Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler is a fantastic book, a great mix of gaming history and culture. I actually read it in one sitting because I was so enthralled.
I was especially intrigued as FFV is the one game in the series (aside from XIV) that I haven’t played. So I felt like I was getting a historical introduction to a game I’d only heard about in passing. I was actually taken aback by how important FFV was to the series, as Kohler states, “In Japan, Final Fantasy V was a colossal hit, and is fondly remembered there today as one of the greatest games of the Super Famicom era.” On top of that, he suggests, “it might even be the best game in the whole series.”
Like many gamers, Final Fantasy games were special events for me. I not only remember every Final Fantasy I played, but where I was and the sense of anticipation that came with the arrival of each iteration (my memories of childhood and writing are interlinked with each Final Fantasy). So when I started reading FFV, I felt like I’d entered a Garland time loop back to my past, only one that existed on an alternate history. I wanted to know everything about the game.
Fortunately, Kohler delivers.
FFV is worth reading just to learn more about the development behind the actual game. It’s like an excavation into the 16-bit era in Japan, digging up bit-sized gaming hieroglyphics that reveal how it all came together. This includes a very deep and insightful interview with Hironobu Sakaguchi, from his origins (I got a big kick learning he read sci-fi books from Hayakawa which is also my Japanese publisher!), to joining Square and engaging in a friendly rivalry with Enix to up the ante. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were in an arms race, not of destruction, but creativity, meant to give players better, more immersive experiences. That in part led to one of the core gameplay decisions for the game, fusing together FFIII and FFIV to try to get the edge on the latest Dragon Quest.
“Final Fantasy V was going to one-up itself yet again. Not only would players again have the ability to reconfigure their parties’ classes at any time (like FFIII), they’d also be able to carry over abilities from classes that they had played for a while, thus creating mix-and-match characters with any combination of different abilities.”
Just as integral to the story of FFV’s creation is Kohler’s relationship to the series. In many ways, FFV is a meticulously researched and thoughtfully written love letter to the game that sparks off a quest worthy of Final Fantasy. Not for crystals, but FFV, the forbidden crystal, locked a continent away. It is enjoyable because it is so honest, entertaining, and respectful in that quest. We follow Kohler from Tufts University to Japan in a study-abroad program and the funny connotations of “otaku” back in 2000. We also learn about his decision to write a FAQ for the game. As Kohler states, his vision was, “If Square wasn’t going to release Final Fantasy V here, we were going to make it as accessible as possible to the English-speaking world,” though there were many difficulties, like the fact that he “didn’t know the first thing about the language,” or that “Japanese language was not a standard feature of American word processors or web browsers in 1995.” Recruiting a party to undertake the quest, he ventures out in a story that has its share of triumphs and disappointments. The conclusion to his FAQ journey, though, is heartbreaking
This reflects some of the more meaningful and somber themes of FFV. As Kohler states, “Final Fantasy V is about parents and children, a meditation on passing the mantle of responsibility to the younger generation.”
The mantle of the book is very comprehensive and everything gets covered here, from questions about why FFV seems to have a smaller map in comparison to previous games, to pivotal story points and why narrative choices were made in the way they were, to even the translation (or mistranslation) of specific names. I loved when Kohler delves into one of the three pillars of Final Fantasy, Uematsu’s music, and how there are Irish influences in the FFV OST to differentiate it from the other FFs. What surprised me was the fact that after the gorgeous soundtrack from Actraiser’s (developed by rival Enix), Uematsu felt compelled to push his compositions even further (coming after FFIV which has some of my favorite music, that’s really saying something).
Just as FFV had many classes, Kohler wears different caps, jumping from a detailed look at the game itself, to a broader view of the cultural zeitgeist and the evolving relationship between society and gaming/anime. Like the FFV class system, the layers build on top of each other, intricately weaving the caps of journalist, fan, creator, and gamer. Pop culture references and explanations abound to give each element perspective, and every page is full of fascinating new facts and trivia.
“The interplay between the linear narrative, the puzzles, and the nonlinear exploration is what leaves us with the impression that a Final Fantasy game had a memorable story,” Kohler quotes Sakaguchi as saying, which could be said of the book.
Kohler’s greatest achievement is that he gives us a gift, engendering a desire in his readers to immerse themselves thoroughly and completely in the world of Final Fantasy V. Now please excuse me while I go and play it.
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