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Final Fantasy II (NES) artwork

Final Fantasy II (NES) review

"If one of them makes a habit of using swords in battle, that character will eventually be far more useful with that kind of weapon than any other. If another one specializes in casting spells, he'll wind up with tons of magic points. And if you regularly encounter weak enemies and ignore those hapless foes to have your party members beat up on each other, their hit points will go through the roof."

In the years before Final Fantasy VII made console role-playing games mainstream, it could be frustrating to be an American guy like me who enjoyed the genre. You just didn't know what would get ported over the ocean and a good number of the games that did reach our shores were plagued by shoddy translations. It's hard for me to not be a little bitter when I think of how my teen years could have been blessed by games like Dragon Quest VI or Final Fantasy V…or any number of quality titles.

However, there are some titles I am eternally grateful to not have seen on store shelves in my youth. Titles like Final Fantasy II. While I was on a retro binge and struggling through this Famicom offering, the main thing running through my mind was this strange feeling that if it'd been released in America during those early years of console RPGs, it would have killed any chance of that genre lasting long enough here to become successful. I wouldn't call the game horrible -- it was just really awkward; sort of like tabletop gaming with a dungeon master who's a great guy, but pretty horrible at running a campaign.

It feels like Square wanted to make a follow-up to Final Fantasy, but wasn't sure exactly how to do so; which led to them grabbing a bunch of ideas and throwing them all together -- no matter how ill-advised some of them were. The end result: a promising game with a good story that's horribly marred by a broken leveling system that eventually became what has been used in the SaGa games.

Let's start with that. It is the big deal-breaker, after all. Like you'd expect in an old-school RPG, you'll be controlling your party as they traverse a vast world and delve into towns and dungeons. While walking, you'll frequently be confronted by random battles. Instead of getting experience points for beating these creatures, you'll get the privilege of getting to see if the game's engine feels your combat performance warrants one or more of your characters getting stat boosts. If one of them makes a habit of using swords in battle, that character will eventually be far more useful with that kind of weapon than any other. If another one specializes in casting spells, he'll wind up with tons of magic points. And if you regularly encounter weak enemies and ignore those hapless foes to have your party members beat up on each other, their hit points will go through the roof.

Yeah. I'm pretty sure that wasn't something the programmers intended to have happen, but trust me…getting more powerful through self-inflicted wounds is more tolerable than actually working for that extra durability. It seems like the amount of damage it takes to raise health must be proportionally related to a character's current max hit point total. I'd go long amounts of time with very few bonuses simply because I was in a dungeon or overworld area littered with weak enemies incapable of causing legit damage. When I play a RPG, I tend to grab all the best armor in a town before doing too much exploration, so I felt I was actually hurting my party by being prepared for future challenges. Not the best of ideas, Square.

But not the only bad one in this game. When you go into dungeons, you'll see a lot of paths leading to rooms. Most of these rooms are dead ends. Adding potential injury to this insult, for some reason whenever you enter a room, the game deposits your party in the middle of it. This means that simply sticking your head in to see if there might be treasure WILL lead to you risking getting thrown into a fight or two while slogging your way out. When you consider that, as was the case with many retro RPGs, the combat rate can get pretty intense in Final Fantasy II, having the game essentially force you into a bunch of extra battles just seems like a cruel joke.

The sad thing? There was a lot of potential buried beneath the lackluster game engine. Square made a legit attempt to tell a story in an eight-bit game and, for the time, it was pretty good. Of course, part of the reason this game never saw American shores possibly had to do with the story, as it does involve things like an evil emperor bombing the crap out of various towns AND said emperor turning death into a minor setback by coming back from Hell to resume his reign of terror. Nintendo of America did get a bit censorship-happy around those sorts of themes back in the day, so one can only imagine how badly this stuff would have been neutered.

At the very beginning of the game, a few elite soldiers working for that emperor utterly flatten your four-person group. Three of you wind up in a nearby town where you immediately get involved with a group working to unseat the baddie. The other guy has mysteriously disappeared, so for most of the game, that fourth spot in your party will be filled by a revolving door of temporary party members. With the same "get experience; level up; maybe add the ability to change classes eventually" sort of engine put into both the other two eight-bit Final Fantasy titles, I probably would consider this game a really good game of yesteryear.

Instead, Final Fantasy II is more a cautionary tale than anything else. A lesson in how a role-playing game can be ruined by a shoddy engine. Square probably wanted to do something different, instead of just rehashing what they did with the first Final Fantasy. An admirable goal, but when the end result is not just inferior, but easily manipulated, it comes off as an amateurish effort that falls far short of any other Final Fantasy of the NES/SNES era.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (July 19, 2012)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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zippdementia posted July 19, 2012:

Great review, Rob. To be fair, I always enjoyed the idea of leveling up what you used. It's sort've the Rune Quest system (which later formed the basis for the Elder Scrolls system). But yeah, I also know of its potential abuses. I actually think I may own the game for the GBA; my girlfriend in college had a copy.
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honestgamer posted July 19, 2012:

I have the PSX and PSP versions, which I believe both fixed some of the balance issues Rob noted in his review. I really need to spend some time playing through to the end of some of the early FF titles I haven't completed. I don't have nearly as much personal experience with 2-5 as I would like to have. Then I'm mostly good except for 11 and 12...
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dagoss posted July 20, 2012:

FF2 actually came out before the first SaGa game; it wasn't based on SaGa's system, it was the other way around. Minor point, but it's significant.

I can't think of a game before FF2 that used a system with discrete stat increases. It addresses one of the problems I always had with RPGs when I was a kid, the irrationality of getting strong through experience points. I mean, just because my fighter ground some goblins into goblin paste and spread it over a piece of bread and made a sandwich doesn't mean my mage should get smarter because he watched the spectacle. Goblin paste is not brain food.

While the system they came up with for FF2 has abuses, it was bold and it was (as far as I know) first. It was a bold game. Having a library of words you can say to NPCs was also bold. So was killing a character. I will be the first to admit that FF2 has some broken mechanics, but it has a lot of very positive features too. Unlike a bad game, I think FF2 breaks in ways that still renders it enjoyable.
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honestgamer posted July 20, 2012:

I was thinking the same thing, dagoss (about FF2 being the first to employ the stat increases based on specific type of action, I mean). I just wasn't sure if FF2 came before SaGa. I thought it did, but for all I knew, there was some obscure SaGa NES title and the series didn't actually begin on the SNES the way I remembered. If that were the case, i figured Rob would likely be more hip to it than I would. After all, he's the guy reviewing a Famicom title!
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zippdementia posted July 20, 2012:

Ugh. SaGa.

I owned SaGa Frontier for the longest time. I continually thought I would be able to best it but each time it just wrecked me. A ridiculously hard game where you can easily get yourself stuck and have to completely start over. And the story, graphics, and world scenarios were just not good enough to warrant such pain.

I eventually sold it for a hundred dollars on Amazon! That game was rare, I guess.
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espiga posted July 20, 2012:

Perspective time!

The reason FF2 and SaGa feel so similar to each other is that both projects were directed by a man named Akitoshi Kawazu.

The least SaGa-like of the games, SaGa 3 (released as Final Fantasy Legend 3 in USA) was developed by many of the same people who would go on to make Final Fantasy USA (which was Mystic Quest).

Kawazu's style tends to be rather experimental, with some of his games (Like Romancing SaGa 2) being fantastic, while others (Unlimited SaGa) being too experimental for their own good.

☆~ The more you know
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overdrive posted July 24, 2012:

Wow. The thought that FF2 came before ANY of the SaGa games did come as news to me. I knew it was out before the Romancing Saga games, but I guess I figured it would have come out before at least the first Final Fantasy Legend. Probably just because that was GB (before Color) and so damn primitive. So thanks for that catch. Review lightly altered in light of that.

And Zipp, I almost would have liked Saga Frontier...except for how to beat final bosses in about every scenario, you probably will want to do everything you can. After doing the magic-gaining quest and other things 3-4 times and realizing you have another couple trips through them, it's hard to maintain any desire to continue playing. Especially when you consider things like how one guy (Lute) had virtually no character-specific stuff, meaning ALL YOUR WORK up to the final boss of his chapter will be stuff you did many, many times before. I beat 3-4 scenarios and quit around the final boss of the other ones because I just couldn't bear to do any more work.

I do want to pick up the translated version of Romancing Saga 3 again. I only messed with it for a few hours, but it seemed like a lot of fun.
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honestgamer posted July 24, 2012:

Remember that when Nintendo pushed for the localization of Final Fantasy here in the United States, the JRPG was already becoming a big deal overseas. Final Fantasy II hit the Famicom in 1988, and the first Final Fantasy made it to North America in 1990 (shortly after the release of Final Fantasy III in Japan).

The Game Boy was released in June of 1989, a year or so after Final Fantasy II was released in Japan, and Final Fantasy Legend wasn't released until around six months later (not all that long before the release of Final Fantasy III).

If you're curious about such things, the information isn't any further away than the HonestGamers games database. ;-)

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dagoss posted July 24, 2012:

According this type article, there was a rough prototype of a FF2 localization that surfaced awhile ago:
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zippdementia posted July 24, 2012:

Hm? FF2 was rereleased on the GBA in North America.
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honestgamer posted July 24, 2012:

Zipp, that was a whole separate localization effort, and "re-released" is the wrong phrase because it was never released here the first time. When Square-Enix reworked the first two games in the series for PlayStation, they made fresh localization efforts, changed up some of the game mechanics, and released the result in North America. Then they ported that effort to the GBA down the road, and then later they released the two games as separate titles for the PSP. So Final Fantasy II has definitely been released in North America, but not in 8-bit form.
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dagoss posted July 25, 2012:

Yeah, I'd call that game a remake, since it was esentially rebuilt from the ground-up. The FF1 game for PSX/GBA plays like an entirely different game. FF2 wasn't as drastically different, but still different (and still just as abusable...).
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overdrive posted July 25, 2012:

Yeah, I haven't played the GBA FF 1-2 cart, but from asking people here about it, I got the idea that both games were altered a good bit to make them more accessible to more modern gamers who weren't raised on the idea that a person SHOULD BY GOD HAVE TO GRIND FOR 5 HOURS in order to move more than three steps away from the first town.

And yes, this post does mean I'm entering into the gamer version of that grumpy old guy telling kids about how he walked uphill (both coming and going) 10 miles to school every day in three feet of snow. Damn...EmP was right...
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zippdementia posted July 25, 2012:

I don't know about FF2, but I will say I disliked the FF1 changes. They took out daily spell amounts and replaced it with damn mp! It totally destroys the challenge of the game, since the big balancing aspect of magic in the first one was that you could only use it a few times before you had to go back to town to recharge it. With mp, and then ether on top of that, you can just spam spells, making red wizards the most powerful character in the game.

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