In real life, people age. It’s a basic and inevitable part of life, whether we like it or not. Why, then, do videogame characters not experience this same phenomenon? If the sequel to a game takes place years in the future, why does its main character look the same, unaffected by a virtual Father Time?
Admittedly, videogames are an extremely new medium when compared to things like film or even television. Maybe in ten years we will all be controlling an arthritic Mario as he attempts to jump his way through a retirement home on the outskirts of the Mushroom Kingdom. True, it might be a tad depressing, but wouldn’t the experiment be, at the very least, interesting?
I have already focused on another amazing moment from Final Fantasy IV on the second Memory Card ever written (I miss you already, Palom and Porom). This just goes to show you that the game is full of many stunning sequences that I will remember for the rest of my life. Since it was already covered, you can read about the game’s full back story there. For this entry, I am just going to focus on the specific events leading up to the game’s next classic moment.
Take a deep breath. This one is pretty involved.
In Final Fantasy IV, you play as main character Cecil, captain of the Red Wings, a ruthless air force unit formed by the corrupt king of Baron to steal the elemental crystals from different kingdoms around the world.
At the very beginning of the game, Cecil is stripped of his rank after questioning the Red Wings’ motives and, with ally Kain, is tasked with delivering a mysterious package to the small village of Mist.
On the way to this village, the two companions are forced to fight an otherwise gentle Mist Dragon, sent by a summoner to protect the helpless village of Mist from intruders. Although Cecil does not want to destroy it, self defense takes over and the powerful dragon is sadly slain.
When Cecil and Kain finally reach the village, the package they are carrying bursts open, releasing a horde of fire demons that were hiding inside. The demons immediately burn the village to the ground, leaving no building standing.
As the carnage subsides, Cecil and Kain notice a young girl standing over the body of a fallen woman. They soon come to learn that the little girl is named Rydia and the deceased woman is her mother, the summoner that sent the Mist Dragon to fight Cecil and Kain. Rydia’s mother and the dragon possessed a special connection, resulting in her death the minute the dragon was killed.
After lashing out at the unintentional murders (and causing an earthquake in the process), Rydia eventually learns to trust Cecil and joins his party after he protects her from being killed by soldiers from Baron.
Eventually Cecil and Rydia (sans Kain) gather more people in their party, including the bard Edward and karate master Yang. The newly formed group decides that the only way they can confront the Red Wings is with an airship. To retrieve this flying vessel, the party charters a ship to take them across the vast sea.
Along the way, the ship is attacked by Leviathan, a massive sea creature. With no chance of fighting back, the ship is capsized, throwing everyone overboard. Sadly, Rydia is tossed in the water close to the giant beast and is immediately swallowed by the aquatic dragon.
Before even having time to react to the unfortunate event, Cecil passes out as the screen goes black.
After an undisclosed amount of time, Cecil wakes up all alone on a strange beach, fearing that all his friends have been killed. Confused and beaten up by the attack, Cecil continues on his adventure to try to salvage some kind of hope amongst the mounds of tragedy.
Cecil is eventually reunited with several members of his party, except for Rydia, who was last seen being devoured by Leviathan.
At this point in the game, Cecil and friends discover a man named Golbez is behind all the death and destruction in the world. Golbez has just recently obtained all of the world’s elemental crystals, but still needs to retrieve four secret “dark crystals” that exist in the Underworld in order to take over the world.
Cecil and party immediately travel to the Underworld in order to stop Golbez from completing his task.
In the first dark crystal room -- located at the back of a dwarf castle -- Golbez himself confronts Cecil and his allies. It is during this epic battle when the next Memory Card moment occurs: the return of Rydia.
Golbez is a towering enemy with unmatched power and ability. Unfortunately, Cecil and his friends are not even close to being powerful enough to defeat him.
Immediately, Golbez calls forth a Shadow Dragon that paralyzes the entire group. Then, using a strange form of dark magic, the dragon begins killing the party one by one, as if with no effort at all.
When Cecil is, literally, the last man standing, all hope seems lost. Just before Golbez and his beast deliver the final blow, a Mist Dragon appears out of nowhere, killing the Shadow Dragon.
Suddenly a light surrounds Cecil, curing his paralysis, accompanied by a mysterious voice that says “Don’t worry, you can move now.”
As Cecil slowly starts to recognize the origin of the strange voice, Rydia jumps into battle. The same Rydia that was swallowed by the Leviathan! She immediately uses her summoning powers to call forth a myriad of magnificent beasts to help Cecil defeat Golbez.
After Golbez falls, Cecil notices that Rydia has aged many years, although she has only been missing for a handful of days. Rydia tells Cecil that Leviathan did not kill her. Instead, the creature took Rydia to the Land of the Summoned Beasts, a place where time flows differently. It was here where Rydia aged into a grown woman and gained immense black magic and summoning powers.
Sadly, as the happy reunion comes to a close, Golbez rises from assumed death, steals the first dark crystal, and disappears into thin air.
The frustration of losing the dark crystal immediately subsides, however, with the happy news that Rydia is still alive. Knowing her newly learned powers will help immensely, Rydia joins Cecil and friends as they continue on their epic adventure.
You can watch Rydia’s glorious return here:
Final Fantasy IV was the first videogame I remember playing that portrayed not one, but several main characters “dying.” At the time, this was all pretty shocking, to say the least. And I put “dying” in quotations as (spoiler alert!) all of the characters eventually come back from the dead to reunite at the end of the game.
But Rydia felt a little different as you played the game. When other characters “died,” they would come back to the party (or make another appearance) fairly soon after they left in the first place. Rydia, on the other hand, left the game for a significant amount of time. Some pretty major events happen in the time between Rydia being swallowed by the Leviathan and rejoining the group during the battle with Golbez.
Having Rydia return during such an unexpected sequence is shocking unto itself, but there are other reasons the moment is so memorable.
First off, as mentioned in this post’s introduction, Rydia ages many years during the time she is gone. At the time, this had never really happened to any other videogame character. Not only does she age, but her entire appearance changes.
While an older Rydia could have easily been portrayed with a slightly different colored sprite or, heck, with all text and no visual change at all, the older Rydia looks entirely different.
Take a look. Here is Rydia as a child, when you first meet her, and as an adult when she returns to the party:
The fact that all of this was accomplished on a 16-bit console almost twenty years ago is ridiculously impressive. Who knows? Maybe the surge of recent aging characters (Snake in the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 4 comes to mind) was inspired by Rydia’s retro transformation.
One of the other things that makes Rydia’s return so memorable (and touching!) is the appearance -- or I guess I should say reappearance -- of her mother’s Mist Dragon.
The Mist Dragon is a very distinct sprite that the player remembers. On top of that, the dragon plays a significant role early in the game. While the designers could have selected any random summoned monster to do battle with Golbez, the Mist Dragon is perfect for representing Rydia as a character.
In addition, the designers could have easily just thrust Rydia into the battle first, revealing the twist with no introduction or finesse. Instead, the Mist Dragon appears out of seemingly nowhere, a creature the player has come to associate with Rydia, her mother, and summoners in general. This gives the player a few seconds to figure out what is going on and recognize what is about to happen, just like main character Cecil does in the game.
Small design choices like this sometimes go unnoticed, but can really elevate a videogame moment from merely exciting to completely unforgettable.
The return of Rydia is one of the best surprises in Final Fantasy IV and easily one of my favorite videogame moments of all time.
The Memory Card Save Files
.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21: Crono's final act (Chrono Trigger)
.22: Ganon's tower (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
.23: It was all a dream? (Super Mario Bros. 2)
.24: The assimilation of Kerrigan (StarCraft)
.25: A McCloud family reunion (Star Fox 64)
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