True to their modern business model, Square-Enix has re-released a beloved classic in the form of Final Fantasy VII for PC. The PC version of the game will include new achievements and…that’s about it. As annoying as it is to see a game from fifteen years ago paraded like a company’s proud new accomplishment, ultimately it’s nice that new players get a chance to experience classic games. Gaming is a medium that often disregards classics.1 Because technology is so important to games, it’s tempting to figure that newer is always better. And it isn’t.
Final Fantasy VII is a classic and it deserves to be: the world is open, the plot is both grandiose and personal, the concepts are uncanny while feeling startlingly close to home and protagonist of the game is one of the best developed in games.2 I won’t say that it’s a perfect game:the spotty translation takes a very complicated plot and makes it obtuse, the mechanics are poorly explained and, when mastered, take all the challenge out of the game and the graphics looked outdated within a year of its release. Even so, I fully stand behind the love-letter that Nightmare Mode allowed me to write on the game.
Final Fantasy VII is a game that I play once a year, even if I have to play it vicariously (one summer I forced fed it to my college roommate who had never held a controller before…I was thrilled when she turned out to love it) and every year I find more to talk about it. This year I’ve paid special attention to the pre-rendered backgrounds the little Lego-like sprites run around in. Compared with the settings of other games in the series, the locations of Final Fantasy VII are unlike anything else. Because the backgrounds don’t depend so heavily on the PSX’s outdated hardware in the way the the cutscenes do, they’ve remained visually stunning even as the sprites have become admittedly goofy looking. The backgrounds, particularly in the settlements but even through the dungeons and caves, speak a lot to the world FFVII takes place in.
The setting of the Final Fantasy games really didn’t change much until the sixth instalment. There were new worlds that got bigger, with more places and different peoples, but you could always count on an ice-palace, a forest, a volcano and a handful of indistinguishable caves and towns in between. The tone and the social atmosphere of Final Fantasy IV is a far cry from the more whimsical Final Fantasy V, but until VI, the games took place in more or less a straight fantasy realm. The graphical limitations of the 8- and 16-bit eras had a hand in how straightforward the world designs were, but, ultimately, there’s nothing wrong at all with pure fantasy so long as it’s used effectively, and Square always managed to use it effectively. There’s a reason why this series has the status that it does.
But FFVII took a hard left turn for the series. FFVI, FFIX and FFXII were steampunk worlds where supernatural magic and human ingenuity were happily married; FFVIII, FFXIII and FFXIII showed us that machines were our friends, there were problems in those worlds but none that couldn’t be solved with a spaceship or a motorbike. Technology was natural, an extension of the self or it was sleek, powerful, and versatile. FFVII didn’t take us to any of those places. The people in the world needed machines to live, but machines were slowly killing them. The cities were dark brown with pollution and hollowed out cars and rubble were littered everywhere. Aeris’s church is stunning: on the inside it looks so big and bright and safe, but on the outside it’s covered by debris and rusting engine parts, it’s just this tiny building being devoured by the city of Midgar.
This isn’t a place of magic or wonder. The game assures us that magic, in this world, can be broken down to scientific principles. There’s something disheartening in learning that magic can be more easily explained by a mundane natural force as opposed to being something ineffable or divine. FFVII takes all the magic out of science and the wonder out of fantasy. There’s oil or rusted steel or advertisements cluttering up the whole world. Only a few paths are cleared out between all the wreckage. Ever try to manoeuvre an apartment or a house that’s been tightly packed with useless junk? I see FFVII as a whole world of that. Useless junk with a few paths cleared in between. There are a few vestiges of sanctuary, which is important to the game’s message (after all, there is a happy ending to all this), but they are few and far between.
Final Fantasy VII is never going to be made again. Nothing like it should be made again, it served it’s purpose in it’s time and gaming is long past it. Any attempt to recapture that magic diminishes it (I can’t be the only person that happily pretends the prequel/sequel material doesn’t exist). Hell, even the series as a whole is long past its prime.4 I’m happy to go back to it every summer when I have the chance, but I don’t want it to keep getting thrown in my face. That said, for the first time the game has now breached the console-gap and has been made available to everyone, which I think of as an excellent revival of a worthwhile classic.
1 Filipowich, Mark. “Remembering the Good Times: A defence of video game classics.” Joystick Division. February 16 2012; “Often Classic Means Dated: A Look Back at Chrono Trigger.” PopMatters. September 6 2011
2 Filipowich, Mark. “A Profile of Cloud Strife.” bigtallwords. November 17 2011.
3 Filipowich, Mark. “Displacement in Final Fantasy VII.” Nightmare Mode. July 3 2012.
4 Filipowich, Mark. “Finite Fantasy: The Problem with JRPGs.” PopMatters. June 12 2012.
Further reading: CClose. “Final Fantasy VII: A Retrospective.” Snacked Up. Sep 7 2012.
Cox, Dan. “Building Worlds: Midgar of Final Fantasy VII.” Nightmare Mode. Jan 27 2012.
Bogen, Matthew. “The Gnosticism of Final Fantasy VII pt. 1.” Mental Gaming. Nov 12 2013.