This post is a part of A Crystal Compendium, a collaborative blogging project between multiple writers, reflecting on the Final Fantasy series. Check out the hub article for a full listing of games and posts!
So there I was on a long family trip with a copy of Final Fantasy Legend II. One of my siblings beside me. One Game Boy between us. It was on this trip that we discovered that Final Fantasy Legend II does not memorize your current save slot. On one hand I suppose this is better than FFLI, which only had one save slot to begin with, but that’s little compensation when you’ve erased someone else’s save file. Or when you erase it again. And again. And that one time when the other one of you erases the first person’s save file in the second slot. Yeah, neither of us beat the game on that family trip. Or for years to come, for that matter, but there’s a different reason for that.
Like its predecessor in the Final Fantasy Legend / SaGa Game Boy trilogy, FFLII has that “mythic opening” I was rambling about in my coverage of the previous game. And it’s just as greedy, too! This time you’re going to be looking for MAGI, which stones broken off of a statue of the goddess Isis and grant the owner the power of the gods. Others are way ahead of you, too, and have established themselves as “the New Gods.” With all due apology to Jack Kirby. Now the New Gods have established themselves at the heads of separate societies, and one of FFLII’s outstanding gifts is seeing how their personalities have already changed or warped the cultures around thems. Of course, you’re in this MAGI race for perfectly heroic reasons! Naturally! Your party may not be able to exploit the MAGI the same way some of your competitors will, but they still gain special powers not common to other JRPGs, and ones that break the relatively unique systems of FFLII to boot. Their system-breaking powers make them feel godlike in their own way. Solid premise: secured.
While FFIV gets all the credit for paving the way into a new era for story-driven Final Fantasies, it’s worth noting that FFLII/SaGa 2 predates its 16-bit cousin and is just as narrative-focused! (They were released almost on top of one another in North America.) It’s not as pretty as FFIV, sure. Its scripted sequences aren’t as animated, either, and for better or for worse FFLII is less consistent by design, since the “multiple worlds” design of the original FFLI is back for a second pass. But for what it might lack in horsepower it still has in heart. Six months before Square’s Cecil Harvey began to question the hand that raised him in FFIV, Game Boy fans could play a game about a young adult searching for their missing and estranged father, experiencing the uncomfortable mixed feelings of meeting his secret second family, and questioning just as many if not more questions about the legitimacy of power at the local, familial, and even deific level. Oh, and both games got a terrible English translation that undercut their attempts at drama, so they have that in common. FFLII arguably took a worse hit in its localization than FFIV, since censorship deliberately undercut some of the unpleasant family drama that FFLII holds closest to its heart. But best to cover that as it goes along.
Like in FFLI, it’s up to you to pick one character and then recruit three more, though the other three get to be actual characters this time around, since there’s no permadeath (on the flip side, there’s also no way to kick out your allies if you realize you don’t like your party composition!). Your first choice is a little more serious this time, too, since your first character becomes the lead, the person looking for their dad, whether they be Human, Mutant, Monster or the brand-new Robot race. Let no one say adoption is not for Robots or sentient, cannibalistic, shapeshifting earthworms! Monsters are much the same as before (though some of the internal details have changed), but Humans and Mutants are now both legitimately playing out of the FFII playbook, where using certain stats causes that stat to rise. Humans have better odds of gaining physical stats and Mutants favour agility and magic, but everything is open to everyone if you’re willing to work at it. This is also the best version of Kawazu’s oft-maligned progression system that I’ve had the chance to play, just a few steps off of ideal (I have high hopes for Romancing SaGa at some point in the future!). Meanwhile, the new Robot class get their power from their equipment, but mind that equipment slots in FFLI and II are harshly limited.
Oh, and speaking of both the lead character and party customization: in a weird decision, whoever you put at the front of your formation ends up doing most of the talking for some reason. This is trouble, because the person at the front of your formation also takes the most enemy attacks. It might be a good idea to make your lead character someone who belongs at the front of the line, so that they can do the talking, too! It’s more… convenient… shall we say, if Dad was extra-special fond of Robots eighteen years ago when he and Mom went to visit the combination foster-home-and-RadioShack.
From here, it’s off for a good-old-fashioned, Mana-esque “getting locked out of your hometown forever” opening sequence. This is followed three whole worlds of interconnected narrative, maybe the best interconnected narrative that Final Fantasy has ever shown in a small area this side of Midgar. The first three worlds are all relatively small and tightly wound, featuring recurring characters and locations, and a central plot that involves you chasing down the plots of the openly evil New God Ashura. Okay, so there’s backtracking involved, but it’s otherwise a delightfully consistent narrative that’s a shame to leave behind, and so unlike all the journeys into the one-way-unknown that dominated the RPG scene of the time! It only adds to FFLII’s old-school D&D cred that it stays so deeply invested in the local, if even for just a short amount of time!
During that initial three-world loop, you’ll dodge zombie guards, watch a White Mage blow up a building, and wander the first “enemy town” in Final Fantasy history. Perhaps you’ll die and meet the New God who offers to revive you in return for a future duel! Later, you’ll break down the wall that used to stand between the RPG party and shopkeepers, and be like an ant in the land of the giants (which was something FFIII brushed on with its frequent use of the Mini spell, but never fully embraced). Oh, and then there’s the point where you actually shrink down and Fantastic Voyage your way through the detailed innards of a friend of the party, performing surgery of a sort. It’s some of the best stuff of the era. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and so must these first three worlds. But that doesn’t mean that FFLII is peeling off the track, far from it. It just tosses aside “doing things interconnected and outlandishly” for “doing things individually and well.”
Now that you’ve killed the chaotic-evil Ashura, it’s time to play politics with subtler New Gods, all of which are mixed impressed and afraid of you for disposing of one of their number and wearing his divine power as a necklace. There’s Apollo, who’s either a friend or stalling for time; Venus, who’s trying to build utopia in her own image; and of course the nice man who wanted to fight you after you died, whom you soon learn goes by Odin. And that’s not to count all the New Gods living in the shadows, either because they have no interest in politics or because they’re playing it especially well. And don’t forget the Guardians, regular people just trying to stop power from falling into the wrong hands!
It’s also high time to get to understand your absentee dad, though the confrontation will be very different depending on your localization. The Japanese version was pretty clear about the questions it wanted you to raise and when. Why does Dad always disappear the moment you get close to him? Does the little girl you befriend in Apollo’s world have a little more in common with your lead than being headstrong and proactive? No matter what the answer, Dad’s behaviour was clearly too much for the English translation, and it was somewhat shoddily censored out.
While it’s Apollo’s world (FFLII’s fourth) that raises these questions about your Dad, the gameplay on Apollo’s World is a little weak. Neutral quality at best. The next few worlds are much better, but I’d hate to spoil them even a little, so we’ll skip ahead a few worlds to talk about Venus’ utopia. Venus’ world, like the fourth world of FFLI, feels like it could have been a whole game instead of just a fraction. Exploring her utopia and the fetid, volcanic jungle outside its doors just has to be experienced. In a larger-scale release, Venus’ world might have had a little more subtlety to boot, but as it stands, I’d say it’s just as transparent as it needs to be. Besides, the wedding scene at the end is still a classic, especially in how your party just sits and watches the damage play out like a player entertained.
After that, it’s time for the famous dragon race – which is a race where you ride a dragon, just in case that was too awesome for you to take in all at once (the dragon race is even more famous thanks to its game-breaking walk-through-walls glitch, but that’s another story). Next, the world of Edo, where the black market sells everything you could ever want for prices you can’t afford, but nuts to that guy behind the counter because you’re here to arrest him for smuggling. For smuggling “bananas,” that is! Evil, evil, bananas. Definitely not opium! The FFLII localization team would like to reassure the parents of North America that no one is smuggling opium.
It’s too bad the game begins to lose its quality in the final hours, and like friction it loses more and more speed as it goes on. The next, entirely optional world is tough as nails if you bother with it now, but whenever you play it, it might very well kill your enthusiasm. Odin’s world is all dungeon and no plot, and I mean literally no plot if you never died and made a promise to him, as he’ll simply attack you without a word. Things pick up in the last proper world, but only for a moment before you realize you’re now nearly stranded on a island of little content, with mobility restrictions, a time limit in the form of your guest party member’s decaying equipment durability, and oh yes, a boss that’s so rigged that it’s actually hard to beat with a Game Genie hacked party, as I discovered while I was trying to take screenshots for my original blog coverage. And if you’re trying to play fair…? Oh yeah, I definitely didn’t beat this game on my family trip.
Mix in some bad decisions with the levelling mechanics and monster meat mechanics, and then learn that the finale then leans its weight on a twist that isn’t that surprising any longer. Then cap it all off with one of the least remarkable final bosses in series history, and I say that just a few games ahead of the time a Final Fantasy game ends with a fight against a tree. The remake did the final boss better, at least. FFLII’s steep decline in the final hours was so disappointing that, after playing FFVI, I ranked it my personal 4th Worst Moment of the Final Fantasy games we had played to date (FFI-FFVI by release date, with a few exceptions for sequels). I added that this last-hours quality plunge was even single-handedly to blame for my kicking the game to my third favourite game played so far overall, when it could have easily been first! But on the flip side… it still won third!
Speaking of the remake, it’s a lot more drastic than the WSC remake of FFLI/SaGa 1. Like SaGa 1’s remake, this one does have a fan translation. The SaGa 2 remake is a DS game, so we’ve got 3D graphics this time around, and I hear most of the systems are intact with nothing but additions to boast about. And damned if it doesn’t have my favourite version of “Let It Begin.” When the game was initially announced, its website even had a special version of “Let It Begin” featuring just the violin part, which I heard every time I came to the site looking to see if there were updates. When the full version came out, the song and the site opened with just the violin, only for the whole orchestra to come in just a few moments later. After twenty-five or so years with the subseries, plus the extra kick of surprise, I legitimately broke into tears at the sound of it.
The remake does have a few extreme changes here and there that should discourage any gaming historians from playing it without playing the Game Boy version as well (enemies appear on the map instead of randomly; progression is handled differently). Oh, and sadly its multiplayer features are as dead as nearly all DS multiplayer. That said, the remake still seems superior to the Game Boy version in my mind. Casual players should probably consider playing it instead of the version from 1992. Give it a shot, and as with any fan translation, if you enjoy it, give the translation team your thanks!
If you liked this post, check out my original coverage of Final Fantasy Legend II here, or other Final Fantasy games on the top bar! Or carry on to the rest of A Crystal Compendium at the hub article!