A quick note: Since Final Fantasy II never received an official English localisation in its original form, I relied on Demiforce’s excellent fan-translation for the purposes of this write-up.
HIRONOBU Sakaguchi was in a pickle.
His Final Fantasy brainchild had exceeded all expectations, firmly establishing itself as a Dragon Quest-killer that rocketed Square’s ailing fortunes into the stratosphere of a gaming golden age. What had once seemed certain to be Sakaguchi’s swan song had somehow become his redemption, and calls for a sequel quickly swelled into a chorus. The problem was that Sakaguchi and his tiny 10-person team hadn’t exactly anticipated there ever being a sequel. Demand was growing. There was no plan. “Chikushō!” said Sakaguchi, as he paced the Square offices in downtown Tokyo, scrambling his brains and tearing out his hair for ideas; divine intervention – anything to get this damn ball rolling.
Enter Akitoshi Kawazu. One of the precious few remaining members of Square’s old guard in the Square-Enix era, Kawazu was a key designer on the original Final Fantasy and was instrumental in implementing Dungeons & Dragons precepts into the battle system, particularly its understanding of how monsters bore elemental weaknesses. Together with Hiroyuki Itou, he played a crucial part in moulding the bedrock of JRPG combat from 1987 to, quite probably, the end of time. Though he would go on to establish himself as an auteur in his own right with the SaGa series, Kawazu was at the heart of Final Fantasy from the very beginning. What better man than he to aid Sakaguchi – back in the director’s chair – in bringing Final Fantasy II to life? And what better man to whisper into Sakaguchi’s ear: “Change EVERYTHING.”
Gone are the Warriors of Light. Gone are the elemental crystals precariously upholding the world’s wobbly balance. Gone is the class system. The setting completely changes, and the narrative focus shifts from four nameless schmucks battling primordial forces of nature to four plucky youths battling the unstoppable rise of an oppressive, totalitarian imperial regime. But the most drastic change of all – one that remains unique throughout the series – is the total removal of the traditional experience point-based levelling system. Sakaguchi and his team had no plan for a sequel, so they opted to simply not make one, preserving only the basic aesthetics of the original. It bears the series’ name, but Final Fantasy II is a wholly different beast.
This was not entirely without precedent. Big-name sequels of this period had a peculiar habit of completely overhauling the mechanics, settings and play-styles of their predecessors. Look at the side-scrolling side-step of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link; or the cryptic RPG stylings of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest; or whatever the fuck the Western Super Mario Bros. 2 ended up being. But Sakaguchi and Kawazu’s approach was different: In the process of their alterations, they broadened the game’s scope far beyond the original’s, both narratively and mechanically.
What’s most striking about Final Fantasy II is just how ambitious it actually is. Rather than throwing the player at the world map and saying, “Look around I guess,” the game forces them into battle against a foe they cannot possibly overcome. This unwinnable fight establishes the stakes before they’re confirmed in dialogue by Princess Hilda and her coterie of hysterical, useless lollygaggers: The Paramekian Empire is unassailable and, right now, things are fucked beyond belief. Your party feels like a ragtag group of desperate freedom fighters before you have a chance to draw breath.
It’s the first glimpse of the sharpened emphasis on narrative which, in the original game, was disposable window dressing to garnish the combat. The story is stated to have been the primary focus of the game by both Sakaguchi and Kazawu and it shows. NPCs in disparate locations react differently depending on where you are in the plot. The tone throughout is incredibly grim for a Famicom/NES game, with death, desperation and shattered communities scattered throughout. Places like the peaceful seaside town of Poft and Altea itself, the rebel homebase, are wiped off the map in imperial attacks. The Emperor (named Mateus in subsequent re-releases) is such an evil prick that he goes to Hell, fights Satan for control of Pandemonium, wins, then brings Hell to earth to murder everything.
Elsewhere, characters grow and develop as the game winds on, like the initially pathetic Gordon who slowly learns to accept his responsibility as ruler. The main party, Frioniel, Maria, Guy and Leon, though nameable by the player, all have clearly defined if limited personalities, a far cry from the interchangeable quartet of the Light Warriors. It’s not much these days, and the increasing prevalence of mundane fetch quests to gain Item A to defeat the Empire in Dungeon B quickly becomes a chore, but the plot’s surprising depth is leagues ahead of its contemporaries.
The nuances elevate this relatively simple material beyond the hardware and writing limitations, and the overwhelming sense of foreboding is enhanced by Nobuo Uematsu’s score. The “Main Theme” that plays on the World Map throughout is a sombre, melancholic piece that, despite its chiptune instrumentation, resonates with longing and uncertainty, perfectly encapsulating the Wild Rose’s struggles against the Paramekian Empire. Uematsu’s work is great throughout, as ever, but the 8-bit bloops wouldn’t reach their full potential until the Playstation Origins re-release and Tsuyoshi Sekito’s gorgeous re-arrangements.
Also returning is Yoshitaka Amano, whose beautiful concept art and monster design found its way into the game via pixel artist Kazuko Shibuya. Her interpretations of Amano’s artwork went a long way to establishing the aesthetic of the pre-3D entries in the series. As with the original, the game was programmed by ubermensch Nasir Gebelli, an Iranian-American expat whose legendary prowess influenced the likes of John Romero. The facts that the Square offices had no translator and Nasir spoke no Japanese makes his interpretation of Sakaguchi and Kawazu’s ideas even more impressive.
This is part of why the Sakaguchi/Kawazu partnership is so fascinating. Sakaguchi has always been about eliminating the convoluted, intimidating depth of table-top RPGs and making his games more accessible and enjoyable to a mass market. Kawazu’s ethos, meanwhile, is to push the boundaries of conventional mechanics and design. He’s a tinkerer; he wants to crack open the carapace of “the videogame” – in this case, the “Japanese role-playing game” – and fiddle around with its moving parts until it only vaguely resembles the original form.
It’s a testament to his willingness to experiment and innovate that he was already pulling apart Final Fantasy’s winning formula barely a year after its release, seeking to redefine the JRPG before it had even gestated into the genre we recognise today.
The results here are… decidedly mixed. Final Fantasy II is notorious for scrapping the traditional experience system of its predecessor for a stat-based, activity progression gimmick. The idea is sound: The only way to “level up” and get better stats in the game is to perform the action that corresponds to that specific stat. For example: the more damage you inflict in battle, the higher your Attack will become. The more magic you cast, the higher your Intelligence/Soul will become, etc. This extends to weapons and spells; the former is divided into subclasses, e.g. Spears and Swords, that all level up with continued use to a maximum of 16, and the latter is much the same for each individual spell, e.g. Fire 2 will eventually become Fire 16. Put simply, the more you do something, the better you get at it.
What does this mean in practice?
A trainwreck. Beyond the esoteric nature of this system, there’s also an element of randomisation involved. Sometimes your stats will be raised, sometimes they won’t. The signifiers are arbitrary, dishing out stat increases on a whim, and sometimes even decreasing stats depending how you fight. (Using Magic too much can decrease Attack and vice versa. It makes sense and isn’t a huge pain, but still.) This results in a lot of hapless battles where the player is trying to decipher the intricacies of the system, stumbling into stat increases by luck for the most part.
The idea was to allow the player total customisation that exceeded that first game’s class system, and that’s entirely possible here. Should you want to turn Maria into a dual-axe wielding murder machine, you’re free to do so. Fancy turning Frioniel into a walking nuke with black magic? Go wild, especially with the implementation of traditional MP over spell charges. This is brilliant in theory and makes perfect sense.
The problem is grinding. To get Cure 1 up to Cure 2, for instance, you have to cast Cure between 50-100 times. This applies to every spell in the game, including ones you get toward the end, like Flare and Ultima (which is bugged up the arse regardless), meaning your Bolt 10 is more powerful than the most destructive magic in the game-world. Infamously, the most effective method of quickly raising HP – which you need to do if you want to survive the harder fights – is to have your party target themselves while the enemy looks on, dumbfounded, as Guy pummels himself in the face with his spear.
In the Famicom version, there’s a way around this. Thanks to another bug, confirming a spell or a physical attack against a target actually registers as a successful action. All you have to do from there is press B and repeat ad nauseum to level up your spells, increase your attack, whatever you want. This means you’re mindlessly performing the same rote process, to the point of crushing tedium, just to stand a chance against the stronger enemies later in the game. If you do this early on – like I did – you become a steamroller for the first two thirds of the thing. To top it all off, there’s still no bloody auto-targeting!
While the combat overall may be the most drastic change, it isn’t the only difference between the FFI and FFII. The second game introduces a unique Keyword system in dialogue that can be used to elicit specific responses from specific NPCs at specific times. Functionally, it doesn’t really differ from talking to NPCs like you normally would, but it does at least encourage active exploration and conversation between characters, even if it’s to re-iterate information you already know.
There’s also a revolving door of guest party members. Since Leon is out of commission until the last act of the game, the fourth slot is regularly filled with a selection of incrementally useful characters. The first, Minh, is a consummate White Mage with a stacked grimoire and a mean staff. Then you get Josef, a moustachioed tank with raging fists who can hold his own in a straight-up fight. Then you get Gordon. Gordon is so useless he can’t even hit himself. So it goes for pirate Layla and Dragoon Ricard. The idea is, again, innovative, and would later bear real fruit in Final Fantasy IV, but the increasing uselessness of these party members and their transitory nature hardly makes them worth utilising effectively in battle.
Another annoying change relates to item management. Final Fantasy’s inventory was laughably inadequate, but items like Potions et al were at least stackable up to 99. In FFII, the number of item slots is increased to a total of 32, but here’s the kicker – Potions et all no longer stack. There is also no longer a Key Item tab, which means that story items like Mithril and the Canoe and the baby dragon you pick up later take up the same amount of space as Eye Drops. There is no way to store Key Items beyond your inventory. This is unfathomably stupid for a number of reasons, but the primary one is the fact that a third of your inventory space is taken up by useless shit that you literally cannot get rid of. I’m sure Kawazu was laughing his head off as he tortures players by making them juggle items from floor to floor.
None of these dungeons are designed particularly well. They are gruelling slogs due to the high encounter rate and, most infuriatingly of all, have doors that lead to nowhere. Some doors lead to the next floor of the dungeon; others lead to invaluable treasure; the rest – that being 90% of them – lead to Death Boxes. All doors look the same. Have fun guessing!
On a lighter note, Chocobos are introduced to the series, and they allow you to scour the entire world map (one giant, Pangean landmass) without any random encounters. Great! Here’s the problem: The Chocobo Forest exists on a single tile on the world map. It looks like any other random square of forest, and exactly one NPC casually mentions it exists. But hey look Cid shows up! A series mainstay with over a dozen incarnations; Cid’s a cool dude who doesn’t give a solitary damn and lets you use his Airship as a taxi. This trait pretty much defines the Cid template for the rest of the franchise. Several enemy types like the Bomb, Flan, Malboro and Behemoth make their debut. They look exactly the same in 1988 as they do in 2017. Ultima and other staple spells also appear.
That’s the most interesting thing about FFII from a modern perspective. By incorporating a real plot and an air of grim, oppressive ‘realism’, as well as the recurrence of those aforementioned elements, the sequel bears more resemblance to its 3D descendants than its 8-bit contemporaries. It strove to deviate from the obvious and struck out on its own, throwing so much at the wall that a lot of it was bound to fail. It’s wildly over-ambitious but it’s also prescient and ahead of its time, blazing the trail that JRPGs would follow a good decade before they set foot on it.
Despite all that, Kawazu’s baby was roundly panned for its rampant experimentation, remains the lowest-selling Final Fantasy game to this day and is characterised by many fans as the series’ lowest point. Kawazu would never again hold such influence over a Final Fantasy, until he was inexplicably brought in to steady the sinking ship that XII had become. That’s another story.
For my money, I’d take FFII over the first in a heartbeat. It’s bigger, it actually has a plot, the battle system is far more fun to break in two and it would prove to be the most influential game in the series with the sheer number of concepts it introduced. It’s flawed up the wazoo, certainly, but I had a lot more fun with it for its open-ended design, familiar elements and the ability to freely explore the mechanics and bend them to your will. And Guy can talk to beavers. What’s not to like?
That said, like with the first game, I recommend the Dawn of Souls or Origins re-releases. The music especially benefits from the upgrade and the package comes with both games, boosting the chances of at least one of them being to your liking.
In any case, it’s two down, 16 to go. Join me next time as Sakaguchi goes back to basics in the only (non-MMO) mainline title I’ve never played, in any capacity. New territory. Scary stuff. Next up: Final Fantasy III.