Final Fantasy IV (initially known as Final Fantasy II in the West) was the first Final Fantasy I ever played, and as such it has a special place in my heart. But even without the nostalgia factor, I suspect that I would hold Final Fantasy IV in high regard.
Some background: I've always been an ardent book reader. By my teenage years, I was devouring fantasy series as fast as I could: Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. These novels had a comfortable cadence about them, always starting with a gentle introduction into the main characters' simple lives before ramping up the action in a exhilarating fashion (and the excitement curve was always concave up).
The opening of Final Fantasy IV was different.
It begins in darkness with the theme of the Red Wings, its implacable military beat a good marker for what is to come. We are immediately dropped into the midst of the story: Cecil, the dark knight commander of the Red Wings, is returning from a successful mission. His king has ordered him to retrieve the Water Crystal from a peaceful neighboring kingdom. He has done so - but at the cost of some lives, and the morality of his actions are beginning to weigh on him.
Upon returning home, he and his friend Kain dare to question his king. The king, shocked, banishes them both for their temerity. And as they depart the castle, this theme begins to play.
I remember feeling my heart stir as I listened to this music. It held promises of valor and glory, nobility and hope. A belief that what was broken could be made whole if one was brave and true.
These are things I believed in when I was young, and perhaps still do today. That a game could express it all in fifteen minutes or so of game playing time - that is still a wonder of my childhood.
A quick note before I leave this opening behind: I almost definitely experienced in media res before playing this game, but FFIV is still the example that comes first to mind when I think about the concept.
The Rest of the Story
The rest of the story plays out as one might expect: a surreal mix of grandeur, inexplicability, and utter lunacy. I'll spotlight some memorable moments, but first a summary of other plot points that have stuck in my mind:
- Cecil must overcome his past in a personal trial by facing his darker self. This fight is interesting in that you can defeat it by refusing to fight, signifying acceptance and growth. Naturally I beat my dark self into submission. WITH MY FISTS.
- Kain betrays you not once, but twice. The first time he's mind controlled; the second time, he does so out of jealousy. Still, in the end he rises to his better nature and fights on the side of the angels. Kain is awesome.
- The main villain is someone named Golbez, who commands the Four Elemental Fiends (more on them below). He's actually Cecil's brother. At some point it's revealed that he, too, is being mind controlled by a creature called Zeromus. Zeromus is on the moon. Cecil and Golbez are descended from moon people. They all fly to the moon on a Lunar Whale.
Speaking of "better moments" here are two of them:
The Four Fiends
The early parts of the game are pretty easy. I remember thinking that the game would be no sweat, even when I was surprised by a boss while advancing towards the Cave of Trials. He called himself Scarmiglione, and I shrugged off his pre-battle threats, assuming that he would be no more challenge than any other fight up until then.
Then this music started playing.
Scarmiglione kicked my butt once, twice, a billion times. Finally defeating him was a moment of utter triumph.
Over the course of the game, you face off against three more elemental fiends, each of them just as difficult as the one before. I remember feeling distinct relief after slaying the last one - Rubicant, the Fiend of Fire - knowing that I would never have to face them again.
Then this happens.
The exhausted horror I felt when I realized I had to face all four fiends, one after the other, was honest and real. I'm still amazed at how effectively FFIV built up this moment.
So the end of the game is near, and now we're all on the moon and ready to face down Zeromus. And naturally he kills you all with hardly a thought.
This is what happens next (skip forward to 3:09 or so).
The Prologue music, all the way back from the beginning from the game starts to play. Back on earth, all the friends you've made throughout your exhaustive journey pray for your salvation. One by one you and your companions stand. And then the final battle truly begins...
Cheesy? Unrealistic? You bet! And yet there is an undeniable pleasure in a tale with such symmetric roundness, one that closes the loop and brings everything full circle. Not all stories need to end in such a way; in fact there are many that shouldn't. All I can say is that Final Fantasy IV left me feeling satisfied with the adventure I had been told.