Final Fantasy IV for a lot of people was their first SNES rpg. For them, the game really isn’t something you analyze critically, since the game is tied up in a sea of memories. This actually makes it hard for me. The game came out for the SNES from Square in 1991. My first RPG on the SNES was Secret of Mana in 1993. For me, Final Fantasy II was a game that I played after I played Chrono Trigger. So even then, I could see that the game was a far simpler game in comparison to the larger sprites and glitzy effects of Final Fantasy III or the other games I had played. I still appreciated the game, as I remember, but found the amount of damage floors in the dungeon to be tedious. I never got the same nostalgia for the experience of playing the game.
One issue with talking about Final Fantasy IV is the translation. The game difficulty was simplified in the course of translation, and the game was censored to match Nintendo policies of the time. This includes, for example, adding tutorial schools to all towns in the game, and reducing the amount of attacks an enemy can execute. The censorship ranges from removing references to religion or death, and removing explicit plot references to romance. Possibly due to text space, the plot is also pared down, removing explanations of character motivations, backstories, and other such details. A convenient example of the changes is the plots involving Rosa. It’s implied in the Japanese game that Cecil has been her lover for quite a while, and they hug and kiss. Later, he rescues her from a dangerous machine that would kill her with a scythe. In the US version, they hug and their relationship is not so blatantly explained. The scythe? Is some kind of orb.
So when you talk about the charming simplicity of Final Fantasy II’s plot, it’s hard to say if it’s the translation that left it so simple, the nostalgia, or the game itself. While the game cannot use the term “death,” characters still clearly die. In fact the game shifts the party around from plot point to plot point. This usually involves killing or seeming to kill your party members. When you find, say, an amnesiac Yang after one such death, you can whack him in the head with a pan to get him to come to his senses, and as a reward get a spoon from his wife to use as a throwable dagger.
Another trait of the game is the main surviving plot point in the US version. This centers around Cecil’s transformation from a conflicted Dark Knight to a shining paladin of goodness. This means you get a rather unusual opening for a Final Fantasy game. In it, your hero takes the Crystal of Water from the Mysidians with force, and his loyal team of men are both brutal and conflicted about their brutality. When he delivers the crystal, Cecil is removed from command and told to deliver a package to Mist and fight monsters. In the Japanese version, this is called a far less subtle “bomb.”
All in all the game does not feel that complex. I think that, actually, is a bit rough on the game. The drama of Cecil’s worries, the various plot events, and the dramatic deaths is definitely closer to the Japanese Final Fantasy III or Final Fantasy II. Graphically, the game is fairly simple, with a sparse menu, and fairly plain graphics for towns / areas. The battle graphics are pretty similar to Final Fantasy V’s graphics. Still, they’re definitely functional.
Many of Final Fantasy IV’s bosses are puzzle bosses. You may for example, have to not attack during a certain phase or defeat a boss quickly before it does a serious attack. A dungeon called the Magnet Cavern prevents the use of metal weaponry, and then tosses a fairly dangerous Dark Elf at the party to destroy. Another boss requires the use of the Wall spell to destroy them. Thanks to the reduced difficulty level of the US version, the quirks of various bosses are probably less frustrating compared to the Japanese versions, but it’s really hard to say.
In the end, Final Fantasy IV marks the a nostalgic beginning for a lot of people. It’s charming and dramatic, and has small cute touches to add to the game. These range from special summons from fighting a specific monster to the fact that a very old playable character grows weaker with each level due to his age. While the plot can feel hamhanded as you go from plot point to plot point, it’s not a terrible ride. I think it’s a game that people, to this day, will either love due to the simplicity, or reject for the exact same reasons that other people love it.