The History of Final Fantasy 2 and 3
After going the distance and fleshing out the history of Square and the rocky start to the first Final Fantasy title, it's time that we move with the face of the role-playing genre. Today, we're going to elaborate on the history, development and legacy of both Final Fantasy II and III. Keep an eye out for the birth of the chocobo, moogles, the introduction to your favorite summons and the first incarnation of Cid! You guys better take this time to put on our favorite 8-bit track from this part of the series as you join our party and explore The History of Final Fantasy II and III.
As we're progressing through the Final Fantasy franchise's rich history, we get to provide to you the back story and premise of two titles that never reached US shores 15+ years after each we created. Remember that in our previous entry in The History of Final Fantasy, we said that the original title was never released on the Nintendo Entertainment System until 1990, which was three years after its initial release in Japan. By the time Final Fantasy was released on the NES in the States, Final Fantasy II and III were both released in Japan. And factoring in the release of the Super Nintendo/Super Famicom system in 1990, Nintendo seemed to scrap the porting of both titles to the NES for the sake of focusing on their upcoming new console. But we believe that the release of a very controversial game by Square resulted in Nintendo's American offices temporarily holding off on releasing additional Square titles.
Square: Started Cashing Checks, Became Racist
Despite Square's rise from the ashes after the success of the first Final Fantasy, they only released two games during the two year period between Final Fantasy II and III: 'The Final Fantasy Legend' (a Game Boy title which eventually gave birth to Square's SaGa series) and 'Square's Tom Sawyer'. Directly based on Mark Twain's famous novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Square's Tom Sawyer title ended up using Twain's source material as the plot for the story, even featuring the novel's same racist overtones. Unfortunately, the developers and artists were only focused at appealing to Japanese audiences while developing this title, and Sawyer was not designed or written with American audiences in mind (please note that this obviously does not excuse its racism). As you can see by the provided photo, much of Square's plot, characters, dialogue and art design were quite racist; and hiring a well-known manga artist to do the cover and promotional art for Square's Tom Sawyer only streamlined its racism.
Ironically, Square's Tom Sawyer had first-person RPG battles similar to Dragon Quest and played like an average RPG of the late '80s. We believe that once Nintendo's American publishers caught wind of Sawyer, they wanted to put their relationship with Square on hold. This theory adds an extra, potential explanation as to why Final Fantasy II and III were never released in America. Sure, most people believe that Nintendo was simply making room for the SNES. But given that the NES library continued growing until the system's official retirement in 1994, we believe that Sawyer's controversy played a bigger role than most other fans realize.
Final Fantasy II: Not Just a Remix of the First
After Final Fantasy's initial release in Japan, Square found that they stumbled upon a gold mine. Pulling themselves out of financial ruin and making a ton of gil on top of that, Square published three titles via third-party developers after the first Final Fantasy. 1988, the year after the first title, Square only developed two titles and released them in December of that year: the real-time strategy game Hanjuku Hero and Final Fantasy II. Final Fantasy II was released exactly 364 days after its predecessor. And we will explain why many of FFII's main faults can be attributed to Square rushing the development of both Hanjuku Hero and FFII, since both titles exhibit many signs of a lack of in-depth play-testing .
Production: Different Directions
Now that Final Fantasy started rising to the plateau of RPG success that was once exclusive to the likes of Dragon Quest and Ultima, Hironobu Sakaguchi was bumped up from simply being a planner of the original game to the director of its sequel. Sakaguchi and his new, expanded team, flushed out the narrative of Final Fantasy II, with its story as its main focus and the aspects and mechanics of gameplay simply being a means of letting players experience that story firsthand.
Most of the original team was still with Square to work on Final Fantasy II, including composer Nobuo Uematsu and concept artist Yoshitaka Amano. Sakaguchi simply had a much larger team and more creative control over the series which he originally planned to be as the final piece of software he'd ever do before returning back to college. Nasir Gebelli, the lead programmer of both FF and FFII, was forced to prematurely return back to America while programming Final Fantasy II in Japan, resulting in most of the team having to fly over to California to finish its development. Due to the cost of having Square's entire team moving to California, and along with trying to make a holiday deadline, Final Fantasy II was released only 364 days after the release of the original title. Despite many of its advances and an overall expansion on the 8-bit RPG experience, the final product displayed many signs of being rushed and showed insufficient game testing.
Sakaguchi's story-driven focus can be seen through FFII's keyword system. During conversations, special highlighted words could be learned and repeated back to specific NPCs. While this became a trial and error system to most, this gave a sense of control in terms of Firion's dialogue.
A Completely New Story: Because RPG Fans Love Star Wars
The original Final Fantasy left no room in its story to have any sort of continuation. Instead, Square decided to bring a completely different tale to life, resulting in the series' ongoing pattern of always having a completely new story (besides those godawful, direct sequels to specific number games of the series). Luckily, Sakaguchi and the super friends decided to make the story of FFII be the game's central foundation.
Completely new to this chapter of the series, FFII's protagonists have their own names, background stories and preexisting relationships between them. At the forefront of this tale is Firion, the main hero; Maria, a friendly archer; Guy, an animal-loving monk; and Leon, a dark knight who starts the series trend of having that, "one friend who strays from the group, betrays the team really bad, feels emo about it and eventually rejoins you in the end". After Leon gets separated from the group near the beginning, various secondary characters will fill the dark knight's spot, such as Leila the pirate, Prince Gordon, Minwu the White Mage, and Ricard the Dragoon (another series debut). Some of these characters get killed off, some of them get critically hurt, but the overall effect is still the same -- you become attached to these people and feed off of the camaraderie that exists between them. Don't get too attached though, because about five or six pivotal characters die throughout the story. (And you thought George R.R. Martin was bad.)
The influence 'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope' has on Final Fantasy II's plot is quite apparent. In fact, the narrative trends started in FFII would eventually continue on even in the modern area, such as Final Fantasy XIII. Let's see if you have ever heard this before: a group of ragtag friends find their hometown destroyed by government soldiers (in this case, Palamecian Black Knights, not Stormtroopers). On the run, they encounter an underground resistance run by a young princess. The princess tells them that the rebellion isn't their fight and that they don't have to stay. The princess gets kidnapped and put on a giant dreadnought ship. Entire populations get killed by the empire during this time and eventually one of your main characters is stuck in a power struggle between fighting for good or evil as he is standing at the emperor's side. Ultimately, your friend helps you finally vanquish the emperor. Obviously there are some major differences between FFII and Star Wars (e.g., killing the Emperor early and him returning from hell to fight), but come on.
The World: Ch-ch-changes!
This would be the first game in the series where you would meet a guy named Cid who would let you use his airship. Building on part one, the canoe, boat and airship return in order to help you explore. Along with these vehicles are the introductions of the snowcraft (which helps navigate the frozen northern areas of the world map), and chocobos. The musical theme and inability to encounter enemies while riding on the back of these yellow, nonflying birds would continue to be a series staple to this very day.
Classes: Your Characters Grow! (except for the ones who get Aerithed)
Gone are the class upgrades and leveling systems of the first title. Instead, Final Fantasy II introduces the logical concept of leveling your specific attributes through the actions your characters partake in during battle. For example, a character's strength will eventually increase if they keep physically attacking monsters. Your HP and defense would eventually increase if you kept getting hit. Stats that never increased would eventually see a decrease over extended periods of time, resulting in you shaping your characters into mages or physical fighters however you saw fit.
Battles: Every Action Matters
Since everything you did would correlate to a particular stat to be increased, there were plenty of ways to cheat the system in ways that Square did not plan on. Players could leave one enemy on the screen, paralyze it, and have your party attack other party members to build stats. Also, cancelling commands at the last second would result in the action still being recorded to the stat's progression. This would mean that a single fight could result in you tremendously boosting your party far beyond what Square intended for a normal fight. Square also made the enemy encounter rate extremely high during dungeons in order to force players into raising their stats to meet the basics required of the dungeon boss. Fortunately, many of these bosses had an overlooked exploit as well.
Magic: Exploits and the Signs of Rushed Development
Gone were the magical charges of the first title's spells and players were introduced to the series' standard of MP. Maximum MP would increase from continuously draining your MP via casting, and there were many ways of recharging MP, not just going to an inn. A telltale sign of FFII's rushed development can be seen from how easily most of the game's bosses can be defeated -- you simply cast Death, Mini or Toad on them in order to result in an instant-kill. Many bosses in this game require mastery of the weapon-switch feature in order to beat them. Unfortunately, all you really need is someone who can cast Toad.
The Menu: The Status Screen Actually Matters this Time!
In most traditional RPGs, whenever you would gain a level, your character's statistics would be arbitrarily raised, resulting in predetermined stats per level. FFII's new leveling system required constant vigilance over your status menu. More specifically, you had to also keep track of your characters' weapon and magic skills. You also had the ability to switch weapons mid-fight in order to select more appropriate items to combat enemies with (such as status-inducing weapons or elemental-based ones). And each of these weapons also had a specific statistic that you could level.
Each character has a specific affinity for the various types of weapons you encounter through the game. These affinities boost your overall damage with the weapon type and can be leveled up through repeated fighting with the appropriate weapon. The same can be said of magic. The more you use a specific spell, the greater damage it could deal out. Unfortunately, by the time you reach the final areas of the game, using high-end magic spells simply was not worth it due to how tremendously hard it is to level them (many of them drain a majority of your MP with one cast). On the other hand, most of your your low-level spells have been leveled to the point that they deal damage on par with top tier magic, resulting in most players avoiding the high-end spells altogether.
Legacy: Most People Still Mistake This Game as Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy II was almost released in 1990 as "Final Fantasy II: Dark Shadows Over Palakia". But it was scrapped due to Square's shaky status and Nintendo prioritizing its SNES/Super Famicom library. FFII would not reach American shores until 2003 as a completely redesigned 16-bit remake in the "Final Fantasy Origins" compilation for the Sony PlayStation along with its predecessor. Final Fantasy II's 16-bit remake would continue to be ported onto various systems. But those hoping for an actual port of the original 8-bit game would have to wait until the internet community released pirated, fan-translated versions of Final Fantasy II in the early aughts.
Final Fantasy III: Back to Basics
Many people thought that the differences between the second title and the original were a bit too much. You had the keyword system dictating much of the narrative progression and plenty of game-breaking exploits within Final Fantasy II's combat system. Final Fantasy III was released two years after its predecessor. Like the second title, FFIII introduced many concepts which would stick with the series into the modern era. So let's summon some monsters and jump into Final Fantasy III, which debuted in Japan in 1990 and never debuted in the United States until 2006.
Production: Slow it Down and Get it Right
Given that Square only released two titles during the two year period between FFII and III, we can assume that they took much of the critical receptions of their second title and took their time trying to get the third one right. Again, we have Hironobu Sakaguchi at the helm and Square captain Masafumi Miyamoto as producer. Most of the designers and programmers from the first two titles came back, along with an expanded team. Yoshitaka Amano returned to design the graphics and character art. And Nobuo Uematsu came back to craft what we consider one of the greatest 8-bit soundtracks of all time.
Story: Because You Can't Save an RPG World Unless You Were Orphaned First
Final Fantasy III starts off as an earthquake opens a cave on a floating continent near protagonist Luneth and bff Arc's hometown of Ur. Along with the female blacksmith apprentice, Refia, and a loyal soldier of Sasune, Ingus, the four characters disguise themselves as Onion Knights (talent-less soldiers), and explore the cavern. Inside, the four would-be warriors encounter the Wind Crystal of the Light (no longer an orb). The crystal gives your squad the power of changing into a few different types (jobs) of fighters and beseeches you to seek the other crystals and bring balance back to the world. The four warriors of the light then venture out to the world beneath the floating continent, a land that they originally thought did not even exist.
A warlock named Xande appears to be the big baddie who is out to get the other crystals and bring about chaos. But eventually you find out that 1,000 years ago a flood of light tried to destroy the world, and the light crystals were used in protecting the world. You end up saving the light crystals, venturing into the dark world, finding the dark crystals of that side and eventually the four warriors of the dark. These dark warriors assembled the light crystals and shielded the world from the flood of light. You find out that Xande was being controlled by the flood of darkness itself in an attempt to prepare for its arrival. Along with the four dark warriors, you vanquish the dark cloud and reestablish order between both the light and dark realms.
The World: Floating Continents and a Variety of Vehicles!
Remember the awesome, huge Dreadnought from the previous game? This time you get one of your own (named the "Invincible")! Way earlier than you did in FF and FFII, you get Cid's airship, except this one can't cross over mountains. Cid's ship, the Enterprise, could fly through the skies, land on water and travel like a boat. You also got the Nautilus, which could both fly and submerge into the deep blue sea so you could reach underwater ruins and dungeons.
Classes: Go out into the World and Get a Job
Dragon Warrior 3 may have been the first RPG to introduce a changeable class system two years earlier, but Final Fantasy III took the class system and ran with it. As you find more crystals, you unlock more jobs for your characters to play as. These jobs offer a distinct set of statistics and methods of fighting associated with each one. Also, these jobs coincide with one of FFIII's newest features -- unique commands.
Battles: Jump, Steal and Summon!
Each class comes with a class-unique command, such as the Thief's steal and the Dragoon's jump. These add tremendous variety to your party and keeps things entertaining as you go from dungeon to dungeon. Also, some of your jobs bear semblance regarding outside combat as well. For example, the thief can pick locks which normally you would have to use magic keys on. These jobs also changed what your characters would look like as they explored the world.
Gone is the attribute-based system of Final Fantasy II, with FFIII returning to the traditional leveling scheme of the first title. The only difference is that your characters' classes level up as well. While FFIII has a much lowered enemy encounter rate, the variety of enemy parties you encounter are varied, similar to the original. There are also back attacks in FFIII, which throw a monkey wrench into front/back row melee arrangements and provide much-needed sense of change from the traditional format.
Many RPG fans were pleased to see that Final Fantasy had returned to the magic-charge system which was abandoned in part two. Fortunately, Sakaguchi listened to the critics and made the charges much more generous to the point where you did not feel compelled to always save your magic spells for boss fights. There were also various in-game ways of replenishing your charges while outside of town.
The Menu: Job Capacity Points = More Acronyms to Remember out There
With the focus off of leveling specific statistics in battle, the menus of FFIII were visited quite less. The only exception to this would be for the sake of checking your job levels and perhaps changing jobs altogether. As you fought, you would gain gold, experience and Capacity Points (CC). These points could be spent by a character to switch from their current job to a new one. The CC system forced players into trying out specific jobs for a while instead of constantly changing them on the go.
Legacy: "What do you mean this isn't the Esper one?"
There were two major flaws at the forefront in Final Fantasy III. The first would be the vast differences in usefulness between certain jobs. For example, Scholars, Vikings and Red Mages were much less useful than the likes of a Knight, Magic Knight or Ninja. Most players would find themselves avoiding many classes altogether as they would just stick with the more overpowered ones. The other detriment to FFIII would be its lackluster plot. Given the amount of crazy narrative twists and instances of character development filled throughout FFII, you would think that FFIII would include the narrative engagement. But instead, we simply have a mediocre rehash of the first plot with a new crystal story.
This was also the first time we encountered the likes of moogles, fat chocobos and the series' classic, summoned monster (Ifrit, Shiva, Ramuh, etc.). Unfortunately, the United States never saw any version of Final Fantasy III until 16 years after its release in Japan. Again, fans who wanted to play the 8-bit original version could only do so via fan-translated, emulated copies. But still, Final Fantasy III was an important piece of the franchise.
Unfortunately, FFIII was overshadowed by Square's Sawyer game and the release of the Super Famicom just a few months later that year. While this hindered most of the chances of FFIII receiving any type of Nintendo port, the introduction of the Super Famicom/SNES would start the era in which Square would cement themselves at the reigning top of the RPG genre.
Get ready, because when we return to The History of Final Fantasy, we're hitting the 16-bit era! And if you're unsure of where we're starting off at, we'll leave you with the intro to a joke - so a Dark Knight and a Dragoon walk into a Baron...