It was about a month ago that I posted a bemused tweet in which I observed that a lot of Final Fantasy VII's biggest fans were seemingly not even born when it came out. How, I wondered, has it continued to be so popular when it reflects such a particular moment in gaming history?
"I think it's like a movie like the original Star Wars," a friend told me later. "Yeah, a lot of its fans weren't alive when it first came out, but it still has a certain amount of status."
Whatever the case might be, Final Fantasy VII continues to enjoy near mythic status among gamers nearly 20 years after its release. Merely teasing a remake was enough to get many observers to declare Sony the "winners" of E3 2015 (obviously, Last Guardian and Shenmue helped too). Whenever a discussion of the best games ever made starts, Final Fantasy VII is bound to come up, even if that conversation ends up being rather heated. You can argue whether it holds up, but there's no denying its influence. Which brings me back to my original question: Why does Final Fantasy VII continue to resonate with gamers after all these years?
Like many others, I got into RPGs because of Final Fantasy VII. I was 16 when I borrowed a friend's PlayStation and brought it home along with a copy of the game. A few months later, I had a PlayStation of my own.
Final Fantasy VII was not the first game in the series that I played — that honor technically goes to Final Fantasy Legend on the Game Boy — but for a long time it was the most impactful. It had a scope and ambition that I had never seen in a console game before. I had played Final Fantasy VI, but with its basic sprites, it seemed to strain at the limits of its technical capabilities. Final Fantasy VII, by comparison, gave its creators the tools to realize the full scope of their ambition.
Anyway, I suppose you could say that it made an impression on me. After Final Fantasy VII, pretty much every Square game became an automatic purchase, even oddities like SaGa Frontier 2 and Threads of Fate. I bought up every console RPG I could find. And I played Final Fantasy VII many more times, routinely beating it under 20 hours.
It's funny to think that at least some of what I found appealing about Final Fantasy VII back then I find troublesome now. These days I can't skip cutscenes fast enough, but back then, I lived for Final Fantasy VII's cinematics. Its confusing story was seen as a kind of badge of honor, rather than being opaque for the sake of being opaque. Even the unskippable summon animations had a certain appeal. We all used to joke that we'd go make a sandwich while waiting for Knights of the Round to finish cycling in the battle against Ruby Weapon, but we sat through it just the same.
Until I played Metal Gear Solid a couple years later, I considered Final Fantasy VII the best game ever made, and I didn't really even see it as an argument. Even then, it continued to hold a huge amount of sentimental value for me. It was the RPG that got me into RPGs. And even after cutscenes had ceased to be novel, I remembered the exhilaration of seeing the Junon Cannon for the first time, and the emotion of Aeris's sacrifice (okay, I didn't really like her, but it was still sad).
I eventually moved on to other games, but the impression it made on me remained, and I wasn't the only one
When I think of Final Fantasy VII today, I think of a few things. I think of the ragtag art style of the cutscenes, which varied from the kewpie dolls to more realistically proportioned representations. I think of Sephiroth, of course, and that long silver hair of his. And I think of the Turks, who enjoyed comparatively little screen time, but were nevertheless the most enjoyable adversaries in the game.
Mostly, though, I think about what made it had that grabbed people so completely back in 1997. I mean, yes, it was a technical marvel that had to be seen to be believed, a game that was like nothing else I had ever played on a console. But graphics aren't everything. Rather, it was Final Fantasy VII's accessibility that put it over the top, welcoming everyone who had ever been intimidated by turn-based combat, complex systems, and min/maxing with open arms.
Because really, Final Fantasy VII was pretty simple as far as RPGs went. Party members wielded different weapons and had unique limit breaks, but otherwise, Materia made pretty much everyone the same. Old guard RPG fans hated it for that even back then, arguing that the lack of a fourth party member and a complex skills systems made it inferior even to other games in the series.
But there were also people like my friend growing up, who would say proudly that he had mastered Final Fantasy VII, and that he had done literally everything there was to do. Final Fantasy VII was his first RPG. And, of course, you never forget your first.
Eventually, Final Fantasy VII's graphical luster faded, particularly in comparison to later games in the series. It retained a devoted following, but even its fans eventually admitted that it hadn't held up especially well. Thus began the pining for a remake.
For a long time, I was against such a remake. I felt like Square had captured lightning in a bottle with Final Fantasy VII, crafting the perfect game for the perfect moment in console gaming history, and that it couldn't be recreated in a different era. Having moved on to more complex fare, I didn't even think it was a particularly good RPG anymore. What was popping orbs into a weapon to unlock skills and spells compared to Persona's Demon Fusion, or even the complex and wonderfully broken Junction System from Final Fantasy VIII?
I suspected that all the pining for a Final Fantasy VII remake had to do with it being an idea more than a game. After all, it represented an era before mobile gaming, free-to-play, DLC, and the Xbox. The desire for a remake, I felt, had less to do with Final Fantasy VII's merits, and more to do with a desire to recapture a particular moment in gaming history, a moment that has passed forever.
But as I've written elsewhere, I've come back around to the idea of a Final Fantasy VII remake. We need an ambassador for the genre in general, and JRPGs in particular, that will grab a new generation of fans. Not even Pokémon fills that niche these days, having embraced the competitive scene to the extent that it's become near impenetrable. And with Dragon Quest having never really caught on here, it seems that it's up to Final Fantasy VII to lead the way.
Beyond that, I've come to once again appreciate Final Fantasy VII for the things that it did right. In particular, there was just so much to see and do in Final Fantasy VII, whether you were riding around in a submarine or breeding chocobos, that it truly felt like a world unto itself. And as Jeremy and I discussed on Axe of the Blood God, it did a better job of feeling like a full, self-contained anime series than any game up until Persona 3.
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. Moments like Cloud's date like Barret at the Golden Saucer (which should be the canonical pairing, I don't care what anyone says), the first moment you see Midgar, and yes, Aeris' sacrifice have lodged themselves in the collective consciousness. No matter what its flaws, you can't deny that it's a fascinating game to analyze and parse.
I'll admit, I can't way to play the remake. No matter how it turns out, it'll certainly be a memorable experience, one that I expect we'll be talking about for many more years to come.