2023, what a great time to be alive for JRPG fans! Not only is it possible to play all the titles from the good old time, either legally through remasters or remakes or via emulation, but we also get tons of new titles, from adventurous indie developers paying homage to big studios like who experiment with old formulas for a breath of fresh air or simply deliver nothing but pure oldschool nostalgia in its finest pixel form.
But even if you get tired of actually playing the games themselves, there is now an increasing corpus of books which will keep you entertained even with your console turned off. While a couple of years back, your only option to read about JRPGS were few chapters in books about the Japanese game industry (like Chris Kohler’s excellent Power Up) or role-playing games in general (see Matt barton’s Dungeons and Desktops or Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book: A Guide to Computer Role-Playing Games), we now see books published which exclusively focus on our favorite, quirky genre. While the gold standard is (and will be for a foreseeable time) A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games, printed on over 600 pages in 2021, I was looking forward to Fight, Magic, Items by Aidan Moher a lot. Where the nearly biblical Guide is an extensive, meticulous description of basically the entire genre and its games, Moher’s book promised a more personal look on the genre and its games. Unfortunately, the book left a sour taste after finishing, and it makes too many mistakes on too many levels that I cannot recommend it.
Structure and content
Moher gives an overview of the JRPG genre on 320 pages, starting from its Western roots (Ultima and Wizardry) until mid-2021. The book is divided into chapters, most of which deal with one single game or several games released in the same time span or from the same series. Several chapters (5 - 8) are grouped together and give the book its final structure. This superstructure is mainly derived from the console cycles in a chronological order, which means that the first group only deals with NES or Master System games, the second chapter with SNES and Mega Drive (Genesis), and so on. This strict structuring is weakened a bit towards the end, when console cycles have less of an influence on the games’ presentation and development.
I have several problems with this approach. First, strictly grouping games based on their console does not work for JRPGs. The strict chronological approach yields a first group (8-bit Beginnings) which covers a time span until c. 1990, the release of Dragon Quest IV. The next chapter on 16-bit-era games then starts with Final Fantasy IV (1991), goes on to Final Fantasy VI (1994), just to then go back to Phantasy Star II - a game released in 1989. I found this going-back-and-forth irritating while reading, and there are several instances in the book where after a strict chronological ordering, you may find some heavy breaks in the flow. I think this originates in the technical grouping of games by console generation and not by what the games actually bring to the table.
Another issue with the boom is the unsteady pacing of chapters, as their length varies greatly throughout the book: while early chapters are easily over 10 or even 15 pages long, chapters near the end of the book are significantly shorter. For instance, the initial chapter on Final Fantasy amounts to 17 pages, Yoko Taro is dealt with on only 6 pages. This also reflects on the chapter groups: the first two chapters were pretty long and in-depth (57 and 52 pages, respectively) and are nearly as long as the last three chapters combined (115 pages total). This is in contrast to the actual time span dealt with, which is 10 years for the first two chapters against over 20 for the last three. It feels as if Moher has nothing substantial to say about the new games, despite the fact that one would expect them, because of their increased length and depth compared to earlier titles, to actually say more. I understand this to be a result of Moher trying to tell a more personal history (his history with JRPGs), which probably is more deeply rooted in his youth with a good mix of nostalgia, but it still feels lackluster to read. In particular, because later chapters also tend to be less personal in terms of personal history.
Add to this that the choice of games Moher’s included is very one-sided. Again, this might be a result of his personal history (he can’t write about games he hasn’t played himself), but still, games which are not released by Square or Enix (or Square Enix) are given only very little room. In numbers: 123 pages (just a rough estimate) of the book deal with games released by Square, Enix, or Square Enix - more than 40 % of the book. Add to this roughly 15 pages about Sakaguchi Hinobu. Of course, these games and creators are important to the genre, but it feels extremely one-sided and often more like a personal history with the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. On the other hand, games or series which are considered milestones (such as Persona 4) are only dealt with in passing. This focus on the JRPG flagships overemphasizes their role as key media of the past years, which they most certainly are not. Other more niche titles have shown much more interesting and diverse approaches to the medium and genre than these big titles are capable of by now.
This is particularly true for the outlook of the book, which includes a chapter on (Western) Indie-RPG developers who were inspired by JRPGs. For some odd reason, Moher decided to use unpublished games as examples, including some which haven’t even been published now, or the Eiyuden Chronicle Kickstarter, instead of already published and critically accplaimed titles such as Cosmic Star Heroine (2017) or CrossCode (2018). most surprising to me, the game does not even mention (not even in the Earthbound chapters) Undertale, probably the most iconic and innovative Indie-RPGs out there. These omissions in favor of unreleased titles feels like a huge slipover to me.
Throughout the book, Moher adds text boxes which deal with a single game (often pars pro toto for an entire series) which he mentions in the text, but for some reason did not elaborate on. The choice of these games is erratic. Even though he talks about Suikoden, there is a text box much later in the book about Suikoden V - which he mentions is a return to form “after a disappointing fourth entry”, a game, which is not mentioned anywhere in the book. The only mention of the Tales of series - arguably the most important JRPG series of the past 20 years and one of the few series which survived the transition to the PS3 era - is also only discussed in a single box about Tales of Destiny, an eccentric choice considering it has never been released in Europe and never seen a re-release, compared to the inaugural Tales of Phantasia or more popular titles such as Tales of Symphonia. Often, these boxes feel like trivia or namedropping, without adding anything substantial to the chapter or text. Moher acknowledges the choice of games in the epilogue of the book. It feels like a weak excuse when he claims that the book is already full with a diverse cast of games when some of them only get a short paragraph at most.
One aspect that I cannot let slip is the factual accuracy of the book, which is not consistent. Often, Moher will write about games and include a bit of trivia which is not always correct. For instance, for Suikoden V, he writes that the game began as a spin-off title. This is, however, wrong and just copy & pasted from Wikipedia without external fact checking. I don’t think these minor mistakes really diminish the quality of the book, but it is the chapter about the Square and Enix unification following the Final Fantasy movie The Spirits Within which really disappointed me. The game was a major box office flop and put a lot of financial stress on Square. Moher paints it now as if the only way out of this financial mess was a merger with Enix. However, the opposite is true: the merger between Enix and Square has long been discussed, and the financial failure of the movie actually delayed it, not promoted it. Moher then goes on how he “remains skeptical […] that Square had recovered from The Spirits Within failure in just two years”, and instead of explaining his skepticism, he goes on to write about Kingdom Hearts, one of the most successful JRPG franchises ever, in the next chapter, or Final Fantasy X in the preceding one, without connecting the dots how Square’s finances might have turned out better again.
While Moher misses on some important games and overemphasizes the role of other games, in the end, it is his personal view and the choice of games is not necessarily wrong. If you asked 100 JRPG fans for what they consider the best or most important JRPGs ever, their and Moher’s lists would agree to well over 90 %. So my main problem with the book does not necessarily lie in its content - but in its style of writing.
Moher has a peculiar style which he follows throughout the book. In general, it goes like this: he opens a chapter with a personal anecdote of a game, then goes on to describe it. This is often followed by interview bits, either with the developers or some game journalists. These bits are very clumsily implemented, because a) they are quoted verbatim, b) followed by who is quoted, and c) where or when (sometimes both) the quote is taken from. So a typical bit from the book looks like this:
Games like World of Warcraft had emphasized accessibility for a few years, helping the MMORPG break into mainstream popularity after its release, but narrative was often an afterthought of the genre. “Final Fantasy XIV* might not be around today if not for Naoki Yoshida,” said Joseph C. Lin in a Time Magazine piece called “Meet the Guy Who Saved Final Fantasy XIV from Total Desaster.”
This is very tiring to read, especially when multiple sources are following each other. I guess this is Moher’s attempt to include sources, but it reads more like a Highschool essay because of this. In the chapter on Final Fantasy VII, half a page consists of direct citations from the Oral History of the game.
In addition to articles as a source, he interviewed some games journalists like Jason Schreier or Jeremy Parish and includes quotes by them as well, similarly clumsily inserted, and to me, this has the opposite effect of what Moher might have intended. I guess these interviews were meant to add some external verification on opinions or broaden the view, but if it is the same two or three journalists over and over again, it conveys the feeling of singular opinions to me. Aren’t there any other journalists Moher could have asked as well? Also, i feel as if this approach directly goes against Moher’s intention when writing the book, which was to tell his personal JRPG story. If I’m interested in Schreier’s take on JRPGs, I’d simply read his articles or tweets.
Furthermore, Moher sporadically uses footnotes throughout the book. These may include some added trivia or explanations of terms, and sometimes just some silly comments or jokes. Both don’t work. Most of the time, the trivia/explanation parts could have been added nicely into the main text, and the comical footnotes are more irritating than funny. More often than not, these footnotes feel like an afterthought which add nothing of substance to the book, but are random facts Moher still wanted to convey.
Last, I am not a fan of the typesetting. Moher sometimes uses a style where single sentences are used to build suspense towards a punchline.
But is it a style which works in favor of the book?
Not at all.
On the contrary.
Fortunately, these examples are rare, but sometimes implemented extremely clumsily. They might include a page break in between lines, which destroys the purpose of the suspense building and just looks weird.
I don’t think Moher is to blame for any of these stylistic thoughts, but there is a distinct lack of editing quality. I don’t think a good editor would have allowed any of these stylistic mishaps to be in the final book. Verbatim quotes? Yes, but only sparingly when there really is the need for one. Footnotes? No, just put it in the text in parantheses or an additional sentence. Typesetting? Either used consistently throughout the book or not at all (I’d prefer the latter). There are also some minor typos (in addition to the factual errors mentioned above), like misspelling Frank Frazetta as Frazetti. The lack of consistent editing made this book really hard for me to finish.
What left me puzzled by the end of the book: for whom did Moher write this book? On the one hand, it is a book which covers everything. This means that he rarely goes into depth when talking about games, so that if you are already a JRPG fan, you will most likely have head or read most of the things from the book. It then is a nice quick read which you will quickly forget.
If your knowledge about JRPGs amounts to zero, or if you haven’t played most of the titles discussed in the book, you will be lost. Very often, Moher will just give the shortes summary possible for a game and then go on to criticize it (or talk about contemporary criticism), which I don’t think you can follow if you haven’t played the game yourself. This is from the paragraph on Final Fantasy VIII:
Considered something of a black sheep, Final Fantasy VIII surprised a lot of players at the time of its release by bringing on brand-new gameplay systems with a much more complex design than Final Fantasy VII’s popular materia system. […] Final Fantasy VIII featured several interlinked systems, none of which had been seen in the series before. The main goal […] was to see how far they could push the complexity of the combat system. […] Like SaGa Frontier before it, Final Fantasy VIII brought a lot of unusual cards to the table, and […] feverish Final Fantasy VII fans weren’t quite sure what to think. (p. 162 - 163)
If you have not played Final Fantasy VIII, you do not know what changes were implemented, or in what way they differed or complex. You just know there’s a new system and people didn’t like it. This is on top of the fact that the description of Final Fantasy VIII is purely technical, from new possibilities due to the CD format to new gameplay formulas, but there’s no mention of its story or characters.
So if you’d ask me whether I’d recommend the book to you, it would probably always be a no, I wouldn’t. If you are a JRPG fan already, this book delivers nothing new to you and more often than not it will upset you by not being 100 % accurate. If you are a newcomer to the genre, I don’t think you will be able to follow all of Moher’s points or understand why he ordered certain chapters the way he did. Also, you probably won’t understand why this genre is so easy to fall in love with, which for me lies at the core of JRPGs.
I wish Moher would have written a much more personal book on his experience with the genre instead of trying to write a semi-journalistic, semi-historic book on it. The best chapter of the book probably is the prologue, in which Moher describes his love for the genre and how JRPGs accompanied him throughout life (this prologue is littered with unnecessary footnotes, by the way). These are the stories worth telling. Not how Final Fantasy got its name.
Fight, Magic, Items was published by Running Press. You can find more information on the official website: https://fightmagicitems.rocks
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