As Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team at Squaresoft developed Final Fantasy, the management decided to have 400,000 cartridges manufactured in order to make a sequel possible. To their amazement, the game was a success and they ended up selling all of the copies along with an additional 200,000. In doing so, the fledging Squaresoft created the first JRPG capable of standing on an even playing field with the Dragon Quest series. Suddenly, the possibility of a sequel was not a pipe dream; it was an inevitability.
From the project’s inception, Mr. Sakaguchi and his team lacked any concrete ideas. As a result, they decided to go in a new direction, not including any characters or locations from the original game. Simply named Final Fantasy II, the game was released for the Famicom on December 17, 1988. According to Square’s publicity department, the game exceeded the domestic sales figures of its predecessor by moving nearly 800,000 units.
Two years later, Square took a chance with their newfound success by localizing the original Final Fantasy, bringing it to the Western world. In an unexpected turn of events, it sold even more copies overseas than it did in its native homeland. Naturally, Square wished to capitalize on this newfound market by localizing the sequel as well. An early prototype cartridge was eventually created, bearing the name Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadow over Palakia.
Unfortunately, although the game was advertised in various Squaresoft publications, it ultimately failed to cross the Pacific Ocean. There were many reasons for this from the game having been two years old by the time the original was localized to the development cycle dragging on for too long. Kaoru Moriyama, the employee assigned to this project, admitted that, despite the prototype’s existence, the translation was far from complete. Running into memory issues compounded with their boss having no understanding of the amount of work it takes to create an English translation sunk any chances of the game had of venturing outside of its homeland. A game named Final Fantasy II did surface on the SNES, but unbeknownst to Western gaming fans, Square had skipped over the remaining Famicom installments and localized their then-newest entry, Final Fantasy IV, under that name. It was far more sensible to localize a game for Nintendo’s newest console than to sink resources in bringing over an old one for an outdated system. How does the true Final Fantasy II fare by comparison?
Playing the Game
An era of peace has reached its end. Having made a pact with Satan, Emperor Mateus of Palamecia has summoned monsters from Hell in a campaign for world conquest. A rebel army formed in the kingdom of Fynn to stop the emperor, but they were swiftly defeated, and the survivors retreated to the distant town of Altair. Four youths, Firion, Maria, Guy, and Leon, are orphaned by the raid, and they flee from the imperial forces.
Unlike its predecessor, Final Fantasy II wastes no time throwing you into the action. As soon as you have assigned names for the protagonists, you’re taken to a battle screen. In 1988, gaming enthusiasts were used to games with a simple dichotomy. You play the game to achieve victory, and defeat results in a consequence whether it means losing a life or half of your money.
For the game’s first fight, the heroes face off against black knights representing the empire. Anyone who believes this to be an instance where four scrappy heroes miraculously triumph over the better equipped forces of the emperor is in for a rude awakening. You have absolutely no chance of winning this battle. It doesn’t matter which option you choose; all you can do is wait for it to end.
Thankfully all is not lost. The remnants of the rebel army led by Princess Hilda of Fynn rescue them, bringing them to their base in Altair. They cling to life just enough so that they can be revived. Firion awakens, calling out for his comrades.
He is quickly reunited with Maria and Guy, but Leon has gone missing. With nowhere left to go, Firion, Maria, and Guy ask to join the rebellion, but Hilda refuses, citing their youth and lack of experience. Believing Leon is being held captive in the now-occupied Fynn, they nonetheless set out on a perilous journey across a war-torn world to rescue him.
Final Fantasy II plays similarly to its predecessor. Outside of battle, you can explore towns to converse with NPCs. Through their dialogue, you gain an idea of where to go next or what your current goal is. Other times, it’s used to build a world or lend characterization. Owing to the emperor’s conquest, the NPCs in Final Fantasy II are decidedly more dynamic than in the original. In most JRPGs leading up to this one, every single one would dispense the same single line no matter how many times you talk with them. Here, they will frequently change to reflect the newest developments – even in areas you would otherwise have no reason to revisit.
Similarly, character interaction is a bit more complex. Occasionally when an important conversation is occurring, a highlighted term will appear. Once this happens, a window will pop up with three commands “Ask,” “Learn,” and “Items”. By selecting “Learn”, you can add the selected term to your glossary whereupon you can use the “Ask” command to gain further information about it. The “Items” command is a bit less straightforward. Throughout your journey, you will receive items that are integral to advancing the plot. Typically, they are not automatically used in the relevant situation; in a manner similar to adventure games, you must select the “Items” command and choose the one you need from your inventory screen. Sometimes, this prompt will appear whenever you examine certain items as well, so paying attention to the story is vital to succeed.
Each step in a hostile region has a chance of spawning a random encounter. When you find yourself in one, you will learn that combat is largely unchanged. It is turn-based and operates on a round-by-round basis. You can have up to four characters in your party at once. After inputting a command for every member, a round of combat is played out. When a single side of the conflict has left the field, the battle is concluded. A victory will reward the player with money and useful items depending on the vanquished monster and their drop rates if applicable.
You can no longer switch the positions of your characters. Instead, this game introduces the concept of rows. Party members in the front rows deal normal damage, but take the full brunt of the enemy’s assault. Meanwhile, characters in the back row cannot be targeted with anything other than long-range attacks unless everyone in the front has been rendered unconscious. In exchange, they can only launch long-range attacks themselves. The same holds true for the various monsters you may encounter. They can appear in up to four rows, and only those in the two nearest ones can be targeted with physical attacks.
The core gameplay may be familiar on a superficial level, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it has received a complete overhaul. Firion may share the fighter’s sprite from Final Fantasy, but in reality, there is no class system, and there’s nothing preventing him from learning magic. This extends to every other character as well; they start off with different stats, but you can have them specialize in anything you so choose. Game designer Akitoshi Kawazu said in an interview that there was a twofold reason behind this dramatic shift. The first concerned the nature of the game itself; Final Fantasy II is far more story-driven than its predecessor, thus they needed fixed characters to fulfill certain roles. The other factor concerned the design of the game itself; the team wanted a system that emphasized nurture over nature. The player doesn’t create the characters from the ground up, but they can assign their abilities in a process that runs throughout the game.
One of the most obvious changes is that there are no experience points to be gained by slaying monsters. By extension, there are no character levels. Instead, stats improve based on how battles pan out. Selecting the “attack” command in battle will improve that character’s strength while casting white or black magic enhances the “spirit” and “intelligence” stats respectively. Stats may improve based on the enemies’ actions as well. For example, receiving damage will allow a character’s maximum HP to increase while getting hit with magical attacks allows their magic defense stat to improve.
Skill proficiencies improve in a more straightforward fashion. There are six varieties of weapons in the game: knives, swords, axes, staves, spears, and bows. If you so choose, you can also have a character specialize in hand-to-hand combat. Though not a weapon, characters can improve their defensive capabilities with shields in a similar manner. Shields increase the character’s likelihood of avoiding an attack. Another possible option is the ability to wield a weapon with each hand. It trades the defensive value of evading the enemy’s onslaught in exchange for a predominantly offensive approach. When choosing weapons, it’s important to realize what each character’s dominant hand is. Though Firion, Maria, and Guy are all right-handed, more than a few of their allies are left-handed. Attacks conducted with the dominant hand have a higher chance of landing than ones attempted with the passive hand.
For Final Fantasy II, the magic system reminiscent of the classic tabletop RPG, Dungeon & Dragons, has been abandoned. In its stead is a more streamlined mana system. Every character has a certain number of MP (magic points). Spells are learned by purchasing or finding their respective tomes. You highlight the tome in the inventory screen, and from there, you can assign it to a character. Once they have learned a spell, it will appear in their magic list. There are two numbers next to a spell. The left one indicates the level of the spell, which is also its MP cost, while the right is the amount of experience that character has with it. These numbers are present next to weapon skills as well, and they function in the exact same way. Once the character meets or exceeds one-hundred experience with the weapon type or spell, a level is gained. With magic, a higher leveled spell costs more MP to use, but in exchange, the potency is increased. The most important thing is to commit each character to a certain purpose, for stats can atrophy. In general, heavy use of magic skills will make a character physically weaker, and the opposite holds true as well.
Considering how well received the original Final Fantasy was, I admire Square for revamping their battle system. When it came time for Chunsoft to create a sequel to Dragon Quest, they didn’t aim quite as high as Square did with Final Fantasy II. The biggest difference between Dragon Quest II and the original would be the inclusion of multiple party members and monsters, but the core gameplay remained exactly the same. All it takes is a few minutes of playing Final Fantasy II to realize that you’re in for a radically different experience. After playing the game for myself and seeing what it has to offer, I’ve come down to three conclusions. First, the creators had a level of ambition far greater than their peers. Second, they were willing to experiment in the face of their newfound fame. Lastly, barely any of their ideas worked in practice.
By far the biggest problem this game has is the stat leveling system. Again, to give credit where it’s due, I like that Mr. Sakaguchi and his team attempted something different. Unfortunately, the process of improving stats is far more grueling than level grinding ever was. Improving weapon proficiencies isn’t so bad because they improve rather organically, but leveling up spells will test the limits of even hardcore JRPG fans. You have to cast a single spell battle hundreds of times to achieve tangible results. You must then repeat this process every time you discover a new useful one. Building up power for every useful spell can easily necessitate selecting the “magic” command in battle several thousand times.
To make matters worse, HP tends to increase if you take damage in battle. If you fight several times without taking substantial damage, the values will likely remain unchanged, and you may find yourself ill-prepared for the upcoming boss battle. There is a way to reliably improve it, however. This game allows you to target your own party members for attacks. The idea behind this bizarre mechanic was to counteract the “sleep” status ailment, as characters with such an affliction can be woken up when struck with a physical attack. The development team didn’t anticipate that people would exploit this by sparing a single monster in combat and having their characters attack themselves. In doing so, their stats would improve far faster than fighting normally. If this sounds mind-numbingly tedious and unengaging, that’s because it is.
Another crippling flaw this game has lies in its level design. In fairness, it’s not as though they’re significantly worse than in contemporary JRPGs. Dungeons are simple mazes, but they’re usually not convoluted to the point where you would get lost in them for several hours. Instead, their biggest nuisance concerns the fact that many of them feature doors. This will doubtlessly sound like a pointless complaint without the proper context, but I assure you it’s one worth making. When entering one, you will be placed in the center of the room and have to take a few steps back to exit. The random encounter rate in these rooms is set to such a high level, you will get in a fight trying to escape. The only exception to this rule is when the area in question has no monsters crawling around at all. This would cause many people to question why one would bother entering these doors. Because roughly one in every four of these rooms house useful items, searching every set is encouraged by the designers. Some even have a staircase to the next floor, meaning they’re effectively impossible to avoid.
Astoundingly, the issues with this game even extend to the inventory. Because Final Fantasy II has a far more involved story than the original, you will pick up several key items throughout your journey. You have twenty-nine slots for your inventory. By the endgame, nearly half of this space will be filled with items used to advance the plot and serve no further purpose once the associated scenarios have been resolved. These spaces could have been used for potions, elixirs, or other curative items, but in the final dungeon, you will often end up having to spend an inordinate amount of time deciding which resource you can do without whenever you find a chest. In reality, spending any amount of time doing this is unreasonable.
Listing this game’s problems wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the overworld. Final Fantasy II could very well have the most ill-conceived world map of any game from its generation. Unlike Final Fantasy, or indeed, most JRPGs, Final Fantasy II does away with the idea of the metaphorical broken bridge. The game takes place on a giant supercontinent, and there are no physical barriers preventing you from wandering into the wrong area. You will know when you’ve entered the wrong area when you get in a random encounter only to get destroyed in one round by the monsters that inhabit the region. As frequently mocked as the broken bridge is as a device to get players to follow the plot, Final Fantasy II shows why it’s often a necessary annoyance. Coupled with the NPCs often failing to give you good directions, blind players will experience their progress being lost having neglected to save beforehand many times.
On that note, one last criticism I have for the game concerns its save function. In Final Fantasy II, you can only save on the overworld. Though it is nice that saving no longer costs money, having to clear the dungeon in a single, perfect run is a tall order. If you make it to the boss only to die because you couldn’t anticipate its tactics, it doesn’t matter; all of your progress is forfeit. It could be alleviated by clearing the dungeon up until the boss, escaping, and then saving. However, this doesn’t change that you have to go through it a second time, and in some specific cases, it’s not an option at all.
In summary, Final Fantasy II could be described as one large uphill battle against both the fictional monsters and the game mechanics. It does get easier once your characters achieve a certain level of power, but getting there is daunting to say the least.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers.
After describing all of the problems plaguing Final Fantasy II, one might be questioning why anyone would ever play it. If there’s any value in playing this game, it would be to see how the story develops. In a move considered uncharacteristic for its time, Mr. Sakaguchi and his team fully crafted the story first and then built the gameplay to accommodate it. Considering the time period in which this game saw its initial release, it would be easy to dismiss the story as a basic plot pitting the evil empire against a group of righteous rebels. This is true on a fundamental level, but I believe that there is a surprising amount of introspection to be found for such an early title.
The main reason I can say this is because in the grand scheme of things, keeping in mind all of the improvements the medium would undergo in regards to storytelling as well as the course the Final Fantasy series itself would take, this installment actually comes across as something of a gritty deconstruction of a typical JRPG plot. The main characters are not the chosen Warriors of Light; they’re depressed young adults who join the resistance mostly because they have nowhere else to go. They freely admit they have no idea what they’re doing, and other characters mock them for their efforts.
It isn’t until they infiltrate Fynn that anyone takes them seriously, and even then, their induction serves to underscore the rebels’ sheer desperation. Though they eventually come into their own by achieving a series of key victories, they ultimately can’t stop the emperor at every turn.
Many villains from this era were one-dimensional megalomaniacs, and while Mateus is no exception, this game takes that basic premise to a terrifying extreme. His only definable character trait is his insatiable desire to rule the world; he has no tragic backstory, nor are his motives remotely cast in a sympathetic light. Throughout the game, the heroes will periodically thwart his plans only for it to be revealed later that he had been working on securing a new advantage the entire time, using it before the heroes had a chance to stop him.
One of the plot points hinges on releasing an ancient magic spell known as Ultima. This isn’t a case where the tome’s creators designed an elaborate series of tests so that only the pure of heart may wield it. Instead, the mages sealed it away because it was designed to destroy Hell itself and therefore too powerful to be used safely. When the rebels decide to seek it out, it’s clearly because the war has reached a point where there are no longer any invalid options. With the way it’s discussed in the narrative, the Ultima tome could easily be interpreted as a fantastical nuclear weapon.
The downside to this metaphor is that the magic is fairly worthless, inflicting a measly 500 damage regardless of how much it has been leveled. The heroes had to go through several dungeons and vanquish many powerful demons to even gain the privilege of entering the tower where that housed the tome. This subplot lasts for quite some time and culminates in a major character sacrificing his life, and it was all for naught.
There is an interesting explanation for why the magic inflicts such negligible damage relative to when the heroes get ahold of it. It was due to a programming error. The team originally intended for Ultima to increase in potency relative to the power of the rest of spells in the character’s arsenal. During testing, Mr. Sakaguchi discovered the glitch, and asked for it to be fixed. The programmer responsible for this replied that ancient techniques would appear primitive to a modern standpoint, thus explaining why the spell is weaker than the ones currently in use. He argued that the struggle to find this power only for it to be useless mirrored several real-life endeavors, thus giving him justification for not fixing his error. Unsatisfied with this answer, Mr. Sakaguchi attempted to fix the bug himself, but the programmer had ciphered the source code, preventing any further alterations. Then again, considering the intended algorithm depended on powering other spells to their maximum potency, one has to wonder if it was for the best, as such a process would be highly impractical.
Perhaps the most notable aspect about the story lies in its final sequences. In an era when beating a game meant seeing heroes triumph over villains unscathed as per the skill of the player, the ending of Final Fantasy II is downright morose. In the last act, it’s revealed that Leon, who had spent a majority of the game missing in action, was really Mateus’s second-in-command, the Dark Knight, all along. An unexpected turn of events then causes Leon to switch sides, and though the four heroes succeed in vanquishing the emperor, the world has been severely ravaged with nearly half its population slaughtered. Maria is willing to forgive her brother for his transgressions, but Leon leaves them once all is said is done. Notably, Firion doesn’t try to stop him, knowing that the war has changed them all, and they can never go back to the way things were. Admittedly, the plot electing not to delve too deeply into Leon’s motivations for becoming the Dark Knight in the first place is problematic, but what makes the development tolerable is putting yourself in the correct frame of reference. Leon is someone whom you name along with the other three protagonists. Therefore, people in 1988 had no reason to believe that he was anything other than a playable character; they couldn’t possibly have anticipated him becoming a major antagonist. I can imagine that those with the tenacity to see this game to the end were deeply impacted by its ending.
Drawing a Conclusion
Final Fantasy II is incredibly difficult for me to parse in terms of quality. It was undoubtedly one of the most ambitious titles of its day, yet almost none of these surprisingly forward-thinking ideas translate to anything playable let alone enjoyable. So much of one’s time in this game is spent grinding and going on several pointless fetch quests that any semblance of good pacing will dissipate immediately. Then again, I also believe that it helped the series cultivate its own identity, and even when I played it sixteen years after its initial release, I appreciated its retroactively subversive elements.
Having said that, if you insist on trying it, don’t play the original version, for it has aged very poorly. Newer versions will provide a more straightforward experience wherein stat boosts will be periodically given to your characters after fighting enough battles, and in some of them, you won’t have to deal with any potential skill atrophy. Otherwise, even if I enjoyed playing the Game Boy Advance version when it was released, I personally can’t recommend playing Final Fantasy II. It remains an important part of history for both the medium and the franchise, but I question if it’s one that needs to be experienced firsthand.
Final Score: 3.5/10