The Sins & Triumphs of Final Fantasy II

In a franchise nearly thirty years old, there are bound to be some black sheep. Every series established in the 8-bit days has made some missteps along the way, and Final Fantasy is no exception. There are certain entries in the main series that earn eye rolls or dismissive waves whenever they’re mentioned, but do these games really deserve the harsh treatment they now receive? Are they really such poorly designed blemishes upon the critical reputation of our beloved series? Or are their flaws being exaggerated, a better handle with which to drag less successful games through the mud?

I am of the opinion that none of the main series games – the core, numbered, offline ones – are bad games in any measure. Some get a bad rap for a few small reasons, like gameplay decisions or environmental/industrial factors. In this new column, I’ll examine these “black sheep” of the franchise to isolate the reasons these games are scorned (let’s call these “Sins”), and point out their “Triumphs” or redeeming factors.

Here’s A Quick Overview

Game: Final Fantasy II
Release: December 17, 1988
Director: Hironobu Sakaguchi
Original Sales: 0.76 million

Square and Sakaguchi did not rest on their laurels after development of the original Final Fantasy. They immediately got to work on its sequel, which hit the market exactly one year later. However it wasn’t until 2003 that audiences outside Japan had a chance to experience it, and it has been widely panned by industry and community alike. What led the sequel to a groundbreaking RPG to such a quiet, undistinguished legacy? After all, it wasn’t such a disaster that it killed any hopes of a sequel.

Sin #1: Overambitious Battle System

Final Fantasy I had a relatively simple system of character development based on traditional table top roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons – beat monsters for XP to gain levels, increasing your stats and unlocking new abilities at higher levels (although the only new abilities gained were new levels of magic). Final Fantasy II chose to do away with this system, opting instead to increase stats as each character used them. In this way, each party member had the potential to be great with physical attacks and magic alike, provided the player took the time to develop them as such. Character potential was not dictated by a class but by the player’s whim or style. Want Firion to be a sword fighter? Give him swords and make him beat all your foes into the ground. Prefer him to be a mage? Teach him some spells and minimize how much he attacks physically.

Though great in theory, in retrospect it was an idea too advanced for its time. Grinding in this manner was tedious on the Famicom/NES (and even in later remakes) but later experiments in this area have been successful, such as Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid. This development system, if you think about it, isn’t all that different from those used in The Elder Scrolls, debatably the biggest western RPG franchise today. Characters in both games increase ability proficiency as the player uses them – Firion gets better with ranged weapons if he uses bows, just as the Dragonborn’s Archery skill improves if he relies on his Norn Bow. Yet The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold millions upon millions of units and remained relevant to the gaming industry for five years running while Final Fantasy II has faded into obscurity even amongst fans of its series – dwarfed also by Morrowind and Oblivion, Skyrim’s big brothers. The biggest lesson The Elder Scrolls can teach Final Fantasy here (beyond the vast benefits of modern technology) is that Final Fantasy II should have been more generous with its hit points.

The biggest drag of Final Fantasy II is grinding to improve HP. It’s perhaps the most important stat a character can have and it’s the riskiest to train. You have to let a character take a beating, or beat them yourself, to have a chance at improving it. This leads to increased potential for devastating Game Overs and wasted time – unless you waste as much time relying on the tedious saving method (on Famicom at least). All these aspects equate to slowing down the entire experience. (Even Hajime Tabata, director of Final Fantasy XV, has recently claimed Final Fantasy II “started feeling like a chore” thanks to the self-targeting strategy.)

By comparison, Skyrim makes it simpler to increase HP by retaining an experience-based leveling system. Each time the Dragonborn levels up the player can increase one of three core stats, including the one which dictates health. Accessories and other boons can be obtained to further increase hit points. All the other stats beyond the core three are increased by performing the associated actions. Health is too important a stat to be determined by necessity, as the earliest versions of Final Fantasy II do. Some method of guaranteed HP gain, whether by gaining levels or passing certain checkpoints in the story, would greatly increase playability (as later versions have attempted).

The new system was made with the best of intentions, an effort to shake up RPG conventions and emphasize PCs as actual characters instead of blank “Light Warrior” templates. The Famicom was simply not meant to bear the weight of the ambitious system, when combined with several minor flaws left over from the original game’s engine such as slow menu operation and a lack of auto-targeting. The result was a grind-heavy game that went out of its way to make grinding tedious.

Sin #2: Rushed Development

Final Fantasy II was released 364 days after the original, meaning its development time was about twelve-thirteen months. This isn’t unheard of in today’s gaming industry, as it’s all too easy to slap together a new Call of Duty or sports game and make huge sales every November. That Sakaguchi’s team of sixteen finished the game in such a time-frame with a grand new story, a brand new soundtrack, and many new graphical assets was a tremendous accomplishment in itself for game developers in the late eighties.

More development time might have been very beneficial for Final Fantasy II, however. Those nagging bugs from the original might have been addressed, as they were later in Final Fantasy III. A more elegant way of implementing the new growth system could have been found; I can’t imagine that play-testing was done extensively or that any negative feedback was heeded, given how sluggish the core experience could become. In response to Tabata’s comments on the game, Sakaguchi pinned the blame on Akitoshi Kawazu, credited for Game Design and Scenario Writer for Final Fantasy II; it’s possible that the “father of Final Fantasy” knew back in 1988 that the game was flawed but let it go to market anyway.

It’s no secret that expectations for the original were high for Sakaguchi and Square alike, and had they not seized the moment and quickly made a follow-up the series might have been stunted at a game or two. However the product they shipped was arguably not ready and could have benefited from a couple months of extra tweaking.

Sin #3: Skipping Non-Japanese Audiences

An official English release of Final Fantasy II did not see the light of day until the 2003 compilation Final Fantasy Origins on PlayStation, a full fourteen years after its publication. Since then it’s been trotted out repeatedly on a plethora of platforms, but it’s proved a little too late.

The original trilogy of games has not aged as well as others in its series or on its platform, neither staying as eternally enjoyable as Super Mario Bros nor as constantly relevant as Final Fantasy VII. Translations to other platforms have smoothed but not cast off the slow, grindy aspects in their NES/Famicom roots. Slight improvements have helped but at this point Final Fantasy II remains appealing to few more than the most dedicated fans.

The decision to pass on English audiences was not an easy one, and ultimately a detriment to the game and series, but I think it’s turned out for the best. Let’s take a look at the context for its intended English release.

Final Fantasy came out in North America in 1990, three months after Final Fantasy III in Japan. The Super Famicom and Final Fantasy IV followed in 1991. An English version was nearly completed, but by the time it could have been released the Super Nintendo would have been available as well. Square opted to avoid releasing a three-year-old game in lieu of pushing out the much more marketable Final Fantasy IV on Nintendo’s brand spankin’ new platform.

In retrospect this was the right call. Marketing materials for the English versions of the NES and Game Boy games preceding Final Fantasy IV touted them as the most challenging RPG experiences around. Trying to sell such a game on NES when the SNES promised such bright, fanciful games as Super Mario World would have been an uphill battle with no great assurance of returns. Instead a simplified version of Final Fantasy IV was released.

Here is where I think Square misstepped: creating the Great Naming Schism (as I like to call it, for it makes the OCD part of my brain cringe). As Final Fantasy IV was the second Final Fantasy sold in North America, it was renamed Final Fantasy II to avoid confusing poor, simple-minded English gamers. Among all the reasons this was a poor decision, it’s helped keep the true Final Fantasy II in the shadows. Imagine buying Dawn of Souls expecting the tale of Cecil, and finding Firion’s story instead.

Triumph #1: Emphasis on Story

Sakaguchi and his team decided early on that they would build the game from the story down, designing the game to suit the narrative they wrote. This decision necessitated the shift from Final Fantasy I’s Job-based system, setting the player characters as defined individuals instead of blank state Light Warriors. Players step into the shoes of Firion and his adopted siblings as they are caught up in a rebellion against an insidious empire; as such your regular party members are true beginners, honing their skills as they battle ever stronger nemeses. They must prove themselves to the Rebellion’s leaders, and commanding their growth is even more rewarding than hoarding experience points on empty shells, even if the gameplay can be grueling.

It’s fitting that Final Fantasy II’s western release was usurped by Final Fantasy IV, for the latter is heavily influenced by the former. Aside from obvious similarities between characters (Ricard and Kain) and locations (Mysidia), both games are heavy and tragic. Party members give their lives for the cause, villains commit heinous crimes, and every win for the heroes leads to a devastating counter-move by the forces of evil. As bleak as Final Fantasy IV can be, Final Fantasy II is every bit as harsh with more limits upon its storytelling means.

Exposition took a great stride forward as well, as Square found new ways to stage scenes. The game begins in medias res with the four protagonists attacked by black knights while fleeing their village, an impossible battle that humbles the player at square one. A giant boulder chases the player out of a dungeon, only to be stopped by the brave sacrifice of a guest character. Duelling airships pass by overhead at one point. After Final Fantasy I’s “go here, talk to this person, go here” method of storytelling (itself limited to one text box per conversation), Final Fantasy II seems much more lifelike, even cinematic, than its forefather and other NES games period.

Triumph #2: An Exemplary Sequel

Compare screenshots and the connection between Final Fantasy II and its forefather are clear – Firion resembles the Warrior most first-time players chose, menus are structured familiarly, and you’ll recognize the usual geographical features like mountains and streams. There’s just as much original content however, from a whole slew of new, deadly foes to a set of wholly original sprites for each playable character. A couple musical themes recur but otherwise we have a feast of new Uematsu magic to savour (like one of my series favourites, the “Rebel Army Theme”). Foremost is the brand new story, a far cry from the shallow, fable-like tale that came before.

Final Fantasy II builds on the foundation of Final Fantasy, drawing enough from its roots while growing grand and strong on its own merits. It’s everything a sequel should be – not too derivative but not too different, trying to expand upon the original’s ideas while forging its own path. The gameplay system wasn’t perfect but it boldly attempted to break new ground.

Triumph #3: Setting the Stage

The choice to move on to an entirely new setting with a drastically different development system had a profound impact on the series. It set the tone for the entire series that followed by choosing to link installments in less direct ways, through themes of story and music and similar gameplay instead of shoehorning new stories onto old skeletons. As a result we now have a broad franchise driven by change, where each game puts aside most of the influence of its predecessor and forges its own path. Each game reinvents itself (even direct sequels) because of the mould set by Final Fantasy II.

Imagine if the entire series had been set in the world of the first game. There are some interesting narrative possibilities, but ultimately I think the series would have fizzled out under the limitations or been forced into drastic change later on. The choice to start Final Fantasy II’s setting from scratch was the best, and we owe the series’ diversity to it.

The Wild Rose Lives On

Final Fantasy II’s shortcomings can essentially be boiled down to overambition and poor timing – a rush to capitalize on the first’s success and a delayed English release, with a slightly-flawed title. In reality, western fans never saw the game in its proper context. While its story holds up and it had a tremendous impact on the series overall, only a fraction of the fan base got to experience it in the right light.

Context can be very important for a franchise, as we learn from Final Fantasy II. As a kid I didn’t see the sluggish menus of the original game as anything more than an inconvenience, but when revisiting it after Final Fantasy VII I found it a chore. But of course older games will feel inferior when we’ve played those that come after, with faster engines and more intuitive character growth. That’s why the earlier games have never been incredibly successful in European regions, where their original versions were never released.

By today’s standards, it’s possible to consider Final Fantasy II a bad, or at least inferior, game – but it’s not so irredeemable that fans of the series should never play it. It won’t usurp the likes of VI or VII as your favorite, but it was a powerful experience for its time despite its imperfections and it serves as a valuable history lesson for any devoted Final Fantasy fan.

Recommended Version: Should you be willing to give poor FINAL FANTASY II another shot, I recommend Final Fantasy: Dawn of Souls. The graphics are a big step up from the Famicom (but aren’t stretched as in remakes that followed), bugs have been fixed, tweaks have been made to improve the experience, and there’s a bonus “epilogue” scenario. To boot, this awesome package also includes a similar remake of the original game. Alternately, the Final Fantasy Origins PlayStation version retains an easily exploitable bug for character development.

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