How many times can the same structure of story, the same forms of music, nay the same game designs be remixed, reglossed and repackaged? While Final Fantasy IV on Nintendo DS doesn't quite answer the regurgitative rhetoric of capitalist media, it does nevertheless offer a guaranteed hit of mixed nostalgia for the Final Fantasy fan base. And that's as appropriately predictable a recommendation as any.
Considering Australians finally managed to legally indulge themselves in 1991's Final Fantasy IV universe well after the turn of the millennium, it's understandable that the game's re-releases and remakes may appear to have come on a little thick in the past few years. It's hard to fault Square Enix on its nth-dipping ways, though. The experiences of the self-conflicted Dark Knight, Cecil Harvey, and his motley crew of friends, love interests and foes is indeed one for the proverbial ages. After all, this instalment, the fourth (not second) of an ever-expanding menagerie, is arguably where the Final Fantasy franchise truly hit its first strides. The complex melodrama. The active time battle system. The all-round sense of 16-bit RPG 'epicness'. It's a shame then that these qualities are, for all intents and purposes, a tad clichÃ©d to the outside observer today.
Part of that recurring dated feeling can be attributed to the anachronistic technological leaps taken by the Nintendo DS version of Final Fantasy IV. Naturally, with any remake, there's always the worry that, above all else, the sheer charm of the seminal subject matter will be lost in translation. Sometimes literally so. While the original English Super Famicom to SNES translation of Final Fantasy IV was riddled with unintentionally amusing dialogue, it's the addition of voice acting to the DS revision's punctuating cut scenes that hits players right in the unsuspecting eardrums. With its mostly cringe-worthy fodder of delivery, the vocal work is a trite shame, as the brand spanking new English translation for the DS Final Fantasy IV is near faultless when reading through it otherwise. If anything, the aural phenomena of this remake demonstrates the gap between a classic Final Fantasy's story's proceedings sounding all well and entertainingly pulpy on paper (or in this case, text boxes), and downright embarrassing once read aloud by a cast of overly melodramatic voice actors.
Somewhat ironically, the injection of 3D visuals, an almost one-to-one translation of the world of Final Fantasy IV, has done its fair share in muddying the personality of the once discernibly emotive sprites of old. While the DS hardware is more or less pushed to its limits in terms of polygon and texture counts, the effort comes across all for naught in translating that gloss into anything but comatose surroundings. The new cinematic close-ups and angles in Final Fantasy IV's real-time and/or artefact-filled pre-rendered cut scenes demonstrate an admirable idea, but the lifeless and sometimes non-existent animations of characters and landscapes leave much to be desired, sucking the enchantment out of the kingdom of Baron. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that the hyperactive sprites of the SNES era communicated more through their suggestive jumpiness than the stiff theatrics in the DS remake.
It's at these crossroads of 'new remake sheens' meets 'old design wrinkles' that the real detaching galls of the DS' Final Fantasy IV makes itself evident. With all the superficial advancements in audio and visuals, there still remain the archaic console RPG remnants of the past. The prevalent random battle encounters. The long-winded and half-handedly designed 'dungeon' sections. The constricted exploration. The heavy reliance on level grinding and equipment upgrading. These are by no mean deal-breaking problems per se. Heck, it wouldn't be Final Fantasy IV (again) without them. Nevertheless, it's clear that Square Enix and developers Matrix Software were in such a rush to 'remake' Final Fantasy IV, that the company's weren't exactly pondering the hows, the whys or if they should be doing as such in the first place. The relative nostalgia for the established fans aside, what kind of player, and perhaps more importantly, industry mindset, is this remake truly benefiting in the long run?
Ideally, the Nintendo DS' Final Fantasy IV could have lived up to its new found home's claim to fame. Perhaps slimming down on the 'hardcore' fat and padding, thereby opening up the accessibility to more than the average FF fanatic. Not so much turning it into the next faux-pas Wii Music community casual gamer backlash, but rather giving reason, any substantial basis, for this aesthetically fragmented 'remake's' existence. Something other than the scapegoat of iterative nostalgia. A reinterpretation rather than a retread of a franchise favourite. You can almost see it in the new ability to wirelessly pit your in-game party's facially-customisable summon creature, Whyt, against a friend's -- even if it ends up being far more forgettable than it sounds. Such a desperate plea for remake reasoning would even be sated by an obligatory inclusion of DS stylus capabilities that go beyond speedy menu navigation and/or circumventing directional pad movements to stylus screen dragging. In any case, hypothetical 'could haves' and 'would haves' are arguably missing the point.
It goes without saying that the obligated Final Fantasy fans have already made their choice. And how. The addition of a conveniently viewable map of the current play area on the bottom DS screen (with obsessive-compulsive completion percentage, natch). A few new welcome character management and menu options. An at times ridiculously increased level of difficulty. Not to mention at least 40 hours of gameplay from beginning till end. A solid, if largely familiar investment basis for the FF aficionado. Whether the same indulgence is applicable to players outside such denominations is a sure-fire bet towards the negative. Ten to one odds the same results when the next 'remake' of Cecil and co. comes around the mountain when it comes.