Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler


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The Apple II and its software and community had a tremendous influence on my evolution as a gamer. But as much as I enjoyed its games, many of them would today be described as "casual" games — something I could play for a few minutes before moving on. My Apple II collection didn't include the deep, engrossing titles of Ultima or Wizardry; for those role-playing experiences, I turned to my Nintendo. It was on that gaming platform that I lost myself in the worlds of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. These two Japanese RPGs offered worlds, characters, inventories, and more complexity than any of the action games I was otherwise accustomed to.

So when Boss Fight Books launched a few years ago with the promise to delve behind the scenes of such console games, I was quick to back all four of its Kickstarters — for seasons 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each "season" featured several books by different authors who would offer their own personal experiences with a game, woven with the original interviews with the game's designers.

Boss Fight Books hasn't always lived up to my expectations: of the four I've received, two of them were pretty good, and two were horribly unreadable. Despite that uneven experience, I had no hesitation in backing the latest season, as I knew what I'd be getting when I saw Chris Kohler was assigned to cover Final Fantasy V. Kohler is the founder of the games section of WIRED and is now a features editor at Kotaku, two websites that have done exemplary work covering the video game space. While I don't know Kohler personally, I've read his work and have attended his conference talks, and we were scheduled to be on a panel together at PAX East 2017 before circumstances conspired against us. (I'm still hopeful we'll have a future opportunity to collaborate.)

Sure enough, Kohler's book is a tight, enjoyable, informative tale of this JRPG that never saw an English-language release during its day. It's a game that inspired Kohler to import the Super Famicom version to try playing on his Super Nintendo, and ultimately to study abroad in Japan during his college years.

Having never played FFV, I had much to learn about this missing title in the popular franchise. I thought I knew everything else about the series, though, including the original Final Fantasy, which I'd spent the summer of 1990 playing. Kohler surprised me with an origin story I'd somehow never learned or had forgotten:

Eventually, [Final Fantasy creator Hironobu] Sakaguchi got his act together, graduated school, and entered Yokohama National University to study electronic communications. Unfortunately for his renewed interest in scholastic achievement, he quickly discovered video games. A classmate named Hiromuchi Tanaka owned an Apple II, and their group of friends would stay up all night playing Western RPGs like Wizardry and Ultima. Sakaguchi didn't go in for arcade games, but these RPGs were something else: They had fantastic stories like the ones he devoured in the volumed of Guin Saga, and you could play them for hours on end. Which he did. Sakaguchi and his friends would pull all-nighters on Tanaka's Apple II. He battled monsters in Ultima II until he maxed out the amount of gold his character could carry, and the counter rolled over from 9999 back to 0.

Though the Apple II was not as popular in Japan as it was in the USA, I had no idea it had landed in just the right hands to inspire an entire RPG franchise that continues to this day. While I didn't play Wizardry and Ultima, I'm immensely relieved that Sakaguchi did; the games they inspired him to create became my Wizardry and Ultima.

The official launch date for Kohler's book is tomorrow, but as a Kickstarter backer, I received my copy several weeks ago. I recommend it without reservation to anyone interested in the story of Final Fantasy and the early evolution of JRPGs. A further excerpt is available at Kotaku.

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