In this picture above from the Playstation re-release of Final Fantasy II, we see Square retroactively beginning their policy of putting weirdly effeminate or androgynous, David Bowie-esque villains into the “Final Fantasy” series.
Final Fantasy II is the odd duck in the series, and not just because I only got to first experience it as a fan translation released in 2001 (an official translation eventually hit the North American market, but not for another two years), more than a decade after it first came out. Because it was designed by Akitoshi Kawazu, the same person who would go on to do the SaGa series, FF II has a gameplay system radically different from anything else in the series. Instead of gaining levels, you develop your strength and your magic and even your weapons via your actions in fighting, which sounds more interesting than old-fashioned level building until you realize that it means you’re expected to, say, do the same action 100 times just to make them “go up” (and even then, if you do another action or fail to do a certain action, you can actually go down). I don’t know anyone who played the game that didn’t exploit a certain famous bug that allowed you to just input the same action in the battle, cancel it, and repeat to make it “count.” In fact, it’s telling that, when Square “updated” the game for release on the Playstation, they didn’t “fix” the bug at all. It’s like having the company tell you, “Yes, we know this is tedious as all hell.”
In spite of this heretical gameplay, in other ways this kind of is the first real Final Fantasy. Besides the first appearances of chocobos, a guy involved with airplanes named Cid, and a bunch of character classes like (spoony) bards and dark knights, there’s the matter that is the first installment to be truly plot-heavy. While the first Final Fantasy complicated the usual swords-and-magic plotline with an out-of-left-field twist, the second threw in a story that featured a much larger and involved cast and a kind of changing, organic storyline that at the time seemed much more suited for anything other than a video game. Yes, the story was pretty much stock – four orphans go out on their own to fight a power-mad emperor who is working with demons – and you knew in the end that you would fight the Emperor much like you knew you’d have to fight the Four Fiends of the Elements in the original, but you didn’t know you’d end up pulling a Jonah and getting swallowed by a whale (or in this case a “Leviathan”), that your good amnesiac friend who was conscripted into the Empire would eventually join the side of the angels (well, okay, a blind man in Tokyo could have seen that happening all the way in San Francisco), and that most of the people you meet will end up dying horribly. No, this game doesn’t fuck around; most of your friends and allies are going to die and many of the towns and cities you visit are going to be utterly obliterated. When they re-released this game with optional bonus quests, they added a part where you get to play as most of the game’s supporting cast in the afterlife. It makes it even more of a shame that this game didn’t get a US release right away. I can’t speak for other kids in my generation, but we could have all used the valuable moral lesson that, while maybe you and your closest pals could against all odds overthrow a corrupt, demon-fueled nation that has taken over most of the planet, but almost everyone you’ve ever cared about and has ever shown you any kindness will be butchered, so stop crying!