Note: The numbers used here to refer to the iterations in the Final Fantasy series are the original Japanese designations.
Final Fantasy II is a rather unappreciated Final Fantasy game. Ask a casual fan about it and they’ll probably mention one of three things: Firion, the Emperor, and “Isn’t that the one where you have to attack your own party members to level up?”
While the original Final Fantasy of course, started the series, and Final Fantasy III had a DS remake that got some attention, Final Fantasy II is a bit more overlooked. However, it’s an important game to analyze for its impact on the franchise. In many ways, Final Fantasy II is just as important as the original Final Fantasy in the franchise’s history, and in some ways, it’s even more important.
Final Fantasy II Was an Innovator
Something that is often forgotten is that the original Final Fantasy was heavily based on Dungeons & Dragons, with many concepts directly lifted from the game, like Beholders and Bahamut. Final Fantasy II distanced itself from that mold, and it started by making itself standalone; it bore the numeral “II” but only bore some similar gameplay and graphic features. The story and characters did not carry over from I to II.
Final Fantasy II set itself apart by creating and innovating. It introduced the Bomb, Cait Sith, Behemoth, Malboro, and Iron Giant as enemies. There were no Chocobos in the original Final Fantasy, and no Cid, either. You can thank Final Fantasy II for those. You can also thank it for Ultima, Leviathan, and Dragoons. These days these elements are so iconic to Final Fantasy it seems almost impossible to think of a game without them. But that’s just how the original Final Fantasy was. Final Fantasy II was doing something critically important for a franchise to survive: shaping its own identity and mythos.
Story & Characters
Another important factor that made Final Fantasy II so important was its story. The original Final Fantasy had a very barebones story. Final Fantasy II had a much larger, complex story. It has often been said that it is merely a rip-off of the story of Star Wars, specifically A New Hope, but it is still a step up from the original Final Fantasy. You did not simply travel from town to town seeking out quests as you found them. Instead, there was an overarching story unfolding and the actions taken by the heroes were in accordance with story developments.
Final Fantasy II had a fairly substantial cast of characters, and they joined and left the party as their own objectives changed. The three permanently controllable heroes – Firion, Maria, and Guy – were rather one-dimensional, but they did have characterization of a sort. Contrast the original Final Fantasy with four unnamed heroes that never spoke and were only identified by their job classes.
In this, one can even see the beginnings of what would become one of the major differences between Western and Japanese RPGs: WRPGs usually allow players full customization over their characters and make them silent and/or unseen to facilitate the player seeing themselves in their character’s shoes, while JRPGs more often have players take control of established characters and move them through a focused narrative that they are actively involved in.
Character Customization & Leveling
Final Fantasy II also made advancements in the idea of free character customization. Any character can equip any weapon and armor and learn any spell, while the original Final Fantasy had character classes set in stone at the start of the game, and their strengths and weaknesses were very clear-cut. As said above, it’s a bit infamous as the game where a player has to attack their own party members to level up. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it is not untrue.
In Final Fantasy II, characters level up proficiency with equipment, spells, and stats, as they get more use; constantly casting spells raises spell level and the Magic and MP stats, while attacking while equipped with a sword raises sword proficiency and Attack. This does mean that the most efficient way to level up, especially early in the game, is to enter a battle with weak enemies and, rather than focus on killing them, have party members attack themselves and repeatedly cast spells on themselves to level up their stats and proficiencies. Beyond the first quest or two the need to do this greatly decreases, and later remakes adjusted the leveling system to be better balanced, but it is still an oddity for any game.
Why Is Final Fantasy II Overlooked?
So, what makes Final Fantasy II so overlooked? Well, it is a rather uninspired game. As TV Tropes calls the phenomenon, “Seinfeld is Unfunny.” Everything that Final Fantasy II established is so deeply ingrained in the franchise identity that it can be easy to not care what started it first, and indeed, everything that Final Fantasy II did has been done better by some other game since; better storylines, better characters, codifying the appearance and combat tactics of monsters and jobs, and expanding on the iconography of the franchise more. Malboros may have appeared in II first, but they didn’t have their signature attack Bad Breath, for instance.
Replaying Final Fantasy II these days, there is very little about it that stands out against the likes of other titles in the series. Against Final Fantasy III‘s refined and expanded job system that offered far more complex gameplay, and Final Fantasy IV, which established what the Super NES could do and introduced the Active Time Battle system, Final Fantasy II seems very underwhelming. It’s just sort of there, we don’t hate it, but we just don’t particularly care for it either. Few are those that may say it’s their favorite game, but I have yet to see anyone claiming they hate it.
A Chance to Be Rediscovered
Final Fantasy II has been remade several times, with the most recent release being smartphone ports of the PSP anniversary release. This release also features the Arcane Labyrinth bonus dungeons, a rather unique take on the idea of a bonus dungeon where the player proceeds through random floors dictated by the keywords they learn progressing through the game. In this incarnation it does form its own identity, encouraging players to roam freely and level grind and power up to attempt the Labyrinth at earlier levels. This also factors in nicely to the Soul of Rebirth post-game quest where four fallen party members meet in the afterlife; their “ultimate weapons” found in the Arcane Labyrinth, as well the extra levels they certainly gained getting those weapons, will be carried over into Soul of Rebirth and help even out that mode’s rather steep difficulty curve. Perhaps in this incarnation, available to a wide audience via their phones, Final Fantasy II can be rediscovered and enjoyed for its unique gameplay mechanics, and recognized for everything else it put in place for the later games to build on.