We've Got to Save the Lifestream... or Something...
Final Fantasy VII
Part of the fun about writing for this site is that I get to go out and try to experience new things. While I can write about the Super Mario SeriesHe's the world's most famous plumber and the biggest face in Nintendo's stable, a character so ubiquitous you already knew we were talking about Mario even before we said his name. from memory, having experienced basically every single game in the series first hand, my knowledge of the output of Square-EnixFormed from the unification of Squaresoft (home studio of Final Fantasy) and Enix (creators of Dragon Quest) this combined company is the largest game studios in the world. From action to adventure titles and, of course, JRPGs, Square Enix has become one of the biggest names in gaming. (both as separate companies and then the two of them as a merged entity) isn't as solid. I'm slowly working my way through all the Final Fantasy games (a project that takes some time if I want to experience the games right), but there are critical holes in what I know about those games and just how far I've played in any of them.
Realistically there are only two games in the Final Fantasy series I can write about with authority: the very first title in the series, NES original Final Fantasy, and the first game for the PlayStation years later, Final Fantasy VII. That isn't entirely my fault of course as Squaresoft elected not to release the second, third, and fifth games in the series in the U.S. until years later. That said, I didn't bother buying Final Fantasy IV (originally called Final Fantasy II here in the U.S.) or Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III here) when they came out, waiting until the compilations on the PlayStation... which I still have yet to properly play through.
But where many of the NES and SNES games sit on my shelf, in some form, waiting for me to go back and play them properly (I did at least play halfway through Final Fantasy V before hitting a wall in that game and walking away), Final Fantasy VII hooked me in. Its interesting, really, because going back and looking at the game now it feels somehow even more dated than any of the NES or SNES games, and yet at the same time when it came out it felt like the future of RPGs right in my hands. It's was, and it is, being both the future of where RPGs would go while, at the same time, being weirdly dated as well. It's quite the contradiction.
For a while there you could sort the entries in the Final Fantasy series by either their odd entries, which focused on mechanics, and their even entries, which put the focus more on story and substance. The odd titles gave us the famed "Job System", and Final Fantasy V played that to perfection. The even games, though, are beloved for their rich stories, like the redemption arc of Cecil or the curious story of Terra. Final Fantasy VII is a bit of both, with a rich story (that, frankly, gets a bit confusing by the end) paired with a pretty cool play system: Materia. It's the best of both worlds in some respects, and when I look back on the game the thing I love best is how it played and how it mixed its play style into its cool moments.
The game, though, certainly had its cool moments. Taking a page from the story games, the seventh entry dumps us right into the action as hero Cloud joins up with a group of freedom fighters, Avalanche (led by fellow playable characters Barret and Tifa) to take on the evil Shinra corporate and save their city, Midgar. Things don't go well for their mission, though, and Cloud, Barret, Tifa, and the rest if their crew are branded as terrorists and made Public Enemies #1. They then have to spend a substantial portion of the game escaping Midgar and, in the process, hopefully taking out Shinra eventually.
This intro, which could be pegged between a six and a tenth of the whole game, sets the stage for an adventure that feels very different from a traditional Final Fantasy. You're trapped in this town, following a fairly linear story as the game develops its plot, its characters, and its setting. It's not until you finally escape from Midgar that the world opens up into the more traditional experience we'd come to expect: an overworld to explore, towns to venture into, and multiple side-quests to take on and complete. This game settles down into the usual RPG beats at that point, but it's the prologue that feels the most substantial and interesting, Square really exploring what they wanted from their RPGs.
Of course, the big story when Final Fantasy VII game out was that instead of being released on the Nintendo 64 the company jumped ship over to Sony, making this game that system's big killer app. The game being released on the Nintendo 64 was never a done deal and this ties into much of gaming history for the years prior. Sony and Nintendo had been plotting an SNES CD extension called the "Play Station", something Square very much wanted since it would allow them to make more expansive and interesting games. Nintendo, though, got spooked and ditched the project (instead working with Phillips on a CD expansion instead that was also, eventually scrapped) and Sony, feeling burned went and made their own game system instead. Square, meanwhile, had to compromise a few of the games they had in development (like Secret of Mana) to fit these games on cartridges instead, and that left the company none too pleased with Nintendo.
The final straw certainly was Nintendo's insistence that the Nintendo 64 would publish its games on cartridges. Square wanted to publish on the cheaper, and more expansive, CD format, which Sony offered on the new PlayStation, and that clinched the deal. Despite releasing their games on the SNES for years, Square jumped to Sony, Final Fantasy VII essentially made the PlayStation into the device to have, and Nintendo was left out in the cold. Even now, people talk about "what could have been" if the game had been put out on the Nintendo 64 instead, but that would have required Nintendo to put out a CD version of the console, which was never in the cards. It just wasn't meant to be.
Whatever system the game ended up on it was going to feel like a killer app. The move from sprites to pre-rendered backgrounds and polygon graphics allowed Square to make the seventh edition of the series into a more lustrous and expansive game. The backgrounds could be lush and detailed, the characters interesting and distinct, and everything could have a feel very different from the games in the series that had come before. When it came to the full motion video sequences, or when the characters were in battle, the game looked gorgeous and, even now, these moments still look great despite the 23 years that have passed since the game was released.
The audio, too, is phenomenal in the game. Being able to use CD audio, instead of pumping out tunes through the consoles own audio channels, meant that Square could compose fully realized soundtracks with any instruments and effects they wanted. The whole soundtrack is full of bangers, and even now I go back and listen to the battle theme and enjoy the sweeping tone and the absolute, energetic nature of this tune, oft repeated throughout the game. It never got old while I played it and its still great even now.
And, again, I love how the game plays. This was the first game in the series to pair the team of heroes down to just three characters at any time (even the NES Final Fantasy II, which had three permanent characters in the party, still had a rotating fourth slot character). This has become standard for most of the games in the series going forward, and it changes the dynamic of the battles. Less characters means you have to think harder about your actions and how the characters will team up to combo what they have planned (unlike FF4, for instance, which its giant team of five characters at once).
The Materia are the most interesting part for me, though, as they allowed for all kinds of combinations to play out. Spells aren't learned but stored in little gems and these gems are augmented into a weapon to give characters those spells to use in combat. Placing a Fire materia on Clouds blade let him cast Fire (and then, as the Materia leveled up, higher versions of the spell) while pairing it with a support All materia meant he could cast it on a group of enemies. Experimenting with the materia was vital to progressing in battle, but you could apply these materia in any combination to the characters, so while Tifa might have been the game's version of a Monk she could still use materia and take all kinds of combinations onto her gloves. It was very cool and added a lot of depth to the whole experience.
The part of the game that holds up the worst for me, though, is the story. Once the heroes escape Midgar and get the whole world to explore, the story becomes, frankly, nonsensical. We have the machinations of Shinra, their tapping into the Lifestream of the planet, a super-weapon mutant they made, Sephiroth, and a meteor heading for the planet, plus super weapon bosses being revealed, and a back-story for Cloud, all mixed together in a giant jumble that amounts to far less than the sum of its many, many parts. It's not a story I hated while I played the game, and there were moments where I even said, "oh hey, that's cool." But once the game was over and I thought back on it, I had to admit that I didn't have a clue what the fuck just happened.
In this regard the game reminds me a lot of Chrono Cross, which also had a gorgeous soundtrack, detailed pre-rendered background and FMVs, and a plot that felt like it was written on a bunch of jumbled napkins. It's cool in its moments, but once you sit back and try to parse everything you just went through you can't make heads or tails of anything. It's one reason I actually look forward to the Final Fantasy VII Remake being complete and released (whenever that happens, possibly decades from now) as it's expanding the game and doing substantial edits to the whole story. Maybe in the right hands, with a crew trying to parse everything together, the game can actually make sense of its own story.
The story is like some other elements of the game -- spells effects that go on forever, such as Knights of the Round, and a lot of additional content thrown in just because, such as Gold Saucer -- that show Square had an expansive set of ideas and didn't have to try and edit themselves down and focus on what was working. If they ran out of room on a CD they just added a second CD; they were cheap to print off and pack in. So everything and anything the team came up with was thrown into the game because the company finally had the space to follow its every whim. It makes for a brilliant game that's also a complete and utter mess at the same time. A true contradiction as it's both breathtaking and utterly stupid.
And yet, even now, after all this time, I love it. It's such a great game in the moment that draws me back, over and over, for all the things it gets right. This is probably the high point of the series for so many of us, and it also marks the point where Square always had to try and best itself, to try and do better than this game, something I personally don't think its ever really been able to do. A number of games have come out in the series since, but really nothing can compare to this game. It came out at the right moment, with the absolute power of the company firing everything it had at a single masterwork of the genre. There had never been an RPG quite like Final Fantasy VII when it came out, and ever since the company, and the genre, has been trying to chase the legacy of this game since.