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Posted on Sep 5th 2017 at 08:00:00 AM by (zophar53)
Posted under Review, books, Boss Fight Books, Final Fantasy V

There are few video game franchises more well-known or well-loved than Final Fantasy. There are also few franchises with a more interesting history. With numerous remakes, fan translations, and a once-bewildering numbering discrepancy, it's a dizzying series of games to keep track of for all but the most dedicated. The third and fifth entries, in particular, have always been the odd and underappreciated ducklings. However, for those who gave them a shot they've gotten high praise, and are some of the most intriguing in terms of their path to a Western release.

This makes it a perfect fit for the next entry in Boss Fight Books' series of video game reference tomes. As familiar as I am with FFV, I've never played through it myself, so I figured this was a good opportunity to learn a bit more about the game and what makes it so great, why it took Squaresoft seven years to bring it to American gamers, and the lengths to which its fans went through to make it playable here long before its official US release.

Started in 2013 with a Kickstarter campaign, Boss Fight Books look at a single game with each volume, and are written by various game critics, journalists, and even the occasional creator them self. With tones that are part critique, part documentary, and no small amount of a personal love letter from their respective authors, they're fun and easy to read at only about 200 pages each. They're bite-sized looks at the games that have shaped and made an impact on our favorite industry. They're still going strong four years later, still funded on Kickstarter, and about to start their fourth "season."

Final Fantasy V represents the first book dedicated to this series of games, and in choosing Chris Kohler to write it, they've found an excellent candidate to give it its proper due. Chris has been writing about games professionally for about 20 years now, with publications like WIRED and Kotaku under his belt. In fact, as he explains in the book, this very game helped cement his love of all things Japan, inspiring him to eventually live there for a couple brief stints and even begin to learn the language specifically to play the import copy he bought as a teenager. He's even credited as helping to write the very first fan-made translation document for FFV and posting it online. Obviously, he's got the chops to pen such a book.

Chris' writing pedigree pays off as he writes about those early days of the medium. For me personally, it goes beyond just the words on the page. He has a way of romanticizing how it felt for many of us to learn of this magical place on the other side of the world called Japan, where the anime and video games were made. "Japan is another world, separate from your own. It is not a place to which you can travel...there is only so much you can do at fourteen..." Statements like these, and describing things like the "universal scent of 'mall'," take me back to the wonderful golden age of gaming in my early teens, when news and the briefest of windows into game companies were trickled out through the monthly pages of the first video game magazines. This tone is fairly consistent throughout, and it's something that hit home for me pretty hard.

I've only read a couple previous Boss Fight Books, but I was surprised to find that this one doesn't break up into smaller chapters like the others I've read. There are three main sections, the titles of which make sense to anyone who's played FFV, or anyone who's finished this book, but they don't seem to fit with the structure of how they're written. The progression doesn't stick to a firm linearity. Starting with a few handful of gamers learning there was a new Final Fantasy game they were missing out on, and progressing through it being embraced by the fan translation community, then discussing the first ever American release as part of Final Fantasy Anthology, the GBA release, and beyond, that stuff is all in order. But there are frequent breakouts to discuss how certain parts of the game were created or structured. It didn't really bother me per se, as it's all interesting information, but I found it a curious choice that made the story seem a bit scattered.

Another thing I found curious was some of the descriptions. I can understand describing something like the SNES' Mode 7 graphics capabilities, as some younger readers who may not have played that console won't know what that is, but describing terms that are still commonplace today, like FAQs, chocobos, and dungeons, seems like needlessly dumbing things down.

These are fairly minor complaints though, as the heart of the material presented here is great stuff. To that end, this fourth season of books touts new interviews from the creators of the subject games. For Final Fantasy V, this means new interviews from series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. These new insights, together with past interviews from him and several others, paint a fascinating picture of how the job system works, the collaboration of everyone on the team to mold the story, mesh it with the gameplay, and help with bug testing, and trying to create a more cinematic experience for the player.

Kupo! From finalfantasy.wikia.com

FFV saw the proliferation of cute characters like Moogles and Tonberrys. And while it wasn't the first game to feature concepts like the job system and ultra-difficult optional bosses, it refined them to a point that they would become mainstays in many of the games to come after. I didn't realize the level of care and intent taken to make these systems work so well together. I can still remember playing Final Fantasy VII, which was the first one I'd played in some time. I distinctly remember coming across the "weapon" bosses in the latter part of the game, meandering their way across the land, and being baffled at how they would decimate my entire party in one turn. "How is defeating this thing even possible??" I asked myself. Eventually I read about elusive materia that would allow one to duplicate spells multiple times, and then let your other party members duplicate those barrages. Paired with a crazy spell like Knights of the Round, this was the only way to stand up to such formidable beasts. This idea was completely new to me, and blew my young mind back in the day. But only because I'd never played FFV.

Part of the joy of Boss Fight Books is learning how the fan community embraces the games we love. Some of my favorite moments came from reading Chris describe the process of finding a couple other people to slowly piece together their own Japanese translation document, little by little, and sharing it on the then-new Internet. Even when SquareSoft got around to releasing FFV on American shores, the translation it received was lackluster and sloppy. To this day, many still claim the fan-translated ROM is the best way to experience this game. As a speaker of Japanese himself, Chris does a great job conveying just how complex it is to translate a video game, taking into account things like text sizes and cultural nuance in the language that is easily lost in translation. Later, he tells of a fan site creating an event called the Four Job Fiesta, which would dole out a random four job party to a participant, who would then have to finish the game with that party. Doing so required them to learn the intricacies of each job in whole new ways in order to succeed. This became so popular that it eventually became a charity event, raising money for children's hospitals.

The first half of the book is fairly spoiler-free, but in the latter half there are significant reveals. I was initially disappointed that I would have story beats and plot points revealed to me, but then, I have no one to blame for that but myself. Frankly, if you're willing to read a book about a game 20 years after its first official release in America and haven't beaten it yet, that's kind of on you. And in the end, the plot descriptions only serve to convey more reasons why FFV was the coalescing of many themes that are so common today, both within the franchise and beyond. Sakaguchi has an appreciation for space and science fiction, which is apparent when you consider that surprisingly often in those early FF games, the Arthurian swords and shields backdrop would be covering themes rooted in cosmic turmoil. Themes like existence vs. non-existence, order vs. chaos, even parents' relationships with their children, are common in the ever-changing worlds of Square Enix.  Despite the spoilers, I was glad to at long last understand what made this game so beloved among the RPG community, and was impressed enough that it's actually inspired me to fire up the ole SNES and finally experience the coveted triad of FFIV, V, and VI (no doubt the most shameful group of games on my "never finished" list) for myself first hand.

Yep. Own all three. Haven't finished any of them.

The only other issue I have with the book is with the Notes section in the back. Chris is exhaustive in sourcing the interviews, translations, and other materials he's drawn on in his research with links to all of it, and that's a great thing for those looking for even more reading. But while it's convenient to have all these links in one place, by the time I got to the end of the book I'd lost the context for many of the sources he describes. A better solution would've been to include the source descriptions as footnotes so they're close to where they're referenced, then use one master link that would lead to an online list of each individual source link.

But again, that's a minor issue in what is otherwise a well-written, insightful look into what is arguably one of the most overlooked and beloved RPGs of our time. The prose is entertaining and relatable, and the new interviews and anecdotes are packed with information even the most diehard FF fan will find eye-opening, making this is a fine addition to the Boss Fight Books catalog. Like the volumes that came before it, Final Fantasy V will be a nostalgic homage for some, a revelation to others, and to still others, like myself, an enticing motivation to try a game they've known about for years and for one reason or another have never made the time for. In my case, that's a hole in my gaming history I intend to fill very soon.

Final Fantasy V will be released in both ebook and paperback formats on October 24, on bossfightbooks.com, Amazon, and various bookstores around the country.

**Note: I was provided a complimentary ebook advance review copy of Final Fantasy V for the purpose of this review. I have purchased several Boss Fight Books, but have not backed any of their Kickstarter campaigns.

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I'm a big FFV fan, and was glad to see this book in the works. Thanks for the review, and I'll have to give it a read.
I love the Boss Fight books (my favorite is still Earthbound).  The Amazon Kindle book is very reasonably priced and more than worth the $5.  Bummer I missed the Kickstarter (that happens a lot), but at least I've pre-ordered it through Amazon.
Nice review.  I'd not heard of Boss Fight Books, so this is an interesting thing to read about.  I'm not much of a reader, outside of work, but this kind of smaller, "bite-size" take, as you put it, might be more my speed.
@bombatomba: That's always been the case for me too. I make a note to get back to their Kickstarters but it always slips my mind or some other financial need comes up. Oh well, ended up working out. I was glad to be able to review it without the messiness of financial investment, be it real or perceived.

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