Chris Kohler covers SNES and other retro games for Kotaku, and Boss Fight Books released Kohler’s book Final Fantasy V last year. In it, he talks at length with director Hironobu Sakaguchi and shares the history and origins of the Final Fantasy franchise in the context of Square itself, of the burgeoning Nintendo market overall, and as an American kid itching to get his hands on a Japan-only game.
Kohler and I could hardly be more different on paper. He was reading video game magazines as an elementary schooler and writing his own game reviews for the sixth-grade newspaper. To get his hands on FFV, he persuaded his parents to order the game from a third-party seller and let him take pliers to his Super Nintendo to, uh, region-neutralize it. After citing his own all-caps screed about Square’s refusal to release FFV, Kohler reflects, “I do find it interesting that even at thirteen I was already aware there was a complicated process involved in bringing a game from one country to another.”
Truly, the magic in Kohler’s book is in his curious and heartfelt engagement with this game over the last nearly 25 years. I recognized something in his story even if the details weren’t the same as in my life, because Kohler seems to have been something of a Harriet the Spy about his favorite area of expertise, including his own games-centered version of her gossip column for the school newspaper.
Something my friend Tyler and I have talked about at length is how all the different parts of FFV relate to each other: weapons and skills multiply together in improbable ways, or enemies have qualities that are easily exploited by players who do their research. Could all these interactions be intentional? we wonder together, because the number of individual variables and attributes in a game this size is almost unfathomable. I won’t spill the details, but Kohler’s conversation with Sakaguchi leads me to believe these were all conscious decisions.
There are countless great details and items of interest in Kohler’s book, and I’d be happy to talk about it with anyone who wants to. But what piqued my interest most was that Kohler talked with Four Job Fiesta and fellow forum-goer Eric Koziol. I wanted to find out of Kohler had ever done Four Job Fiesta himself, and no one was more surprised than me when Kohler agreed to answer some questions via email.
“Emergent gameplay” is a new term to me. Are there other games you admire with strong emergent-play communities like FFV’s? The job system is unique, but I wonder if you’ve developed an eye for other features that are good for fostering emergent play.
Minecraft is probably the best example of emergent gameplay in action. The designers create a set of interlocking, complimentary, simple rules and toolsets, and then let the players run wild with how they want to use those things. Final Fantasy V is a good example of that in the world of RPGs, specifically in contrast to the more rigid and linear games in the Final Fantasy series that preceded it. I think what you need are objects or mechanics or game features that truly interact with each other in a wide variety of ways, which makes it likely that players will do things that the designers themselves didn’t expect.
This was one of my favorite parts of the book, where you spoke with Sakaguchi about how everything was designed to interlock. Have you thought about making a game yourself? There’s a real sense of joy in your writing about this game.
I thought about making games when I was 13 and made some games in ZZT, but then I decided I’d rather write about them instead!
I loved reading the history of Four Job Fiesta and your interview with Eric Koziol. Have you done FJF yourself? What’s that like as someone who’s been examining this game for more than 20 years?
I did do Four Job Fiesta myself, last year — it was before the book was out, but after it had already been written, so unfortunately my personal experience didn’t make it in there. Doing the Four Job Fiesta was an absolute blast! I got Thief as my first job, which is pretty much the worst thing to get stuck with since they do so little damage and have serious trouble with the first few boss encounters. But once I was through that wringer, I got Time Mage, Ranger, and Chemist, three fairly excellent jobs. I really just loved being forced to use all of the exploits like breaking Rods to cast high-level magic, using the Chicken Knife with Mug, and of course all the Chemist combinations.
I’m just envious now. Did you know about FJF before you started planning the book? Did you refer back to you and your friends’ guide to help you with your run, or is it second nature after all the time you’ve spent in the game?
I did know all about Four Job Fiesta since I was pretty active on NeoGAF when it started up. I just watched it from afar. I’m not the type of person to replay one game many times, not even FFV! I’ve only played all the way through it four times at this point, actually — once in 1995, once when the PlayStation version came out in 1999, once on the Vita while I was writing the book in 2016, and then the Fiesta last year.
When I came back to it for the book, I did occasionally glance back at our old FAQ, although to be honest there are much more detailed ones now! We were first, not best. Mostly I remembered the tricks, though. For Four Job Fiesta I used a totally different guide called Enkibot, in which you input your jobs and it spits out a customized FAQ for you that only references the things that you have the ability to do.
Your work at Kotaku still includes a lot of coverage of classic JRPGs and SNES-era games in general. How has public interest in classic games fluctuated during your career? What about your personal interest?
The SNES era is my sweet spot, personally, so I’m thrilled that I get to keep writing about it at Kotaku and that our audience seems to love reading about it! Never stopped loving the SNES, and can’t imagine I will.
Right now, what’s your favorite SNES game outside the RPG and quasi-RPG (like Secret of Mana) genre? Could be for gameplay or influence, whatever you want.
My favorite non-RPG SNES game is Actraiser. I don’t know if that’s cheating. Technically it’s an Action/Simulation game, not RPG! But every few years, I get the itch and I have to go back and replay all of Actraiser. The soundtrack is breathtaking. Of course I had to include it in the book when I came across that story from Uematsu about being totally jealous of Yuzo Koshiro’s work.
And finally — do you have hopes and dreams about a Virtual Console for the Switch?
I have no hopes for a Switch Virtual Console, since Nintendo’s flat-out said it’s not doing one. Looks like what’s happening is Nintendo will add its own games to the Switch Online library, while third parties are free to do whatever they want. In Japan, Square Enix released a collection of the first three Mana games for Switch. Hopefully it’ll do the same thing for the Final Fantasy series — and maybe start bringing some of them to the US, this time! I’d love to see a definitive edition of the game with the graphic and sound quality of the original Super Famicom version and a spruced-up translation.
Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V is available to purchase from Boss Fight Books in physical and digital editions.