Editor’s Note: Yes, I know; this series was intended to make me play through games I hadn’t finished, not replay games I’ve finished literally a million times. But I can’t celebrate the original PlayStation without discussing what is probably still my favorite game on the system…and, full disclosure, I’m definitely gonna be replaying a couple of other games before 2015 is out. Fortunately, nobody actually cares about this premise, so on with the show! – Z.H.
Final Fantasy VII is probably the game I associate most with the original PlayStation–which is funny, because that wasn’t where I first played it. My first experience with the game was the 1998 Windows 95 (!) port by Eidos Interactive, which I received for my 14th birthday, before I finally gave in and traded my Nintendo 64 for a PS1. Anyone familiar with that version of the game knows that it wasn’t an ideal introduction: while I didn’t experience any of the more egregious bugs, I still had to fiddle around to get Uematsu Nobuo’s exquisite music to play on my sound card, and my Microsoft Sidewinder gamepad was no substitute for the Sony controller around which the game had been designed. But it didn’t matter; flawed port or not, I fell in love immediately.
And no, before you ask, FFVII was not my first Final Fantasy. There’s an especially frustrating truism in the gaming community that the only people who can tolerate Final Fantasy VII‘s “obvious” flaws are the people for whom it served as their introduction to the series–or even to the genre of Japanese role-playing games itself. This is, to be blunt, bullshit. I went out of my way to play FFVII on the PC because I already adored the series. My best friend in elementary school introduced me to the Super Nintendo’s Final Fantasy IV (then known as II, in an effort to not confuse the Westerners who had missed out on the second and third installments for the Japanese Famicom), and I–a fledgling nerd already well-versed in D&D and fantasy fiction–loved its sweeping scope and quirky twist on the swords-and-sorcery genre, which I did not at the time recognize as a product of its Japanese anime influence. When Final Fantasy VI (again, called III in the West, because we also missed the boat on FFV) came out for the SNES in 1994, it inspired my imagination like no other fictional universe I’d encountered, with its exotic blend of fantasy and real-world technology (which I, blessedly, did not at the time recognize as steampunk). Maybe it’s because I was always more captivated by the Final Fantasy games’ worldbuilding than by their game mechanics, but for me, Final Fantasy VII was never anything close to a letdown; indeed, for the past 17 years now, it has been pretty much constantly tied with FFVI for the title of my favorite in the series.
Okay, I will concede this much: having replayed FFVI fairly recently and FFVII just now, I am ready to admit that VI is objectively the better game. But that should come as no surprise, and it actually highlights one of FFVII‘s most interesting characteristics. Final Fantasy VI, along with the following year’s Chrono Trigger, was developer Square’s culminating masterpiece on a system for which they had been designing for four years–a long stretch of time in a medium as rapidly-paced as video game design. Final Fantasy VII, meanwhile, was Square’s first big project for the new hardware generation, and it shows: most glaringly in the way each main character has two different polygonal models, one for the field and one for battle sequences, which the game alternates haphazardly between during cutscenes. As you play through this game, you can literally see Square figuring out how to develop for the PS1: carefully/awkwardly explaining how to navigate in three-dimensional space by offering a giant pointing finger to hover over the player character’s head, and tossing in weird, action-oriented minigames like a Road Rash-style motorcycle chase, some Cool Boarders-esque snowboarding, an early example of tower defense, and even a submarine battle to show off the range of play offered by the 3D engine.
It’s tempting, especially for those previously-alluded-to FFVII naysayers, to suggest that we were able to overlook all these quirks in the late ’90s because we were so blinded by the game’s cinematic wow factor. And, to be fair, I definitely was wowed by now-quaint spectacles like the game’s sweeping opening scenes (see above) or the iconic image of the game’s principal villain, Sephiroth, walking through a wall of digital flames. But I was also, and continue to be, captured by the game’s simpler charms. The story may feel a bit overly similar to FFVI’s–a plucky, ragtag group of resistance fighters taking on an evil empire and a villain intent on becoming a god–but its adaptation of those well-worn themes to a more modern world is something few games to this day have successfully managed. The first few hours of FFVII especially, set in the sprawling techno-metropolis of Midgar, are remarkable for the way they feel like Final Fantasy, even while placing the action in a radically new context. The raid on the headquarters of the game’s “evil empire,” electric power conglomerate Shinra, is one of my favorite moments in any video game ever, transposing the classic RPG motif of infiltrating the enemy fortress into a modern-day Japanese office building complete with bathroom stalls, conference rooms, and harried salarymen.
That similarity-with-a-difference is, I think, what made Final Fantasy VII such a memorable game–and so emblematic of the early PlayStation era. There was something exotic even about the way Square and co-publisher Sony Computer Entertainment eschewed the series’ earlier approach to localization, releasing the game with its Japanese title and logo rather than adapting it to Western tastes. The foreignness projected by Final Fantasy VII, in contrast to the earlier installments of the series, felt–accurately or not–like something that would never have happened had the FF games stayed on Nintendo systems, and was crucial to at least my understanding of the PlayStation brand. The PS1 was the arty, adult console, the one that allowed quirky Japanese games to keep their subplots about crossdressing and visiting a brothel, and left curse words in the script rather than changing them to whimsical appellations like “spoony.” It also wasn’t lost on my 14-year-old self that this was the first Final Fantasy to earn a “T” rating from the ESRB. No Final Fantasy game is “cool,” really–just ask my girlfriend–but this one definitely felt cool to me at the time.
And it still feels, maybe not “cool,” but certainly unique. This time around, I was struck primarily by the beauty of the game’s prerendered environments. From the aforementioned alternate-universe neo-Tokyo of Midgar to the organic, alien-looking rock formations of the Northern Crater, the variety and detail of the world is incredible–not just for 1997, but for ever. I didn’t think to count the individual screens, but there are easily hundreds of unique environments, all crafted down to the tiniest insignificant detail (maybe this says a little too much about me, but one of my favorite things about FFVII is that it includes numerous visible and even interactive toilets throughout the game, for absolutely no reason other than to ground its world and add a bit of color). Prerendered graphics have of course fallen out of favor for a reason: they’re inflexible and incredibly labor-intensive, especially today, with the need to develop for HD resolutions. But replaying Final Fantasy VII made me miss the days when the technique allowed developers to create visually rich environments without requiring the even more time-consuming process of rendering them in 3D polygons.
Actually, there are a lot of things about FFVII that make me miss its era of game design. Final Fantasy VII is often accused of turning the franchise into a series of interactive movies, and its prominent CG cutscenes certainly were a major selling point at the time (just see the trailer above). But what’s striking now isn’t its “cinematic” qualities, so much as its odd, endearing mashup of wildly disparate forms of media expression: the moving image, sure, but also written text (remember, this was before Square embraced voice acting), and a heterogenous blend of interactive modes. The game’s jumble of play styles is, objectively speaking, a mess; many of the “minigames” barely qualify for the term: like the scene in Disc Two where you are tasked with stopping an out-of-control train by alternating between two buttons, and the early “puzzle” that involves nothing more complicated than moving the hands of a giant clock. But even these rough edges lend a palpable sense of experimentation to the game: in a time when video game design is all too rote and mechanical, Final Fantasy VII is a game that isn’t afraid to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
And that’s exactly why Final Fantasy VII will always have a special place in my heart–even if, again, FFVI is ultimately the more accomplished work. The Final Fantasy series may have grown prettier and more polished in the years after 1997–and I will be writing about at least its next installment as this mini-series progresses–but as far as I’m concerned, it never again captured the same sense of endless potential and discovery. And I can’t even blame Square, really, because that sense of discovery was part and parcel of the era in which Final Fantasy VII emerged. The transition to 3D graphics, for which the PS1 was at the forefront, marked the end of the days when the future of console games was unwritten, when developers were still figuring out new approaches to design rather than iterating and improving on established formulas. It was a moment that, short of another seismic disruption in the way games function (which, I’m legally obligated to note, may or may not arrive with V.R.), we probably won’t see again.
So yes, like every other aging nerd, I will play the recently-announced FFVII remake–if only because I never thought I’d actually see it happen. But I’m still willing to bet that it won’t hold a candle to the original. Final Fantasy VII was a special game, from a special time; and while there have been “better” games, both before and since, I don’t think there will ever be another one quite like it.
Final Fantasy VII is available on PS3, PSP, and PS Vita (where I played it) as a PSone Classic, and on PC download services including Steam. Apparently it was also released today on iOS, and later this year a port of the PC version will be released on PS4. Basically, you can play this game everywhere, so do it. You can also follow along with my backlog–not that I’m making any actual process, what with replaying old games and all.