How I finally finished FF2.

Final Fantasy II, by Akitoshi Kawazu, Hironobu Sakaguchi, and Yoshitaka Amano, 1988.

I had fond memories of the original Final Fantasy, and reserved it a place of honor for eventually giving rise to FF4, but I never wholeheartedly enjoyed replaying it — and usually gave up before the end — until I learned how. Ben Siron’s FF1 Handbook and Aaditya Rangan’s White Mage FAQ together exposed the contours of the game, and at last I could see it clearly.

As a kid I pored over Nintendo Power’s strategy guide and dreamed of writing my own version. If I had, it might have included the kind of misguided “tips” found even today in, to pick one example, RPGClassics’ walkthrough:

Both FF1 and FF2 are interesting games in that you can play completely through them and still not really know them: which monsters to run from, which items to skip, which classes or techniques are valuable. FF1 is easier to fake: if you don’t have much experience playing it, you can always take time out and gain experience points. FF2 actually penalizes you for doing so: your stats are interconnected both to each other and to the (hidden) “strength level” of the enemies you encounter. FF1 is also easier to know; it was released here and has been written about extensively. It’s simpler, too: get experience, become stronger. Whereas FF2 is like a calculus equation and you aren’t given any of the constants.

I’d attempted to solve Final Fantasy 2 several times: with friends that, like me, loved Final Fantasy but, like me, never made much headway on the sequel; later, in the name of getting my money’s worth from the Origins compilation; and again, after realizing that as closely as I’d followed the fan translation scene, I’d never actually played that many translations, and setting out to remedy that by, finally, completing FF2. I didn’t make it. Even when the prototype was released — an official translation of the original Famicom game that surfaced miraculously, years after the fact — my astonishment wore off midway through, and I quit once again in disgust.

Killing your companions in the original game makes it a challenge. Where normally you control four adventurers, you can cut down three of them and go it alone. Even though you’re getting four times the experience, that only puts you two or three levels ahead — not nearly enough to compensate.

In the sequel, however, characters are rewarded not for being alive at the end of a battle, but for the actions they take in the fray. With just one guy, you’d be dishing out four times the damage and taking four times the hits, which means you’d have four times the opportunity to advance.

You could make the game even easier by giving that single character a shield — and, aside from a weapon, not much else. The way the system works, armor makes it harder to dodge but decreases what damage you take when you do get hit. This is doubly bad: if you’re going to take damage, you should take lots of damage, for otherwise your hit points won’t go up; and, for reasons to be explained shortly, you should be dodging as much as possible. Which is where shields come in: they increase your chance to evade or deflect attacks. Unlike armor, shields gain levels; unlike weapons, they do so without having to be used. Furthermore, you get “evasion experience” every time you successfully dodge an attack. It isn’t tracked on the status screen, and its level-ups aren’t announced, but it’s reflected in that number to the left of your evade percentage, which determines the number of hits (as in “8 hits! 240 DMG!”) you can reliably dodge. So it’s in your interest not to equip armor until you find some that doesn’t hurt your evade; otherwise you’re slowing your advancement.

The upshot: after a couple hours of “training” with successively better shields — that is, carrying them around as you move through the dungeons — your evade percentage will be so high as to render you effectively invulnerable. For the latter half of the game, you may not be hit with a single physical attack.

There are still a few hazards to surmount: status ailments and magic attacks, particularly from those curse-happy, wind-spewing ghosts on the strait to Mysidia (which you can mostly avoid by taking the sea route), as well as the energy spells from the giants in Mysidia Tower. But once you’ve reached 99% evade, you can start equipping, at no penalty, armor that helps you with that — first the kind that raises your stats (the Power/Giant Gloves, the Tiara, the Gold Hairpin), and then the kind that protects from status ailments (the White Robe, and later the Ribbon). Coincidentally, the equipment in the latter category also boosts your magic defense, which was really the only remaining hole in your now impregnable defenses.