The first Final Fantasy was a massive hit worldwide. Demand for a sequel was almost instantaneous, so Square fast-tracked a follow-up just a year later. It ended up exclusive to Japan for decades, while U.S. audiences just assumed Western “Final Fantasy II” was the next in the series. We’ve since seen the true sequel ported for various other systems, starting with Origins for the PSX, but thanks again to a dedicated fan translation, we’re stubbornly going back to check out how it originally played on the Famicom.
Right out of the gate, you could probably be tricked into believing a screen from the sequel was from the original. Art for both games is incredibly similar, sometimes identical. Did I mention it was put together in a year? Town sprites and the overworld are mostly reused. Building, grass, and tree textures are identical to the first game. Canoes, ships, and airships all return, look the same, with no changes to how they work. The first character’s sprite even reuses the Warrior from FF1, while the third is a slightly modified Monk. If you’ve played the first, Final Fantasy II is going to look very, very familiar.
Commendably, it’s not going to feel that way. Final Fantasy II’s structure is tangibly different than the more open world adventure of the first. While you technically can wander the overworld somewhat freely, you’re quickly going to encounter some kind of narrative block or powerful monsters your party can’t hope to handle. Instead, this sequel is focused on story, with a plot that will sequentially send you to specific locations in the open world. It’s one of the earliest examples of what would become the ’90s JRPG, and alongside the Dragon Quest series, really starts to define how to tell a grand, sweeping adventure in interactive form.
The game starts with you controlling a group of inexperienced kids, thrust into an unwinnable battle as the evil Empire sacks your town. Rescued after your “death” by a small rebel faction, you set out to take your revenge, growing into inspirational figureheads as you fight the rebellion’s major battles. Stakes rise in familiar ways as reoccurring villains build a history with you, the rebels face setback after setback, and plot-based gameplay elements (like sneaking into a town while avoiding guards) make appearances. Characters are given time to develop. There are brave sacrifices and stunning betrayals. Towns fall and characters can die. It’s a fairly rote story, but it’s surprisingly well-told for an early 8-bit console game.
The only group that doesn’t see much characterization is your own party. Your three teens are all orphaned by the Empire’s attack at the beginning of the game. You can name them as you wish, but their archetypes are set – there’s the pure-hearted leader, the girl who is most adept at magic, and the brawny brute who speaks beaver. They rarely talk, but they’ll play to these roles when they do. “Character growth” for them is going to be of the skill and stat related kind. It’s an odd blend because there’s enough characterization to foul up adding names of your friends (waves in “J Ma’am”) but not enough to feel like they develop emotionally throughout the game.
Instead, a rotating fourth party member provides narrative growth. The above three characters are your only permanent party members. The fourth switches out throughout the story, allowing us to meet back up with old friends, watch a character go from sniveling coward to embrace his destiny, and some more specific turns that I won’t spoil. Mechanically, this is kind of a terrible idea – we’ll get to that later. But narratively, it’s part of what elevates Final Fantasy II’s story far over the original, or even the competing Dragon Quests of the time.
Where Final Fantasy II famously stumbles is with its unique leveling system. Classes are thrown out entirely. Instead, your characters are shaped by what actions they perform – similar to what The Elder Scrolls or the SaGa games would become known for. Bashing baddies with a sword increases your sword skill. Roasting critters with black magic increases your black magic damage. There are separate XP bars for every weapon and spell in the game, while general stats like stamina and intelligence also grow based on your combat choices.
It’s an extremely flexible system, with supporters noting that you can never make a game-ruining decision. In the first game, you had to pick a class without really knowing what the consequences were. Here, all three characters can fill any role with equal adeptness. For example, if you find bows aren’t working for you, you can shift that character to axes without a penalty to their potential damage.
…if you’re prepared for that character to be absolutely useless while you grind like a stripper on 2 for 1 Tuesdays.
Every weapon and every spell has their own individual skill track. Skills are listed in a X-00 format, with X being your level (a maximum of 14) and 00 showing a sort of sub-count of hits needed to gain a level (always 100). Assuming that character can land an average of two blows per battle, you’re looking at 50 enemies killed to gain one point of skill. That’s around 700 kills to master a weapon, or more directly, 14,000 repetitive, miserable hits. It’s a very slow leveling speed.
Along with this, magic is no longer sold in higher tiers. No LIT2s or FIR3s. You’ll buy one universal Fire spell and it’s up to you to level it. This means you can never buy your way out of trouble, as you definitely could in the later parts of the first game. No simple purchase of LIT3 to become an instant lighting master. There’s also no separate group spells. You instead keep scrolling through enemies until you hit an option that selects all of them for pathetic amounts of damage. The same is true for Cure or cleansing spells. However, this extends to enemies too, so group spells are much less dangerous than they were in the first.
Mastery here works the same way as weapons – 100 “hits” to gain a level, with the level number determining how many points of magic it costs to cast it. I can assure you that spells won’t start feeling powerful until around level 6 or 7. The D&D tier system from the first game has been dropped in favor of a simple MP pool for all spells – it’s up to you whether that’s an improvement or not. It does mean that your strongest spells will drink greedily from that pool.
Stats are similar, except with a level cap of 99, and a more obfuscated system of granting points. You won’t earn any stat XP unless you fight foes close enough to your skills. Stats will govern important things like your HP, MP, and spell strength. Infamously, one of the most effective ways to bulk up your HP is to target members of your own party and beat the hell out of them – there’s no consideration for where the hits come from, just that you survive hits from opponents near your level.
I made a point to try and play through the entire game with minimal grinding and none of the shortcuts like beating yourselves up for health. I gave leader guy (canonically named Firion) a sword and shield. Magic girl (Maria) took no weapon and pulled double duty as White and Black mage. Characters in the back row take no melee damage, so she hung back and leveled her spells. Burly chap (Guy) used an axe and kinda-sorta acted as a tank. He could eat the strongest hits – which like The Hulk would ultimately just make him stronger – but there’s no taunt or similar way to directly force enemies to attack him.
This worked pretty well at first, but quickly fell apart mid-game. In fact, I think this leveling system might work out if you could define four party members from the start. Instead, that rotating last character creates a constant situation I’ll call “How Do We Solve A Problem Like Maria?”
Having Maria as both Black Mage and White Mage doesn’t work without artificial grinding. You keep getting introduced to new spells throughout the game, only finding out later that some are nearly required (like Sleep for the beefy Hill Gigas). If you hit a wall you can’t overcome, the only way to level those spells is through hours of grinding useless fights.
So if you split Mage duties, who picks up the slack? Some suggest healing magic goes to Firion, but that’s now time he’s not sharpening his sword skills. Not to mention, this original version puts a penalty on your stat growth if you gain points in that stat’s opposite. If you focus on weapons, you get weaker at magic, and visa versa. Firion will constantly get worse at White Magic (Spirit) every time he levels his sword.
Maybe you decide to rely on your guest character? Well, not only can you not control when you change or lose the fourth character (unless you know the plot ahead of time), you can’t be assured of what the next character will bring to the table. Your first two are practically chaperones – a decked-out White Mage, followed by a powerful fighter, both with stats that absolutely dwarf your nascent characters. Your third one is a complete liability. Your characters will casually have HP in the 200s while he stumbles in with 64. You can’t decline his offer to join your party. You can’t abandon him. You’re expected to grind, and as we already covered, at a very slow pace.
It would probably take 10-15 hours of mindless slaying just to sharpen him into a character that complements your party instead of getting in the way – only to lose him again at the next story beat and wonder if he’s ever coming back. Enter a new character starting about as terribly as he did, and repeat everything you’ve just done. Then, spoiler, again a third time.
Later releases progressively tone down how many baddies you have to kill (or times to cast a spell) before they tick their next level. If nothing else, the fact that every single port of Final Fantasy II chisels away these sharp edges is evidence that we all agree they didn’t get it right here. It’s not broken, as you may have heard. Just severely outdated in a very Wizardry sort of way. If it was the 80s and this was the only game you had for the whole year, you might squeeze enjoyment out of beating up routine goons to make stat numbers go up. But honestly, save yourself the trouble and play one of the modern remakes. Spoiler for the end of the review.
There are some notable quality of life improvements, though. Potion stores now have three clerks behind the counter and sell every cure in the entire game. No need to go back to a specific town, or even to stockpile various cures “just in case.” Ether has been added, giving you a way to refill MP in battle. Cid and his airship first appear here, available for hire to warp to certain towns. This game also marks the introduction of Chocobos in a limited capacity. If you find one in a hidden forest, you can ride him for a faster return to town.
However, different areas take steps back. You’re now limited to carrying 30 items, with no way to offload extra ones into a storage system. This gets compounded as your inventory fills with quest items that you cannot remove – even after you’ve finished the quest associated with them. Characters can equip two potions in an “items” slot, but these are the only ones they’ll have access to in battle. It requires far more planning ahead than seems fair.
Equipment also seems to make a huge difference in this version, even more than stats. The Wing Sword transformed Fighter Static from kind of a chump into a Mostly Serious Threat just by equipping it. This ties somewhat into a new system that seemingly does a percent of damage instead of a flat number – there were far more big hits that didn’t kill in this game than in the first. Though as this is an early Final Fantasy, bugs still abound and plenty of things don’t do what they’re supposed to.
Overall, it’s impressive that Square tried something new here, instead of simply copy/pasting a safe sequel. There’s also a real effort to tell an epic story – maybe one of the first in gaming. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t nail it. Later Final Fantasies will offer far stronger plots, while the level grind this version demands doesn’t really appear in the series ever again. Definitely play one of the remake versions if you want to experience this tale.
First attempt in the series to tell a grand tale. Flexible leveling system gives you the opportunity to switch up what isn’t working. Introduction of Ether is very welcome.
Grinding is basically required – if there’s a setup that lets you avoid it, I haven’t found it. Plot is neat for an 8-bit game, weak compared to later titles. Daft 30 item limit becomes a real problem late game.
Snook chit.” – a beaver