Retro Revisit: Final Fantasy 7
There are few games in any franchise as revered as the seventh mainline instalment of Final Fantasy, a watershed moment in gaming. A game that defined both a genre and a console generation, Final Fantasy 7 remains highly influential to this day.
Telling the story of a ragtag group of soldiers fighting to free the world from the Shinra Corporation, Final Fantasy 7’s roster of characters is legendary – from protagonist Cloud and his iconic Buster sword, to foul-mouthed Barrett and his weaponised arm, or mysterious gunslinger Vincent. This is to say nothing, of course, of antagonist Sephiroth – widely regarded as one of the series more sympathetic, yet powerful, villains.
Set against a surprisingly vibrant industrial, almost-steampunk backdrop of Midgar (a side effect of truly beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds), Final Fantasy 7 eschews the shackles of its more fairy-tale forebears to tell a more mature story, admittedly one filled with JRPG melodrama.
Turn-based battles, sprinkled with active elements, remain just as tough in places today as they did twenty two years ago, particularly against some of the game’s harder to find Weapons – huge beasts which would take plenty of grinding to defeat and would then unlock new skills for your party.
These skills could be slotted into gear and weaponry via the satisfying “Materia” system, requiring careful balancing of a party’s equipment but never feeling like a chore – especially with the satisfying “click” of dropping a spell into place.
So many moments stand out, be it visiting the Golden Saucer to play minigames, or riding Cloud’s motorcycle out of Midgar. In fact, leaving Midgar to see the game’s world map remains one of the biggest shocks of the original PlayStation.
Of course, booting up the PlayStation 4 version (or the original on PlayStation 3, Vita, or PlayStation Classic), the game shows its age. The pre-rendered videos that once justified the jump from cartridges to compact discs (and from Nintendo hardware to Sony) feel decidedly campy and old-fashioned, but the introduction of Midgar remains a highlight. The backgrounds hold up more impressively, their lack of motion or interactivity feeling antiquated, but their beauty showing up the oddly-proportioned character models of the time.
These character models, even in their polygonal form, are dripping in charm. As Tetsuya Nomura’s (now of Kingdom Hearts fame) first project as lead character designer, there are hallmarks of what would make his later designs just as iconic – spiky hair, comically oversized weaponry, and impressively expressive eyes (given the time of release).
The soundtrack, composed by series regular Nobuo Uematsu, is one of the all-time greats. The controversial death of party member (and presumed love interest) Aerith towards the end of the game’s first disc is allowed much greater emotional depth and gravitas by the beautiful score, while the leap to CDs allowed for the addition of vocals to the soundtrack – notable on “One-Winged Angel”, a fusion of rock and orchestral artistry that remains incredibly popular to this day.
As a three-disc epic, Final Fantasy 7 introduced millions across the world to a new genre – the JRPG. While many will doubt its credentials as the series finest entry (such is the quality of its immediate predecessor and two immediate successors), it’s difficult to overstate its importance on the gaming industry, and the genre.
Anecdotally, one of my closest friends had “Aerith’s Theme” play as part of his and his wife’s wedding ceremony. I have the Buster sword tattooed on my arm. The industry also remembers Final Fantasy 7 as an important moment in time - an oft-promised remake remains in development, the fervour for which reached fever pitch when a CGI cut scene was shown at E3 2016. Cloud, and Midgar, are both featured in Nintendo’s Smash Bros Ultimate, replete with background monsters taken straight from the game, and the original game is being re-released on Switch and Xbox One sometime this year. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy 7, there will soon be no excuse.