The True Lost Entry
The Curious Case of Final Fantasy IV on the NES
Although the Nintendo Entertainment came out in the U.S. in 1985 (in limited release before widening over the course of 1986), it was predated by the Famicom in Japan by 1983. Functionally the same system, the Famicom was designed for a number of peripherals (which, and early prototype version of the NES also supported), but in general a game released for the Famicom could be published also on the NES with only a bit of technical trickery. The Famicom Disc System (which used floppy-style diskettes) provided some additional space and capabilities, and this could lead to some changes being needed for games when they came to the U.S. But, generally, the biggest strike against a game was due more to localization -- would a game released in Japan do well with U.S. audiences? Would it cost too much to translate it and still recoup costs?
As we noted previously, Final Fantasy debuted on the NES in 1990 but it original was released in Japan in 1987. That's a two and a half year gap which, in Japan, was filled by the release of Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III -- three games before we even got one. Considering that for the first few years of its existence the series was releasing at a near-yearly rate (something it would do again after the release of Final Fantasy VIII), that does go some way to explaining why some entries failed to see the light of day here in the U.S. Simply put: the cost of releasing the games over here, especially once the SNES debuted in 1990 (Japan) / 1991 (U.S.), meant that there was no reason to bother with some entries, at least not at first.
That said, development company Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming. really wanted to crank these games out at a regular clip; they had a mega-hit with the first Final Fantasy (reportedly called "final" because the company thought it was going to go belly-up after that game's release, so it was supposed to be their swan song) and they wanted to capitalize on it. Thus, once Final Fantasy III came out and, once again, sold mega boodles (in Japan, off course), Square moved forward with plans for sequels. Yes, multiple sequels as, at the time, Square wanted to continue supporting the NES while the SNES got its feet under it.
This is an understandable position to take, when you think about it. Nintendo was video gaming worldwide. Hell, the Famicom was still being made as late as 2003 (even if it wrapped up its run in the U.S. in 1995) and there were a lot of units in gamers hands back in the day. Why switch to a new, relatively untested console when there's already an install-base ready for your next entry. So Final Fantasy III would lead to Final Fantasy IV on the NES, and then the SNES sequel that was being developed in parallel would become Final Fantasy V.
Well, that was the plan at least. As you can probably figure out, having likely never heard of this before, the NES edition of Final Fantasy IV never came out. It was in development for a while, and even had a single announcement in single Japanese publication, but then, eventually, Square elected to cancel production. Why? Well, again, finances, of course. The SNES, while facing serious competition in the West (from the likes of the Sega Genesis), was another solid hit in Japan. Square, at a certain point, had to look at how much they were investing in their games and redirect their resources.
That's not to say the product was lost, mind you. Reportedly the game was about 80% done when it was canceled, but the developers stated that much of what was created was transfered over to the SNES. Something to bear in mind was that the SNES and NES architecture were very similar. I'm not a hardware expert, so I can only go off what others have reported, but the SNES was just enough of an upgrade to be considered "next gen" while still keeping enough fidelity to what came before. This wasn't a bad thing at the time, mind you, as it allowed developers to easily transition from NES to SNES without a major learning curve (which is why a lot of early SNES games feel like NES games just with more colors), but it did also fuel the comparisons that Nintendo's machine was stodgy in comparison to the faster Genesis.
That said, not much is really known about the "lost" Final Fantasy IV. While a lot of the work supposedly was ported over, it's hard to know if that included story and scenarios. Considering how the Final Fantasy series evolved over those early years -- from the story-light first entry, to the story-based second game with an emphasis on customization, the "Job System"-fueled third game, and then the heavily story-based fourth entry that eventually came out -- it's possible the SNES game is the NES game with nicer graphics, or they just took the engine improvements for the NES entry and adapted them in while keeping the planned scenario ideas for the later true Final Fantasy V that came out later (only in Japan for a while there).
Of course, if two editions of Final Fantasy had come out in 1991 -- one on the NES and one on the SNES -- that does seem like it would have diluted the market. Whether intended or not, the two games would have been competing with each other. "Do I buy this game now or the 16-bit sequel?" Some hardcore fans would have wanted both because it would have been two new adventures, but I'm sure there would have been plenty of casual fans that would have skipped one or the other. That would have happened even if they were released a few months apart as plenty of fans likely would have just saved up and waited for the later game. From a business stand-point, only making one of these titles in a year was probably a smart move.
Also there's the fact that even if both games would have been released, we likely wouldn't have seen it in the U.S. The Math that said, "only release Final Fantasy IV here and call it Final Fantasy II would have still applied, and we'd just have three games we'd missed on the NES instead of two. And if it was ambitious the way FF3 was, well we might never have gotten a proper port of the the original game (having to wait years for a 3D remake like happened with the third game in the series).
In short I don't think we really missed much here. Yes, for a while there was another game in the series we never got to see, but, as we'll explore later on, there are plenty of side games in the series that have been abandoned over time. This was just the first, and least know, instance of it back from a time when these kinds of things weren't as widely reported. I'm sure there are fans out there furiously searching for a copy of this game, some kind of prototype they can release to the wild for everyone to examine. As of now, though, that hasn't happened and you have to imagine that if this fabled "Final Fantasy IV NES" prototype existed, we'd have already seen it.
If it does ever get discovered, though, I'll absolutely write about it. I kind of have to now.