Original Release Date: 1988

System: Nintendo Famicom

Final Fantasy II is a game that is that feels both very different from its predecessor and very similar to its sequels. It is perhaps the strangest and most frustrating installment, but at the same time laid the foundation for many of the themes and plot elements that would become series standards.

First of all, this is a difficult game. Its learning curve is a bit steeper than the first game, and it doesn’t wait around for you to get warmed up. After the brief introductory text screen, the player is brought straight into… COMBAT! What’s more, this is a battle that your four starting characters have no hope of winning. You are completely outclassed, and MIGHT have the chance to attack once. You won’t do any damage. Rather than getting a game over screen, the characters wake up to find that they have been rescued, for the moment. Unfortunately, it’s just the three of them. One of them wasn’t found.

This missing crewman is a nice touch because it works for both the story and the gameplay, the holy duology of game writing. Leon’s disappearance personalizes and escalates the tension of the war. Having only three permanent characters leaves a slot open for new characters to join or leave the party as the game progresses, adding variety. This is a narrative trick that is commonplace later in the series, sticking characters together both for dramatic effect and to allow the player to experience multiple play styles.

While finding your missing companion is somewhat a goal of the game, the characters quickly become swept up in a rebellion against the evil empire attempting to wipe them all out. Rather than commanding a host of military units, your three characters go on supply runs, rescue missions, and commando raids to help turn the tide. This mission structure allowed FF2 to tell a much deeper story than FF1, with standout moments of betrayal, sacrifice, and triumph. The more rounded characters and personal story elevate the plot of Final Fantasy II above the comparatively retrieval quest of the first game. The thematic elements of a small band struggling against a powerful, omnipresent imperial force became a series staple.

Gameplay was also refined in the second game. Final Fantasy II completely ditched the experience points found in other games in favor of a more organic system of advancement. Instead of gaining levels by obtaining experience points, your characters’ actions determined their progress. You increased your strength by attacking, your magic by casting, and your hit points and defense by getting attacked. Weapon skills and magic worked the same way. This meant that your three characters were extremely customizable. It also meant that in order to keep gaining in power, you had to fight enemies that were more powerful than you, unless you cheated. There was a bug in the original versions of the game that allowed you to gain hit points and strength more quickly by attacking yourself. This led to some pretty unique leveling up. However, it does contribute to the game’s thematic elements. Rather than simply ticking off rungs on a latter, if feels like your characters really are developing organically.

Another unique feature to FF2 was the password system. During certain dialogues with NPC characters, the player had the chance to choose a phrase that the character had memorized, much like the dialogue trees in later Bioware RPGs. These choices usually just provided clues to the player about where they had to go next, or brought up some humorous bit of extra text. The player wasn’t able to significantly change the story by using them. It was a very basic system, but an interesting development for the time.

Despite the game’s many positive points, there are quite a few problems. The most glaring issue is the advancement system. As I stated above, the game doesn’t tell you when you gain experience, so it is VERY difficult to tell if you are making real progress. Also, because the magic system works the same way as all of the other advancement systems, your spells start out very weak. This is even true for the powerful magic you obtain late in the game. This pads out the game into a bit of a grind as the player has to fight enough random monsters so that the ultimate magic actually does a fair amount of damage.

The other major problem the game his is the hardware limitations of the 8-bit Nintendo Famicom (NES) system. FF2 has a lot of standout story moments, but many of the key plot points happen while the player is far away, searching for some macguffin in the depths of a cave on the other side of the map. Coming back to find the whole town died in the Empire’s latest attack gets old after the first couple times. Unfortunately, the 8-bit cartridge just didn’t have the power to tell the kind of story later games in the series could.

Final Fantasy II was never officially released internationally until 2003, so there is a bit less nostalgia for the game than others in the series. The game introduced some of the most enduring themes and story elements of the series, but in many ways it remains the black sheep of the Final Fantasy family.

Next up: Final Fantasy III, the point where the series began cultivating class.

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