In 2005, Cloud never looked better. In Advent Children, one of Square Enix's so-so computer animated films, he looked like he was fresh off a spa trip. His skin was practically glowing, even as he mourned his dead friends and isolated himself from his still-alive ones. Before Advent Children though, there was a different "HD" look at the world of Final Fantasy 7: A shiny tech demo at E3 2005 that recreated the iconic intro of the game itself in splendid, PlayStation 3-capable glory.
The tech demo, even by today's standards, looks solid. Cloud's face that's seen at the end is sharper than his appearance in Advent Children, where he generally looks softer. The music itself is evocative of the original. It's easy to see why it riled up the masses in such a big way—they hadn't seen a Final Fantasy game look this good in theoretical action before.
Yet no matter how large the font that read "technical demo" could be, Square Enix recreating the opening of Final Fantasy 7 for a PS3 engine tech demo was a cruel experiment. Before the tech demo, we only really knew Final Fantasy 7's real potential in dreams: The game itself contained just blocky polygons with crude cartoonish faces while its background art became the true star. (It made a star out of Midgar, after all.) In 2005, Final Fantasy 7 itself was still young, not even 10 years old. But it quickly became the victim of the worst fate that can befall awe-inspiring tech: it aged.
Two measly years later, Square Enix released Final Fantasy 8, a game that matured the chibi polygons to actual human-shaped figures. Cutscenes transitioned immediately into gameplay. Final Fantasy 9, released the year after that, returned to the Final Fantasy 7-ish style, only its stars were a lot more clearly defined; the backgrounds more intricate and beautiful than what was possible before.
For all that Final Fantasy 7 impressed with, it was just as swiftly outshone by its own developer, not to mention the rest of the games industry. Still, it's the most beloved Final Fantasy in existence for good reason. From the moment Cloud leaps off that train with style and the legendary Nobuo Uematsu score kicks in, Final Fantasy 7 feels like an adventure. Your ragtag initial party—an ex-military man with some serious baggage, a flower seller with a mysterious heritage, the girl-next-door-who-took-up-boxing, an ecoterrorist with a heart of gold, and a lion that can talk—only gets more rambunctious from Midgar onward. Its twists and turns break your heart and delight, all within itty bitty blue text frames. The way it frames its firmly angled scenes remains visually pleasing today, even if it's hard to deduce where you can actually walk in the geometry sometimes. It's the sort of game that you play and wonder how it would look with modern technology.
Soon, we will see what Midgar and the rest of the opening crew look like in action. Final Fantasy 7 is being remade on new terms, and after suffering a slight recent delay, it will be out on April 10, 2020. In 2005 though, all we had was a tech demo to go by.
At the time, it was impressive. It was Square Enix's loud signal that yes, there would be Final Fantasy games on PlayStation 3. We hadn't even heard Square's ambitious Fabula Nova Crystallis pitch for the Final Fantasy 13 saga yet; we hadn't gotten our first glimpse at the spinoff that would eventually borne Final Fantasy 15 either. In 2005, Square just had a Final Fantasy 7 tech demo that tickled everyone's nostalgia. Nostalgia that hadn't even congealed to its full potential yet, honestly.
Tech demos based on previous games weren't even a new endeavor for Square Enix. There was the Final Fantasy 6 SGI tech demo. For the PlayStation 2, a Final Fantasy 8 one. But none generated as much buzz as Final Fantasy 7's glossy intro. Sometimes the industry's seen tech demos eventually evolve into something greater. Quantic Dream's "Kara" tech demo from 2012 birthed the idea for Detroit: Become Human, for instance. That's what happened to Final Fantasy 7.
This was around the time that Square Enix entered a bit of a slump. Releases slowed as Japanese developers grappled with the realities of modern engines like Unreal Engine and the finicky PlayStation 3 hardware. Meanwhile, all fans could think about was a Final Fantasy 7 remake. A proper one. One that looked as good as this. When we thought there was no way graphics could get better.
In 2006, video game developer and current video editor for Kotaku Tim Rogers, witnessed this fervent thirst in person. During a launch event for Final Fantasy 12 in Shibuya, Tokyo, the first fan in line was set to be awarded with the opportunity to shake hands and greet none other than Yoichi Wada, the now-former president of Square Enix. "One dandruffy young man took that challenge, waiting all night in the pleasant weather. He shook hands with Wada, had his picture taken, listened to Wada's perfunctory thanks for his years of customer loyalty and fan servitude, and then, when offered a chance to weep in thanks, accepted the microphone and spoke in a quick super-whisper: 'Please remake Final Fantasy 7 for the PlayStation 3 thank you goodbye.' He gave the microphone back and walked off. (I was there.)," wrote Rogers in 2011. "A man had a brand new video game in his hands, still shrink-wrapped and in a double-taped plastic bag, and he already didn't care about it anymore."
It seemed like a pipedream at the time. It got fans hungry for more though, and it never quite stopped. For years on end, fans and media would poke and prod at Square Enix about if there really was a Final Fantasy 7 remake quietly in development behind the scenes. In 2006, Square Enix reaffirmed it didn't have anything in the works in a statement to IGN, debunking a previous report. "Since the Final Fantasy 7 tech demo at E3 2005, there have been a lot of rumors about the presentation hinting at an actual remake. While the June 2006 issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly confirms the remake for release in 2007, Square Enix has never stated this." Later in 2011, representatives for the company were coy about the subject again when asked by GameSpot.
In 2014, Square Enix producer Yoshinori Kitase joked about the remake's possibility in an interview with Engadget. "No regrets as such," Kitase said when asked if he regretted the Final Fantasy 7 tech demo from nearly a decade prior. "It was the right thing to do at the time. But look, if we look at the possibility of remaking Final Fantasy 7 for high-definition consoles, we already took nearly ten years to make the trilogy of Final Fantasy 13 games, ending with Lightning Returns. I think that a high-definition FF7 would be definitely comparable to that scale, an even bigger project maybe. It would probably take a lot longer than ten years, even if we ever do it. So that's what I am saying, I would have to have a complete and utter dedication to the project."
Square Enix was even guilty of what some call a "troll." On stage at the PlayStation Experience keynote in 2014, Final Fantasy producer Shinji Hashimoto waltzes on stage with the Final Fantasy 7 logo on screen behind him. He espouses how "iconic" the JRPG is, before saying, "We are bringing that title back to the PlayStation." Then you hear the familiar Square Enix ding, the lights dim, the trailer starts to play annnnd, it's just the Final Fantasy 7 PC port. Except, now it's coming to PlayStation 4. The shots of the crowd before and after are legendary.
One year later, and what fans waited oh so long for was finally revealed at E3 2015: a Final Fantasy 7 Remake was finally in development. Fresh after the reveal, USgamer Staff Writer Nadia Oxford wrote about how, well, unsurprising it was in the grand scheme of things. "For years, Square Enix told us not to look forward to a Final Fantasy 7 remake. 'Uh huh,' we said. 'Sure.' We knew a Final Fantasy 7 remake was as inevitable as choking up during Barret's meeting with Dyne in the ruins of Corel prison," she wrote. "And yet there's something life-affirming about seeing the reveal trailer itself and listening to those small, sweet opening bells and strings that signal the beginning of Cloud's journey." USgamer's own Editor-in-Chief Kat Bailey pondered in 2016 that, "Ultimately, we're still talking about Final Fantasy VII today because it was one of the most interesting games ever made. I can't think of many games with its scope, bravado, and weird sense of humor."
Details about Final Fantasy 7's remake have since trickled out at a slow pace. It was taking a huge shift mechanically, we knew, with it being an action-RPG. There were rumors swirling around about the scope of the remake—every trailer was Midgar this, Midgar that. At E3 2019, Final Fantasy 7 Remake was confirmed to be solely set in Midgar, and just be "part one" in a Final Fantasy 7 series.
It makes sense when considering Kitase's statement from 2014. Final Fantasy 7 Remake is, obviously, a "bigger project"—perhaps much bigger than Square Enix ever intended. Kitase, I imagine, has funneled his "complete and utter dedication" to the ambitious project as well, considering this spring's release is expanding what we know as a very small portion of the game. In my current replay, for instance, I blazed through the opening Midgar portion in under five hours. Square Enix insists this lessened scope won't slim down the playtime though. It will be the length of a full RPG, allegedly.
And let the record stand: I've seen the freshened up intro of the Final Fantasy 7 remake that's due out this April. According to leaks and rumors, the demo I saw behind-closed-doors at E3 2019 will likely be the same as the demo that's due for release sometime in the next few months. That is, it will be that famous intro of the bombing mission in its entirety. And folks: Now Cloud's never looked better.