Review by Rottenwood

"There And Back Again"

The Game Boy Advance is often referred to as a 'portable Super Nintendo,' and because of various SNES ports to the system, it's sometimes hard to argue the point. However, something has been missing from the equation - the legendary Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) titles that were a cornerstone of the Super Nintendo's proud legacy. Final Fantasy II and III (which are now properly known as IV and VI over here in the States) put the series on the map as the new driving force of the emerging RPG genre, with Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana filling out the rest of a very strong roster. Yet until now, none of these games have seen the light of day on the Game Boy Advance, which is especially odd when you consider how port-happy Square-Enix usually is. But the wheels, as they say, seem to be in motion, and Final Fantasy IV has landed on the GBA. It's an appropriate first choice, as FFIV was the first 'modern' RPG for many gamers, and it served as a basic blueprint for the rest of the titles in the series.

I referred to FFIV as a 'modern' RPG, which I should probably explain. Earlier console RPGs, like Dragon Warrior and the original Final Fantasy, were basically dungeon crawling monster-mashers with only the tiniest threads of storyline to hold things together. The whole purpose was to kill beasties for experience and money, which would allow you to grow more powerful and thus kill larger beasties, and so on, and so forth. Final Fantasy IV switched things around by placing a major emphasis on the plot, which was surprisingly good when compared to other video games at the time. You still spent a lot of time walking around and smashing monsters for booty, of course, but you did it while moving from event to event, rather than for its own sake. Thanks to some good pacing, you always seemed to be at just about the right level you needed to be, so repetitive level-building was pretty much unnecessary. And unlike previous RPGs, you didn't keep the same party of characters for the entire game. Other than Cecil (the game's lead), characters joined and left your party for various reasons over the course of the game, making the experience feel much more organic. All of these elements are now staples of the Final Fantasy series, and by extension, the RPG genre itself. Whether it's your favorite of the series or not, FFIV stands as a major milestone in role-playing history.

Anyhow, while I'm sure you were loving the tedious history lesson, you're probably thinking: "yeah, yeah. How does the game hold up?" Well, to put it simply, it holds up very well. A great game is a great game. The real question here is whether or not this latest port of Final Fantasy IV is particularly necessary or lovingly-crafted, and that's where things get a little sticky.

For starters, let's compare this version to previous releases. It's basically the same game that you remember from the Super Nintendo, with some minor graphical tweaking and a vastly improved translation. (Those of you who played the PlayStation re-release of the game will be familiar with the improved script.) Amusingly, the original game's most glaringly goofy line - "you spoony bard!" - has been kept intact. Since the rest of the text has been pretty well-repaired, I can only guess that the line was kept in for nostalgia's sake, and to give a cheap laugh to old-school fans. Spells and monster names are now listed in full, instead of the shortened versions which came from the limitations of the original release. And like all of the newer Final Fantasy ports, the game keeps a 'bestiary' which tracks the various monsters you kill in your travels. You completionist types can try to hunt down every last critter to get 100%, if that fuels your engine. There's even a new dungeon to roam around in. Still, at the end of the day, it's hardly a major re-envisioning of the game, and it won't take long for the 'new car smell' to wear off for FFIV veterans. If you haven't played the game since the 16-bit era, it'll probably seem fresh enough for you, but if you've picked it up now and then over the years, there's not much here to justify buying it again.

While RPG storylines have gotten pretty flashy and complex, the plot of FFIV still manages to be reasonably diverting, as far as video games go. The male characters are basically one-dimensional (the arrogant prince, the cowardly minstrel, etc.), and the females somehow manage to be ZERO-dimensional, registering about 0.0 on the Personality Meter. Rydia is probably the most stand-out character in this regard. Mind-bogglingly tragic and astounding events happen to her over the course of the game, and yet she never becomes remotely interesting. Still, the game has enough dastardly deeds and easy-going humor to keep things moving, and you'll pick a few favorite heros from the mix as you go along. Some of the game's most unbelievable events (including an animated severed hand, and a town elder placing two children under the care of a feared killer) provide some good unintentional comedy to boot.

The combat is rock-solid, and will be extremely familiar to anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game. What might surprise some people are the wide variety of battle actions that weren't in the SNES version of the game. 'Evil' Cecil has a health-draining Dark attack that hits all enemies, Edge can Steal items from monsters, Rosa can Pray to provide a minor health boost to her allies, and so on. These new (or restored) moves add a little extra spice to the combat stew, and veteran fans will enjoy tinkering with them. Square-Enix also added a useful Quicksave function, so you can pick-up-and-play without worrying about finding a save point when you need to quit.

Graphically, Final Fantasy IV has always been pleasing. The character sprites are fun and well-animated, and the monsters look large and terrific in battle. The background and dungeon graphics get a little repetitive during the game's underground chapters, but otherwise, you get a nice mix of settings to roam through.

Sound-wise, this version of FFIV is a mixed bag. The music is basically the same as the original, and it's as terrific as ever. The tunes seem to have been beefed up a little, but the game's famous melodies are totally intact and still tickle the ears. The sound effects, however, are less spectacular. Some of them have been redone in a very weak fashion, particularly the sound of the impact of Kain's jump attack. A fearsome move like that shouldn't sound like a sad little squish when performed. But it's hardly a deal-breaker.

In all honesty, I'm a child of the 16-bit generation. I grew up with an NES, but the Super Nintendo was the first system I bought with my own money, and I was old enough at that point to really remember and appreciate my games. Final Fantasy IV remains one of my favorite titles from that era, and I still love it. But I can't help but feel that this version of the game isn't particularly special or revolutionary, and it's basically another instance of Square-Enix milking their most potent franchise for every last cent they can get. I'm not going to whine forever about companies constantly re-releasing old games at full price - buying these ports is purely optional, so at the end of the day, it's no big deal - but it would've been nice to see one of my favorite old games get a major reworking. But then again, maybe people didn't want Square-Enix to mess with their memories, so perhaps a pure port is what the fans demanded. In any case, the "should I get this game?" question is easy here. If you've never played the game before and enjoy Final Fantasy or RPGs in general, it's an easy recommendation. If you played it ages ago and want to stroll back down memory lane, I'd wait for a price drop before diving in. And if you own the game already in one form or another, there's no particularly compelling reason to open your wallet. In all honesty, Square-Enix should really have packaged this game with another classic or two if they're going to be charging thirty beans, putting it on the DS if necessary. But c'est la vie.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 12/20/05

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