Illustration by Angelica Alzona

When you first open up Final Fantasy II, you’re asked to name four characters. Seconds later, those characters are stuck in an unwinnable battle, and you’re forced to watch them die.

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This is part two of Kotaku’s Final Fantasy Retrospective, in which we take a look back at every mainline FF game leading up to Final Fantasy XV.

Opening up a game by taking away the player’s agency might seem like a strange design choice, but in Final Fantasy II, it’s fitting. This is a dark game, one that portrays bloody warfare in as dismal a way as 8-bit graphics would allow. It’s a game where you’ll constantly run into characters on their death beds, one where you’re greeted by betrayal and suffering around every corner. Hell, this is a game where the only way to build up your HP is to force your characters to take damage.

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With the second Final Fantasy, director Hironobu Sakaguchi and his crew did something unusual, something that would become tradition as the series progressed: They changed everything. Fans who picked up FFII were greeted by a game that looked and sounded a lot like its predecessor, but felt completely different. Gone were the elves, the crystals, the fairy-tale story about saving the world by defeating elemental fiends. Final Fantasy II was about a ruthless empire that wouldn’t hesitate to murder, poison, and destroy everything on the planet. This is illustrated both through the story and the gameplay. In one of the first towns you visit, talking to an NPC will get you killed.

I imagine what was most unsettling for players back in 1988—and I have to imagine, because FFII only came out in Japan—was the sudden disappearance of character levels. Instead of gaining experience, your characters earn stats based on their actions. Use a sword frequently and you’ll get better at that sword. Take a lot damage and you might gain more HP at the end of battle. Designed in part by Akitoshi Kawazu, who would go on to direct the SaGa series, FFII’s progression system is almost entirely based on a random number generator, which is one of the reasons it holds up so poorly today.

Watch me play through the first 20 minutes of Final Fantasy II:

The story: The empire is slowly taking over the world, and your personality-free crew of protagonists is recruited to help fight them. As you progress from town to town, you’re provided with a rotating cast of guest characters: priests, pirates, dragoons, knights. You’ll blow up an airship, get eaten by Leviathan (who makes his first appearance here), and fight through many many nasty critters en route to defeating the evil emperor.

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The heroes: Firion, who I guess is a knight or something like that; Maria, who has a bow and the only instance of 8-bit cleavage I can think of; Guy, a dude; and Leon, who is basically Kain from Final Fantasy IV. Since Leon is missing for most of the game, you’ll fill that fourth slot with the aforementioned guest characters.

The gimmick: There’s the stat progression, which might be easier to swallow if it weren’t so dependent upon RNG. And then there’s something way more interesting: a keyword-based conversation system in which you can learn important words like “wild rose” and “mythril,” then bring them up to other people in order to open up new conversations. This system is reminiscent of early adventure games, where ideas and memories became their own sort of RPG inventory. It’s a clever little system that I’d love to see brought back in some way for a future Final Fantasy game.

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What makes it ‘feel’ like Final Fantasy: So many things! Final Fantasy II was the first game in the series to introduce Leviathan, Cid, dragoons, and Ultima Magic. It’s the first Final Fantasy where your characters get turned into toads and even the first Final Fantasy where you can ride a chocobo. Names like Hilda, Gordon, and Mysidia would be reused and called back in future games. FFII even introduced minor series traditions like the Yoichi Bow and Genji armor. Final Fantasy owes a lot to this game.

Fun fact: Final Fantasy IV’s iconic Cry in Sorrow (which plays when Palom and Porom do that one thing) actually echoes Final Fantasy II’s Overworld Theme.

Meet Cid: Our first introduction to the recurring Final Fantasy character comes in FFII, where Cid is a rogueish pirate who loves money and—you’ll never guess—airships! Like most of the NPCs you meet in FFII, Cid dies.

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The best character: This guy:

The best piece of music: Battle Theme — one of the best in the series.

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The worst guest character: Gordon, a cowardly prince whose defining character trait is that he has no self-confidence. He also has terrible stats. He joins your party and drags everyone down. Gordon sucks.

Does it still hold up? No. There’s too much backtracking; the stat system is a real pain; and the dungeon design is atrocious, full of red herrings and doors that lead to nothing but empty rooms. Final Fantasy II is worth appreciating for how influential it was, and how it dared to be different rather than just tweaking the first game’s formula. But it’s not a very good game. (If you absolutely must play it, go with the GBA version.)

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One last thing you should know: It all goes up from here.