7/18/11

It Only Took Me Twelve Years

In the car, driving back from an early dinner at a favorite restaurant, RockManXZ24, my game playing friend whose obsession has provided him with a unique ability to find extra hours in the day to finish absurdly long JRPGs, asked me the same question he’s asked for about four months: “did you ever beat Final Fantasy 5?”

The question would have hung in the air had I not known it was coming. RockMan started asking about my progress about two weeks after I, on a whim, started playing it again, likely my favorite game that I never bothered to beat. RockMan reminded me that it came out nearly twelve years ago – The twelfth anniversary for Final Fantasy Anthology, the first official English release of Final Fantasy 5, is on September 30th.

Final Fantasy 5 was one of the games that set off the internet translation scene, with various groups trying their hardest to push out a fully playable, English language rom hack before the others could take credit. Derrick Sobodash, one of the key figures in that era, had an insightful, honest article about the time he spent translating video games as a very young man. It seems to have disappeared, for the time being, or I would link to it here. It would be an interesting footnote for any retrospective on the game or its series. Not only was Final Fantasy 5 a “lost gem” for fans of the series and Japanese RPGs, but the catalyst for what is now an expansive community of hobbyists who seemingly spend more time working on games than playing them.

A lot of reviewers who look at the game in hindsight get hung up on the story, which is rudimentary and filled with shonen manga clich├ęs about the importance of friendship, bursting with deus-ex-machina solutions left largely inexplicable, a cast of orphaned children trying to please their parents. All while trying to save the world.

Those more inclined to play a game for its mechanics praise its “job system.” The player decides on a character class for each of the four party members, and learns skills that can then be used while the character learns the skills of another class. So, if the player were inclined to do so, Bartz, the lead character, could be a thief who can also cast black magic, or a ninja who can steal items from monsters, or a knight who wields two swords like a ninja. Until Final Fantasy 7, this was the most customizable game in the series, and with the job system added on top of the typical equipment management and character progression, it is easily the numerically driven player experiences developed for the SNES/Super Famicom. But it’s also recognizably a Final Fantasy title, what with the moogles, chocobos, Nobuo Uematsu music and active time battle system.

In case it isn’t obvious, I am a numbers fetishist. At least when it comes to video games, that is. Grinding my way through Etrian Odyssey is, for me, a good time. But I also like games that feel that they were made by real people rather than assembled according to a formula. These sentiments seem slightly opposed. I’ve often considered that my ineptness at mathematics maybe created the desire to play with numbers in a less daunting way than doing geometrical proofs or solving equations. Is that why I want both warmth and pure number-crunching in my games? It could very well be.

But why would I like Final Fantasy 5 so much when it is generally agreed upon as having a totally rote story and cast? I’m thinking, maybe, that the familiarity is part of why it appeals to me. It’s so purely unpretentious, so reminiscent of the sort of anime I watched as a kid, before Neon Genesis Evangelion kinda-sorta ruined anime as a whole for me, that it somehow doesn’t matter that every twist in the plot and characterization appears close to the face, rather than peaking over the horizon or hiding in the margin. I’ve said it before: if I wanted a challenging narrative, I would read a book (and I often do).

After I got home, I hooked up my Playstation, inserted the Final Fantasy 5 CD; three hours later, I had made it through the final dungeon in the “N-Zone,” and was fighting Neo X-Death, the evil tree bent on destroying the planet. Yes, the last boss is an evil, world destroying tree.

I had grinded to the point that two of my characters had learned the “mimic” battle skill. Walking about in dungeons and fighting random battles had become a sort of before-bed ritual for about a month, and it made the last boss battle rather easy. Two characters with mimic, one with Black magic and a “Red X 2” ability (two spells cast for the same turn), and two characters in the mime cast made for entire rounds of “flare” cast on all sections of the boss. Four characters, each casting flare twice, meant that my party caused around 20,000 to 24,000 damage each round. As mentioned, it was easy.

And watching the ending, with the Nobuo Uematsu’s crystal theme, the overworld theme, and the Final Fantasy fanfare playing in a medley that evoked every ounce of nostalgia in my small, cynical heart to come bursting forth in a deluge of unexpected and unwanted melancholy, I thought about how I had been playing this game for almost twelve years. It was fun. I loved it.

The only other game that I think has ever gotten an emotional reaction from me was Final Fantasy 4. Unlike its immediate, unrelated sequel, I’ve beaten that game numerous times, and on multiple systems. The world has changed a lot in the twelve years between the time I first played Final Fantasy 5 and the time at which I beat it. It’s a landmark title, for a lot of people, and for a lot of reasons. Nostalgia has a funny way of working like that.

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