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Final Fantasy V: 30th anniversary

Today is the 30th anniversary of Final Fantasy V—in Japan, at any rate! The game was tragically skipped over for localization. It is easily the most well known Super Famicom exclusive in the West. It was the first Final Fantasy game to receive a fan translation, created by three students in 1997. An official English version was released two years later on the Sony PlayStation, bundled with Final Fantasy VI.

Final Fantasy V is the successor to Final Fantasy III on the Famicom (which the West also didn't get). It greatly improves upon that game's changeable job system. No longer do you have to spend "capacity points" to change jobs; you can change them whenever you want. Once you get the shards of the shattered wind crystal, you gain access to five of the classes from the original Final Fantasy (Knight, White Mage, Black Mage, Monk, and Thief) as well as the new Blue Mage. Whenever another elemental crystal is destroyed, you gain access to new jobs through its shards. These are Red Mage, Time Mage, Summoner, Berserker, Mystic Knight, Beastmaster, Geomancer, Ninja, Ranger, Bard, Dragoon, Dancer, Samurai, Chemist, and Mime. A nice touch is that each character has a unique sprite for every possible job. 

So many jobs!
Each job has different abilities, weapons, armor, and accessories (the progenitor of FF6's relics) they can use, and stat bonuses and minuses. Every time a character gains a job level (separate from their personal level), they gain a new ability from that job. Each job has several levels and therefore several abilities, though the amount varies from job to job—and some take longer to level up than others. Some abilities are commands you can activate in battle, such as kick, guard, or level 1 white magic. Others are static abilities, such as HP +10% or find secret passages. Finally, there are equipment abilities that let you equip certain items, such as equip swords, barehanded, or equip bows. One of these abilities may be assigned to that character at any time, regardless of what job they currently have. This allows you to customize your characters. For example, at job level 4, the Monk learns counter. Counter can then be assigned to that character while they are, say, a Ninja. Static abilities work automatically for their own job and do not need to be assigned in that case.
Moogles!

It would be tedious to explain the dozens of jobs and abilities in the game, but here is a rundown of the jobs that debuted in FF5, along with some of their abilities. The Blue Mage can learn certain monster spells after seeing them used, such as Aqua Breath, Level 5 Death, and Moon Flute. The Time Mage casts spells like Haste, Stop, and Slow, as well as a few offensive spells like Graviga, Comet, and Meteor. One of his most useful spells is Return, which restarts the current battle! Use it whenever things go sideways (as they often do in FF5). The Berserker wields axes and hammers and always has the berserk status. The Mystic Knight has the powerful spellblade ability, which imbues weapons with magic. The Beastmaster can capture a monster and later unleash its ability. They can also learn to control monsters. The Dancer can dance, which triggers one of four random effects, such as the powerful Sword Dance attack. The Samurai is a strong fighter that wields katanas (like Cyan in FF6). The Chemist can drink special potions like the Speed Shake. They also learn how to mix items to produce certain effects. For example, mixing a Hi-Potion and an Ether restores all MP to a character.

Some combinations of jobs and abilities produce powerful results. For example, you can give counter to a Ninja, who can equip a weapon in each hand. Or give dual wield (which the Ninja unlocks at job level 5) to a Knight. The possibilities are almost endless! One of the strongest abilities is rapid fire, the final ability learned by the Ranger class. It causes the character to attack four times (targetting randomly). Combining this with dual wield means you can make eight hits. Another powerful ability is dualcast, which lets you cast two spells at once. Combine this with summon magic to summon Bahamut twice, or with time magic to cast Meteor twice! Using these combinations, I easily defeated the final boss, Neo Exdeath.

The Freelancer is the default class. It can equip all weapons and armor. It has no ability of its own but can be assigned any two that character has learned. In addition, it gains all the stat bonuses and passive abilities from all classes that character has mastered. This can be very powerful late in the game.

There's also a secret job, the Mime, obtained from Gogo! Although limited in what weapons and armor they can use, Mimes may be given any three abilities (including fight and item). Like the Freelancer, they automatically have all the passive abilities and stat bonuses of mastered jobs. They also have the mimic ability, which is strong to the point of being broken. It causes the character to repeat whatever the last character did at no MP cost. You can have one character dualcast Bahamut or Meteor, then have three Mimes mimic it to deal insane amounts of damage.

Magic, except for blue magic, is purchased in shops. This is how magic works in the majority of the old FF games: only IV and VI have characters learn spells by leveling up. Once you buy a spell, all your characters can use it (as in FF3), so you don't have to outfit each character individually. As in FF4, the most powerful summon spells are learned by finding and defeating that monster. The Golem summon is especially helpful, as he absorbs all physical damage the party would receive for a while. This helps immensely when fighting King Behemoths in the final dungeon. The way you acquire Golem is unusual: you must protect him from two monsters attacking him. If you fail, you can't ever get the summon! 

The weakest aspect of FF5 is the plot, which is generic and unremarkable. The villain is an evil wizard called Exdeath. A former tree (like a Treant, I guess), he wants to destroy the world. There's some meteorites, a case of amnesia, crystals, twelve legendary weapons, and moogles! You traverse two worlds (which eventually merge) via chocobos, boat, airship, wind drakes, and even a submarine.

The main characters lack the color of those from either IV or VI. Bartz is an average schmo with a chocobo, whose involvement in the story seems like dumb luck until his parentage is revealed. He's a weak lead compared to Cecil or Terra. Lenna is a princess and Faris her long-lost sister. Turns out she became a pirate who passes as male. Galuf is an old man with amnesia, doted on by his granddaughter Krile. She eventually replaces him, inheriting his job levels. The game has a more lighthearted tone than other Final Fantasy games, with lots of jokes.

The best part of the plot is Gilgamesh. He serves as comic relief and keeps popping in. He is a strange and pathetic nemesis, who always runs away (think Ultros in FF6). You can steal the powerful Genji equipment from him.

This is his final form.

The game's strength lies not in its plot or characters, but the way it refines the JRPG experience into its purest, best form. FF5 was the last Final Fantasy game to use the classic Dungeons & Dragons class system. In the original you chose four classes at the beginning and could later change them to their upgraded classes (for example, a Warrior can become a Knight). FF2 went in a different direction, eliminating classes altogether. FF3 returned to form, but you got new jobs throughout the game and could change jobs. FF4 departed from form again by giving you no flexibility at all, with each of the many characters having a predetermined class (the 3D Remake remedies this by adding an augment system). With FF5, not only can you change jobs, but you can add an extra ability to each character, changing both jobs and abilities whenever you want! This gives you the most flexibility while remaining with the classic class system. To top it off, it's all packaged in a 16-bit game that takes 30-40 hours to play, far longer than its predecessors. Although FF6 is a better game overall (plot, characters, villain, music, graphics), it doesn't let you change classes (Espers only customize spells). Of the classic FF games, V is the clear winner in terms of customization.

There's always a Cid.

I find FF5 to be much harder than FF4 and FF6. If you aren't properly prepared, many bosses and even some regular monsters can easily wipe out the party. Exdeath's Castle is nasty, especially when you encounter groups of three Blue Dragons. After each loss, it helps to evaluate which character was the least helpful, then change their job and/or abilities. The game has two optional super-difficult bosses: Omega (a nod to Warmech from FF1) and a dragon named Shinryu. The game actually awards you a trophy item for defeating them! Shinryu guards the most powerful weapon in the game, Ragnarok.

The sprites, backgrounds, and world map in FF5 are similar in style to those of FF4. The music, composed by Nobuo Uematsu, is fantastic as always.

Nowadays the Pixel Remaster is the definitive way to play Final Fantasy V. The Game Boy Advance version from 2006 is also great. It's a faithful rendition of the Super Famicom version. It also features an endgame bonus dungeon in which you can earn four unusual bonus jobs. The old PlayStation version, with its slow load times and stereotypical pirate speech for Faris, is long obsolete. The 2013 mobile/Steam version — much maligned for its dubious HD redraw of all game assets — was mercifully delisted after the Pixel Remaster came out.

The Pixel Remaster features some impressive visual effects.

The U.S. arguably got the better two of the 16-bit FF games, but it would have been so much better to get all three, because FF5 is excellent. Any fan of JRPGs needs to play this game, it's that simple. You can't beat it when it comes to pure, classic party customization.

Grade: A

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