It takes a lot of work to be the black sheep of a series as inconsistent as Final Fantasy, but Final Fantasy II has generally found itself in that position since it first released on the 8-bit Famicom back in 1988. It’s an odd game, in many ways establishing the SaGa series more than it sets up further Final Fantasy games. It went unlocalized for a rather lengthy period of time, which meant when it finally did come it was being judged against games that came ten years or more after it. Memes about the game were established in the West before the game itself ever had a chance. Unfortunately, I feel like the Final Fantasy II ($11.99) Pixel Remaster has once again drawn the short straw. Of all the Pixel Remaster games so far, this is the one that loses the most.
I’m assuming many readers will be familiar with the original Final Fantasy through one version or another, so I’ll cover the changes and differences first. This new remake breaks ranks with the others in that it does not use the previous version as its basis. In many respects, this game acts as though it’s the very first remake of the original Final Fantasy. That means a new art direction for the sprites that hits a little closer to the original designs, a Vancian magic system instead of MP, and perhaps most importantly, the absence of any and all dungeons, bosses, and other paraphernalia from the other remakes.
For a very long time, the game now known as Trials of Mana ($23.99) was the fish that got away for Western players. The first game in the Mana series, now known as Adventures of Mana, made it over under the title Final Fantasy Adventure. The second came over as Secret of Mana. But due to a variety of factors, the third game just didn’t happen at the time. Even the typically resourceful fan translation community had a bit of trouble with the game for a while. Later Mana games made it out overseas virtually without fail, leaving the third chapter as something of an oddity.
I don’t know what has been in the water at Square Enix the last few years, but I’m happy for it. The 8-bit and 16-bit Final Fantasy games can only be re-released and/or remade so many times, I suppose. We’ve received localizations of classic games I never thought we would see like Romancing SaGa 2 and Romancing SaGa 3. We’ve seen the latest SaGa, SaGa Scarlet Grace, get a release on new platforms and in new regions. Even the classic Game Boy games that kicked off the SaGa series (unbeknownst to those of us in the West at the time) got reissued on the Nintendo Switch. And now things come full circle, after a fashion. SaGa Frontier Remastered ($24.99) sees the very first game in the series that was localized under its original title make a return, hopefully to a warmer reception than last time.
Some games are good. Really good, even, and you know you’ll play them for hours and hours. Other games maybe need a bit of work, a bit of spit & polish, and they could be good. Then there are some games I really want to love and enjoy and recommend but, for one reason or another, I just… can’t. Dungeon of the Endless ($7.99) is one of those. Not because it’s bad, but because it just… doesn’t capture my attention, can’t keep me coming back for run after run, even after months of not playing. It’s not immediately obvious why, either—the art is gorgeous, the soundtrack is good, and the minute to minute gameplay is quite enjoyable too. So what is it? Why, despite owning the game on three different platforms and trying to get into it dozens of times, does it consistently fail to draw me in, push me to really dig in to strategies, and finally beat the game? The answer, I’ve come to find, is simple: The post-run reward loop that gets you to come back for one more floor, to experiment with that thing you just unlocked, or to see if tweaking your strategy just so makes the difference, just… isn’t there.
Following this pattern, it would seem logical to think that Final Fantasy 8 would arrive in 2016. Well, we did get a Final Fantasy game that year, but it was the rather impressive port of Final Fantasy 9. Unlike the previous game, this felt like it was rebuilt for the hardware. Perhaps that was the hold-up with Final Fantasy 8? At the time, I thought we’d see the eighth game arrive in 2017. Instead, we got the original title Final Fantasy Dimensions 2. Hm, maybe in 2018? No, that ended up being Final Fantasy 15 Pocket Edition. Oh, I see! 2019 is the 20th anniversary of Final Fantasy 8! Square Enix, you sly dogs. But no, no such luck on mobile that year. It did come to other platforms. Perhaps it was just a bit behind on mobile?
Dracula. A classic book of desire, and triumph over a great evil. It is not, however, the focus of this review. No, it is merely the inspiration for a board game, one of mystery and deduction, predator and prey. A game that will, without doubt, find its audience with a digital port. What game, you wonder? Why, dear reader mine, none but the Fury of Dracula ($4.99).
Fortunately, the talent behind a game is generally more important than any branding. Igarashi wanted to make another Metroidvania, and fans enthusiastically obliged when he went to Kickstarter to find the funding for it. A lot of stories like that have disappointing or even terrible endings, but Igarashi’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night ($9.99) seems to have largely gone as everyone hoped. A few bumps on the road, to be sure. It was originally set for a 2017 release but ended up coming in 2019 instead. A few of the planned versions were canceled thanks to the platforms being on their way out. The Switch version launched in a rather miserable state. A few planned features had to be changed.
One of the cool things about covering one beat for a really long time is in watching developers improve in leaps and bounds over the years. When Valorware first brought 9th Dawn to mobile a whopping seven years ago, it was an impressive throwback to an era of RPGs where the graphics were limited but the worlds seemed nearly limitless. 9th Dawn II ($1.99) arrived a few years later, polishing some rough edges and expanding the possibilities of the world it put in your pocket. Now here in the cursed year of 2020, 9th Dawn III ($9.99) arrives. So many things have changed, but one thing remains the same: the 9th Dawn games are really hard to put down once you get into them.
Now and again, we all grow a little nostalgic thinking of the games we used to play. Be they Diablo, Paper Mario, or, for me, Warcraft III, it’s fun to go back and play them again. Of course, we wouldn’t want to play them exclusively (modern games have made some improvements, after all!) but it is refreshing to note the highlights and draw parallels to the good in modern gaming, as well as the bad.