The Final Fantasy community is one of the most divisive fanbases out there. On one hand, you have folks whose rose-tinted glasses are so thick they could never see a newer Final Fantasy as anything more than scrub status. On the other hand, you have a lot of newcomers to the series that have 13, 14, or even 15 serving as their gateway to the franchise. Whatever the case may be, you’d find it hard to argue against Final Fantasy, as a whole, not being incredibly influential over its three decade run so far.
Although not the first or even necessarily best JRPG series, what Final Fantasy started back in 1987 most definitely played a large role in bringing the genre into the mainstream light, especially in the West. Now, I know better than to try and outright label the best Final Fantasy ever, as that would spark a nerd war of mass proportion. And while any series fan would be quick to reveal their personal favorite as the definitive choice, I’m not here to open that can of worms. Of course, the nature of any article like this is entirely subjective, but I do feel like I can provide a smorgasbord of evidence as to why I feel Final Fantasy IV is the most influential in the franchise thus far…and the best…what? Ahem.
Story and Character Design
Up to this point, Final Fantasy games only put a minor emphasis on story and character development. That’s not to say that these elements were nonexistent, but it was not necessarily a primary goal of the early games. Hardware limitations at the time most likely played a factor as well, at least to a certain extent.
Regardless, Final Fantasy IV is the first to really flesh out its wide and varied cast of characters. Its story is one that is easy to follow, but filled with twists and turns to the very end. Unfortunately, the original SNES version is littered with a plethora of translation issues that, at times, can be awkward or even downright hilarious. Even so, it is the first in the series to really make me care about the world, its inhabitants, and what was actually happening to the main characters.
The shift to a story-driven game had some side effects, however, and could be viewed as a good or bad thing depending on who you ask. Whereas in the earlier entries, you were left to discover the world and, many times, figure out exactly where to go next based on your intuition alone, the emphasis on story here makes this somewhat of a non-issue (if it even was an issue in the first place).
There isn’t hand-holding per se, but there’s much less guesswork in where your objectives lie at any given point. To some, this might make the world feel smaller than in past games, but there’s still much exploration to be had along the main questline, as well as optional areas that you’ll come upon if you venture off the beaten path.
Death of the Mandatory Grind
Final Fantasy IV also marks the end of what could be considered mandatory grinding up to that point in the series, with that change being influenced by a few factors. The first three installments gave the player much more control over the character building process while this one favored a more structured design. Each character has their own set of unique skills and attributes, and the progression of those are handled in an on-rails approach. The added uniqueness to each character that this change brings is welcome indeed, but not necessarily better than a more customizable system.
It does allow for easier progression, as you only need to worry about leveling up and upgrading gear while the rest of the framework will handle itself. Deep party customization came back in Final Fantasy V with the job system, but you still didn’t need an excessive amount of grinding to utilize it solely for the sake of story progression.
The original western release of Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II) on the SNES was seen as a huge step down in terms of difficulty, especially in comparison to Final Fantasy I on the NES. Although later versions (especially the 3d remake) brought more challenge into the mix, it was still more than doable with a minimal amount of grinding. Simply put, the difficulty surrounding main story progression would forever be changed with this entry into the series.
I’ll leave the debate whether the lighter difficulty was a good or bad thing for another day. But I do think it was a turning point in making the series as a whole more approachable to a wider audience. In later entries, we’ve seen challenge dungeons and super bosses that are designed for those that desire more difficulty in their gaming experience, all while keeping the main narrative in reach of almost anyone. For the betterment and success of the series as a whole, I think that is a good thing. I’ve also found that, as I get older, I prefer the option to grind rather than necessarily having to do it in excess for the sake of the story alone.
I tried to avoid including categories like sound, because there is an obvious hardware advantage when comparing the NES games to this one. But ultimately, I couldn’t avoid it. At this point, you can tell that Uematsu has really found his groove. Even though I love almost anything he’s done, he absolutely nailed it here. Take a listen to the track below, and if you don’t get goosebumps, well, you have no soul. Uematsu set the sound bar (was not planning on that pun, but I’ll take it) about a million notches higher with Final Fantasy IV.
Active Time Battles
I would be doing the legacy of Final Fantasy IV a disservice if I did not mention the ATB system. Coined in this installment, it would spiral out and influence pretty much every Final Fantasy game thereafter. The ATB system was the brainchild of Hiroyuki Ito, who drew inspiration from Formula One racing that he enjoyed watching at that time. He wanted to capture a system where individual units would perform actions based on varying speeds, very much like various cars on a racetrack. He wanted to bring that excitement to JRPGs without necessarily going “all-in” like you would in a traditional action-oriented game. I would say that this idea was a definite success, considering it would play a major role in shaping what was to come for the series.
I hope I have offered some insightful evidence as to why Final Fantasy IV deserves the crown of influence within the franchise, but I would love to hear your thoughts as well. What do you think is the most influential Final Fantasy? What is your favorite one?