Retro Geek Throwback Thursday: Final Fantasy VIIJanuary 31, 2015
A couple months ago I caught sight of a new trailer for a brand new Final Fantasy game being released sometime this year (hopefully) on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It’s an impressive trailer and though it’s number XV in a long, and acclaimed series, the only number that ever comes to mind for me is VII.
It was a long time ago, the year of 1997, and I was a dawdling age of *REDACTED*… ahem. Let’s just say it was the age of high school, far from the end and girls existed, but games and movies still controlled where my interest drifted.
In a lot of ways FF7 (as us cool kids called it) was quite a turning point in my development for so many reasons. Not just as a gamer, but as a person too.
I was introduced to games as stories and all the feelings that they could elicit. …Damn hormones, that’s what I blame it on.
FF7 was my first introduction to the advertising of games, the first major televised campaign I can remember. It was the first game I bought a game along with my friends (that didn’t have ‘EA’ on the cover) while being one that I was in the dark about what it actually was.
That was because it was also my first RPG, a role playing game. Until then my games had narrowed to varieties of fighting, killing, being killed or playing sports – which usually left me wanting to kill.
Final Fantasy VII involves a team of characters travelling throughout a world, ‘Gaia’, solving problems, interacting with environments and people, using a turn-based combat system to fight enemies and giant snakes. (Yup, giant snakes. Lots of them). It was intoxicating and enjoyable from start to finish. I could control where they went and what they did; hell I could even choose their names!
Their actual names were Cloud, Tifa, Yuffi, Red XIII, Barret and many, many more. The game, as wonderfully advertised, starred Cloud, a mysterious mercenary, operating in a massive metropolis. Hired by the gun-armed Barret he helped his eco-terrorist group Avalanche in attacking power reactors.
From there it would be a task to summarize this massive game. It involved moving beyond the city to the outer world, and finally exploring the entire planet via planes, trains, boats and magic Chocobo. It was an amazing experience, each time the game would expand you would become dumbfounded at how big it had gotten. The scale, the danger and the immersion somehow increased with every new revelation and cut scene. As threats grow the deadly Sephiroth is introduced. A legendary warrior who is somehow tied to Cloud and his murky forgotten past.
It’s hard to encapsulate how much this game sucked me, and my best friend, in. We had different paths but at each critical key point in the story we were hooked, emotionally, in these digitized heroes. FF7 represented a leap forward in what games could do, as experience and technical achievement.
Taking up three separate disks on the original PlayStation, FF7 had to bypass its original plan to release on the N64 because of its size and graphic demand. It showed that the N64 had reached its capacity and showed the PlayStation was close to being maxed out. The game was so brilliant and so full of quality that the consoles were straining at the seams to keep it together.
Take, as another beloved example, the arcade games. In one area Cloud could wile away his time playing various in-game games. From snowboarding to submarine battles. That was it. There was no subtext, or need to play these for the main story; you could spend as little or as much time there as you wished. (I spent quite a bit). They were brilliant, and fun, and looked great. This was one tiny thing, in one tiny corner. Yet it could be a whole game in and of itself to lesser designers and directors.
Other fun was had when you would hunt down side stories for rare weapons and magic. Something that always helped when you indulged in another piece of gleeful satisfaction; petty revenge. Having leveled up you would recall those mismatched battles when you were a lowly little beginner and trek all the way back to find those terrible bosses and monsters who had humiliated you and proceed to bash them to digital hell with your new amazing strengths….I did this a lot.
All said and done, the true nostalgia for this game is the emotional resonance it created. Character’s stories were gigantic and sucked you in. Relationships were formed with your teammates and you raced to rescue them, defend them or help in their personal journeys every step of the way. As Sephiroth’s schemes escalated and the whole world was placed in jeopardy every decision weighted on you, every choice had meaning. You laughed when you were reunited with old comrades, thrilled at narrow victories or were shocked at secrets revealed. You thought you had really connected. You thought you could really enjoy this new adventure like other games.
…And then she died. It still hurts. Still shocks me to remember it. That’s how wonderful this game is. It was the first encounter with death, a real death for all intents, that affected the player and changed how you saw everyone and everything. When Sephiroth killed one of the lead characters it changed everything and it really and truly mattered. Something only movies, or great TV, had managed to create until then.
From that giant sword in its simplistic glow that opens the game, to the final battle for the fate of all before the ultimate showdown, FF7 was a turning point in what to expect from games and what they could demand from you in return.
Squaresoft (now Square Enix) took three years to develop FF7 and was rewarded by becoming one of the most beloved and successful games on the platform. It sold over a million copies in North America, following sales of over two million in Japan. More than one reviewer called it ‘the greatest game ever made’ and its ratings are consistently in the 90%+ range even today.
In fact, the praise for the game ran from its graphics and interface to the superb story and epic soundtrack. It won all the awards, took all the praise and provides a benchmark that the new XV will be hard pressed to overcome.
But above and beyond all that, Final Fantasy VII won our hearts… even while it broke them.
This article has been written for publication on the GCE by Paul Neary