Final Fantasy IV has had more remakes than any Final Fantasy game save the original. Up until now, there have been no less than eight distinct versions of this game, and Final Fantasy IV Pixel Remaster ($17.99) marks its ninth. Is this finally the definitive version, or are we left with yet another case of a version that is better in some ways and worse in others? If you know the general idea behind these Pixel Remaster games, you probably already know the answer to that question. Let’s ride it out anyway, friends.
Originally released in the West on the Super NES under the title of Final Fantasy II for reasons that feel sillier all the time when explained, Final Fantasy IV had the unique pleasure of presenting three sequels’ worth of improvements as a single game’s jump for English players of the era. It follows the story of a Dark Knight named Cecil as everything he once trusted and believed in starts to crash down around him. It’s a rather linear affair as Final Fantasy games go, and your party make-up at any given time will always be determined by where you are in the story. There’s a rather large cast of characters who rotate in and out as the story demands, each representing a Final Fantasy job class archetype of one sort or another.
In the early months of the Super NES’s life, this strong emphasis on dramatic storytelling and a relatively rich cast of characters was quite impressive. There were abilities and spells we had never seen before, and the twists and turns in the storyline made for a highly compelling RPG. Hindsight tells us many of the things that seemed to originate with Final Fantasy IV had actually appeared in prior games that didn’t make it to the West, but you really can’t argue with how nicely polished all of those bits are in this fourth game. Indeed, this game is incredibly accommodating as far as giving the player a fairly smooth ride. There are some tricky bits, but it wants anyone to be able to see its tale through to the end.
I was obsessed with this game when it first came out. I had a solid fling with the original game, enough that I took a punt on this one with my hard-earned newspaper delivery money. I had no idea what I was in for, but it didn’t take long for it to grab me. The opening scene with that amazing Red Wing theme playing as the crew of an airship reflect on their dubious actions. A conflicted man expressing doubts to his king, only to be cast away along with his best friend. A late-night talk with his girlfriend, who believes in him more than he believes in himself. The two friends embark on a journey to redeem themselves to the king, stepping onto that bridge at the front of the castle as the music swells. The Prelude, now generally viewed as the main theme of Final Fantasy, heard through that outstanding Super NES sound ship. What is this? What did I get myself into?
For just about that entire year, Final Fantasy IV was on my mind. The music was seared into my brain. I was sketching the characters on the back of every school worksheet and in the margins of every notebook. My friends and I would discuss potential secrets. I worked through the game, getting pulled around emotionally by every goofy bit of melodrama. Final Fantasy IV has melodrama to burn. I got to the final dungeon and, feeling unprepared, stopped and spent some time grinding. One of my friends in the neighborhood stopped by, and I thought I would just show him the final boss even if I couldn’t defeat him. And then, somehow, I did. And gosh, what a boss. Final Fantasy always brings the heat with those final boss battles, even if the set-up is a bit rocky at times. When I landed that final attack and the familiar crack of sound and rumbling of a dead Final Fantasy boss hit, my friend and I cheered. I had dinner late that night, insisting to my parents that I had to watch the whole ending. What a game.
Indeed, it made such an impact on me that when the next Final Fantasy installment was released, I was extremely skeptical of it because it had the audacity to not continue the story of the characters I loved so much. Who are these new chumps? Well, I’ll buy it, but don’t expect me to like this as much as Final Fantasy IV. Life is funny. We’ll get to that story in a couple of months, I imagine. Suffice it to say that this game absolutely knocked my socks off when I was twelve.
Gosh, but that’s the key, isn’t it? I was twelve. And games like this were a lot rarer back then, especially in the West. I probably can’t separate my nostalgia for this game from this review. Not completely. I’ve tried many times, and you may have read some of those attempts. I know this game’s faults very well. The story is so melodramatic and relies on so many cheap emotional pops that it borders on parody at times. There aren’t a whole lot of options in terms of character customization. You go through so many underground caves, friends. That’s the one piece of music you might be tired of by the end. It’s a very linear game, with only the barest of opportunities to venture off the path for some extra rewards. I know all of this. I still love it. I was twelve, and to some extent when I fire this game up I am still twelve.
Stepping past the fuzzy feelings of youth long past, I do think Final Fantasy IV has a lot going for it even now. For all of its twists and turns, this is a very earnest and easy to follow story, which isn’t something we can always say about Final Fantasy games anymore. The emphasis on a fixed party means the developers know exactly what the player has in their toolbox at any given moment, and that allowed them to put together some very interesting boss encounters that force you to actually think a little. That soundtrack is still incredible. And by design, this game is a nice introduction to Final Fantasy as a brand. Maybe not quite as representative as it once was, but it’s one of my top choices if someone new to the series wants to get into it. There are better Final Fantasy games, but this is certainly one of the more agreeable ones.
Now, I mentioned at the beginning of this review that there have been several versions of this game. Some are easier, some are harder. Some are more straightforward, others surprisingly complicated. Final Fantasy IV Pixel Remaster leans more towards the soft and friendly end of those spectrums. In most ways, it takes after Final Fantasy IV Advance. It has all of the extra items and abilities that were cut out of the original Western SNES version and the Japanese Easy Type version, and the difficulty of enemies and bosses falls largely in line with Advance. Quite a different experience from the rather challenging and complex 3D remake that mobile players have had access to up until now. Assuredly a better place to experience the game for the first time.
There are some modest graphical improvements, but the game largely preserves the original look of the game, and I’m kind of here for that. I liked the ultra-clean and detailed PSP sprites in that system’s version of the game, and I even like the SD low-poly designs of the 3D remake. But the story was originally built around these rather simple sprites, and I think they do an able job of expressing themselves for all their simplicity. You get a few more details here and there in this pixel remaster, but given its original roots on a rather color-rich 16-bit platform it’s obviously not the big step we saw in the first three Pixel Remaster games.
What is a big step is the soundtrack. As with the other Pixel Remaster games, the soundtrack has been replaced with luxurious fancy-pants orchestral arrangements. This game already had a wonderful soundtrack, and hearing it like this is an absolute revelation. I’m getting shivers thinking about Final Fantasy VI already, friends. Tracks like the Red Wing theme, the Theme of Love, the Prelude, the Final Boss music, and the Battle with the Four Fiends are stone-cold video game classics and I’m simply in awe of how they come off here. If there is a reason to rate this particular version of the game above any of the others, it is on this point.
The biggest bit of bad news is a familiar tune for those who have been paying attention to these Pixel Remasters. The game content here is as it was in the original version of the game. None of the content added from the Advance version onward is included here, nor are any of the features from the 3D remake. They’ve even gone and cut the secret Developer Room for whatever reason. It’s unfortunate as the new additions in Final Fantasy IV Advance helped address some of the more obvious criticisms of this game, notably by allowing you to change your party make-up near the end of the game. For better or worse, this is pretty much the original Final Fantasy IV in terms of content and mechanics. Well, I suppose the 3D remake is still there for those who want more crunchy RPG mechanics.
So, is Final Fantasy IV Pixel Remaster the definitive version of Final Fantasy IV we’ve been wanting? Unfortunately, no. It’s just another very good version of the game, but it’s one I would wholeheartedly recommend for the new player over its 3D counterpart. Its biggest crime isn’t a grand one; it merely leaves out some valuable extra content that enriched some earlier remakes. It also doesn’t have controller support, and the English font is still tiny and narrow. I don’t expect the extra content thing to be addressed, but I sure hope those other bits are at some point.
If you’re just playing Final Fantasy IV for the first time now, I wouldn’t expect it to be as special to you as it was to me thirty years ago. But you know, it’s still rather playable and enjoyable for a game of its vintage, especially within the RPG genre. There’s a reason Square Enix keeps coming back to this one, I think. It’s a welcoming entry point into the series, an exciting if often cheesy roller coaster ride, and on the whole a game that somehow makes you fail to notice its flaws because its strong points are so strong. Moreover, it’s different enough that I think even owners of the existing mobile version of Final Fantasy IV will find it worth grabbing.