Final Fantasy V in 2021
or, why I gave up story for a bit of fun; or, your childhood mattered to your grandchildren; or, should I play FFV in 2021?
Sometimes you meet people with insane beliefs about something important to you. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter, that people can think whatever they want, can believe whatever dumb thoughts clog up their dumb heads, but then you come across some absolute maniac who just says, unprompted, something completely insane, like:
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim should’ve spent more time developing its characters.
Listen, buddy: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about giant robots fighting giant monsters, spent innumerable hours watching movies and TV shows that are about only this, and I can say, with all the full throated authority of a literal Dad, that when a giant robot punches a giant monster in its giant face, you howl with glee and don’t ask questions.
I mean, I get it: we want our cake and we want to eat it AND we want to not get fat. But we’re over thirty now and the problem with eating a whole cake isn’t that it’ll make you fat—you’re already fat—but that you’re going to feel impossibly older when you’re done shoveling it into your disgusting face because your body sucks now.
So, yeah, I understand the impulse to think Godzilla would be better with Dickensian characters and realistic problem solving1, but, like, have you ever enjoyed even a moment of your life?
What kind of sick pervert wants literary kaiju movies?
Did you type the wrong title into this piece or what?
Buddy, I may be an idiot, but I am never wrong about titling pieces. It’s called an analogy—
No it’s not.
What I’m trying to say is that every once and a while on some list of the best Final Fantasy games ever2, I see some absolute freak list Final Fantasy V as the best one3. I mean, do numbers and words even mean anything anymore? Are Best-Of lists just some kind of sick joke made by drunk homunculi hammerhanding keyboards?
Even before I ever played FFV, I knew it wasn’t the best one. Even before I had ever heard of it, I knew it wasn’t the best one4.
But it was one of the most difficult ones to acquire. After reading Chris Kohler’s excellent Boss Fight Books book about it, I do understand better why these spicy takes bringing freak heat are the way they are. We’ve all been seduced by the glow of something new that is too scarce for amazon to deliver to your door within 48 hours. Sometimes that added layer of difficulty makes it matter more5.
So I get it, guys. You love FFV, in part, because no one even knew about it when you played it, didn’t even know that you could import it from Japan, manually adjust your SNES so it would play, and then stare at those text boxes full of Japanese that you didn’t know how to read. Part of your love for it is the same reason alchemists seemed so cool.
But, as mentioned previously, I sometimes think about playing all the Final Fantasy games, and, this year, I finally started. FFV was one of them I’d never played before. And, buddy, I got to tells ya, sometimes things are better when the story doesn’t matter.
So let’s settle in, set the mood, and talk about the Final Fantasy game that didn’t aim for soaring drama or epic adventures. Instead, it humbly asked you to have some fun with game mechanics.
I’d spend more time talking about the music, but Chris Kohler’s book linked above touches on this well, and Sebastian Deken’s Boss Fight Books book about the music of FFVI explains everything about Uemetsu’s music so beautifully and using language and musical understanding that’s well beyond me (but the book is great and highly readable and probably you’ll learn something about music theory, even if you know nothing about how composition works). But I will say this:
Do you hear that song? Battle on the Bridge fucking whips, buddy.
Most of the score for FFV is pretty bright and bubbly. It’s a far cry from the somber and sometimes hilarious melodrama of FFIV. It just sounds fun, from start to finish, and it sounds like Uemetsu’s having fun.
And this pools out from the music to every aspect of the game. The themes are relatively light here. We’re not talking about honor and everlasting love and betrayal and imperialism.
We’re talking about pirates and villains who become splinters in your skin to jump between crashing realities.
I mean, yeah, there are cataclysmic events that reshape the earth in the game and you come to love a character who dies suddenly, dramatically, and you discover all kinds of wild things about the world, the characters, and on and on, but the game never gets bogged down in the dreadful details of the epic world it created. Sakaguchi, it seems, just wanted to have some fun.
FFIV was a heavy drama full of death and extinction and sacrifice, and FFVI leans back in that direction (we’ll get to that in another post), but FFV is almost like an interlude. If FFIV reminds us of JRR Tolkien and FFVI reminds us of George RR Martin, then FFV is the exuberant lesser child that dominated fantasy in the 70s and 80s where the world is imperiled, but, like, it’s kind of chill, you know? It’s a whole lot of fun just hanging out in this constructed world full of friends and very clear morality.
I mean, the villain is named Ex-Death and he looks like this.
And an ancient turtle tells you he’s a tree that you’re going to fight to save the merged realities of two worlds.
I mean, would I like this game more if it had a complex story with complicated morality? Yeah, sure, of course. But I don’t think that everything in someone’s oeuvre needs to be a genre or life defining work of art. We’d maybe all prefer that, but I think I’d take Takashi Miike’s wild, varied career over Terrence Malick’s absolute devotion to a singular vision6.
I thought JRPGs were all about the story?
Yeah. Me too. They are. But then I remember that I played Pokemon Red and Blue a handful of times or Dragon Quest at least twice, and I wonder why we got caught in this idea that Japanese games tell great stories. I mean, FFIV is definitely to blame, at least in the west. Probably, too, Chrono Trigger, FFVI, and FFVII, since I think they sort of solidified that idea for the broader gamer population, but it’s not exactly something deep in the guts of Japanese videogames.
It is, however, why I love this genre of games people call JRPG.
You keep mentioning fun. I know what random battles are and—
Yeah, fair enough. I get it, buddy. I do. The idea that this ancient game is actually fun is a tough sell. You probably read what I wrote about FFIV and are just kind of confused by where the fun is, since it definitely can’t be the battles.
But, like, the story is fun! It reminds me of Star Wars a bit, in that it all seems a bit silly, even when the fate of planets are meant to be at stake. Like, buddy, I have literal eyes in my literal skull that can literally see the screen. If you want me, as a six year old, to take this seriously, you should’ve thought more about what I associate puppets with.
But, no, the battles are not especially fun in the way that a modern videogame battle can be fun, though more on this later. The joy of the game is on a systems level. You see, your main characters, who are a bit less defined by their past than the cast of FFIV or VI, are endlessly malleable.
There’s a class system7 in FFV that is, honestly, a delight. You have a blank slate with regard to how your characters fight, what they learn, and how they develop. Over time, you discover more and more classes that give them various different abilities.
Where FFIV had a tight control on who learned what, with knights learning knight stuff and wizards learning wizard stuff and so on, FFV opens things up and asks you, Who do you want these people to be?
I mean, I don’t want to overstate that. Your choices don’t impact the story or change your character’s personalities, but it does determine what they learn, how they fight, and this, in turn, generates its own aspect to the story. All the lines and storybeats are the same no matter what you do, but, buddy, you have to do things, and most of those things are fight monsters.
That doesn’t sound that fun.
Buddy, if you can’t have fun moving numbers around in a spreadsheet, then I don’t even know if I want to be your friend.
But, seriously, it is weirdly fun. Or, maybe fun’s not the right word. But it is addictive. Satisfying. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you reach a new class level, learning a new ability for combat. And then, if you master these classes, well, heck, man, the game breaks wide open.
And if learning how to break a game isn’t fun, I got nothing for ya. Close the browser and forget my name.
I mean, honestly, this wouldn’t have been fun had I used guides and so on. Optimization isn’t fun when you’re just ticking boxes on a spreadsheet, but it is quite a lot of fun to discover these on your own. To play blindly, like it’s 1994 again, and just see where your curiosity brings you.
But it’s still just random battles with a silly story, yeah?
Do you hate this?
Are you here out of spite?
I mean, yeah, that is what we’re dealing with, but the random battles don’t feel like such a bummer when you can figure out the best way to exploit every moment, every battle, every enemy. I mean, maybe mastery isn’t enjoyable to you because you’re some kind of boring person who has healthy relationships and normal hobbies that enrich your life, but some of us have fun being miserable, all right? And sometimes that misery enriches our experiences with digital lives that exist more in our heads than they do in the game’s text.
Because that really is the trick of these ancient games. Something we’ve lost with greater graphical fidelity and finding a bridge across the uncanny valley is the generative nature of gameplay. The Zelda series has always understood this. It’s why there are insane people who accuse Breath of the Wild of being empty.
Which, like, do you want me to throw up?
I’m going to throw up the next time I hear someone say Hyrule is empty or that Zelda games don’t have stories or that Zelda games are just cute kid games8.
FFV has a story. Like, there’s no denying that. It’s not exactly a good story told well, but it’s there. But the real meat of the experience, here, is the way you, the player, come to know the characters, who you have a heavy hand in designing. The text paints them broadly, but you will come to know them intimately, because you define how they interact with the bulk of the game’s systems (fights, specifically). You’ll come to know your white mage in ways that mountains of text could never accomplish. You’ll feel the devastating loss when some boss one-shots them and leaves you scrambling to keep your party alive in the face of overwhelming force. You’ll come to rely on your tank to keep your party alive. And then, man, wait until you see what you can do with a Red Mage with the abilities of a Black Mage.
To say more honestly makes me feel like I’d be ruining the game.
Because the joy of discovery here is powerful. Yes, it has the same joy of discovery that I talked about in FFIV, but then there’s this whole added layer: the generative quality of exploiting and manipulating the systems scaffolding the entire game and story.
So which version should I play?
Whichever one you already have, probably. I played the Game Boy Advance version and enjoyed it quite a bit. But, again, they’re rereleasing these first six again, so they’re probably a safe bet, assuming you don’t already own this game twice9.
Is it really worth it to play a game so old in the year 2021?
I mean, yeah, I guess. I did it. It was fun.
I have a theory about all these articles that ask you whether or not something’s worth your time. They could all be summed up by the author just writing MAYBE.
The other theory is that you only click on these kinds of articles because you want someone to give you permission. You want to play an old game so ancient it almost feels like a joke when the title paints itself across your flickering screen. You want to be told that the past still matters, that the things from your childhood are still relevant, in part, because to have someone tell you that, no, these things are bad, that they don’t matter, that, maybe, they never mattered, even to you, would be so devastatingly cruel that you may not be able to live past it.
We need the past to matter.
Sounds like another millennial obsessed with nostalgia for a world that never was.
Yeah, I bet. Because I think that’s all of us. Not just millennials, but every generation of humanity. We want to believe the world that shaped us still matters, not only to us, but to future generations. We want people a century from now (bold assumption, that) to hold the artefacts of our lives and understand the crucial significance to them. We want someone to hold the things we love in some future life where we’re only dust and halfremembered stories and have them smile, have it mean as much to them as it did to us when we were seventeen and lonely enough to break our own hearts over the the love that wasn’t shared while we subaudibly mouth memorized lyrics written by a terrible band that we’ll be embarrassed to have liked in a few years but will play every time we throw a party in ten years.
It’s not that millennials are obsessed with nostalgia but that humans have always wished the world was as good as we imagined it was when we were children, when the world seemed bright and new, when life seemed endlessly full of possibilities. That life will feel as rich with meaning as it did when we were hormonally deranged teenagers, beautiful and fragile and aching for our lives to be what we hope.
We dreamt of love, of a better world than this, but we got older and found, well…this. So we collapse inward, backward, to a time when life still held hope and beauty, when it still shocked you to see a character die or a villain change their mind, become a hero, when a lonely man with a guitar singing to a crowd of people could make you weep while you mouthed the words, eyes closed, headphones on.
I don’t know if you’ll enjoy this game. I don’t know if anyone should play it as an adult.
I can tell you that I found so much buoyant joy here, from the soundtrack to the gameplay to the story10. Again, it reminded me of the person I was decades ago, playing my Gameboy alone in a room because there was a comfort I found in myself, in the stories I encountered, that I rarely found in other people. I can tell you that looking through the artwork with my son, listening to the music with him, watching him dance with joy, watching him stomp with performative anger when the bad guys were coming brought the kind of smiles hard to describe because they stretch past the edges of your face to wrap around your whole life.
Final Fantasy has always felt so deeply part of my life that I really can’t talk about these things objectively.
With that in mind, you shouldn’t listen to me. You shouldn’t listen to anyone who cares about anything enough to write 3,000 words for an audience of dozens instead of millions.
But if you sometimes long for that simplicity of childhood, that wide-eyed optimism for life, then, buddy, have I got some things to tell you about.
That sounds nice.
Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla is really what you’re asking for, by the way.
If you’ve ever wondered who those lists are for, they’re for obsessives like me who need to find their own beliefs and judgments confirmed by some random person writing on a random website like RPG Fansite 420.
Don’t even get me started on the nihilistic cult of people who say FFXIII is the best one.
IX is the best one. Everyone knows it so stop saying it’s VI or VII and forever stop pretending anyone likes XIII.
The first book I read by Stephen Graham Jones was a horror novel called All the Beautiful Sinners that scared me in profound and unforgettable ways. I scare easy, see, and this was the kind of nightmare fuel that kept me awake all night, but because I was awake all night, I kept reading, because what else was I going to do? Be scared? Like an idiot? I could do that during the daytime just fine, so I ended up rushing through that book real fast. I loved it. Was maybe the first horror novel I’d actually read. Still one of the only ones I’ve ever actually read, unless, like me, you count things like A Little Life as horror novels. But so I read this book, then picked up a lot of Stephen’s books over the years and have read, probably, all of them but maybe missed two or four here and there (he has a lot), and I got into the habit of handing them out to people, begging them to read him too. So I gave away this copy of All the Beautiful Sinners to someone but they lost it or I lost touch with them. But the book—gone. Just horror. One of my favorite books that introduced me to my favorite writer just disappeared and when I tried to get a new copy, it was out of print and I did a lot of digging to try to find one but never did, so I guess I just kept reading his new books, of which there were always more, thankfully, but, still, a part of me always wanted to find that book again. Then, like, a decade after I read it and accidentally gave it away to be forever lost, I find that wonderful cover beneath a stack of books being sold for a dollar a piece at a book convention in St Paul where I talked to Mark Z Danielewski for half an hour about typography, horror, and slippery reality. But there it was, just sitting there like no one even knew what it was they had there. I was flushed, man. Like, seriously just shaking a bit out of excitement. All the blood rushing to my head and bubbling the edges of my vision. At this point, I’d given up on ever finding it again, ever getting it in my stupid, filthy hands again, and there it was, just sitting there like it was just some…book, or something. So I grabbed it, of course, walked the two steps to the lady selling it and let her know my intentions. And she asked for the dollar, like this was a twix bar and not my late teens screaming in her bored face. So I pull out my dollar, partly believing, still, that this is some kind of hallucination, that this decade long hunt for a book that meant the world to me was ending in the quietest, most mundane manner imaginable. Like at any moment she’s going to realize this is a treasure. Maybe not to most people, but to me specifically, and she’s going to ask me for something more. Not money, no. Nothing so crass. But something arcane and perverse and I’m just going to do what this apathetic bookseller demands of me because I’m a hopeless idiot who never really stopped being seventeen, even after seventeen years. But, no, she just takes my dollar and I just take her book, make it mine, put it in my bag with The Fifty Year Sword, which I partly bought because it felt really awkward to talk to a famous author for a while and then not buy his book, even though I didn’t really want it (I’m glad I bought it, though, because that book is good and everyone is wrong) because what I really wanted from him was another horror novel that, honestly, did for me when I was twenty what All the Beautiful Sinners did for me when I was sixteen or seventeen. And then, unbelievably, I just left like nothing happened and life continued on like nothing happened and I’m sitting here now, years later, like nothing happened, except that now I can reach behind myself and pick up that book I thought I lost over a decade ago.
I like every Malick movie more than every Miike movie I’ve seen, but I never don’t have fun with Miike, whether he’s doing insane horror, samurai epics, weird gangster movies, or heartwarming superhero stories.
Not in a Marxist way but in a D&D way.
I mean, I have novels worth of words to say about this, specifically, and maybe I’ll write it one day when I can consider these things without making my nose bleed.
Don’t laugh at me.
How have I not mentioned Gilgamesh here? Well, imagine I said some funny things about one of the best comedic characters to ever appear in a game.