Matt Leone's oral history of Final Fantasy VII, published on Polygon, is a Bahamut-size breakdown of literally everything there is to know about the world's most influential Japanese RPG. It features dozens of interviews, and is packed with facts and trivia we never knew about the game and the circumstances surrounding its creation.
This history isn't just a look into Final Fantasy VII: It's a snapshot of an industry that was undergoing a massive change – a change Squaresoft played no small part in.
Here are ten new facts we took away from the feature.
"Final Fantasy 64" was not actually a game, but a tech demo for Silicon Graphics workstations
Most Final Fantasy fans know the screenshots we saw of "Final Fantasy 64" in game magazines towards the latter half of the '90s never existed. Regardless, some people still hold onto the belief that the demo, which features Locke, Terra, and Shadow beating up a golem, was intended to be an N64 game. Who can blame them? That demo was super-cool (and far better-looking than anything the N64 was actually capable of producing).
"We made a demo on them to show people, 'This is how Final Fantasy could look in 3D,'" Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi told Matt Leone.
The limitations of the N64's specs, not just its cartridge format, prompted Square to make the jump to PlayStation
The N64's hardware had some advantages over the PlayStation, but Square quickly discovered the PlayStation was far better suited for Final Fantasy VII's needs. The tiny amount of storage offered by the N64's cartridges is one well-known problem, but the N64 couldn't match the PlayStation's raw processing power, either.
"I saw a couple of the tests [of the PlayStation and N64 side-by-side], but it was obviously different. The quality was so different," says Final Fantasy cutscene director Motonori Sakakibara. "So I thought they’d never take Nintendo because the result was very clear."
Square told Nintendo it needed a CD drive for the N64, but Yamauchi was adamant about sticking with cartridges
Late Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi was a brilliant businessman, but even he made epic missteps. Making the N64 a cartridge-based machine was a particularly big bungle. Though cartridges let Nintendo combat piracy – and also let it exude control over its third party developers – developers were ready to ditch the format for CDs. Square is a famous example, even though the company tried to make Yamauchi see reason.
"We gave [Nintendo] lots of advice [about its new system]," says former Square USA President Shinichiro Kajitani, "but [Nintendo president] Yamauchi-san at Nintendo basically refused to listen to any of it. And that's when Sakaguchi-san and the management team at Square decided, 'OK, we’re going to go with Sony now.'"
Final Fantasy VII was made in less than a year with a huge team
Modern Square-Enix isn't renowned for speedy game production. It's therefore hard to believe that Final Fantasy VII was made in about a year, but it's true. While no-one who worked for Square at the time can draw a bead on the exact number of people who worked on the game, it's generally believed that well over 100 people were on the team, possibly closer to 150. Game development teams averaged between 20 to 40 warm bodies in the late '90s.
"Final Fantasy 7 came very quickly; the development period was a little more than a year," recalls Yoshihiro Maruyama, Square US's former Executive Vice President. "That was very unusual at the time."
Tetsuya Nomura's art style and Final Fantasy VII's 3D polygon worlds turned out to be very well-suited for each other
Square-Enix character designer Tetsuya Nomura has been with the company since its Super Famicom days – and his art style is controversial to say the least. But his penchant for creating characters with sharp, angular features and striking trademarks (like spiky hair and big, big swords) translated well into Final Fantasy VII's polygonal 3D world.
"Nomura-san was a great 2D artist, but his characters worked especially well in 3D," Sakakibara recalls. "He spent a ton of time making the game characters look like his original designs, which was one of the big secrets behind the creation of the Final Fantasy 7 characters."
One Winged Angel was a very experimental theme for Final Fantasy music composer Nobou Uematsu, and it was inspired by The Rite of Spring
One Winged Angel, the theme that plays when the party battles Sephiroth's final form, is Final Fantasy VII's most famous piece of music. Uematsu's main point of inspiration for the song is The Rite of Spring, a piece of classical music by Igor Stravinsky that "narrates" a pagan sacrifice. One Winged Angel is also experimental, as it's more of a patchwork than a single piece.
"[A]fter two weeks, I had a lot of random phrases piled up," says Uematsu. "Then I took those as puzzle pieces and tried to line them up in an interesting order to make sense as a track. That was a totally new approach for me."
Uematsu was "jealous" of Suikoden, and the game encouraged him to worry less about exchanging sound quality for load times in Final Fantasy VIII
We here at USgamer love us some Suikoden. Uematsu came to greatly admire the games' soundtracks. They caused him to re-think how he composed Final Fantasy VIII.
"I don’t remember the specific title I was jealous of," he says, "but it was from the Suikoden series (...) It loads a lot, and I was thinking that it stopped the game too often, but the quality was really high. That was kind of the trigger to make me think in a different way [for Final Fantasy VIII]."
Originally, much of Final Fantasy VII's cast was scheduled to die – not just Aeris
Aeris's death is still held up as the iconic Final Fantasy VII moment, but there was a point when Square Japan director Yoshinori Kitase planned to have most of the cast pushing up daises alongside the doomed flower girl. Nomura stopped the slaughter, which was supposed to occur when everyone parachutes into Midgar towards the end of the game.
(Nomura to Kitase:) "I was the one who said 'No way!' and stopped you guys. You wanted to kill everyone except the final three characters the player chose for the endgame."
Final Fantasy VII's infamously sloppy localization led the team to take translation efforts more seriously with future games – though the localization team for Final Fantasy VIII still had to use a GameShark to access the text files they needed
Though Final Fantasy VI's excellent localization is still held up as a gold standard for RPGs, Final Fantasy VII did not fare nearly as well. Infamous lines like "This guy are sick" melded with "quirks" like Barret's ebonics to make for a localization few look back on fondly.
"I did hear complaints about Barret," Nomura recalls. "I think it had to do with the localization and translation not being very good. Ever since that experience, we've paid a lot more attention to localization. Back then, we weren’t very strict about controlling it."
Nevertheless, localizer Alexander O Smith remembers having to use a GameShark to access the text files he needed. "'Oh, you need files to do translation?' That was news to the dev team at that point. So that sort of complete lack of communication was emblematic of those days."
Eidos, which handled the PC port of Final Fantasy VII, almost merged with Square in '98
Eidos became Square-Enix in 2009, but the two companies nearly merged in '98 after Eidos ported Final Fantasy VII to the PC.
"It's funny because the deal actually led to us becoming very close to merging Square and Eidos," says former Eidos President Keith Boesky. "The way that we saw it was, our philosophy of game building was very similar. (…) We had a big, private dinner and came really close to a merger in ‘98 [but Square decided to go another way]."