My first experience with Final Fantasy II is not an altogether nostalgic one. In January of 2000, I was getting ready to eat dinner alone at the Read Dormitory cafeteria at Indiana University. I stopped by my neighbor Keith's room, to ask if he had any plans. I hadn't seen Keith for more than three days. He'd been holed up in his room, skipping classes. He greeted me, obviously not dead, and invited me inside.
Just a week before, at the beginning of the semester, his roommate -- a Korean kendo champion -- had up and disappeared. Keith now had the entire double room to himself. He'd pushed the two beds together, and was sitting against the window in his pajamas, smoking a cigarette. His computer monitor was sitting on the bed opposite his feet. He was manning a keyboard with the hand that wasn't holding his cigarette. He was tapping keys and squinting at the monitor while cursing loudly.
Keith was playing a fan-translated Final Fantasy II ROM on his NESticle emulator. He was doing so very angrily.
Keith had somehow made it to the final dungeon of the legendarily difficult RPG. As he explained to me, battles in the game came by steps. With enough study, you could predict when every battle was going to come. After every step he took, Keith hit an F-key -- which one, I don't remember -- and took another step. He was saving ROM states.
"See, you have, like, a one in one hundred chance of running from a battle. So if you keep saving right before every battle, and you can't run, you just reset the game."
"Why don't you just fight?" I asked. All of Keith's characters apparently had the maximum level of hit points.
"Because I leveled up too much. If I fight, my characters lose hit points. And intelligence levels."
"Uh . . . why?"
"It's the way the game's system works. Plus, uh, look at this."
Keith allowed his party to fight a battle. A certain monster KO'd his hero in two blows.
"This game is rough," Keith said. My eyes were widened in horror.
Keith successfully ran from two battles as I looked over his Final Fantasy VIII strategy guide. He saved his latest ROM state, and went with me to dinner.
"The game feels a lot like Saga Frontier," he was saying. "I looked it up -- it turns out they're made by the same producers and shit. It's just, after Final Fantasy II, they started making the Saga games."
I was thinking, then: if the game's so different from all the other Final Fantasy games, and if it's not even available legally, well, I can get away with not playing it, can't I?
I had no idea what I'd do if the game was made available legally. I knew, deep down, that of course I'd end up playing it, given my roots in Final Fantasy. I couldn't not play it. And I didn't really want to. At dinner, Keith referred to beating the many (many) dungeons of Final Fantasy II as "Like crawling backwards up a tube slide with your socks on."
With the release of Final Fantasy Origins on the Sony PlayStation, I was able to sit down and climb backwards up those tube slides for myself on just April 18th, 2003. Luckily, I was with friends, lots of Dr. Pepper, and very little seriousness. What's more is that now, fifteen years after the game's original Japanese release, and three years after I first saw the game, I am in no condition to owe any kind of allegiance to my memories of Final Fantasy II. With no nostalgia to speak of, and even less guilt, I can say that Final Fantasy II is a waste of time for anyone who has time to waste. I say this as a lover of Final Fantasy, and not as an angry critic.
I suppose I should start my review on the pros side. Here goes:
The graphics are most definitely better than the graphics in Final Fantasy, whether you're playing the emulated Famicom originals (you bad person, you) or the PlayStation ports. The music in the PlayStation port is of astoundingly high quality. Too astounding, maybe -- the symphonic crashes and string-bassline that heralded the start of our first random battle just about scared the Dr. Pepper and Mexican food out of my two friends and I.
Ahem. Well, maybe that's not the best way to start this. Let me say something clearer:
Final Fantasy II is a better game than Final Fantasy. As I may have covered in the first installment, that's not exactly a good thing. Just -- hear me out.
The powers at Squaresoft threw together Final Fantasy with a kind of sick loving care one shows a suicide letter that doesn't leave out a single estranged family member. Ransom-note-style, the producers cut out letters of the books of Ultima, Dragon Quest, Dungeons and Dragons, and Lord of the Rings with which to slap together their dying manifesto. Defying sloppiness, they managed to keep the glue clean, and it was, more often than not, readable.
The Squaresoft that produced Final Fantasy II was a game company endowed with money and stared at by a now-devoted fan base. The 1980s -- the decade that saw videogames die, only to be reborn as legends -- were drawing to a close, and the focus was on follow-ups. The rule, for the most part, was this: if you can make one game, and come out with enough money for a sequel, make a sequel. Sequels were where the profit was at.
Final Fantasy II is a 1980s game sequel, in more than just the empirical sense (i.e., it came out in the 1980s, and it has a "II" in its title) -- it is bigger, longer, more graphically superior, and harder than its predecessor. One might say this game is to Final Fantasy what the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Lost Levels to those of us with Super Nintendos) was to Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. 2 smacks the player in the face with an immediately visible ridiculous difficulty. The game was made with the idea firmly lodged in mind that its players had all mastered Super Mario Bros., and were looking for more. So it is with Final Fantasy II. It was only in the end of Final Fantasy that each battle became a tiny wit-test that could turn brutally not in your favor with a single button press. Final Fantasy II starts this way -- just try and wander five steps west of the first town.
Even before Final Fantasy II begins, it lays the rules down: this game is not messing with you. In the first-ever RPG "cut scene," our heroes begin engaged in battle with four "Dark Knights." Each of our characters -- hero Firion, girl Maria, big-dumb-guy Gus, and dude-who's-going-to-disappear-after-five-minutes Leon -- has forty hit points. The Dark Knights proceed to score 3,000 damage a hit. This, in addition to being in accordance with the Law of Miyamoto that says the game must, from early on, show the player something he cannot do, also functions as the first "story battle" in the world of Final Fantasy -- a battle you're "supposed to lose."
And when you lose -- and lose you must -- you find three of your heroes awake and alive in a new town, in front of a queen of some sort. Your lead character then explains the story to the queen.
"Our village was destroyed. Our parents were killed. We are young. We would like to help you, by fighting."
One could laugh at this so-called storyline. One such as me could jump back and say, "Well, in 1988, this must have really been something!" I won't do either of these. All I'll do is point out that, in the original Final Fantasy, the player characters -- I mean, "The Light Warriors" -- never get in a single word of dialogue.
This is the earliest stage of Square storytelling. Simple motives, simple directions, and an even simpler world map (the game takes place almost entirely on one continent). When Maria expresses concern over her missing brother Leon, it's simple concern.
Still, simple is good, right? When Final Fantasy finally failed with regard to storyline, it was in the eleventh hour, with Garland's windy explanation about being shifted 2,000 years into the past, and then 2,000 years into the future, in order to throw the world into a time-loop, and be reborn as . . . a giant monster?
Final Fantasy II follows a simple arc in a complicated way. As agents of the queen, you're to uncover the plots of the evil Palamecian Empire, first by doing some recon in their city, then by . . . traveling north, and finding out about their giant Warship! Then by doing multiple Warship-related missions, and eventually boarding the Warship, and even more eventually getting your last teammate back and . . . winning. This is the earliest and roughest form of Final Fantasy IV Righteous-Airship-vs.-Evil-Imperial-Airship storyline, and it functions functionally. It is the actual gameplay, the manner in which we move our characters around the world map, that raises eyebrows in curiosity.
This, yes, is the Final Fantasy where Chocobos and Cid debuted. It is also the Final Fantasy where you first have to pay sailors for passage between towns. It's the first Final Fantasy to grant you a vehicle -- a canoe -- four seconds into the game. Fully aware of the joy that filled gamers when they first resurrected the sunken airship from the desert of Final Fantasy, Square bombards us with vehicular joy: a canoe here, a boat there, a Chocobo eventually, an airship you can't control, yet can pay to use (and, more importantly, see), a . . . little boat with a wheel on it they call the "snowcraft," which ferries you across glaciers . . .
Sure, I could say that, back in the eighties, Japanese kids no doubt found this dazzlingly brilliant. However, as something I'm playing for the first time right now, today, long after I've stolen ambulances and driven them off bridges in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, it doesn't cut it, not even as nostalgia. The facade of depth that Squaresoft was able to endow its games and delight its audience with "back then" has turned completely transparent in 2003.
When Expendable Fourth Party Member Number Three, a Monk named Josef, is crushed by a boulder when trying to let our party escape "The Ice Cave," and his last words are revealed as "Tell my family I love them," my television becomes a window to the Fourth Dimension. I'm looking through the window of this PlayStation port of a Wonderswan port of a Famicom game, and I'm shaking my head at a shrugging Hironobu Sakaguchi. He grins at me. The bastard has ice teeth*.
(*That's diamond-encrusted gold teeth, for those of you not into the hip-hop music.)
Now, to his credit, one might say the Hironobu Sakaguchi in my imagination's Fourth Dimension deserves those ice teeth. He paid his dues, turning out shitty games like King's Knight and Rad Racer, before finally anteing up for Final Fantasy. He poured a lot of money and time and soul into his big desperate risk. And then, when it made a hit and he was faced with the decision of either making a sequel or dying hungry, he and his team did something he could have gotten fired for doing. That is, they took heavy, cosmic risks by screwing with Final Fantasy's Dragon Quest-a-like formula for success.
What was born in Final Fantasy II's system is all at once the straw that keeps the Chocobo's back from breaking and a cursed legacy that would overshadow pretty much every role-playing-game to follow. Final Fantasy II is a story of simple characters with simple motives, taking place on a simple world map, and keeping its players playing by dealing out simple pleasures in the form of vehicles. The players of the late 1980s were perhaps the simplest element of them all; fresh off games like E.T. and Pac-Man, even the least complicated RPG looked like Tolstoy to the already more sophisticated of us. We played, then, out of a desire to see "cool things," like the last level of Contra. A boat that travels across glaciers was just too much back then. We'd have had coolness-overload-related aneurysms back then.
Yet, I take it, much as the nifty prerendered backgrounds couldn't keep me playing the muddled Saga Frontier for more than a single-digit of hours, many of us would have given up altogether on videogames if we'd begun on Final Fantasy II.
Picture this: you fight random battles for four hours outside the first town. After those four hours are up, you still have forty hit points. The convention of "fight battles, gain levels, get more hit points" was only two games (Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy) old, for crying out loud, and here it was already being challenged.
Basically, the rule is this -- to gain maximum hit points in Final Fantasy II, you have to endure damage, and end the battle in critical status. You will then be told by the menu screen: "HP up!" So if Firion starts a battle with 40HP and ends the battle with 3HP, he'll start the next battle with a maximum of around 60HP. Let him endure more damage, and he'll get more hit points. If you want his defense to go up, just let him keep taking hits, and keep healing him. If you want his strength to go up, have him keep attacking.
What's (ridiculously) more is that each weapon and spell has levels also. Use "Cure" a hundred times, and it'll become "Cure 2." Use "Cure 2" a hundred times, and it'll become "Cure 3." You can increase each spell in level up to 99. Weapon levels are gained by weapon type -- sword, spear, rod, whip, et cetera.
There are catches to the leveling, of course: rely too much on physical strength, and your intelligence drops permanently; rely too much on magic, and your physical strength drops. This turns the game into an interesting -- and sometimes teeth-gratingly difficult -- contest of wits.
Until you figure out how to cheat.
Most embarrassingly to the programmers, you earn a weapon point every time you target an enemy, not just every time you hit one. So just keep targeting and canceling, targeting and canceling, targeting and canceling -- and you'll end the battle with a ridiculous number of weapon levels earned.
As long as you end a battle in critical condition, you gain hit points, right? Well, just kill all enemies except one, and then have your party members hit one another. It gets tricky, in a certain regard: if your attacks get too strong, you might be able to kill one another in one hit, so then it's time to work on defense and hit points. Magic spells, too, become stronger in the same way.
These seem like horrible oversights. It's only when the game introduces the "Swap" spell that the player gets the dreadful impression that the system was designed with the exploitation of such loopholes in mind.
See, if you use the "Swap" spell on your enemy, it exchanges your hit points and magic points with the enemy's. What, really, is the purpose of this spell? Why, to help you gain levels more quickly, of course.
A goblin has six hit points. You may have around 400 hit points and 200 magic points. All you have to do is cast Swap, and your hit points are reduced to six; your magic is reduced to zero. A few strong attacks from your pumped-up party will kill the goblin; at the end of the battle, the player who used Swap will have gained an exorbitant amount of maximum hit points and magic points.
While I can understand fighters becoming stronger by hitting one another (sparring exercises during martial arts classes comes to mind), the prominence of this kind of little loophole strikes me as needlessly retarded, like Laguna and company's plan to send . . . someone back into the past, when the, uh, Time-Kompression began at the end of Final Fantasy VIII. It doesn't add up. It's something someone obviously thought was clever. And it is clever -- just too clever.
When you build up all your levels like you're supposed to, and when you get to the final dungeon like you want to, if you've loved the game too much, the game will show you its second face -- of hate. You'll start losing maximum hit points at the end of every battle because the enemies are, according to the game's AI, on lower levels than you, even though they can kill you with one hit. You'll curse your television screen like my friend Keith cursed his computer monitor; even if you've just aced a test, scored a promotion, gotten paid, or gotten laid, as my friend Keith was high on his space-taking roommate's having just moved out, you will wonder, loudly, aloud, what Famicom owners of the 1980's did before the PlayStation's memo-save feature, or an emulator's handy save-states.
Though I personally have not accomplished it, I gather it is possible to achieve a Zen-like state of meditation during a session of Final Fantasy II. The perfect game can be played. Battles can be won as frequently as they randomly pop up. The stat webs can be managed, if one lets go of the idea of making every party member good at everything. Let Firion balance his white magic and attack; let Gus be purely physical; let Maria master magic. If you know the game, you can achieve this balance without thinking.
The problem is that knowing this game requires having played through it once. It requires making many hard, blundering errors. It requires slapping yourself in the forehead and screaming three or four times an hour. It requires little that can be called "pleasant gaming."
Then again, wasn't Sega's Ecco the Dolphin for Genesis called "pleasant" -- and even "relaxing"? I'm sure a certain few housewives who "really enjoyed Tetris, really" might have thought so -- until they hit the wall about two levels in, where the game becomes upholstery-tearingly, brain-rippingly difficult.
I give Final Fantasy II points for not lying to me. That battle against the Dark Knights in the beginning scene is less of a warning or a storyline injection than it is an accurate depiction -- an "attract mode," if you will -- of what the game is going to be like in its closing stages.
Yet, this honesty will only take Final Fantasy II so far as a "better game than Final Fantasy." Any game that requires me to start over, for any reason, loses points. Secret of Evermore was lucky that its "sorry, you have to start over" glitch was just that -- a glitch. It was not intended by the programmers. Final Fantasy II's start-over syndrome is not so explicit. It's a "Hey, maybe you might want to, like, start over?" that hits you one-quarter of the way into the final dungeon. After you've let the dungeon own you for six resets, the terror hits you deep down that you've been playing the game the wrong way.
The problem with "The Wrong Way," in the context of Final Fantasy II, is that "The Right Way" -- "The True Path" -- is never really hinted at. It's evident neither in the look nor the flow of the game; this isn't Radiant Silvergun, or Ikaruga, where the structure is visible in the red, yellow, blue, black, or white color of the enemies.
Now, I'm no FAQ-writer. I'm not patient enough. Hell, I'm hardly patient enough to read them these days. Still, I'm going to give you a bit of strategy here:
Protip: go easy on the leveling-up, Tex.
Let each person specialize in one thing. Think of Final Fantasy X, where every person had their own path down the Sphere Grid, yet was allowed, though not explicitly encouraged to travel to every other character's path.
Or, uh, hell. Just play Final Fantasy X again.
I was speaking with insert credit's own Eric-Jon Rossel Waugh the other day, about game sequels of the 1980s. The focus of our discussion was Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2.
He made a few excellent comments about how the opening seconds of Super Mario Bros. are pure brilliance. The player begins facing right, just left of the center of the screen. The player has a joystick and two buttons. The player moves right, and sees an enemy. The player presses the jump button, jumping over or onto the enemy, and escaping danger. Above the player's head are blocks, many of them brown and solid, two of them emblazoned with a "?" and flashing. If the player jumps beneath a solid block, it bounces him back. If he gives in to temptation and hits a "?" block, it produces either a coin -- the archetypal shiny thing that attracts our eyes and collection impulses -- or a mushroom. Out of curiosity, the player who chose to hit a block with a "?" in the first place takes the mushroom, grows big, and proceeds to break the solid blocks. Ten timer clicks in, the player is aware of everything he can do (outside of throwing fireballs).
The Law of Miyamoto states that we will see something we cannot do at the beginning of the game. In Super Mario Bros., it is the blocks we cannot break, and the enemies we cannot kill by a frontal assault, that propel us curiously to the right, over gaps and pipes.
In these days, eighteen years after Super Mario Bros. built the foundation of all modern videogaming, it is often the case that the things we see early on -- these things we cannot do -- remain unsolved mysteries until as close to the end of the game as possible. Take the treasure room in Estard Castle of Dragon Warrior VII, for example -- seen in hour one, unlocked in hour two hundred, during the game's ending.
Witness the Dark Knights in Final Fantasy II, which you'll never be able to kill.
I asked Eric-Jon -- if he was going to suggest a Super Mario game to a new gamer, which one would he suggest? Super Mario Bros., the original, or Super Mario Bros. 2, which, while larger and more varied (and much more Luigi-endowed) than its predecessor, also assumes the player knows every hidden 1up mushroom and brick staircase of the original like the back of his hand? Eric-Jon's answer was an emphatic "Super Mario Bros."
In the same way, I'd suggest, if you have time to waste, and you can only choose between Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II, waste your time on Final Fantasy, even though I've already told you Final Fantasy II is a better game. If your options extend beyond the realm of a PSOne and a copy of Final Fantasy Origins, and you're looking for a meanly tough Final Fantasy with a story about airships, good, and evil, look no further than Final Fantasy IV.
We can respect Final Fantasy II for the risks its developers took. In the realm of the original three Final Fantasy games -- "The Famicom Trilogy" -- Final Fantasy II is "The Weird One." "The Middle Child." Final Fantasy is the eldest. "The Wise One," always looked back on fondly despite its droll and safe goody-two-shoes-ness. Final Fantasy III is the baby who, despite mommy and daddy's thoughtfulness and intelligent manipulation in savings bonds, graduates from high school with a B-average and goes to college to major in being forgotten.
Why I feel this strange kinship with Final Fantasy II, I don't know. If you watch our blow-out video feature, in which I get high on Dr. Pepper, do a little IGN-dissing, and admit defeat at the game's icy claws in the name of painful hunger, you'd get the impression that I wish this game would be given human form so that I could perform a Mortal Kombat II Kung Lao vertical-slice fatality on it with my guitar. Not so. If nothing else, sitting down to think about this game allows me to find comfort in its quirks, to nod silently at its wacked-out system's becoming the Saga series, the way you smile at the hero of a movie as he rides off into the happily-ever-after sunset toward a settled-down place you'd never care to visit.
My prose aside, this was the game that showed the world Squaresoft meant business. Rather than live in Enix's shadow, before popping out the Dragon Quest III revision of Final Fantasy III, Squaresoft proved they can, if they want to, be different. It's that spirit of constant and bewildering redefinition that both brought Final Fantasy to life in Final Fantasy IV, saw it in its prime in Final Fantasy VI and VII, and told us it was still alive in Final Fantasy X. And though it's nice, sometimes, to trace the origins of legends, I'd recommend with a clear conscience that you try any one of those four games over this one.
Because, deepest respect noted, compared to what came soon after it and what keeps coming even now, Final Fantasy II just sucks ass.
--tim rogers' maximum HP decreased by one hundred and eight on this one
[you're not done yet: witness FF Dog II]