By request: Final Fantasy’s 16-bit era

By request of grokyou

For many people, the 16-bit Final Fantasy games — that is, Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI — represent the definitive essence of what role-playing games should be. And why not? Though not a trilogy in the narrative sense of the word, the series’ Super NES chapters stand apart as a cohesive whole. They work together as a set in a way that you rarely see in games; unmistakably cut from the same cloth, yet each progressing and innovating in its own way.

Squaresoft managed to walk a fine line with these games. Though unified stylistically and mechanically, the trilogy demonstrated a willingness to embrace change… but only where needed. Considering what a revolution Final Fantasy IV represented, it would have been all too easy for Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase, et al. to either wipe their hands at the creation of the Active-Time Battle System and say “good enough” or else continue pursuing design innovation. But thankfully, they understood where divergence would be valuable and where it would be detrimental. Final Fantasy V improved on the ATB system and made combat the centerpiece of the adventure while VI dialed back on the complexity and challenge in order to build a larger, more elaborate world and story around the polished mechanics.


I think it’s possible to overstate how much Final Fantasy IV changed console RPGs, but you’d really have to work at it. Look at all it did: It introduced the ATB concept that added a time-based component to turn-based mechanics, creating the sensation of a real-time battle system despite the fact that actions and turns were still technically turn-based. The idea of staggering individual turns for characters rather than executing turns by party wasn’t totally new, and it evolved out of the way most turn-based RPGs already worked by 1991. Agility and speed helped determine combat order in most RPGs once commands were queued up for all characters; all FFIV did was change the input process so that instead of issuing commands for every party member in a single go, you directed each party member when his or her turn came up according to that character’s speed stat.

A simple concept, but a brilliant one. Not only did it do away with that hoary old frustration in which multiple warriors would target the same enemy only for the first to kill it and the second to waste a turn attacking empty air, it also made abstract menu-driven combat feel tense and lively. Timing became a key factor in combat, as did knowing the possibilities of your party and the optimal action. Enemies would continue taking turns while you decided on a course of battle, so you needed to think ahead and be ready to change your tactics at a moment’s notice.

And you needed to concentrate in order to keep a mental index of your current skills handy, because — and this was FFIV‘s other big innovation — the game’s plot caused the player’s party to exist in a constant state of flux. Only the protagonist, Cecil Harvey, stood in as a permanent party member… and even then he undertook significant changes himself, completely switching out his skill set and resetting his experience to level 1 midway through the quest. Again, the concept of an RPG whose plot shaped its mechanics wasn’t entirely new, but previous notable examples of the form (Dragon Quest IV, Phantasy Star) didn’t take the idea nearly as far as FFIV.


On the other hand, Final Fantasy V had the thinnest trifle of a plot, and (barring a single notable yet materially insignificant swap late in the game) its party roster remained consistent throughout the entire adventure. Instead, it revisited the Final Fantasy III Job system in a greatly expanded form, allowing you to reinvent your team on the fly.

Of course, FFIV‘s party had represented an alternate interpretation of the Job system; each of its party members stood in for a different Job. Cecil the Dark Knight, Kain the Dragon Knight, Rosa the White Mage, Rydia the Evoker (later full Summoner), Tellah the Sage, etc., etc. By assigning names and personalities to those class roles, FFIV created a torrid drama. FFV put its characters in the service of the bare-bones plot, resulting a game whose overall feel was more akin to that of a playground for messing around with character builds and combat tactics. Occasionally the game would railroad you into playing one way or another — notably Fork Tower, where the party had to split into two groups and one side could use no magic while the other team could only use magic. Mostly, though, you could slug your way through however you wanted, whether that entailed capturing monsters to unleash on their peers, breaking rods to cast high-level magic, throwing money at bad guys, turning the very elements against the foe, or learning monster spells to cast at will.

In order to put the utter flexibility of the game mechanics to the test, the designers threw in the series’ first proper super-bosses. Don’t get me wrong, Final Fantasy had seen its share of ultra-powerful optional foes before; the Lunar Subterrane of Final Fantasy IV included a couple of nasty extra monsters, and the fight against the top-level summoned beasts could be a strain. But the finite limitations of FFIV‘s party builds in turn limited exactly how over-the-top its battles could go. Not so with FFV, which threw in two insanely difficult fights (Omega and Shinryuu) to put players’ understanding of the play mechanics to the test.


And finally, Final Fantasy VI.

Quite simply, FFVI tried to combine the best elements of both FFIV and FFV. Like the former, it featured a huge, revolving cast of characters with specific class traits. Like the latter, it gave every character equal access to a massive array of spells and allowed considerable customization. Like the former, its first half took the form of a linear, character-specific adventure; like the latter, the second half was more of a free-form journey undertaken according to the player’s whims.

FFVI wasn’t entirely perfect, but you can’t fault its scope, or its flexibility, or its visual punch, or its killer soundtrack. Though nowhere near as innovative as FFIV or FFV, it was stunningly polished (glitches caused by ROM size constraints notwithstanding). It was kind of easy, too, but even there Squaresoft did it right: FFVI managed to hit a sweet spot between populist appeal (an epic tale with cool graphics that wasn’t unapproachably difficult) and genuine substance.

Square tried, perhaps unintentionally, to mirror the style and evolution of the Super NES Final Fantasy games with their PlayStation sequels. But with considerably less success, it should be said. There’s just something about this trilogy that worked. I am definitely looking forward to getting to these bad boys over on Anatomy of Games.

14 thoughts on “By request: Final Fantasy’s 16-bit era

  1. Great write-up.

    I think that to say FFVI was “Nowhere near as innovative” as the previous two games is a bit much. The art production/direction deserves serious praise. While FFIV and FFV had bright, cartoony, almost doll-like visuals, FFVI achieved an edginess which allowed us to take it more seriously as a narrative experience. Visually, I think it was more of a leap than a punch.

    Anyway, I’m really looking forward to the Anatomy of Games on these. There is so much going on with the enemy designs in these games that is worth talking about. Hope you enjoy playing through them all again.

    • Thanks! I would characterize better graphics as a natural evolution, not really as a matter of innovation. They don’t affect the gameplay in a material way.

      • I quite agree with this, and I wonder how it would look if you put Square’s 16 bit top-down games in sequence next to one another by development date. I find in the ones I’m most familiar with, there’s a pretty natural development of the graphics, I bet by putting in less famous titles (Treasure Hunter G), you might even see tinier steps than that. The 16 bit era seemed to improve graphically by the year.

    • Amusingly you can beat both sides of Fork tower with most party setups, even during challenge runs like Four Job Fiesta. Every class can attack and on the magic side you can run from encounters where needed and Omincent has a few solutions without a dedicated mage (my favorite is stabbing yourself with a mage masher while wearing a wall ring until Mute procs, bounces off and hits him).

      Of course if you have a knight and no caster it’s likely not worth the hit your Brave Blade will take.

  2. Wonderful post! I would read the hell out of an Anatomy of Games for any Final Fantasy. Can’t wait till it’s one of their turns!

  3. Wait a second Jeremy, you forgot the most important 16-Bit Final Fantasy there is: MYSTIC QUEST. I say “important” because it was made specifically to sell Final Fantasy to dumb Americans and because I beat it.

      • :( why do you always have to be mean to Mystic Quest, for us Australians it was the only Final Fantasy we got before Final Fantasy 7. For a my first Final Fantasy it was a perfectly fine game to get someone who had never played RPGs used to the ideas and concepts of playing one.

      • Because I played it back when it was new and I barely knew anything about RPGs, and I could still tell it was kind of bunk.

  4. And the second most important one: Final Fantasy Adventure 2! AKA Secret of Mana. …Ok, I admit it, that’s a bit of a stretch.

  5. Would love to read some Anatomy of RPGs, especially the FF series (though probably best to start with IV… there is just no longer anything interesting about 1-3, though they can still be mildly fun). I do enjoy your writings, especially the Anatomy series, but in all honest I’m just a big fan of most of those games. So I’d really enjoy FF anatomies.

    I actually lump VII in there. Despite its appearance, its always seemed like it had a good bit of 16 bit in it. With its more cohesive sci-fi gameworld, consistent cinematics, realistically proportioned characters, and highly polished script, I always felt like VIII was the first true “modern” FF game, for better or worse. VII is so glorious, to me personally, because it is such an awesome, weird mess of 16-bit and 32 bit.

  6. In all honesty, you could say that the PS2 “trilogy” mirrors the SNES one moreso than the PS1-era games do, if you equate X to IV, XI to V, and XII to VI. If anything, the PS1-era games seem more similar, in terms of evolution, to the first three games more than they do to IV through VI — VIII and IX especially; a story-based adventure with an abstract and open-ended character leveling system followed by a “return to basics” so to speak. Makes sense, really; the advent of 3D gaming meant that Square had to learn the ropes again, so VII acted almost like a reboot, and well, history repeats.

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