In a half-hearted attempt to re-experience what made the old Final Fantasy games so great, I’ve been playing Final Fantasy V off and on for the past couple weeks. I picked FF5 because it’s sort of the odd man out of the older games in the series, at least to me. I have fond memories of playing FF2 and FF3 cartridges on friends SNES consoles, but it was much later that I had any encounter with FF5. Having never been released in the States, I first played it in middle school when fans on the Internet translated a ROM of the game. Not exactly a legitimate way to play, but all things considered, there wasn’t really any other way for a kid to get his hands on a game available only in Japan. I still remember finding the fan translation of the main character’s name (Butz) to be hilarious.
I never beat FF5, or even got remotely close to beating it. Something with the job system never really clicked with me and I often found myself picking a job for each character and then sticking with it indefinitely, denying myself the flexibility that the system encourages. Thinking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if I gave up on the game because it got too hard, considering the way I remember playing it.
Today, I understand how the FF5 job system works (a little) better, so I’ve managed to be more successful in my recent sessions with the game than I used to be. In fact, my sadly newfound understanding of how the game works has led me to spend more time than I should just grinding, instead of progressing the story. If you’re unfamiliar with it, FF5 lets you assign a job to each character in your part. Knights are basically the precursors to MMO tanks. Mages of various colors cast the appropriate spells. Monks punch things. Summoners summon things. You get the idea. Where it really starts getting crazy is when you realize there are way more jobs than characters. Your party is made up of four people, but the jobs number in the dozens by the end of it all.
What young me was unable to understand was that the game encourages you to not cement yourself in certain jobs. As you level up a job on a character, you learn extra abilities for that character. A Black Mage might learn to cast black magic of certain types while a Monk might learn to fight better while unarmed. While playing as a Black Mage or a Monk, these abilities seem standard and expected. But because your characters have permanently learned them, you can switch to a different job and choose one of your previously learned abilities to use while you do so. The result (in its simplest form) is a Knight who can also cast healing white magic or a Red Mage who can fight bare-fisted in the manner of a Monk. You can change these abilities out at any time you see fit. Though FF5 preceded most modern RPGs where the concept of hybrid classes is a standard, I feel it implemented the idea better and still provides a flexibility that most games don’t.
That’s actually why I’ve become so drawn to grinding instead of continuing the story. I am compelled to master each job with each character before I continue the story and unlock even more jobs. At some point I’ll have to stop myself from thinking this way because mastering even a single job with a single character isn’t a quick process. You only get one to two job points (or whatever they’re called) per battle, so mastering jobs with all of your characters can take hundreds of battles. That said, grinding is kind of relaxing. It gives you a chance to really appreciate the sprite art and wonderful soundtrack that FF5 has to offer. While not quite as visually or musically impressive as FF3 (or FF6, to you purists), it’s still very impressive and a great showing of talent on Square’s part.
Today, the story is a bit hard to get into. It features old men with amnesia, orphaned princesses, reluctant heroes with a destiny, and just about every other JRPG cliché you can think of. However, in 1992, it was probably pretty novel. It’s just easy to notice stuff like that and get annoyed by it these days. It won’t stop me from playing, anyway. The unlocking of new jobs and abilities comes through the advancement of the story, so even if I couldn’t find charm in the story I’d still be encouraged to progress it to advance my characters.
FF5 is still far from my favorite Final Fantasy. I practically have FF2/4 memorized and can pretty much thank it for expanding my view of video games (as well as my interest in them) when I was younger. FF3/6 still has some of the coolest and most atmospheric art design in an RPG, and music that’s no slouch either. But in this return to FF5, I’ve certainly gained an extra appreciate for the series’ roots. Not only that but I feel that it’s helped me to approve of hybrid class mechanics more than I used to, by showing me how they can be done in a successful and compelling way. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that an SNES-era Final Fantasy game innovated in some way, but it’s been a pleasant surprise. If you’re looking for something to kill time with until November, give Final Fantasy V a try. Even if you just mess with it for one afternoon, you’ll probably find something fascinating at work in it. Just be sure to name the main character Butz.