Every generation has its favourite Final Fantasy, from VII on the PSX to X on the PS2 and VI on the SNES. Also technically XII for the PS3, but something tells me that was due to a lack of a choice. The point is that a few always stand out above the others in this long-lived series, and they tend to benefit from much bigger fandoms. These can range from the mechanics to ambitious stories or even release dates. However, IV is an oddity which has unfortunately been lost in the mix of things. No one will doubt it had a significant impact on the series, but all too often it tends to be reduced to a momentary mention in the series' history. This is fairly disingenuous as without it we would never have seen the heights the franchise reached. We may not even have ended up with the modern JRPG.
While I will freely admit that this is coming from someone who loves every Final Fantasy to some degree - to the point where he will even come to II's defense - IV is where the series as we know it truly began. The characters in I, II and III ranged from simple puppets there to drive the plot along to figures who had a vague hint of a backstory, but lacked any meaningful drama or character development. Really, when it came to the core characters, "Guy speak beaver" was about as detailed and dynamic as you got. Everything else was vague if not outright non-existent. As such, not only was the very idea of having an act structure to a game focusing on the protagonists something IV pioneered in video games, but as were things like character conversations and introductions.
If you think that this is hyperbole, really stop and compare this game and its predecessors for a moment:
I - A group of heroes arrive at Coneria, show the king they have proof of their link to a prophecy, and are sent to kick arse for the elements.
II - Firion, Maria, Guy and Leon flee their village from raiders sent by the Empire. All of them are knocked unconscious, while Leon himself is taken captive. The group is then recruited into the White Rose Rebellion in the hopes of retaking their home.
III - Four t
IV - The elite fleet of airships, the Red Wings, attack the city of Mysidia to claim their water crystal. Forced to slay those within its temple to capture it, they return to the Kingdom of Baron with their prize, despite enduring repeated assaults from new monsters which plague the land. The Red Wings' commander, the Dark Knight Cecil, continually questions the King's increasingly tyrannical decrees until he openly voices his concerns. Cecil is promptly stripped of his rank and is parted from Rosa, his beloved. In penance for his insubordination, Cecil is tasked with taking a mysterious ring to the village of Mist. Along with the Dragoon Kain Highwind, he journeys to this place, home to the world's population of Summoners.
While direct, it's leaps and bounds above all that came before, quickly establishing the prior life of the protagonist, his standing in the world and relationship to the others. At the same time, it creates far more of a sense of mystery and raises as many questions about the world as it offers answers. As video games go, it's a perfect hook to grab the player's attention and establish some early world building along with sparking character arcs. While it's certainly basic by today's standards,. This really would be like jumping from a Lumière brothers production to a Laurel and Hardy film within the space of just a couple of years.
Beyond the story itself, core concepts and mechanical ideas which would become series staples were solidified here. For starters, the then unique system of turn-based combat where every action was tied into a timer really took off. This was made in response to how players were seemingly frustrated at having to wait to take their turn, allowing battles to have a more obvious flow of events and some degree of real-time progression. While this could have easily been a case of trying to reinvent the wheel and messing everything up (just look at Mystic Quest to see how badly that could go wrong even in the early series) this was instead refined and used as an asset. You ended up having to think over actions with a sense of urgency and there was less of an opportunity to think out how and when to best use an optimal move.
Even the soundtrack underwent a transformation. The enhanced technology behind the SNES' sound chip allowed the likes of the Crystal Prelude theme to become the iconic song so closely associated with the franchise. The additional tones, layers and new details all went towards refining and developing what had been set down before, making it truly stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Even when you sit down and compare the original scores to those found in IV, it's clear that later installments owe far more to the tracks introduced with this story than those before it.
If it's not been made clear, this game is where Final Fantasy truly began. All that was introduced before it, from the stumbling efforts of I to the vastly improved mechanics of III were the baby-steps taking before it started to truly hit its stride. With that said, it is clear that there are lessons found within IV which the series needed to more closely adhere to: The beauty of simplicity. This was most evident during XIII where a genuinely interesting story and an engaging world was marred by an overly complex plot, incoherent storytelling elements and several major characters which lacked a clear direction. The series went back and forth on this for some time, but often games were attempting to over-engineer what could have been direct and easy story elements. While it is difficult to pin this down to a single incident, the highly detailed story of VI and the dense, borderline insane, plot behind VII are likely to blame. With VIII following it, and X only taking a general step back toward normality, it was as if the series' creators had lost sight of what made their games great in the first place.
When it came to IV, you had a direct and easy premise which was gripping and engaging. One which never fails to grab the attention of players today when it's offered to them. Simply put: IV is Star Wars if Darth Vader was the hero.
The overall arc is ultimately one of rediscovery and redemption as a result of Cecil's role in the story. His need to shed his role of Dark Knight is one of rebirth and new direction, along with overcoming his prior mistakes and a multitude of storytelling elements reflect this well. The large supporting cast is one of the few times the series did nail frequently swapping out one character for another, as it allowed for a very fluid and natural storytelling quality to events. The locations were extremely varied and diverse, with several changing through the story while the major twists were delivered in a clear and concise manner. Each was executed such a way that you never forgot prior events, or lost track of what was going on, even as the plot rapidly thickened.
The very fact that IV could support such a large number of characters related heavily to how it made each one distinct and easy to remember. Kain? The guy with a big stick-sword whose loyalties are divided between Baron's rulers and what he personally believes is right. Tellah? An angry old man out for revenge, no matter the cost to himself. Rosa? Bow-wielding support character who links directly into several major twists. Yang? Polite, taciturn and willing to take on an army of monsters if it's the right thing to do.
Now, it's true that you can argue that this has carried over to many other games. While this is another element that IV is the progenitor of, and other games have learned from its example, it's something which it does better than many others. There's no single character here who feely superfluous or tacked on for needless reasons, while the same cannot be said of a multitude of other games even today. Calling out Mass Effect: Andromeda might seem like a cheap shot, but it's true that most of those characters names I cannot remember. Those who I can, like Drack, are possible only thanks to belonging to the same archetype as another character in prior games. Jade Empire suffered from the same issue, while even series lauded for their storytelling such as Persona or Phantasy Star can suffer from this depending on how they integrate characters into the story.
The overall point of this article really is both to highlight how Final Fantasy IV reshaped its series, genre and served as a turning point for a major staple of video games. At the same time, it's not one which should be forgotten or overlooked despite gaming having long since moved on to more complex narratives. If anything, it's an installment which should serve as a guideline on how to execute so many elements without losing track any single one, and a reminder that simplicity isn't a sin.
Now, bait-and-switches, that's a whole other matter.