Revisiting Final Fantasy VII

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, Final Fantasy VII was one of the first games I really got into as a kid. With the long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake releasing today, I wanted to take a look back at the original and examine why it meant so much to me.

I was born in the early ’90s, so I wasn’t of an age to buy the game when it released in 1997… but my older brothers were. I had never played the earlier games in the franchise; in fact, I don’t think I’d ever played a role-playing game – western or Japanese – before. Most of my gaming experience to that point consisted of Super Mario World – a classic, for sure, but markedly different from the RPG experience.

Starting Final Fantasy VII for the first time was a revelation. I don’t believe it was the first 3D game I played, but it was certainly the first time I’d seen anything like Midgar in a video game. The introductory cutscene, which sweeps through the massive city and showcases the imposing headquarters of the Shinra Electric Power Company, blew me away. It wasn’t just the graphics that floored me. The design of this world was unlike anything I’d imagined to that point.

The visuals were grimy and dirty; the people of Midgar lived in slums, looked down on by the businessmen and military police of the Shinra megacorporation. There was a blend of sci-fi and fantasy: protagonist Cloud Strife wielded an enormous sword and could cast spells using crystals called materia, but supporting character Barret had a cybernetic arm and the villains had access to guns and robots. Midgar was a huge departure from the Mushroom Kingdom, that’s for sure.

Another shock for me: there was a real story here, something beyond a flimsy ‘rescue the princess’ setup. Now, I didn’t understand the story; even ignoring the fact that Final Fantasy VII didn’t have the best translation, the plot was a little headier than seven-year-old me had the patience for. Cloud was the good guy, Shinra were the bad guys, and Sephiroth was the baddest guy of all. That’s about as much as I took in, though I’m a bit surprised that the environmentalist message didn’t stick with me at least a little bit, considering how blatant it was.

Of course, I barely got out of Midgar until I was much older. I would periodically start a new save file, play for a bit, get distracted by some new game and forget where I was, and begin the process all over again. I didn’t properly sit down and play through the whole thing until I was in high school.

Despite that, there are many elements of the game that stuck with me: the anachronistic mix of fantasy and cyberpunk tropes continues to be something I crave – look no further than my obsessions with franchises like Shadowrun and Warhammer 40,000. It was also my introduction to cosmic horror years before I heard the name H. P. Lovecraft, thanks to the inclusion of the strange alien entity called Jenova that drives a significant part of the plot. Just like the environmental aspect, I might not have fully grasped these concepts when I was playing, but they stayed in my subconscious and influenced the media I consumed for years.

It’s clear that the game left an indelible mark on me, but why? Honestly, I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that this game was my first exposure to these kinds of ideas. It was also the first time I’d played a game of this style (that is, a turn-based RPG), which ended up being one of my favorite gaming genres. It’s easy to see, then, why its impact was so great.

I don’t think that’s all there was to it, though. After all, I’m far from the only person who was affected by Final Fantasy VII – it’s widely considered a classic. To a large degree, the tremendous influence FFVII exerted over the industry had to do with the specific time period in which it was released.

Games were different in the ’80s and ’90s. I mentioned earlier that the opening cutscene blew me away – that’s because before FFVII, cutscenes like that weren’t really a thing. Their inclusion here opened up a whole new way for games to tell stories. On top of that, 3D graphics were still new at the time, and as antiquated as the game looks now, FFVII looked phenomenal in 1997. Suddenly, video games looked a lot better and were telling deeper, more interesting stories, and FFVII was a harbinger of both of those things.

It’s a moment in time that is hard to recapture now. A good comparison would be Half-Life 2, which was similarly revolutionary via its physics engine and intricate, lived-in world. These things are so commonplace that we take them for granted now, but when those games first hit the scene, they changed everything.

In preparation for Final Fantasy VII Remake, I played through the original release a bit – just far enough to get out of Midgar, as that’s where Remake will end. I’ll admit, the game hasn’t aged terribly well. The plot, while interesting, is a bit rushed, and while I’d built up a decent array of magic by the time I left the city, most encounters could be easily beaten by simply jamming on the ‘Attack’ command until the enemy was dead. Even so, there’s something there. The characters and their relationships are still intriguing; the world still draws the player in. I can’t necessarily recommend this game to a modern audience, but I absolutely feel that it deserves the remake it’s getting. It’s a story that deserves to be re-told and expanded on.

In the time since I first played Final Fantasy VII, I’ve found a lot of other great RPGs, each of which has affected me in their own way. It’s no longer my favorite RPG – heck, it’s no longer even my favorite Final Fantasy game – but it’s still an important part of my history. I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for it, and I couldn’t be more excited to play the Remake and experience this beloved classic in a whole new way.

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