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One of my goals of 2018 had begun as a Christmas wishlist in 2017. I wanted to begin reading more books focused on video games and their criticism. It is one thing to read interviews and articles online, but there’s a real difference between absorbing my own info and sitting down with a solid book in hand. A book is often more carefully considered, forced to go through more editors and more time. A lot of research has already been done for you as well, collecting a lot of data into a single work. It’s about time I stop hearing people tell me about what was in Masters of Doom and read the book for myself.

This quest started with Boss Fight Books Presents: EarthBound and Final Fantasy V. I don’t know why these precise books caught my attention. Perhaps because a variety of beloved titles had been written about by the various authors? Regardless, I decided to begin with these two titles, each of which proved to be a rather swift read.

Though I read it second, I think I’ll start with EarthBound as it was written by one of the founds of the Boss Fight Books series, Ken Baumann. In truth, this book has discouraged me from checking out any of the other books in the series due to its self-indulgent nature.

I want to make it clear that I have no hostile or negative thoughts towards the author. I do believe he had positive intentions in starting this book series, which seems to be a mixture of autobiography with game analysis. Chris Kohler discusses much of his own personal life when talking about Final Fantasy V, but as I’ll be getting to, it seems to be that the focus on that book is always on the game in question.

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EarthBound, on the other hand, seems to use the titular game as an excuse for Ken Baumann to talk about himself, loosely tying aspects of the game to events of his own life. Sure, his time spent as an actor is still one separate from my own, but his occasional diatribes into progressive political ideologies ring hollow and self-congratulatory. During the chapter focused on the opulence of in-game tourist destination Summers, he relates a trip to Paris wherein he chose to treat taxi drivers and Hotel employees like humans as opposed to the curmudgeonly griping one-percenter. Yes, he is sure to note that the wealthy man is no monster and has his own circumstances, but it all sounds like so much self-enlightened applause for himself.

Perhaps I’m being too rough on the guy. I don’t think his stories are without value, but the manner in which he is telling them feels disconnected and without a unified purpose. I’m not finding a consistent theme between his stories and his recollections of EarthBound, and many of the anecdotes aren’t even inspired by the game’s influence on his life. Ken Baumann, for all of his good intentions, seems to assume relevance purely based on loose connections to EarthBound itself.

I do not mean to put a qualifier on the book, however. It’s not a bad book, it simply isn’t what I signed up for. All the information on EarthBound is information I already knew, and information I could have found online even if I hadn’t. It’s not a book for fans of the game, which has me wondering who the book is legitimately for. Without knowing the background of most of the other writers, it has me curious if I really want to drop change on the text of Chrono Trigger or not.

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Final Fantasy V, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, and was what fired me up to read EarthBound immediately afterward. Chris Koehler has the advantage of being an established game journalist, of course, and the biographical stories offered here serve a purpose specific to the book’s theme: that Final Fantasy V was an under-rated gem in the United States that never quite got its chance to shine.

Within it are delightful interviews with series creator and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi, filled with little insights into the game’s development and the series design as a whole. There are anecdotes regarding Yoshinori Kitase challenging the programmers to make a spectacle-laden scene happen that Sakaguchi had declared impossible. Sakaguchi himself confesses to wanting to create scenes that were more emotional and heart-wrenching – explaining an awful lot of the melodramatic direction of the Super Nintendo entries.

There’s also a moment in which he describes the trials of designing a game’s scenario and world map, how the narrative needs to not only push the plot forward in a traditional manner, but create access to new modes of transportation that gradually opens up the available territory. I have always found role-playing games difficult to critique and analyze because what makes them work is so much harder to decipher, as well as what it is that makes them fail. Why would one game’s turn-based system be more boring than another’s?

What is perhaps best about Kohler’s book is that the autobiographical elements do not take away from the discussion and analysis of the game, but help add some humanity to it. That Kohler’s experience diving into Japanese games and media reflects my own helps, of course. Where he began to learn Japanese so that he could play an import of Final Fantasy V, I diverged and began to hook two VCR’s together so I could bootleg copies of Neon Genesis Evangelion and DragonBall Z – a sort of 90’s reflection of the thrash-metal cassette-swapping of the 80’s.

Perhaps that’s the difference between Baumann’s take on EarthBound and Kohler’s take on Final Fantasy V. The former is focused solely on the author, and does not help reflect the experience of anyone else interested in EarthBound as a game. It contains no information on the founding of websites like StarMen.net, or how the fandom would grow to do their own amateur translation of GameBoy Advance sequel Mother 3. The latter includes interviews and stories, however brief, from other members of the burgeoning community, capturing not just an era but a niche zeitgeist that has since grown into something wonderful with the Four Job Fiesta.

As a result, Boss Fight Books Presents Final Fantasy V will be a book I return to time and again. It’s a quick read anyway, but most importantly it provides a lot of valuable text. From insights from the game’s developers, to deeper readings of the game’s mechanics and exploits, to a time capsule of a unique era from the 90’s, there’s a lot for me to absorb and reabsorb in Chris Kohler’s writings. Unfortunately, I feel like there’s a lot less substance for me in Ken Baumann’s writing of EarthBound.

I’m not going to give up on Boss Fight Books, though. While I’m not big into the game of Spelunky, I’m curious to see what developer Derek Yu has to say in his own book on the title. However, I’ll have to do some research before dropping the cash on something like Chrono Trigger or Kingdom Hearts.


 

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