Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft’s era-defining 1997 role-playing game. WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
Though Final Fantasy VII began life as a 2D role-playing game (RPG) planned for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Japanese studio Squaresoft soon shifted development to Sony’s 32-bit PlayStation platform. Squaresoft had historically developed its games for Nintendo hardware, but the promise of the PlayStation’s CD-ROM format and Nintendo’s adherence to comparatively memory-restrictive cartridge technology ensured that Squaresoft would need to ditch its erstwhile industry ally if it was to explore new frontiers of interactive storytelling in the late 1990s.
The result of Squaresoft’s efforts was a game that dramatically altered the landscape within its genre and the wider industry by implementing cinematic full-motion video (FMV) cutscenes, fully polygonal character models, a vast world to explore, and lush pre-rendered backgrounds which would not have felt out of place in a fine arts gallery. Final Fantasy VII sold over three million copies during 1997 in Japan alone and established the heretofore-niche RPG genre as commercially viable in North America and Europe. Show nearly any games enthusiast an image of Final Fantasy VII protagonist Cloud Strife’s massive sword or blocky polygonal outline and they’d be able to identify the source instantly. Doubly so for anyone who has personal memories of Sony’s $40 million advertising blitz for the game.
For better or worse, Final Fantasy VII led audiences to expect increasingly cinematic experiences from their interactive entertainment. The game’s enduring popularity throughout the 2000s and 2010s would result in an expanded universe of spinoffs and even a serialized remake two decades after its initial publication (the first chapter is currently scheduled for a March 2020 release). Re-releases on the PlayStation Store digital distribution platform and high-definition remasters for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and smart devices ensure the game remains accessible to old fans and new audiences alike.
Of course, you’re not here to read about the objective history of Final Fantasy VII; you could do that in my Franchise Festival article on the series from January 2019. What we’re focusing on today is my own subjective experience of the game. Somehow, despite being an RPG fan for nearly twenty years, I’d missed out on Final Fantasy VII until 2019.
My first experience with the genre was Final Fantasy VIII (1999). I was sucked in by the game’s television advertisements and rented it repeatedly from my local Blockbuster, making steady progress but never actually finishing the story; a lack of familiarity with RPG tropes and Final Fantasy VIII’s own notoriously idiosyncratic mechanics kept me from ever really grasping how to play the game well. I still enjoyed my time with it and couldn’t wait to get more of the high drama that characterized the genre, so I sought out as many RPGs as possible on the platform. By 2001 or so, that involved working my way around to its direct predecessor.
I received Final Fantasy VII as a gift around 2001 and gave it a try after having already playing Final Fantasy V, VI, VIII, and IX. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get over its infamously blocky character models. Where earlier games looked like the sprite-based graphics I’d grown up with on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and SEGA Genesis and later series entries featured significantly more detailed textures, I found that Final Fantasy VII’s character occupied an awkward space somewhere between the two. I’m not sure I ever made it past the game’s lengthy opening sequence – set in the dystopian steampunk city of Midgar – before I shelved it and moved on to other adventures. The much-anticipated release of its remastered edition on Switch in 2019 seemed an ideal opportunity to revisit a game that I’d heard about quite a bit since my own abandoned attempt nearly twenty years ago.
Given the outsized role that its low-poly character models had played in informing my negative first impression of the game, I wondered how they would look to an older pair of eyes. Happily, they’d only improved with age. The characters now possessed the abstract, somewhat puppet-like nature of their sprite-based predecessors. Where these once felt jarring – falling dramatically short of the more life-like characters of Final Fantasy VIII and beyond – their abstraction now served to heighten the game’s artificiality. This is good, as the high-definition remaster presents a unique problem with regard to the once-grand pre-rendered backgrounds.
The original assets for pre-rendered portions of Final Fantasy VII were lost following the game’s original PlayStation release, so the backgrounds in the remaster are sourced from the compressed files of the game’s initial PlayStation/PC version. Character models were not pre-rendered in the original release, so they can be rendered in real-time at whatever resolution the game is running at. The result are character models sharp enough to cut diamonds juxtaposed against smudgy backgrounds. This is a disappointing historical reality, but I didn’t find that it made the experience unpleasant. The characters look artificial anyway, so their failure to blend with their surroundings actually presents less of a problem for suspension of disbelief than the more realistically-drawn characters and low-resolution backgrounds of the Final Fantasy VIII or Final Fantasy IX remasters (the pre-rendered content of both having suffered the same fate as that of Final Fantasy VII). Playing often on the Switch’s handheld mode likely reduced my ability to easily notice graphical inconsistencies as well. A larger problem is the difficulty discerning where any given screen’s exits are, though this is mitigated through a button which places a red icon over each exit and a cursor over Cloud; Squaresoft seems to have been aware of the game’s navigational deficiencies and planned accordingly.
If the visual design is passable at a remove of 20+ years, the music somehow seems more beautiful than ever. Nobuo Uematsu is a well-regarded figure in the world of video game scores, having single-handedly composed soundtracks for all Final Fantasy games through Final Fantasy IX, but the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII may be his magnum opus. From the industrial noir of the Turks’ Theme to the experimental carnival vibe of Honeybee Manor and from the swelling drama of Cosmo Canyon to the laid back calypso of Costa Del Sol, Uematsu’s score is a masterpiece. There are more than four Chocobo themes and all are excellent, though I’d highlight the surf-rock Electric de Chocobo and bluegrass Fiddle de Chocobo as particularly delightful. While One-Winged Angel has been rightly celebrated by the wider world and in the Distant Worlds series of Final Fantasy orchestral concerts, even the lesser compositions are memorable. To my ears, many of the best songs – including Anxious Heart and the Main Theme – echo Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Characters and Story
Final Fantasy VII’s core party is one of its most celebrated features. Cloud Strife has undergone a troubling re-interpretation over the years as a no-nonsense badass, not least due to Square-Enix’s own Advent Children sequel film, but I was happy to find him at turns goofy and introspective in the game itself. His relationship with Aeris and Tifa define much of the game’s emotional center. While I was moved by Aeris’ famous mid-game death, Cloud coming to terms with his youth idolizing Tifa from a distance and their heartfelt quiet moments before the final assault on Sephiroth remain some of the narrative’s highlights.
Barrett is a complicated figure, though I ended up liking him much more than I anticipated. Red XIII, a fan favorite, is rightly beloved (and, like Cloud, sillier than I was expecting). Tifa is sadly over-defined by her relationship with Cloud, though Aeris’ tragic backstory and optimistic personality made her one of my favorite characters. Cait Sith and Vincent are more or less blank slates as far as I’m concerned; amusing in their visual design, their character arcs and battle abilities failed to endear me to them. Cid – who seems to be popular among other fans – creeped me out with his intense abuse of housemate (?) Shera and I struggled to warm up to him after that, though his turn as the party’s leader during Cloud’s late-game walkabout did soften my distaste. Optional character Yuffie only joined me a few hours before the ending and I never got to use her in battle.
The side characters, as is typical in a Final Fantasy game, are uniformly well-sketched. These include bit-villains like the horrifying slum-lord Don Corneo and more ambiguous figures like the Golden Saucer’s ridiculously macho owner Dio. Like in Final Fantasy IX, the odd proportions and cartoonish art design allows the character models to be more memorable than they would have been in the comparatively down-to-earth styles of Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy XII. These side characters point towards one of the aspects of Final Fantasy VII that I found especially compelling: its tendency towards vignette storytelling. It didn’t go all-in on this premise in the way that a Dragon Quest title might, but each town or major location in the game offers a micro-story that either helps to flesh out one of the party members or the region of the world in which the location is situated. These were generally the strongest aspect of the narrative, though they could be a bit incoherent at times.
Incoherence is a greater issue in the main story, where a questionable localization kept me from ever gaining a concrete understanding of what villain Sephiroth was doing or why. His iconic image towers over the history of Final Fantasy VII but he fails to stake out a clear purpose for his goals in-game. Indeed, Sephiroth is an object of pursuit for much of the game’s 30 hour playtime yet the script never adequately explains why he is engaged in bringing about the planet’s destruction.
Better illustrated is Shinra, the sinister corporation which uses the souls of the dead to power an intercontinental technologically advanced empire. Even the subtle ways in which technology is at first an aid before later insisting upon itself and opening traditional societies to corruption is commented on at some length. It veers a bit towards uncritical ludditism on occasion, and it’s never entirely clear how much average NPCs understand the specific cosmology of Final Fantasy VII’s universe and Shinra’s role in the planet’s collapse, but writers Kazushige Nojima and Yoshinori Kitase perform admirably overall on the Shinra plot. I am particularly fond of their willingness to let a plot thread dangle – for example, no character pointing out Barrett’s complicity in the deaths of thousands through an early-game instance of ecoterrorism – until much later in the narrative. This serves to deepen the sense that characters are keeping some thoughts hidden even from the player until they are deployed to intense effect.
I’ve been hearing about the strength of Final Fantasy VII’s story for a long time, but I’d not heard as much about its combat or materia systems. Both have aged startlingly well. With regard to the basic underlying combat, it’s not totally dissimilar to the Active Time Battle (ATB) system used in the series since 1991. This makes battles feel speedy even when – often due to challenges loading in art assets and processing player inputs – they are actually a tad sluggish. Happily, offering control over only three characters in battle rather than Final Fantasy IX’s four actually makes the game run smoother than the franchise’s ninth entry three years later.
Three proves to be something of a magical number, as character classes are less well-defined than they had been in earlier titles. Players effectively create classes through the assignment of materia (more on this shortly), ensuring that every one of the nine party members can fill whichever role the player desires. These can even be altered on the fly as conditions change throughout the game.
While Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy IX would attempt something similar through their employment of customizable ability systems (magicite and equipment, respectively), neither are as flexible as Final Fantasy VII’s materia mechanic. Each of two pieces of equipment that a character can use – weapons are character-specific while defense items are universal – offers a unique number of slots in which materia crystals can be placed. Most slots are discrete but some are joined together, opening up the opportunity to combine different abilities for added effects.
Since the combination of materia is down to player preference, players can customize characters to fit into a classic Final Fantasy class like black mage (offensive spellcaster) or work up their own classes to suit their needs. I was particularly fond of having my team of three comprised of a character with high HP employing the cover ability to block incoming enemy attacks, a character with high magic power and strength deploying offensive spells and abilities, and a character with high MP but low HP boosting allies’ health and speed through defensive spells. This maps well to the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) trifecta of tank/healer/damage-per-second party roles but certain areas caused me to reorient my party members towards more niche roles like thief and ranged fighter. The only series entry that even comes close to this expansive set of options is 2006’s Final Fantasy XII.
Unfortunately, one of the series’ finest hours for core gameplay is marred by an uncharacteristically heavy emphasis on minigames. I’d estimate I spent over an hour on minigames which contributed little to the plot or development of the characters. I assume these sequences were intended to break up the pacing – and they do serve to obscure the genre’s formulaic town-dungeon-boss-town structure – but the rest of the game’s narrative and gameplay progression is so strong that the minigames undermine its coherence.
Among the most frustrating are a rhythm-based CPR resuscitation in the city of Junon, an on-rails shooter at the Golden Saucer casino, and a stealth section during the Shinra headquarters infiltration. The most galling is the defense of Fort Condor, a series of minigames in which the player must place units to defend a mountaintop fortress from invading Shinra troops in the style of a rudimentary tower defense game; I’m not sure whether my enjoyment of the tower defense genre made this minigame more or less disappointing, but the game eventually freezing up as Shinra’s soldiers sluggishly ascended the mountain was the last straw for me – I only ever completed the single plot-necessary Fort Condor defense sequence and moved on.
Still, not all of the minigames are dreadful. A whimsical snowboard race, jarringly placed shortly after Aeris’ climactic death, offers a fun action setpiece in the midst of turn-based battles and lengthy dialogue sequences. A motorcycle chase early in the game, in which Cloud must kick Shinra soldiers off of their own cycles as they attempt to hijack a truck, is probably the minigame high point for me. I even replayed it when given the opportunity at the Golden Saucer! Maddeningly, progression past that casino is gated by successful participation in a certain number of minigames so I was waylaid there for longer than I would have liked.
According to USGamer’s Kat Bailey, via the Retronauts podcast, Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi once told Kingdom Hearts producer Tetsuya Nomura that Final Fantasy titles were intended to be “everything games.” This philosophy eventually inspired the latter series’ gummi ship shooter sequences, which are largely derided by fans, but seems to have reached its zenith with Final Fantasy VII. Some have speculated that the emphasis on minigames is a result of Squaresoft experimenting with Sony’s new PlayStation hardware in preparation for future releases, and their catalog of action games on the platform bears this out. Whatever the reason for their inclusion, I was consistently disappointed when my otherwise exciting journey through Final Fantasy VII was interrupted by another clumsy action minigame. I’m grateful that future series entries toned this down.
My time with Final Fantasy VII was almost entirely positive. Minigames and a questionable localization occasionally threatened to distract from its charms, but the strength of the core gameplay and the unique beauty of its presentation always won the day. My negative reaction to the game’s visual style in the early 2000s seems increasingly silly in retrospect, as time has only sanded away its rough edges and enhanced the characters’ evocatively abstract appearances. Uematsu’s soundtrack and the materia system might be my favorite elements, though.
If you’re looking to pick up Final Fantasy VII, I would strongly recommend the remaster on modern hardware. Its pace does slow at times, especially in areas with high encounter rates or during highly-animated summon sequences, and the ability to prevent random encounters or boost the game’s speed are godsends. Our attention spans haven’t grown any longer since the ‘90s, after all. While I was disappointed in the Final Fantasy IX remaster’s omission of analog controls, Final Fantasy VII was designed for eight-direction movement and doesn’t suffer from the same issue.
While it’s a shame that the original source code was lost, I’m grateful that Final Fantasy VII is as available as it is in 2019. Minor discontinuities between high-definition character models and low-resolution backgrounds can’t meaningfully detract from a game that remains a masterpiece of the genre. I can’t believe I missed out on it for all these years, but I’ll certainly be replaying it again sometime soon. I recommend that you give it a look too.
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