VIIteen takes on Final Fantasy VII

This was originally posted on an old Wordpress site on April 6th, 2017 immediately after plowing through Final Fantasy VII in less than a week during a time where I should have been looking for somewhere to live. Reposted unedited on Medium for preservation purposes.

Do you have any idea how weird it is to me that I’ve now played Final Fantasy VII? I never understood JRPGs growing up; when I was six years old I borrowed a “friend’s” (someone who had to talk to me because both our mothers were present) Game Boy and played five minutes of Pokémon Yellow. I knew everyone on the playground was hot for these pokemammals but I didn’t get it, why did they take turns to hit each other? Where was the jump button dang it! I handed the Game Boy back to my socially-obligated temporary friend and didn’t play a Pokémon game again for 10 years, and continued to make fun of JRPGs for another 15. Instead I went with slightly more alternative fads such as Yu-Gi-Oh, which according to my colleagues of the time this life choice meant that up to the age of 17 I was apparently a homosexual.

I’m now very close to 25 years old and I’ve grown up a lot: I wash my hair properly now, I’ve endangered my health making video essays noone watches, I’ve seen every single theatrical Studio Ghibli release in Japanese, I’ve been in love exactly once, been loved exactly nunce, even read a couple of books, those were good! Basically, I’ve gained enough life experience now to acknowledge the fact that maybe JRPGs didn’t become the primary format for videogame storytelling in the 1990s by accident and that Final Fantasy VII didn’t become one of most significant releases of all time for no reason.

So I sat down and powered through the entirety of Final Fantasy VII over the course of about a week, and hey! For the most part I had a pretty good time! I’ve now played two mainline Final Fantasy games, and two is enough to tell you that the people currently screaming about Final Fantasy XV being the best in the series are sort of nutty. Once again this is too huge of a game to get my head around for a traditional “review” or whatever you’d call what I end up writing up here, if I did review it I’d probably give it 3 out of 4 stars but don’t hold me to that. So instead of painstakingly crafting one proper take, let’s do another list of takes! Lists are fun!

Without further ado, here’s 17 takes on Final Fantasy VII; a game that been obsessed over and mined for details by its lovers and torn apart by its haters for 20 years. I’m sure that after playing it for the first time in 2017 in less than a week on an emulator while holding down the fast forward button during battles (hopefully letting go of it in time for Tifa’s victory pose) everything I have to say is going to be blowing minds left and right.

Let’s mosey!

#1 — MIDGAR IS AWESOME

Most games that rise to universal critical acclaim and long-term endearment have great openings, so it’s unsurprising that the eight or so hours on Midgar at the start of Final Fantasy VII are so fondly remembered. The introduction is undeniably awesome; the opening CG isn’t going to melt faces today like it did in 1997 but it still evokes the appropriate sense of scale for the upcoming adventure. The pacing of the reactor destruction sequence is some of the sharpest I’ve personally encountered in my limited experience with JRPGs and the confidence of the production is still outstanding.

It almost feels like modern game design in how it drags you from story beat to story beat while mixing action scenes and new locations along the way. This section only takes up the first half of the first disc but in that time you’re introduced to the Shinra corporation and the city they dominate, the dystopian slums they destroyed, the people who live there and the majority of the main cast all while squeezing in time for bike chases, elevator shootouts with robots, some good old fashioned murder and weird tone shifts where you hunt for a nice dress.

Maybe it’s the tighter pace and character focus that makes this part so memorable, perhaps it’s because it feels like you’re exploring a place with a rich and storied history through the eyes of the people who live there whereas a lot of the rest of the game feels like “chase Sephiroth to a place so the next bit of the story can happen”. It could be argued the Midgar section should’ve been longer, perhaps the entirety of Disc 1, it would’ve tightened up the narrative a little and turned escaping into a full open world to explore into a Symphony of the Night upside-down castle level mindblow for teenagers in 1997.

Then again, perhaps that’s me speaking as a nub who doesn’t typically play these games and fans would’ve assumed an open world map to be inevitable at some point. Even though Final Fantasy VII feels like it loses it grip on some character/story aspects in the middle, exploring how the hyper-capitalism and environmental irresponsibility affects the planet on a global scale is essential to the game’s themes. Either way, whether there’s enough of it or not Midgar is one of the standout memorable parts of a game bursting with memorable parts and it’s not difficult to see even 20 years later why it made such an impression.

#2 — IT’S FINE THAT THE REMAKE WILL BE AN ACTION GAME

Oh DON’T YOU WORRY there’s going to be some dragging of the remake later on, but this is to point out something that a lot of JRPG traditionalists are wrong about. There’s nothing wrong with turn-based combat, it’s a valid design choices and videogames’ obsession with making everything seamless and logical is going to come back to bite them one of these days. My only point is they’re not essential to how these games are paced. Turn-based combat was a necessity for “epic” fantasy games back in days of old because by establishing a “BATTLE SCREEN” you could reuse the same backgrounds and animations for literally thousands of fights which turns the focus of the game design from mechanical meatiness to math, and even on an NES cartridge you can squeeze a lot more math on there.

We’re in the future now with our fancy discs and harddrives, and a lot of JRPGs would benefit from following in the steps of Yakuza or Final Fantasy XV by becoming simple real-time action games. I would argue that this is especially true of Final Fantasy VII, a game with a mostly breezy pace with great action sequences. It’s awesome when there’s a special encounter with a major character, or the before mentioned robot elevator shootout and you get warped to an appropriate venue, but when you’re running to the next major event and the game’s kicking you out of the space so you can kill Shinra jobbers in one hit…that just kills the pacing. Final Fantasy VII is a great action-adventure experience, there’s no reason why it can’t have more confidence in itself as one.

Honestly, as much as I’m dreading the remake if they can make a cool Uncharted set piece out of part where the gang escapes Shinra and ride away on the stolen airship it’ll get a free pass from me (maybe).

#3 — ACTION TIME BATTLES ARE SILLY AND I DON’T LIKE THEM

This re-enforces my “just make it an action game for god’s sake” stance because I’ve never understood Action Time Battles as a design decision. At best they seem to be a half-hearted acknowledgement of the limitations and potential mundanity of turn-based battles. Final Fantasy VII didn’t invent this, but at some point the guys and gals at SquareSoft noticed that picking a command off a menu wasn’t very involving for the player, especially once they’ve figured out the system and have been doing it for tens and tens of hours on autopilot. So they came up with a solution; “what if you had to pick a command off a menu…quickly??”

If you’re going to kick a door down you’ve got to hit it hard enough to knock it off it’s hinges, this is more like getting your leg stuck in the cat flap. If you want to add more urgency and more player involvement come up with different battle mechanics! Don’t add stressful elements to a system where the player is already disconnected from the pace of the in-media fight. Thank god for Wait Mode, at least the fight stops while I’m digging out my Phoenix Downs so a dinosaur can’t pick the megaphone chunks out of his teeth with Cloud’s hair spikes while I’m rummaging through my backpack.

Even then the inclusion of a “Wait Mode” at all seems like an admission of defeat. The first boss seems to imply that changing tactics at certain times is going to be a huge part of the game but it’s…really not, presumably because SquareSoft knew a significant portion of the audience wouldn’t want to play the game this way (I sure didn’t!) It’s a shady compromise; maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake while offering token nods to evolution and change.

Listen up everyone making JRPGs, if your game has turn-based combat and random battles (and isn’t four hours long like Undertale) I don’t WANT to be constantly engaged with it. I want to mash the X button with one hand while tweeting with the other occasionally paying attention to the screen when the part where the numbers goes up happens. If you design a system where I still have to grind while constantly navigating menus AND be paying full attention to it at all times I may be put in danger of noticing how boring that is.

Quirks like this is why a lot of those kids out there don’t want to play old school JRPGs but they love that Pókemon and that Persona.

#4 — I DIDN’T GET THE OPTIONAL CHARACTERS AND I DON’T CARE

Look, it’s not like I didn’t try okay. I had a walkthrough for the game open in the background while I slammed through the game so I hung out in the forest sections for a while looking for Yuffie but she never showed up. By the time I got to the part where you can get Vincent I decided I didn’t want any more characters and had stop caring. I’m sure there’s some neat extra details and scenes if you do acquire these characters, and the fact they are so easy to miss and genuinely secrets is cool in itself, but I didn’t feel any compulsion to get them.

This is going to be another part where I expose myself as someone who doesn’t play “this sort of thing” very often, but I don’t like managing tons of characters at once. Without the optional characters the most you can have available for your party at one time is 6, and honestly that’s still too many for me. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if the game had better menus and sorting out everyone’s kit wasn’t such a chore, maybe I would enjoy swapping characters around if there more hanging out with them or they changed up the battles more significantly.

Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system is pretty neat. your magic and abilities are presented as items that you level up separately from the characters so you can pass them around from person to person without weakening them. It’s a cool idea in how it’s easy to understand on a surface level which never makes the game seem overbearing or too complicated, but there is hidden depths to it in terms of how you combine Materia. The downside is there’s a side effect of making every character feel mostly interchangeable. So when a story event forces you to change your party around and dunks all your Materia back into your backpack to re-assign it feels like homework more than it does an opportunity to try something new.

There’s also the slight issue where the main cast feels somewhat underdeveloped so adding two more jerks to the mix fighting for screen time didn’t seem like the best plan. After you get to Cosmo Canyon you could probably cut Red XIII from the game at that point and not lose much, Cid’s got his whole “let’s get to space” deal and relationship with Shera but it still doesn’t feel like we get to know him enough, and Cait Sith seems like a huge fan favourite but he made zero impression on me. I hardly ever used him so my experience with the character was the party being betrayed by him, then he manipulated them into using him to gain the Black Materia, and at the end of the game everyone was buddy buddy for no reason. Plus the character design in general screams of “variety for variety’s sake”, as in the FANS expect to have a selection of characters so we’ve got to have a guy with a big sword, guy with a big gun, an anime cat-blob thing, a panther dog monster, an old guy, a vampire and a selection of ladies to keep everyone happy.

However, I did like Cloud, Barrett and Tifa a lot; can’t help but feel that the game would have been stronger overall as a coherent work of fiction had they been the only party mainstays throughout the whole game.

#5 — SIDE CONTENT IS EASY TO IGNORE AND THAT’S OKAY WITH ME

If you want good side content in your game you’ve got to consider to balance between optional content that adds extra flourish and complements the central work and extra crap that only exists to increase the number of weekends teenagers will waste completing their save file while not talking to people. Most open world games of today opt to litter themselves with chores that constantly pop up while you’re playing the main story so you feel like a jerk for not doing them, Final Fantasy VII on the other hand is pretty chill about it.

The walkthrough I was using would make note to mention all side quests when they were available and at first I was overwhelmed by how many there were. When I looked into them a little more when I was on the home stretch to finishing the game I realised most of them are very simple. A lot of the endgame quests are variations of “go back to a place, talk to someone, get a thing” and hey that’s fine! A lot of these quests come with some extra dialogue or a character moment to tell you more about the world which is far more interesting than the mechanical gains for a game that’s already on the easy side. This is greatly preferable to side quests in Final Fantasy XV where you talk to some guy who sells seeds, he points out a place to find seeds on the map, you run to said place to get seeds, you give him the seeds and he gives you some money and experience. It feels like work because that’s literally what it’s contextualised as, Final Fantasy VII is more like exploration and finding things to do because you’re not ready to leave this world behind yet.

Having special challenges and near impossible optional bosses are neat additions too…not that I did any of them, but their existence is an appreciated effort. Although I probably would have spent a lot of time in the Gold Saucer if it had more to offer than janky minigames.

Oh god…the minigames…

#6 — OH GOD…THE MINIGAMES…

When the hate squad for Final Fantasy VII hit the streets something you’ll hear over and over again is the game has aged badly and that the ongoing appreciation for it is little more than nostalgia. This isn’t true, and we’ll back to it later, but when it comes to this game’s unhealthy obsession with pseudo-action minigames they might have a point.

There’s no point in Final Fantasy VII where the game feels more dated than when it tries to show off with some elaborate minigame. All of them are bad; the motorcycle part feels like you’re playing air hockey as the puck, Chocobo Racing feels grindy and isn’t very involving, the strategy game is like a Net Yaroze indie developer trying to invent the tower defense genre, the submarine is in incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t beat it accidentally within five seconds and snowboarding goes about five minutes too long to be cool and it took me about five minutes and one second to complete. Most of the rest of them are either inane or badly programmed, I’m not sure how you make a game where you have to press a single button like the CPR feel unresponsive but good job SquareSoft.

It’s jarring because when the game is rocking and rolling, especially during the opening segment on Midgar, it’s so self-confident in what it is and trucks along beautifully. When it comes to a crashing halt for one of these events it’s the opposite, like Final Fantasy VII is trying to convince you it’s grown up and isn’t about colourful sprites and grinding anymore “we’ve got a part where you jump off a dolphin man…and it totally looks like that and YOU get to do it! Look at all the VARIETY, we put so much STUFF into this one!” This is the only part of the game that genuinely doesn’t hold up today and although most of these minigames are painless none of them are good and some key scenes suffer for them.

#7 — PRE-RENDERED BACKGROUNDS ARE MY EVERYTHING

The absolute biggest surprise for me playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time 20 years later is that I ended up still loving the game’s visuals. It’s an interesting contrast to today; in 2017 a huge mainstream game flashes its cash around by pumping 8 billion pixels into the skybox that noone remembers, while in 1997 you had to make hundreds of pre-rendered static backgrounds and frame them perfectly to evoke the sense of place and feeling you wanted. I WONDER why games of this era are so fondly remembered.

There’s just something about it y’know, especially with the PlayStation where you can mix in a little bit of CG as well. One game that affected me a lot as a child was Heart of Darkness, a child lost in a world dominated by shadow creatures where the foreground backgrounds were bursting with life and threatening but the world itself was static, uncaring and lifeless. It freaked me out when something in the background would actually move, it’s impactful in the same way Shadow of the Colossus is when a giant building climbs out of the earth and staggers to life to fight you. I still think about that game a lot to this day.

Final Fantasy VII uses this approach to background art brilliantly as well. Aside from being the industry standard in terms of beautiful design and rendering, they’re effective in expressing what their locations are supposed to feel like. The game is not without its control issues, it comes with all the usual bugbears that 2D controls in a fixed camera bring and the fact Cloud can’t turn to face a wall or an object when he’s walking along the side of it is something he should consult a physician about, but you way you have to navigate different locations is very thoughtful. Corporate and prosperous areas use a lot of empty space and clear layouts to make them easier to move around in, dystopian and harsh locations feel messy or claustrophobic and are harder to navigate. The whole world feels so lived in, through its detail and pathing every background has something to say about the environment and the people who inhabit it. Sometimes they do get a little too cutesy with how elaborate the paths are with the ability to press the select button to point out all the exits feels like a late-development playtest change because of this. But for the most part its impressive how a few visual tricks such a making the character models smaller or obscuring a path can evoke a sense of place, tone and identity and not feel like wandering around on top of a jpeg file.

However, perhaps the greatest trick in Final Fantasy VII’s visual toolbox is how it handles juxtaposition…

#8 — PUPPETS

I’ve always loved pre-rendered graphics so that wasn’t the part of Final Fantasy VII’s visuals that surprised me, it’s the super low poly puppet-like character models. I’m into low poly visuals as well, I am a child of the PlayStation if you can’t already tell, but even as a kid I thought Final Fantasy VII looked a little odd in screenshots. Compared to the more “consistent” looking Final Fantasy VIII that would follow the fear, or at least my assumption, was that the pre-rendered backgrounds would clash with the cutesy puppets. For the most part they don’t, and when they do it’s fantastic.

There’s a strong enough sense of personality to Final Fantasy VII where it never feels incoherent stylistically, even with their significant higher of detail and polish the backgrounds feel just colourful and cartoony enough to embody the same space as the block-fisted puppets that live there. The hard punches of the visuals come from the deliberate juxtaposition when they don’t mesh; events that are portrayed via CG have an elevated sense of importance as if they’re out of the in-game caricatures’ league, and there’s a strong tonal shift when these goofy looking colourful characters are confronted with drained, static horror such as an impaled giant dead snake.

Aside from that, they’re just cute! I love how it looks like they have tiny beady eyes when you walk too far away from the camera. I love how they’re forced to express themselves with exaggerated gestures as it adds a theatrical feel since the models are only capable of handling loud, big emotions which adds to the game’s melodrama. Scenes that would otherwise be goofy such as Cloud and the gals trying to act tough to Don Corneo by stepping onto his bed instead become really charming. It would probably come across as unbelievably dorky if you attempted to recreate it in modern graphics with more realistic character models though, THANK GOD nobody’s going to try that.

#9 — THE WORLD FEELS A LOT BIGGER THAN IT ACTUALLY IS

It doesn’t matter how many discs you ship your game on, if you’re cramming hundreds and pre-rendered backgrounds plus minutes (minutes!) of CG cutscenes onto a CD-ROM for a PlayStation game your game can only be so big. This might sound like a knock but it’s not intended as one! Final Fantasy VII is about the right size for what it is, directed and streamlined enough to not get lost plot-wise and just big enough to feel like a grand adventure out into a wider fascinating world. The world itself is kind of empty-feeling, with towns and noteworthy locations salt-shaken around mountains, empty fields and large open spaces, but SquareSoft pulled enough tricks to give it the right sense of scale.

When you first venture out into the open world after escaping Midgar it seems daunting at first; you’re on foot but you’ve lost the ability to run, and all you can see is your next location off in the distance with a huge chunk of empty space inbetween that is going to be constantly interrupting your trek with random battles. Soon after you’ll be able to ride your first Chocobo, which is a little faster and cuts out the annoyance of the random battles. As you progress through the story you’ll enter locations on the map and fight your way through a dungeon to reach a new location, then when you next return to the world map you’ll be in a completely different place with the town you initially entered completely out of sight which gives the impression of a great distance being traveled.

After you’ve spent a fair amount of time breathing in the world on foot the game will start throwing vehicles at you. First you get the Tiny Bronco plane, which immediately crashes so you use it sail to a new island, with the camera slowly panning and turning to show off the size of the ocean while subtly hiding the other island disappearing into the ether as you sail past the draw distance. From there you get a buggy, a submarine and eventually the all-important airship, meaning the game gets the most out of the space possible from land, sea and air. It’s quaint and obviously born out of the limitations of the time, but all that dead space slowing you down at the start not only makes getting the airship later wonderful but also stretches out the world enough to still feel huge even when you’re soaring straight past of it in seconds.

#10 — CLOUD’S WEIRD ASS FLASHBACK

From a storytelling perspective this is my favourite part of the entire game. I have no idea whether Final Fantasy VII is the first game to feature a playable flashback or not and suspect it probably isn’t, but for a game that casts Cloud as an unreliable narrator with themes of existentialism and identity it’s a very clever device.

Immediately there’s something not quite right about how Cloud lays out this scene. He’s explaining who Sephiroth is to his friends and why he knows the guy who they just brutally murder a guy. Cloud’s explanation is basically that Sephiroth is the coolest guy ever, and that Cloud was his number two on a mission in his hometown of Nibelheim despite being a new recruit, then Sephiroth goes crazy and burns the entire town to the ground with Cloud fighting him and somehow surviving. It doesn’t add up, the party recognises immediately that it doesn’t add up, even Cloud himself starts to doubt whether that’s the full story of what actually happened.

The flashback is not entirely linear either, before you meet up with Sephiroth and Tifa for the major plot important events you can wander around the town, talk to some people (including Cloud’s mother) and sneak into Tifa’s room when she’s not there. Cloud tries to shrug off any inconsistencies as a joke or as a foggy memory, but all this only adds to our suspicion of him. Why can we wander around in his flashback? Why do have any influence whatsoever on something that happened in the past? You know the game isn’t telling you the whole truth, the scene is revisited multiple times through conversations with other characters who remember it differently which further highlights the cracks in it and it’s a crucial part of Cloud’s characterisation it doesn’t feel like a cheat when the big twist of the game comes. If the writers of Danganronpa are reading this (I suspect they aren’t, I don’t think they read) it would benefit them to learn that one well constructed twist that riffs on the game’s themes and mechanics is infinitely more memorable and effective than 4000 nonsensical twists in a row.

Everything is cleared up in another standout scene later on in the game where Tifa enters Cloud’s consciousness…through the lifestream or something…look don’t quote me on this I’m not good at digesting animebabble and you know the part I mean. First of all, this scene has some of the most beautiful transitions between pre-rendered background and CG I’ve ever seen. Secondly, amnesia is such an overplayed horrible trope in bad anime and videogames it’s refreshing to see Final Fantasy VII explore corrupted memories as supposed to flat out missing ones. Cloud has find himself and his memories by exploring his emotions and reaching out to his friends, it’s not just a sudden REVELATION for the sake of moving the plot along or arbitrarily raising the stakes. Look I haven’t played it so I don’t want any god damn tweets about this, but I will say this came off a lot better than the part in Final Fantasy VIII sounds where all the main characters remember the villain is their orphanage mum all at the same time.

Two paragraphs with two dunks on a game a lot of people like for literally no reason, this is going off the rails fast so I’m going to move on and hope the next part is something less contentious.

Uh oh.

#11 — MORE LIKE SUCKIROTH

I knew absolutely nothing about Sephiroth going into this game other than he was the villain and people seem to love that cutscene of him looking crazy in the flames. You can’t not know who this guy is though, he’s one of the most iconic antagonists in videogame history, and apparently the only reason for that is he just happens to be the antagonist of one of the most iconic videogames of all time.

I’m not even in the mood to be charitable about this; he sucks. You can defend him as effective plot device or whatever, but in a literary sense he’s not a good or interesting character at all. I don’t care about how his plan doesn’t make any sense; I’m sure if you asked a fan they would be willing to provide a 10,000 word essay explaining it which could be summed up with “cos magic” and/or “don’t worry about it”. Final Fantasy VII doesn’t dwell on the details of Sephiroth’s nonsense enough for that aspect of the story to be an issue. It’s also not worth wasting any brain cells on his backstory and motivation of “nobody loved me, oh turns out my mum was a space demon who wanted to destroy the world TIME TO DESTROY THE WORLD I GUESS.”

Final Fantasy VII has its failures and missteps in terms of handling its characters but generally it comes off as much more thoughtful than this. The writers and designers were approaching the project as a genuine work of fiction as opposed to a collection of grindfests and mechanics that they begrudgingly had to invent context for, so it’s surprising there is this gaping void of characterisation in the main villain. With that in mind, the only way I’ve been able to accept Sephiroth is to come to the conclusion that they made him a sucky character on purpose.

The only part of the game where Sephiroth comes off as vaguely interesting is during Cloud’s suspicious unreliable flashback where he’s calm and collected, good at what he does, generally commands respect but you can tell there’s something lonely about him when he asks Cloud what it’s like to be home. By the end of the flashback he’s completely lost his mind, and for the rest of the game he stomps around dragging his nine foot sword along the ground, calling out Cloud to the next plot location, occasionally murdering people and by the end of the game feels more like a glorified monster to be slain than an understandable villain.

So the only time where Sephiroth isn’t merely some psychopath marching around with a sword is the part of the game where Cloud is still a huge Sephiroth fanboy and is projecting onto him. When Cloud sorts out his identity problems and matures a little in the process, he accepts himself for who he is and gets over his immature aspirations to be like what he misreads in other people, Sephiroth is left exposed as the edgelord dork he was the whole time and Cloud finishes him off with one Limit Break without so much as one line of dialogue exchanged.

This might be considered a charitable read, there are those CG cutscenes and Sephiroth does have that space attack that lasts about two hours, so maybe SquareSoft were earnestly trying to make him an all-powered badass villain who Cloud had to overcome physically, mentally and emotionally and they just blew it. Whether he was made to be an insufferable dork on purpose so Cloud overcoming his silly fixation would be a sign of growth or not, the fact that legions of fans who played this game when it was fresh starting unironically worshiping Sephiroth is slightly terrifying.

#12 — JRPG MAZES ARE THE WORST

Not to fall into a false East Vs West dichotomy here, but BROADLY speaking when you look at the huge games that are pushed strong to western audiences often waffle on about “immersion” and “realism” the mainstream Japanese games are more willing to embrace the abstract nature of the medium. If you’ve ever scoffed at a game feeling the need to inform you to “Use the Left Stick to move” maybe consider that’s there because there is nothing naturalistic about wiggling a stick on something in your hands to control a tiny character inside your television, it’s something that has to be learned. For this reason the language of videogames is often at its more elegant when it deals with translation and metaphor, so JRPGs opting to separate their story/exploration and their combat mechanics into different dimensions so both can be allowed space to breath while conveying what they need to is fine with me. It doesn’t matter that the fact the characters have different abilities between the space and turn-based combat “doesn’t make sense” because it only “doesn’t make sense” if you’re interpreting it literally which there’s absolutely no grounds for.

So presenting your combat like this is fine; what isn’t fine is maze-like dungeons where you’re bumbling around not knowing where to go while constantly tripping over random battles. It’s stressful and distasteful design, and Final Fantasy VII pulls this crap numerous times which would severely hurt the game if most of them weren’t mercifully short.

It’s a cheap design trick. With the limitations of pre-rendered backgrounds in terms of framing and space they want to get as much out of them as possible, and they want to force you into a lot of fights and give you a space to grind in case you’re not tough enough to handle the next boss. So the solution is to put you in a scenario where you running back and forth on one screen trying to find your way forward while having invisible crabs and bats constantly swoop in to distract you. It’s not only the fact this is frustrating and tedious, it’s that it undermines the separation of exploration and combat. You’re trying to navigate a space that the combat areas keep kicking you out of, which makes the combat itself a chore because you want it over with as soon as possible to get back to making progress, and then when you’re back in the dungeon you’re disorientated. Abstractions are best when they’re allowed to breath, firing an idea right into the back of your brain like a catchy song, making two separated parts of clash like this is causing the abstraction to punch you in the face and highlight all the game’s frustrations and odd quirks.

#13 — THE SOUNDTRACK RULES SUPER HARD

When I was playing Final Fantasy XV I made a special effort to find all of the collectible Final Fantasy soundtracks so I had something to chill with during the car rides. This led to the discovery that I’m not that into a lot of Final Fantasy music, most of it is okay but without playing the games and having context for the themes very little of it grabbed me. The three soundtracks that I found myself circling between while mostly ignoring the others were Final Fantasy I, VII and XIII, and since Final Fantasy VII is the only one of those three games I will ever play I suppose that makes it my all time series favourite.

The whole soundtrack is a triumph, the use of leitmotifs with the main theme and world map builds up to one of the greatest HECK YEA moments in videogame history when the party escapes Shinra with the airship and that amazing upbeat rendition of the theme kicks in. Character themes are distinct and memorable, the ambient tracks add a lot of charisma and atmosphere and the whole production is fetishistically mixed to perfection. The style and instruments also reflect a major part of Final Fantasy VII’s personality in that it comes across as a 16-bit JRPG soundtrack going through puberty; the boss theme Those Who Fight Further sounds like the Romancing Saga SoundFont having it’s first wank…and loving it.

Then of course there’s the iconic, operatic, hilariously over the top One-Winged Angel track which plays during the fight with Sephiroth. This track with its choir chanting of the villain’s name is so perfect it wouldn’t be surprising if it turned out to be the primary reason for why you’re not given the option to rename Sephiroth. Perhaps that’s something they can innovate on in the remake with all the fancy new tech, allow the choir to improvise with whatever jerk name we choose with the vocals sung by Hatsune Miku.

ESTUANS INTERIUS
IRA VEHEMENTI
ESTUANS INTERIUS
IRA VEHEMENTI

O-NII-CHAN

#14 — I’M NOT HUGE ON THE ENDING

If you skip the side content Disc 3 of Final Fantasy VII consists entirely of the final dungeon, the fights against Jenova and Sephiroth and the ending cutscene…and it’s the weakest section of the entire game. The final dungeon is the worst example of the “JRPG maze” in the game since it has to act as the last chance grinding playground and also a boss fountain for helpful items. The Jenova and Sephiroth boss fights are…two extra boss fights, you hit them with swords a lot until they fall over and hope your numbers are larger than theirs. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the mechanical melodrama of Persona final boss fights, but it fell flat with me. Then the game goes for one last HECK YEA moment as Cloud kicks Sephiroth out of his mind with one huge Limit Break buster combo, and the final CG cutscene plays with the party maybe-sorta escaping as the Lifestream shoots out of the planet and prevents the meteor from destroying it. After that we jump 500 YEARS into the future, where a pack of Red XIII panther-lion-whatever-monsters look on at the planet intact now flourishing with new life. I hate how elaborate and expensive this final cutscene is; ditching the puppets and attempting to blow your mind with subtitled dialogue instead (with no voice acting, although that’s probably for the best since the localisation would’ve been horrifying) is another example of the game trying to show off that dates it badly from a modern perspective.

Looking into it online it seems that not loving the ending of Final Fantasy VII isn’t actually a controversial opinion, although a lot of people’s reasoning for disliking it stems from that magical gaming term “ambiguous” since everyone wanted a detailed account of what happened to the cat who hits goblins with a megaphone. “Ambiguous” is fast becoming one of those words I hate when used in a critical context, usually when it’s used positively it’s a vague wishy-washy attempt to make something sound deeper than it is, and when it’s used negatively it often translates to “I DIDN’T LIKE IT BECAUSE I HAD TO THINK ABOUT IT!”

So let’s be clear here; I don’t dislike the ending of Final Fantasy VII because it’s ambiguous. I fundamentally disagree that it’s ambiguous in the first place, and I don’t like what it’s saying.

It doesn’t matter that we aren’t shown what happened to the characters, although since the story opts to jump 500 years into the future SquareSoft probably didn’t want to have to think about it too much either. The fact Red XIII is shown to survive implies heavily enough that they all did (but maybe the planet chose to wipe out all the humans afterwards! (noone cares)), but the point is that the fact the final cutscene opts to not feature the main characters at all is in itself a clear statement. The game focuses on the results of what they did over the people that achieved them, implying that giving yourself up to a cause for the greater good and that preserving life and the environment for the future is the most important goal. It could be argued that this lines up with the game’s themes, but it doesn’t gel well with the character work.

At the start of the game Final Fantasy VII not only has the guts to introduce its lead characters as terrorists but also frame their actions for the greater good while openly admitting that innocent people are dying as a direct result of them. In the beginning these characters are motivated by rage and fear and delusional aspiration, but as they grow over the course of the adventure they learn to become more than that. Cloud accepts himself for who he is, Barret wants to fight for a future for his daughter, Tifa finally hooks up with Cloud and so on. The party (especially Barret) realise that all their smack talk about wanting to save the planet was merely something they told themselves to justify everything that they did, with Cloud giving everyone the opportunity to leave and find their own personal reason for fighting before the climax.

So, if “fight for the planet because it’s the most important thing” wasn’t good enough motivation for the characters, why would it work as closure for the audience following those characters? The ending of Final Fantasy VII isn’t a complete write-off, it certainly feels BIG if nothing else, but due to this one contradiction it failed to connect with a lot of people who otherwise loved the game.

#15 — THE AERIS DEATH SCENE SURPRISINGLY HOLDS UP

Of everything I knew about Final Fantasy VII going in this was the part of the game that I suspected the most wouldn’t hold up in the slightest. It’s not only *the* scene from Final Fantasy VII it’s *the* spoiler of videogames. Everyone knows it, everyone’s seen the death itself out of context dozens of times, everyone’s seen parodies and made fun of the people who it brought to tears back in 1997, so obviously the effect of the scene is going to be diminished 20 years later. I never used Aeris in combat apart from when I was forced to so she was never that prevalent in terms of screen time, plus knowing what was coming the game’s attempts to soften you up to her and turn her into your vidya crush are so transparent it ended up making me not like her as a character at all really.

Still, as character deaths goes it’s (mostly) well handled! There’s a feeling of dread as you chase after Aeris, who you know has run off to the same place Sephiroth has, as the paths narrow and Cloud eventually loses control of himself signifying the inevitable is about to occur. After Sephiroth falls and plunges his sword through Aeris, Cloud gets a big speech as Sephiroth laughs it off exposing himself as an irreversible psychopath, the sad music carries over as you fight a boss battle as you can imagine Cloud flailing his Buster Sword around with tears in his eyes. After that there’s a quieter moment where you party stands over Aeris’ corpse. Considering the exaggerated gestures and expressions of the puppet characters it’s powerful to see one of them motionless on the ground with her hair covering her face while the others stand there and mourn.

Personally I didn’t care that much about Aeris, but following the CG cutscene where Cloud drops her body into the water the game is very careful to establish how much the other characters cared about her. The death is given weight as the three members of your current party reflect and talk to each other about how they’re feeling and what they’re supposed to do next. With the way the scene is handled the emotion feels earned and is a strong close to the end of the first disc. For a lot of young people playing Final Fantasy VII in the 90s it’s likely this game was one of their first experience with a story of this scale, especially from a videogame, so even though Aeris’ death didn’t cause me to bawl my eyes out in 2017 (that was for unrelated reasons) the scene still stands strong enough to understand what all the fuss was about. It’s a good character death put on a pedestal by the scale and meaning of the production that surrounds it.

It’s not perfect however; it’s pretty silly that Disc 2 starts off with a goofy snowboarding section to follow this, the scene of the actual murder looks a little plastic and clunky today, and after the direct followup the game seems to forget about Aeris for the majority of the second disc. The immediate impact of her death is conveyed, but the game moves on from it too quickly until the end of Disc 2 where Aeris’ Lifestream shenanigans become plot critical once again.

There’s also the issue of Cloud’s dialogue as he’s holding Aeris’ corpse; while his rant at Sephiroth has crucial dramatic importance it’s…not good, or at least not well translated. This is where Cloud starts whining about his “pain” and is probably where the perception of him being an “emo” or “brooding” character come from. You can’t help but wonder how much the cultural understanding of Final Fantasy VII would have been different had this been better written or at the very least not been attached to such a major scene…

#16 — FINAL FANTASY VII DOESN’T EXIST

PLOT TWIST: it does actually I FOOLED YOU, but the idea of what “Final Fantasy VII” is that was planted in my head before I played it for myself doesn’t exist. Admittedly, the seed of this idea was planted inside my head by someone much smarter than me before I had even touched Final Fantasy VII, but as I swapped over the iso files discs to start the second half of the game I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

For years I had read about all the hype surrounding the game in PlayStation magazines of the time, looking on at topped “best PSX games ever” lists over and over again. I heard my friends gush about the game at school, even more so than they would for Ocarina of Time or the first Metal Gear Solid, later into my teens some of those friends would tragically jerk themselves off in a coma when spin off media such as Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus came out. Fans on the internet would rave on the internet about how much Aeris made them cry, how dark Cloud was and how AWESOME Sephiroth was. Then the contrarian hate squads would kick down their doors and insist that the game sucked, that the story made no sense and the only reason anyone liked it was “nostalgia”.

I don’t know what game all these people were talking about, but it’s not the Final Fantasy VII I played. Playing the game for the first time in 2017 was a wonderful experience due to it constantly undermining all these takes and expectations implanted in my brain. I went into the game expecting a hideous translation job, and while the localisation is a little ropey in places and there’s noticeable typos and errors (although pound for pound there’s probably less in Final Fantasy VII than there is in this essay) but by the way people exaggerate its flaws I went in expecting a Google Translate hack job. People told me the same wasn’t fun, it’s design was dated and bloated, it’s world wasn’t fun to explore, but in reality the pacing of the game felt breezy and relatively modern. The battle system is simple and easy to understand, even with my lack of experience the game isn’t very difficult and I rarely needed to grind, plus the options to adjust menus and change the game speed help make it surprisingly accessible for a modern player considering how old Final Fantasy VII is now.

Then there’s Cloud Strife himself, the impression I got of this character through osmosis from the fandom couldn’t have been more inaccurate. He’s a fun character! He’s often cracking jokes, showing concern for people (even when feinting not to), generally reacts to story events in a recognisably human way and says goofy stuff like “let’s mosey”. I will never touch any of the spin offs, Square Enix have done nothing over the past decade that indicates they understand why anyone liked Final Fantasy VII, but I wonder if this idea of DARK CLOUD came as a result of that media influencing people’s memories or whether that media was a response to how the fandom already felt about Cloud.

It’s a pleasant if jarring surprise playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time and enjoying how…charming it is. It’s bursting with colour and charisma, it feels thought out and confident as a work of fiction even if it’s not an entirely successful one, and it’s not afraid to be silly when it’s appropriate. The game has some dark themes and the characters suffer hardships while expressing and exploring their emotions…it’s a story, that doesn’t make it “emo” or “brooding”. Over the past numbers of years I’ve learned to be more cautious of the common preconceptions of media, especially from the 1990s to early 2000s, and especially especially with videogames. There is a Dude Patrol out there who will hate on anything that stars male characters who express emotions outside of aloofness and militant rage, with the fear presumably being if there’s too many “feels” in their grindy sword boy game then maybe too many of those dang GIRLS will start liking it and ruin all the fun.

Right now the discourse regarding Final Fantasy VII, especially among its biggest haters and devoted supporters is fascinating and baffling. I sure am glad I took the plunge and played it now before the remake came out and ruined the conversation even further. Final Fantasy VII still holds up, it’s much more silly and charming than a lot of people seem to remember it being, and it’s a story well told and world well-realised maybe on about par with a B-tier anime. A lot of the people who care the most about Final Fantasy VII seem to be either worshiping or raging against a false idol, obsessing over something that was never as badass or as worthy of hatred as they perceived it to be while struggling with somewhat distorted memorrrrbleeughhhhhhhh.

Oh god sorry, I just made myself a little dizzy.

#17 — WHY DOES ANYONE WANT THIS REMADE?!

Seriously, I don’t get it at all. Okay I do get it, people like Final Fantasy VII so they assume they’ll like anything else that says Final Fantasy VII on the box, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where those people aren’t going to be left cold one way or another. One of my main reasons for wanting to play the game was because it was the most important releases of the early 3D era that I hadn’t experienced, which in my opinion is still the most interesting period for mainstream videogames in history. It’s an era of awkward transitions and experimentation that hasn’t been seen on the same scale since; and in this context Final Fantasy VII doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. From it’s translation of the formula from Final Fantasy VI, to its chunky exaggerated polygon models, the pre-rendered backgrounds, the overblown CG and the ambition to present a larger world like never before, it’s such a beautiful little time capsule of everything going on at the time that I can’t understand why anyone wants to see it presented in any other form.

I would describe wanting to strip Final Fantasy VII of all its esoteric personality and exaggerated theatrics to retell the story with shiny modern graphics and badass sword fights as an act of cultural violence if I wasn’t so convinced of its inevitable failure. It’ll be a financial success for sure (unless the project gets out of control and turns out to be even more expensive than Square Enix feared) but it’ll go the way most Hollywood remakes over the past decade have gone and people will find themselves sulking back to the original in no time. People were stoked for the promise of a Final Fantasy VII remake when the opening was rebuilt as a tech demo for the PlayStation 3 and the evolution of graphics was still a constantly noticeable and exciting development. As a PlayStation 3 remake became unlikely it became somewhat of a joke that Square Enix would announce a Final Fantasy VII remake once they had finally given up on making anything good ever again, and once you go full meme there’s no going back baby. People screamed when the moment finally happened at E3 2015, but it feels like the hype’s been fading away slowly ever since it became a real thing. Maybe it’s not matching people’s expectations, maybe it wasn’t possible to match people’s expectations, maybe people never actually wanted it in the first place.

Maybe it’s that deep down a lot of fanboys know that Final Fantasy VII is kind of silly, and they want a “grown up” remake that justifies and acknowledges their devotion to the game without having to feel silly. All I have to say to that is love yourself, and keep loving Final Fantasy VII too, because controversially it turns out that it’s pretty good!

And hey, despite everything I’ll play the remake too! At the very least it should be hilarious.

Do you have any idea how weird it is to me that I’ve now played Final Fantasy VII? I never understood JRPGs growing up; when I was six years old I borrowed a “friend’s” (someone who had to talk to me because both our mothers were present) Game Boy and played five minutes of Pokémon Yellow. I knew everyone on the playground was hot for these pokemammals but I didn’t get it, why did they take turns to hit each other? Where was the jump button dang it! I handed the Game Boy back to my socially-obligated temporary friend and didn’t play a Pokémon game again for 10 years, and continued to make fun of JRPGs for another 15. Instead I went with slightly more alternative fads such as Yu-Gi-Oh, which according to my colleagues of the time this life choice meant that up to the age of 17 I was apparently a homosexual.

I’m now very close to 25 years old and I’ve grown up a lot: I wash my hair properly now, I’ve endangered my health making video essays noone watches, I’ve seen every single theatrical Studio Ghibli release in Japanese, I’ve been in love exactly once, been loved exactly nunce, even read a couple of books, those were good! Basically, I’ve gained enough life experience now to acknowledge the fact that maybe JRPGs didn’t become the primary format for videogame storytelling in the 1990s by accident and that Final Fantasy VII didn’t become one of most significant releases of all time for no reason.

So I sat down and powered through the entirety of Final Fantasy VII over the course of about a week, and hey! For the most part I had a pretty good time! I’ve now played two mainline Final Fantasy games, and two is enough to tell you that the people currently screaming about Final Fantasy XV being the best in the series are sort of nutty. Once again this is too huge of a game to get my head around for a traditional “review” or whatever you’d call what I end up writing up here, if I did review it I’d probably give it 3 out of 4 stars but don’t hold me to that. So instead of painstakingly crafting one proper take, let’s do another list of takes! Lists are fun!

Without further ado, here’s 17 takes on Final Fantasy VII; a game that been obsessed over and mined for details by its lovers and torn apart by its haters for 20 years. I’m sure that after playing it for the first time in 2017 in less than a week on an emulator while holding down the fast forward button during battles (hopefully letting go of it in time for Tifa’s victory pose) everything I have to say is going to be blowing minds left and right.

Let’s mosey!

#1 — MIDGAR IS AWESOME

Most games that rise to universal critical acclaim and long-term endearment have great openings, so it’s unsurprising that the eight or so hours on Midgar at the start of Final Fantasy VII are so fondly remembered. The introduction is undeniably awesome; the opening CG isn’t going to melt faces today like it did in 1997 but it still evokes the appropriate sense of scale for the upcoming adventure. The pacing of the reactor destruction sequence is some of the sharpest I’ve personally encountered in my limited experience with JRPGs and the confidence of the production is still outstanding.

It almost feels like modern game design in how it drags you from story beat to story beat while mixing action scenes and new locations along the way. This section only takes up the first half of the first disc but in that time you’re introduced to the Shinra corporation and the city they dominate, the dystopian slums they destroyed, the people who live there and the majority of the main cast all while squeezing in time for bike chases, elevator shootouts with robots, some good old fashioned murder and weird tone shifts where you hunt for a nice dress.

Maybe it’s the tighter pace and character focus that makes this part so memorable, perhaps it’s because it feels like you’re exploring a place with a rich and storied history through the eyes of the people who live there whereas a lot of the rest of the game feels like “chase Sephiroth to a place so the next bit of the story can happen”. It could be argued the Midgar section should’ve been longer, perhaps the entirety of Disc 1, it would’ve tightened up the narrative a little and turned escaping into a full open world to explore into a Symphony of the Night upside-down castle level mindblow for teenagers in 1997.

Then again, perhaps that’s me speaking as a nub who doesn’t typically play these games and fans would’ve assumed an open world map to be inevitable at some point. Even though Final Fantasy VII feels like it loses it grip on some character/story aspects in the middle, exploring how the hyper-capitalism and environmental irresponsibility affects the planet on a global scale is essential to the game’s themes. Either way, whether there’s enough of it or not Midgar is one of the standout memorable parts of a game bursting with memorable parts and it’s not difficult to see even 20 years later why it made such an impression.

#2 — IT’S FINE THAT THE REMAKE WILL BE AN ACTION GAME

Oh DON’T YOU WORRY there’s going to be some dragging of the remake later on, but this is to point out something that a lot of JRPG traditionalists are wrong about. There’s nothing wrong with turn-based combat, it’s a valid design choices and videogames’ obsession with making everything seamless and logical is going to come back to bite them one of these days. My only point is they’re not essential to how these games are paced. Turn-based combat was a necessity for “epic” fantasy games back in days of old because by establishing a “BATTLE SCREEN” you could reuse the same backgrounds and animations for literally thousands of fights which turns the focus of the game design from mechanical meatiness to math, and even on an NES cartridge you can squeeze a lot more math on there.

We’re in the future now with our fancy discs and harddrives, and a lot of JRPGs would benefit from following in the steps of Yakuza or Final Fantasy XV by becoming simple real-time action games. I would argue that this is especially true of Final Fantasy VII, a game with a mostly breezy pace with great action sequences. It’s awesome when there’s a special encounter with a major character, or the before mentioned robot elevator shootout and you get warped to an appropriate venue, but when you’re running to the next major event and the game’s kicking you out of the space so you can kill Shinra jobbers in one hit…that just kills the pacing. Final Fantasy VII is a great action-adventure experience, there’s no reason why it can’t have more confidence in itself as one.

Honestly, as much as I’m dreading the remake if they can make a cool Uncharted set piece out of part where the gang escapes Shinra and ride away on the stolen airship it’ll get a free pass from me (maybe).

#3 — ACTION TIME BATTLES ARE SILLY AND I DON’T LIKE THEM

This re-enforces my “just make it an action game for god’s sake” stance because I’ve never understood Action Time Battles as a design decision. At best they seem to be a half-hearted acknowledgement of the limitations and potential mundanity of turn-based battles. Final Fantasy VII didn’t invent this, but at some point the guys and gals at SquareSoft noticed that picking a command off a menu wasn’t very involving for the player, especially once they’ve figured out the system and have been doing it for tens and tens of hours on autopilot. So they came up with a solution; “what if you had to pick a command off a menu…quickly??”

If you’re going to kick a door down you’ve got to hit it hard enough to knock it off it’s hinges, this is more like getting your leg stuck in the cat flap. If you want to add more urgency and more player involvement come up with different battle mechanics! Don’t add stressful elements to a system where the player is already disconnected from the pace of the in-media fight. Thank god for Wait Mode, at least the fight stops while I’m digging out my Phoenix Downs so a dinosaur can’t pick the megaphone chunks out of his teeth with Cloud’s hair spikes while I’m rummaging through my backpack.

Even then the inclusion of a “Wait Mode” at all seems like an admission of defeat. The first boss seems to imply that changing tactics at certain times is going to be a huge part of the game but it’s…really not, presumably because SquareSoft knew a significant portion of the audience wouldn’t want to play the game this way (I sure didn’t!) It’s a shady compromise; maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake while offering token nods to evolution and change.

Listen up everyone making JRPGs, if your game has turn-based combat and random battles (and isn’t four hours long like Undertale) I don’t WANT to be constantly engaged with it. I want to mash the X button with one hand while tweeting with the other occasionally paying attention to the screen when the part where the numbers goes up happens. If you design a system where I still have to grind while constantly navigating menus AND be paying full attention to it at all times I may be put in danger of noticing how boring that is.

Quirks like this is why a lot of those kids out there don’t want to play old school JRPGs but they love that Pókemon and that Persona.

#4 — I DIDN’T GET THE OPTIONAL CHARACTERS AND I DON’T CARE

Look, it’s not like I didn’t try okay. I had a walkthrough for the game open in the background while I slammed through the game so I hung out in the forest sections for a while looking for Yuffie but she never showed up. By the time I got to the part where you can get Vincent I decided I didn’t want any more characters and had stop caring. I’m sure there’s some neat extra details and scenes if you do acquire these characters, and the fact they are so easy to miss and genuinely secrets is cool in itself, but I didn’t feel any compulsion to get them.

This is going to be another part where I expose myself as someone who doesn’t play “this sort of thing” very often, but I don’t like managing tons of characters at once. Without the optional characters the most you can have available for your party at one time is 6, and honestly that’s still too many for me. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if the game had better menus and sorting out everyone’s kit wasn’t such a chore, maybe I would enjoy swapping characters around if there more hanging out with them or they changed up the battles more significantly.

Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system is pretty neat. your magic and abilities are presented as items that you level up separately from the characters so you can pass them around from person to person without weakening them. It’s a cool idea in how it’s easy to understand on a surface level which never makes the game seem overbearing or too complicated, but there is hidden depths to it in terms of how you combine Materia. The downside is there’s a side effect of making every character feel mostly interchangeable. So when a story event forces you to change your party around and dunks all your Materia back into your backpack to re-assign it feels like homework more than it does an opportunity to try something new.

There’s also the slight issue where the main cast feels somewhat underdeveloped so adding two more jerks to the mix fighting for screen time didn’t seem like the best plan. After you get to Cosmo Canyon you could probably cut Red XIII from the game at that point and not lose much, Cid’s got his whole “let’s get to space” deal and relationship with Shera but it still doesn’t feel like we get to know him enough, and Cait Sith seems like a huge fan favourite but he made zero impression on me. I hardly ever used him so my experience with the character was the party being betrayed by him, then he manipulated them into using him to gain the Black Materia, and at the end of the game everyone was buddy buddy for no reason. Plus the character design in general screams of “variety for variety’s sake”, as in the FANS expect to have a selection of characters so we’ve got to have a guy with a big sword, guy with a big gun, an anime cat-blob thing, a panther dog monster, an old guy, a vampire and a selection of ladies to keep everyone happy.

However, I did like Cloud, Barrett and Tifa a lot; can’t help but feel that the game would have been stronger overall as a coherent work of fiction had they been the only party mainstays throughout the whole game.

#5 — SIDE CONTENT IS EASY TO IGNORE AND THAT’S OKAY WITH ME

If you want good side content in your game you’ve got to consider to balance between optional content that adds extra flourish and complements the central work and extra crap that only exists to increase the number of weekends teenagers will waste completing their save file while not talking to people. Most open world games of today opt to litter themselves with chores that constantly pop up while you’re playing the main story so you feel like a jerk for not doing them, Final Fantasy VII on the other hand is pretty chill about it.

The walkthrough I was using would make note to mention all side quests when they were available and at first I was overwhelmed by how many there were. When I looked into them a little more when I was on the home stretch to finishing the game I realised most of them are very simple. A lot of the endgame quests are variations of “go back to a place, talk to someone, get a thing” and hey that’s fine! A lot of these quests come with some extra dialogue or a character moment to tell you more about the world which is far more interesting than the mechanical gains for a game that’s already on the easy side. This is greatly preferable to side quests in Final Fantasy XV where you talk to some guy who sells seeds, he points out a place to find seeds on the map, you run to said place to get seeds, you give him the seeds and he gives you some money and experience. It feels like work because that’s literally what it’s contextualised as, Final Fantasy VII is more like exploration and finding things to do because you’re not ready to leave this world behind yet.

Having special challenges and near impossible optional bosses are neat additions too…not that I did any of them, but their existence is an appreciated effort. Although I probably would have spent a lot of time in the Gold Saucer if it had more to offer than janky minigames.

Oh god…the minigames…

#6 — OH GOD…THE MINIGAMES…

When the hate squad for Final Fantasy VII hit the streets something you’ll hear over and over again is the game has aged badly and that the ongoing appreciation for it is little more than nostalgia. This isn’t true, and we’ll back to it later, but when it comes to this game’s unhealthy obsession with pseudo-action minigames they might have a point.

There’s no point in Final Fantasy VII where the game feels more dated than when it tries to show off with some elaborate minigame. All of them are bad; the motorcycle part feels like you’re playing air hockey as the puck, Chocobo Racing feels grindy and isn’t very involving, the strategy game is like a Net Yaroze indie developer trying to invent the tower defense genre, the submarine is in incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t beat it accidentally within five seconds and snowboarding goes about five minutes too long to be cool and it took me about five minutes and one second to complete. Most of the rest of them are either inane or badly programmed, I’m not sure how you make a game where you have to press a single button like the CPR feel unresponsive but good job SquareSoft.

It’s jarring because when the game is rocking and rolling, especially during the opening segment on Midgar, it’s so self-confident in what it is and trucks along beautifully. When it comes to a crashing halt for one of these events it’s the opposite, like Final Fantasy VII is trying to convince you it’s grown up and isn’t about colourful sprites and grinding anymore “we’ve got a part where you jump off a dolphin man…and it totally looks like that and YOU get to do it! Look at all the VARIETY, we put so much STUFF into this one!” This is the only part of the game that genuinely doesn’t hold up today and although most of these minigames are painless none of them are good and some key scenes suffer for them.

#7 — PRE-RENDERED BACKGROUNDS ARE MY EVERYTHING

The absolute biggest surprise for me playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time 20 years later is that I ended up still loving the game’s visuals. It’s an interesting contrast to today; in 2017 a huge mainstream game flashes its cash around by pumping 8 billion pixels into the skybox that noone remembers, while in 1997 you had to make hundreds of pre-rendered static backgrounds and frame them perfectly to evoke the sense of place and feeling you wanted. I WONDER why games of this era are so fondly remembered.

There’s just something about it y’know, especially with the PlayStation where you can mix in a little bit of CG as well. One game that affected me a lot as a child was Heart of Darkness, a child lost in a world dominated by shadow creatures where the foreground backgrounds were bursting with life and threatening but the world itself was static, uncaring and lifeless. It freaked me out when something in the background would actually move, it’s impactful in the same way Shadow of the Colossus is when a giant building climbs out of the earth and staggers to life to fight you. I still think about that game a lot to this day.

Final Fantasy VII uses this approach to background art brilliantly as well. Aside from being the industry standard in terms of beautiful design and rendering, they’re effective in expressing what their locations are supposed to feel like. The game is not without its control issues, it comes with all the usual bugbears that 2D controls in a fixed camera bring and the fact Cloud can’t turn to face a wall or an object when he’s walking along the side of it is something he should consult a physician about, but you way you have to navigate different locations is very thoughtful. Corporate and prosperous areas use a lot of empty space and clear layouts to make them easier to move around in, dystopian and harsh locations feel messy or claustrophobic and are harder to navigate. The whole world feels so lived in, through its detail and pathing every background has something to say about the environment and the people who inhabit it. Sometimes they do get a little too cutesy with how elaborate the paths are with the ability to press the select button to point out all the exits feels like a late-development playtest change because of this. But for the most part its impressive how a few visual tricks such a making the character models smaller or obscuring a path can evoke a sense of place, tone and identity and not feel like wandering around on top of a jpeg file.

However, perhaps the greatest trick in Final Fantasy VII’s visual toolbox is how it handles juxtaposition…

#8 — PUPPETS

I’ve always loved pre-rendered graphics so that wasn’t the part of Final Fantasy VII’s visuals that surprised me, it’s the super low poly puppet-like character models. I’m into low poly visuals as well, I am a child of the PlayStation if you can’t already tell, but even as a kid I thought Final Fantasy VII looked a little odd in screenshots. Compared to the more “consistent” looking Final Fantasy VIII that would follow the fear, or at least my assumption, was that the pre-rendered backgrounds would clash with the cutesy puppets. For the most part they don’t, and when they do it’s fantastic.

There’s a strong enough sense of personality to Final Fantasy VII where it never feels incoherent stylistically, even with their significant higher of detail and polish the backgrounds feel just colourful and cartoony enough to embody the same space as the block-fisted puppets that live there. The hard punches of the visuals come from the deliberate juxtaposition when they don’t mesh; events that are portrayed via CG have an elevated sense of importance as if they’re out of the in-game caricatures’ league, and there’s a strong tonal shift when these goofy looking colourful characters are confronted with drained, static horror such as an impaled giant dead snake.

Aside from that, they’re just cute! I love how it looks like they have tiny beady eyes when you walk too far away from the camera. I love how they’re forced to express themselves with exaggerated gestures as it adds a theatrical feel since the models are only capable of handling loud, big emotions which adds to the game’s melodrama. Scenes that would otherwise be goofy such as Cloud and the gals trying to act tough to Don Corneo by stepping onto his bed instead become really charming. It would probably come across as unbelievably dorky if you attempted to recreate it in modern graphics with more realistic character models though, THANK GOD nobody’s going to try that.

#9 — THE WORLD FEELS A LOT BIGGER THAN IT ACTUALLY IS

It doesn’t matter how many discs you ship your game on, if you’re cramming hundreds and pre-rendered backgrounds plus minutes (minutes!) of CG cutscenes onto a CD-ROM for a PlayStation game your game can only be so big. This might sound like a knock but it’s not intended as one! Final Fantasy VII is about the right size for what it is, directed and streamlined enough to not get lost plot-wise and just big enough to feel like a grand adventure out into a wider fascinating world. The world itself is kind of empty-feeling, with towns and noteworthy locations salt-shaken around mountains, empty fields and large open spaces, but SquareSoft pulled enough tricks to give it the right sense of scale.

When you first venture out into the open world after escaping Midgar it seems daunting at first; you’re on foot but you’ve lost the ability to run, and all you can see is your next location off in the distance with a huge chunk of empty space inbetween that is going to be constantly interrupting your trek with random battles. Soon after you’ll be able to ride your first Chocobo, which is a little faster and cuts out the annoyance of the random battles. As you progress through the story you’ll enter locations on the map and fight your way through a dungeon to reach a new location, then when you next return to the world map you’ll be in a completely different place with the town you initially entered completely out of sight which gives the impression of a great distance being traveled.

After you’ve spent a fair amount of time breathing in the world on foot the game will start throwing vehicles at you. First you get the Tiny Bronco plane, which immediately crashes so you use it sail to a new island, with the camera slowly panning and turning to show off the size of the ocean while subtly hiding the other island disappearing into the ether as you sail past the draw distance. From there you get a buggy, a submarine and eventually the all-important airship, meaning the game gets the most out of the space possible from land, sea and air. It’s quaint and obviously born out of the limitations of the time, but all that dead space slowing you down at the start not only makes getting the airship later wonderful but also stretches out the world enough to still feel huge even when you’re soaring straight past of it in seconds.

#10 — CLOUD’S WEIRD ASS FLASHBACK

From a storytelling perspective this is my favourite part of the entire game. I have no idea whether Final Fantasy VII is the first game to feature a playable flashback or not and suspect it probably isn’t, but for a game that casts Cloud as an unreliable narrator with themes of existentialism and identity it’s a very clever device.

Immediately there’s something not quite right about how Cloud lays out this scene. He’s explaining who Sephiroth is to his friends and why he knows the guy who they just brutally murder a guy. Cloud’s explanation is basically that Sephiroth is the coolest guy ever, and that Cloud was his number two on a mission in his hometown of Nibelheim despite being a new recruit, then Sephiroth goes crazy and burns the entire town to the ground with Cloud fighting him and somehow surviving. It doesn’t add up, the party recognises immediately that it doesn’t add up, even Cloud himself starts to doubt whether that’s the full story of what actually happened.

The flashback is not entirely linear either, before you meet up with Sephiroth and Tifa for the major plot important events you can wander around the town, talk to some people (including Cloud’s mother) and sneak into Tifa’s room when she’s not there. Cloud tries to shrug off any inconsistencies as a joke or as a foggy memory, but all this only adds to our suspicion of him. Why can we wander around in his flashback? Why do have any influence whatsoever on something that happened in the past? You know the game isn’t telling you the whole truth, the scene is revisited multiple times through conversations with other characters who remember it differently which further highlights the cracks in it and it’s a crucial part of Cloud’s characterisation it doesn’t feel like a cheat when the big twist of the game comes. If the writers of Danganronpa are reading this (I suspect they aren’t, I don’t think they read) it would benefit them to learn that one well constructed twist that riffs on the game’s themes and mechanics is infinitely more memorable and effective than 4000 nonsensical twists in a row.

Everything is cleared up in another standout scene later on in the game where Tifa enters Cloud’s consciousness…through the lifestream or something…look don’t quote me on this I’m not good at digesting animebabble and you know the part I mean. First of all, this scene has some of the most beautiful transitions between pre-rendered background and CG I’ve ever seen. Secondly, amnesia is such an overplayed horrible trope in bad anime and videogames it’s refreshing to see Final Fantasy VII explore corrupted memories as supposed to flat out missing ones. Cloud has find himself and his memories by exploring his emotions and reaching out to his friends, it’s not just a sudden REVELATION for the sake of moving the plot along or arbitrarily raising the stakes. Look I haven’t played it so I don’t want any god damn tweets about this, but I will say this came off a lot better than the part in Final Fantasy VIII sounds where all the main characters remember the villain is their orphanage mum all at the same time.

Two paragraphs with two dunks on a game a lot of people like for literally no reason, this is going off the rails fast so I’m going to move on and hope the next part is something less contentious.

Uh oh.

#11 — MORE LIKE SUCKIROTH

I knew absolutely nothing about Sephiroth going into this game other than he was the villain and people seem to love that cutscene of him looking crazy in the flames. You can’t not know who this guy is though, he’s one of the most iconic antagonists in videogame history, and apparently the only reason for that is he just happens to be the antagonist of one of the most iconic videogames of all time.

I’m not even in the mood to be charitable about this; he sucks. You can defend him as effective plot device or whatever, but in a literary sense he’s not a good or interesting character at all. I don’t care about how his plan doesn’t make any sense; I’m sure if you asked a fan they would be willing to provide a 10,000 word essay explaining it which could be summed up with “cos magic” and/or “don’t worry about it”. Final Fantasy VII doesn’t dwell on the details of Sephiroth’s nonsense enough for that aspect of the story to be an issue. It’s also not worth wasting any brain cells on his backstory and motivation of “nobody loved me, oh turns out my mum was a space demon who wanted to destroy the world TIME TO DESTROY THE WORLD I GUESS.”

Final Fantasy VII has its failures and missteps in terms of handling its characters but generally it comes off as much more thoughtful than this. The writers and designers were approaching the project as a genuine work of fiction as opposed to a collection of grindfests and mechanics that they begrudgingly had to invent context for, so it’s surprising there is this gaping void of characterisation in the main villain. With that in mind, the only way I’ve been able to accept Sephiroth is to come to the conclusion that they made him a sucky character on purpose.

The only part of the game where Sephiroth comes off as vaguely interesting is during Cloud’s suspicious unreliable flashback where he’s calm and collected, good at what he does, generally commands respect but you can tell there’s something lonely about him when he asks Cloud what it’s like to be home. By the end of the flashback he’s completely lost his mind, and for the rest of the game he stomps around dragging his nine foot sword along the ground, calling out Cloud to the next plot location, occasionally murdering people and by the end of the game feels more like a glorified monster to be slain than an understandable villain.

So the only time where Sephiroth isn’t merely some psychopath marching around with a sword is the part of the game where Cloud is still a huge Sephiroth fanboy and is projecting onto him. When Cloud sorts out his identity problems and matures a little in the process, he accepts himself for who he is and gets over his immature aspirations to be like what he misreads in other people, Sephiroth is left exposed as the edgelord dork he was the whole time and Cloud finishes him off with one Limit Break without so much as one line of dialogue exchanged.

This might be considered a charitable read, there are those CG cutscenes and Sephiroth does have that space attack that lasts about two hours, so maybe SquareSoft were earnestly trying to make him an all-powered badass villain who Cloud had to overcome physically, mentally and emotionally and they just blew it. Whether he was made to be an insufferable dork on purpose so Cloud overcoming his silly fixation would be a sign of growth or not, the fact that legions of fans who played this game when it was fresh starting unironically worshiping Sephiroth is slightly terrifying.

#12 — JRPG MAZES ARE THE WORST

Not to fall into a false East Vs West dichotomy here, but BROADLY speaking when you look at the huge games that are pushed strong to western audiences often waffle on about “immersion” and “realism” the mainstream Japanese games are more willing to embrace the abstract nature of the medium. If you’ve ever scoffed at a game feeling the need to inform you to “Use the Left Stick to move” maybe consider that’s there because there is nothing naturalistic about wiggling a stick on something in your hands to control a tiny character inside your television, it’s something that has to be learned. For this reason the language of videogames is often at its more elegant when it deals with translation and metaphor, so JRPGs opting to separate their story/exploration and their combat mechanics into different dimensions so both can be allowed space to breath while conveying what they need to is fine with me. It doesn’t matter that the fact the characters have different abilities between the space and turn-based combat “doesn’t make sense” because it only “doesn’t make sense” if you’re interpreting it literally which there’s absolutely no grounds for.

So presenting your combat like this is fine; what isn’t fine is maze-like dungeons where you’re bumbling around not knowing where to go while constantly tripping over random battles. It’s stressful and distasteful design, and Final Fantasy VII pulls this crap numerous times which would severely hurt the game if most of them weren’t mercifully short.

It’s a cheap design trick. With the limitations of pre-rendered backgrounds in terms of framing and space they want to get as much out of them as possible, and they want to force you into a lot of fights and give you a space to grind in case you’re not tough enough to handle the next boss. So the solution is to put you in a scenario where you running back and forth on one screen trying to find your way forward while having invisible crabs and bats constantly swoop in to distract you. It’s not only the fact this is frustrating and tedious, it’s that it undermines the separation of exploration and combat. You’re trying to navigate a space that the combat areas keep kicking you out of, which makes the combat itself a chore because you want it over with as soon as possible to get back to making progress, and then when you’re back in the dungeon you’re disorientated. Abstractions are best when they’re allowed to breath, firing an idea right into the back of your brain like a catchy song, making two separated parts of clash like this is causing the abstraction to punch you in the face and highlight all the game’s frustrations and odd quirks.

#13 — THE SOUNDTRACK RULES SUPER HARD

When I was playing Final Fantasy XV I made a special effort to find all of the collectible Final Fantasy soundtracks so I had something to chill with during the car rides. This led to the discovery that I’m not that into a lot of Final Fantasy music, most of it is okay but without playing the games and having context for the themes very little of it grabbed me. The three soundtracks that I found myself circling between while mostly ignoring the others were Final Fantasy I, VII and XIII, and since Final Fantasy VII is the only one of those three games I will ever play I suppose that makes it my all time series favourite.

The whole soundtrack is a triumph, the use of leitmotifs with the main theme and world map builds up to one of the greatest HECK YEA moments in videogame history when the party escapes Shinra with the airship and that amazing upbeat rendition of the theme kicks in. Character themes are distinct and memorable, the ambient tracks add a lot of charisma and atmosphere and the whole production is fetishistically mixed to perfection. The style and instruments also reflect a major part of Final Fantasy VII’s personality in that it comes across as a 16-bit JRPG soundtrack going through puberty; the boss theme Those Who Fight Further sounds like the Romancing Saga SoundFont having it’s first wank…and loving it.

Then of course there’s the iconic, operatic, hilariously over the top One-Winged Angel track which plays during the fight with Sephiroth. This track with its choir chanting of the villain’s name is so perfect it wouldn’t be surprising if it turned out to be the primary reason for why you’re not given the option to rename Sephiroth. Perhaps that’s something they can innovate on in the remake with all the fancy new tech, allow the choir to improvise with whatever jerk name we choose with the vocals sung by Hatsune Miku.

ESTUANS INTERIUS
IRA VEHEMENTI
ESTUANS INTERIUS
IRA VEHEMENTI

O-NII-CHAN

#14 — I’M NOT HUGE ON THE ENDING

If you skip the side content Disc 3 of Final Fantasy VII consists entirely of the final dungeon, the fights against Jenova and Sephiroth and the ending cutscene…and it’s the weakest section of the entire game. The final dungeon is the worst example of the “JRPG maze” in the game since it has to act as the last chance grinding playground and also a boss fountain for helpful items. The Jenova and Sephiroth boss fights are…two extra boss fights, you hit them with swords a lot until they fall over and hope your numbers are larger than theirs. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the mechanical melodrama of Persona final boss fights, but it fell flat with me. Then the game goes for one last HECK YEA moment as Cloud kicks Sephiroth out of his mind with one huge Limit Break buster combo, and the final CG cutscene plays with the party maybe-sorta escaping as the Lifestream shoots out of the planet and prevents the meteor from destroying it. After that we jump 500 YEARS into the future, where a pack of Red XIII panther-lion-whatever-monsters look on at the planet intact now flourishing with new life. I hate how elaborate and expensive this final cutscene is; ditching the puppets and attempting to blow your mind with subtitled dialogue instead (with no voice acting, although that’s probably for the best since the localisation would’ve been horrifying) is another example of the game trying to show off that dates it badly from a modern perspective.

Looking into it online it seems that not loving the ending of Final Fantasy VII isn’t actually a controversial opinion, although a lot of people’s reasoning for disliking it stems from that magical gaming term “ambiguous” since everyone wanted a detailed account of what happened to the cat who hits goblins with a megaphone. “Ambiguous” is fast becoming one of those words I hate when used in a critical context, usually when it’s used positively it’s a vague wishy-washy attempt to make something sound deeper than it is, and when it’s used negatively it often translates to “I DIDN’T LIKE IT BECAUSE I HAD TO THINK ABOUT IT!”

So let’s be clear here; I don’t dislike the ending of Final Fantasy VII because it’s ambiguous. I fundamentally disagree that it’s ambiguous in the first place, and I don’t like what it’s saying.

It doesn’t matter that we aren’t shown what happened to the characters, although since the story opts to jump 500 years into the future SquareSoft probably didn’t want to have to think about it too much either. The fact Red XIII is shown to survive implies heavily enough that they all did (but maybe the planet chose to wipe out all the humans afterwards! (noone cares)), but the point is that the fact the final cutscene opts to not feature the main characters at all is in itself a clear statement. The game focuses on the results of what they did over the people that achieved them, implying that giving yourself up to a cause for the greater good and that preserving life and the environment for the future is the most important goal. It could be argued that this lines up with the game’s themes, but it doesn’t gel well with the character work.

At the start of the game Final Fantasy VII not only has the guts to introduce its lead characters as terrorists but also frame their actions for the greater good while openly admitting that innocent people are dying as a direct result of them. In the beginning these characters are motivated by rage and fear and delusional aspiration, but as they grow over the course of the adventure they learn to become more than that. Cloud accepts himself for who he is, Barret wants to fight for a future for his daughter, Tifa finally hooks up with Cloud and so on. The party (especially Barret) realise that all their smack talk about wanting to save the planet was merely something they told themselves to justify everything that they did, with Cloud giving everyone the opportunity to leave and find their own personal reason for fighting before the climax.

So, if “fight for the planet because it’s the most important thing” wasn’t good enough motivation for the characters, why would it work as closure for the audience following those characters? The ending of Final Fantasy VII isn’t a complete write-off, it certainly feels BIG if nothing else, but due to this one contradiction it failed to connect with a lot of people who otherwise loved the game.

#15 — THE AERIS DEATH SCENE SURPRISINGLY HOLDS UP

Of everything I knew about Final Fantasy VII going in this was the part of the game that I suspected the most wouldn’t hold up in the slightest. It’s not only *the* scene from Final Fantasy VII it’s *the* spoiler of videogames. Everyone knows it, everyone’s seen the death itself out of context dozens of times, everyone’s seen parodies and made fun of the people who it brought to tears back in 1997, so obviously the effect of the scene is going to be diminished 20 years later. I never used Aeris in combat apart from when I was forced to so she was never that prevalent in terms of screen time, plus knowing what was coming the game’s attempts to soften you up to her and turn her into your vidya crush are so transparent it ended up making me not like her as a character at all really.

Still, as character deaths goes it’s (mostly) well handled! There’s a feeling of dread as you chase after Aeris, who you know has run off to the same place Sephiroth has, as the paths narrow and Cloud eventually loses control of himself signifying the inevitable is about to occur. After Sephiroth falls and plunges his sword through Aeris, Cloud gets a big speech as Sephiroth laughs it off exposing himself as an irreversible psychopath, the sad music carries over as you fight a boss battle as you can imagine Cloud flailing his Buster Sword around with tears in his eyes. After that there’s a quieter moment where you party stands over Aeris’ corpse. Considering the exaggerated gestures and expressions of the puppet characters it’s powerful to see one of them motionless on the ground with her hair covering her face while the others stand there and mourn.

Personally I didn’t care that much about Aeris, but following the CG cutscene where Cloud drops her body into the water the game is very careful to establish how much the other characters cared about her. The death is given weight as the three members of your current party reflect and talk to each other about how they’re feeling and what they’re supposed to do next. With the way the scene is handled the emotion feels earned and is a strong close to the end of the first disc. For a lot of young people playing Final Fantasy VII in the 90s it’s likely this game was one of their first experience with a story of this scale, especially from a videogame, so even though Aeris’ death didn’t cause me to bawl my eyes out in 2017 (that was for unrelated reasons) the scene still stands strong enough to understand what all the fuss was about. It’s a good character death put on a pedestal by the scale and meaning of the production that surrounds it.

It’s not perfect however; it’s pretty silly that Disc 2 starts off with a goofy snowboarding section to follow this, the scene of the actual murder looks a little plastic and clunky today, and after the direct followup the game seems to forget about Aeris for the majority of the second disc. The immediate impact of her death is conveyed, but the game moves on from it too quickly until the end of Disc 2 where Aeris’ Lifestream shenanigans become plot critical once again.

There’s also the issue of Cloud’s dialogue as he’s holding Aeris’ corpse; while his rant at Sephiroth has crucial dramatic importance it’s…not good, or at least not well translated. This is where Cloud starts whining about his “pain” and is probably where the perception of him being an “emo” or “brooding” character come from. You can’t help but wonder how much the cultural understanding of Final Fantasy VII would have been different had this been better written or at the very least not been attached to such a major scene…

#16 — FINAL FANTASY VII DOESN’T EXIST

PLOT TWIST: it does actually I FOOLED YOU, but the idea of what “Final Fantasy VII” is that was planted in my head before I played it for myself doesn’t exist. Admittedly, the seed of this idea was planted inside my head by someone much smarter than me before I had even touched Final Fantasy VII, but as I swapped over the iso files discs to start the second half of the game I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

For years I had read about all the hype surrounding the game in PlayStation magazines of the time, looking on at topped “best PSX games ever” lists over and over again. I heard my friends gush about the game at school, even more so than they would for Ocarina of Time or the first Metal Gear Solid, later into my teens some of those friends would tragically jerk themselves off in a coma when spin off media such as Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus came out. Fans on the internet would rave on the internet about how much Aeris made them cry, how dark Cloud was and how AWESOME Sephiroth was. Then the contrarian hate squads would kick down their doors and insist that the game sucked, that the story made no sense and the only reason anyone liked it was “nostalgia”.

I don’t know what game all these people were talking about, but it’s not the Final Fantasy VII I played. Playing the game for the first time in 2017 was a wonderful experience due to it constantly undermining all these takes and expectations implanted in my brain. I went into the game expecting a hideous translation job, and while the localisation is a little ropey in places and there’s noticeable typos and errors (although pound for pound there’s probably less in Final Fantasy VII than there is in this essay) but by the way people exaggerate its flaws I went in expecting a Google Translate hack job. People told me the same wasn’t fun, it’s design was dated and bloated, it’s world wasn’t fun to explore, but in reality the pacing of the game felt breezy and relatively modern. The battle system is simple and easy to understand, even with my lack of experience the game isn’t very difficult and I rarely needed to grind, plus the options to adjust menus and change the game speed help make it surprisingly accessible for a modern player considering how old Final Fantasy VII is now.

Then there’s Cloud Strife himself, the impression I got of this character through osmosis from the fandom couldn’t have been more inaccurate. He’s a fun character! He’s often cracking jokes, showing concern for people (even when feinting not to), generally reacts to story events in a recognisably human way and says goofy stuff like “let’s mosey”. I will never touch any of the spin offs, Square Enix have done nothing over the past decade that indicates they understand why anyone liked Final Fantasy VII, but I wonder if this idea of DARK CLOUD came as a result of that media influencing people’s memories or whether that media was a response to how the fandom already felt about Cloud.

It’s a pleasant if jarring surprise playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time and enjoying how…charming it is. It’s bursting with colour and charisma, it feels thought out and confident as a work of fiction even if it’s not an entirely successful one, and it’s not afraid to be silly when it’s appropriate. The game has some dark themes and the characters suffer hardships while expressing and exploring their emotions…it’s a story, that doesn’t make it “emo” or “brooding”. Over the past numbers of years I’ve learned to be more cautious of the common preconceptions of media, especially from the 1990s to early 2000s, and especially especially with videogames. There is a Dude Patrol out there who will hate on anything that stars male characters who express emotions outside of aloofness and militant rage, with the fear presumably being if there’s too many “feels” in their grindy sword boy game then maybe too many of those dang GIRLS will start liking it and ruin all the fun.

Right now the discourse regarding Final Fantasy VII, especially among its biggest haters and devoted supporters is fascinating and baffling. I sure am glad I took the plunge and played it now before the remake came out and ruined the conversation even further. Final Fantasy VII still holds up, it’s much more silly and charming than a lot of people seem to remember it being, and it’s a story well told and world well-realised maybe on about par with a B-tier anime. A lot of the people who care the most about Final Fantasy VII seem to be either worshiping or raging against a false idol, obsessing over something that was never as badass or as worthy of hatred as they perceived it to be while struggling with somewhat distorted memorrrrbleeughhhhhhhh.

Oh god sorry, I just made myself a little dizzy.

#17 — WHY DOES ANYONE WANT THIS REMADE?!

Seriously, I don’t get it at all. Okay I do get it, people like Final Fantasy VII so they assume they’ll like anything else that says Final Fantasy VII on the box, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where those people aren’t going to be left cold one way or another. One of my main reasons for wanting to play the game was because it was the most important releases of the early 3D era that I hadn’t experienced, which in my opinion is still the most interesting period for mainstream videogames in history. It’s an era of awkward transitions and experimentation that hasn’t been seen on the same scale since; and in this context Final Fantasy VII doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. From it’s translation of the formula from Final Fantasy VI, to its chunky exaggerated polygon models, the pre-rendered backgrounds, the overblown CG and the ambition to present a larger world like never before, it’s such a beautiful little time capsule of everything going on at the time that I can’t understand why anyone wants to see it presented in any other form.

I would describe wanting to strip Final Fantasy VII of all its esoteric personality and exaggerated theatrics to retell the story with shiny modern graphics and badass sword fights as an act of cultural violence if I wasn’t so convinced of its inevitable failure. It’ll be a financial success for sure (unless the project gets out of control and turns out to be even more expensive than Square Enix feared) but it’ll go the way most Hollywood remakes over the past decade have gone and people will find themselves sulking back to the original in no time. People were stoked for the promise of a Final Fantasy VII remake when the opening was rebuilt as a tech demo for the PlayStation 3 and the evolution of graphics was still a constantly noticeable and exciting development. As a PlayStation 3 remake became unlikely it became somewhat of a joke that Square Enix would announce a Final Fantasy VII remake once they had finally given up on making anything good ever again, and once you go full meme there’s no going back baby. People screamed when the moment finally happened at E3 2015, but it feels like the hype’s been fading away slowly ever since it became a real thing. Maybe it’s not matching people’s expectations, maybe it wasn’t possible to match people’s expectations, maybe people never actually wanted it in the first place.

Maybe it’s that deep down a lot of fanboys know that Final Fantasy VII is kind of silly, and they want a “grown up” remake that justifies and acknowledges their devotion to the game without having to feel silly. All I have to say to that is love yourself, and keep loving Final Fantasy VII too, because controversially it turns out that it’s pretty good!

And hey, despite everything I’ll play the remake too! At the very least it should be hilarious.

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