I will say that I’m genuinely impressed. This version of the game is a lot more bearable than the original. Stat increase has been improved, thus dramatically cutting down the levelling time, to the extent that it barely feels tedious anymore. Of course, there are still a few rather dull stretches, but it couldn’t be avoided, with the combat mechanics being what they are. At any rate, it’s way, WAY better than in the original. The target-select-cancel glitch doesn’t work anymore, but it’s not needed anymore either. As a result, random battles become less mind-numbing and more enjoyable, and you can actually end the game with pretty decent stats, even MP.
Lots of things have been renamed, including places, characters and spells. The graphics are essentially the same as in the Origins version, meaning far better than the NES one. Each character now also has new, ‘chibified’ artwork (from ‘chibi’, a style of anime drawing which makes characters look childish), in addition to their original Amano concepts. Sprites have been made sharper and clearer, character menu portraits have been somewhat redesigned and added to dialogue boxes. Their expressions even change when they talk. It only concerns about half the cast, but still, it’s a pretty nifty addition. Hilda turns out to be quite the looker, with Scott, Gordon and the Emperor also deserving an honourable mention. On the other hand, Minwu looks a little like a pervert, Firion is uh…very metro, to put it mildly (is that eyeshadow?), and poor Maria looks downright hideous when she smiles.
Dialogue has also been souped up, even though the keyword system still exists. Leila even earns a pirate accent, which you may or may not like. You also get a stronger hint of a Firion-Maria thing going on this time around (heck, even a hint of a love triangle with Leila thrown into the mix). A well-hidden minigame that had been introduced in the PlayStation version also makes a comeback. When you pick up Josef and have to cross the snowfield, while the party is in the snowcraft, if you hold down the A button, then press B 22 times (…), you can access a card-matching memory minigame. You’re given a 4×4 grid, with cards representing each of the party members, minus Leon. Match them all, and you get a prize, depending on how many mistakes you made. At the point you can first play, the prizes are just consumables and money, but if you ever get the Toad spell to level 16, you can replay the game, except now all characters will be replaced by their Toad forms, and the prizes will include some really nifty gear. Considering you can actually rig the game (the card patterns run on a fixed rotation), it’s an easy way to kit your team out in butt-kicking stuff, if you don’t mind the time it takes.
Otherwise, there’s a bestiary, added cinematics, like the Dreadnought being built, and handy progress bars for spell and weapon levels. There’s also a jukebox, which you can unlock by clearing both FFI and FFII, but since FFII’s music is anything but memorable, it’s not really an advantage.
The real challenge of this version lies in its optional content. Once you’ve beaten the final boss, you get a chance to play a short side-story with some of the temporary party members. Namely Minwu, Josef and Ricard, with Scott joining as a brand new recruit. However, if you already know the storyline of the game, you can see that there’s a slight, er…conceptual problem with that party setup.
The more practical problem with the party setup is that you get Minwu, Josef and Ricard back…exactly the way you left them in the main game. Same armour, same spells, if you bothered. This means that you actually have to put as much effort as possible into Minwu, Josef and Ricard over the course of the main game this time around. And don’t take their gear off before they leave! Because you’ll be building them up almost from scratch in the optional dungeon in order to defeat the optional boss. And let me tell you, Minwu and Scott with Mythril gear, 10 Ethers and ONE Phoenix Down in a cave full of very nasty monsters – which is how you start the optional dungeon – makes for a pretty intense beginning, until you pick up Josef and Ricard along the way, and get to the nearest (and only) town.
The problem is that extra levelling is a major sore point for FFII, so having a sidequest that relies heavily on building up another party runs the risk of reintroducing some of the tedium that has been successfully purged from the main game. Besides, I didn’t really care all that much about those characters in the first place, except maybe for Ricard. I’d have preferred to have Leila in there, as well (even though that’s not possible for plot-related reasons). Also, the optional boss is very odd, in the sense that he makes some perfectly valid points as to why the party shouldn’t fight him when they face him…and yet they choose to disregard it, and fight him anyway. I guess they didn’t want to have come all that way for nothing. The actual dungeon where the boss resides is also a mirror image of Pandemonium. And the boss himself is a mirror image of the final boss of the main game. Lazy designing? Or deep philosophical message?
All in all, however, this is a very good port of FFII, with some genuine work being put into reducing the game’s flaws. The optional storyline is rather underwhelming in execution, but at least, the concept behind it is original. So if you really feel like playing FFII, do yourself a favour: pick this version. Or the XXth Anniversary one.