The original Final Fantasy was a worldwide hit, in that it pretty much single handedly built Square as a monolithic company that was here to stay. How do you follow up a hit like that? In America, players had to wait several years for their version of Final Fantasy II, which was actually the much loved Final Fantasy IV on the SNES. For the longest time, the real FFII was only available in Japan, or as a pirated game, until the Playstation based Final Fantasy Origins was released. It was also released portably in Final Fantasy 1 and 2: Dawn of Souls for the GameBoy Advance. In terms of sheer value for money, either collection is worth its weight in play time. More importantly, it allowed the West to experience a previously lost chapter in the franchise, one that foreshadowed Square’s eventual experimentation with narrative and mechanics, for better and for worse.
In a surprisingly bold move, the plot of FFII eschews the crystal-based shenanigans that defined the first game, as well as the following three games in the series for a more ambitious-for-its-time narrative. For one thing, characters had proper names. The core group are Firion, Leon, Maria, and the oh-so-memorably-named Guy, and throughout the story players would be able to fight alongside guest characters that would pop in and out of the party. These people are taking on an empire that’s threatening world domination by building a massive airborne weapon known as the Dreadnaught. Along the way, you gradually work with rebels to fight the empire, and there are character deaths and betrayals, including Leon, who becomes a Dark Knight before eventually becoming good again.
These days, it’s a pretty standard JRPG plot, but for the time, the ambition on display is actually really impressive. Stories in NES games were typically just a few lines of dialogue and maybe some narration due to technical limitations, so the fact that FFII was so ambitious in its attempt to give its characters actual personalities and motivations is something to be applauded, even if it heavily, heavily apes Star Wars. I get the feeling that if it had been released in the West back in the day, it would have been praised for moving the gaming industry forward in terms of storytelling. Sure, the script is still fast paced and somewhat shallow, but there was a real effort to stand out from other RPGs at the time, and there were even elements that Square would later use to greater effect in Final Fantasy IV such as Leon’s aforementioned betrayal and redemption. In ways it feels like a prototype for characters such as Cecil and Kain, both of whom undergo significant transformations in the fourth entry. It was an effort to tell a real story as opposed to using the story as an excuse to prop up the gameplay.
This uncommon ambition extended to the gameplay as well. Several popular series such as Zelda and Mario are well known for having sequels that are radically different from the first installment, for better and for worse, and this applies to Final Fantasy II as well. The first game had a pretty straightforward leveling up system that has been used in countless RPGs of all kinds since then. Kill monsters, get Gil, get experience, get stronger. The first game offered players the ability to completely customize their party thanks to its multiple classes, which offered a fair bit of replay value for such an old school RPG. Eventually, about halfway through the game, those classes could be upgraded into more powerful forms that unlocked new skills. Simple, easy to understand stuff that’s tried and true and still used to this day.
Final Fantasy II, on the other hand, changed the character progression entirely. Characters are start off with loadouts that kind of guide the player to how they should be built. Maria, for instance, comes fully equipped with a bow and slightly more magic ability, which implies that she should probably be a magic user of some sort. Guy, meanwhile, comes equipped with a hard hitting axe, so he should probably be a melee-focused character. The thing is that character progression centers on the actions that they take in battle. For instance, characters that take a lot of damage will gain more health points more quickly, while characters that use a lot of magic will get more magic points. It’s an interesting, unique way to approach RPG progression, and was an early sign of just how experimental Square would get with later games in the series.
No other main entry in the series uses this method of leveling up your characters, with most of them offering some variation of the traditional experience point system, although Square would eventually create another RPG series called SaGa, which has its own spinoffs and main entries, and most of those use this action-based progression system. I haven’t played any of these games myself, (although I have Romancing SaGa 2 on my Switch) so I can’t say how well-implemented it is in that series. I do know the games tend to be more experimental by nature, with the aforementioned Romancing SaGa 2 using an odd perma-death and ancestor-based system to tell its story. I will say that this unique idea, while allowing for some air tight customization, is not executed very well in Final Fantasy II.
The biggest problem is that players will often have to go out of their way in order to increase one stat or another for a given character, and it’s tough to level up more than one stat in a given battle. For instance, when I started the game, Maria was super slow, meaning that she almost always attacked last and my other party members would have wiped the floor with the early game enemies by then. It led to her feeling significantly hampered in her development. I would have to force my other party members to defend while she chipped away at enemy health with her low attack stat. Meanwhile, enemies did so little damage that I rarely had to use Cure to heal my party, so she struggled leveling up her magic abilities as well.
There’s no other way to say it: it’s tedious as hell. Dedicated players can fine tune their party to their heart’s content, but the amount of grinding required is absolutely insane. Add in weapon specialization, where characters will be better at using a specific weapon type the more they use it (ie using a sword will make you more proficient with them), and you have something that is shockingly free form but extremely time consuming. Sure, old RPGs in particular are absolutely notorious for the amount of level grinding involved (I’ve played enough Dragon Quest titles to be more than a little familiar with that), but at least in those games you can generally keep your party up where they need to be as long as you grind enough. In Final Fantasy II, it doesn’t feel like you’re completely in control of how your party grows despite how free form it is.
At the end of the day, Final Fantasy II can best be described as a historical oddity. For being such an early RPG, it had a truly ambitious story that tried to be more than just a “save the world” plot thanks to its characters and narrative twists. Its progression system was wildly unique for the time, and in many ways, still is since it’s largely unused outside of the SaGa series. But the amount of grinding and tedium involved means it’s less a game to enjoy and more of something to study. In many ways, it showed that Square was already thinking outside the box in terms of where the series was going, but its execution makes it something of a slog to play though in the modern day. It holds value for series completionists and people interested in the history and evolution of the video game medium, but for most other players, its odd progression system makes it feel like little more than a chore.
As a final fun fact, this game introduced the world to the positively iconic Chocobo and the seemingly immortal airship worker, Cid. Of course, the West wouldn’t know about these things until the 1991 release of Final Fantasy IV. Still, this game birthed two of the biggest icons/recurring elements in gaming history, and that’s nothing to sniff at.