Sunday, July 5, 2009

Rose-Tinted Twenty-Twenty Hindsight, Part 2 of 2

(If you're interested, you can have a look at the previous part of this posting)

So yeah, Final Fantasy II.

I find myself caught between revulsion and admiration for this bizarre game. The leveling system, combined with the glacial rate of advancement, almost invariably led players to stop living in the game and to start treating it like an SAT math problem. At the same time, the game also went to some trouble to try to make leveling something that made sense and mattered to the player, rather than just something that happened all at once after you'd killed a few hundred goblins. The problem wasn't that FFII's system was a bad idea to begin with, not really; it was that FFII's system went a bit awry.

What made me want to look more closely at FFII is that I think Jeremy Parish has been feeling the same way lately. He's been writing recently about the Game Boy in honor of the 20th anniversary of its launch, and one of the series he's talked about a bit on Retronauts and elsewhere is Final Fantasy Legend, the American version of a series called SaGa in Japan. These games are renowned for their obtuse and bizarre (much more bizarre than FFII) mechanics, and guess what? They were directed by Akitoshi Kawazu, who worked as a designer on FFII.

Parish has pointed out the spiritual connection between FFII and the FF Legend/SaGa games, saying that the original Final Fantasy Legend is essentially Final Fantasy II-2 (cf. Retronauts episode 69 and, I think, 71). The oddities in the designs of FFII and the SaGa games (which I can't get into here) seem like annoyances in the abstract, but putting a face to this work, and acknowledging the obvious links among these arcane RPG systems, begins to show that though this be madness, well, you know.

This is interesting, of course, but it's Parish's observation, not mine, and for the sake of this post, I was just as interested in Parish's change of heart. In the past, Parish has been as cool towards FFII as everyone else—in fact, I just happened to listen to episode 1 of Retronauts a few days ago on the way to work, and the scorn he heaps on FFII and the SaGa games there is the stuff of legend. But one of the secrets we keep about being worthwhile human beings is that no one is perfect, and as a result, we all get to change our minds from time to time (hint: don't tell your kids about this). And somewhere among the Retronauts podcasts and the GameSpite posts of the last month or two, Jeremy Parish has slightly redacted his old take on FFII, acknowledging the game's strengths without reversing his previous position on its overall quality.

This got me thinking: what if we'd gotten FFII back in the early 1990s? We very nearly did: if you ever tried to emulate FFII and FFIII for the NES/Famicom back in the day (back before we all knew that emulation was immoral and illegal and something none of us should ever, ever do), you might have noticed that for some time it was impossible to find an English-language FFIII ROM, whereas it wasn't nearly as difficult to find one for FFII. That's because FFII was actually translated into English (not to a finely polished sheen, but...) for a North America release, but guess what? FFI came out in Japan in 1987; it wasn't released here until July of 1990. The SNES came out a year and a month later here, and at that point, do you really think Square was going to release another Final Fantasy for the NES? Leave that to Enix, who would publish Dragon Quest III in June 1991 and Dragon Quest IV in October 1992! Not to mention that there were huge problems in adapting FFII into an English-language game, as you can see if you look at the Lost Levels feature I've linked to below. No, Square held out a bit and gave us Final Fantasy IV instead, in November 1991. Granted, it wasn't the real Final Fantasy IV, and it was relabeled as FFII, but that's another story.

Anyway, my question is this: is Final Fantasy II such a horrible game that, if we'd ever gotten it, we would hate it as much as we do now? We look at FFII with the advantage of critical insight and an increased sense of self-worth, after all. We know we're better than games that waste our time like this. I mean, I can remember early in my NES career playing games that, in retrospect, I realize are complete crap, like Deadly Towers, Hydlide, and Dragon Power (Dragon Power...shudder) and realizing there was something off about the whole experience and, because I was a naïve seven- or eight-year old, blaming myself for the games' failings. A few years later, I would be able to play even worse games and shrug off the experience with the help of those three valuable but now overused words, "this game sucks," and life would go on. But there was a time when I would slog through even the worst game with the worst mechanics and the worst design sensibilities, to the best of my abilities, never realizing it wasn't my fault I didn't like this particular game.

This meant that I finished a lot of games that were sometimes challenging, sometimes not, but which certainly wouldn't persuade me to waste more than a minute or two of my time on them now. It's just easier as a more seasoned gamer to see the difference between good and bad.

However, this sort of no-taste approach to gaming also meant that I put more time into games that, if I were to play them for the first time now, I might give up on as poorly designed. To be honest, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is almost certainly of this kind. I honestly like that game a lot, but it's a bizarre, often idiotic game that expects leaps of intuition from the player that are just not going to happen. You need the Nintendo Power with the scary cover; you need your (weirdly knowledgeable) elementary school buddies' help. When a game expects you to fight even ridiculously difficult enemies for too-gradual increases in power, that's okay, I guess. When a game expects you constantly to check walkways for invisible pitfalls, that's annoying. When a game expects you to guess that you're supposed to crouch next to a lake for several seconds, that's ridiculous and unfair, and it doesn't make for an interesting game, it breaks the game. If CVII hadn't had the twin advantages of 1) coming out during gaming's (and our) youth and 2) being part of an important franchise, we'd all hate it now, I suspect.

Several other games fit this mold, too, I think. Zelda II might well be one; I love it, but think of the problems: inexplicably, you receive three lives, even though the Link is supposed to advance like an RPG character. Doesn't this mean you should have either no extra lives (like a FF game) or an infinite number of them (like any other Zelda game)? If you lose those three lives, it's back to the first section on the world map with you, even though all you'll have to do to get back where you left off is walk a while and maybe suffer a few monster encounters; that gets annoying over the course of an entire play-through. Still and all, I love Zelda II, but come now, is that because it overcomes its faults and ends up being pretty good in the final reckoning, or is it just because it's a Zelda game and it's one I loved as a kid? I honestly can't say.

You know what else fits the mold? Sad but true: Metroid. Gasp! But yes, it totally does. Granted, Metroid kept things much more in moderation than Zelda II or Simon's Quest or FFII, but there was no way to play through the game just intuitively and get all the stuff you needed; you'd have to bomb all the walls and floors you could to find it all. Or you got lucky and got a map somewhere.

And yeah, as I was saying, if we'd all had to press through FFII as little kids with lots of free time and little else to do with it, would we be so unanimous in our scorn for it now? Or would it be another one of these borderline games that are obviously pretty wonky but we just can't help loving? The old Famicom version of FFII is hard as hell, and it takes forever to level anything, but do you remember what it was like trying to save up the gold for spells in FFI? Or what it was like trying to learn how to survive act 6-2 of Ninja Gaiden?

I'm just saying.

FFII screenshot from The Lost Levels (, and please also see this excellent feature on the canceled translation of Final Fantasy II). Metroid screenshot from Strategywiki's Metroid section. Ninja Gaiden level map swiped from The Video Game Atlas' NES section.

Rose-Tinted Twenty-Twenty Hindsight, Part 1 of 2

I'd been playing Final Fantasy II for all of thirty seconds when what's pictured above took place. Of course, this is a scripted total party kill, and it will happen to everyone who plays the game; it's part of the story. Everyone survives, but you start with four characters and lose one in this fight; he doesn't show up again until a good deal later. The point is, though, a game that kills all of your characters off as its first narrative act—that may be, as the saying goes, nature's way of saying "don't touch."

And Final Fantasy II is almost universally reviled. I did a little research before I wrote this posting, and I noticed that, well, reviewers' remarks about FFII are rarely bland. Here's a small sample:

"plagued by a fundamentally busted experience system that encourages you to attack your own party members
in order to beef them up. Truly bizarre." (from Shane Bettenhausen's EGM/1UP review of FFI/II: Dawn of Souls for the GBA)

"it is a terrible game, forcing players to attack themselves in order to increase their stats and bombarding them with
evil deities that could melt faces at the beginning of the game if they dared to accidentally wander too far" (Ashton Liu's RPGFan review of FFII Anniversary Edition for the PSP)

"Final Fantasy II - arguably the most messy and directionless game in the series ... originally Final Fantasy II was an utterly unforgiving experience, where hours of levelling up could be required just to prevent your characters from falling off the game's power curve" (Rob Fahey's Eurogamer review of FFI/II: Dawn of Souls)

The annoying thing about FFII is its advancement system, which implemented a bit differently could have been its greatest strength. I'll explain: unlike other FFs, FFII levels characters' individual stats based on what sorts of actions they take in the game. This plays out just a little bit like advancement in the old Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory games, though FFII's skill set is directed towards combat while QFG's is directed towards puzzle-solving. The hero in QFG, for example, might try climbing a tree ten or fifteen times until his climbing skill increased and he managed to get all the way up; a character in FFII might fight with an axe repeatedly until his/her axe skill increased.

This is actually kind of neat when it comes to casting spells. Unlike FFI and FFIII, where even spells belonging to the same family are purchased separately, or FFIV, FFVI, and so on, where spells are gained arbitrarily with levels, FFII features spells that level up with use. So if you have a mage who knows Fire, she only has to cast the spell a certain number of times until it becomes more potent, the equivalent of one of the other games' Fire 2 (or FIR2!) or Fira. This really does feel right in context, actually; a spellcaster should become more powerful with practice.

The problem is that FFII is a cruel, cruel game, and it requires a LOT of repetition of the player before it begrudgingly doles out rewards. It's no better for fighters, since they can't specialize in broad groups of weapons but must specialize in narrow weapon categories like staves, spears, swords, and axes. It can also be hard to have a combo weapon user/magic user, because intelligence and strength, the abilities that determine black magic ability and fighting ability respectively, are treated as opposites: one will deteriorate gradually with use of the other. Perhaps worst of all, FFII gives out health rewards based on the net amount of damage characters have taken over the course of a battle. This means, first, that a character who takes 100 HP of damage in a fight but receives 70 HP of healing will only get the benefit from the 30 HP of damage that is left unhealed; worse, this system encourages the kind of exploitation the reviewers above noted, where players would have their characters attack each other to boost the amount of HP gained at the end of a battle.

At its best, this makes for an intricate system that a player can really get to know and play with and (perhaps) enjoy; at its worst, it creates an obtuse mess of a game that favors the worst sort of power gaming, which is the death of all fun when it comes to RPGs. I think a person with a real love for game systems can't help but feel a mix of excitement and disgust when she looks over the various nuances of FFII's system, which HCBailly has more or less exhaustively detailed in his impressive and lengthy series of Let's Play videos on Youtube.

Layered on top of this weird system is a kind of cool dialogue-based mechanic which requires the player to learn certain words and phrases in conversation and repeat them later in the game to other characters to accomplish certain tasks. So, for instance, accosting an old man early in the game prompts the bizarre response, "I'm just an old man." Mentioning a certain password, though, gets the old man to reveal that he is actually a legendary blacksmith who will help the player by fashioning powerful items.

That's probably enough for one posting, so I'm going to call it a day. In the second half of this posting, I'll bring up a question that's been bugging me about FFII's reception since its first North American release (2003's Final Fantasy Origins for the PlayStation) and how that reception might have been completely different if we'd gotten the game much sooner.