The Legacy of Final Fantasy VII
In 1997, a game was released for the PlayStation, which with one death, would change the gaming world forever. Now as the Final Fantasy VII franchise returns with Advent Children, Animefringe looks at the legacy of this legendary title.
Where were you when you first discovered Final Fantasy?
Some of you may have found it with the first 8-bit crystal quest on the Nintendo, others with the moment that Cecil became a paladin in Final Fantasy IV (released as Final Fantasy II in the U.S.) for the Super Nintendo, and even others with Kafka's world domination in Final Fantasy VI (originally known as Final Fantasy III in the U.S.), also on the SNES. Others may have found the series on the Game Boy, or discovered the series in the form of its more recent installments, such as Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 for the PlayStation 2, or with Final Fantasy XI for the PC. However, it was Final Fantasy VII that made countless throngs of gamers to believe in the power of next generation RPGs.
For many American RPG fans, Final Fantasy VII was the sole reason to buy a PlayStation system in September 1997. Released in Japan in January 1997, and later in Europe in November 1997, Final Fantasy VII went on to become a solid title in Sony's Greatest Hits collection for the PlayStation.
In October 1997, Final Fantasy VII International was released in Japan. This version was essentially the same as the North American release, which featured additional FMV scenes of the WEAPONS, the optional Ruby and Emerald WEAPON bosses, directional arrows on screens, tighter control in mini-games, an improved Materia management system and a cut-scene that helped to clarify Cloud's past. In addition, Final Fantasy VII International included a fourth disc with character sketches, maps, information and general trivia about the game.
An enhanced PC version of Final Fantasy VII followed in May 1998 from Eidos Interactive and Squaresoft (now Square Enix). This was a first for the Final Fantasy series in porting a console game to the PC. Translation errors in the PlayStation release were corrected, and the graphics were overall spectacular, with 3-D hardware accelerators sharpening character graphics, and with improved spell effects. However, backgrounds were slightly pixilated, and the sound effects were lackluster; the game did not take advantage of the increased capabilities of most PC sound cards over the PlayStation’s sound.
For many, the game was their first experience with a multiple CDs and FMVs (full motion videos). Final Fantasy VII was also the first title in the series to use 3D computer graphics with rendered characters and prerendered backgrounds. Although primitive and polygonal nowadays, Final Fantasy VII's graphics were cutting edge and revolutionary at the time, breaking the mold of 2-D sprites in RPGs.
Menus play an important role in Final Fantasy VII, as the player directs the movement of Cloud on the map, and the actions of all of the party members while in battle. Parties are restricted to three characters, as opposed to four or five members as found in previous Final Fantasy games.
Final Fantasy VII uses the ATB (Active Time Battle) system that is featured in various previous games in the series. Each character has their own time meter, which refills and depletes at a rate that is dependent upon the character's actions, as more powerful abilities take longer to charge and longer to recover from than normal attacks.
Magic and special abilities are present in the game in the form of Materia, orbs used by equipping them to slots in the characters' weapons and armor. Only naturally, different weapons and armors have different amounts of empty slots, thus making item selection and usage a personal strategic choice for the player, as opposed to having a set hierarchy of spells and equipment for characters.
Two years after the initial release of Final Fantasy VII, hackers found a debug room, accessible only through the use of a Gameshark or a Pro Action Replay cartridge. The rooms are labeled in kanji, and they are not player-friendly by any means. Clearly, this was never meant to be accessible by players at home. Perhaps one of the most comprehensive debug modes in any PlayStation game, it allows players to start the game at any point with any characters and any items. It also allows players to watch the FMVs, listen to music, and 'date' any of the female characters, as well as Barret. This was not the first appearance of a debug room in an RPG, but it was certainly the first one accessible by determined players to be so comprehensive.
Final Fantasy VII ushered into the series the idea of mini-games, such as Chocobo racing at the Gold Saucer theme park, as well as snowboarding, gun shooting, arm wrestling, basketball shooting, fighting, submarine diving, and a motorcycle game in the Gold Saucer arcade. Oftentimes, players spent more time in these games than in playing the main game itself. Needless to say, the Final Fantasy series has continued to feature mini-games since then.
A new and welcome addition to the series was the limit break attack, a desperation attack that only became available for the character after taking a certain amount of damage from the enemy. Once a character's limit bar has filled, players can use that character's limit break, a devastating special attack. As characters defeated enemies, their limit break attacks would level up, thus increasing the amount of damage to the enemy. This special desperation attack feature was so popular that it has been included in every Final Fantasy game since.
Lastly, Final Fantasy VII introduced the concept of optional hard-to-kill bosses, with Ruby and Emerald WEAPON. Although other WEAPON monsters appear in the game as part of the plot, these two bosses are entirely optional, requiring the player to go out of their way to seek them out, and they are extremely challenging and difficult to defeat. As with the special desperation attack feature, optional hard-to-kill bosses have become standard since then in the Final Fantasy series, oftentimes with much higher hit points than the final boss of the game.
From the opening gameplay and FMV, the plot of Final Fantasy VII is epic, blending together a modern world of automobiles, space flight and automatic firearms with pure fantasy. (Chocobos, anyone?)
The Shin-Ra megacorporation collects the life energy of the planet through the use of Mako Reactors. Mako is used in a manner similar to electricity and gasoline by the citizens of Final Fantasy VII. Mako can be refined into Materia, orbs that give the possessor the wisdom of the Ancients and the ability to work magic and summon monsters, as well as to give increased attributes and abilities. However, Mako is a finite resource, and yet Shin-Ra continues to use their reactors to draw out the planet's life force in the pursuit of money.
The rebel group AVALANCHE seeks to end this threat to the planet through destroying Mako Reactors and generally causing trouble for Shin-Ra. However, it turns out that the true threat to the planet is Sephiroth, a famous warrior long thought dead who has become something much more powerful and sinister. His desire to join with the planet's life force and become a god threatens life itself. Tied into this quest is Cloud Strife, the main hero, a mercenary willing to take any job for the right amount of money. He seeks to find his own forgotten history, and what exactly are the ties that bind him to Sephiroth. As Cloud struggles to discover what is real in his memories and what is mere fiction, the player struggles for understanding alongside him.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Final Fantasy VII is its cast of characters. From the silent Cloud Strife to Yuffie Kisaragi, the energetic Materia hunter, it was hard not to become attached to the cast.
As the game progresses, the player learns the backstory of each of the characters, the majority of whom have had their share of tragedy. The vampiric Vincent Valentine's dark past lies entwined with the origins of Sephiroth, while Cid Highwind is a former potential astronaut and renowned pilot and mechanic yearning to achieve his dream of spaceflight. Cait Sith, a stuffed toy cat who rides a giant Mog and has a hobby of fortune telling, ends up being remotely controlled by a middle-level Shin-Ra employee as a spy in the party. Soon Reeve, the employee must decide where his loyalties lie; with his newfound friends or with the company? Barret Wallace, the headstrong leader of AVALANCHE that deals justice with a gunarm, turns out to have a few skeletons in his closet when the party comes across Dyne, Barret's former best friend in his previous life as a miner in the town of Corel. Finally, we have Red XIII, otherwise known as Nanaki, the last of his race of the beast protectors of Cosmo Canyon. During the game, he discovers the truth about his father, and he finds the courage to fight.
A love triangle begins to develop between Cloud, his childhood friend Tifa Lockheart, and Aerith Gainsborough, which is cut short by the death of Aerith. In the tradition of romance simulation games, the player's actions as Cloud determine who he takes on a date while the party visits the Gold Saucer theme park.
Final Fantasy VII gives us perhaps the most notorious villain in the entire Final Fantasy series: Sephiroth. With his long white hair, bright green eyes, long black coat, and wielding the absurdly long Masamune sword, Sephiroth is the quintessential bishounen in the eyes of many fans -- male and female.
Until Final Fantasy VII, the main villains of the various Final Fantasy games had been rather archetypal and simple in their motivations. Final Fantasy IV's Zemus/Zeromus is a rather nebulous fiery spirit of hate and a late substitution for Golbez, the immense Lunarian with black armor and horns that invokes the spirit of Darth Vader, who somehow ends up being one of the good guys shortly before the end of the game. Exdeath of Final Fantasy V simply wants to rule over all of the game’s worlds. Final Fantasy VI's Kefka, while possessing Sephiroth's ambitions of godhood and actually being successful in taking over the world, does not have the character complexity of the doubting and troubled Sephiroth, whom we see through Cloud's flashbacks.
Like Cloud, Sephiroth is tormented by his lack of identity. Is he a scientific experiment or just another human? Is he an Ancient, a member of the Cetra like Aerith? Is Jenova really his mother? What is Jenova, anyway? By the time of the game, Sephiroth has come to his own conclusion, for better or worse, but in the end, Final Fantasy VII gives us a new type of villain -- one whom is easy to sympathize with and admire for his mental strength.
The sudden death of Aerith at the end of the first disc is perhaps one of the most controversial and memorable scenes in video game history. Due to the use of the debug room and Gameshark codes, which resulted in the distribution of screencaps of Aerith as a party member past her demise in the game, rumors abounded on the Internet and among fans that Aerith -- or Aeris, if you prefer -- could be revived, or that her resurrection had been cut from the game due to time and disc constraints. After all, if players return to Aerith's church in Midgar, they can see a "ghost" of Aerith tending to her flowers that vanishes when approached by Cloud. (Whether this is an Easter Egg or a glitch is still up for debate.) However, there is no alternative FMV for Aerith's death scene, and for the story to progress, Aerith has to die in order to enter the Lifestream and manipulate it to save the world from the inevitable annihilation caused by the collision of Meteor and Holy at the end of Final Fantasy VII.
Additionally, Aerith's death represents a rejection of the typical immortality and heroic acts of self-sacrifice found among RPG characters. Character designer Tetsuya Nomura, and Yoshinori Kitase, the director and co-scenario writer, both made clear in the May 2003 issue of EDGE magazine that they were frustrated with the cliché of the hero sacrificing himself as an expression of love, that they wanted to show a realistic love where death is sudden and invocative of feelings of loss and emptiness, not of love. Both Nomura and Kitase knew beforehand that players were expecting Aerith to make a miraculous recovery, yet they took the path less traveled and made the game all the more interesting and thought-provoking for players.
The Aerith Revival rumor is not the first of its kind in video games; that would be Schala in Chrono Trigger, which oddly enough, did include a character resurrection as a key event in its story. Hardcore gamers are also quick to point out that Aerith's unexpected death in Final Fantasy VII wasn't the first of its kind either. SEGA's Phantasy Star II pulled a shockingly similar stunt when the playable character of Nei was killed early on in the game during a shocking plot twist that resulted in major ramifications on the characters and story -- much in the same way that the tone of Final Fantasy VII changes after Aerith's death.
Yet even though Aerith is no longer living, she remains in the hearts and memories of Tifa, Cloud and the others, each of whom wear a red ribbon in her memory.