A Final Fantasy Retrospective – Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom)

SINCE Final Fantasy V was – inexplicably – never released in the West in its original form, I relied on the Super Famicom version via RPGe’s groundbreaking (and very good) fan translation. The Anthology version on the original Playstation has a wretched translation. The internationally-released Game Boy Advance version is vastly superior and boasts extra content. The recently-released Steam version has all the extras but some incredibly lacklustre character sprites among the otherwise beautiful renders. Pick your poison.

Final Fantasy IV – or ‘2’, for our American friends – did gangbusters. It was a colossus among the fledgling SNES landscape, hauling the series into the 16-bit generation with staggering confidence.  It’s still impressive just how easily Square adapted, both to the demands of the new hardware and the expectations of its burgeoning audience, but hindsight makes it unsurprising. Square made its reputation on adaptability; FFIV was a natural, perhaps obvious progression, re-introducing the core concepts of the series to a new, more powerful platform and expanding on its weaker elements, primarily the narrative.

But sacrifices had to be made in the transition, and Hironobu Sakaguchi and co. were forced to curtail some of their prior ambition. By emphasising the narrative in FFIV, they streamlined (some would say simplified) the previous entry’s exceptional Job System, eschewing the interchangeable character classes in favour of rigid, pre-determined roles: Kain was always a Dragoon, Rosa was always a White Mage, Edge was always a ninja, etc. FFIV was a triumphant step forward for storytelling in videogames, but it was a regression for the series’ gameplay mechanics.

So Sakaguchi told Hiroyuki Ito, credited creator of the original Job and Active Time Battle Systems, to sort this shit out for the fifth instalment. Ito got to work. He worked hard. He worked really hard. He was working so hard he was pulling staff from every facet of the game’s development in order to finalise his Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile, an intern named Yoshinori Kitase found himself receiving desperate calls from Sakaguchi for story ideas – nervous and eager to please, he just kept saying, “More Crystals.” Yoshitaka Amano, chief artist on the series, was coming down from a paint stripper addiction, so he started delegating. Tetsuya Nomura stepped in. Yes, that one.

That entire paragraph is silly conjecture, of course, but it’s actually a fascinating capsule of the moment that the gatekeepers of Final Fantasy began to mingle. The old guard of Sakaguchi, Amano and Ito were being bolstered by the young blood of Kitase and Nomura, both of whom would prove to be instrumental in shaping the course of the franchise’s future (and, indeed, present). It also demonstrates that the series was getting bigger and bigger, and the increasing numbers of Square’s staff were able to reconcile Sakaguchi’s ambitions with the limitations of the hardware.

Final Fantasy V is a perfect marriage of old and new. Drawing heavily from FFIII – itself a consolidation of its predecessors’ best bits – it fuses the gameplay innovations of the Famicom instalments with the advanced capabilities of the Super Famicom. It melds the Job System of FFIII with the ATB of FFIV, deftly combining two of the most brilliant mechanics in the entire series. It even finds time to bundle in a save-the-crystals plot that, though undoubtedly paint-by-numbers, boasts tons of personality through its endearing characters and varied world(s).

None of these characters have the relative complexity of a Cecil or a Kain, but they’re all uniquely enjoyable in their own right. Bartz (Butz, in some translations, lulz) is a goofy wanderer whose adventurous spirit and adorable Chocobo companion is tempered by his chronic fear of heights. Lenna (or Reina) is a straight-laced but proactive Princess who, despite her general blandness, never conforms to the blinking waif stereotype so common to JRPGs.

Galuf is a jovial klutz whose stock amnesia trope is regularly brushed aside for light-hearted capering. Then there’s pirate queen Faris; she doesn’t take any shit, she doesn’t fundamentally change when her true identity is revealed and she’s never forced into an awful romantic sub-plot. Finally, Cara (or Krile), Galuf’s grand-daughter, is a savvy child prodigy who can telepathically speak to Moogles and Chocobos. Go figure.

That’s shockingly progressive stuff for a 1992 game, but almost everything else is standard fare. The villain, Exdeath (or Exodus, which makes much more sense and isn’t ludicrous), is pure pantomime and only a step away from tying damsels to train-tracks, but he’s still a despicable prick who still retains a palpable presence in the story, as opposed to previous antagonists like Zande, Zemus or Chaos. The requisite Cid is reliably kooky, and this time he has a grandson named Mid to buddy up with, which qualifies for innovation when it comes to Cid in Final Fantasy. Moogles return with their very own Forest, and talk exclusively in “Kupo!” exclamations, typifying most of their depictions thereafter.

But, oh, Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh enters the story during one of the series’ most memorable moments and marks his place as one of the best characters in RPG history. (Say the words, “Clash on the Big Bridge” to any Final Fantasy fan and watch them gush.) Introduced as Exdeath’s bumbling lieutenant, he undergoes a beautiful arc that sees him go from ineffective stooge to penitent ally. He’s, ultimately, a loveable doofus who just wants a challenge. He’s so brilliant that he eventually became a recurring character in his own right, becoming the franchise’s answer to Deadpool.

The rest of the cast is populated by stock archetypes that aren’t worth going into, because Job System. The Job System in this game is almost unparalleled. It is so, so, so good. It takes the inherent joy of experimenting with different classes that FFIII brought to the table and expands it exponentially by including Abilities. Like that game, Jobs level up – this time with Ability Points, or ABP – but rather than stat increases, levelling Jobs gives access to new Abilities that are either inherent to that Job or separate Commands that can be assigned from the menu.

Crucially, FFV takes full advantage of the system’s potential by allowing you to cross-pollinate Jobs. This, ostensibly, means you can have a Knight that can use White Magic, or a Dancer who can Summon, or a Samurai who can dual-wield like a Ninja. The potential for versatility, even in the early game, is almost limitless. Not only does it allow the player to intricately customise their playstyle in any way they like, it incentivises mixing and matching Jobs that might not seem useful – like the Geomancer or Chemist – to maximise their usefulness through supplementation. Certain equipment is restricted to specific Jobs but, unlike FFIII, there’s no daft penalty for switching Jobs, and equipment optimisation is automatic, resulting in a considerable deal less menu fiddling to get what you want.

It’s simply genius, and might still be Hiroyuki Ito’s crowning design achievement. It’s the culmination of the customisability that began in the original game, and remains the peak of pure gameplay in the series. It’s so good that an annual charity event – Four Job Fiesta – challenges players to beat the game with a random selection of Jobs. And they do beat it! With random Jobs! Because they’re all superbly balanced, vastly expanding the player’s strategic pallet.

The emphasis on strategy is well-earned: Final Fantasy V is tough. Really tough. But its difficulty isn’t artificial or “NES hard” – unlike 95% of RPGs, and indeed most entries in the series, grinding will not enable your progression. You can’t just grind out levels for an hour to beat the roadblock boss; almost every boss has a distinct gimmick that requires the player to think hard about their Job set-up and their understanding of the ATB. An ‘action bar’ has been implemented next to party members’ names, allowing you to see whose turn is next, which provides an enormous boon to player strategy. You’ll die – perhaps moreso than any other instalment – but each death is a teachable moment that’s telling you to adapt or fail again.

Dungeons are involved without being too long, and Save Points are usually placed a floor or two below the boss, drastically cutting down on the amount of busywork and lost progress. Even the endgame has a Save Point tucked away a single screen before the final boss – a far cry from the nightmare halls of FFIII’s Sylx and FFII’s Pandemonium. The game is hard, undoubtedly, but it provides the player with plenty of ways to circumvent or outright eliminate its difficulty. It’s all about the approach the player brings to the puzzles within battles. It is, again, genius.

Quality-of-life improvements include the elimination of the inventory item limit, improved detail on backgrounds and the increased use of the Super Famicom’s much-touted Mode 7 processing system. There are also some new, expressive sprites for characters, particularly when they laugh or look surprised. The new sprites provide much of the game’s inordinate charm and, even when the writing does get hokey, it never becomes cloying because the animations are so full of personality.

And that’s what this game has over so many other RPGs: personality. Charm, wit, camp, adventure, joie de vivre, whatever – you name it, it has it. It permeates the entire game, from the opening crawl to the closing credits. It’s a wonderful, joyous romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously but never buckles to sentimentality or saccharine indulgence.

It’s all the more baffling, then, that Square failed to localise it to contemporary Western/American audiences. Square did Final Fantasy V an immense disservice with this failure. The main reason cited is the game being too difficult or complex for Western audiences, as if Contra or Zelda II didn’t exist, but it was exactly the kind of parochial condescension that was holding Square back in the worldwide market. It sold double the number – 2.45 million – of FFIV upon release in Japan in 1992, so why hold it back? The decision clouded the game’s legacy: Had it been released in the West during the SNES’s lifespan, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t now be held with the same reverence as IV and VI.

In any case, Final Fantasy V is the last ‘old school’ Final Fantasy. It’s a cavalier romp that never takes itself too seriously, shot through with a breezy sense of humour and a likeable cast of characters. It flaunts series staples like Chocobos and Airships and Different Worlds and Summons and ATB, but at its core lays an incredibly in-depth combat system that doubles down on strategy and player skill to ratchet up the tension.

It’s the last gasp before Final Fantasy became the worldwide cornerstone for console role-playing games. It’s the last gasp before Final Fantasy committed itself to crafting sprawling stories centred on tragic, tortured heroes grappling with identity and the end of the world. It is the deep breath before Square began to streamline the Final Fantasy experience, for better or worse.

It is also the last time that Hironobu Sakaguchi directed a Final Fantasy. This is not a coincidence. He didn’t actually leave Square until the early 2000s, staying on as an executive producer and helping to oversee each mainline project, but he was no longer a hands-on presence. He handed over the reins to Ito and Kitase, who would immediately and irrevocably alter the course of the series forever. Final Fantasy would seldom return to the carefree spirit of its fifth instalment – in a way, it’s a bittersweet farewell to everything that had come before.

It’s not a genre-defining masterpiece of ludo-narrative cohesion, but it never needed to be. It’s just a fucking great game, and it deserves more recognition.

Join us next time when we look back on what is widely regarded as one of the greatest games in the series and, indeed, of all time: Final Fantasy VI.

Oh, yeah, Nobuo Uematsu’s score is fucking stellar. I thought it would go without saying, but I couldn’t leave it unmentioned. Listen to the whole thing, on repeat, forever. It is, just, so good.

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