In 1994, Sony released the PlayStation in Japan. Years of work plotting revenge against Nintendo for backing out of a joint console project came to fruition: during its first weekend, Sony claimed to move an astonishing 100,000 units. Sony was quickly becoming a serious contender for the top seat on the video game mountain where Nintendo had once reigned in solitude.
That same week, Nintendo released a game for the SNES called Breath of Fire II. While not on the level of an entirely new 3D console, the new game was meaningful at the time. A year earlier, the first entry in the series had been released by Capcom to major success. The developer’s first traditional RPG, it featured a medieval setting, anthropomorphized animals, and a dragon-filled plot. It was popular, although nobody would confuse it with a contemporary like Final Fantasy II.
But its sequel, which took 500 years after the original, added more of everything. That includes a demon-controlled religion that controls the world. Playing through can feel downright subversive.
If you’re a paid Nintendo Switch online subscriber, Breath of Fire II can be played right now by downloading the Super Nintendo Entertainment System app.
Breath of Fire II opens ambitiously with a black-and-white sequence featuring a young boy, Ryu, trying to find his sister on orders from his father. It’s been hard for the three of them since demons attacked their town years ago. Although Ryu’s father fought honorably during the attack, it wasn’t enough to stop the demons from taking his mother. In fact, the entire town would have been destroyed if a giant dragon hadn’t sacrificed itself in the nearby woods.
Eventually, Ryu figures out that this is where his sister has run off to: the dragon’s corpse, to try to remember her mother. When she dreams near the dragon, it feels like her mother is reaching out to her. When Ryu tries the trick, he gets much more than he bargains for: his sister and father have disappeared, and nobody in town remembers him either. He returns to his father’s church, which reluctantly takes him in as a vagrant.
He meets another would-be vagrant kid, a dog-thief named Bow. With nothing to lose, the two embark out together, trying to find a home in a world increasingly filled with monsters. But when the rain traps them, they take shelter in a cave, where they find a demon who calls the Ryu the “Destined Child” and knocks them both unconscious.
During this extended opening, there’s not much meaningful combat. Facing a giant demon when you’re a small child is hardly a fair fight. But delaying the action gives players a chance to really feel the sudden loneliness of young Ryu, as well as the feeling of camaraderie he feels when he agrees to steal candles from the church with Bow, the feeling of teaming up.
It serves them well in their new hometown, which is conveniently called HomeTown. The two have become Rangers, a job which sounds exciting until you realize it is mostly people looking for someone to do odd jobs. Clean up the backyard, watch the kids, that sort of thing. Ryu and Bow take a job finding somebody’s pet pig, which has seemingly gotten lost around the nearby Mt. Fubi.
It’s a long, complex route from finding pet pigs to uncovering demon churches. Breath of Fire II makes it a mostly enjoyable time getting there, jam-packed with likable characters who get themselves in troubling situations. At one point, while hiding from the law, Bow follows Ryu around in a bouncing trash can. They’re comfortable in HomeTown, but would clearly rather hang out with weirdos in the woods.
It’s not an entirely seamless journey. If there’s one major annoyance in Breath of Fire II, it’s the sheer number of random encounters the player will face while trying to walk in any natural setting. One after another at times, low-stakes enemies triggering combat for low-stakes money and experience points. The enemies, from bird orbs to zombies, look sufficiently interesting, but the constant combat can drag. I often found myself letting the game fight on auto, which worked out well enough for the simpler battles.
It’s also easy to get lost in its mostly directionless world, and seeking out a walkthrough might be a helpful timesaver, especially considering new players likely won’t have the game’s original instruction manual.
Is it worth moving through this world, which would definitely benefit from a remaster? I thought so. Ryu’s loss, and then his finding family in new friends, felt genuine throughout. While it’s not an all-time classic RPG like, say, A Link to the Past, it's surprising how easy it is to get lost in Breath of Fire II’s world (in a good way this time). Much like its protagonists, the game is a little rough around the edges and has been overlooked time and again. But there’s a heart at the center that’s worth finding. And more dragons.