I'm losing a great deal of my life to Theatrhythm Final Fantasy at the moment. Though it's superficially a straightforward screen-tapping music game, a wealth of dormant gaming memories bubble under the surface, ready to leap out and ambush Final Fantasy fans without warning. I remembered beloved characters new and old, painful life-changing events, close-fought victories and underrated gems from throughout Square's RPG series, brought to vivid life by Uematsu's seminal soundtrack.
Which is why, after playing through The Rebel Army, I started to reflect on Final Fantasy II: one of the most venerable entries in the franchise - and one of the most divisive. Its original 1998 NES release never made it outside of Japan, while American gamers typically confuse it with Final Fantasy V since Square confusingly switched the names around. Having subsequently caught up on the PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, PSP and even iPad, many fans consider it to be one of the weakest links in the chain, citing numerous complaints about tone and mechanics.
While we're all entitled to our opinion, it's easy to ignore just how revolutionary Square's second attempt actually was. Final Fantasy II is one of the most forward-thinking and important RPGs of the NES era, featuring a radical approach to character levelling that's lauded as tremendously progressive in modern games. More importantly, though, it released with one of the most mature storylines to ever grace a videogame: one that deals with the real horror, personal loss, sacrifice and fallout of war. Something that even today's AAA titans frequently fail to accomplish.
Many games (not to mention films, TV series, comics, you name it) have run with the age-old premise of a ragtag band of youths fighting back against an evil empire, joining a resistance movement and having all manner of merry adventures along the way. Final Fantasy II does the same. Taking control of Firion, Maria and Guy (the latter of whom is a slow and affable chap who can speak to animals), you'll witness the three youngsters evolve from naive children into capable warriors, launched into a quest for justice and victory by the destruction of their town. They'll learn life lessons. They'll meet new friends along the way. Most games stop there. But Final Fantasy II gets real.
In the Mass Effect 3 PWNcast, we lauded BioWare's sci-fi RPG for having the quad to take a mature approach to loss; the stomach-clenching feeling of despair when you have to sacrifice friends and loved ones to do what's right. War isn't some glorious deathmatch, it's a field of slaughter, a grinder that chews up naive youngsters and spits them out. We tried to think of other games that managed to convey this sense of in a heartfelt way, but came up short.
Looking back, I wish I'd thought of Final Fantasy II.
Whereas most SNES games barely had a premise at all or focused on a fun and upbeat plot, good people died in Final Fantasy II. A lot. Characters who you'd come to love, who you were able to control for large segments of the game, frequently sacrificed themselves to allow Firion to complete his mission; giving their lives so that the empire could be overthrown. They died, not because you made a mistake, but because you did the right thing. Note that the next paragraph contains major plot spoilers.
Brave and compassionate Minwu dies a hero by breaking the seal of the Ultima Chamber, sacrificing himself so the heroes can acquire the powerful spell and finish his struggle. The last Dragoon, Ricard Highwind, joins the party for several hours, yet is effortlessly cut down by the resurrected emperor while the party desperately escapes, helpless to intervene. Elderly miner Josef takes up the fight despite his age, fighting for what he believes in before holding back an enormous boulder trap, buying Firion enough time to escape with his broken body. Prince Scott of Kashuan is stuck down at the battle for Fynn Castle, causing his grief-stricken brother Gordon to renounce his cowardice in the process. And more besides. Each death, each personal loss of a friend, means something - and so much more because you did the right thing. In war, people die. Because you got it right, because it was the best case scenario. That's not an easy theme for any game to broach, yet Final Fantasy II's timeless plot accomplished it flawlessly in the late eighties. It's also worth mentioning that it set up the franchise as a story-driven affair after the gameplay-focused original.
Okay, that was heavy. Let's move on before we start watching Requiem For A Dream and listening to Radiohead's entire discography on loop. Final Fantasy II is also remembered for its approach to character advancement, which were previously the exclusive domain of experience points and levels. Square were brave enough to try something new, and implemented a system that - at the time - was utterly revolutionary. Characters didn't gain levels, rather, they became better at using weapons by using weapons. They increased their mastery of spells by casting spells. There were no levels, instead, characters who frequently took damage would become more resilient while magic users received boosts to MP. This versatile and freeform system allowed characters to gradually evolve through gameplay, and when the Elder Scrolls series took much the same tack, we lapped it right up. Some even called it a true 'revolution,' despite Final Fantasy II popularising these mechanics five years previous.
Of course, many of us hated it. Partly, the lack of our beloved experience points made us scared and confused, but the system was also admittedly broken. Players quickly worked out that they could attack their own party to advance their stats, thus making a mockery of the whole shebang. And cheating themselves in the process, mind.
But for those of us who didn't cheat, Final Fantasy II was a revelation, and it still stands as a unique and truly influential part of the series' history. Should you have the opportunity to play it (be sure to search out the Dawn Of Souls remake since it includes a fantastic epilogue campaign), I'd urge you to do so. Not because it's universally considered to be the best, but because it dared to be different.