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Final Fantasy 5 was a shock to the system when it finally arrived in America in 1999. Coming just a couple weeks after Final Fantasy 8, the massive contrast was unavoidable. One was the pinnacle of 32-bit console technology. The other looked dated even for a Super Nintendo game, and had a terrible localization to boot.
The unfortunate circumstances behind Final Fantasy 5's first official overseas release led many Americans to write it off entirely. But the passing years have rehabilitated its reputation somewhat, its simple yet fascinating Job System coming to be known as a series gold standard. It even has its own holiday of sorts, an event called the Four Job Fiesta that challenges fans to beat the game with pre-assigned classes.
While Final Fantasy 6 is a classic and Final Fantasy IV is better-known, Final Fantasy V arguably stands the test of time better than almost any game in the series. It's a game that you can go back to again and again and enjoy from many different angles. Final Fantasy 5 demands experimentation, and more importantly, mastery.
As a throwback to the days of the NES, it's the polar opposite of many of the Final Fantasy entries that Americans know best. It has its moments, but it mainly ignores the melodrama that defines the other games in the series, particularly Final Fantasy 4 and 6, preferring instead to focus on building up the systems introduced in Final Fantasy 3. It's a classical RPG in the truest sense of the word.
But as famous as its Job System is, Final Fantasy 5's secret defining trait may be its humor. Final Fantasy 5 isn't afraid to poke fun at various RPG tropes from the period, which may be one reason it's so enduringly popular in its home country (I've even seen reports that it's more popular than Final Fantasy 6). Its main villain Exdeath is hammy in the extreme, and is best-known for a confrontation with an obstinate turtle. One of its other antagonists, Gilgamesh, is one of Final Fantasy's recurring comic villains, repeatedly appearing to harass everyone from Squall to Gladiolus.
Final Fantasy 5's distinct voice comes courtesy of Yoshinori Kitase, who partnered with series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to write the main scenario. Where Sakaguchi focused on drama, Kitase brought a lighter touch to the script. He also had a taste for high adventure, often asking programmers to hack in large and complicated setpieces, which Sakaguchi called "Kobayashi Maru moments" after the famous no-win scenario in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
Final Fantasy 5's unique spirit is further exemplified by its cast, which consists of only four characters for most of the game (a midgame heroic sacrifice sees one character swapped for a newcomer). Its protagonist Bartz is a Han Solo-like figure who wanders the world on a chocobo. His carefree nature immediately sets him apart from moodier heroes like Cecil, Terra, Cloud, and Squall. Meanwhile Lenna is a heroic princess searching for her father, Faris is a lady pirate captain who initially disguises herself as a man, and Galuf is an amnesiac who rides in on a meteor.
Their character development is subordinate to the needs of the Job System, and they are mostly there to be dressed up in a variety of costumes. But that doesn't mean that they are total non-entities. The fun and familial bond shared between the group across their many adventures has made Bartz and company fan-favorite characters in Japan; and in America, Faris' grapple with gender has endeared her to many in the queer community.
No one will argue that Final Fantasy 5 has the best cast in the series, much less the best story. But its sense of humor has allowed it to hold up better than its more dramatic peers, which now seem mostly corny. And Final Fantasy 5 can bring the heat when it needs to, as it does in Galuf's epic duel with Exdeath.
Really, though, Final Fantasy 5's true legacy is the Job System. While it wasn't the first game in the series to introduce Final Fantasy's famous class mechanic, it did bring with it some crucial refinements. It's built on a simple but brilliant conceit: you level up a job to unlock various skills, then match those skills with other jobs. This allows you to build up dual-wielding knights, thieves who can punch with the strength of a monk, and magic-users who can wield powerful weapons.
Min-maxers have spent years plumbing the depths of Final Fantasy 5's Job System, using disparate skills to build ridiculous combos. Combining the Ranger's Rapid Fire ability with the Mystic Knight's Spellblade, for instance, allows you to attack four times with weapons imbued with elemental, status, and other properties. Get that on a Freelancer with Dual-Wield and you'll have a truly ridiculous eight attacks. But that's only the most overpowered combo. It's also fun to setup, say, a Berserk Monk and let them have at it.
At base Final Fantasy 5's Job System is really an excuse to grind, which some may find time-consuming or boring. But its power and flexibility has made it a series staple, reappearing in different forms in Final Fantasy 10-2, Final Fantasy 12, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13, and other entries. Bravely Default went as far as to borrow Final Fantasy 5's Job System wholesale.
Mastering the Job System is made more satisfying by the fact that Final Fantasy 5 is hard. Really hard. It kicks your ass right from the start, and later rolls out of some of the toughest bosses in the series, such as the infamous Atomos—a monster who will devour your party members and remove them from the field of play. It makes the PlayStation games seem almost childishly easy by comparison, which is perhaps one reason it didn't go down especially well when it was first released in North America.
The flipside of that challenge is that Final Fantasy 5 never feels trivial. The boss battles in particular feature some excellent twists, and are often thrilling. Even unlocking the godlike Dual-Wielding Rapid Fire Freelancer comes at the cost of many hours of blood, sweat, and tears. Final Fantasy 5 makes you earn your victory.
In picking Final Fantasy 5 over its more popular predecessor for the initial slot on this list, I wanted to pick an RPG that still endures today. Final Fantasy IV has given a ton to this genre, but having finished it, I don't really feel any need to go back. That story is finished. But Final Fantasy 5 always has the possibility of some new and interesting job combination, and beyond that, the Four Job Fiesta. Of the two, I would choose Final Fantasy 5 to play again in a heartbeat.
Final Fantasy 5's replayability is reflected in its final moments. Having defeated Exdeath, the remaining party members watch as the world is resurrected and their compatriots returned to life. Then they ride off into the sunset on their Chocobos amid an excited, "Let's go!" The story is done, but more adventures await. And that ultimately is what allows Final Fantasy V to rise above its peers.