As part of a group of rants on the Final Fantasy series, I outlined some of my thoughts on the first Final Fantasy. Since I have decided to tackle these games in the in order of their original release, Final Fantasy II is the one that I must write about next. As a qualifier I must add that I do not refer to the Super NES game known as "Final Fantasy II" which is in fact the fourth installment of the franchise. No, I mean the Final Fantasy II that was released originally on the Famicom and recently released as part of the Final Fantasy Origins. Still, my opinions on this game are irrevocably shaped by Square's decision not to release this game in America until seven later installments had been released here. If it had been released earlier, then I could evaluate this game closer to what it meant initially. If it had never been released, then, I could still look at the Super NES game as the true sequel to Final Fantasy, despite what fans on the Internet claimed. Now it's here, too late to do any good or from me to have any nostalgia for it, but as I have only played the Origins version, too updated for me to give anything but approximate analysis of its worth.
Despite this, there are some things that are apparent upon playing Final Fantasy II. In some ways this game is far more linear than Final Fantasy due to the fact that there is a story that involves interaction between playable characters as individuals and a semi-dynamic main party. As a result the player encounters a particular problem that has become commonplace in RPGs -- the inability to go back to a particular scenario to collect items once the objective has been completed. However, the "barriers" in the world map that usually are present in more linear games are somewhat lacking here. One can easily walk to the places that have no significance to the plot until later, whereas in Final Fantasy, the player did have mountains and seas to block progress. This problem spills over into gameplay, as a party at the beginning of the game can wander and accidentally run into some of the strongest enemies in the game and get wiped out. This is the result of a poorly designed world map heightens the challenge to frustrating level, punishing a player for not sticking to a defined area.
Ironically though its story is far more linear than the previous game, the manner in which your character acquires and develops skills is very open. Any character can equip any weapon or armor. Spells are treated the same way except that they cannot be de-equipped, but only deleted. This game discards the traditional experience system, an aspect present in all the later Final Fantasies -- Final Fantasy's X AP is practically the same as experience. In simplest terms, your skills develop by necessity and repetition. The more a specific character uses a weapon or spell, the better he or she gets at it. Maximum hit points and magic points increase when large numbers of each are lost in battle. This system is surprisingly effective, allowing for a deal of customization later Final Fantasies prohibit. One can have sword wielder who is equally (nor marginally) competent in white magic. Nevertheless, one cannot make a Jack of all trades, or at least an effective one, as the system also causes certain stats to rise and fall due to actions taken in battle. A lot of criticism is aimed at Final Fantasy II because of this, and to be honest this method of character development is not perfect. Still, it is a viable alternative to gaining experience, and makes me wonder what later Final Fantasy games would have been like had the series continued down this path.
More importantly, criticism on this aspect overlooks many of the other changes that were improvements. Magic, for instance, is enhanced significantly in this game. First of all magic points that behave in a similar fashion to hit points are introduced. Thus one doesn't have to worry about how many times spell can be cast to all spells take from the same general pool. Nearly all later Final Fantasies follow this model, and had I been introduced to this aspect of the series from this game, I would certainly love this game more than I do now. Also overlooked is the idea that magic itself levels up depending on how often one uses it. Instead of acquiring a "better" version of the same spell (Like Ice2 instead of Ice), one levels up that same spell, which makes more sense in the long run. Except for picky people who want to make the most efficient use of their MP, who is going to cast Ice on an opponent to take 1/2 of a powerful enemy's HP away when Ice3 would kill it? And since the number of magic points needed to cast a spell is the same as spell level, everything is simpler. The downside to this system is that is does take an extraordinarily long time to upgrade your spells and that many enemies toward the end of the game will have their highest level spells while the player is struggling to reach the halfway point.
Magic development is made more important by the way items are handled in this game. Unlike nearly every other Final Fantasy, the general pool of items is not accessible by the individual characters in battle. Instead, items are essentially equipment. Similar to games of the strategy RPG subgenre such as Ogre Battle 64 and Fire Emblem, each unit/character must carry the item in order to use it in Final Fantasy II. To make matters worse a character can only carry two items, and the party can only carry 63 total items in its item pool (and as I have learned this number is actually an increase from the original). This includes recovery items, battle items, equipment, and quest items that cannot be thrown out. To top it off multiple instances of the same item are counted as separate items; two potions take up two item slots. Due to the fact that learning spells is far less restrictive, items are more worthless in Final Fantasy II than in any other Final Fantasy to date.
The original's graphics are impossible for me to evaluate, as I've only played the Origins version and my only glimpses of the original game are from screenshots and monster lists. From what I've seen of the Famicom version, I will say that the graphics are average, without significant improvement from the original. Still, the monsters in the Famicom version are drawn more effectively than those in the NES Final Fantasy, while the updated monster sprites seemed to be complete and welcome revamps in some cases. On the other hand, the updated character sprites on the PSX make me cringe. Compared to the Final Fantasy updated sprites they seem out of proportion. I can also write with all certainty that the music of Final Fantasy II is awful. Though many of the Final Fantasy Origins remixes of the Final Fantasy were weak, I could at least appreciate the notes that made them. The music in Final Fantasy II had two passable tracks -- the town theme and the rebel base theme. Every other theme, including the battle theme, is sub par.
However my biggest complaint with Final Fantasy II concerns the interface. When I played the Origins version of the first Final Fantasy, the interface was user-friendly with text that was spaced nicely and legible. The interface for Final Fantasy II looks cramped at times and is visually unappealing. While this would be preferable to the original menu system, it does not necessarily make the current one good. I've had to cancel my actions in battle numerous times because of I accidentally selected an action that was either directly above or below the one I wanted.
Despite these flaws, Final Fantasy II is great for showing the first appearance of things that have become Final Fantasy staples (Behemoths, Marlboros, Chocobos). It also demonstrated the problem that has a critical issue of role-playing games. When is customization preferable and when is having set roles such as mages and fighters appropriate? Does having customizable characters ruin the story and hinder the plot, or does it enhance it? Fortunately in the case of Final Fantasy II, the story is simple enough not to have to worry about this.
In short, Final Fantasy II is an interesting game, but I can see why it was not released in the appropriate sequence. There are a lot of good ideas and the story is surprisingly well done for what was originally an NES game. However, its flaws make it one of the lesser games in the Final Fantasy series. It's not good enough to get Origins for by itself. As a side piece to the main attraction of the updated Final Fantasy, though, it is a more than welcome addition to that disc.
Addendum as of 8/1/05 -- I am only adding to write that I have played Final Fantasy II on the GBA game Dawn of Souls. It is a far more enjoyable experience than the Origins verison and even many purists have welcomed the changes made to the game to make it more playable. Even the sprites look better on the GBA rather than the Plasytation. If I had been introduced to this Final Fantasy II as a true Final Fantasy II, it would have been hard for me to be as swept away by the SNES game of the same, misleading name.