Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.
Final Fantasy II is certainly one of the more interesting titles in the series. Though in 1988, developer Square had yet to flood the market with a deluge of sequels and spin-offs that, while delighting fans, would receive nothing more than a blasé reception from detractors, and it wouldn’t be until much later that we would be able to fully appreciate just how unique it was, the differences between FFII and its predecessor were striking.
As well as introducing a number of features that would soon become series staples (including an NPC named Cid and the humble Chocobo) II was notable for its richer, more immersive story and complex, well-rounded characters.
More than anything, it’s remembered as an experimental title that attempted to overhaul key aspects of the RPG genre which, alongside less obtrusive one-time only features such as the ‘Key Terms’ system, led to the creation of today’s topic: an innovative if ultimately broken progression system that, if not for the presence of a fundamental glitch in the game’s programming, made the game extremely difficult to enjoy, let alone complete.
Before we discuss the glitch itself and the impact it had on the game, however, it’s worth explaining exactly how the progression system differed from other RPGs at the time, and how it was intended to work.
The standard RPG levelling formula, as anyone who’s ever played one will know, is based on experience points. By defeating enemies, characters earn a small amount of XP which, once a certain threshold has been crossed, increases the character’s overall level and with it, fundamental stats like HP, strength, and defense. It’s simple and easy enough to understand, allowing players to develop characters effectively without too much effort; even a healer who’d rarely so much as laid a finger on an opponent during the course of the adventure would benefit from an increase in their fighting skills, along with every other attribute, each and every time they attained a new level, for instance.
Square felt this particular feature wasn’t very realistic, however – a somewhat strange concern for a series that has everything from semi-divine magical crystals, to tentacled nightmare beasts whose greatest weapon is their malodorous breath and obliging monsters whose understanding of the chivalric code compels them to take turns during combat.
So instead, Square opted for a system in which the strength of a specific attribute would be governed by the successful execution of a related action.
Put simply, this meant a party member’s magic power would only increase after they’d cast a sufficient number of spells, regardless of how many enemies they’d killed up to that point; their ability to wield a broadsword improving incrementally every time they landed a physical attack. And there was little to no cross-over between these distinctive attributes.
If it sounds similar to the system used in The Elder Scrolls series, that’s because it is; more or less. But not just because of the mechanical similarities. To fully embrace the (at the time) revolutionary new leveling system, Final Fantasy II eschewed the rudimentary class/job system included in the original, so that, as with Oblivion and Skyrim, players were free to choose exactly how their characters developed as the story progressed. Nominal pugilist Gus could learn the odd protective spell to help support the party in an emergency; Maria could combine high-level black magic with a monstrous battle-axe to deal with any foe she might meet.
The concept is sound, as the likes of The Elder Scrolls have proved in recent years, and would have provided the burgeoning genre with a welcome touch of diversity at a time when it wasn’t as popular in the West, if implemented effectively. But, for a variety of reasons, II’s efforts to carve its own distinctive niche fell way short of the mark.
First and foremost is the fact that II tasks the player with developing four characters simultaneously, not one. Quartering the amount of growth an individual party member can achieve per battle and thus quadrupling the amount of time needed to develop a balanced squad capable of tackling the progressively harder regions, dungeons, and bosses they will encounter during the course of the adventure.
Secondly, in Skyrim, it’s possible to enhance a number of attributes outside of combat, through potion making, crafting, enchanting weapons and armour with gems, picking locks, successfully sneaking around enemies, etc. Greater alchemical proficiency doesn’t make the character more formidable with a great sword in hand, true, but what it does do is give the player a greater number of skill points to play with which just might give the player an all-important edge in combat, as well as providing access to higher level enemies who, though tougher to beat, come equipped with higher quality gear. In II, by comparison, if a player is struggling to defeat a particular boss or complete an especially tricky dungeon, they have no choice but to fight mob after mob until their stats reach the desired level; they can’t simply craft stronger armor to neutralize the boss’s power or improve their proficiency with a bow and wear them down from a safe distance.
Final Fantasy II’s grind is a relentless and time-consuming process, is what I’m trying to say, and that, in turn, makes the game extremely tedious to play through to completion. Unless the player makes use of the glitch.
The glitch works by exploiting a very specific feature of II’s combat mechanics, namely, that the player must input commands for all four party members at the same time (unlike VII, VIII, or IX, in which each character is controlled separately), the next wave of attack commencing only when the fourth and final character in the line-up has received his/her instructions, and can cancel a command issued to any of the first three party members before the assault begins. Something Square no doubt included to give players extra time to consider their plan of action before committing to a specific strategy and making a potentially fatal error.
And because the game is unable to distinguish between a cancelled and completed action, even if the player retracts a specific order only a split second after issuing it, it’s possible for a character to gain the equivalent experience of, say, thirty physical attacks in a relatively short space of time, simply by toggling between the ‘confirm’ and ‘cancel’ buttons. It can’t be used to strengthen the fourth character in the line-up, sadly, leaving them noticeably weaker than their companions. However, as the occupant of this slot changes multiple times throughout the game and isn’t integral to success in battle as a result, it’s really not much of an issue in the long run.
Anyway, thanks to the glitch, the time needed to bring Firion and the rest of the party up to speed upon arriving at a new location is significantly reduced, and the hitherto Herculean task of successfully exploring a recently discovered dungeon or defeating a difficult boss considerably alleviated. Making it possible to actually progress through the story at a reasonable pace, without stopping every fifteen minutes to slaughter swathes of the local fauna.
That’s all well and good for improving strength, weapon proficiency, magic power, and the like, but keen-eyed readers might have noticed increasing a character’s HP, MP, and defense stat relies on the party taking damage and consuming MP, not the press of a button.
This would be a serious issue indeed, if not for another moment of serendipity, this time in the form of an exploit that makes use of the player’s ability to direct attacks at other party members; something included originally to provide players with an alternative method for removing the sleep and confuse status effects from an afflicted party member (albeit in the most ham-fisted way possible).
However, as the game is also unable to differentiate between damage inflicted by an enemy or ally, players can simply deplete the desired character’s HP bar at will to bolster their vitality and physical resistance, or cast the Osmose spell to raise their MP reserves.
Useful as these two shortcuts are, they don’t offer a perfect solution to the innate issues with Final Fantasy II‘s progression system. The grind may be considerably less onerous, but it’s still not exactly what you’d call fast and regular grinding is thus still required. Moreover, while using them may spare the player from hours of additional stat farming, neither the glitch nor the targeting exploit adhere to Square’s artistic vision of a unique, more realistic JRPG, and can make the game far too easy if overindulged.
Which is why, with or without the glitch, Final Fantasy II still remains one of the lowest rated mainline games in the series’ storied history (aside from a typically and suspiciously high score from Famitsu, sixes and sevens are the best it can boast) among critics and fans.
Interesting as the concept of an action-based progression system was at the time, its execution was fundamentally flawed. Perhaps Square failed to foresee the difficulties this style of character development would present to a traditional JRPG, or simply lacked the technology in 1988 to realize their original vision.
Whatever the reason, anyone who claims to be a fan of the series owes it to themselves to give FFII a try. Not just for the chance to witness the first incarnation of Cid, Chocobos, and gravity-resistant hairstyles, but also to experience the genuinely impressive story first hand.