I have written at length on the games of Final Fantasy and the "proper" Final Fantasy II. However, as the Japanese Final Fantasy III has not been released yet, I must attend to the next game in the sequence, known as Final Fantasy IV in Japan. Yet I do not feel I can call this game by its "proper" name when discussing at length. This was the second Final Fantasy game I played and exemplified everything I felt a sequel should be. From Final Fantasy to the North American Final Fantasy II to the North American Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy VII, Americans were exposed to an unbroken exponential curve of graphical and gameplay innovation. So this is the second Final Fantasy in my mind, even though it may not be numerically correct to call it so.
I must confess that of all the Final Fantasies I've played, I have the poorest recollection of this one. This is due to the fact that I have only played the Super NES cart on rental. I beat the game several times, once within eighteen hours, my personal minimum for any Final Fantasy. But I failed to see the need to have my parents pay $74.99 (in early 1990's dollars, no less) for a new copy of a game I had already obtained for a fraction of that amount. My opinions then may be clouded by nostalgia, which overlooks the negative and focuses on the positive. At the same time, the good apects of this game will also be washed away, leaving only vague impressions for me to write.
Simply looking at this game reveals how it takes the aspects of the original Final Fantasy and updates them, but keeps the format of the orginal game. While by today's standards the graphics are not cutting edge, Final Fantasy II's graphics easily surpass those of Final Fantasy just by vitrue of being on the Super NES. Battles are given a background that fills the entire screen instead of the upper fringes. Character design became more individualized and varied, shown by the addtion of character portraits, while the increase of colors allows for a more visual and dynamic method of storytelling. Monsters, no longer limited to two or three colors, have a real presence other than damage-dealing avatars whose appearance is difficult to make out. Still, despite all this, this game is closer to Final Fantasy even more than the "real" Final Fantasy II. Enemies share the same names as their predecessors on the NES, many of these monsters having similar poses. Each character you have in your party has a set "role" that visually and functionally parallels Final Fantasy. Even the menu is laid out quite similarly to Final Fantasy.
This link from predecessor to descendant is not simply visual. An often overlooked factor of the Final Fantasy during the transition from NES to SNES is the evolution in music and sound effects. Though the NES had a range of sounds, none of them sounded like real instruments. Thus I fell in love with the themes based on their melody, not their timbre. Final Fantasy II combined the strong melodies of the NES era with the synthetic instruments of the SNES. Instead of similar sounding bleeps, notes could be represented by strings, pianos, horns, or an approximation of generic instruments. The beautiful battle theme, the boss theme, the Elemental battle theme...all of them moved me, having me humming along with the with their melodies and admiring their bass, harmony, and percussion. This music is important for more than listening, though; it carries the plot with its wings. In the same way the sound makes the battles more dynamic. No longer are there three different sound effects for battle, two of which were reserved for taking damage. Swords crash, menus tone to let you know when a character's turn comes up, and spells leave their individual audio print on the battlefield.
Of course, as far as battle goes, the gameplay forced changes in this regard. There are so many improvements to describe, it's hard to limit them to one paragraph. The first is the implementation of the Active Time Battle System, as opposed to the turn-based combat of previous installments. One is not limited to setting actions to the entire group and hoping that in the next round your characters will attack in a fashion that resembled teamwork. In fact, this system obiterates the concept of a round. By contrast battles take place in real-time, with each character having a set time he or she must spend after performing an action. Because of this and the fact that different characters have different speeds, the actions of a character are staggered and thus more individualized. This allows for a greater deal of strategy, especially when the ATB system is combined with the ability of characters to automatically target a new enemy after the intended target was killed. Instead of trying to plan ahead to hit an enemy who may not be present, one could kill the enemy with relative certainty without having to worry if one of your allies will cause the character you directed to flail into empty-air. With auto-targeting, one does not have to plan battles using the Price is Right method of guessing how much without going over the actual monster hit points and thus provoking the dreaded "Ineffective" message. Of course, this system is not perfect. There is a notable lag concerning the casting and execution of a spell which cannot be accounted for in terms of strategy. Compared to the more random order of how your characters attacked in the original Final Fantasy, though, this is minor.
The battle scheme changed from that of Final Fantasy in many other ways. The addition of magic points allowed for more variability in casting magic, and the presence of items that replenished these points, means that one need not conserve all one's spells for dire moments. More importantly, magic is no longer set at a fixed range of damage or healing, but get stronger as the player evolves. The revamped magic system also works against the player as well, for creatures who may have only taken half as much damage from an wrong elemental spell may now be healed by the errant spell. Also, spells are learned by experience level (and sometimes trigger events) and not bought from a shop. Magicians now are a necessity rather than a liability.
All of these features -- graphics, sound, and even the gameplay, were merely the dressing of what I liked about Final Fantasy II. The meat of the game was as still is the story, and this aspect simply blew me away the first time I encountered it. After all, I had no prior experience with a console role playing games with an engaging plot. Moreover, with the exception of ending game sequences and other special animations such as victory celebrations, I had no experience with losing control of my character and allowing the game to take over. This is the first game I played with an intricate plot, one with twists and turns I had rarely seen in any media. In what other game is the choice not to strike back in the face of a relentless assault the correct one? In what game at that time, could one travel from the bowels of the Earth to the Moon and have it all work? Final Fantasy II has a highly underrated story, easily better than all other Final Fantasy plots save the SNES Final Fantasy III.
Not as many gamers are as rosy in their memories regarding Final Fantasy II. Some cry about how censorship and bad translation altered the story for the worse. Others complain that game was watered down from the original Final Fantasy IV and made too easy. While both may be true, there are so many personal memories I could share regarding this game. How I was intially confused as to how to save a game. How my old Commodore 64 monitor I had my SNES hooked up to began ticking for months and finally broke when I was playing this game. How I was haunted by the music when facing the Calbrena. How the very idea of a Big Chocobo amazed me with the concept of seemingly limitless space. How the Toad Lady would urge the toads to croak and change various party members into frogs. How wonderful the Black Chocobo could be. It is these aspects that have cemented the SNES Final Fantasy II as the second best Final Fantasy ever.