I am not a hardcore fan of JRPGs, by any stretch of the imagination. They are my favorite flavor of video game, to be sure: my favorite game of all time is Chrono Trigger, and one of my early joyous memories with my childhood NES was the logo and opening music of the original Dragon Quest/Warrior. But I am not somebody who has exhaustively pored through FAQs on Gau’s Rages, or matched up the damage-to-MP output of various Double and Triple Techs. As a result, I was excited to review a book going in-depth on a JRPG, but balked when I saw that the topic of conversation was going to be one that I had only played via emulator up to now, and which I knew best as the game that came just before my favorite Final Fantasy.
Hi, I took forever to get officially exported.
But, in the interest of seeing what this was about, and cluing our readers into something that they might have missed, I went ahead and gave this book a read; or more accurately, I devoured this book, and emerged on the other side glad I did. The book in question is Final Fantasy V, by Chris Kohler (2017, Boss Fight Books), and it tackles its subject with erudition, accessible language, and most importantly: love.
Kohler begins with a poetic, flourishing introduction that provides background both historical and personal; he establishes very quickly not just the facts, but the feeling of being an American fan of Japanese culture in the 1990s, when the Internet was still making its way into personal computers and bandwidth was something we were grateful to have at all. The introduction is an appeal to emotion: sympathy and empathy for the sense of isolation involved in liking things like anime and manga before they were cultural phenomena in the United States, and the perception of Japan as a far-off place that we could only experience in very limited, filtered ways. This personal narrative surrounding the discovery of JRPGs and, specifically, Final Fantasy V is one of four threads that winds throughout the rest of the book, as Kohler weaves together his personal journey with the game, from childhood to college; the story of the Squaresoft teams working together to create this particular installment in the franchise (including interviews with Hironobu Sakaguchi himself); the story of Final Fantasy V as a burgeoning point of cultural interest; and the story of Final Fantasy V itself. This blending is one of the book’s greatest strengths: Kohler jumps between the different points of view without ever forcing it, using each little anecdote as a beat in a larger story about why Final Fantasy V is such a fascinating game to its fans, and to my surprise, the very important role the game plays (heh) in the larger development of Final Fantasy as a franchise.
There is a lot of history about the early development of JRPGs in the opening stages of the book, and speaking as a big fan but not a hardcore fan, Kohler manages to keep those bites of trivia interesting without ever alienating me. I was most fascinated by the trivia about the game itself, both as a physical artifact (you seriously had to rip tabs out of your SNES with pliers to play an imported copy) and as a locus of talent that would become household names in the JRPG world: it’s baffling, now, to imagine that people who worked as sound effects coders and monster designers would go on to work on Chrono Trigger, Xenoblade, and Kingdom Hearts, let alone that this game continued the grand tradition of art by Yoshitaka Amano and music by Nobuo Uematsu. I was also intrigued (read: baffled) by the received wisdom in the 90s video game market that RPGs were too “hardcore” for American audiences, a social construct which was principally responsible for FFV and its job system not making the initial trip (or several subsequent rumored trips) to the States.
The data about the game itself was the stuff that enthralled me the most, especially the impact the game had on both the team developing it and subsequent Final Fantasy creative teams. I had no idea (had indeed not even considered) that prior to Final Fantasy V, the franchise did not have timed missions, or optional bosses, or staples like Moogles and Gilgamesh. Kohler tackles all these little tidbits of data with the same enthusiasm he tackles everything else about the game, doing miniature deep dives into things like the emergent strategies created by the Job System and the fascinating ways FFV felt ground-breaking to Japanese audiences that just simply were not as impactful over here because of the delays in its English-language release. He also gets into the creative process behind the games themselves, the ways the design and release schedules were set up and the ways in which the programmers and artists and dungeon designers all collaborated, engineering experiences through the very layouts of the dungeons themselves, setting up secret “grinding zones” for those willing to try certain off-beat strategies, and trying to make the game accessible for any combination of Jobs (to the point where now there is an annual “Four-Job Fiesta” focused on challenging you to beat the game using random combinations of jobs).
That paragraph contained the key word I want to get back to here: “enthusiasm.” Kohler’s deep love for this game, and for the impact it had on his life, is apparent throughout the book. He digs into this complex subject with great enthusiasm, and explains to the reader through accessible, readable, enjoyable language that never waters itself down but also doesn’t obfuscate itself. It is apparent in every sentence that Kohler cares, and believes that this game is important enough to warrant this entire book; and honestly, by the end of the book, I agreed with him. Final Fantasy V is exciting and important in ways I did not fully appreciate, and Kohler’s own tone and emotions are part of what sold his argument to me.
Final Fantasy V is due out on October 24, 2017, and is a great read for fans of Final Fantasy V or JRPGs in general. My only warning: The book contains spoilers for Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, and they are unmarked and sort of essential to the overall flow of the book. But when the worst thing I can say about a book about a video game I only played once or twice is “has a whole lot of information,” I think we can call this a success.
Disclosure: Ace of Geeks was furnished with a free advance copy of the book in order for us to write our review.