Final Fantasy IV – A Retrospective Review

(This review is based on the North American Final Fantasy II on the SNES.)

As I have stated before in my review of Final Fantasy VI, the SNES is renowned for being a strong platform for JRPG games. Of particular note is the volume of JRPG games released or published by Squaresoft during this period, including Secret of Mana, several entries in the SaGa series – although none of these were released outside of Japan on the SNES – Chrono Trigger and of course several entries in the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy IV was the first game that Squaresoft released on the SNES and was also the first game in the Final Fantasy series proper released in North America since the original Final Fantasy in 1987.

The game focuses on the travails of Cecil Harvey, who begins the game as a Dark Knight in the service of the kingdom of Baron and as leader of the Red Wings, the airship air force of the Baronian kingdom. However, as the game begins, Cecil is beginning to have concerns, shared by his crew, about the aggression displayed by Baron in their aim to collect Crystals that are scattered around the world. After a vicious attack on a largely defenceless town named Mysidia, Cecil decides to air his concerns to the King of Baron. In response, the King strips Cecil of his captaincy and sends him on an errand to deliver an object to the nearby village of Mist, a location renowned for its Callers, who tap the magical powers of monsters in the form of summons. When he arrives, though, accompanied by his friend and leader of the Dragoons of Baron, Kain, the object that Cecil has delivered ends up spawning monsters who set Mist ablaze.

Finding a young girl, Rydia, whose mother has been killed as an unforeseen side-effect of Cecil and Kain’s slaying of the summoned guardian of Mist, Cecil and Kain attempt to make restitution with the girl. However, Rydia ends up being a Caller in her own right, summoning a powerful force which ends up changing the face of the land around them. Waking up in a forest, Cecil finds himself cut off from Baron, separated from Kain and trying to find medical assistance for a girl who hates him. Meanwhile, he has made an enemy of Baron, is also separated from his romantic partner, Rosa, a powerful healer and archer also serving Baron and faced with the goal of finding allies to discover exactly what is going on with the kingdom of Baron.

The setting of Final Fantasy IV is by and large typical quasi-medieval swords-and-sorcery fantasy, complete with the focus on the Crystals which was then common in Final Fantasy games, although there are enough plot twists to keep the setting from becoming completely generic. Nevertheless, this game is very much rooted in its setting and from this aspect, will provide no real shocks to those familiar with either European fantasy or with other JRPGs.

A more impressive aspect of the game is the number of playable characters involved in the plot. Being the first Final Fantasy game to introduce characters with distinct, non-generic personalities, the game involves the adventures of twelve separate characters, of which five or fewer can be present in the party at one time. The game maintains the restriction on party characters by shuffling characters out as the plot proceeds, although some of the events which change characters happen in somewhat contrived circumstances. Regardless, the game does do well to give each character their own motivations, characterisation and personality – and to give each character disparate character skills and abilities, something which hasn’t always been present in the Final Fantasy series – Final Fantasy VI and VII come to mind.

Gameplay should also be familiar to JRPG fans, particularly players of later Final Fantasy games. The game uses a prototypical form of the Active Time Battle system also used in many later Final Fantasy games, although without the bars indicating which character is to be ready next and how long it will take for them to be ready. In the world map, there is the usual “not too linear” approach where players have some degree of free rein over where they are to travel to next, although there is a relative dearth of sidequests to make some of the additional locations worthwhile to visit.

The game is reasonably challenging, especially in the early game where healing comes at a price and losing any part of your party can be catastrophic. Even at the end of the game, a bit of level grinding will ease your way through the final dungeons, giving you a better chance against some of the tougher enemies. The bosses don’t have the most advanced artificial intelligence, but have enough potential to smack the characters around to make them dangerous.

Unfortunately, the game’s translation doesn’t meet the standards of the gameplay, with sloppy mistakes and strange turns of phrase scattered throughout the game. While the translation is not the poorest of any SNES-era JRPG – the train-wreck that is the English translation in Breath of Fire II comes to mind – and is at least legible, it is neither good, nor even endearing in the way that some poor translations can be – well, apart from one famous line (“You spoony bard!”) which is oddly translated yet proper, if archaic English. Given the excellent, endearing and amusing translations in Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger by Ted Woolsey later on in the SNES era, it’s a pity that Square didn’t get a good translator earlier on. (Re-releases of Final Fantasy IV have retranslated the game to a far higher standard – but they have kept the famous line described above.)

Thankfully, the graphics and sound in this game are quite a bit better than the translation. Similarly to the later Final Fantasy VI, the graphics are not the best on the SNES or even in the genre – the fabulous Chrono Trigger comes to mind again – yet they are serviceable and use the vivid palette of the SNES rather well. The sound effects are also serviceable; there may be no stand-out sounds like Kefka’s infamous cackling laugh in Final Fantasy VI or the unearthly scream of Lavos in Chrono Trigger – but then again, there isn’t really a place in the game for such impressive effects to be appropriate.

The music, as befits a Final Fantasy game, is very good, though not as distinctive or memorable as I would like. Nevertheless, there are some very good tracks scattered throughout the soundtrack, including right from the very start with the theme of the Red Wings. Other exceptional tracks include the theme of Golbez, one of the main villains in the game, along with the music accompanying two of the final dungeons.

Final Fantasy IV has all the components for a strong JRPG, including a fairly strong plot, good characterisation, solid gameplay fundamentals and very good music. From the perspective of the genre, it is a good game. Yet, comparing it to other JRPGs later in the same console generation, it comes across as being slightly underwhelming. It may be that the many successors to Final Fantasy IV have overshadowed the game somewhat, but there weren’t any particular moments that I considered outstanding in the same way as some moments in Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger were. However, it was clearly a good enough game for me to see it to the end and from a historical perspective, Final Fantasy IV is clearly very important for its pioneering work in gameplay mechanics and character development.

Bottom Line:Final Fantasy IV is a good game with solid gameplay fundamentals and a reasonably good plot, along with being historically important, but sometimes comes across as slightly underwhelming compared to later JRPGs.

Recommendation: If you’re going to play Final Fantasy IV, do yourself a favour and give the original SNES version a miss. Unlike Final Fantasy VI, you don’t lose an interesting, funny yet proficient translation by going to the newer versions. Other than that, this is a good game for entrenched JRPG fans and not a terrible starting point for new JRPG fans, but it won’t convert anybody who has already made their mind up about the genre.

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The Cryptocurrency Conundrum: Why Bitcoin and its contemporaries have failed to convince me

It would have been pretty difficult to avoid hearing anything about Bitcoin in the past few months, given its jump from being a mere curiosity known only by technical enthusiasts to a potential investment that mainstream economists and journalists are watching avidly. Some of the advocates for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies say that they offer a completely different paradigm for currency transactions, while others are interested in the investment opportunities.

However, the recent bankruptcy and collapse of Mt. Gox, one of the premier Bitcoin exchanges, along with increased scrutiny on the nature of cryptocurrencies by various treasury agencies has caused the price of Bitcoin to jump around like a hyperactive kangaroo. I fail to be convinced of the long-term viability of Bitcoin or other contemporary cryptocurrencies, neither as an investment nor as a unit of currency. I will focus on Bitcoin here, since it is the cryptocurrency with the highest market capitalisation and correspondingly the most interest, along with being the basis for most other cryptocurrencies out there.

Admittedly, as a technical enthusiast, there are some details of cryptocurrencies and by extension, Bitcoin, that I find interesting. The idea that cryptographic protection is built into the protocol, thus stymieing attempts at counterfeiting, has merit particularly from the perspective of e-commerce. Commercial activities have taken off on the internet to an astounding extent, despite the decided vulnerabilities in current payment mechanisms, especially from the perspective of security. Having a secure, well-supported method of payment that is outside the commercial interests of any single party could be useful for improving the weaknesses that currently exist in internet commerce.

Unfortunately, the few advantages that Bitcoin can indisputably claim over conventional currencies are not enough to make up for the many things that can be held against it. These problems begin at the generation (i.e. “mining”) phase, spiralling out from there and include both the computational side and economic factors.

The generation of Bitcoin is done by a process called “mining”. Bitcoin mining effectively involves solving SHA-2 cryptographic hashes for a certain set of criteria, trying to find the most complex way of arriving at that result. I can already see a problem here. As far as I can tell, the only people who actually need to solve cryptographic hashes are security organisations such as the NSA and professional cryptographers. Bitcoin doesn’t fall under the purview of “professional” cryptography – it is simply rewarding computational make-work that has no relation to legitimate problems that distributed computing would resolve. In this regard, Bitcoin is no better than fiat currency, since you’re only trading off the trust of a government’s ability to pay its debts for the trust of computer cycles.

Actually, since I don’t trust computer cycles as a backing for a means of payment unless those computer cycles have been used for something useful, I have to regard Bitcoin as worse than fiat currency. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of things that could be done with those computer cycles either; everything from protein folding to Mersenne prime number solvers to running through the data of a large-scale scientific experiment could be done with the distributed computational power of computers currently used for Bitcoin mining, but instead, they’re being used to solve bloody cryptographic hashes. That’s one strike already for Bitcoin and we haven’t even got past the generation phase.

While we’re on the subject of mining, bitcoins used to be generated effectively by the CPUs of home computers, but as the difficulty of generating bitcoins has increased (as part of a process which I’ll talk about below), the mining process gradually transitioned towards the use of GPGPU techniques, then onto the current trend of application-specific integrated circuits (or ASICs). These ASICs, as the name implies, are not general-purpose computers, but are specialised for the purpose of Bitcoin mining. So, not only does Bitcoin mining involve the make-work job of throwing away computer cycles – and electricity, by extension – on solving cryptographic hashes, but it’s led to the creation of computers for which that is their raison d’être. Great work, Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever the hell you are.

To be fair, though, once you get past the mining stage, the nature of the Bitcoin protocol looks alright from the perspective of computer science – for a while, at least. Bitcoins are stored using a digital “wallet”, to which the user provides an address which takes the form of a long hexadecimal number. Payments can be made to other Bitcoin users by knowing their addresses. However, we hit a stumbling block here when it comes to using Bitcoin as a means of payment for e-commerce. Bitcoin has a one-way system for transfers, which for various reasons is not suitable for most purposes in the field of e-commerce. What about refunds, for instance? That isn’t covered very well within the Bitcoin protocol. Nor are transaction cancellations, which would have particularly interesting, if not especially desirable consequences regarding micro-transactions within smartphone or tablet apps, where an alternative to payment by credit cards would be rather desirable.

Let’s just consider the case of a parent who has just handed their child their smartphone and returns to find that the child has bought several hundred dollars of in-game purchases in some shitty freemium game. This sort of scenario can happen and has happened in several high-profile cases – and certainly, the parent isn’t going to want to keep all of those in-game purchases. Some people may say that the burden should be placed on the parent and if they didn’t want it to happen, they should have been more careful, but really, I can sympathise with the parent on this one.

I mean, let’s say your child is whining about something they want, which happens regularly. You’re busy trying to get some work done around the house or something and you just want a break from the moaning going on in your ear. So, you hand your smartphone to the child hoping that they’ll find something that will shut them up for just one moment. Unfortunately, you forgot to sign your account out of the smartphone’s store and of course, Murphy’s Law will dictate that the one time you forgot to sign out will be the time when the child wants to make his way through the catalogue of crappy in-game purchases. By saying that you should be more careful as to let your child mess around with your phone, you could just as well insinuate that you should be more careful as to have children in the first place and that argument doesn’t tend to go down well.

Bitcoin is even more vulnerable than credit cards to this sort of scenario; credit cards usually have limits, whereas somebody with a Bitcoin wallet could spend the lot and all you’d have would be the recordings of the transactions on the address. Good luck getting your money back as well, since these transactions can’t be cancelled when it turns out that you’ve made a mistake – or that the product that you ordered is late or whatever problem you’re having. Not a very good thing for a currency, wouldn’t you think?

Returning to a point which I made above, Bitcoin mining has become more difficult as time has progressed, which has prompted the use of ASICs. Part of the reason why Bitcoin mining has become more difficult is because of an inherent detail of the protocol and of Bitcoin in general – there is a finite number of bitcoins that can be generated. Only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist, generated at a steady rate per week – which requires the generation of bitcoins to be more difficult as more computational power is used to generate them – and the rewards will diminish with time. Danger, Will Robinson! Talk about an economic faux-pas: what we’ve fallen into here is an inherently hyper-deflationary currency.

Inflation and deflation are not two sides of the same coin, but both are considered to be deleterious to some extent in an economic system. However, mainstream economists tend to consider inflation less harmful than deflation and fiat currency systems that are in use today have a small, but usually controlled rate of inflation. The reason that economists prefer inflation to deflation is that such a scenario encourages people to buy things since the value of their money will decrease rather than increasing with time, along with being more helpful to debtors rather than creditors – a debt made for a certain amount in a deflationary system will continue to accrue value, which discourages entities from taking out debts in the first place. When those debts would be used to catalyse the growth of a new business, then there becomes a case where deflation becomes harmful to economic growth. The once-vaunted Japanese economy, which looked set to take over from the United States of America as the world’s biggest economy in the 1980s, has suffered from deflation since the early 1990s. With Bitcoin, you would therefore use a system which actually incorporates deflation – and at a huge rate – into its very form of being. I’ll leave you to draw the conclusions.

Another problem for Bitcoin from an economic perspective is its volatility. As I’ve said above, the price of Bitcoin jumps around from day to day like a hyperactive kangaroo, and sometimes, hundreds of dollars per bitcoin can ride on various decisions by speculators and treasury agencies wary of the potential effects of Bitcoin alike. The recent collapse of Mt. Gox sums this up nicely; in the last month, the price of bitcoins has jumped between more than $700 per bitcoin to a trough of less than $480 on February 25th, when Mt. Gox went offline, before promptly jumping back up to more than $600. Bear in mind, this was in a single month – if the dollar went haywire like that, there would be hell to pay! Would you really risk spending money with the potential for it to add another half again onto its value, or receive it with the risk of it almost halving in value? If you would, you’re braver than I am – or infinitely more foolhardy.

We need to note here what Mt. Gox actually stood for – it was originally an initialism for “’Magic: The Gathering Online’ Exchange”. No, you’re not reading that wrong – it was originally a site for the exchange of cards from a fantasy collectible card game. Actually, no, I have that slightly wrong – it was originally a site for the exchange of digital, virtual cards from the online version of a fantasy collectible card game which only exist at the whims of Wizards of the Coast. This is what I find to be one of the most terrifying things about any ideas of moving to Bitcoin as a currency – putting your money into the hands of a bunch of nerds who have no real clue about anything but the mathematical tendencies of economics and have probably convinced themselves that their computer science experience gives them insights into the economic world while only understanding that small portion of it. That, to me at least, seems like a big mistake waiting to happen – and I say that as a nerd with no real clue about anything but the mathematical tendencies of economics who has convinced myself that my computer science experience gives me insights into the economic world while only understanding that small portion of it.

Another group of people who are very vocal on the issue of Bitcoin and who are correspondingly very worrying are the Randite libertarians who have embraced Bitcoin and its decentralised nature. Randites are particularly annoying to deal with, because of their odious selfishness-led philosophies and their propensity to believe any sort of ludicrous fantasies as long as they work against the aims of organised government. It doesn’t help that the very founder of their Objectivist ideals was a hypocrite who railed against government assistance, yet seemingly felt no shame in using it herself, nor does it help that Alan Greenspan, who, as Chair of the Federal Reserve, presided over the biggest recession since the Great Depression, is a self-confessed Randite. I think that’s the piece of straw that broke the camel’s back on that issue, although interestingly, even Alan Greenspan doesn’t think that Bitcoin is a good idea. You’d think he’d have first-hand experience of a financial bubble, wouldn’t you?