Connect with us
Final Fantasy 2 Feature - image courtesy of Final Fantasy wiki Final Fantasy 2 Feature - image courtesy of Final Fantasy wiki

Features

Final Fantasy II – The Famicom Sequel Trend

Final Fantasy II was an important stepping stone for the series and genre, flaws and all.

Published

on

Final Fantasy II reflects an era where video game sequels strived to innovate and offer something distinctly new instead of treading old ground. The Nintendo Famicom, known to audiences outside Japan as the Nintendo Entertainment System, was home to some of the most foundational titles in the medium, but its sequels often opted for something different. The likes of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest all set important precedents for their respective series without being derivative of their predecessors. They weren’t necessarily better than the originals, but they were respectable efforts and more fun than modern audiences often give them credit for being. Final Fantasy II falls in that same camp: far from flawless, but innovative, creative, and charming all the same. 

final fantasy 2 hilda - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

At the same time, all these sequels have natural barriers that make them a harder sell compared to their predecessors. Super Mario Bros. 2 pivots from horizontal platforming designed around a single play style, to a blend of vertical platforming designed around four. Not only is Zelda II considerably harder than Zelda I, gameplay’s focus switches to fast-paced side-scrolling action rather than methodical top-down exploration. Castlevania II has the opposite dilemma: where the original was a quick, skill-based action-platformer, Simon’s Quest is more along the lines of a modern Metroidvania: slow, deliberate, and backtrack-heavy. Final Fantasy II’s biggest roadblock in that vein is its progression system. 

Character progression in the original Final Fantasy follows traditional leveling rules. Party members gain experience by completing battles and randomly raise their stats once they’ve earned enough to level up. It’s your basic leveling system you’ll find in Dragon Quest, Dungeons & Dragons, and just about any modern RPG. Final Fantasy II opts for an “improving by doing” approach. Enemies no longer award experience. Instead, each stat, weapon, and spell earns experience independently based on your actions in combat. This gives you complete control over how each character develops over the course of the game. 

This also means playable characters don’t have set classes. While anyone can be and do anything in the grand scheme of things, base stats and equipment suggest specific gameplay roles for each party member. Firion has a Fighter’s flexibility, capable of dealing decent damage, taking hits, and playing a support role if needed. Maria feels best suited for spellcasting and supporting the party from a safe distance. Park her in the back row and focus on building up her magic. Guy is basically begging to be your tank based on bone-headedness alone. These are just suggestions and jumping-off points, though. 

Final Fantasy 2 feature image 2 - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Any character realistically can play any role and there’s no downside to raising them however you like. Want Maria to be your main damage dealer? No harm done. Even if Guy wasn’t intended to be a mage, he still has the potential to cast powerful magic. Final Fantasy II cares about giving you variety and options above all else. In another change from Final Fantasy I, the core party is only made up of three characters. The fourth slot is shared by a rotating assortment of guests who routinely enter & exit the story. Like the core three, each guest character is designed around a certain gameplay role, but can otherwise be trained to your liking. Grinding isn’t even necessary for guests since they round out your party with whatever you need most at the moment. 

As self-explanatory as “improving by doing” is, there are nuances to keep in mind when it comes to skill leveling. Stats can actually decrease in the Famicom and PS1 versions based on what a party member is raising. For instance, if Guy’s Strength increases at the end of a fight, there’s a chance his Intelligence will drop. You’re effectively forced to narrow down characters into specific classes and stick to their play styles. While it is possible to train an all-purpose character, you have to balance your level ups accordingly and play around the stats you want to gain. The risk/reward of the original leveling system adds a certain layer of strategy to gameplay, but spending effort only to watch a character get “worse” is never fun. It’s perhaps for this reason that later ports remove deleveling altogether, giving you total freedom over your party’s growth. 

Final Fantasy 2 Toad - image courtesy of lets play archive

Weapons can be leveled the most reliably out of the three core categories. Simply using a weapon to attack earns experience. The more you attack, the more exp your weapon gains. The same principle applies to magic, but curative/restorative spells can at least be leveled outside of combat. Leveling magic is actually quite important, as most spells need to be high level in the first place in order to have their full, or even intended, effect. Basic buffs like Blink or Protect can miss if they’re not high-level enough. Esuna will outright fail to heal certain status effects at lower levels. The other side of the coin is that high level magic utterly obliterates the difficulty curve, so there is a tangible reward for all the effort. Seemingly useless spells like Toad, Teleport, and Mini are extremely powerful when leveled, possible of killing even the strongest bosses. There’s a generous amount of variety and few wrong answers when it comes to character building.

Individual stat gains are determined by what happens to a character during combat. Being targeted multiple times in the same battle can raise evasion. Taking damage helps level HP and stamina. Dealing melee damage may increase strength, White Magic helps raise spirit, and ending the fight with low MP can potentially level up your MP total. In an attempt to keep progression balanced, how much experience you can earn from a fight depends on each enemy’s rank. The lower an enemy’s rank is, the less experience you can earn. The higher their rank, the more progress you can make. The rank system keeps the (average) player from abusing weaker enemies to power-level while indicating when you’re more than strong enough to move on.

Final Fantasy 2 Firion Stats - image courtesy of The Lets Play Archive

Albeit grindy in execution, skill leveling is a great way of offering Final Fantasy II natural replay value and each playthrough a distinct personality. The mechanic is essentially a makeshift class system where you’re encouraged to do as much as possible in every battle to properly develop your party. It’s a deeper level of investment than Final Fantasy I calls for. Simply spamming attacks will prevent your party from training useful skills and abilities that could make a difference down the road. 

Along with skill leveling, Final Fantasy II features several new mechanics to give battles a bit more depth and players more options. Party members can dual-wield weapons for added damage at the cost of evasion. The Formation system allows you to slot party members in different rows depending on their capabilities. The front row offers higher accuracy at the expense of getting targeted more often by enemies. Party members in the back row are targeted less often and have higher evasion, but with lowered accuracy for weapons. Equipment sports a penalty system where different pieces of gear minimize magic’s effectiveness. Heavier armor and stronger weapons tend to yield greater penalties. You can’t just outfit your mage with the best equipment and call it a day. Spell Charges have also been replaced with a traditional MP system, but high MP cost for higher level spells still calls for strategy on the player’s part. 

Final Fantasy II Battle concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

With such a wide assortment of options at the player’s disposal, it’s no surprise Final Fantasy II is actually quite easy. All it takes is a little patience and know-how to trivialize the difficulty curve. Status effects are dangerous early on, but only because Esuna is useless without some dedicated training. Raising agility and evasion with any degree of focus basically guarantees you’ll never be hit by anything but magic. FF II’s challenge mainly comes from how overwhelming leveling and the overworld seem at first, but the game is more merciful than it arguably should be. 

In terms of level design, Final Fantasy II’s overworld is more immediately open than Final Fantasy I’s. The only real roadblock for early-game exploration is the lack of a canoe, which can be unlocked less than 20 minutes into starting the game. This is both a blessing and a curse — a curse in the sense that players can stumble into random encounters that’ll drop them dead right off the bat, and a blessing because of how much innate freedom you’re trusted with. You’re free to visit just about every town right away. Different regions with harder enemies let you safely grind for stats and Gil while the story is still setting up the main conflict. 

Final Fantasy 2 Map - image courtesy of Reddit (cblakebowling )

Unlike Final Fantasy I, however, II’s story is completely linear. Dungeons are isolated and often unreachable until the narrative deems them necessary to visit. While you can explore most of the overworld right away, there’s really no reason to unless you want to trivialize the game before it starts or nab some powerful magic early. That said, games don’t need a reason to justify freedom. The fact you can veer off course risks players getting lost and losing their sense of direction, but adventures shouldn’t guide you like a theme park. Keeping the world open-ended, even if non-linearity is just an illusion, keeps players in control and lets them diverge off the intended path whenever curiosity grabs them. That’s far more important than funneling the audience from point A to B all the way to Z. 

Worth noting, towns in Final Fantasy II have undergone some notable changes. Since you can now save anywhere in the overworld, sleeping at an Inn no longer saves the game. Inns are likewise priced based on how much HP and MP you’re missing at a 1 Gil = 1 point conversion rate. Towns no longer serve as central hubs as a result. They’re worth visiting to stock up on Items, buy new gear, or speak with NPCs, but the gameplay loop no longer demands you go back into town and rest just to log progress. This lends exploration and gameplay a completely different rhythm while lowering the stakes to some extent. 

Final Fantasy II Leon vs Enemies - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

II’s dungeons are also much more elaborate than I’s, for better or worse. Traps are doled out in full force, the encounter rate is too high for its own good, and it’s easy to get turned around if you aren’t paying enough attention. Dungeons are full of branching paths that lead to dead ends. Damage tiles like ice spikes and lava drain your health as you explore. Fake walls force you to go the long way around with no indication that you can just phase through the scenery unless you hug every wall like a maniac. 

By far the most frustrating thing about Final Fantasy II’s dungeon design is its trap rooms. Most doors inside of dungeons will lead to a small room with a higher encounter rate where each step will almost certainly trigger a fight. Because you spawn in the center of the room when you walk through the door, you can’t just back out and avoid the problem. These rooms are areas where you can safely grind stats inside of dungeons, but ultimately feel like the game’s way of punishing exploration. You already run into so many enemies naturally that the higher encounter rate really isn’t helpful. Instead, every door ends up a gamble that you can’t afford not to check if you want to be thorough.

final fantasy 2 leviathan - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Fortunately, dungeon set pieces are generally creative and aim not to just repeat FFI’s major settings even if most are tedious to get through. The Dreadnought is a massive, multi-floor airship housing two prisoners you need to break out before destroying the engine itself. A Leviathan swallows you whole, forcing you to trudge through its guts and stomach to escape. Mysidia Tower is a ten-story dungeon where each floor has a different theme, cycling through different elements to keep the climb engaging. The final dungeon Pandaemonium is quite literally Hell — an elaborately ornate castle in its first floors and a lonely abyss in its last. For all their faults, FFII’s dungeons are if nothing else memorable. 

At the heart of Final Fantasy II’s story and progression is the Conversation system. When speaking with plot-relevant characters (usually indicated by a portrait), you’ll be able to Ask questions about certain terms, Learn new keywords spoken in dialogue, or present Items to progress the plot. Conversations are ultimately another step in figuring out what to do next — and one that involves quite a lot of backtracking since you need to touch base with Princess Hilda in-between virtually every set piece to trigger the next — but it is a fun way of keeping players invested in the narrative. 

Final Fantasy 2 Ask system - image courtesy of romhacking

In a sense, the Conversation system is the natural next step in the RPG gameplay loop. Speaking to NPCs was already an important part of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. FFII just gives you more agency for critical conversations. The downside is that the gameplay loop boils down to asking NPCs every available keyword to track down that one piece of direction you’re missing. It’s hard not to want to get to the point sometimes. If nothing else, the Mysidian Library offers insight into each keyword’s lore like a pseudo-codex, fleshing out the world with a bit more depth and history. 

Final Fantasy II’s story on a whole is more involved and classically dramatic than Final Fantasy I. While it wouldn’t be right to call the plot less fantastical, there is a greater focus placed on more realistic, darker themes like personal sacrifice and the consequences of war. Death looms large over FFII’s narrative, chipping away at a world that genuinely feels lived-in and alive for a Famicom RPG. NPCs react to major events and guest party members drop like flies in their rebellion against the Empire. The world isn’t just static. You see the effects of the Emperor’s actions, giving him a presence even when he’s off-screen. The Dreadnought deals visible damage to multiple towns. The Cyclone outright obliterates most off the face of the map. Altair goes from your base of operations to not even existing by the end of the game. 

final Fantasy 2 Leon concept art - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

While not particularly well-defined, the main characters have actual personalities and react to the plot instead of serving as stand-ins for the player & three friends. Firion is your standard hero, Guy is the big dumb guy, and Maria is a girl. Guest characters are considerably more interesting. The fact death means something, even if most deaths happen painfully quick to fairly one-dimensional characters, does make the plot just a bit more captivating. You never know if your next party member will die, leave, or actually stick around until the end. The guests who do survive walk away with fairly respectable arcs for the era. Leila briefly gives up her life of piracy for a nobler cause. Gordon outgrows his cowardice to become a brave ruler no longer trapped in his brother’s shadow. Leon is left a man without a nation after having betrayed both the rebels and Empire, displaced with nowhere left to call home. 

The real strength of Final Fantasy II’s story is its somber atmosphere and tone. This is a bittersweet game that leans towards the bitter side of the spectrum. The game ends with the main characters realizing they can never go back to the lives they had. War changed them and the world, leaving them much like Leon. It’s endearing how much pathos FFII fills into its otherwise bare and simplistic story. Yet there’s still whimsy and charm at play. “Guy speak beaver,” as he so elegantly put it. Chocobos make their debut appearance complete with wacky (mind-numbing) music. Firion almost gets seduced by a succubus impersonating Hilda. Final Fantasy II takes itself seriously, but it knows when to have fun too. 

Firion Final Fantasy 2 - image courtesy of final fantasy wiki

Final Fantasy II was an incredibly important stepping stone for Final Fantasy’s growth as a franchise. The darker tone and mature plot is exactly what set the stage for games like Final Fantasy IV, VI, and VII. And while skill leveling didn’t stick for Final Fantasy, the concept went on to play a key role in the later SaGa series of RPGs. It’s important for a series to innovate and experiment, even if that means striking out. The Famicom’s many sequels are proof that innovation doesn’t have to be derivative. Final Fantasy II‘s conversations really are just an extra step and dungeons are too messy for their own good. At the same time, building your party into the perfect killing machine is a rewarding endeavor even if it is grindy. FFII is no masterpiece, but it has its own charm the original doesn’t and is, if nothing else, a respectable effort. Final Fantasy II was an important stepping stone for the series and genre, flaws and all.

A man with simultaneously too much spare time on his hands and no time at all, Renan loves nothing more than writing about video games. He's always thinking about what re(n)trospective he's going to write next, looking for new series to celebrate.

Trending