Paying my respects, only slightly begrudgingly August 30, 2012Posted by sinewysimian in Final Fantasy, PlayStation, Retrospective, RPGs.
I’m not a huge fan of Final Fantasy VII; it’s true. In my recent breakdown of the series, I didn’t have many positive things to say about the game, and ended my short blurb with “it isn’t very good.” I stand by those words, but I also recognize that they don’t really capture the true significance of this entry. Though I might be slightly loathe to admit it, FFVII has secured its lofty place in the hallowed halls of the video game hall of fame, regardless of how well or how poorly it’s held up over the years. So as we approach the 15-year anniversary of its North American release (September 7, 1997), I shall now use the occasion as an excuse to foist more opinions onto my readership. Sure, vast tomes of content are already splayed about the Internet, painstakingly detailing FFVII’s significance, but seriously, where would humanity be if I were not here to add my own screeching voice to the cacophony? In a ditch, covered in petrol and on fire, that’s where. You’re welcome.
So yeah, Final Fantasy VII. It may not be the best in its class, but it’s certainly one of the most important. At more than 10 million copies worldwide, it’s the best selling title in the series, and the 2009 re-release on PlayStation Network was downloaded over 100,000 times in the space of two weeks, cementing it as the fastest selling title ever to grace PSN. It was a monumental release then, and time has obviously not worn down its mass appeal. People remember FFVII because it brought Final Fantasy, and RPGs in general, to a mainstream audience that had never seen or played a game like it before. Gameplay, graphics, music and story were married here in a way that simply blew players away. The fact that it deflowered many an RPG virgin in the late ’90s may account for its enduring popularity; you always remember your first time, right?
Though the mechanics of every Final Fantasy have varied, FFVII’s heavily scripted, FMV-saturated presentation became a template for all future entries to come. It played a huge role in defining and shaping the Final Fantasy series going forward, its mark indelibly left on every subsequent chapter. But now that we’re fifteen years out, and FFVII now represents roughly the midpoint of the Final Fantasy franchise, there are still elements of FFVII that remain completely unique among its peers, traits and idiosyncrasies that haven’t been copied or duplicated.
Certainly not all of them are fondly remembered. As this was Final Fantasy’s first foray into 3D graphics, the rough spots are all too obvious—this is the only game in the series which featured (and sometimes practically necessitated) icons to display an area’s proper exits; and it’s the only game with such inconsistent art direction that it sports three different sets of character models, one of which looks like a collection of stumpy kids with Popeye arms. Plus, there was that whole Materia thing, a misguided customization system that turned the party into a band of interchangeable ciphers. For all the ability management that FFVII allowed, there was almost no actual character development; the focus remained always on those stupid color-coded stones that could be swapped at will. Materia appeared only in this game, though Square took a detour to the Junction system (where character individuality mattered even less, because it didn’t depend on equipped weapons) before returning to the concept of improving people rather than switchable objects.
Despite serving as something of a lesson in how not to make a Final Fantasy game, FFVII accomplished some amazing things. Primarily, it evoked an emotional response from players that remains unequaled by any Final Fantasy game before or since. And it achieved this at least in part through the brutal and completely unexpected murder of a beloved player character.
Sure, party member death had happened in the Final Fantasy series before, but not like this. Aerith’s murder hit so much harder than Sage Tellah’s melodramatic self-sacrifice in FFIV, and it wasn’t preventable like Shadow’s or Mog’s from FFVI. As players, we could do nothing but watch helplessly as Sephiroth mercilessly skewered Aerith with his sword, the 3D graphics making the scene feel so much more real and horrific than anything the series had ever given us before. Kefka’s destruction of the world? Celes’s suicide attempt? Emotional for sure… but simply not in the same league. And the unprecedented nature of the event was matched only by the gaming community’s reaction. It made some players cry. Some became angry; others were simply left confused and bewildered, and still others plumbed the Internet for years afterward looking for some way to reverse or avoid Sephiroth’s misdeed. For how easy it is to look at its story and realize how much of a muddled, incongruent mess it is, Final Fantasy VII is unique in that it still today contains the single most shocking moment in the series, and considering that the size of that series has more than doubled since FFVII’s release, that’s pretty remarkable.
So, yeah… Final Fantasy VII. I don’t love it, but it’s a big deal to the series, and to gaming in general. Next time you’re not in a ditch covered in petrol on fire, think of me and be grateful you have me here to tell you these things.