Final Fantasy VII turned 20 this year, so let’s take a moment to look back on why this humble JRPG remains such an important milestone in the history of gaming.
The story of Final Fantasy VII invariably starts with the fact that it was the result of a decision for developer Square to part ways with Nintendo, whose consoles had previously housed the Final Fantasy series. Citing the limitations of Nintendo opting to stick with cartridges for the N64, Square eventually opted to release Final Fantasy VII on Sony‘s Playstation, which used CD-ROM technology. A decision that apparently didn’t go down well with Nintendo and led to the series not appearing on any of their consoles for almost a decade.
Final Fantasy VII set several huge benchmarks for JRPG‘s – and indeed gaming in general. Graphically it was a huge leap from the sprites of Final Fantasy VI, with gorgeous cut-scenes and summon sequences that gave the characters more depth than ever. But it was the scale of the game that truly amazed as you step outside of Midgar for the first time and realise that what seemed like a huge part of the game was actually just the first stepping stone in your adventure.
In many ways Final Fantasy VII was the perfect storm of technical advances that allowed it to be grandiose with enough limitations that meant it still required players to use their imagination. The characters don’t speak and a lot of their finer features (i.e. their fingers) are absent. It’s unsurprising that as the Final Fantasy games have become more realistic, the characters have become more divisive, because there is no longer any place for players to use their imagination to colour them. The upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake will inevitably lose that element so it’ll be interesting to see whether perceptions of the characters change.
There are certain elements of the game that feel like they were included just because Square wanted to play with the sheer amount of space that CD-ROM gave them – and lest we forget that the game shipped on three discs, something completely unprecedented at that point. The motorbike and snowboarding minigames, for example, aren’t much fun at all, but the fact that Square could casually throw in elements of other genres on a whim underlined what a behemoth it was.
Back in 1997, the internet was in its infancy and that also gave Final Fantasy VII something very hard for games to have these days – the element of surprise. Two decades later we’ll presume that it’s safe to drop spoilers; so who on earth would have foreseen that the end of the first disc would see the death of one of the lead characters. This sort of thing just didn’t happen in games – you’ve spent hours levelling up Aeris and investing in her relationship with Cloud only to have the rug ripped out from under your feet. Even now I can still remember numbly fighting Jenova-LIFE as I struggled to comprehend exactly what had just happened.
Some of the RPG elements of Final Fantasy VII are by today’s standards fairly basic – but they worked given the context. The Materia system was a great introduction for newcomers to the genre, even though you soon realise that all of the characters are near enough identical fighters, with minor physical attack variations. There’s nothing in the way of job roles – something that again is likely to change in the remake given nearly every recent Final Fantasy game has opted for that mechanic.
Final Fantasy VII also boasted a tremendous plot that starts small but gradually unfolds with the game, frequently throwing in twists – for example the mid-game revelation that Cloud isn’t at all who he (and thus we) thought he was, as we delve into his memories. Due to the technical limitations of the game, a lot of the plot exposition is done via text-heavy scenes and at times becomes a little too detailed. A lot of the back-story to Shinra, the Cetra, Jenova and the Lifestream remains foggy and probably could have been streamlined a little – but without it, it’s unlikely that the rabid fan community would have been so active for the last two decades. And as I discussed in our recent podcast, PSP spin-off Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII actually does a stellar job of filling in some of the gaps.
The game wasn’t all misery and drama though – who could forget the infamous cross-dressing scene that takes place early on and sees Cloud attempt to accompany Tifa and Aeris into the mansion (and bedroom) of resident Wall Market sleaze Don Corneo. Or Tifa and Scarlet‘s high camp slap fight minigame that takes place atop a giant cannon. And of course Cloud‘s date with Aeris, Tifa…or Barrett at the beautiful Gold Saucer. It’s a shame that such moments are few and far between but they are the understated and offbeat parts that give Final Fantasy VII its heart. You’d be hard pushed to say that the game was truly boundary pushing – but two men going on a date (however platonic it was) remains much more progressive than almost anything seen in subsequent Final Fantasy games.
All said and done though, Final Fantasy VII was not afraid for its characters to shed blood. A LOT of blood. It’s probably the most brutal Final Fantasy game, particularly as Sephiroth begins to take his revenge and you frequently find yourself wandering through blood smeared environments littered with dozens of butchered corpses.
Final Fantasy VII is certainly showing its age now in terms of its graphics. But its storytelling is without parallel and few titles from the last 20 years come close to matching it. The game was a turning point for JRPG‘s in the West – turning them from niche releases into chart-topping blockbusters. And for a generation of young gamers, it was an eye-opening revelation that the conventions of video games expanded far beyond the cartoony platformers of the early ’90s.
Oh, and Cloud did eventually make his debut on a Nintendo console when he appeared in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U in 2015.
*This article is dedicated to my cousin Dan, who introduced me to the world of Final Fantasy when he invited me to watch the Sector 7 explosion cut-scene.