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Final Fantasy II: The lost "black sheep"

Final Fantasy II, the 1988 sequel, never came to the NES. The "black sheep" of the series, it is inferior to both I and III. A complete English prototype of the game was made but then shelved due to the release of the SNES. This was an understandable business decision, as FF4 is the far better game. The root problem was how long it took RPGs to make it to the West.

Final Fantasy II has a clichéd story cribbed from Star Wars. There is an evil empire and emperor, rebels, dark knight, and city-destroying, flying death machine. The protagonists are four young people, orphaned by the empire. The game opens with a battle they can't win, but three of them are revived by one of the game's many NPCs, Minwu, a white mage. He works for Princess Leia—I mean Hilda, the leader of the rebellion (and yes, at one point you have to rescue her from a cell). You choose the names for the heroes: each is a tabula rasa, like in FF1. The girl's brother is missing and doesn't appear until late in the game (with a Star Warsian reveal). A rotating cast of characters fills out your fourth slot, which is one of the best parts of the game. Minwu, Ricard, Leila, Gordon, and Josef flesh out the world. Ricard is the last-surviving dragoon (but the first in an FF game), and you even get to ride his wyvern! Oh, and Cid! He lends you his airship though sadly never joins the party himself. The game also introduces chocobos.

The rebels' base in the original

FF2 eschews the XP-based system of its predecessor in favor of skill-based leveling (as seen in Final Fantasy Adventure). Weapons come in six types (plus barehanded, like a monk). Every time a character attacks or casts a spell, that particular skill meter fills a little. The stronger the enemies, the more the meter fills. Once it's filled fully, the level of that weapon or spell increases. There is also a shield skill, which goes up whenever the character with the shield is attacked. If you go shieldless, the character instead uses their weapon two-handed, resulting in a stronger attack. However, it's wiser to use shields because the agility stat is tied to evasion and shields increase evasion. Heroes who don't use shields will have low evasion and agility, so they will take far more damage, especially late in the game.

Similarly, a hero's maximum HP increases only if they take damage during a battle. The more they lose, the higher chance it will go up. MP works the same way, so you should cast spells early and often. Spells cost one MP per skill level. Some players may be tempted to attack their own characters to increase their HP. As a result, the remakes add scheduled increases and ignore self-damage (you can turn this off in the Pixel Remaster).

In my opinion, the skill system works better than a lot of people have given it credit, but it is slow. Leveling up your skills, especially with so many different spells, takes a long time and makes the game even grindier than its forebear. The remakes, of course, speed it up (you can approximate the original experience in the Pixel Remaster, as I did, by setting the "boost" to 0.5x).

Another aspect of the game that frustrates some players is the magic-interference penalties. Almost all equipment has a magic penalty, which decreases spell accuracy. All shields and bows have a massive penalty of 70. This penalty was invisible in every version of the game prior to the Pixel Remaster. I like the magic-interference system because it keeps things balanced. Tank-like heroes will not be effective spellcasters; powerful mages must eschew heavy armor; a red mage should avoid shields. The best armor are the cuirasses (replacing FF1's bracelets) because their penalty is a negligible 1. In case you're wondering, a cuirass is a breastplate and backplate.

All shop items except potions (restore HP), eye drops (cure darkness), and antidotes (cure poison) are rather expensive in FF2. Gold needles (remove petrify), ethers (restore MP), and maiden's kisses (remove toad) cost 2500 gil. Phoenix downs (revive the fallen) and cottages (fully rest the party on the map) cost 5000 gil. Elixirs (fully replenish HP/MP) cost 50,000. With the exception of gold needle (SOFT) and cottage (HOUSE), none of these items existed in FF1. Unsurprisingly, the remakes drastically reduce these prices, except for elixirs. The Famicom version had an offensively tiny inventory, and items didn't stack—a grave flaw fixed in remakes. Incidentally, this is the first FF game where shops have an interior map instead of opening a shop-menu screen.

The game contains the same number of spells as the original FF: 20 white and 20 black, though many were replaced by new spells. Spells are learned from tomes, which are sold in magic shops, randomly dropped by enemies, and found in chests. This was the first FF game with item drops. Alternatively, a tome can be consumed as an item in battle: it casts its spell at level 16 on all enemies (or all characters). There are also items with spell effects, such as spider's web, which casts Slow 16, or unicorn horn, which casts Basuna 16. Basuna removes temporary ailments, like confused, asleep, and paralyzed. Since spell power is largely determined by the caster's spirit (white) or intelligence (black), a non-magic user will get a lot less mileage from a spell cast via an item, tome, or weapon ability.

Since you need to level them, it's best to focus on just a few spells. For black magic, I like Fire, Thunder, Blizzard, Osmose (refill your MP without ethers!), Toad, Berserk, and Haste. Don't sleep on Toad: it's broken. Very few enemies in the game resist it, and it becomes effective as early as level 3. By level 6 or 7, it is so powerful that you can target all enemies with it (reducing its effectiveness by 75%) and still hit at least one enemy. Unlike in later games, enemies turned into toads automatically and immediately run away, so you don't have to waste an attack finishing them up! It's by far the strongest spell in the game.

For white magic, I like Cure, Life, Esuna, Teleport, and Holy. There is a whole plot point about finding the Ultima tome, sealed away in Mysidia Tower. However, the spell was mis-programmed and does less damage than Holy. The remakes fix this bug, but it still takes a lot of effort to master Ultima because its damage is based on the caster's total levels across all weapon, shield, and spell skills! If you take the time to level everything, it is the strongest offensive spell (and has a cool animation, at least in the Pixel Remaster).

Esuna works weird in this game, as it cures only darkness at level 1, or darkness and poison both if you cast it outside battle (as if it had an extra level). With each level, it can remove another status ailment: curse, amnesia, toad, petrify, and finally even being KO'd. It's hard to level Esuna enough to remove petrify.

The game looks great in the Pixel Remaster.

FF2 has a keyword system, where you learn keywords (such as the password Wild Rose) from certain characters, then repeat them to other characters to advance the plot. Sometimes, you may also need to show a character a key item, like Gordon's ring. It's not very remarkable. It was probably more interesting and innovative in 1988. Early on in the game, you have to do some backtracking to acquire and repeat keywords to people in different towns. You can save yourself some time by paying to use Cid's airship.

FF2 relies heavily on dungeon crawling. I find the dungeons less interesting than those in FF1, and the random-encounter rate is unusually high. The designers included a weird system of "trap rooms" (unique to this game): doors that open to blank rooms with even higher random-encounter rates. Bizarrely, the door leads to the middle of the room, requiring several steps to exit, so you usually have to fight a battle. Often four doors appear next to one another, three being trap rooms, which is annoying.

The final battle

Most enemies are easy, but a few have extremely high defense, to the point that they are practically invulnerable to physical attacks. For example, early in the game an adamantoise guards a treasure chest. If you don't have MP left to cast Blizzard, you're doomed. The game gives you an antarctic wind in a chest, which casts Blizzard 16, so that helps. There are several guarded chests like this in the game that can easily wipe out the party. Nowadays you can reload your autosave, but in the original you would lose all your progress since you entered the dungeon! 80's games were mean, man! The final battle against the emperor is suitably epic, though he can be defeated easily with the Blood Sword, which drains 1/16 of his maximum HP per hit!

Famicom graphics

FF2 is a great-looking game, following the aesthetic of the original without looking like a ROM hack. One of my favorite things about the FF series is the enemy sprites, and FF2 happily uses entirely new sprites. Many enemies from the original, such as goblins, dragons, mages, and ogres, reappear with new looks. The only reused sprite that stands out is the main character, who is identical to the original Fighter (he was redesigned for the remakes). The combat screen was improved by removing the pointless boxes separating the enemies, characters, and background environments. The music is fantastic, with lots of great themes, including a boss theme (which FF1 lacked) and the chocobo theme.

I developed a soft spot for FF2 after buying and playing an NES reproduction cart of it years ago. It has a learning curve, but there is an amazing web resource called Gamer Corner Guides that breaks down every mechanic, formula, statistic, and bug. There is plenty of fun to be had powering up your heroes, though I'll admit that toward the end of my recent replay I began to tire of yet another labyrinth stuffed with foes. The skill system and high random-encounter rate make FF2 grindier than your typical JRPG. The original FF feels more balanced and somehow more interesting to me (maybe that's just nostalgia). FF2 isn't bad, but it's not as good as FF1. I wish it had come to the NES (an SNES-style remake finally came to PlayStation in 2002), but it's easy to see why they scrapped it in favor of the far superior FF4. The bigger tragedy is that we didn't get FF3, either! I recommend FF2 for diehard FF fans.

Grade: B

From the NES prototype


  1. the game’s unique skill-based leveling, rotating cast of characters, and emotional storyline make it a memorable entry in the series. Kudos for shedding light on this overlooked gem!

    1. I'll always stick up for this one! Glad you enjoyed the post.


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