Final Fantasy V: What does a Videogame Variorum look like?

Since defending my dissertation (also: I’ve defended my dissertation!), I’ve been in a bit of an odd place, gaming-wise. Most of my actual gameplaying has been f2p (free-to-play) games, in part due to my reticence to upgrade my computer or buy into the current console generation, and in part due to my parents’ very considerate defense gift of an iPad mini. As such, my current gaming schedule is loaded with Alpha Bear, Pocket Mortys, Puzzle & Dragons, and perennial monkey on my back, Marvel Puzzle Quest.

The one exception to this status quo is another iOS game, but a port of an old classic: Final Fantasy V. After the break, I’ll use it as a jumping off point to talk about game studies and the platform problem.
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Final Fantasy V was released for the Super Famicom in 1992, but that version never made it overseas; sources say it was deemed too difficult and inaccessible for a North American audience (AKA the Super Mario 2 defense).  It finally made it to our shores in 1999 as part of the Final Fantasy Collection for the PS.  I played the 2013  iOS version, released in 2013, and based on the 2006 GameBoy Advance version, notable in particular for its new jobs and a final bonus dungeon. I was talking with a friend recently about what it means to play an HD version of a game in comparison with the original, and FF5 came up as a case–if the original game was never even released in North America, in what sense is my play linked to that original?

There’s this term in literary/bibliographic studies called the variorum–a collection that contains all known variations of a text. It’s particularly common for authors who are known to have a lot of very different drafts of their work, or for works that are centuries old and get altered in transition; the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare often get this treatment, but so have scientific works like Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species.

 

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Screenshot of an online Origin of the Species variorum, available here

Game studies often treats individual games as monolithic, finished products (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone) when the reality should be closer to the variorum. It’s above all an issue of convenience, based on access and cost; if I want to talk about Donkey Kong, I can pay $700 for an arcade cabinet in ebay and experience it in its original or I can go on my 3DS right now and buy it for $4.99. But it what sense is it the same game? The story’s the same, the visuals are the same (well, somewhat–there’s different tech under the hood to make those visuals) but a 3DS screen and controls are very different from the arcade equivalent. The story attached is different too, as the description for the 3DS game identifies the protagonist as Mario, whereas in the original he was still going by Jumpman.  Even playing the cabinet won’t capture the original context of the game–I can’t step back in time and see it as part of the 1980s arcade scene.

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Jumpin’ it Old School

Final Fantasy V has an extra layer of complication as well, in that it’s a very text-heavy game that originally came from Japan; that means it not only has the platform differences, but translation differences as well. (Which reminds me–I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, providing I can find a copy with a price tag not in the triple digits.) The iOS, PlayStation, and GameBoy Advance versions all have their own translations–and, since the North American release lagged so far behind the original, the game has a complete fan translation as well. The difference between referring to a location as Walse, Walz, Worus, and Town of Wallze (respectively) may seem trivial, but it’s the sort of change a variorum would transcribe.

Then again, what would a videogame variorum even look like? The book version is (and I’m referring to vague memories of consulting the John Donne variorum a decade ago) generally a page by page comparison. The obvious videogame comparison, then, may be a shot-for-shot series of playthroughs on all available versions, which would make for an interesting youtube video, but a nightmare to coordinate, especially given the game’s random battle feature.
Let’s take a quick look on what those version differences mean graphically:

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1992 Super Famicom emulation, fan translation
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1999 PlayStation
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2006 GameBoy Advance
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2013 iOS

The immediate thing to note here is that there is a clear difference between platforms. The PS version is marked by a “stretched” visual appearance, which players were… not favorably inclined towards, let’s say. The GBA version introduced character portraits that accompanied the important characters. The iOS version, clearly, is the most altered from the original, boasting sharper graphics, even more detailed portraits–though its style has its share of critics (see here and here, for comparison.) We’re seconds into the game, and already, there’s distinct differences in style and aesthetic. Do these changes change what it means to experience the game? I don’t know–and I’m not sure I can know, unless I’ve played through them all.

Even then, a record of the visual output alone doesn’t give a full sense of the game’s multiplicity. The difference in control is significant as well. You could make the case that the jump from the original Super Famicom to the GBA and PS versions isn’t that great, as their controls are largely expansions of the original SF buttons. I’ll give you that (with some reservations), but the iOS is touch-controlled, which is a drastic change. In battle, for example, attacking is a matter of tapping your character, then moving your finger up to the attack option. In the console versions, the equivalent is done by moving the direction pad, then pressing A, which can be done with two stationary hands. It may not seem like much, but in a timed battle scenario, that brief second of difference is the difference between being attacked or attacking first. How do you preserve how a game feels to play across multiple versions?

There’s one final relevant complication, one that wasn’t around when Final Fantasy V was first made. I’ve been talking about the versions of these games as if all the relevant changes are ones made between discrete copies for discrete platforms. That’s not the only way to make a new game any more. Now that we live in an “always online” culture, a videogame can be updated when the publisher wishes. For example, in the iOS 1.02 update, the player gained the ability to turn off 8-way movement to play in the original 4 directions only. The 2014 update allowed cloud saving, which had a big impact on my save, in that I basically stopped saving entirely–I relied on the cloud to quicksave my game for me. That’s a far cry from the original design, where the players could only save their game at specific in-game locations, which significantly changes how I play. For that matter, the iOS version comes with achievements that weren’t in the original, and that inclusion also means changes in play; in the original game, for example, there wasn’t a specific goal of defeating every type of monster in the game.

Where we’re going, you won’t need save spots.

 

 

When I say Final Fantasy V, it’s generally going to assumed that I’m talking about one distinct, identifiable game. But the reality is, there’s a lot of different objects that can be connected to that title, objects that differ based on platform, translation, version. I don’t know what it would like, what it would mean to create a variorum of Final Fantasy V, to design some means to view all these different iterations side-by-side. I’m not even sure if such a project would be worth the effort. But I think it is an idea worth talking about.

Next time: I dunno. Maybe I’ll actually talk about playing the game?

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