I’ve put more hours into Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call this week than I’m comfortable admitting. It’s a fine game, and it would be reasonably fun to blog about all of its little quirks and nitpicks. I feel like the internet is about to be flooded with peevish “why this character and not that character!?” rants in the coming weeks and months, though, so I’m going to take things in a bit of a different direction. See, playing these Celebration Games always gets me wound up to replay whatever games are being celebrated, but that’s a sticky wicket with the FF series, because Final Fantasy II.
I wonder, when it comes to Celebration Games: are developers ever embarrassed when they have to acknowledge terrible games they’ve made? Did the guys who made the Sonic ’06 level in Sonic Generations draw the short straw? Was there a furious debate over whether to put stuff from Metroid: Other M in the new Super Smash Bros.? Publically, companies always manage to put a brave face on things, but it makes you think.
Curtain Call seems a little more self-aware than many others in this regard, in that it includes nods to dozens of beloved FF spin-offs but refuses to acknowledge barrel-scraping crud like FF Tactics Advance or FF4: The After Years. Someone at Square-Enix decided to draw a line, and that line left FF Dimensions and FF7: Dirge of Cerberus out in the cold. And you know what? God bless ’em. Let’s be charitable and say these garbage games were evolutionary dead-ends in the FF ecosystem. Nothing wrong with culling the occasional vestigial limb.
But you can’t draw a line through Final Fantasy II. The title is Final Fantasy, and then a number. Just having “13” in the title of a game implies the twelve games that came before it, and in this case, one of those games was Final Fantasy goddamned II. Curtain Call includes its FF2 content only grudgingly: only two characters, three monsters, and fewer tracks than any other main series entry. It’s the hairy, oozing wart of the series.
They have tried to remake the game a couple times, but a fresh coat of paint doesn’t help when your foundation has so many giant cracks in it. Usually, they have to package the game in with its big brother in order to get people to buy it, since FF1 is a timeless game that people actually want to play. I haven’t seen the sales numbers for the PSP and iOS versions of FF2, where it was released as a stand-alone title, but I’d be willing to bet they aren’t rosy.
And yet, for all its sins, it’s an example of what I feel is the true heart of the series: FF is never shy about throwing away what came before and re-inventing itself. For decades this series has pushed at the boundaries of what RPGs were and are. FF2’s existence shows us this is not a modern development. If you played FF2 back in the ’80s, you first had to discard everything you had learned from FF1. The game knocked everything sideways. A bit too much, really; a big part of FF3’s design involved re-orienting the series back towards something recognizable. And every game thereafter featured some mixture of old and new.
There are a million negative things to say about FF2, so I’ll say something positive instead: just about every idea it introduced into the RPG lexicon is considered good design by modern standards. Maybe there is a brilliant game hiding in there, somewhere, thirty years ahead of its time. Maybe a modern remake of the game, where everything is re-built from the ground up, could be a hit.
So let’s take a break from trashing this awful game that sucks, and try instead to look at the things it has going for it. What elements does it have which, if properly nourished, could make a modern version of the game sing?
Point One: Firion is cool.
Years ago, during my 13 Weeks of Final Fantasy articles, I ranked Firion above the angsty likes of Tidus and Cloud. (And Squall, though replaying FF8 last year has caused me to re-evaluate my stance on Squall. But that’s another blog post.) I lumped Firion in with FF3’s Luneth and FF5’s Bartz: they were bland heroes with few defining characteristics. But that makes sense; FF2, FF3 and FF5 are all entries where the player gets to decide which characters fill each party role.
Firion has a major leg up on Luneth and Bartz, though: he looks like a badass. On the Famicom Firion was just a red-fro’d FF1 FIGHTER, but in the PS1 remake and in every version of the game since he is decked out in wicked armor and covered with colorful adornments. Since Dissidia he has been depicted as carrying around an arsenal of weapons, one of each type of the FF series has to offer.
I think the history here is interesting. In FF1 your heroes’ equipment was determined by their job, and the only notable gameplay involved in selecting equipment was “Can this cast a spell if I use it?” In FF2 any character can use any weapon, and their proficiency with it is determined by how many foes they’ve bonked with that weapon type over the course of the game. This is FF2 gameplay we’re talking about here, so it ended up being broken and stupid, but it made the player consider their weapon selections on a new axis beyond “what sword has the biggest number”. In theory characters were able to specialize, or generalize, or eschew weapons altogether and go bare-knuckled. There were interesting decisions that involved considering the properties of the weapons you just uncovered in that treasure hoard vs. what types of things your party was skilled at hitting with. Point is, the concepts of training and swapping weapons was something that defined FF2 as a whole, not Firion in particular.
But then Dissidia came around, and it had to distill the themes and concepts of each FF game into how its protagonist was portrayed. Cecil weilds Kain’s spear, Bartz equips a random selection of moves from the rest of the cast, Onion Kid uses both of FF3’s endgame jobs… and Firion became a weaponmaster. Since Dissidia has done more for Firion as a character than his original game, that’s how players now regard him.
I think a potential FF2 remake could leverage that. There’s this oldschool image of Link from the Legend of Zelda instruction manual depicting him with all of his various tools and weapons from that game strapped and pocketed on his person. That’s what modern Firion reminds me of.
Point Two: Players like leveling their skills naturally.
Skill advancement in RPGs tends to happen in one of two ways. Either the hero amasses some abstract resource, automatically unlocking higher stats and new abilities as he goes, or the player is handed some abstract resource and is expected to spend it unlocking the stats and abilities he wishes to use. The former style has fallen a bit out of fashion, and many modern RPGs use a blend of both. FF2 used the latter style before anyone knew how empowering it could feel, but unfortunately long before anyone knew how to do it properly.
Well, that isn’t the case anymore. As good as the FF series has always been about re-inventing itself, it’s been just as good at recognizing and stealing good ideas from other games when the opportunity arises. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel here. Fold in a skill advancement system similar to what you’d see in an Elder Scrolls game, and you have something fun and workable that would still feel very much like FF2. Want to learn how to use a sword? Use your skill points to level up swordsmanship!
As they fight in battles, characters would amass three different flavors of EXP. You spend Weapon Points (WPs) to level up your weapon skills, Spell Points (SPs) to level up your spells, and Ability Points (APs) to level your base stats. You gain WPs by hitting with weapons and SPs by casting spells. APs would increase steadily but naturally as you win battles. The higher level a stat or skill is, the more points it costs to raise it again, but there is no limit on how many points you can earn. There is therefore no bad way to spend your points — at the absolute worst, you have to fight a few battles so you can level something else. (FF10 does something similar with its sphere levels. It uses a different gating mechanic to make sure you don’t level everything all at once, but the end result is about the same.)
Two aspects of FF2’s advancement mechanics always get mentioned by people lamenting this game: leveling up HP and leveling up spells. Instead of gaining more HP as they level up, the heroes in FF2 gain it by taking damage. This sounds like a neat idea that would just kind of work itself out as you play, but in practice it fails because it stops functioning if the character is wearing a decent set of armor. Very quickly the player realizes the best way to train HP is to take off his armor and have his own party sit there beating on each other, which is an even more dull than running circles killing slimes. Not to mention thematically ridiculous. This problem is gone now, because instead of your HP going up by taking damage, you increase your HP on the menu by spending APs.
The spell system is reviled because you have to train every spell individually, there are a hundred spells, and it takes a hundred castings to level any of them up. Training one spell to the point where it’s useful takes some serious grinding; training up a dedicated mage is totally unthinkable. Instead of having a separate level for every single spell, let’s train them in categories instead. A skill for damage magic, a skill for debuff magic, a skill for healing magic, and so on. There’s a little too much going on to be able to split everything evenly into the traditional White/Black sets, but there’s also no need for nonsense like Fire 7 and Basuna 12. Without sitting down and re-working the whole list, I could see fitting everything into a White/Black/Green/Ultima system that would give the player sufficient freedom and fit FF2’s lore without blindsiding them with “Oh, you trained lightning magic? Sorry, this boss is only weak to ice.”
In addition, let’s have a class of spells that we simply acknowledge are utility spells that sit outside the system and don’t need to be leveled: Libra, Esuna, Teleport, probably the infamous Swap. These spells are useful, but stronger versions of them are not more useful, and weaker versions of them don’t make any sense. FF13 was wise to understand that spells like Libra and Quake don’t jive with its style of ATB, and spun them off into being special techs instead. There’s room for that wisdom in FF2.
Finally, we should include some sort of backdoor for players to grab a few quick levels without investing in a long grind. Vendors who sell “Axe +1” items would do the trick, as would sufficiently expensive trainers as seen in Elder Scrolls. Temporary buffs would have a place, too. Train Firion in swords for half the game, then pick up a great spear you want to use in this one dungeon? No problem, just pop that Spear + 50 potion you’ve been hoarding. Point is, the player has resources other than hours on the clock. Let’s use them.
Point Three: Altair makes a great home base.
The story of FF2 is about a group of kids who join the rebellion of a deposed queen. The world map is designed without borders; there are no plot flags keeping you from exploring all but a very few remote corners of it right out of the gate. (There are other things preventing you; see below.) Most of the game’s adventures involve the kids receiving orders to run reconnaisance or gather supplies for the rebellion, and every other entry on the game’s itinerary is “head back to Altair and report”.
If this sounds a bit like how modern RPGs are structured, you see where I’m going with this.
Altair could easily serve as your Ironforge or Rabanastre or Celsius airship: a place to rest and refuel between missions, a place that stocks increasingly better equipment as the game goes on, a place worth re-exploring every time the plot advances. But it has potential to be more than that. Since the kids are instrumental in the rebellion, and the rebellion is a growing thing, there should be some sense of shaping Altair into what the player wants it to be. A personal quarters filled with customizable furniture and achievement trinkets is a no-brainer.
Queen Hilda is the one who gives the plot missions, as it should be. But everyone else in the rebellion is fighting too, and the more you help them the faster and stronger Altair should develop. One of FF2’s earliest missions has you securing a supply of mithril for the town blacksmith. Keep that in as a sort of “introduction to sidequests” mission, then expand on it through the rest of the game. I’m picturing something like the Clan Centurio job board from FF12, except with the singular goal of aiding the military exploits of the rebellion.
We know players love gathering materials, securing resources and crafting items. (See also: FF8, FF10, FF12, FF13.) These ideas fit in well with FF2’s established game systems and with the theme of a growing military. Instead of finding a Blood Sword, you would find a rare Bloodstone Ore which you turn into your blacksmith to augment whatever weapon your hero was skilled with. Instead of spell tomes being rare monster drops, have an NPC in Altair sell them to you in exchange for magical components.
The goal here is twofold. First, we want Altair to be more engaging to the player than simply “that place you have to keep walking back to over and over again”. And second, we want to retain that sense of slowly improving your party’s abilities without it just being a naked grind. How better to hide said grind than behind hours of sidequests? Especially if those sidequests have the satisfying side-effect of seeing your base expand and grow?
Point Four: The world map is explorable in every direction, and there are lots of directions.
FF2’s world map is the only retro JRPG I can think of that isn’t surrounded by ocean on all side. It’s also the only one I can think of where the player is never boxed in by inconveniently-placed rivers or mountains. Nowadays we enjoy this freedom in most every RPG we play, but in FF2 that freedom is only an illusion. You can walk all the way from Altair to Mysidia, but in practice the monster hordes make this impossible. But then, FF2’s revolutionary “save anywhere” system downgrades the trip from impossible to merely excruciating, which transforms the journey from an adventure into a boring slog involving lots of saving and resetting.
Turning FF2 into a boring slog is, in many ways, the most efficient way to play the game. Which is too bad. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Just turn the dials back on the monsters so your party doesn’t go from wimpy bugs and blobs to bone-crunching stun-locking nightmares in a single step, and you’re halfway there. We still want the player to be able to get in over his head, though; that’s part of the fun of a huge RPG world. Running away from fights was a hassle in FF2 because it’s an archaic turn-based RPG. If you tried to Run, and failed, you usually just died because that’s how these games used to roll. Fortunately FF4 provides our solution: a Run command not tied to a menu or combat round. Hold your shoulder button (or touchscreen equivalent) to run away, even while you or the monsters are entering other commands. Now careful explorers can identify their limits without risking a party wipe, and those crazy enough to strike out early for Mysidia only need a little luck rather than a dozen resets.
Next we need to inject some juice into the world. There was no reason to explore every corner of FF2’s map originally, but now that we have a robust crafting system, a delivery mechanism for sidequests and a home base to expand there is no reason not to. And since we aren’t limited to 8-bit hardware anymore, we can make the terrain more exciting than huge expanses of field or forest.
There’s one more really great bit of FF2 lore we can capitalize on: the chocobo forest. This was originally a secret area, something for players to discover. Nowadays everyone knows about it, but we can use its “open secret” status to breathe some life into the game. Reach into FF9, pick out all the chocobo elements from that game, and plunk them in. Complete a sidequest befriending the world’s last remaining chocobo, give the player the limited (but not exhaustable) ability to summon that chocobo anywhere on the world map, and include a treasure hunting aspect that the player can get lost in for hours.
The treasure hunting thing world work especially well, I think. Even using the same mechanics as FF9, veterans from that game would have to approach it in a different way. FF9’s world was several smallish continents surrounded by ocean; FF2’s world is one gigantic continent enclosing a single ocean. There’s no need for FF2’s chocobo to have to run on water, so players would really ride around on their bird looking for hotspots rather than flying around in their airship. Plus, since we have a need for a diverse range of stat-up items, spell tomes and crafting materials it will be easier to have lots of meaningful mid-range treasures. (Contrast with FF9, where you’d open a box and get 80 Hi-Potions.)
Now that we have a huge world and tons of stuff to find, we can expand upon those special, un-level-able utility spells I mentioned earlier. Have one spell that dings when you close in on hidden treasure. Have another that helps find the location of particular monsters. Have a third that sets and activates warp points, to help mitigate all the traveling we’re doing.
Point Five: The party system has lots of space in it.
FF2 is the first JRPG I know of with a cast of rotating characters. Three of your party slots are static, filled with the games main characters, but the fourth slot is a revolving door of heroes. A new face every few adventures, in fact. Many of these characters are prototypes for folks we’d meet later in the series: Leila the proto-Faris, Leon the proto-Kain, Gordon the proto-Edward. It’s a fun system, and it helped the player to feel a little more involved in the plot than other games of its day.
Unfortunately, that fourth character was governed by the same rules and mechanics as the rest of the group, which meant they hadn’t spent hours casting Cure over and over or letting Firion punch them repeatedly. Which meant they were weak and useless. Which meant players tended to regard FF2 as having a three-man party up until the final dungeon. With the changes we’ve already made, the party system could use a bit of an overhaul.
First, let’s mostly dump the “anyone can do anything” motif from the original. We wan’t to capitalize on Firion’s image as a weaponmaster, but we can’t do that in a whole game full of weaponmasters. Instead, let’s restrict each of the three main heroes in one aspect of advancement. Firion has middling stats and gains few SPs, but earns WPs very quickly. Maria likewise has middling stats and few WPs, but has the most SPs. Guy has naturally high stats and the most APs, but earns fewer WPs or SPs than the others.
If certain types of equipment lowered your magic stats enough, that would help both Firion and Maria to find their niche very quickly. Maria could equip anything, but she levels weapons slowly, and anyway putting her in plate would reduce her magic effectiveness. On the flip side Firion can cast anything, but because you want him decked out in heavy gear his spells will never be as effective as Maria’s. There’s a clear path for the characters to develop, but if you’re in an emergency and you really need Firion to Cure or for Maria to equip a Frost Brand, you can.
I see Guy as filling the black belt role. FF2 already has a weapon skill set aside for unarmed combat. Let’s keep the tradition where unarmed fighters take a penalty from heavy equipment, and make Unarmed the only combat skill that levels with APs instead of WPs. This makes him into the black belt from FF1: raw, unfocused damage output. Plus, it’s a knowing nod to FF2 veterans who already play the whole game unarmed, because the weapons system is so totally borked. Guy’s magic would still be worth leveling, too, since his stats are higher than Firion’s and he isn’t weighed down with heavy gear.
The goal here is to leave in the idea that anyone can do everything, with the asterisk that characters still have specialties you should focus on. Something similar to FF10, where most players are satisfied following the pre-determined path, but really determined ones can diversify and max everyone’s everything.
The guest characters don’t really need much consideration, since they’re mostly window dressing. Let’s use the main heroes as templates, make them follow the same rules, but give them pre-set levels in certain skills. (Minwu is Maria with most of the white magic already mastered, Josef is Guy with really low magic stats, Ricard is Firion with maxed-out Spears.)
(Gordon maybe has middling stats and earns all EXP slowly, to solidify his station as Brave Guy Who Means Well But Doesn’t Belong On The Battlefield.)
That just leaves Leon, the character who joins for the endgame. By this time in the game the player should have a good handle on all the stats and skills, plus a reserve of booster items. In that case, Leon could join with slightly-below-average everything, but gain all EXP at the increased rate. This makes him the “best” character by far, but most players won’t notice because the endgame is so close.
Point Six: There are lots of plot elements to work with.
FF2’s plot sucks, but only in the sense that every RPG plot from the ’80s sucks. The Famicom just wasn’t capable of pushing the amount of text needed to flesh out a full, well-realized story. That’s why so many of our favorite 8-bit RPGs are just strings of fetch quests with no cutscenes. FF2 tried to involve the tactics and machinations of an advancing war front, as well as rich mythologies and histories to explore, but it was running on hardware designed to run Super Mario Bros., so it fell quite short of the task.
This is easier to fix than the rest of the problems with the game. We don’t need to pack every scene full of CGI-laden exposition, but there is lots of space for the plot and setting to expand into. Who exactly is Paul, the mysterious thief who aids the rebellion? Why did Leon suddenly switch sides? How were the dragoons of Deist defeated by the Empire? What is the point of having a coliseum built in the middle of an otherwise featureless desert? Why are the chocobos so near extinction, and is there a way to help rebuild their numbers? How can we expand on the Mysidian lore surrounding magical masks and forbidden magic?
One thing we can probably just do away with is the asinine keyword system FF2 employed. Originally this was intended to give the player some sense of conversing with NPCs in the game world, but it’s held back by the same limitations as every other system in FF2. This is an example of one of those vestigial limbs; a point in the series development that didn’t lead to anything substantial. There are ways to make the player feel like they are seeking and discovering knowledge, but a clunky keyword system isn’t how it’s done. At the end of the day we still want FF2 to hold close to its JRPG roots. Building on the old keywords would lead to dialogue trees, or something like, and that puts us further from our mark.
Point Seven: It is a Final Fantasy game, for goodness’ sake!
As terrible as it is, and as much as everyone hates it, Final Fantasy II and its various remakes is still part of the most famous RPG series on the planet. As long as the series continues to engage in thoughtful callbacks to its roots, and as long as Square-Enix continues to gut our wallets with future installments of Dissidia and Theatrhytm, FF2 will remain a recognizable title in the gaming landscape. If it were some obscure RPG nobody cared about — Arcana and Legend of the Ghost Lion spring immediately to mind — it wouldn’t be worth fixing.
But it’s not. It’s Final Fantasy. Its legacy is already secure. More than that, though, is the whole point of this entire article: in the decades since FF2’s release, RPG developers and players alike came back around to its ideas. Modern players would enjoy a version of this game made in 2014, with 2014 sensibilities. FF veterans disillusioned with the series’ HD output would enjoy an actually-playable romp through one of the genre’s most oldschool offerings.
And old fanboy turds like me could finally stop losing sleep about about how much this stupid game sucks. At long last.
Thanks for reading!