Retro-Spec: Final Fantasy VII

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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Retro-Spec is a new editorial series where staff members of Operation Rainfall talk about various games throughout the years that have had an impact, or not.  It’s all about the games we love, whether they be huge hits or incredibly niche titles.  

 Introducing one of the biggest JRPG titles to hit the Sony Playstation.

Final Fantasy VII

The meteor, coming to a planet near you.

Over the years, when thinking about games that had a huge impact for the industry, my thoughts always turn to none other than Final Fantasy VII. The game was a huge hit upon release, partly because of the magnitude of hype that was built for it.  It has also spawned many spin-off sequels, and a feature-length CGI film as well.  The excitement at the time for the seventh installment in Squaresoft’s growing Final Fantasy franchise had gamers talking about it everywhere.
I am not a Final Fantasy VII doubter. I loved the game when I first played it, and I love it still, warts and all. But in this feature, I’m going to dissect it a bit and try to wipe some of the rosey colors from my nostalgia goggles and see the game as it is. Or at least, try to.

Hype train

I remember seeing that epic white cover with Cloud looking up at an ominous industrialized building (now known to me as the infamous Shinra headquarters). I also remember going into game shops, and the clerks’ words helped snowball my internal hype (“did you know this game is supposed to have 140 hours worth of content?”). Some of that hype was true, and some of it was….a bit of a stretch, for sure. To give an example, to this day my total playthrough time has always stuck around 40 hours. Now, there are extra quests in the game, but I hardly doubt a single playthrough for me would come even close to the 140 hours mentioned (maybe some of the most die-hard fans could reach that number, though). I also remember seeing ads on tv, as Sony was pushing this game as their big break…and boy, was it.

I need not say anything about this video:

Accommodating the ‘non-believers

When looking at the game now, for anyone who did not go through the experience that was Final Fantasy VII during the time of its impact, you may say “this game is silly, it was overhyped, it looks really bad, dated, downright ugly, etc.” In fact, I’ve seen the majority of video gamers on the internet today speak that way about this once must-have title. What I always wondered is why people feel that way. Perhaps if we look at video games at the time, as well as the place in the series that the game sat, and what games were built off of it, we might get a clearer picture. Not to mention the game itself, and if it still holds any relevance many years after its initial release.

Final Fantasy VII released early in the Playstation’s lifecycle, when the system was still struggling to find its voice. Everyone expected the game to be released on Nintendo’s new system, which was a fast one that Squaresoft pulled on all of us. I won’t go into too much detail, as many of us already know the ‘what’s-what’ and ‘who’s-who’ of that story. However, Final Fantasy VII came after another game that is still proclaimed by some as the best in the series: Final Fantasy VI (then known as III).

When comaparing the two games, gameplay-wise, I would definitely say that Final Fantasy VII is the simpler, less sophisticated of the two.  It is more streamlined, and a lot of the variety and uniqueness that FF VI offered has been stripped away for a more cinematic narrative. The massive undertaking of the new, progressive art style with detailed pre-rendered backgrounds (gorgeous, at the time) and 3D character models in a 3-dimensional battle system took center focus. Not to mention a new approach to video game direction, which gave the game a more cinematic feel, including new full motion video sequences. A lot of the younger gamers may laugh at the game’s outdated look now, but at the time the game was straddling two worlds: the previous generation’s cartoon-like feel, and a new, more realistic and detailed look.  Whether gamers liked the super-deformed characters or not, the game had a strong visual appeal.

Unique skill-sets versus the Materia System

Final Fantasy VI actually had some great systems in place that were left behind in the series’ jump to 32 bits. Some of those include a unique skill set for each character, not to mention a big character roster (14 characters to have in your team, and a four character party system). Some of those characters’ skills were more valuable than others, but each one really had something different to offer. There were also impressive amounts of customization and optional quests for the characters, for an SNES game. Want to have a character equip two swords, with eight strikes per turn? Find the secret items.  Want to discover all the little story bits?  Have the right character in your party at the right time.

Comparing this with Final Fantasy VII, they went for a more streamlined approach for the latter game. Each character starts out with simple functions, all of them mainly being attack, defend, item, and eventually magic. The one unique feature that this game has for each character is limit breaks. I never got tired of seeing Cloud rip through enemies with his sword, or Barret go ballistic and rain down explosions over enemies.

Cloud Battling

In the beginning, Cloud was in Soldier. Or was he...?

Despite being more simplistic, the game does boast a Materia system that is simple to use, and yet provides as much customization for your characters as FFVI and then some. Some might consider that a downfall if the system isn’t taken advantage of. At first the characters are a bit bland in battle, with the only differences being weapon of choice (swords, spears, fists, and guns) and limit breaks. It is only later on, after some tinkering, that you can make your characters as unique as you could ever possibly want.

 Did I mention the word….’Uematsu?’

There is no need to introduce the well known video game composer Nobuo Uematsu. If there is one thing we know about him, it is that his musical works always please, and his strong melodies in Final Fantasy VII do not fail that statement. Fresh off from Final Fantasy VI, I felt that some of his tunes were reminiscent of that game, which is a good thing.  A lot of the tunes in the game are ominous, presenting a much more gripping, emotional sound than previous Final Fantasies.  It could even be argued that a game like Final Fantasy VII would lose much of its strength if the music was not a driving force behind it.  Forever etched in my memory of this game is an accompanying melody by Uematsu.  They are absolutely inseparable to me.

For your listening pleasure:

I still, from time to time, listen to the fully orchestrated version of the main theme of Final Fantasy VII (also called ‘Cloud’s theme’), and a tear almost comes to my eye whenever I hear Aeris’ emotional theme.  Listening to that tune after finish the first disc in the game will give you a good insight into the emotional depth of Uematsu’s deceptively simple melodies.  I can see no complaints about this aspect of the game, unless you have something against midi-composed music of old.

Infinitely spawning invisible monsters

Unfortunately, Final Fantasy VII falls prey to one of the most hated mechanics in JRPG history: Random battles. And boy, are they frustrating in this game. As much as I loved the game, the rate of random battle appearances almost made me put down the controller. Almost. This is not a problem of FF VII alone, however. The previous games in the series also suffer from this problem, and VI suffers a great deal as well. Eventually, items are available to reduce the frequency, but they only reduce it to what it should have been in the first place.

Love triangles, amnesiacs, and long haired warriors oh my!

A bad guy...check. Long sword and hair. Check. Flames. Check.

One of the many points brought up by gamers about FF VII is that it has such a cliched plot and stereotypcial characters. Well, those people are right. Final Fantasy VII has most of the cliches you could possibly ever think of. And then some. But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t one of the best examples of how to use those cliches the right way.
Final Fantasy VII is one of the early games to actually use the ‘amnesiac’ mechanic in a big way. It was not the first, of course, as that has been used many times. Most of the examples of the cliche, however, came after Final Fantasy VII. I would argue (and others would argue against) that the ideas of having a main character with amnesia, and a ‘super-crazy-villain-that-was-once-good’ had become big cliches in video games in general because of Final Fantasy VII to begin with. Either way, if you actually play it and experience the storyline for the first time without knowing anything, then you may find that it is a very engaging, compelling story that leaves you on the edge of your seat. I had in fact forgotten many of the story details for the game, and when I played through again after 12 years, I found myself in real suspense. I couldn’t remember how it had played out, and I really wanted to find out.

 Nostalgia junkie, stuck in the past.

Perhaps that might be right. It could very well be that I am just feeding off the fumes of nostalgia. But, whether or not I need to take off my childhood goggles, I can still make this point: If you look past the the aging designs of Final Fantasy VII, what you will find at its core is a compelling, dare I say, gripping, story with fun-yet-simple gameplay mechanics with enough customization to make anyone happy. I could also argue that, without Final Fantasy VII, we may have not experienced the JRPG boom to the same extent during those years. Love it or hate it, this game is partly responsible for bringing a niche genre to a new height in video gaming.

What are you thoughts on this topic? Agree, disagree, hate, love? Discuss below.



About Clinton Nix

Former Volunteer- Clinton started following the movement back when it was still being hosted on the IGN message boards and with the Amazon push of Monado. He’s also an audio engineer, studying in Seattle and waiting for his big break into the world of audio (but not to the detriment of video game writing, of course).