Final Fantasy Anthology seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for old-school role-playing game (RPG) fans like me. After seeing what Square did with the Japanese version (called Final Fantasy Collection), I was more than a little excited to see the game on these shores. Needless to say, when the US version arrives featuring only two of the three promised games—with only a mediocre music CD as a replacement for the third—I was very vocally imparted my disappointment in my review. I simply could not understand how Square could leave out my favorite RPG in Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II in the US). At around the same time, there was noise being made over Squares decision not to port yet another Super NES (SNES) RPG that fans were clamoring for. That game was Chrono Trigger, widely believed to be the best console RPG of its time. Now, after quite a bit of time has passed, Square has either succumbed to pressure from activist RPG fanatics or just decided to throw consumers a bone. Whatever the reason, Square decided to bring closure to this saga and released both SNES RPGs together in a package dubiously called Final Fantasy Chronicles.
I say with great pride that I still have a working copy Final Fantasy IV (again, known here as Final Fantasy II) though it has been a while since I actually played it. I was worried that playing Final Fantasy IV after going through Final Fantasy VIII, Chrono Cross, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, and The Legend Of Dragoon, wouldn't hold the same magic it always had. But once I began playing Square's PSX adaptation, it was like I was 16 again and playing RPGs for the first time. All the familiar pings and clunks of the midi-format sound effects are here—as is the wonderful musical soundtrack that helped make the game famous. The super-deformed little people are still in the game; they still walk in place and are incapable of more than two frames of animation. The story is still deep and melodramatic and the cast is the same eclectic bunch that I have always adored. And last but not least, the same random battles that I can no longer tolerate in today's games are as ever present as before—did I mention that you still collect gold from wild animals? That's what makes Final Fantasy IV what it is and that is what has been faithfully ported over to the PlayStation.
Final Fantasy IV won't win any awards for graphics or sounds—decidedly 16-bit (thus primitive by today's standards)—but no one should be expecting anything more than that at this point. In what I believe to be an unnecessary attempt to keep things fresh, Square added some computer generated (CG) cut-scenes to the mix. They are not as detailed or elaborately rendered as those in Square's recent RPGs, but they do at times make the game look more dated, not less. Then again, they are not nearly as intrusive as those in, say, Final Fantasy VIII, so in the end they are not that big an issue.
Square made some other additions to this port that fans will surely love. The original Japanese version has been translated instead of porting the Americanized (and dumbed down) version that appeared on the conservative, family-friendly SNES. That means that the infamous dancing scene (strip tease) is available for all to see. Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable—for the record, it is not nearly as risqué as I had secretly hoped—but I do appreciate Square not jilting gamers a second time. The dialogue has been rewritten so that it flows much more fluidly and the overall difficulty of the game has been improved as well for a more challenging experience. What I certainly didn't expect but relish completely is the addition of a run button. Speed was always an issue with me in Square's 16-bit RPGs. Searching areas could slow the pace of the game down to a crawl, but now I could practically zip through towns, dungeons, and caves with relative ease.
What isn't particularly great in the move to the PlayStation is the presence of load times. Never an issue with Nintendo's speedy ROM carts, Final Fantasy IV now pauses to pull data off the CD-ROM and when loading or saving to the memory card. Granted the wait (mere seconds) is not as horrendous as, say, Final Fantasy VIII, but given the primitive complexity of the graphics (save for the CG, full-motion video cut-scenes), I was expecting the CD-ROM to be accessed more quickly or not at all. There is also the issue of slowdown in the game during battle. Whenever I tried to manage menus during a fight, the game would slow down considerably. It's perplexing to see the PlayStation having problems handling bitmapped graphics, but I can only conclude that its a matter of shoddy programming.
Square's second offering, Chrono Trigger, came closer to the end of the SNES's era and runs as a stark contrast to Final Fantasy IV and the entire Final Fantasy series. It was the result of a unique collaboration between the best and brightest in their respective fields. It was dubbed "Dream Project" internally, bringing together Final Fantasy creator, Hinorobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest's Yuji Horii, and Akira Toriyama, creator of Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. Its unique story, interesting characters, and winding storyline (complete with multiple endings) made it a hit with fans. Many have gone so far as to proclaim it the best console RPG ever made. But in playing Chrono Trigger, I realized just how special a game it really was. Seeing this game in action is to see just how close Square came to taking the traditional console RPGs in a totally different direction. In addition to eliminating random battles; party members also don't ceremoniously line up on one side of the screen for each and every battle; and seeing party members teaming up against enemies for more powerful attacks are the norm. Square, however, fell back on their conventions of the Final Fantasy series—conventions that have long since gone stale, but are continuously resurrected by Hinorobi Sakaguchi and his development crew.
Chrono Trigger not only threw out some standard RPG conventions, it also added some new ones. Yes, random battles are not an issue as enemies are always on screen for you to see and avoid or encounter at will, but how you battle against them is markedly different for a game outside the action-RPG genre. Members of a party are spread out on the battlefield, many times positioned right next to enemies. This calls for some strategy as the proximity of an enemy to anyone in the group or people in the party can influence the effectiveness of the attack. For example, characters in the game skilled at long range weapons are less effective when up close and attacking with clubs.
Positioning also plays a part in how many characters can be used in an attack. Chrono Trigger uses a unique tag-team feature that, given the staleness of the battle systems of today's RPGs, seems practically revolutionary. Up to three members can combine their attacks, magic, and weapon-based attacks for a truly devastating blow. The designers got really creative with these combinations and since they predate full-motion video, they are easy to watch over and over again. The magic spells are not as extensive as past and present RPGs, but depending on how they are used, they definitely add variety to the gameplay in a way that other games have not.
What was truly surprising was how well Chrono Trigger held up visually. Even on my big screen TV, which I've learned is great for DVD movie viewing but unforgiving to low-resolution video games, the relatively primitive bit-mapped graphics are still quite beautiful. In some areas, you can clearly see the ingenuity and graphical talent Square has long possessed (that also helped make it the highly touted developer it is today). The additional cel-animation (added in its porting to the PlayStation) was the gravy to an already hearty meal. It fits the game perfectly and, if nothing else, gives us a better look at the excellent character designs of Akira Toriyama.
The sounds in Chrono Trigger (and Final Fantasy IV for that matter) are a lot rougher than I remember. There are a lot of muffled background noises and special effects that are hard to ignore now that my ears have been spoiled by CD- and DVD-based games. The music, on the other hand, is still extraordinary. I would dare to say that it surpasses some of today's RPGs. Chrono Trigger also comes with some extra modes to make fan boys happy. As the game progresses, musical tracks, movies, and even game art will become accessible. This is a feature I wish were available in more of today's RPGs, especially the FMV-heavy Final Fantasy series.
Despite my high overall praise, this port is not without a few blemishes. Chrono Trigger suffers from some very annoying load times. They are worse than Final Fantasy IV's because they happen right when you want things to move the quickest. When entering or exiting a battle, the screen will pause for a second or two while the battle is loaded to or unloaded from memory. It's worse when trying to access the item menu screen for the all important inventory management. And don't get me started on saving and loading games from the memory card. I can understand some time being taken to access the memory cards given their speed limitations, but we're talking about a game that is over half a decade old. How can the PlayStation have such a hard time handling 16-Bit data?
It's not that I am not happy to see both Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger released at once, but as collections go this is what you would call a no-frills release. It would have been nice to see it receive some special treatment as both the Japanese Chrono Trigger port and Final Fantasy Collection did over a year ago. Here we dont get any of the music CDs or commemorative materials that our Japanese counterparts received for roughly the same price. Also, it didn't escape my notice that Square was actively promoting Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within in the packaging. Given the release date of the movie and hype surrounding the PlayStation2 game, I was surprised that there was not even a preview movie of either of these eagerly anticipated releases. At the very least it would likely have helped Square sell more copies. This final point may be nitpicky, but what's the deal with the name? Why is it called Final Fantasy Chronicles? Chrono Trigger is not a Final Fantasy game. Why not call it Square Soft Chronicles?
All in all, Final Fantasy Chronicles is an imperfect release that is just perfect for the nostalgic gamer like me. Though a long time coming, these titles are an ironic breath of fresh air in a genre laden with rip-offs and derivative sequels. No matter what camp you occupy—be it the RPG newbie or seasoned veteran—you won't find two finer examples of this genre than Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger.