Monday, October 3, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher

A must buy for any JRPG fan.

There's something special about starting up a new Japanese role-playing game (JRPG). Whether it’s the promise of adventure, the camaraderie between party members, the excitement of discovering some long-forgotten magic, or the comfort of finding an endearing town to rest your head—JRPGs have been delivering players formative experiences for decades. In the sub-genre, one will discover indelible stories that trigger nostalgia, soundtracks that raise the hair on the back of your neck preparing you for the journey to come, and best of all, an experience to share with friends. Thankfully for us, Aidan Moher was one such recipient of many of the formative experiences that JRPGs had on offer.

Fight, Magic, Items is a confluence of the history of JRPGs and their expansion west alongside Moher’s personal journey with the sub-genre. The book homes in on Enix and Square, and more specifically, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy—the two biggest heavyweights in the sub-genre. From the humble beginnings of Yuji Horii and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creators of both series respectively, to their commercial and critical successes and missteps, Fight, Magic, Items covers three and a half decades of struggle, drama, and perseverance for some of the most well-respected game developers, and franchises, in history. And, as an accompaniment to the historical aspect, we live through a young Moher as he hotly anticipates more news and information from his favorite developers.

Moher keeps fantastic pacing throughout most of the book, making it easy to lose yourself in the read. Fight, Magic, Items is filled with so many appealing tidbits of JRPG history. From what kind of pre-established media influenced the nascent JRPG developers’ decision to include western tropes in their games to which genres impacted their already established intellectual property, many things will click for any reader who has loosely followed the sub-genre over the years. Did you know that Call of Duty influenced some of the design choices for Final Fantasy XIII? That would explain it’s black sheep status.

For most people in the west, Final Fantasy is the name synonymous with JRPGs, but in Japan, Dragon Quest is king. Steeped in traditional genre tropes and honing its mechanics and systems to a sharp edge, Dragon Quest continues to do what it does best—with its next release (Dragon Quest XII: The Flames of Fate) hopefully out next year. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy ditched its turn-based combat years ago in favor of frenetic action-packed gameplay, a franchise that’s always shifting, and with their next release (Final Fantasy XVI) announced for 2023, both franchises are still going strong. But what happened between the original releases of both franchises in the late 80s and the upcoming release of both these JRPG juggernauts? Which games failed, and which pushed the sub-genre into the stratosphere? Which other JRPG franchises were influenced by these titans, and which were made despite them? Fight, Magic, Items has many of the answers and lays them out in a way that keeps engagement throughout.

Moher is enthusiastic about the subject matter, and it comes through in his voice. Every step of the journey is laid out with excitement and threaded perfectly through to the next chapter. I could feel the impact Final Fantasy VI’s big plot twist had on the author, not to mention VII’s main character send-off. I could relate to the decision a younger Moher had to make when choosing between a PlayStation and a Nintendo 64. Was he to follow the console of the company he had loved all along or follow the games that he wanted? Many kids, myself included, have been in such a situation and each retelling of his experience with JRPGs brings the conversation back to Fight, Magic, Items being such a relatable read, whether you're a fan of the sub-genre or video games in general.

While most of the book follows Dragon Quest/Final Fantasy and their developers, Moher brings other franchises to the discussion; Persona (4 Golden being my personal favorite), Super Mario RPG, Blue Dragon, Legend of Dragoon, Breath of Fire, and Baten Kaitos among others are all sprinkled throughout. I had a sincere appreciation for the mention of more obscure titles that didn't necessarily sell well but had an impact on the genre. I didn't know anyone else who had played Baten Kaitos—and in turn discovered the wonderful confectionary village, Paranasse—so it was refreshing to feel as though I was essentially sharing that experience with the author. Baten Kaitos was just one of many examples of this feeling throughout my time with the book.

Another of my favorite things I eagerly anticipated throughout the book were Moher’s asides. These would give a small description of a game’s synopsis, history, primary developers, release year, console, and publisher. This was not only informational but gives respect and shines the limelight on many of the people who worked on some of the sub-genre's greatest (and some not-so-great) games.

While most of the book has a solid loop of franchise-specific history, game industry and game development history, and Moher’s personal history with the genre, it eventually hits a bit of a snag. It’s through no fault of the author, but of the advancing technology of the time and the Japanese publishers’/developers’ archaic view toward game creation. Moher keeps it as interesting as possible, but the focus turns more toward specific games and less about the industry at large or his personal experiences. Though these things are still present, they feel inferior to the flow in the earlier chapters. What started as humble beginnings for these legendary JRPG developers evolved into such massive corporate projects with so many cogs that it was impossible to attribute the success to just a handful of people. Regardless of the flow, the information was still intriguing and engaging.

In my opening, I mentioned that JRPGs are formative. This sub-genre helped form many of the writers in the industry today and still has its hooks in many players—though I'm sure many of us wish we had more time for these epic adventures. But in addition to being formative, this sub-genre is also transformative, casting echoes throughout the video game industry and having an effect on games considered outside of its sphere, but also allowing other genres into its own. What defines a JRPG is now a bit different than it was in the 90s (I’m looking at you Soulsborne games), but nonetheless distinctive. Though my journey into the world of JRPGs is different from Moher’s, he creates an inviting umbrella that can be appreciated by all who have found comfort within this sub-genre of influential video games. As someone who doesn't find too many things nostalgic—hell, my favorite game is only from nine years ago—it was impressive to find that Moher’s words took the wheel and had me riding shotgun while I relived some of the best escapism from my youth. Even if I hadn't played the title he was discussing, I still felt a connection to the content. Moher’s appreciation and intent are infectious and well worth investing your time into. Fight, Magic, Items isn't just a history of some of the greats, but a celebration of an incredible sub-genre that has influenced people the world over.

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.