Thursday, June 28, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 5

INTRODUCTION: A drifter named Bartz (or "Butz", originally) is riding along on his chocobo pal Boco when he is caught in an unusual earthquake. Just then a meteor crashes and an amnesiac old man emerges, whilst a princess tries to track down her father, who has flown his dragon to the Wind Shrine to protect the Wind Crystal...

...Because (and get ready for this massive shock!): the four elemental crystals, you see, are dying (Jesus, this AGAIN?) - and with them the world.

Anyway: finding the king proves rather hard due to the becalmed sea, which leads the unlikely gang to find their fourth member: a drag king pirate whose ship is towed by a friendly sea serpent.  Of course, who else would it be?  And off they go to ADVENTURE!!!...  Which of course winds up with them fighting a talking tree, because JRPGs.

RELEASE: 6 December 1992, Nintendo Super Famicom (JPN); 30 September 1999, Sony PlayStation (USA, remake); 27 February 2002, Sony PlayStation (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: Again 2002, when the PlayStation remake hit these shores.  However it would take me until 2005 to complete it, again due to wandering attention.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia.
REAL WORLD: As you might have guessed from last week's entry, we have another numbering controversy here.  FF5 was intended for American release, with translation apparently starting quite soon after release, but several attempts were never finished, including a plan to release it under a different title due to the game's difficulty.  Due to this, the only way to play the game was on a Japanese Super Famicom cartridge.

This had a huge effect on import culture in gaming, with American fans importing these Japanese cartridges, modifying their machines to play them and learning Japanese or following guides to complete the game.  Unthinkable now that FF is a keenly awaited, shrewdly marketed, globe-straddling franchise - but a cool little glimpse at a charming corner of gaming past.

THE GAME: This is essentially FF3 with fixed characters.  Bartz, Galuf, Faris and Lenna (and later a fifth character) all have their own stories to be told, although Bartz's really isn't much to write home about for a de facto lead character, and Lenna's is boring.

As default, the characters have no skills except "Attack" and "Item", but can equip basically any armour or weapons they like.  They learn new skills by spending time and winning battles in a number of familiar job roles - yer usual knights, monks and thieves, new additions like rangers and dancers, plus a whole spectrum of mages and the non-threatening sounding mime, which is actually key to most end game strategies.

Once your characters have learned these skills, they can be used by the character when they're no longer in that job - but each character can only equip a maximum of four skills at once, and three of them are often automatically filled by the skills being learned in the current job.

This gives the player a really flexible system.  You could have a dancing white mage, or a summoner with cover, a ninja who can cast black magic, a knight who can, er, mime...  All of this leads to a feeling of near-infinite customisation, though you have to pity the poor guys who had to translate all of that from Japanese just to play it back in the day, desperately trying work out what was reducing and what the action was based on the animation.

Other than that there's not a great leap from FF4; there's a bunch more fancy Mode 7 rotation graphics, larger sprites (though that's helped by having four rather than five in the party) and a more pronounced ATB system aside, this is "as you were" - not necessarily a bad thing.

Courtesy Square Enix, via GameSpot.
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: Spells are purchased or found - the old "spellbook" approach again, one assumes - except for Blue Magic, which is learned from battles with certain enemies.  AP earned as a Black, White, Red, Blue or Time Mage increases the level of spells that can be cast.

Time Mage?  What gives?  Well, Time magic is mainly things like Haste, Slow, Stop, Old and other status magic.  I think Meteor is in there too though, so there's a big bang waiting for anyone who specialises in that relatively niche area.

MUSIC: Hmm, this soundtrack wasn't standing out in my head before a quick refresher dredged up this little gem...


There is interplanetary travel via artificial meteor, quite a bit of ancient technology and at least one robot superboss.  Plus Gilgamesh seems to travel between dimensions.  However, odd as it sounds, these don't have a great bearing on the locations, which are basically all hamlets and castles, so it's points off for that.

MEGABOSSES: Omega and Shinryu really set the bar for megabosses going forward.  One is a robotic spider, and has a presence in the game world, meaning combat is avoidable.  The other is a dragon found guarding a treasure chest, and is therefore also avoidable.  They are absolutely huge challenges, and the rewards are blatantly not worth it - so it's all for pride here.

Not content with these fiends, the GBA remake threw in Enuo, who is mentioned but not seen in the original game, along with a whole room full of Omegas, plus the new and improved Omega Mk. II for good measure!

REMAKES: The PlayStation version was more of a re-release, albeit with an English translation for the first time, and featuring a pirate accent for Faris!  As with FF4 the GameBoy Advance played host to an expanded version in 2006 (2007 for us Europeans), featuring four interesting if unnecessary new jobs, a new dungeon and new megabosses.

BEST BIT: Things go a bit mad with meteorites, voids, portals and interplanetary travel at several points, and the sheer density of the story is extremely satisfying.

WORST BIT: Mid and end game grinding, aside from feeling absolutely no affinity of affection for the characters (which is strictly a personal thing, and therefore not something I can comfortably cite as a problem).

I think the nicest thing I can say about this one is that you probably had to be there; playing this, FF4 and FF6 for the first times around the same time gives me an odd perspective on all this, as I had a more advanced and absorbing game in FF6 and one with characters and a story I simply preferred in FF4.  Nevertheless I do appreciate the effects this had on import gaming, and salute it as a landmark in that respect at the very least.

Join us next time for some six-y times, including a massive Weapon (ooo-er!) and magic and technology, together at last!

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