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Final Fantasy IV wallpaper - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki Final Fantasy IV wallpaper - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki


Final Fantasy IV — To the Moon and Back

Final Fantasy IV took the franchise to new heights.



I want to have love, romance, even heartwarming elements this time.”
– Hironobu Sakaguchi

Dark Knight Cecil - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Final Fantasy IV was an important stepping stone in Final Fantasy’s overall growth. Where Final Fantasy III felt like a capstone of the gameplay lessons Square learned in the Famicom era, IV saw the Super Nintendo as an opportunity to really experiment with the series’ game design and storytelling. Final Fantasy IV has a narrative and mechanical ambition that keenly reflects the radical evolution countless video game franchises were experiencing in the transition from 8-bit to 16-bit. Turn-based combat has a new rhythm through the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, the story’s themes are notably more mature, and a tighter relationship between gameplay and story strives to connect the audience on a deeper level.

In a January 1991 interview with Famicom Tsuushin (now Famitsu), Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi touched on his desire to elicit specific emotions through gameplay,

I want to include more things like that… not a story that unfolds in a straightforward fashion like a novel, but using the dungeons to prey on the player’s psychology and expectations. For example, say you reach a certain area with your party nearly wiped out, and in that moment, we throw a boss fight at you—but one that’s balanced for the party’s current weakened state. I’m hoping we can prepare a lot of scenes like this, stuff that’s custom tailored to the psychological moment of the story.” 

Golbez vs FF4 party - image courtesy of Let's Play Archive

In this regard, gameplay is the story. Important narrative moments are regularly conveyed through battles, making you feel like you’re playing an actual role in the story’s progression. The first fight against Golbez does a great job at taking you through multiple emotions in a scripted arc. The fight starts out like any other boss battle when it quickly becomes clear you are outclassed. One by one, Golbez insta-kills your party, leaving only Cecil. Just as you’re about to get a Game Over, Rydia swoops in at the last minute with access to powerful summons that give you an advantage. From there, you’re left to defeat Golbez yourself. 

It’s not a hard fight when it actually comes down to it, but the battle uses a core part of the gameplay loop to showcase one of the story’s most important moments: the first confrontation with Golbez and Rydia’s return. The sequence has more impact than it would in a traditional cutscene since you feel Golbez’s overwhelming power first-hand. FFIV wants you to come into the fight confident, only to make you feel despair as Golbez beats you down, which turns into relief when Rydia saves Cecil’s life. It’s a different breed of roleplaying, one interested in making the audience feel the weight of their character’s actions and circumstances. 

Final Fantasy 4 Destruction of Mist - image courtesy of Final Fantasy wiki

FFIV’s greater emphasis on narrative and interconnectivity is nothing impressive in a modern context, but there’s something very endearing about a 16-bit RPG that flexes so much cinematic flair. IV’s themes are richer than in the Famicom titles, touching on concepts like identity, loyalty, desire, and the fear of technology. IV never goes too deep with any of its ideas, but that it’s there at all gives players something to chew on besides the adventure ahead. The story’s beats are more captivating and classically dramatic. The destruction of Mist immediately sets FF4’s tone by making the audience responsible for an entire village’s death. The defense of Fabul combines action, tension, and drama to make for one of Final Fantasy’s first major gameplay set pieces. Cutscenes where characters pantomime around airships or get chased by enemies mid-flight inject even the most minor beats with personality. 

And if there’s one thing Final Fantasy IV has no shortage of, it’s personality. Breaking away from the series’ penchant for more-or-less blank slates, FFIV features a large cast of colorful characters who are all defined by their own motivations and struggles. A dozen party members join and leave Cecil over the course of the story, each leaving their mark on the narrative. Characters have to actually stop and develop their relationships, with scenes that quickly flesh out their personalities and dynamics. This isn’t a group of adventurers who all set forth in unison like the original Final Fantasy trilogy, but strangers with their own complexities that define them. 

Young Rydia - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Cecil reaches out to Rydia after he inadvertently kills her mother and isn’t received warmly, with the moment highlighting Cecil’s guilt and the game’s willingness to let there be tension within the party. Tellah and Edge don’t take a shine to the party right away, while Yang immediately forms a deep bond with everyone. Edward and Tellah are both mourning the same woman, their fiance and daughter respectively, which creates tension between the two men. Rydia doesn’t trust Cecil right away, only to later save his life. Palom and Porom both have secret agendas during their brief time with Cecil. Rosa is able to forgive Kain’s betrayals, but Edge struggles to trust him a second time. Kain is in love with Rosa and quietly resentful of Cecil the entire story while Cecil spends the first third of the game more or less at war with himself. IV’s cast is a big step up from four lightly-flavored Onion Knights. 

With so many playable characters comes major changes to how parties work. Party sizes have been upped from four members to five, but you no longer control a consistent team of characters. IV rotates everyone but Cecil in and out of the party in accordance to the story. This approach is similar to the guest party member system in II and III, except everyone but the main character is a guest. This also means there’s no party customization outside of re-releases. Every character has a set class and joins Cecil at set points, playing a deliberate gameplay role. You need to strategize around weaknesses and play to strengths by taking advantage of everyone’s personal abilities. 

Final Fantasy 4 Mt Ordeal - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Every dungeon is designed around a specific party, which allows the game to challenge you in specific ways. Bosses and set pieces feel more like puzzles half the time. Unlike FF3 which left you to figure out party composition yourself, IV leaves no wiggle room. The trade-off for customization is a more deliberate difficulty curve where you always have what you need to succeed — even if it’s an uphill battle. Mt. Ordeals makes you work with one fighter (Cecil) and three mages (Palom, Porom, and Tellah). Since Cecil’s dark abilities can’t damage the undead that roam the mountain, you need to rely on everyone else’s limited MP pool to clear out random encounters until he becomes a Paladin. 

Lodestone Cavern has magnetic properties that slow down anyone wearing metal equipment. Fortunately, Cecil, Cid, Yang, and Tellah all have access to alternative gear that makes traversing the dungeon unencumbered possible. The Lunar Subterrane is a brutal, multi-floor finale filled with the hardest enemies and bosses in the game, but the final party offers everything you need to beat the game between two fighters (Cecil & Kain), two mages (Rydia & Rosa), and one multi-purpose character (Edge). 

Final Fantasy 4 Cecil Concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

You’re never with the same team for long, bar the last act. Each party member represents a different Job, and the party constantly changing gives Final Fantasy IV some impressively diverse gameplay. The protagonist Cecil is effectively two different characters on a gameplay level with separate stats and abilities: a Dark Knight and a Paladin. The fact nothing carries over after Cecil’s class change signals that he’s completely left his dark past behind. Cecil still hits hard as a Paladin, but he gains access to low tier White Magic, which lets him play a support role when pressed into a corner. 

Kain is a Dragoon and IV’s simplest character gameplay-wise. His sole ability is Jump, which allows him to avoid any attacks while mid-air and deal massive damage on whichever enemy he lands on. Rydia is a young Summoner who gets time displaced during the story and returns a grown woman. She mainly functions as a Red Mage for the early game and Black Mage/Summoner for the endgame. As a child, Rydia can Summon powerful monsters and cast both White & Black Magic. Rydia forgets all her White Magic once she becomes an adult, pigeonholing her into an offensive mage role while Rosa acts as support. Older Rydia’s appearance references the class and job system in FFI and III, where party members physically matured after promotion.

final Fantasy IV Rosa concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Rosa is labeled a White Mage in-game, but is functionally a Devout and learns every White Magic spell by Level 55. She can use the Aim ability when wielding Bows to deal solid damage, but is otherwise a support character dedicated to healing, buffing, and debuffing. Her other ability Pray heals party members at no cost, but its low success rate gives it little use past the mid-game. Edge is a Ninja with wide gameplay utility. He’s not as strong as Cecil or Kain, but can hit respectfully hard by duel-wielding weapons. He doesn’t learn any high level spells like Rydia or Rosa, but his Ninjutsu gives him access to his own buffs & debuffs along with multi-target elemental techniques. Edge can also steal and throw items, letting him play the role of a thief, fighter, or spellcaster depending on your needs. 

Tellah is an old Sage past his prime. He knows both White and Black Magic, but has forgotten most of his spells with age. Even when he does relearn all his magic at Mt. Ordeals, he doesn’t have enough MP to cast more than a few high-tier spells in a single battle. As an early-game party member, Tellah lets you experiment with some of the strongest spells in the game without outright breaking the difficulty curve. Edward is the party’s bard. His Bardsongs inflict status effects on enemies and Salve lightly heals the party. Edward is frail and weak, however, and will automatically Hide when near death, outright leaving the battle screen. 

Final Fantasy IV Edward - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Yang is a powerful Monk and a mainstay party member during the mid-game. Power lets him charge up his already strong attacks, he can dual wield Claws that debilitate enemies with status ailments, use a Kick that damages every enemy on-screen, and Gird is a better version of the Defend option. Cid is an Engineer, but resembles a mix of a Scholar and Viking from Final Fantasy III. He can either Study enemies to reveal their stats during battle or hammer at them with basic attacks. Like Edward, Cid feels like a liability when he’s in the party even if he has his uses. 

Palom and Porom are twin mages who act as your Black and White Mages respectively before Rydia and Rosa join the party for good. Their Twincast ability lets them cast Flare and Comet. Palom’s personal ability Bluff heavily buffs his magic damage while Porom’s Cry bizarrely increases your chance of stealing from enemies even though her time in the party never overlaps with Edge’s. The final party member, FuSoYa, is a Lunarian Sage who knows every magic spell in the game. His ability Regen lightly heals the whole party over time. Like Tellah, FuSoYa’s low MP pool limits his potential in battle. 

Cecil Dark Knight concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Little gameplay quirks say just as much about the main cast as the story’s actual cutscenes. Rydia can’t cast Fire right away due to the trauma of losing her village to a fire. Tellah’s stats go down as he levels up, showing how he’s long past his prime. Edward is a coward who will hide to avoid attacks if he’s at critical health, making it uncomfortably clear how Anna died while he lived. Cecil is a Dark Knight who uses toxic powers, which is illustrated by the Dark ability draining his own health each time it’s used. When he becomes a Paladin, he automatically protects party members from mortal damage to showcase his growth as an aggressor to a protector.

Aside from party shake-ups and characters as classes, Final Fantasy IV’s biggest gameplay contribution is the Active Time Battle system. Unlike the Famicom Final Fantasy games, there is no player phase in Final Fantasy IV where you can safely select your party’s moves before everyone takes their turn. Under the ATB system, a character takes their turn in real time as soon as their ATB gauge (hidden in the original release) fills up, regardless if they’re a party member or enemy. Combat gains a specific rhythm in FFIV as a result. Enemies and party members attacking in tandem leads to frantic encounters. It’s often better to react to enemy attacks than to spam all your movies in one-go. You need to use your downtime to plan on your next action in advance, being ready to act and change tactics if things turn south. 

Final Fantasy IV Battle - image courtesy of blogspot

There are two styles of the ATB system, Active and Wait. Active makes you think and move fast at all times, as the ATB gauge keeps ticking even when you’re in menus. Every second counts. Wait stops everyone’s gauge inside of menus, giving you time to strategize and breathe if enemies are overwhelming you. The Battle Speed can also be adjusted between six settings, with 1 speeding up battles considerably and 6 slowing them down. Adjusting Battle Speed and your ATB state doesn’t affect the difficulty curve too much, but they help make combat more manageable for anyone struggling to keep up. 

Magic in IV goes back to II’s MP system as Final Fantasy says farewell to Vancian Magic. Even without spell charges, the best spells require enough MP where you can’t just safely spam them without worry. Ethers are rare and expensive, making it difficult to replenish MP inside dungeons if you don’t have a Tent or Cottage to use as Rest points. That said, magic use is almost always rewarded. Enemies tend to be quite vulnerable to magic and you learn a wide variety of spells across White, Black, and Summons. 

Final Fantasy 4 menu - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Party formations are a bit more complex now that you’re working with a team of five. Rows are no longer set individually per party member, but tied to two different settings: back-heavy and front-heavy. The back-heavy option places three characters in back (party members 1, 3, and 5 from top to bottom) and two in front (2 and 4). The front-heavy flips everyone’s formation. Party members 1, 3, and 5 are now in front while members 2 and 4 are in back. Front-row party members are targeted more often while back-row party members deal less damage unless they’re equipped with a ranged weapon. Whoever you slot in the center of the party gets an accuracy boost and priority during any Preemptive Strikes. 

Gameplay moves at a comfortably quick pace in and out of battle, but progression is even more linear than it was in Final Fantasy III. For what it’s worth, the game wears its linearity well. Final Fantasy IV is constantly introducing new set pieces and characters as the status quo keeps changing. The story does a good job at directing you around, but it’s not all that handholdy. You’re still expected to explore and speak to NPCs yourself in order to progress the story. Repairing your Airship to fly over lava in the Underworld requires finding and speaking to Cid in the Dwarven Castle, something you can easily miss if you just follow the “main plot.” It’s the difference between following a waypoint and following a logical narrative.

Final Fantasy 4 Earth, Underworld, and Moon - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki and Tilting at Pixels

Like Final Fantasy III, there are three explorable overworlds in IV. The adventure begins on Earth, your traditional Final Fantasy setting filled with kingdoms, towns, dungeons, lush greenery, and a boundless blue sea. Beneath the Earth’s overworld lies its Underworld, a dark, crag and lava-covered hellscape that its resident dwarves actually find rather cozy. Everything culminates on the Moon, a surreal setting for the finale. The Moon has a haunting, lonely atmosphere. Earth looms in the background as you explore a cold field of ruins and craters. Earth itself isn’t as immediately explorable and doesn’t have much in the way of optional content, with the bulk of side content split between the Underworld and Moon. 

Dungeons are long, but much more manageable than they were in Final Fantasy III. Longer dungeons now include rest points, safe screens where you can save the game and even use a Tent or Cottage ro restore your party’s HP and MP. Rest points help pace out the longest dungeons and offer players some breathing room. You no longer need to slot out an hour of time every time you need to go dungeon-crawling. Regularly spaced out safe rooms also allow dungeons to be longer and denser without overwhelming the party. Set pieces like the Sealed Cave and Lunar Subterrane would otherwise break players’ spirits. Rest points keep dungeon-crawling comfortable without stripping away their challenge. 

Sylph Cave FF4 - image courtesy of ArrPeeGeeZ

Design-wise, there are still plenty of branching paths and hidden passageways leading to secret chests or shortcuts inside dungeons. Traps range from damage tiles that can be circumvented with Float, to monsters waiting to ambush you in chests, and Trap Doors inside the Sealed Cave. Dungeons have a healthy amount of random encounters to go around. Since there are no formal turns, faster enemies can and will attack in rapid succession. It’s important to finish fights quickly and be ready to heal. This is less of a problem early-game, but enemies only get more aggressive. You need to make smart use of multi-target attacks, status effects, and special skills to get through battles quickly. Status ailments like Slow and Toad are legitimately dangerous, for both you and enemies. 

Bosses do a good job at capping off dungeons with memorable fights. Several counter your attacks or spells and others have their own quirks to strategize around. The Mist Dragon, the very first boss, counters your attacks if struck while in its mist form. Antlion counters every attack, teaching you to balance healing with attacking as some counters can’t be avoided. Baigan casts Reflect on himself to pelt your magic back at you. Asura constantly heals and buffs herself so you need to cast Reflect on her. The final boss Zeromus counters all types of magic, including summons, forcing your mages to play a supportive role as the fight turns into a test of your own endurance.

Final Fantasy IV Tower of Babel Art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Dungeon set pieces are a great mix of mundane and fantastical, slowly escalating from the traditional fantasy dungeons you’d expect to see in an RPG to full blown sci-fi settings. The game begins with Cecil exploring a simple cave and ends with him descending into the moon’s core. IV’s dungeon quality is fairly strong from start to finish. The earliest dungeons like the Antlion’s Den prepare you to take on later gauntlets like the Tower and Giant of Babel. Optional dungeons are unlocked at a point where you’ll either need to grind or dip into your resources to survive them, but they’re all worth doing sooner rather than later. IV’s extra dungeons reward players with invaluable treasure, unlockable summons, and some narrative context. The Cave of Summons gives you insight into what happened to Rydia after the shipwreck and the Sylph Cave follows up on what happened to Yang after the Tower of Babel.

Final Fantasy IV’s presentation goes a long way in making each dungeon feel distinct. Battles no longer take place in black voids with environmental strips up top to represent the setting. Characters now do battle in fully detailed dioramas. A bright use of color helps environments and textures pop, in and out of dungeons, with special care being given to character sprites. Every party member has a distinct, immediately recognizable sprite with a design that speaks to their character’s personality. Enemy sprites are creative and surprisingly close to their original concept art in detail. The Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 also lends the visuals some spatial depth. 


As pleasant as IV’s graphics are, Nobuo Uematsu’s score does most of the heavy lifting in setting a tone and creating atmosphere. The “love, romance, and heartwarming” feelings Sakaguchi wanted to reflect through IV can be heard clearly in Uematsu’s soundtrack. “Theme of Love” is a romantic song that perfectly captures Cecil and Rosa’s relationship. “Sorrow and Loss” is a soft, somber track that plays anytime a party member sacrifices themselves. “Edward’s Harp” is a beautiful ballad that sticks out in large part thanks to its underuse. The rest of the soundtrack ranges from catchy, to jaunty, haunting, and triumphant, each track masterfully placed. “Golbez, Clad in Darkness” is a menacing theme that builds tension anytime Golbez is on screen. “The Red Wings” playing as soon as you enter the final dungeon highlights Cecil’s growth. The last floor of the final dungeon replacing the regular battle theme with the game’s boss theme is a genius way of using music to tell the audience the stakes have risen.

Final Fantasy IV’s story isn’t exactly a page-turner (button-presser?), but it’s fun enough between a rich cast and even richer soundtrack. IV’s greatest narrative strengths are its pacing and character arcs. There’s never a dull moment following Cecil around. One second he’s destroying a village with his best friend and the next he’s taking care of a little girl as penance. The fact the plot never settles for long does make it difficult to get fully attached to certain characters, however. A good way of looking at IV’s story is that it’s all killer, no filler. Cutscenes are treated as big moments and rarely, if ever, waste your time while still trying to tell a coherent narrative. It’s better that a game leave you wanting more cutscenes than less.

Final Fantasy Kain concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Cecil is a compelling lead whose characterization lies at the heart of the narrative. His overall arc ties into Final Fantasy IV’s overarching idea that everyone has evil in them and evil can never truly go away. The best we can do is reconcile the darkness in us and let the light through, otherwise we risk being consumed by our own demons, hatred, and malice. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin. Kain and Golbez are positioned as Cecil’s foils in this respect. Kain himself is the realest character IV. He has human struggles and his grievances come from a genuinely uncomfortable place. 

Like Cecil, Kain is torn between the man he wants to be and the man he is. Kain is in turn heroic, kind, passionate, and willing to do good, but also envious and bitter towards his best friend. He lusts after a woman who feels no romantic love for him, but wants her all the same. Kain’s darkest feelings are used against them and unlike Cecil, he never quite gets over himself or resolves his insecurities. He’s human in a way no one else in IV is. He doesn’t get a clean, happy ending because those don’t exist in reality.

Golbez concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Golbez is Cecil’s secret brother and the main antagonist before Zemus takes over. Like Kain, Golbez’s darkness is used to turn him against Cecil. He spends most of the plot terrorizing everyone like a mustache twirling villain only to be recontextualized into Cecil’s sole remaining family. The twist isn’t particularly elegant, but the familial connection does a good job at making the last act a bit more personal for Cecil. He doesn’t immediately forgive Golbez, either, which develops into some interesting tension as the story closes out. Cecil turns his back on his brother in virtually every scene they share together after Golbez’s mind control breaks. It’s only after Zemus is defeated that Cecil is able to make peace with what Golbez has done. It’s a human reaction from Cecil and his quiet conflict ends up mirroring Kain’s own insecurities in a way. 

Beyond his inner darkness, Cecil is defined by his relationship with Rosa. Their romance is charming even if it doesn’t get that much focus outside of a few key scenes. They don’t say too much to each other, but their actions speak enough volume for 16-bit. They regularly embrace one another, actually discuss their relationship, support each other, and ultimately get married. It’s a decent little arc that later RPGs like Dragon Quest V and Final Fantasy X would build off into proper romances. Cecil and Rosa walked so the rest of the genre could run. 

The biggest problems with Final Fantasy IV’s story are the sheer number of fake-out deaths and the nature of Zemus’ character. More than half of the party sacrifice themselves at some point only to turn up perfectly fine later, sometimes unsatisfyingly so. Yang’s survival can be learned via an optional side quest, but Palom and Porom suddenly coming back at the end undercuts their big moment earlier in the story. Tellah ends up the only party member who actually dies when all is said and done. It feels like overkill, especially when Final Fantasy II already made it clear the series was comfortable letting side characters die. 

Tellah concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

For what it’s worth, the fakeouts at least fit the tone of the story. While IV’s themes are more mature than its predecessor, its tone and message are ultimately more uplifting. There will always be evil in this world, but good can overcome it. Even the darkest men can find redemption through the light. Final Fantasy IV begins with Cecil destroying a peaceful people and ends with the world coming together to help him save it. A man tortured by his own demons inspires enough good to fundamentally save the world. In that sense, it’s better that most of the cast lives to show how Cecil has inspired them to do good.  

FF4 Zemus dies - image courtesy of tumblr

Zemus is a little harder to stomach and steals focus away from Golbez, the functional villain for the majority of IV. Final Fantasy III had a similar issue with Xande and the Cloud of Darkness, but neither one had enough screen time where the antagonist shift felt awkward. Since Golbez is the focal villain for most of FFIV, Zemus’ introduction doesn’t quite land. He’s introduced only in the last act and has no real interactions with the main cast. Zemus mainly exists so Golbez doesn’t have to be the final boss, which is good for Golbez’s character, but leaves the story without a strong antagonist to end on. He’s the Emperor to Golbez’s Darth Vader, but even Sheev had more of a presence in the Original Trilogy. 

Final Fantasy IV’s story has hiccups here and there, but it has more than enough heart and maturity to carry it through its lowest points. At its core is a narrative about overcoming your worst impulses and becoming the best version of yourself you can be. Cecil, Kain, and Golbez represent three men on the same journey at different stages. Cecil and Rosa’s love, and Kain’s own feelings for her, lend the plot a theatrical edge that Final Fantasy hadn’t experimented with yet. The main cast is larger than it is developed and the pace often moves too fast, but what Final Fantasy IV lacks in depth, it makes up for in passion, charm, and interconnectivity.

FF4 moon - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

IV established that Final Fantasy was a franchise willing to innovate and redefine itself mechanically and narratively. ATB gives battle a brand new rhythm without losing turn-based combat’s appeal. A more intimate relationship between gameplay and story keeps the adventure in your hands even if you can’t fully customize the party. Linearity is used as a gameplay and narrative tool, easing players into a scripted world before opening up in full by the end. Final Fantasy on the Famicom was defined by player freedom above all else, while IV restricts the player to present them with deliberate challenges and a tighter, character-driven narrative. A landmark RPG rich in personality, Final Fantasy IV took the series to the moon and back. 

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

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