The Pixel Remasters are a third of the way to sainthood.
To say I’m not a fan of the Famicom Final Fantasy II is like saying my hockey team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in a bit: it’s wildly understating the extent of the pain. I don’t really want to see what the game’s like in its original form, but after playing the Pixel Remaster version of FF2 through to the end, I can confirm that it takes the inherent boost features to make the game something I could finish without cursing the whole way.
Final Fantasy II is set in a world beset by the military rule of an evil emperor who at the start of the game is invading a small town and beating up its young residents for no apparent reason beyond “screw you, that’s why”. The party - minus one of their number, who either vanished or was kidnapped before the rest of the team woke up - is rescued by a rebel princess named Hilda who after a brief test of skill allows them to enlist in the rebel army in order to take down the Emperor. As the story progresses, the party (which continuously rotates its fourth member due to story changes) eventually works their way up to taking out the Emperor. It’s the first real attempt at a plot in the series with named characters, and it’s enough to get you moving in the right direction, but it’s not much to write home about.
Final Fantasy II is best known for two controversial systems: “key words” and its level building. The key word system requires a menu choice to learn a word (thankfully written in red font), then ask people about it in order to unlock an objective. I never could get the hang of it until I pulled out a strategy guide, and even then I fumbled through the menus on more than one occasion. Blessedly, this system never returned. The other defining system is the “use it to build it” system as seen in the “Final Fantasy Legend” (SaGa) games from the same producer… and thankfully, the Pixel Remaster provides fixed HP growths and the option to set the growth up to quadruple so I didn’t have to have my party members beat each other up to build health. This progression mechanic extends to everything, though, including spells and weapons. Although I tried to keep the team on a standard weapon and using shields for extra defense, the game wouldn’t respect the choice and based the “Optimize” equipment setting on dealing as much damage as possible, even if they equipped a weapon on a character who hadn’t used that weapon at all to this point. And late in the game, I randomly started healing enemies with the Attack command, only to discover that the “Healing Staff” actually had one of the highest attack stats in the game? I guess that’s a vestige of the “beat yourself up” grinding technique? Either way, it didn’t work all that well - but at least with the boosts glued to 4x, I could get weapons to the point of being decent in just a few fights. The "door to nothing but encounters system" also largely died after being overused to the point of parody in FFII, which justifies the encounter on/off switch.
The Remasters largely made the NES games look like a 16-bit game, and it’s a good design choice even if the main character looks awfully similar to Cecil from FFIV in the format. I actively avoided playing the Final Fantasy II tracks in Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line due to the previously mentioned antipathy, but there’s some sneaky-good Nobuo Uematsu tracks in the game that the new arrangement really makes shine. As mentioned with FF4, though not as personally disappointing to me, the “Dawn of Souls” quests from prior versions (the Game Boy Advance and PSP re-releases) are not included here.
Perhaps the biggest praise I can offer of the FFII Pixel Remaster is that it seemingly fixed the accuracy of healing items when I needed them in battle. Though another feature the game “offered” was differentiation between status effects that expire at the end of the battle and ones that remain, and they have separate curative spells. Said spells still “missed”. Thankfully, this didn’t happen late enough to be a hard stop on my enjoyment of the game. If you are going to go on the Final Fantasy vision quest, definitely make sure you use the Pixel Remaster to play FFII. If thou must.