An Unconventionally Conventional RPG
Final Fantasy II
If you grew up in the U.S. (or other international markets), the Final Fantasy series went from the original title to the "sequel" on the SNES, and we didn't know any better. That title, which came out in Japan as Final Fantasy IV, seems like a perfect sequel to the original -- similar themes, weapons and items with shared names, and a larger adventure that showed the evolution of the series. The U.S. Final Fantasy II was the sequel we expected.
However, as the Internet grew and more and more video game fans flocked, fans of the series in the U.S. learned there was a different, official "Final Fantasy II" that never saw the light of day outside the shores of Japan (at least, not until much later on the PlayStation and beyond). What was this game? Why did it never come out? What happened with this lost Final Fantasy II that caused it to be come something of a mythic adventure fans in the U.S. could only dream about?
Well, as fans learned more and more about it, it became pretty obvious why the original Final Fantasy II was withheld from NES release on U.S. shores: it's a pretty strange game. While the adventure seems pretty standard, writing wise, in comparison to the first game (and what came after), the actual construction of the game is quite different from what came before (or since). Final Fantasy II NES is an oddball title that doesn't conform to any of the standards of the main series (instead acting as a first step for the later SaGa/Final Fantasy Legend games to come). It plays like something very different from a proper Final Fantasy game.
In the game, we start of with three characters: Firion, Maria, and Guy. These three are attacked by soldiers of the Emperor of Palamecia at the outset of the game. Taken in by Kingdom of Fynn, currently overseen by Princess Hilda, a kingdom that is, itself, in hiding after the Palamecian army attacks their small kingdom. This puts our heroes, and a rotating cast of additional characters that fill in the fourth slot of their party, on a quest to find a way to stop the Palamecian armies and defeat the evil Emperor once and for all.
The basic layout of game follows a pretty linear progression of quests. Hilda will tell the characters to go somewhere, often giving them a codeword or set of phrases to use, and the heroes will venture off to fulfill that quest. Once done, the game expects you to return to Hilda (or one of her representatives) to find out the next plot point and continue with the story. Sometimes the characters have to preform a fetch quest, such as in the mid-game where they have to collect a Black Mask and White Mask to unlock a dungeon to collect a Crystal Rod and venture into another dungeon... and so on, and so on.
Honestly, in basic storytelling and world layout, Final Fantasy II is beyond basic. It's series of fetch quests feel even more "fetch quest-y" than the first game in the series, and the plot and setting are all very rote. Evil emperor, four heroes, obvious good and evil; playing through the game I was very uninvested in the story or events of the game, start to finish, which made getting through the adventure feel like a bit of a slog.
That said, the construction of the game leads to an even bigger slog, without a doubt. Where the original game in the series was a pretty overt Dungeons & Dragons clone (so much so that the art in the original Japanese edition borrowed liberally from the book and had to be altered in its U.S. release to avoid copyright issues), this first sequel changes up everything. The entire design of the game is more free form, with the expectation that the players would craft the characters in their party as they saw fit. Firion, Maria, and Guy don't fit into traditional classes or roles (this despite the fact that Firion looks like a Fighter from the original game). Instead, each has basic stats and can be customized by the way the player plays the game.
For instance, the more a character uses weapons, the stronger they get with their weapons and the more their Power stat goes up (while their Intelligence goes down). Meanwhile, if you want the to use magics, the individual spells cast will improve in effectiveness the more they are cast, with a corresponding increase in INT over time (with the natural decrease in POW to go along with). Want more Health? Take damage from enemies. Need more MP? Spend it freely in battle. Everything in the game adapts to how you play it, meaning that Firion could end up as your magic caster, Maria you ranged attacker, and Guy your melee battler, among various other combinations.
It's a neat idea in theory, but in the original edition of the game there were a number of flaws with this design. For starters, if you were a casual player and you didn't understand the intricacies of the system, you'd spend a long time having to grind just to improve stats and get your characters in a place where they could survive much past the first act of the game. The enemies in the game quickly get more powerful, to the point where battles can take minutes at a go for even "basic" packs, and that's if your characters are strong enough to even survive. And you will be fighting a lot of packs of enemies because this game (like the original) not only has a high encounter rate but also has a number of "unrunnable" packs you simply can't get away from.
The unrunnable situation is actually worse in this game than in the original. Where in the first game you could learn which packs you could run from because it was consistent across the game ("okay, the FrGiant/FrWolf pack never lets me run"), packs of enemies can vary from dungeon to dungeon and even floor to floor within the same dungeon. If you don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of the whole game (and what player would on their first time through the game?), you're basically going to get the feeling that everything has to be killed. Of course, if you want to enhance all your abilities you'll have to take all these fights regardless, so the sloggy nature of the game sets in further.
Beyond that, though, the game had a pretty large flaw with its upgrade system. Namely, the game only paid attention to the inputs and commands, not to what actually happened in battle, turn by turn. So you could input an attack, cancel it, input it again, and the game would count it twice. Since each stat has a specific number of levels to be upgraded, and a number of points within each level in needed to earn to level up, you could sit in a single battle and attack over and over again, canceling each time, until you earned enough points for a stat. DO that with each character, with their weapons and spells, and you could be walking glass cannons. Have your characters attack each other in the process and, so long as everyone survives the battle in the end, they'll level up their stats, and their health, and walk around like gargantuan titans before you even leave the starting town.
Sure, every once in a while you'd have to stop and re-level one of your new spells or some new weapon type you got, and if you cared about the fourth-slot character you'd have to regularly stop and upgrade them, too. However, since you're always going back to the starting town with its easier set of enemies, level grinding and upgrading is never really all that difficult. Put the time in and the game becomes a cake walk. A sloggy cake walk, yes, but too easy regardless.
Like, I get what the designers were going for but it never quite comes together. Even in the remakes and re-releases (the GBA Dawn of Souls collection adds in a new additional quest at the end, while the PSP edition adds in even more bonus dungeons) the basics of the game remain the same without much in the way of changes or improvements. The make this game play more like the later games in the series would completely change how this game operates, making it both more traditional and somehow look kooky at the same time. It's such a strange, wild way to build a game and, despite the fact that it really doesn't work well here, there's a grain of something special at its core.
That's likely way, after this, lead designer Hironobu Sakaguchi was given the SaGa to explore all his weird and wild ideas about RPGs. Those games, the first three of which comprise the Final Fantasy Legend "trilogy", take the weird stat and upgrade ideas and flesh them out, create more tolerable, and more interesting, adventures from the core ideas first scene here. While technically a different series, those game really do feel like a spin-off of the Final Fantasy series thanks to Final Fantasy II.
The question is: would Final Fantasy II have been a success in the U.S. had it been released here. It was actually a big success in Japan, despite how strange it was in comparison to what came before, and Square original had plans to publish the game overseas. The thing was, though, that the original game came out in 1990 in the U.S., three years after its initial release in Japan. By the time work was going to bring this second game in the series overseas, there had already been two more releases in the franchise in Japan: the third NES title plus the first on the SNES, Japan's Final Fantasy IV. Although a beta cart was eventually produced for testing, under the title Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadow Over Palakia, work was eventually stopped so the company could just port Final Fantasy IV here instead (giving it the Final Fantasy II designation instead).
The thing is, though, that I think this game would have been plenty successful in the U.S. had it come out at the right time (before the SNES took over, of course). Despite this game basically going off to form the SaGa series, there are elements of the design that linger in the main series. The core mechanics, leveling up different stats and focusing your characters in individual ways, can be seen as the first steps towards the Job System, which would become the core of Final Fantasy III before being vastly improved in Final Fantasy V. Meanwhile, the better focus on story, on trying to get you attached to the characters as people (especially the side characters that fight alongside you) would become a core of the storytelling of later games. This title feels like a half-step towards where the series would go, and we wouldn't have those titles without the innovation and ideas baked into this game.
I don't think Final Fantasy II is a good game. Now that I've played through it once I doubt I'll ever go back. It's just too much of a slog, too time consuming to really enjoy. I like what the game wanted to do, though, and if there were a fan hack that made the leveling speedier while ratcheting down the encounter rate, that could actually make for a decent game. That version of the game would be interesting, a fun casual time to go in and enjoy the basics of what make this game unique. This is an interesting evolutionary step for the series, but there are much better games to come down the road.