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Final Fantasy's ATB battle system was originally inspired by race cars

Running laps around your enemies

Final Fantasy IV turns 30 today and to celebrate, Square Enix sat game designer Takashi Tokita down to talk about memories from development. It was the first Final Fantasy game he was involved with from the very beginning, he explains, so he's able to share some neat details on how the game's design evolved. He chats about character designs, romance plots, and the unlikely inspiration for the first ATB battle system that somehow came from watching F1 races.

Final Fantasy IV was the first of the series to use the Active Time Battle system, which adds a real-time element to Final Fantasy's turn-based battles. Instead of choosing actions by turn, each character has an ATB meter that fills up at its own rate, controlling when they're ready to attack.

"The initial run of it just had everyone act in turn based on who was fastest," Tokita explains. "You couldn’t tell at all what was going on, so there was no time to think about weaknesses or anything of the sort and you just ended up spamming buttons... [laughs] We came to the conclusion that would never work."

Tokita says that battle designer Hiroyuki Ito was a fan of watching F1 races, which is what spurred a different version of the system.

"Apparently he came up with the ATB system when looking at the cars behind on laps, realizing that if someone was fast they could attack twice in one turn, while slower characters would only attack one time per turn. I think the process for getting to where the ATB system worked was through rules thought up for each character, like Edge being able to attack twice in a turn but having low attack power."

An odd place to get inspiration for an RPG battle system, perhaps. It does remind me of the timeless advice in creative work to have interests outside your field. You just never know if race cars or knitting or gardening is going to spark some totally unrelated idea.

Tokita also talks about how game director Hironobu Sakaguch "wanted a plot that included [a romantic relationship] from the very beginning." As for favorite character sprites, Tokita is a Kain fan. "Being frank, Cecil’s dark knight battle scenes aren’t all that cool, but comparatively Kain the Dragoon is so cool, with his Jump ability and all."

As for those upcoming Pixel Remasters, Tokita explains that development on all of the remasters is happening simultaneously. He's in charge of FFIV's pixel remaster. "We’re mainly doing our best to stay faithful to the original pixel art, and beyond that it feels to me like the balance really comes down to finding that fine line of not-too-much detail we need to stay within," he says.

For some extra nostalgia and a lot more questions, you can catch the full interview.

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