publisher finds new ways to resell its old junk decade after decade. That's not called reliving childhood memories, but instead depreciating a masterpiece. Not even Nintendo seeks to reissue its games as frequently as Squaresoft does-truly a monumental accomplishment in inadequacy if ever one existed. Of course it might actually HAVE to take action if more people opened their mouth and voiced some kind of outrage as opposed to mindless praise. It's one thing to like a game or series, but that hardly means you need to worship the damn creator and treat everything it deposits as holy crap.
Truth be told, the only thing Fantastic about this version's Fantasy is the manner in which it disappoints. Square had a golden opportunity to totally remake and recreate the fantastic characters, world, and story that it so lovingly crafted almost two decades prior. They had the familiarity of a 2-D and a console with far more hardware oomph than the original's. By all accounts, this game should be the definitive version to play; the true existence which FF4 was always meant to be. We could all forget about the ugly FMV and pathetic loading times associated with the PSOne incarnation (two things, BTW, directly resulting from Square's lack of effort) and those of us who played the Wonderswan port could write it off as a stepping stone to this one. Unfortunately though, this game is a totally wasted chance.
In the end, the largest flaw with Final Fantasy IV Advance is that it exists. The GBA is an ideal platform for companies who want to keep things simple, to make the games they use to, and to appeal to a MASS audience (hello console sales anyone?). It's a rare chance to expand old school success into modern day. Square has the opportunity to offer an entirely new generation of gamers a taste of what it was like when gems like FF4 or Chrono Trigger were the latest release, when the company was known for making great games rather than employing extensive use of CGI. There is a reason that old-school gamers don't care much for this company anymore, and squandered opportunities like this one only serve to fuel the fire.
Who says that the next great game has to be on a home console? Who says that the GBA isn't good enough for a ORIGINAL Kingdom Hearts? Why does the immediate future hold two additional Final Fantasy ports (that of V and VI) when it could instead see the dawn of an all new spin-off, a unique portable Final Fantasy series': original FF games that make use of the same graphical style and charm as the 16-Bit installments, yet are 100% original and fresh. When will customers' hard earned cash actually goes towards something worthwhile? Something like, say a new game. Maybe Square ought change its namesake, because it sure does seem to run around in CIRCLES as of late.
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 12/16/05, Updated 12/19/05
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