The idea of replaying Final Fantasy VII has long been on my mind. Playing it in 1998 was definitely a turning point. Yet the discourse surrounding it, and experiences I've had since, has definitely altered my perception of the game. Playing Final Fantasy XII a couple of times made me believe the gameplay of Final Fantasy VII was slow and dull. Playing Bravely Second gave me the impression that the job system was the definitive method to customise my little warriors. Sitting in my dorm room bed in Japan and finally playing Final Fantasy IX, gave rise to the idea that, even for a Playstation 1 game, Final Fantasy VII was unforgivably ugly. Submerging myself in Tactics Ogre on my Vita mathematically proved that video game storytelling had reached its zenith on the Super Nintendo. And Final Fantasy VII Remake convinced me that the Midgar section was really the only noteworthy part of Final Fantasy VII.
A few years ago, a bunch of people decided the subpar original translation of Final Fantasy VII needed to go. They were gonna do it right. I can verify they succeeded. Around the time I started playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, I loaded a Playstation 1 emulator with the Beacause translation and the Chicago font, and tried to play the two versions concurrently. Eventually, around Wall Market, I fell off the original and focused on Final Fantasy VII Remake. Final Fantasy VII Remake, by the way, is an absolute triumph. Somehow, later, I decided to give it just one more shot. I must have achieved perfect Japanese Role-Playing Game synchronicity, because I proceeded to have some 38 hours of constant enjoyment.
I'll start with the part I care the least about: the story. Yes, gasp indeed, dear non-existent reader. The narrative and how it's told is why we've never forgotten Final Fantasy VII. In this text I argue that it probably isn't the best part, which is saying a lot, because it is undeniably fabulous. It contains a plot development that is always mischaracterized as a twist, that shook the medium so profoundly, that people forgot about the part that was an actual plot-twist. The actual plot-twist is spectacular. Many hours before either of these events occur, there's a scene where the heroes go to the house of Aerith Gainsborough. Her mother recounts how she raised Aerith and the way this exposition happens, shivered me timbers. At one point, in the present, a textbox from the past appears. The camera pans up, barely keeping Aerith's Mother Elmyra, but not the other characters, in the shot. A diminutive Aerith descends the stairs, and as the camera now tracks her, the other characters are gone, and without cutting, we have seamlessly transitioned to a past event. As the flashback is told, the camera alternately pans right and left, each time returning to a different time-period in the same location as we are presently standing. Finally, it pans down again, and then back up, into the kitching in the present, in a different angle (which, remember, required rendering an entire extra background). Lord, I hope I appreciated this twenty years ago. I sure do now. There’s no need to mock the 3D characters. They did the best they could at the time. Yet they also compensated with every other tool in their inventory. Like Final Fantasy VII recently did, so too did Tactics Ogre on the Super Nintendo later on receive a tremendous retranslation (this one official). Yet even that version didn’t have film-maker editing on this level. Though if we’re swinging our video game cinematic dicks around, Final Fantasy VII doesn’t have a Man Staring at the Sea.
A commonly heard refrain about Japanese Role-Playing Games is the ol’ “dude. Just play it for like 10 hours and then it gets really good”. Not only have you never heard anyone utter this about Final Fantasy VII, you’ve probably heard the reverse. “Yeah it’s real good for the first 3/5/8 hours (varies with how truthful they are about the size of the Midgar section, and whether they admit to playing it with certain settings on), and then it gets kinda boring” . This says a lot about people’s perception of both the genre, and Final Fantasy VII specifically. What I mean is: Due to the complexity of these games, they slowly add mechanics over the course of some 10 hours, and then, when you finally see the whole breadth, you either have Stockholm Syndrome, or you genuinely agree with the designers that this is a good idea. Final Fantasy VII rammed a 10-hour, $80 million symphony of 20-year-old Scotch and fresh new blowjobs, performed by the entire AKB48 ensemble into the roof of its mouth, and blew its own head off.
And then it got good, dude.
Is trying to keep a lid on how much you like a subject a common occurrence? Is it universal for everyone to have the equivalent of what some people call “hiding your power level” or “hiding your crazy”? Final Fantasy VII is really trying to “hide its crazy” with Midgar. Its crazy, is that this is actually a traditional Japanese Role-Playing Game with all the systems and mechanics that that entails. Parlour tricking you with set-piece dungeons like Wall Market and a gripping and fantastically well-paced and brilliantly told narrative, is really only to keep you around until it feels comfortable showing its true self, and praying you don’t run away screaming. Which a lot of people did.
Playing Final Fantasy VII this time felt strangely like playing it for the first time. I recalled many moments, and yet so many mandatory sequences seemed completely new to me. Numerous times I had to question how I ever finished it when I was… 9? That can’t be right. Did I play it in 2001? That seems too late. Who am I? Did every unit of time once exist in a much, much smaller period, so that a playthrough of Final Fantasy VII could somehow occupy the mental space of what would today be an entire decade? Describing what I once knew or observed as something so trivial as nostalgia seems like a gargantuan disrespect to whatever it is to be a child. How could I possibly be in a position to reflect on what Final Fantasy VII felt like to play for a kid that barely spoke and read English? How could that kid possibly appreciate the richness and generosity of this work? He played it alone. No one else thought Cloud Strife looked fucking cool. He didn’t even know the game was from Japan. Did he?
Man, I used to be a genius. I must have been. This game is fantastic. Every single battle is a joy. Somehow the Final Fantasy series jumped from the Super Nintendo to the Sony Playstation and became far more kinetic, faster, more responsive, and didn’t lose any complexity. The throwaway random battles are deliciously balanced between relaxing usages of the game’s systems, and constant pick-me-ups of magical skirmishes with that banging little battle theme. The boss fights all mow down whatever is in front of them, just to tell me that this fight, this time, will be even cooler. Those Who Fight Further has never been topped. Sorry IV fans. I genuinely apologise, V fans. Final Fantasy VII has the best battle music, regular OR boss.
The previously mentioned generosity is the key. Another not-uncommon criticism of Japanese Role-Playing Games is that they are disrespectful of the player’s time: The result of random battles is a foregone conclusion, and being underpowered for a mandatory battle, necessitates that you run in circles, fighting more and more lighting slugs and unicycle horse robots, until you feel ready for the next challenge. This, my imaginary reader, is the wrong perspective. It is wrong, because it misunderstands the genre. It misunderstands the genre, because it didn’t come to have a good time. It came to the party to have a bad time, and argue and to leave in huff. This would only be a strawman argument if it wasn’t so god damn true.
It’s rather simple really. As previously described, every encounter in Final Fantasy VII feels good. The music is blood-pumping. As you travel further away from Midgar, new mechanics are added, old spells become more powerful. The observant player will start to accumulate spells from the monsters. If you fight the monsters that appear in front of you, and travel at a leisurely pace, you will be well-equipped, though not too well-equipped, to take on any boss monster, and with a bit of tenacity, even some optional one you probably aren’t really ready for. You won't, however, have access to the entire possible arsenal of Final Fantasy VII. It is vast, and it is world-destroying, and the designers aren’t keeping it from you out of malice. They are rewarding it, to those who are having too good of a time. See if you were a little older than I was back when Final Fantasy VII was released, you still might not have had access to too many other games. The notion of a backlog of unplayed games didn’t exist yet. So if Final Fantasy VII was blowing your mind, and you just couldn’t get enough, you would keep playing. The optional content was there, and it was plentiful. And as you kept on playing, more and more content would get unlocked. Powerful additions that would help you with defeating superior monsters that existed where only a few people were looking. The game was saying “Hey man, great that you’re having a good time. Uh… I mean, there really isn’t any more story. Hmm. Would you like an insanely powerful summoning spell? Oh, you just like filling up all the bars? Uh, well I guess once you’re done, you can have a magical jelly bean that contains all the magical jelly beans at the same time? Jeez. Well, as long as you’re having fun.”
Final Fantasy VII is the old lady you used to visit. She had lived through the war (any war). She could tell you some stories. Hopefully she did. You would watch TV at her house and she’d give you cookies. You kept coming over and she honestly, really appreciated the company.