Final Fantasy 5 is one of my favorite games. It is the single greatest influence that made me interested in pixel art- the number and variety of sprites for each of the five main characters is overwhelming. It’s a rare gem and the final collaborative effort between many titans of the JRPG world. A Kotaku writer, Chris Kohler, published a book about the development of Final Fantasy 5 told through via a young American’s journey to experience a game that would not see an official North American release until 7 years after the original Japanese release.

Summary: Final Fantasy V by Chris Kholer is a rosy, nostalgic trip that gives love to a woefully overlooked gem of a video game. The entire book reads like an extra-long Kotaku article (such as Jason Schreier‘s excellent Final Fantasy Retrospectives), and the book can be comfortably read in one or two sittings. The kindle price-point is perfect. Readers who remember playing the SNES Final Fantasies in the early nineties will pour through it and demand more while younger readers or those unfamiliar with the series may struggle.

More Details: The book kept me smiling throughout the entire read. I read it cover-to-cover during a cross country flight, and the writing kept me involved and invested. This is due in part to the fact that Mr. Kohler and I have similar experiences with Final Fantasy 5. We are about the same age, and I remember clearly having a lot of the same frustrations detailed in the main narrative. I remember the disappointment when I heard that there was a whole, new Final Fantasy game for the Super Nintendo that those stupid Square executives refused to bring over to America. I remember the dawn of ROM emulation in the mid-1990’s and the struggle to translate a bunch of unreleased gems such as Final Fantasy V, Seiken Densetsu 3, and Live A Live. Plus, I almost certainly used Chris’ original gamefaq that helped players brute force their way through the Japanese version of the game. All of these items make up the major threads of the book, and I could empathize with the writer’s own personal journey through these developments. The love for role-playing games and feeling of triumph when major obstacles (such as finding an videogame import shop during the early days of the internet) was infectious to me as a reader because the story could have easily been my story with a few small alterations.

I do have concerns that those who are a generation or so younger than me will not connect with these major sections of the book. This raises a major concern that Mr. Kohler struggles with throughout the book. The level of detail is inconsistent in places where some parts are plainly written with newcomers to the series in mind while other sections are written using assumptions and terms that only those that have played Final Fantasy 5 and a few of the other main Final Fantasy staples would understand. The book seems unsure who the intended audience is supposed to be.

The most engaging parts of Kholer’s Final Fantasy V are the sections that draw from interviews with the Square team members that designed and built Final Fantasy V. There are some shocking revelations about the production pressures that forced the team to create a game from scratch at a breakneck pace when compared with modern standards. Long-time fans will really enjoy the technical discussions about how the two writers essentially wrote the game through rounds and rounds of one-upsmanship or how the director used simple mechanics to force the players to feel certain emotions. As a reader, I ravenously tore through these sections, but they ultimately add up to a small portion of the text. These sections end and suddenly jump back into the writer’s personal narrative right at the moment when they start getting really interesting. If the intended audience is long-time fans, they will be left wanting more depth and detail here because it contextualizes and expands their understanding of a game that they already love. This in-depth intimacy with minor plot points may not penetrate to those who haven’t played the game in a decade or two.

Other readers have mentioned that it feels like the book misses an opportunity to dive into the ROM hacking scene of the mid-nineties- such as how teenagers solved the problem of translating the Final Fantasy 5 rom through trial and error. However, I think this was a wise decision to keep the focus on the development and decisions that made the game great.

One of the highlights of the book is a late section that describes the online community that created the Final Fantasy V Four Job Fiesta– a charitable event where players beat Final Fantasy 5 by strictly limiting the types of jobs/classes that can be used. For a long time player like me, this portion was fascinating because these limitations show how well thought-out and flexible the game’s systems were made. I won’t get into too much detail here, but it was captivating to understand how far a dedicated Bard player could go. The designers of Final Fantasy 5 had an understanding of their game that was deeper than I ever could have appreciated. I am grateful that this book was able to shed some light on this design process.

Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler is a fun book, but I will recommend it only for those that still have a fresh memory of the game’s characters and plot points. The game itself is not too difficult or lengthy. Play the game first as an apéritif. If you don’t get indigestion, move onto the book as a main course. Final Fantasy 5 needs more love and attention. If you haven’t played it yet, please give it a chance. The game is lightning in a bottle, and we may never get something like it again.