As we celebrate the 20th anniversary, I've been reflecting: what is it that makes Final Fantasy VII so special?
When we talk about great RPGs and great games, Final Fantasy VII comes up time and time again. Whether heated or in jest, most conversations about the best games of all time include Final Fantasy VII. Even though the game was released 20 years ago, and admittedly, the graphics and cinematics of the game haven't held up well at all, it is still the subject of adoration from RPG fans everywhere.
20 years after it's release, and in anticipation of a long-awaited remake, we take a look back at how Final Fantasy VII inspired an entire generation of gamers.
Is It Rose Colored Glasses Or Really That Good?
I was 11 years old when Final Fantasy VII was released. It was one of the first RPGs I played, and if you're also a child of the 90s, chances are that applies to you, if not most of your friends.
For many gamers, FFVII was their first truly cherished game experience in the JRPG genre. And regardless of what great games have been released since, how the game doesn't hold up anymore, or how much subsequent games have improved, you simply never forget your first.
To the naysayers out there that decry FFVII, yes you're partially right—Final Fantasy VII is not a great game for today's standards.
But that doesn't mean that millennials are looking through rose-tinted glasses when they think of FFVII. Nor are they just blinded by their adoration for the game that first captured their imagination. Final Fantasy VII was a perfect game for the time it was released. The graphics were cutting edge, the cinematics were top notch, and the evolution of the ATB combat system hit just the right note.
Deep Enough For Hardcore, And Yet Casual
Final Fantasy VII resonated with both experienced gamers, and casuals who had never really played games before. It represented the perfect balance between simplicity and depth that is so rarely replicated.
As someone who hadn't really spent time in the Final Fantasy franchise before VII, I didn't have experience with the ATB combat system that was present in the franchise from Final Fantasy IV to Final Fantasy IX. But as a casual RPG fan, FFVII was the perfect introduction.
It didn't take me long to figure out battles, and I didn't have to spend much time on learning the Materia system. The game was easy enough to jump right into, which was great for me—I could simply get through the combat and enjoy my narrative experience. The game mechanics, at least at first, were secondary. The game got out of it's own way for those (like me) who didn't care.
At the same time, those who wanted a more in-depth experience could find it in spades. It wasn't until my second playthrough that I learned about Vincent and Yuffie, and Knights of the Round. I even tried my hand at breeding and racing Chocobos.
I never did get a golden Chocobo or Knights of the Round, but I did learn about Yuffie and Vincent (man they kicked ass), and awkwardly made my way through the Materia system despite not really having a firm grasp over game design and min-maxing. I was a pre-teen after all.
But it was this evolution of gameplay that drove me to learn more about the complexity of RPGs and the level of customization that existed within them. Learning FF7's simple and yet deep system augmented my enjoyment of other RPG titles of that era including Skies of Arcadia, Grandia II, and successors in the Final Fantasy franchise.
But as I alluded to earlier, what really sucked me into FFVII wasn't the game itself, but the story.
The Story Was Beautiful, Despite Flaws
The first time I saw Final Fantasy VII, it wasn't through the lens of my own playthrough, but one of my close friends. I started watching pretty close to the beginning, but it wasn't until the crushing scene of Aerith's death that I decided I had to buy the game for myself. The impact of losing a party member, one as serene and innocent as her, was backbreaking. And even though I hadn't touched the game myself, I felt it just the same.
The game was filled with moments such as this, but it wasn't always an easy road to get there.
FFVII starts off with the crew being eco-terrorists. Then we become the heroes of a broken planet, held together by a combination of magics we don't understand, and are being attacked by a group of magics we also don't understand.
And there's this bad guy with white hair with a bunch of clones. Let's just say the story was complicated and a bit convoluted.
But with the understanding of Final Fantasy VII's unique plot came an understanding in your fellow gamer. You could theorize about the complexities of the narrative, the origins of the characters, the turning points in the game. All of this was done among the camaraderie of schoolmates and friends. "Don't get used to Aeris..." you'd say with a wink to the Final Fantasy VII newbies who were late picking up the game. Why did we spoil it for them? Monsters!
Once you understood Final Fantasy VII's story and could speak with authority on it, you joined the "cool kids club," like it was some sort of badge of honor you wore. You were a "real" gamer. And for my generation of kids who grew up in strange times of isolation, it was just what we needed at the perfect time to fit in and feel not alone.
'Final Fantasy VII' Inspired A Generation
Final Fantasy VII's story is complicated by any standard (except maybe 'Kingdom Hearts'...), and certainly that hasn't changed much in the JRPG genre, but the complexities and intricacies of both the game design and the story inspired a generation of gamers and game designers to strive for even more.
Modern game design in RPGs has learned from the mistakes of games like FFVII—for the better. And rather than tearing down all that was built before, game designers have added to the foundation to create even deeper and more meaningful game experiences. Final Fantasy VII made mistakes, but it still got a lot right. These lessons cannot be forgotten, despite how poorly the game has aged over time.
Final Fantasy VII isn't my favorite game of all time—it's not even my favorite Final Fantasy game of all time (that honor goes to Tactics), but it is the game that I most associate with my youth, and the childlike wonder that has led me to be a writer, journalist, and storyteller.
And these feelings I have, despite my admitted critiques of FFVII's quality lead me to wonder: What else could we want from this most beloved game? Can the reality of the game stand up to the nostalgia we feel when we reflect on our youth, spending dozens or hundreds of hours playing it?
Maybe we should leave well enough alone.
Can The Remake Live Up To The Original?
I was initially as excited as everyone else when I first heard of the remake. And when I finally hear about the release date, and inevitably boot up the game for the first time, I will get the same childlike excitement I got when I defeated Sephiroth for the first time. The tears I fought to hold back, the frustration I felt, the rush of winning a challenging battle—it will likely all come back.
If the remake can capture all of that, then maybe that's enough.
Expectations for the FFVII remake are apropos for a game that many hail as the greatest of all time. And even if it may not be the greatest, it is no doubt one of the most important games ever made.
Regardless of if the Final Fantasy VII remake lives up to the original, FFVII is a game that defines an entire generation of gamers, and that's about as good a legacy as any.
What does Final Fantasy VII mean to you? Are you looking forward to the remake?