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Final Fantasy V: A Book Review

August 10th, 2017 by Andy

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A review copy of this book, Final Fantasy Vwas provided to Final Fantasy Network by the publisher, Boss Fight Books.

Being a young fan of JRPGs and other Japanese-made games in the 90s and early 2000s felt like torture at times, for as lucky as we were for our parents to buy us the consoles and games we adored, they was never enough to scratch the itch of adolescent greed. In those lapses of frustration or self-pity, we fawned over our pieced-together image of Japan, the home our favorite games and gadgets and full of all sorts of incongruous mysteries. Uninformed and inadvertently insensitive, we revered the island nation that got all of our favorite games months in advance, and even hid untranslated exclusives on its immeasurably distant shores. Since then we’ve matured and learned that Japan is not a perfect place, and growing up there would not have made our dreams come true (in fact, games and consoles were more expensive there). However, certain nostalgia hangs in our memories of those days of obsession over then-burgeoning series, when the Super Nintendo, Game Boy Advance, and Sony PlayStation actualized the rhythm of turn-based battles. Final Fantasy V, a book about the game with the same title (written by Chris Kohler, funded on Kickstarter, and published through Boss Fight Books) possesses a palpable resonance with that feeling of childhood and teenage obsession over video games, anime, and other foreign media that, while at present easily attainable, used to be restricted and seemingly impossible to grasp. But, as relatability is not something automatically achieved but earned through convincing writing, those whose experiences were unlike Kohler’s or mine are more than able to engage with this book.

Today Final Fantasy is a behemoth; it has numerous entries, spin-offs, remakes and remasters across every generation of consoles. Back in the day, however, the barrier of entry was higher as in the mid-90s the demand for Japanese media, however small, was far larger than the supply. Similarly, Japanese companies struggled to find audiences for the multiple titles they churned out a year. Those that did make the journey across the Pacific suffered translation issues, censorship, and diminished difficulty. Kohler writes with concise and humorous prose as he recounts his childhood foray into video gaming, studying gaming magazines and even writing his own zine, and how he discovered Final Fantasy. Framed in the twilight of modern Japanphilia, he describes his dismay at the lack of an official Final Fantasy V localization, hunting down his own cartridge, and his quest to successfully wade through the foreign script. He describes his lament regarding V’s lack of a US release honestly and with self-aware affectation. His thoughts and feeling are made familiar in this retelling, for his frustrations, however reasonable or unreasonable, drive the telling of this story. His desire to buy and understand the game are therefore immediately clear and recognizable, and, framed in this era, includes the Japanese perspective through the history of Square, its employees, and the series.

This book utilizes more than a dozen sources, ranging from print interviews from the early 90s to interviews Kohler conducted himself. One of these interviewees was Hiranobu Sakaguchi; the creator of Final Fantasy. Kohler balances his first hand meeting with the legend himself, information garnered elsewhere, and his own experiences over time to maintain distinct voices, and also frame information in productive and logical orders. The competition between Sakaguchi and Yoshinori Kitase to push the Super Famicom to its limits elucidates the deadlines and innovation of the era, and offers insights to how gameplay and story framing collided. We learn about Yoshitaka Amano’s detailed pixel art, Tetsuya Nomura’s early days as a monster designer, and other instrumental members who created this memorable game. Kohler’s writings emphasize the deep and complicated process of game design, how the themes and tone of the series were no accident but a synergistic discovery, and how these complications created deep and complicated gameplay. He describes the systems and strategies left to discover to quickly gain AP to level up jobs, ways he learned to overcome the super bosses, Shinryu and Omega, and the translation follies that plagued the PSX release of V. Final Fantasy V‘s battle system and mechanics allow for experimentation and have yet to be exhausted. Such a game with possibilities is fitting inspiration for a book that includes stories, accounts, and numerous tidbits that further our understanding of the game industry and culture, then and now.

Kohler carefully explicates several threads in his book; his life and those with whom he worked in a comprehensive translation for FFV FAQ in the early days of the internet, the development of the game, and other’s perspectives in respect to the explosion of nerd and otaku culture from an obscurity into mainstream, and how the West and Japanese audiences and influences created a dynamic of mutual interest, and binds these elements thematically and culminates in an interesting and refreshing final section. However, to accomplish this, this book is composed of numerous self-contained section breaks that often transition anachronistically and into seemingly unrelated subject matter. Additionally, there are three chapters in the book, mirroring the structure of Final Fantasy V’s three major parts, that seem to be arbitrarily implanted. While the threads are individually interesting, their relation to each other can seem uncertain until the end.

If diving deep into any of these subjects isn’t your cup of tea, or is review for those who have already exhausted the archives of Final Fantasy esoterica and/or are familar with the time, then you may find yourself skimming through some anecdotes, explanations, or backstory. That being said, Kohler’s requisite explanations are concise and eloquent, keeping any rehashed information to a minimum.  The uniting theme, while interesting and educational, attempts to forge connection between the specific history of Final Fantasy V and the west’s simplistic understanding of Japanese culture. It is well harmonized and considered, but also tenuous.

These negatives are merely minor and nit picky, for at its core is a book that isn’t specifically biography or encyclopedic descriptions, but a myriad of subjects that makes me better appreciate perhaps the most quintessential game in a massive series. I highly recommend this book, because of the peculiar effect it has, for it describes Kohler’s personal and winding relationship with the game through the present in terms of change, a change in Final Fantasy, in people, in the world, and therefore this book has implications beyond an individual experience with a singular video game.

Chris Kohler is the Feature Editor at Kotaku and the author of Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World and Extra Life. The series editor is Gabe Durham and the Book Design is by Cory Schmitz. You can pre-order Final Fantasy V on Boss Fight Books’ Season 4 Kickstarter or website and start reading August 22nd. 

About Andy

Andy23 | male | writer| admirer of storytelling through video games and other media, indefatigable fan (and apologist) of RPGs.

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