Final Fantasy V Revisited: Throw Your Money Away
At its core, traditional RPG gameplay is all about managing resources. The most obvious are things like HP, MP, and items—which can be traded for each other in various ways—but everything from turns in battle to the ABP used to gain job levels are resources as well. Much of an RPG, then, consists of spending, allocating, or exchanging these resources, from moment-to-moment choices in combat to long-term party development. In a well-balanced game, there’s some tension between how (and how quickly) resources are gained and spent, forcing the player to make some interesting decisions.
For example, consider gil, the money resource in the Final Fantasy games. It’s usually acquired relatively slowly as you fight battles and explore dungeons, then spent in towns to get better equipment and stock up on items. The FF games (at least so far) tend to balance this pretty well, which is to say that when you reach a new shop, you’ve usually accumulated enough money to buy much of what’s on sale, but not everything. This means you have to make some decisions: Is it better to get new weapons, armor, or spells first? Should you fully equip one character, or buy a few things for everyone? Is it worth grinding for more gil, or can you get by without buying everything? These sorts of choices are what make the game engaging—you have to stop and think about your strategy and what you really need, rather than just buying everything and rolling through on autopilot.
Like I said, the series generally balances gil well, but there is a problem. Eventually, you’ll reach the last town, buy the best equipment, and more or less run out of things to spend your money on. Sure, you can keep stocking up on potions and such, but the steady cycle of earning and spending mostly comes to an end once you have all the big stuff. At this point, if the game doesn’t do anything about it, money can cease to matter as a resource altogether—which is indeed what happens in the endgame of FF1, for example. This doesn’t break the game, but it does reduce the complexity a little, which is a shame coming at what should otherwise be the most interesting part. Fortunately, as seen in the later games, it is possible to do something about this.
The solution to this late-game money problem is to provide some outlet for the player’s excess funds—somewhere they can continue to exchange their (probably sizable) piles of cash for something that still matters in the endgame. FF2 first attempted this by offering elixirs in the item shops for 50,000 gil apiece, which is ridiculous for most of the game but turns into a decent deal when there’s nothing else worth buying. You’ll probably end up with more elixirs than you really ever need, but at least they do you more good than the money did on its own. It’s FF3 where things really get interesting, though: In a shop hidden at the back of an optional dungeon right near the end of the game, you can buy shurikens, which are the most powerful weapon in the game. They do 9999 damage per attack, but they can only be thrown by ninjas. Oh, and they’re single-use, of course—once a shuriken is thrown, it’s gone forever.
Elixirs are nice, but healing alone will never win a battle. Shurikens will. What FF3 does is let you convert your excess funds into guaranteed damage, which is especially useful against the gauntlet of powerful bosses you’ll face at the end of the game. If you know how much HP each boss has, you can even math it out: It takes about 12 shurikens to kill the final boss, for example, which will cost you over 750,000 gil. Suddenly, all that extra money doesn’t seem so unnecessary after all, because it has a very real and direct effect on how quickly and easily you can finish the game. If you’re using a ninja, it’s in your interest to buy every shuriken you can afford, which probably won’t be as many as you’d like. The brilliance of FF3 is in making money really, definitely matter this late in the game, by tying it to damage in a finite and predictable way.
Why do I mention all this now? Well, Final Fantasy V does bring a lot of this together with the shops in its Phantom Village, which offer special equipment, elixirs, and powerful shurikens at prices that remain significant even when you’re preparing for the final dungeon. But it also takes things a step further with the Samurai’s Zeninage ability (also known as Coin Toss or Gil Toss in other translations), which lets you outright throw your money at enemies. It’s one of the more powerful attacks in the game, comparable to a high-level summon spell, but it does cost one gil per point of damage. Through most of the game, it can be too expensive to use with much frequency, but eventually you’re going to have plenty of money and a lot of powerful monsters that need killing. Like FF3, the game lets you convert a resource you no longer need (gil) into one you do (damage), but it takes an even purer form here. Money is damage, with no middleman required.
Zeninage is a great example of how the balance and exchange of resources affects gameplay, and how a game can keep every resource relevant with a keen bit of design. (See also: Chemists making all those healing items a bit more interesting.) It’s also an example of how Square continued to refine and expand the series over time: FF1 had a problem, FF3 provided a creative solution, and FF5 made it more elegant. As I play through more of the series, I’ll be paying attention to see if these lessons stick around.
And with that, I’m done—I threw a lot of money at Exdeath, and the world is saved once more. It’s time for another break, though probably not as long as the last one. After that, I’ll be on to Final Fantasy VI, the game I’ve probably played more than anything else in the series.