On the tail end of 2005, Square-Enix brought the venerable Final Fantasy IV to Nintendo's handheld Game Boy Advance. That's the way things are: what was once a state-of-the-art console RPG that helped establish Square as a creative force, now fits comfortably on a portable device. The game is now fifteen years old, but the reissue tries hard to update it for the present day. In some sense, its staying power is really surprising; maybe it isn't quite time to write this game off as a historical footnote.
Gamers may be excused for thinking that this is yet another shameless cash-in on the name recognition of the Final Fantasy series; after all, this is now the fourth official incarnation of the game, after the original Japanese version, its dumbed-down American counterpart, and the first reissue on the PSX. Moreover, a fifth version has been circulating on the Internet for years, in the form of a ROM of the Japanese original with a fan-made translation. So, all told, this is also the fourth time that someone has translated Final Fantasy IV into English.
But the GBA version does much more with the game than the PSX version. First of all, it gives the game a very tasteful graphical makeover. Nothing too drastic; anyone who ever played the game before will instantly recognize all the tiles and sprites. Nonetheless, the reissue uses the superior hardware of the GBA to add more detail to the old graphics. So, there are more colours in the towns and castles; different kinds of terrain now have more detailed textures; and the sprites are slightly more nuanced. For instance, instead of the old blue, Cecil's armour is now a light violet with a slight yellow tinge on his helmet, to match his battle sprite. Rosa looks softer and less angular than before, and all of the portraits have been redrawn. They still show the same facial expressions and angles as before, but again, there's more detail and colour. The battle backgrounds have been redrawn as well, and many of the new ones look quite good. At the same time, all of the sprite animations are absolutely identical to the old ones; this isn't Suikoden II here. The FMV from the PSX version is nowhere to be seen, of course, but maybe that's for the better. So, it can safely be said that this is certainly the best-looking version of Final Fantasy IV that anyone could have hoped for. Even the music has been updated slightly; the boss battle theme, which was the most memorable bit of music from the game to begin with, now has a more aggressive distorted bass, adding to the energetic feel.
In this day and age of extremely elaborate gameplay systems, the very simple style of Final Fantasy IV must seem a little quaint, if not boring. The development team has attempted to fix that by speeding the game up. This is actually a considerable improvement; now the characters tear through the field, and battles seem more fast-paced. Unfortunately, there are several problems. First of all, the game is kind of choppy at times, especially on the overworld and during the Mode 7 scenes. Who could have imagined that Mode 7, which appeared in any number of SNES games, would turn out to be such an effective visual device, and such a difficult one to bring to a supposedly more powerful set of hardware? What's worse, though, is the enemy encounter rate. As I recall, the enemy encounter rate in the original Final Fantasy IV was perfectly standard. You fought battles regularly, but not quite at every step you took. Here, though, it really seems like you can't take a step without getting into a fight. This is somewhat aggravating.
The translation is much better than the one we got in 1991. Of course that's not saying much, given how awful that one was, but this one really is pretty decent. It should have been done this way from the start. There are still some awkward phrases here and there, but at the very least it seems like somebody put in a little effort. For the sake of tradition, some of Ted Woolsey's most memorable lines (yes, including the one you're thinking of) have been preserved. There are also a few in-jokes and contemporary references. I must say, it's really strange to see a townsperson in a game from 1991 talk about how dark knights are "cool, and by cool, I mean totally sweet."
The development team also opted to follow the recent trend of packing reissues with various useless extras by including a "bestiary" (basically an encyclopedia which reveals the different enemies in the game as you kill them, and keeps track of how many of them you killed), a sound test (which, admittedly, is pretty nice), and most egregiously, a bonus dungeon consisting of fifty floors. You are now allowed to use such characters as Cid and Yang at the very end of the game, which sort of gets in the way of the dramatic scene right before the final boss fight, and the game also puts in a second bonus dungeon with new powerful equipment for these characters. All of this stuff is basically a pointless diversion. It will thrill those gamers who like leveling up their characters, beating optional bosses, and performing other gameplay that is totally unrelated to the plot or to anything else in the game. But I don't know how much this really adds to the game, in the long run; in my opinion, Final Fantasy IV's greatest strength was precisely the way in which it wove together gameplay and story, constantly changing the make-up of your party based on the development of the plot.
That's about it for the reissue. The rest is the same old instantly recognizable Final Fantasy IV. Say what you will, but the opening scene, where the screen fades in on the fleet of airships while the Red Wings music plays, is still one hell of a way to start. From there on, our hero becomes a paladin, gets the girl, loses her, and saves her, defeats bad guys, flies on airships, and saves the world. Maybe that's not so original nowadays, but if you haven't played this game yet (and honestly, who knows if the latest generation of gamers has?), this is pretty much the first RPG that tried to create an epic storyline that would equal the gameplay experience. It wasn't the most amazing storyline among its contemporaries (that would be Phantasy Star II), but it constantly tried to develop and reinforce the story by means of short but very expressive cut scenes, character portraits, unique abilities, and so forth. What else is there to say, really? The achievements of this game have been surpassed by now, and by all rights it should have been forgotten a decade ago, but somehow it keeps on cheating fate and getting reissued, and we'll probably see yet another version of it in a few years. Ultimately, isn't that fact worth more than any reviewer's recommendation?