Final Fantasy II
Is it exciting, or is it just one more history lesson on what games used to be like?
Every family has it's black sheep. Seen in equal measures as outcast or pioneer, the black sheep has it in their nature to stand out from the crowd. The shepherd glances with a critical eye, already the poor creature is seen as a stain amongst the flock. But sometimes there's a wily air about that sheep, some rather special twinkle in its eye. It could be as if it knew something, that something wasn't fine and dandy on the farm, that sooner or later they'd all just be mutton sent to market. It gets it in its head that it's going to change things, do something extreme, lead the flock on a new path and maybe just find those greener pastures. Final Fantasy II was something of a black sheep. But when he went astray, some think he just fell off a cliff.
There's no denying the fan led controversy that surrounds Final Fantasy II. Enthusiasts who can stake the claim of playing every Final Fantasy are often pointing out, Final Fantasy II was the least of the beloved. It never saw a release outside Japan until the brand itself could ensure its sales. And even then it was often repackaged with its much favored elder brother as a two for one deal. Hindsight has a funny way of claiming to know all of ones faults, of which II had many. But perhaps with age there is wisdom. With the re-release due out later this month, the lessons of subsequent generations may leave us a better Final Fantasy II than what ever was.
The original Famicom title of 1988 gave birth to a number of staples to the Final Fantasy universe: Chocobos, Cid, a bunch of orphans. But where it faltered was its leveling system. Doing away with the traditional use of experience points, it used a system where skills were improved the more you use them. The more you used magic, the better you got at it. The more you got hit, the better your HP will be. Conversely skills you didn't use would atrophy. Concentrate too much on physical attacks, and your magic will suffer. It's a system bearing some small resemblance to the modern classic Oblivion, but back in the day it was simply imbalanced and frustrating. (So... if you didn't get hit your HP would go down?) Final Fantasy II Anniversary for the PSP is thankfully built up from the rebalancing found in the GBA version. The notorious system wasn't wholly done away with, but it was reworked greatly and the result proved much more palatable.
For the most part, unlike its predecessor you started and finished this game with the four main preset characters. Firion, Maria, Guy, and Leon were characters with their own stories and motivations but for the most part are young adventuring orphans set against the evil empire. Early Final Fantasies were never known for the deepest stories but the budding seeds were there for epic fantasy. With dealing with the preset characters however, some of the wisdom of the leveling system shone through. Potentially you could adjust and develop your team however you saw fit just by grooming their actions to specific tasks. And careful development of your characters was certainly required as the difficulty ramps up almost exponentially according to your level.
One of the more peculiar ideas FF II implemented was not in the battle system but in the overworld. What was called a "World Memory" system added a small but rather interesting dynamic to the usual towns person repetitive dialog. It's possible to ask NPCs about certain phrases, then memorize them, and then ask another NPC about them. This could potentially unlock sidequests, more information, or even useful items.
Once again, Square Enix goes well out of its way to improve the classic sprites up a bit. The excellent monster artwork gets a better representation every time, and the character portraits have been redrawn. Orchestrated music is a must, and ever always Nobuo Uematsu's score is a triumph of poetry in sound. And what would a Square Enix revival of an old game be without a spiffy and beautiful opening animation. It's all rather classy without ever loosing its original style, the kind of first class treatment we wish all our favorite oldies could get. But similar questions arise that came with the re-release of the first game not one month ago. Whether or not this is an exercise in stretching our nostalgia too far or if indeed there's indeed a lot to learn from the past, it's all something of a moot debate. Square Enix generally treats its Final Fantasies right, and if we keep on buying them they'll be sure to keep on making them.