Looking Back at Final Fantasy VII

The 1990s were a long decade when it came to advancement of digital entertainment. Nintendo came out of the 1980s on top of the world. Mario the Plumber, Nintendo’s mascot, would be as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, Superman, or Bugs Bunny. Sega struck back with Sonic the Hedgehog at the start of the new decade. But by the middle of it, both would be shaken up by a new party. Nintendo may have had a cold war going on with Sega for the hearts and minds of kids around the world, but there was no doubting who was the stronger party. Sega may have been able to land a place in the video game market, but Nintendo had an army of software makers supplying its machines with growing libraries of quality titles. Castlevania, Mega Man, Street Fighter – they were all major names in gaming. One of those titles was a role-playing franchise called Final Fantasy.

The RPG hit the scene as a much-too-deep board game in the form of Dungeons & Dragons. Computer software makers saw an opportunity to transfer the idea to PCs. The most famous of these was Ultima. Ultima caught a cult following among computer whizzes and dateless nerds. Nerdiness naturally attracted the Japanese, who were leading in the electronics world. America had Ultima. Japan had something better: Final Fantasy. While Ultima had little appeal beyond the realm of personal computers, Final Fantasy targeted the new Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), offering medieval worlds with magic, monsters, and adventure on Nintendo’s popular appliance. The company behind Final Fantasy, Square, spent the next decade working closely and successfully with Nintendo.

Sadly, Square’s “success” was limited to the Far East. Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, and Romancing Saga were best-selling series in Japan, but had a small following in the States. Good reviews and magazine advertisements didn’t do much to boost sales. Because of weak sales, Square only exported a handful of its RPGs to the United States either under different names or different orders. For example, America’s Final Fantasy II and III were actually numbers IV and VI, respectively. This issue wouldn’t be resolved until years later.

Square and Nintendo’s partnership took a turn for the worse in the middle 1990s. Nintendo’s next console, still going by the name Ultra 64, was going to maintain the use of cartridges. Cartridges were already replaced by most companies in the industry by compact discs, which were easier to work with, cheaper to produce, and stored more data. Nintendo ignored the complaints of third-party developers – a fateful decision. Square would end up as one of the many companies that defected to Sony’s camp with its popular PlayStation. Square’s final years with Nintendo brought out some of its best work: Secret of Mana 3 (Japan only), Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG.

Sony was more than eager to get its hands on what was being considered the greatest RPG yet to come out. Final Fantasy VII had aroused excitement since its announcement in 1995. With solid development for the PlayStation, Square was able to offer previews early in 1996 to the gaming press. Sony’s computer entertainment division would publish the title, providing millions of marketing dollars advertising the game on television, movie theaters, websites, and magazines. People who didn’t know what Final Fantasy was (or didn’t care) were suddenly drawn by curiosity.

The game’s launch was in 1997, hitting US store shelves in the autumn. Those familiar with Final Fantasy were pleased to see a game with excellent 3D graphics, detailed pre-rendered backgrounds, and intense high-quality video sequences. But these features were just part of a grand story with a memorable cast that would win hearts and bring the RPG mainstream.

Each Final Fantasy told a different tale with a new set of characters. None of the stories were related, and this remains. The plot of the seventh installment centers on Cloud, a mercenary and former member of an elite military unit from the Shin-Ra Corporation. He happens to help out a rebel group fighting against Shin-Ra in the form of sabotage. Shin-Ra is an all-powerful enterprise with a full army and empire that cover the globe. Shin-Ra supplies Mako energy to the world; problem is that Mako is the planet’s life force and Shin-Ra is slowly killing the world. Things get complicated when a menace from Cloud and Shin-Ra’s past comes back to take revenge on mankind. Keep in mind this is just in the first 10% of the game.

The changing plot kept gamers on edge. You wanted to know what was happening, what was going to happen, or who would you see next. You had en evolving saga of hate, sorrow, revenge, an ongoing love triangle, jealousy, and tragedy. The characters were every bit as enriching as the story line, each character having his or her own trait. Cloud is quiet, to himself. Tifa, his childhood friend (and hometown honey), is open and optimistic. Aeris, a mystical flower girl from the city of Midgar, is someone so kind and pure, she had to come from Heaven. Barrett, the rebel leader, is large and menacing, but shows the gentleness of a cub with his adopted daughter Marlene. By the end of the game, players would have five more members to add to their party (two optional): Red XIII, a lion-like creature with great wisdom; Cait Sith, a joking toy cat riding a giant stuffed Mog; Cid, a tough-talking, profane pilot with a heart of gold and dreams as high as the stars; Yuffie, a mischievous female ninja; and Vincent, the tortured result of Shin-Ra experiments.

More was added to the adventure, which consisted of exploring not only towns and far-off lands, but characters’ pasts. Square created a diverse world of deserts, metropolises, mountainous valleys, swamps, and lost kingdoms. A better achievement was that Square made you want to explore them. Optional side-quests gave players more insight into the world with rewarding gains in the form of items, unique monsters, or just secret information on someone.

The play mechanics of the game were nothing amazing. As in other “turn-based” RPGs, players engaged in random battles, using menus to determine actions along timing bars. Players had a maximum of three members in a party. There was a small twist: Materia, a by-product of Mako. Materia (which has a very special role in the plot) comes in the form of gemstones. There are five different types of Materia, determined by color: Summon (Red), Magic (Green), Command (Yellow), Independent (Purple), and Support (Blue). The amount of Materia you could equip on a party member is determined by the weapon and armor that the Materia is attached to. Experience Points, the necessary things to advance in level, were still gained by battle. But players would have to spend hours upon hours just to be at the proper level needed to complete the game. The different creatures, nice weapons, magical spells, and soundtrack helped reduce the aggravation of it all. It was frustrating to have to wait by the wayside in endless fights when you wanted to know what was waiting in the Far North or the Ancients’ Temple. In the future, Squate would answer player complaints with reduced encounters and more points per engagement in its future RPGs.

Final Fantasy VII was a huge hit, being the best-selling game worldwide in 1997 and the best-selling RPG up to that point. Square was more than pleased, allowing Eidos Interactive to publish it on the PC. Square USA imported a new, long list of titles from Japan, most of them RPGs. Final Fantasy VII‘s loyal lovers would not get the sequel they wantedâÂ?¦for a time. Final Fantasy VIII kept to tradition with a whole new adventure and cast. The most gamers got back were cameo appearances in Final Fantasy Tactics (a strategy game), Ergheiz (a forgettable fighting game), and Kingdom Hearts (a Square/Disney RPG venture). The Final Fantasy series itself was re-released in proper numeric order on the PlayStation amid good reviews.

Rumors of a Final Fantasy VII sequel or update for the PlayStation 2 were dispelled, but Square did admit not long after of doing something with the famed title. The product of the new effort was unusual. Final Fantasy VII would have a sequel, but in the form of a straight-to-video CGI film. This caused some unease, especially when early reports stated the film would only be an hour in length. (There was some more worry from memories of Square’s previous Final Fantasy movie: the box-office bomb Spirits Within.) Things got worse when some reports claimed it would not be released outside of Japan. Both turned out to be false. Advent Children hit Western shores in 2006. Two other related titles were in the form of games. Dirge of Cerberus starred Vincent in a 3D action game for the PS2. Reviews were mixed. The final game, one for cell phone users, is Before Crisis, a prequel yet to be released.

Final Fantasy VII did more than just make the RPG a serious genre in gaming. It did more than bring the Final Fantasy name into Western gamers’ minds. Final Fantasy VII, with its high production cost and advertising effort, made the video game a form of art – even literature. If anything, Final Fantasy was an interactive sci-fi drama. That would be understood in the future, as celebs lent their voices and studios their resources to large and expensive video game efforts. The video game was no longer a toy: it was a new form of story telling.

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