RetroSurfing: Final Fantasy V

Recently, I bought a console that would let me play classic NES/SNES etc. games on my modern TV. I never owned either of these consoles when I was growing up – my first foray into gaming was with GameBoy Colour and Nintendo 64. RetroSurfing is my record as I journey through some classics that I missed the first time around.

Final Fantasy is a name that is known around the world – one of gaming’s biggest pillars and a key founding block of the industry that we know today. The first game was released for the NES all the way back in 1987, with the franchise having seen over 100 releases across various platforms in the years following. The main series is set to see its sixteenth entry releasing in the near future, looking like it’ll see shelves in 2022 at the time of writing (although knowing Final Fantasy’s history with delays it might end up being pushed to much later), and will hopefully be a game that once again manages to push boundaries, and maybe for once, even reunify its fanbase, which has grown increasingly divided over the years. My own experiences with Final Fantasy were predominantly founded in its spin-off games until I eventually got an Xbox 360 with Final Fantasy XIII in 2013. The game had long been one that I wanted to play, mainly because of the adverts on TV back when it was originally released featuring the voice of one Leona Lewis. After enjoying that game, I eventually found myself wondering about the other games in the series, and since 2014 I’ve been crawling my way through the history of the main games, often taking long breaks between them, but enjoying each one individually. Finally, in 2021, I’ve made it all the way to Final Fantasy V on the SNES, and let me tell you… it’s my favourite so far.

On any list of the best Final Fantasy games, you’ll often find Final Fantasy V somewhere around the middle, a position I feel perfectly represents the views of the gaming world at large towards this game. It feels very underrepresented in discussion online, very rarely getting a mention in threads on reddit or one gaming sites. It doesn’t draw the same vitriol as XIII or XV, nor the praise of VI or VII. It often seems to have been completely forgotten. This is likely in part due to the game’s release history in the West – Final Fantasy IV saw the franchise released in the West for the first time after a long break, branded as Final Fantasy II, before V was skipped over and VI was released as Final Fantasy III. It’s a storied history that seems to have a variety of theories as to why it happened – some say V’s systems were considered too difficult for the Western audience which was at the time unaccustomed to RPGs, while others claim that the translation was just taking too long, and by the time it looked like it could’ve been finished, VI had already hit Japanese shelves. The truth probably contains a mixture of both. When the game finally reached Western shores, it came via a Playstation port in 1998, six years after its Japanese release and a year after the release of the game changing Final Fantasy VII was released around the world. The port was deeply flawed – the translation wasn’t up to scratch and a bug meant that loading up the menus could take up to a minute just to save the game. The GameBoy Advance version remains the best way to play the game in English at the current point in time, although that might change with the recently announced ‘Pixel Remasters’ for PC. Luckily for me, I was able to pick up an original SNES version in Japan and play through it as originally intended.

I’ll tell you now that it’s a damn shame that this game hasn’t been given a fair shot in the West. The characters, the gameplay, the mechanics, the art, they’re all special and come together to make a game that was truly a joy to play from start to finish. My final play time through the main story clocked in at around 28 hours, and I loved almost every minute of it. One of the most enjoyable things for me when playing was the characters. Bartz and his crew have a very easy relationship, one that just seems to fall into place and never feels particularly forced. While Bartz has his ghosts, he is far from the tortured protagonists that would come to define the series in a post VII world, allowing things to feel much more light-hearted, even as the story itself gets quite dark at times. Perhaps equally as important as the script however, was the sprite work done on the characters. As they interact with the world around them, the sprites react wonderfully – laughing and crying as they go through he ups and downs of their journey. It’s a wonderful bit of sprite work that helps to foster empathy towards the characters – a vitally important thing in RPGs.

It’s not just the characters that are wonderfully designed however – the various towns and dungeons are intricately detailed, creating a real sense of time and place. It’s mightily impressive that a game released on the SNES back in 1992 was still able to make me stop and admire the visuals in 2021. The game’s final dungeon offers a brief tour of some of the key locales that you’ve visited along the journey – a great way to refresh your memory of the various beautiful sights you’ve come upon along the way, from crumbling ruins to deep caves. Reaching the end really made me feel like I’d made it through a gauntlet (and not in the soul-crushing boss rush style of Final Fantasy III).

While the story and characters are a key ingredient when it comes to appreciating the brilliance of Final Fantasy V, it’s the game’s systems that truly mark it as a cut above its contemporaries. Building upon the job system introduced in Final Fantasy III, V allows for much deeper customisation of the characters – job skills become equippable as you level them up, meaning you can create your own kind of character who straddles the lines of black mage and knight, for instance. It was a system that I became deeply involved in, looking to create the best characters that I could for my play style. I ended up creating some strong magic users, using the Mimic class to equip a variety of different magic types before facing off against the final boss. This deep level of customisation still feels very modern to this day – I can imagine that you could make a playthrough very different by choosing different jobs and skills, changing the tactics that are necessary to beat each boss. It’s a fascinating system that has been taken up by many other games in the years following, although I think that V remains one of the best examples of it that I’ve seen yet. Truly a joy.

This has been a gushing retrospective so far, and you might be wondering when the other foot is going to drop – the truth is that it isn’t. While there were times that I felt frustrated with the game in the moment, in retrospect it was more my own ill-preparedness that left me unequipped to properly deal with some challenges. The final boss did have me tearing out my hair, but the relief I felt upon beating it might genuinely have been felt more earned than even beating some difficult bosses from FromSoftware’s notoriously hard Souls series. For anyone looking for a great classic RPG to play, I can’t recommend Final Fantasy V enough, although I would have to remind you to be careful about which version you’re playing. Hopefully the Pixel Remaster will offer modern gamers a better way to play this classic than the ugly iPhone version or having to dig out their GameBoy Advance and track down a cartridge.

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