A conversation with Aidan Moher, author of Fight, Magic, Items (part one)
Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West is available now, and I spoke to the author about it and JRPGs.
If you happen to follow the two of us on Twitter, you’re probably aware that Aidan Moher and I like to talk video games, especially JRPGs. Given that his book, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West is available for purchase now, we had an excuse to take those conversations to the newsletter.
Below is a conversation we’ve been having over email about the book, which uses the author’s own JRPG-playing history as well as that of the industry that produces them to detail where the genre came from, where it’s been, and where it’s going. This is part one; you can find part two of the conversation here.
Marc Normandin: Before we get both on- and off-topic in our conversation here, let's tell the people about what led you to write Fight, Magic, Items in the first place.
Aidan Moher: Going all the way back to childhood, my two loves were always science fiction and fantasy novels and video games. I grew up at the exact right time to see the blossoming of both video games — and specifically Japanese RPGs — and the post Terry Brooks/Stephen Donaldson boom of epic fantasy in the 80s and 90s. My mom's always been a big reader, and introduced me to all of the classic epic fantasies, and my dad, a writer, has always been an early tech adopter, so I was exposed to those fandoms early and often.
Fast forward 20ish years, and I ran a successful SFF book blog called A Dribble of Ink for a number of years, won a Hugo Award for it, and then moved onto freelance writing. When it was apparent there wasn't much money to be made writing about SFF books, I shifted focus to games writing — but specifically exploring gaming as an adult, and what it's like to be the first generation of people to grow up only knowing a world with video games. My first piece of games writing was a feature on Kotaku that explored how there's a whole generation of writers out there who were just as influenced by Hironobu Sakaguchi as they were by J.R.R. Tolkien. From there, the central thesis to a lot of my freelance writing was trying to understand how nostalgia influences the things we love and the things we create.
I wanted to combine my two favourite things — books and Japanese RPGs. Specifically, I wanted to tell the story of Japanese RPGs. Not just the games themselves, and their recorded histories, but the stories of the people who made them and play them. I wanted to understand — and help readers understand — what drove the creators to create, what emotions were they seeking? And why do we feel so passionately about these games? What was it that drew so many westerners to an odd little sub-genre of RPGs specifically designed for Japanese players.
And that became Fight, Magic, Items. It's a story about games, history, people, and feelings.
MN: The stories about how the games were made by the people who made them helps give more background than what you might see in an article that's got less space to work with than a book for the history of the genre — seeing more detail than just "it was called Final Fantasy because it might have been the last game!" is welcome, you know? Why did Sakaguchi feel that way, what was the mood at Square at the time, how was the team put together to make this potential swan song... all of that is in the book, and I enjoyed going through it not just for that game, but the others you broke down the origins of.
Was there any figure in the book you didn't know much about coming in who ended up surprising you with their role in genre history, with how much your own experience with JRPGs was intertwined with their catalog and influence without you being aware of their power over you?
AM: Oh, man, this is an easy answer: Rieko Kodama.
It's not that I didn't know of Kodama and her involvement in creating and nurturing the Phantasy Star series (Sega's answer to Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), but I didn't know just how impactful her work on that series really was, or how much she influenced so many areas of not just Japanese RPGs, but representation in gaming period. When I started researching her work, I quickly realized I needed more of her story in the book, and ended up adding a full chapter devoted to her work and legacy. Here's a little of what I have to say in Fight, Magic, Items about Kodama:
Kodama joined the original Phantasy Star team as a visual designer, but she quickly found herself involved in almost all facets of game development. This was partly due to the small team having to pitch in across the board, but also because of her passion for the game. By [Phantasy Star IV:] The End of the Millennium, her experience and under- standing of the series and genre helped earn her the title as director, but despite her elevated position, she continued to work in the trenches with the graphics designers, programmers, and sound team. It’s just part of who she was, and what Phantasy Star meant to her.
From her early days in the trenches on the first game to her directorial vision on The End of the Millennium, Kodama’s journey with Phantasy Star was what cemented her legacy as one of the most influential JRPG designers of the 16-bit generation. She fought her way up the ranks at Sega, earning each new role on the series through talent, passion, and experience, and would lay the groundwork for an impressive career after she left the Phantasy Star team, which includes fan-favorite Skies of Arcadia among others.
So, when you pick up a controller to play a JRPG, remember that it is very likely to have been influenced by Kodama’s work, and if you see an empowered female protagonist in one, you have Kodama to thank.
Unfortunately, we recently learned that Kodama passed away earlier this year. Her mark on JRPGs and gaming is immense, and we've lost not just a great talent, but a wonderful person, as well. She will be missed, but never forgotten.
MN: A huge loss. I covered the original Phantasy Star in this space previously, as well as a music-focused feature on Phantasy Star IV, both of which were Kodama joints. That’s a series that’s meant a lot to me for most of my life, and was surely formative in a number of ways, since I was introduced to it by renting End of the Millenium from a Blockbuster to play on an actual Genesis. I even hit pause on a Phantasy Star II replay when I saw your email pop up in my inbox — I had planned on going through it again, anyway, after my Sega Genesis Mini 2 came in, but learning of the recent loss of Kodama certainly jumped it ahead in the queue.
Video games are still somewhat young enough in their current form that our cohort is maybe not quite used to mourning the people so vital to shaping them just yet, so figuring out just what to say is still difficult. Like with musicians or actors or directors or what have you, going back to the work that connected us to developers in the first place is a start, though.
AM: This was a really fascinating part of writing Fight, Magic, Items, actually, and made Kodama's passing that much more impactful. For the most part, everyone I write about in the book is not only still alive, but actively making games and continuing to shape the genre they helped create. It's so unusual to write a living history, and I wish dearly that Kodama was still part of that. It didn't feel like her story was over, even though I was only just started to explore her impact.
MN: I understand why you didn’t know more about her before diving into writing your book: for someone who had been around for so long, you rarely saw interviews in the English-speaking press, which may have something to do with how her name would kind of vanish for years at a time in between projects as she floated between behind-the-scenes and front-facing projects. (Example: Kodama’s Wikipedia page is significantly longer now than prior to public knowledge of her death, and was previously mostly made up from old citations that were 10, 20, and so on years old.) Phantasy Star had its four games and then disappeared before transitioning into something new post-Kodama; Skies of Arcadia is old enough that it was first released when Sega was still in the console business. And “who is producing those Sega Ages re-releases, anyway?” is really only the kind of question a particular strain of nerd is asking, anyway. She’s a legend, though, and I hope more people recognize that fact. There’s still plenty to be learned and experienced from her most famous works all these years later.
AM: Absolutely. It also illustrates how much our memories and recorded history are altered after the fact, down the road, which circles back to the unique opportunity I had to write this history while it's still in the early stages. It made the end of the book a bit of a challenge — how do you round off a story about Sakaguchi and Horii, the genre they created, while they're still working on new things, and the genre's continuing to evolve? My answer to that was by looking at the younger creators they inspired, who are now out there making amazing games. And, I think, that's how we'll see people like Kodama continue to shape JRPGs well into the future.
MN: Shifting gears here: obviously, Chrono Trigger is significant for you, as it’s a game you covered at length separately from Fight, Magic, Items, but I'd like to discuss which JRPG you wish you had been able to similarly break down at length, give a chapter to, etc. that maybe didn't play a significant role in history a la Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII.
AM: You know, the hardest thing was not covering Chrono Trigger more in Fight, Magic, Items. I wrote a 10,000 word history of it as a primer for Fight, Magic, Items, just before I started drafting, and I was tempted to just pop that whole chapter in the book. So, instead, I explored how its Akira Toriyama art intersected with the rise of anime in the west, thanks in large part to Dragon Ball Z, and the ways it represents the pinnacle of 16-bit JRPG design.
As you say, Chrono Trigger is very important to me, personally, and one of the things I address in the beginning of the book and its very end is that no history of the genre — especially one that takes such a personal angle — could be truly comprehensive because a) it'd be 1,000 pages long, and b) we all had our own journeys through JRPGs, and games hit us all in different ways. I can see an alternate universe where instead of digging into Suikoden and Lunar, I looked more closely at the history of the Tales of… series on the Super NES and PlayStation. I also really wanted to write a chapter on how the Sega Saturn is one of the great JRPG consoles of all time, just… not in the west, but it ultimately didn't fit the book's structure. (Fortunately, I got to write it as the cover feature for the November, 2022 issue of Unwinnable!)
But, if there was one series I really wish I'd been able to dig into — a series I think I'd probably feature more prominently if I wrote the book five or 10 years from now — it's Trails in the Sky and its sequel series. Filling the void left by Suikoden, it's such a unique series, but its overall impact on JRPGs in the west was fairly niche. I think that's changing, though, and with the new releases, I can see it continuing to grow and influence more and more players and creators over the next decade. I love that it focuses on story and character, rather than trying to outpace other genres with hot tech or flashy systems. The indie scene has been producing some great JRPGs lately, and I think the similar lower tech, more confined space of a series like Trails in the Sky/Trails From Zero/etc. offers a lot of value to the modern genre.
MN: As someone who is probably going to break my Final Fantasy VI coverage here up into half-a-dozen lengthy features focusing on one thing or another from it instead of just the game itself… well, let’s say I understand you.
AM: One of the great things about writing about all these older games now is that context gives us so many interesting new lenses to examine their successes and failures. Piggybacking on your piece linked above, I sure can't see a book like Sebastian Deken's Final Fantasy VI (Boss Fight Books), which examines the game through the lens of music theory, existing in, say, the 90s. Now, though, a lot of us have grown up with the games, they've helped created and shape our interests and careers, and now we're able to study them with previously unseen depth. Long gone are the times of small capsule reviews in the back of gaming magazines — they've been replaced by so much genuinely great, deep, longform analysis. It's great.
MN: I’m glad you found a home for your Saturn thoughts, even if they couldn’t fit into the book. The recent English translation of Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen is another I’ve been poking at until I have time to truly dive in, and part of what drove me to buy a Saturn (and then soft-mod it) in the first place was the combination of price and quality of Panzer Dragoon Saga… what an underappreciated little system for role-playing games.
AM: Yeah, I missed the Saturn back in the day (along with most of Sega's other consoles, except the Game Gear, which…) It's a really wonderful console, though, especially for Japanese RPGs. Which might surprise a lot of western JRPG fans, because it's notorious for its short lifespan and lack of success in North America. It was a huge hit in Japan, though, and home to so many unique games and JRPGs — from the aforementioned Panzer Dragoon Saga, which I'm excited to play for the first time, to Magic Knight Rayearth, Albert Odyssey, and even high-end versions of PlayStation fan favourites like Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Grandia.
And now, as you reference, a lot of these games are available for western fans thanks to fan translations and hacks. Ever wanted to play Lunar: SSSC with Working Designs's English script but the original difficulty intact? You can do that now. Wanna play Grandia in English with the original graphics? Hello, Saturn. I actually hard-modded my Japanese Saturn with a Fenrir Duo ODE (Optical Disc Emulator), which has made the experience of exploring the console's library a) easy, and b) a joy.
MN: Thanks for making my transition job a bit easier here — I have a note in my questions to ask that says, “Must talk Trails with Aidan to see where he lands on all of that.” I was thinking about Trails when you were writing about the different paths JRPGs took around the time of Final Fantasy VII — the ones you christened “Saturday morning” JRPGs vs. the more mature, politically oriented ones that were coming out at the same time, like Suikoden, as you mentioned both in the book and above. The Trails games seem to be a little bit of both worlds at the same time, in both their look, their design, and the experiences they offer up to players. They’re a little behind graphically and on the tech side, as you mentioned, and have no problem being goofy, off-kilter, whatever, but they’re also deeply serious games that zoom in on imperialism and the politics of warfare in a way many 16-bit and even 32-bit JRPGs from the 90s probably wished they had the capacity to tackle, but couldn’t.
Does that assessment ring true to you?
AM: Yeah! I think that's pretty close. For me, they fill the hole left by Suikoden (also soon to be filled by Eiyuden Chronicle and, uh, the Suikoden 1 & 2 remaster) in that they're fairly traditional in their design and gameplay — very obviously modeled off the 16-bit golden age games, which I call "Saturday Morning Cartoon" JRPGs in my book, rather than the more cinematic style of JRPG popularized by Final Fantasy VII in 1997 — but complex, layered, and densely written in the style of the "Primetime" JRPGs that are more serious and nuanced in their themes and story execution. I'm a sucker for interlinked stories told across multiple games/regions, and Trails hits that perfectly.
That said, I've played a big chunk of Trails in the Sky FC (the first chapter, available in the west on PSP and PC), but that's it. I lost track of my PSP playthrough back in the day, and despite the game's great western release on PC (it's a PC port of a PSP port of a PC game…?), that's not where I play games, so I haven't returned to the series. I'd love a Switch port based on the Trails from Zero engine/assets, though. I bought that and played a bit of the beginning to get a feel for the game, and it's such a trip playing a legitimately great, traditional JRPG on modern consoles right now.
MN: And is your comment about things being different five or 10 years from now about you needing more time to dive into the series, or about how we’ll end up viewing it when it’s all wrapped up? (Which, unlike the ironically never-ending Final Fantasy, is the plan for Trails.)
AM: It's a combination of all those things! I really hope to spend more time with the series, so I can see it becoming a stronger part of my own "personal canon," but I've also seen its influence over fandom grow over the past 5-7 years, and I just think that's going to continue to happen over time. In the same way Persona went from a niche series in the west for several years during the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras, and then exploded with Persona 3, I think we could see Trails have that longtail growth as it becomes one of the more relevant JRPG series in the west and begins to influence new games with the way its tells its stories.
And, I also think we're seeing a side of fandom emerge that's looking for that more traditional style of Japanese RPG. Final Fantasy XVI going in strange new directions is cool, I'm curious about it, but the genre has always juggled innovative creativity and experimentation with more traditional games, and in games like Dragon Quest XI, Bravely Default 2, Persona 5 Royal — not to mention a ton of great upcoming indie JRPG-style games, like Sea of Stars, Quartet, and Chained Echoes — we see how compelling and successful the systems and structures first created by Horii and Sakaguchi created back in the 80s remain.
Part two of this conversation will publish at a later date. You can find Fight, Magic, Items for sale at bookstores and online retailers such as Bookshop.org, keep up with Aidan Moher’s writing at his own newsletter, Astrolabe, and follow him on social media like Twitter at @adribbleofink.
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Love this conversation! Can't wait for more of it.
Curious if either of you have listened to the They Create Worlds podcast. They've done a few deep dives into the history of JRPGs, focusing especially on Final Fantasy I and Dragon Quest.
Such a blast having the chance to chat with you about this, Marc! You know I'm a big fan of Retro XP, so I'm quite tickled to be here.