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The Definitive Dissection of Final Fantasy VII, Part 1: The Dramatic Opening That Thrust Players into an RPG Revolution

But was it really so unprecedented?

Analysis by Jeremy Parish, .

Design in Action is a weekly column by Retronauts co-host Jeremy Parish that explores games both new and classic, analyzing the way their various moving parts work together to make them great. Currently: Final Fantasy VII has just turned 20 years old, and it's time to examine how the series' standards shaped a medium-changing masterpiece.

Shockingly, Final Fantasy VII turned 20 years old about a month ago. With its dated computer graphics and chunky polygons, it certainly looks its age... but it doesn't really feel it.

Final Fantasy VII would be the global breakout hit for developer and publisher SquareSoft — now Square Enix — because back in 1997, its heady mix of text-driven narrative, menu-based game mechanics, and visual storytelling combined into a work that seemed practically unprecedented. In fact, for the handful of die-hard American console RPG enthusiasts who had already fallen into Final Fantasy's orbit with its well-received but ultimately niche 8- and 16-bit U.S. releases, FFVII took things a little too far into new territory. I remember getting into plenty of message board debates with staunch traditionalists who angrily insisted that FFVII "lacked that 'Final Fantasy' feeling."

And, to a degree, they had a point. With its detailed yet gloomy visuals, frequent cinematic cut scenes, and its oppressive, droning, synthesized soundtrack, FFVII had a wholly different vibe from its predecessors. But in most ways that count, FFVII was very much a Final Fantasy game through and through. As with other legacy franchises to successfully make the jump from 16-bit 2D to 32- or 64-bit 3D, Final Fantasy's creators weathered that change in large part by sticking to what they knew worked. With this Design in Action series, I'll be exploring the ways in which FFVII helped revolutionize the entire concept of gaming by basically working from the rules laid down by its six predecessors... and when it deliberately, and effectively, changed the rules.

Bombing run

There's no better place to begin with this study of FFVII than right at the beginning. I can't imagine the game would have had nearly so much impact had it not pulled in its audience right from the beginning, and I can't imagine any opening pulling in an audience quite as powerfully as the one SquareSoft went with. I almost don't need to describe it, so ingrained has it become in the collective gaming conscience, but: The game opens with a slow tracking shot through outer space, accompanied by ambient sounds and a sustained synthesizer chord. Just as you begin to feel restless at what amounts to a lot of nothing, the scene cuts to a flash of a young woman's face. The star field becomes embers rising from a fire, where the woman has been warming herself against the cold. She turns from the fire, stands, and steps out of an alcove into a bustling city street. The camera pulls away from her, showing more of the lively street... and then keeps pulling back, back, and further back. The music begins to swell as the camera continues its ascent, zooming back from the girl, from the street, from the block, revealing a massive high-tech city whose scale causes the woman's entire neighborhood to vanish into nothing.

I can't imagine the game would have had nearly so much impact had it not pulled in its audience right from the beginning.

The title appears, superimposed atop the enormous hub of the megalopolis: FINAL FANTASY VII. Suddenly, the title screen becomes intercut with images of a speeding train, echoing the city's visual motifs of technology, steam, and wheels. The train speeds past, cross-cut with a bird's-eye view of the city as the camera zooms back in and the music reaches its crescendo. But this time, the camera tracks in to a different part of the city than where it started, focusing on an area slightly clockwise from the neighborhood where the flower girl was warming her hands. As the point of view descends into the city, it slowly becomes clear that it's zooming in to give a perspective on the train, which slows and comes to a halt at a train yard. As the machine comes to a halt, the camera swoops down to the ground, revealing a pair of guards standing by the side of the tracks. A trio of commandos leaps from the train, knocks the soldiers unconscious, and scurries through a distant door as a barrel-chested, dark-skinned man and a wiry blond kid hop off the train as well.

"C'mon newcomer. Follow me." The dialogue appears in a text bubble centered above the larger man, who then marches after the commandos into the distance. The blond man is left standing alone in front of an unconscious soldier. And, suddenly, seamlessly, the game has begun.

From there, players take control of the guy with the spiky yellow hair. For the moment, he's simply "Ex-SOLDIER," but in a few moments you learn his name. It defaults to Cloud, but FFVII having been created in the days before mandatory voice-overs, you're also allowed to give him the appellation of your choosing. You're left to follow the big guy — Barrett — but not before being accosted by a couple of masked troopers, who (despite wielding submachine guns) each go down in a single swipe of Cloud's oversized broadsword.

In about two minutes from hitting New Game at the title screen, FFVII gives you an extraordinary amount of setup and context for the game's story. We meet the protagonist, learn that he's impressively skilled at combat, and has been newly recruited for what appears to be some sort of guerrilla force. We get a glimpse of the massive city of Midgar, dominated by an enormous central building and ringed by multiple smoking reactors, and even enjoy a taste of the game world's technology level (quite advanced, albeit with a retro vibe). We also get a glimpse of a key character in the story — Aerith, the flower girl — with a subtle bit of spatial context to justify her fateful run-in with Cloud following the opening mission: Her neighborhood is at the 11 o'clock point on the Midgar wheel, while the Bombing Run takes place at around 1 o'clock, with the two locales separated by the enormous reactor that Cloud turns out to be on a mission to destroy.

And to top it all off, that initial, drawn-out view of outer space means something, too. The game's primary threats — JENOVA, the alien force who seemingly initiates the entire story, and Meteor, the doomsday catastrophe that looms over the game's third act — both come from beyond the planet itself.

It's a marvelous example of efficient storytelling, and it really makes the most of the PlayStation's technology. Sure, the CG cutscenes ultimately were nothing truly new; Dragon's Lair introduced the idea of relaying game narrative through movie-quality animation nearly a decade and a half before FFVII's debut. What made FFVII's cut scenes so impressive had everything to do with their overall aesthetic, with a pre-rendered computer visual look that made them resemble a more refined take on the in-game graphics.

Even more to the point, FFVII didn't sacrifice the classic concept of gameplay in order to make room for these visuals. Dragon's Lair and the countless "Siliwood" FMV adventures that followed throughout the ’90s amounted to barely interactive slideshow, reducing the player's control over events to making quick selections at a few story junctures. FFVII, on the other hand, retained all the play mechanics and player freedom of the previous games in the series. On top of that, it was the largest and most epic quest yet seen in Final Fantasy. Rather than compromise its core RPG principles, it expanded on them.

In fact, the opening sequence of FFVII — from the dive into Midgar through the reactor's explosion 15 minutes later — plays up a long-running trademark of the Final Fantasy series. It's the game playing to a strength of its legacy, and doing it in a bigger, better way than ever before.

10 Things We Learned From Final Fantasy VII: An Oral History

Even the most dedicated Final Fantasy VII fans will find tons of new information from Matt Leone's extensive feature.

Feeling Despair? Final Fantasy VII Has Something to Say to You

If one video game can teach us about finding bright lights in dark places, it's Final Fantasy VII.

Before Final Fantasy, RPGs tended to start the same way: You'd roll and name your hero or guild, meet the king, get some gold, do some shopping, and finally head into the dungeon. And even the original Final Fantasy took this tack. But it began to subvert the genre almost immediately. The king of Cornelia task the Warriors of Light with a quest to rescue his abducted daughter, a mission that would comprise the bulk of most RPGs. But the rescue of Princess Sara takes roughly 10 minutes as you trek a short distance to the north, face a would-be villain, and save the girl. Your rescue efforts amount to a prologue.

With Final Fantasy II, however, Square's designers began to downplay RPG standards in favor telling a more interesting story. That game begins literally in the middle of a battle: The four protagonists enter the scene embroiled in an unwinnable fight, and you can only begin to begin the quest once you fall to the bad guys' swords and awaken in an inn. Final Fantasy IV went well beyond that, with the game fading from black to center on protagonist Cecil as he soars through the sky in an airship, mulling over the events of a just-completed mission. And Final Fantasy VI took the prize, with players controlling a nameless and powerful young woman accompanied by a pair of soldiers as they invaded a peaceful town for nefarious purposes.

Before Final Fantasy, RPGs tended to start the same way: You'd roll and name your hero or guild, meet the king, get some gold, do some shopping, and finally head into the dungeon. And even the original Final Fantasy took this tack. But it began to subvert the genre almost immediately.

Final Fantasy made in medias res openings its stock in trade, abandoning the usual workings of RPGs in pursuit of a more compelling approach to storytelling. Players lost the ability to define their party in advance, instead meeting a key character or two right away and steadily impressing like-minded warriors into their team along the way. Similarly, the ability to select character classes and skills along the way was replaced by new systems: Heroes with set classes whose abilities could be customized through player selections along the way, or completely mutable party members whose skills sets could be swapped instantly through a menu command.

Final Fantasy's long-running commitment to driving action by way of a strong central narrative changed the way its approach to role-playing system worked. Yet despite the lamentations of computer magazine reviewers whose first exposure to the franchise came with the PC port of FFVII, those changes didn't debut with this game. FFVII finally allowed ambitious storytellers like Yoshinori Kitase and Hironobu Sakaguchi to present their game in the style of a movie... but ultimately, FFVII was still a game that abided by the principles of previous entries in the series.

Heck, FFVII's Bombing Run is more or less a straight redux of FFVI's introductory invasion of the town of Narshe. The biggest difference between the two games is the FFVI's cinematic aspirations were really limited to displaying game credits over a slow-scrolling animation loop, whereas FFVII could use advanced camera trickery, change the scene in an instant, and revel in character close-ups. And nothing in video games had prepared us for the moment that the pre-rendered video of a decelerating train became a static background of the type that FFVII would use throughout the adventure. The trick of superimposing a pair of enemy sprites over top of the video, who then seamlessly interacted with Cloud's guerrilla crew, helped sell an incredible illusion that FFVII really was an interactive movie... even if, at heart, it was still an RPG. It remains a top-10 mindblowing game moment for many fans, a standout even withing a console generation that delivered innovation after innovation as a matter of course.

Next time: Living in a Materia world.

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Comments 13

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  • Avatar for riderkicker #1 riderkicker A year ago
    You'd have to admit that Final Fantasys know how to start with a bang. IV started with the Red Wings moving swiftly across the sky with its ominous theme of a conquering kingdom. V had that meteor and a quick jump into the fray. VI had the slow walk with an enslaved girl in tow. VII, that bombing mission. I first played FF7 in 2004, wanting to see what EGM kept talking about even seven years after its release. We were all in high school then, so it was the perfect time to buy the Greatest Hits version for a reasonable $20 at the local game store.
    I spent an entire year playing through the game, much to the chagrin of a classmate who wanted it next, and I had a great time. The graphics were cruddy, everybody was blocky, but they managed to emote a lot despite the PS1's limitations. The first disc was indeed an action movie, where Cloud and his compatriots caused a ton of damage to Shinra's HQ (even if it was for naught), and it should've ended with that motorcycle chase.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove A year ago
    Thanks for pointing out the PSX capabilities had for Squaresoft's taleweavers.

    I played IV, V, and VI after VII, VIII, and IX (Genny kid), and seeing the Red Wings ship fight off Ahrimans in a simple, low-movement...cinematic way was clearly to a 2000 me that these folks were dreaming of running before they could even walk.
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  • Avatar for Xemus80 #3 Xemus80 A year ago
    I think I've only played through FF7 from start to finish twice, although I've started it several more times just to take in the opening hours. I prefer the complete experience of FF8 where the PSX FFs are concerned but it's hard to beat those first steps and eventual escape from Midgar.

    I recently purchased FF7 on the PS4 and I'm thinking of giving it a quick run before Breath of the Wild hits. I assume the ability to speed up battles and turn off random encounters will make it fairly breezy.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #4 brionfoulke91 A year ago
    It honestly still holds up really well. Great into to a game, helped a lot by that killer music! And it does a great job of throwing you into the middle of the action and letting you get to gameplay right away.
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  • Avatar for mattcom26 #5 mattcom26 A year ago
    Wow awesome timing as I just started playing this for the first time in 10 years. Looking forward to this series.
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  • Avatar for amightysquall958 #6 amightysquall958 A year ago
    Great piece, looking forward to reading the rest of it. I love these types of analyses.

    In the same vein, here is some required listening: Watch Out for Fireball's playthrough overview of FFVII: http://www.watchoutforfireballs.com/52Edited February 2017 by amightysquall958
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  • Avatar for Mikki-Saturn #7 Mikki-Saturn A year ago
    I will always be a big fan of FFVII. Especially in context, it was an amazing game and as the first JRPG that I really got into, it set expectations that other JRPGs have been struggling and failing to meet ever since. This is already making me want to replay it; I'm really looking forward to the next article.
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  • Avatar for MarioIV #8 MarioIV A year ago
    Great work once again, Mr. Parish.
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  • Avatar for Nuclear-Vomit #9 Nuclear-Vomit A year ago
    I was all in when Final Fantasy VII came on on PS1. I walked 3 miles to my nearest rip-off station (Funcoland) to get this game. I'm part of the resistance taking down the evil corporate bastards of Shinra? Sounds good to me.

    The beginning of game is where I fell in love. I fell in love with the trash heap that was Midgar and I hoped to explore all it to free the oppressed denizens. I wasn't interested in stupid orbs or elemental fiends. I was interested on how Mako "fracking" was destroying my backyard. I know I'm just a filthy merc, but this goes beyond just a paycheck. Besides, there's this chick I used to know but I was too chicken-shit to make a move back then. But now, as an eco-terrorist, maybe I have a chance. Maybe she'll go out with me, once I stop Shinra and free all of Midgar.

    It was not meant to be, though. This is Final Fantasy, remember? So you've got to have an airship and explore the world and solve other people's stupid problems (at least you get to go into space later). You only get to explore a handful of Midgar's sectors and that's sad. After the awesome sneaking mission at the Shinra building, you escape on a badass motorcycle and the rest of the team hops on a baby-blue pickup truck. Motorcycle goons are sent in to disable the truck, but not if you and your buster sword have anything to say about it. You cut them down, Road Rash Style and face off against some battle bot reject. After that all that.... you leave Midgar.

    Nooooo... why? There are other sectors to liberate from Shinra. Why do I have to leave the best part of the game? Too bad, from this point on the game becomes another Final Fantasy. The game is great, but I would have preferred the whole game stayed in Midgar. That's where my heart is.
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  • Avatar for JohnnyBananas #10 JohnnyBananas A year ago
    Excellent article as usual. I think I was probably in middle school when I got this game and it seemed like something from a different dimension, it was incredible. I had played through FFVI probably a year or two prior, but I didn't even really connect the two experiences because the presentation was so vastly different. Obviously I put together that they were from the same series, but VII just seemed leaps and bounds beyond VI. Now I look back and think about how similar they are. I prefer VI overall, maybe as a function of ne plus ultra level nostalgia, it owned my brain for a good year, but VII was a revelation.
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  • Avatar for mganai #11 mganai A year ago
    Despite the shoddy translation, I already knew what I was in for with the Guard Scorpion. Been there, done that with the Mist Dragon.
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  • Avatar for Super-Boy-Alan #12 Super-Boy-Alan A year ago
    Given your previous complaints about FF7 during one of the early Retronauts episodes, I'm interested to see where this dissection goes. In terms of the combat mechanics, stat growth, etc., it's one of my least favorite entries in the series, but after going back and playing it again, moments like the opening raid still stick out as being pretty effective.
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  • Avatar for scotts #13 scotts A year ago
    @Xemus80 Being able to speed up time makes FF7 much more enjoyable now! I bought the FF7 port on PS4 on a whim, expecting to just futz around for a bit, then put it down. Then I figured I'll just get out of Midgar. But I kept going, enjoying the experience all along the way. Being able to speed up time makes a lot of walking around and filler battles much smoother. It's also fascinating to play it again now, with the perspective of 20 years (!).Edited February 2017 by scotts
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