Final Fantasy VII: This Game Are Sick
by Pitchfork



Final Fantasy VII is not overrated.

You heard me. I repeat: Final Fantasy VII

is

not

overrated.

That's not to say it's perfect. Final Fantasy VII isn't the Citizen Kane of video games. There are games out there with better stories and better characters. And in terms of gameplay, it's certainly not the best JRPG ever made, either. One could say that the party size's reduction from four to three members streamlines the Final Fantasy battle system, but a pessimist (or purist) might call the three-man party a detrimental simplification. If you remember, the last time a Final Fantasy game made the leap to a new, more powerful platform, they increased the party size and introduced the ATB mechanic. All Final Fantasy VII's battle system introduces are Limit Breaks, and those aren't even really new. The Materia system is a dumbed-down retooling of Final Fantasy VI's Magicite/Relic setup, and helps make Final Fantasy VII the only installment aside from III to make differences between party members virtually nonexistent. In the first and fourth games, characters were set apart by the skills and attributes tied to their classes, which could sometimes be upgraded but never changed. Party members in the second and fifth installments start out virtually identical to one another, but gradually evolve into distinct characters with exclusive capabilities as the game commences (though there can be exceptional circumstances). Final Fantasy VI actually combines these two approaches by pairing set character classes with Magicite and Relics. In Final Fantasy VII, however, Limit Breaks are the only major difference between characters, and with a few exceptions, most Limit Breaks do the same thing.

Oh, but we're not finished yet. Before we continue, a few things: fuck Advent Children. Fuck Before Crisis. Fuck Dirge of Cerberus. Fuck Kingdom Hearts II (just for good measure). Fuck that cockteasing PS3 hardware demo that's got the fans clamoring for a full remake. Fuck lunatic Sephiroth fanboys. Fuck lunatic Sephiroth fangirls. Fuck Square Enix for taking SquareSoft's most revered project and blatantly milking it for every last cent they can possibly squeeze out. And if you've ever been involved in a heated arguement with someone about why Cloud/Sephiroth deserves to beat out Mario/Link/L-Block/Mighty Bomb Jack in the latest GameFAQs Character Battle - well, quite frankly, fuck you.

But as I was saying, Final Fantasy VII is not overrated. But it is over-hyped, and often for the wrong reasons.


HISTORY OF FINAL FANTASY VII IN VII EASY STEPS

1994: Helloooo, Japan. New challenger Sony unveils its 32-bit CD-ROM-based video game console in Japan, months before the Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 are released.

Early 1995: Goodbyyyye, cartridges. The Playstation soon begins dominating the Japanese console market. Sensing which way the wind is blowing, savvy developers acquaint themselves with the CD-ROM format.

Mid 1995: Helloooo, mainstream. Sony's North American marketing campaign targets the MTV-viewing demograph.

September 1995: Helloooo U.S. The North American Playstation launch is tremendously successful, despite one of its first eight titles being Street Fighter: The Movie.

1996: Goodbyyyye, Nintendo. SquareSoft announces that its upcoming Final Fantasy VII will be a Playstation-exclusive title.

January, September, November 1997: Helloooo, world. Final Fantasy VII is released in Japan, North America, Europe, and Australia.

December 1997: Helloooo new Final Fantasy game I've been waiting for since oh my god will you fucking look at these graphics oh jeez somebody get me a toweI think just pissed myself. Pat R gets a Playstation and Final Fantasy VII as Christmas gifts.

My initial impression of Final Fantasy VII was slack-jawed stupefication at how incredible it looked. For those of us accustomed to BioShock, Odin Sphere, and consoles with HDTV cables might scoff at the comparatively blocky and clunky graphics of Final Fantasy VII's iconic opening FMV. But in 1997 - back when FMV itself was still a novelty and kind of a big deal - the general reception of the first two minutes of Final Fantasy VII can be paraphrased as "FFDORWGJDOIOGUSVNHOLYGODHOWARETHEYDOINGTHIS!?!?!?!" I can almost guarantee you that anybody who played Final Fantasy VII when it was first released - even the people who bash it now, seeing as how FF7-deprecation seems in vogue lately - pissed themselves at least once during the game's first half-hour. Even if their interest tapered off further into the game, I don't think many players can honestly say that their first hectic glimpse into Final Fantasy VII's world didn't knock them off their feet.

You'll recall me saying how impressive Final Fantasy IV's dynamic opening sequence looked after a couple months of having played virtually nothing but eight-bit Final Fantasy games. When I watched Final Fantasy VII's introduction after marathoning through the series' eight and sixteen-bit incarnations, I wasn't impressed; I was astonished. Even though I managed to retain control of my bladder this time, I'll confess immediately hitting reset and watching it over again. Twice.

Here's a perspective check. Almost exactly one year ago, I was spending what little free time I had sitting in a dorm room in Pennsylvania and playing Final Fantasy II on an NES emulator. Let's compare what I was playing in December 2006 to what I was playing in December 2007:



Say what you will about aging Playstation graphics and Popeye-armed field models. Final Fantasy VII looks damn good to me.

But enough about the graphics (for now). Let's move along and go over the...


Characters
Let's take a look a few documents from GameFAQs. This is a transcript of the character dialogue from Final Fantasy VI, which is about sixty-something pages. And this is the character dialogue from Final Fantasy VII, which comes out to around 180-something pages. This means, among other things, that this Characters section is going to a long one.

AVALANCHE
AVALANCHE was originally a terroristic anti-Shinra cabal founded and led by Barret. After undergoing a drastic roster change and getting drawn into the events regarding Shinra, Sephiroth, and the search for the fabled Promised Land, AVALANCHE changes its mission. In addition to saving the planet from Shinra's economic stranglehold and planetary life essence-sucking Mako reactors, it is resolved to find Sephiroth and put a stop to his mysterious designs. Upon its adoption of its new cause, AVALANCHE's leadership reins are passed from Barret to Cloud.








CLOUD STRIFE
Weapon:
THE sword
Limit Breaks: THE Omnislash

Is this necessary? Is there honestly a video game fan on the planet who doesn't recognize him? Let's just list the essentials: Cloud. Final Fantasy VII's main character and poster boy for an entire game genre. Video games' most beloved spiky-headed mercenary. Wields video games' most iconic weapon. Snarky jerk. Certifiably insane. Gets all the pussy. Better than everyone else in the world at everything, including snowboarding, chocobo riding, and sustaining multiple shotgun blasts to the face. Sephiroth's arch-rival. Their relationship might be slightly more homoerotic than Squall and Seifer's, but still doesn't come close to Sora and Rikku's. Written as a necrophiliac in more lemon fanfics than probably need to have ever existed.

Teenage reaction: Sorry, Marilyn Manson: this is the guy I want to be when I grow up. SURE I'm well-adjusted. Still, even back then I wished it were possible to switch Cloud out of your party now and then, like it was with Crono towards the end of Chrono Trigger.

Twentysomething reaction: Honestly? I still can't help liking Cloud. Even though he's to blame for most of Final Fantasy VII's hokier moments ("She's dead! My hands are shaking! My eyes are burning! My mouth is dry! My stomach is rumbling! My left foot is numb! My fingernails are dirty! My antiperspirant is breaking down! My ears have popped! My sphincters are loosening!"), Cloud remains consistently interesting all the way up to Act 3, which is about when he loses the attitude, sorts out his mental luggage, and becomes another vanilla JRPG hero. Even though the big revelation regarding Cloud's identity in Act 2 borrows quite a bit from Wolverine's origin story (and maybe Blade Runner), it's right on par with Kefka's apocalyptic hijinks as one of the most genuinely shocking twists in a video game narrative. Furthermore - hey, wait. It says here in the game's instruction booklet that Cloud's supposed to be twenty-one years old. Well, damn it. He's younger than me and he's already managed to blow up more crap, save more planets, ride on more airships, hijack more submarines, race more chocobos, fly more rockets into outer space, and bang Tifa more than I ever will in my entire life. I haven't felt this inadequate since finding out Gene Starwind is supposed to be nineteen.


BARRET WALLACE
Weapon:
Gun arm
Limit Breaks: Makes explosions; causes damage

Right. The leader of Final Fantasy VII's most notorious terrorist group also happens to be the world's only black man. Go figure. For that matter, Barret still remains the only black party member in all of Final Fantasy, and as you might expect from a game coming out of a country where blackface is still perfectly acceptable, Barret's boisterous, short-tempered disposition often comes just short of racial caricature, and it doesn't really help that he's outdone by everyone's favorite spiky-headed Aryan every five minutes. But all things considered, Barret is treated pretty fairly, especially when you look at a couple less fortunate cases, like Lucky Glauber and Boman. Wow - I had to resort to comparing Barret to fighting game characters because I can't think of a single other black JRPG hero. Yeesh.

Teenage reaction: Huh? They're allowed to say "shit" in video games now??

Twentysomething reaction: I think Barret is my new favorite Final Fantasy VII character. He's more human than Cloud, less whiny than Vincent and not as much of a misogynistic bastard as Cid. And in this day and age, how is bona-fide terrorist character in a popular entertainment medium who is not only portrayed sympathetically, but gets off scot-free for his actions - which themselves are treated by the narrative as justified for the sake of a greater good - not be considered just a tad subversive? (Keep in mind that in 1997, the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo were probably still a recent memory in the Japanese public consciousness.)


TIFA LOCKHART
Weapon:
Glove
Limit Breaks: After breaking Sabin's Blitz attacks in Final Fantasy VI by making them far too easy to pull off, I guess Square decided to make their newest bare-fisted fighter's special attacks trickier to execute. Hence, a character who isn't a gambler, but has a slot interface anyway. Kind of abnormal, no?

Tifa: Cloud's childhood pal, expert martial artist, Midgar bar hostess, AVALANCHE member, and god's gift to hentai artists. Tifa spends most of Act 1 pulling on Cloud's left arm, trying to wrench him away from Aeris, who has him by his right. Final Fantasy VII's "love points" system is a stroke of genius on Square's part. Do I even need to mention the popularity of hentai games - in which basically consist of choosing between dialogue options to increase your chances of vicariously boning cartoon women - in Japan? Final Fantasy VII incorporates h-game mechanics into its JRPG formula, and comes out all the more fun for it. Don't even try to tell me you didn't enjoy messing around with Tifa's virtual libido.

Teenage reaction: I was a fourteen-year-old male virgin. How do you think I felt about Tifa? To date, Final Fantasy VII has sold more than 9.5 million copies. The world has more than six billion people. I'm no math wizard, but by my calculations, this means that by the time you finish reading this sentence, approximately eleven boners will have been popped because of Tifa's victory pose.

Twentysomething reaction: Well, I...Good god, but her breasts are gigantic. It doesn't make any sense. How does the tremendous strain on her back not disrupt her balance and make her an ineffective martial artist? You'd think that at some point during Tifa's training, Zagan would have sat Tifa down and suggested that if she was serious about going all the way with the karate business, she might want to consider breast reduction surgery. (Actually, her appearance in Advent Children seems to suggest that Tifa had some deflation work done after the game ended.)

Anyway, I realized that Tifa bothers me for the same reason I don't fancy Celes quite as much as I used to. For the greatest martial artist on the Planet, Tifa proves totally incapable of taking care of herself when Cloud isn't around. There's a scene in Act 2 in which Barret chides Tifa for falling completely apart over Cloud's absence, asking when she became such a wimp. I smiled at that; I thought it meant Square had at least acknowledged that virtually every Final Fantasy heroine would make anyone who's taken half a semester of feminist theory rip their hair out. But then - I think it might be in Act 3 - Tifa spouts the exact same line as Rosa does back in Final Fantasy IV: "I WILL REMAIN BY YOUR SIDE BECAUSE NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I'M WITH YOU, CECIL! I MEAN, CLOUD!" I still bet it all has something to do with the imagined likelihood of the player replacing Cloud's name with his own. What lonely teenage gamer wouldn't want to imagine Tifa cooing his name and pining over him whenever he's been gone longer than five minutes?


AERIS GAINBOROUGH
Weapon:
Useless metal stick
Limit Breaks: Aeris is the only character in the game whose Limit Breaks are almost entirely used for healing and support, and she gets axed before the end of Act 1. Not like a lack of party member variety wasn't already a problem. Smooth move, Square.

Here's another video game icon, best known for being the Final Fantasy chick who dies. Aeris is a flower girl from the slums who also happens to be the very last of the Ancients - until she is murdered by Sephiroth. Though she is fully dedicated to AVALANCHE's new cause, Aeris seems a lot more interested in her passive-aggressive duel with Tifa for Cloud's affections, which she loses by default when she dies. Her affection for Cloud partly stems from his peculiar resemblance to her old boyfriend Zack, who is dead, just like Aeris is by the end of the first disc. Unfortunately, Aeris never finds out the full story behind Cloud and Zack, because Sephiroth runs his sword through her guts before it comes to light. Before she dies, Aeris sets a plot device in motion that becomes the Planet's only hope for stopping Meteor. And then she dies.

(The previous paragraph may have contained minor spoilers, by the way.)

Teenage reaction: So here I am on the third disc, and...wow. Looks like this is the boss of the game now. Damn. Guess she really isn't coming back.

Twentysomething reaction: First of all, let me get something off my chest. AERIS'S DEATH IS NOT A TRAGEDY. No! Shut the hell up. It's not. She gets shish kabobbed by a psycho with a giant katana. Shocking, yes. Sad, sure. A tragedy? Not so much, no. Stop tossing the word "tragic" around before it becomes totally interchangeable with "sad." "Tragic" is supposed to be reserved for special cases. Is Aeris an overwhelmingly noble character brought to corruption and ruin because of an intrinsic flaw that also happens to be inseparable from the qualities which make us admire her in the first place? No. Sephiroth falls from the ceiling and impales her from behind while she's just kneeling there, catching everyone off guard. It doesn't qualify as tragic if you didn't see it coming. Bummer? Sure. Tragic? Not so much.

To illustrate this point further: a few examples of characters whose undoings can appropriately be called tragedies. Oedipus: undone by his own intelligence and effectiveness at doing his job as the ruler of his city. Beowulf: becomes a king through his merits as a hero, then dies and fails his kingdom because he can't stop trying to be a hero. Hamlet: a scholar who thinks too much for his own (or anyone else's) damn good. Neil Gaiman's Morpheus: would rather die than change. Scarface: a modern-day Richard III, brought low by the ambition and reckless courage that drive his rise to power and make him such a likable character. You want examples from video games? How about General Leo, whose chivalry and honor get him killed? Once he gets on his knee when Kefka reappears disguised as Gestahl, you know Leo has just dug his own grave. And Andrew Ryan: can he do anything but die after his principles - of which Rapture is a physical manifestation - completely backfire on him?

Notice a pattern? There is a certain undeniable sense of inevitability underlying these characters' stories. The qualities that make them great, make us like them, and make them who they are ensnare and destroy them. There is always some pivotal final decision on their part which ends up dooming them, but in almost every case, who they are incapable of choosing anything else. They string their own nooses, and that's what makes it tragic. But Aeris? She just gets blindsided by some silver-haired maniac whose motivations are anyone's best guess at that point. You can say Aeris's death is sad, moving, shocking, troubling, heavy, lachrymose, or grievous, BUT DON'T SAY THAT IT'S TRAGIC, BECAUSE IT ISN'T. CEASE DEGRADING THE TERM AND STOP MISLABELING AERIS'S DEATH.

Thank you. Glad to finally have that off my chest.

Anyway. Aeris's ballyhooed death scene (which, just to remind you, is not a tragedy; Aristotle himself would probably call it a "misadventure") comes off as absurd and genuinely touching all at once. The unintentional silliness comes from Cloud's melodramatic dialogue and what must have been an oversight during production of the FMV in which the White Materia falls from Aeris's ribbon. The materia's momentum appears to spontaneously redirect itself as it bounces in slow motion along the marble floor, and it becomes really distracting once you've noticed it.

The most well-done part of the event occurs after Jenova LIFE is defeated and Cloud, along with your other two active party members, stand over Aeris's body. Final Fantasy VII accomplishes something here that most earlier JRPG's - or video games in general - had a hard time doing up to this point. I personally prefer sprites to polygons but will concede that it's possible to do things with 3D character models that would probably be too difficult and too costly to do with sprites. Let me show you what I mean:


This is Celes.


This is Celes feeling heartsick and melancholy.



This is Celes contemplating suicide.


This is Celes noticing a nickel on the ground.


This is Celes wracking her brains for a way to defy Kefka and save her pals.


This is Celes thinking she hears something coming towards her in the darkness.


This is Celes expressing relief upon finding Sabin alive.


This is Terra mourning General Leo's death.


This is Terra making sure her shoes are tied.


Except for a few all-purpose poses and a maybe a few special sprites for certain story-required situations, 2D JRPGs usually don't do character body language so well. 3D models are much more flexible, and Square uses this new trick to create the only part of Aeris's death scene that still has any effect on my cold, jaded heart. Each of the two other party members there with Cloud take turns stepping forward, looking down at Aeris, and having his or her own unique reaction to the sight. We watch them expressing grief and communicating with Cloud purely through body language. The way each character responds to the death of a companion helps round them out in ways that five pages' worth of dialogue boxes can't. And the whole time, nobody says a single damn word. If only the rest of the scene had been handled so adroitly.


RED XIII
Weapon:
Hair clips (?)
Limit Breaks: Meh.

"LISTEN. YOU KNOW FINALLY WHAT MY REAL NAME IS, RIGHT? CAN WE PLEASE DROP THIS 'RED XIII' BUNK ALREADY?" Anyone else surprised that Nanaki never had this conversation with Cloud and the others? Anyway, Red XIII/Nanaki is supposedly the last member of an ancient race and the very first non-humanoid party member in a Final Fantasy game. He's reserved, cool, intelligent, and often rather uppity. I really wish there was an option to take Yuffie up on the suggestion she makes in Act 3 and help her antagonize this furry red buzzkill.

Teenage reaction: I named him after my family's dog. Boy, was it hard to ever take him seriously after that. "I AM WOODY, SON OF SETO...!"

Twentysomething reaction: Meh. Red XIII is not very exciting. His only real function in the plot is to get the party into Cosmo Canyon, and I bet Square created him as an excuse to demonstrate that their new 3D modeling witchery could be used to make new kinds of player characters possible. If it weren't for Red XIII's special role in the game's (controversial) ending, I'd probably say he'd have been better off cut out altogether.


CAIT SITH
Weapon:
Megaphone? Does this make more or less sense than a hair clip?
Limit Breaks: Slots and dice. My hypothesis is that the giant moogle came to life and acquired these skills by devouring a portion of Setzer's soul, which would also help explain the Wandering Gambler's sorry appearance in Kingdom Hearts II, in which he does very little wandering and even less gambling.

Cait Sith looks like a pair of stuffed toys and claims to be a fortune telling machine, but is actually a sophisticated automaton remotely controlled by a high-ranking Shinra executive. The circumstances under which he joins Cloud eerily foretell the party member recruitment process in Chrono Cross. "Whoa! What a mysterious fortune you have! I know we just met two minutes ago, but I think I'm gonna tag along with you until I find out what it means!" "Hey, kid! I like your bandanna and think I would really enjoy following you through an interdimensional portal to get ripped to shreds by dragons and insane robots! Lead the way!"

Teenage reaction: One of my favorites. He has a moogle and toy soldiers. I didn't care if he sucked.

Twentysomething reaction: I don't like Cait Sith any less than I used to, but I really don't understand what's going on in his "death" scene. Are we watching Reeve getting a little too wrapped up in his performance, or does the animatronic doll briefly gain a consciousness of its own? Strange.


CID HIGHWIND
Weapon:
Spear
Limit Breaks: Part pilot. Part dragoon. All chain smoker.

One of Final Fantasy VII's characters is an older man named Cid who builds aerospace equipment and verbally abuses women. Incidentally, the last Final Fantasy installment whose Cid became a party member was also the previous installment to make a hardware leap. And really, when it comes down to it, Final Fantasy VII's Cid isn't all that different from IV's. In fact, even though this Cid might be slightly less of a kook, I bet if he grew a beard, dyed his hair, and traded in the hammer for a spear, they'd practically be the same person. As per the dusty old Final Fantasy playbook, Cid primary function is to allow the party access to an airship. His secondary function is to be an egotistical maniac who long since broke his swear jar hurling it at Shera's skull.

Teenage reaction: I rarely used Cid. This was mostly out of spite, because I hated his damn Tiny Bronco. Most worthless Final Fantasy vehicle ever. It even beats out out Final Fantasy VIII's magical floating college campus and the airship in Final Fantasy III that can't fly over mountains and gets blown up after ten minutes.

Twentysomething reaction: Cid is great. The crabby old bastard has a roguish charm that may very well make this his finest incarnation. I wish his stint as team leader in Act 2 lasted longer.


YUFFIE KISARGI
Weapon:
Shuriken
Limit Breaks: Really just more of the same

Final Fantasy VII is the second and last game in the series to include party members who are somewhat secret and totally optional. One of said optional characters, Yuffie is a highly-skilled Ninja and a materia hunter in the same sense that Locke is a treasure hunter. Yuffie tends to be much more honest with herself about the robbing and plundering trade than Locke, and doesn't bother with all the semantic nonsense. Depending on who you ask, Yuffie is either an adorable little scamp or the most obnoxious brat ever attached to a HP bar.

Teenage reaction: Third in my youthful heart, only behind Sakura Kusanago and Lilith Aensland. I definitely had a memory card slot dedicated to achieving the "date with Yuffie" scenario and kept it around so I could watch the scene at my leisure - which I will admit to doing more than was probably necessary (or healthy). I could never bring myself to delete the file, and as far as I know, it still exists.

Twentysomething reaction: Now that Yuffie is no longer an exotic older woman to me - and because I've discovered that real women are slightly more fun than pretend ones - I can't say that I'm going to be drawing pictures in my notebook margins of her and me prancing hand-in-hand through the flowers anytime soon. But she's still my favorite female character in the game, I think. Her antics as a megalomaniacal, sociopathic, klepto valley girl are much more amusing than watching Tifa pine or Aeris die continue living, and it's refreshing to see just one chick who isn't sopping wet the moment she lays eyes on Cloud. Also, Yuffie's Gold Saucer date still stands as one of the cutest, funniest, and overall most bearable romantic moments in Final Fantasy.


VINCENT VALENTINE
Weapon:
Gun
Limit Breaks: Oh, great. Gau's gone goth.

A former member of the Shinra Department of Administrative Research, Vincent became the odd man out in the love triangle between himself and Shinra scientists Hojo and Lucretia. Vincent got his boxers all in a bunch over Hojo's pumping the pregnant Lucretia full of alien cells and Mako energy. When confronted, Hojo decided it would be easiest to just concede the ethics argument and shoot Vincent. Never one to just toss a perfectly good research specimen into the dumpster, Hojo experimented on the unconscious Vincent's body, then left him comatose inside a coffin in a Niebelheim basement. Vincent has been in a pissy mood ever since, and joins Cloud in hopes of spreading it around until it finally gets back to Hojo. He's the second of Final Fantasy VII's optional characters, and arguably the most effective party member next to Cloud.

Teenage reaction: Once I got him, Vincent never left my party. Ever. "He's like Shadow, Magus, and Trent Reznor all rolled up into one! So cool!"

Twentysomething reaction: Oh my god would you please just put a sock in it already. Also, I should mention that I've never played Dirge of Cerberus and don't know what it has to say regarding Vincent's backstory. But if it isn't revealed in Final Fantasy VII - as it was originally intended to be a totally self-contained story - then for the purposes of this article, it is irrelevant.


WEDGE, BIGGS, AND JESSIE


Oh, yes. AVALANCHE's doomed original members. If you've been following the series, you pretty much know not to get too attached once you see the names "Wedge" and "Biggs (Vicks)." Wedge is the fat, timid one. Biggs is the wannabe tough-guy. Jessie is the hardware expert, and is practically humping Cloud's leg during the first half-hour of the game. Wedge and Biggs make a few more appearances in later installments, but poor Jessie just gets jammed into the refrigerator. (At least Elia has somebody to keep her company.)


SHINRA, INC.
A world-encompassing megaconglomerate that is primarily a power company, but used to be a weapons manufacturer. Though clues regarding the political history of Final Fantasy VII's world are vague, there are indications that Shinra either rose to power through an out-of-control military industrial complex in Midgar during its war with Wutai, or that the war on Wutai was waged by Shinra itself, and that its victory ensured the corporation's de-facto world domination. Regardless, Shinra's economic tentacles now permeate virtually every aspect of human life on the Planet. Its reactors are slowly bleeding the Planet of its life force to create Mako energy, which is used for power generation, arms manufacturing, materia farming, and biological modification.


PRESIDENT SHINRA
Eerie real-life counterpart:
Former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond
Because of Final Fantasy VII's futuristic setting, its heroes are no longer struggling against the greed-crazed monarch of an expansionist empire. Instead, they are up against the scrupleless head of a bloated, imperialistic corporation. I hate President S., but not because he's an evil jerk. It's because he's such a flat evil jerk. All that cool moral ambiguity gathering around AVALANCHE's activities and the role of the game's hero (and vicariously, the game's player) in perpetrating terrorist acts completely evaporates once Shinra's head reveals himself to be an overweight, crimson-clad Snidely Whiplash. In spite of how much more complex and mature Final Fantasy VII is than its predecessors, in this respect we're still just watching the Light Warriors chase after Exdeath. How much more interesting would Final Fantasy VII have turned out if Square had tried depicting the AVALANCHE vs. Shinra scenario as a war between ideologies instead of the tired old struggle of goodguys against badguys? (Of course, we're still talking about a narrative whose protagonist fights giant monsters with a sword twice his own size and has a martial artist girlfriend who beats people up by summoning dolphins out of nowhere, so maybe I should stop reading into it so much.)


RUFUS SHINRA
Eerie real-life counterpart:
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi



Fortunately, it isn't long before President Shinra gets himself assassinated. Rufus, the posh company vice president and Shinra's own son, soon steps up to take control. Any hopes for a softer, friendlier Shinra Inc. are promptly dashed when Rufus announces a new direction for the company while paraphrasing a fiendishly familiar-sounding observation of the social contract. I don't know why it took me so long to notice, but Rufus is a bad ass. He doesn't cry or bleed. He goes toe-to-toe with Cloud and leaves in one piece. He doesn't even flinch during Weapon attacks. Maybe Rufus should have been Cloud's rival instead of Sephiroth...but then again, this is coming from someone with a definite bias.


HEIDEGGER AND SCARLET
Eerie real life counterparts: Dick Cheney and a young transsexual Dick Cheney



Two members of Shinra Inc.'s executive inner circle. Heidegger's official position is head of the Public Safety Maintenance Department, which is Orwellian for commander of Shinra's military. Scarlet is the cackling head of Shinra's Weapons Development Department, and the company's second most vile member. After watching the scene between her and Tifa in Junon in Act 2, it's hard not to wonder how the possibility even exists that Scarlet could win in a slap-fight. If Tifa's such a fantastic martial artist, how is Scarlet even able to touch her? Realistically, wouldn't Tifa see it coming, break Scarlet's arm, and roundhouse her into Final Fantasy VIII? Guess I'm reading into things too much again.


REEVE



The head of Urban Development and the only Shinra executive with half a conscience. Has a knack for puppets, dolls, and toys.


PALMER
Head of the defunct Space Exploration Department. It's anyone's guess as to why his office hasn't been relocated to the janitor's closet. Palmer is a fat sack of crap with a powerful gun, and I hate him.


THE TURKS



First, there was Gilgamesh. Then we were introduced to Ultros. Now, Final Fantasy VII gives us the Shinra Department of Administrative Research - more casually referred to as the Turks. My, the JRPG's recurring gag villain is becoming just as much of a character staple as the Medieval Vice figure or the Elizabethan Fool. The Turks fulfill the same function as their earlier counterparts: regularly nettling the good guys, generally acting more goofy and strange than sinister or threatening, and ultimately succeeding in not getting killed by the heroes.



The Turks' job is to handle the dirtier side of Shinra's business, which includes kidnapping, interrogation, extortion, arson, and murder, but most of the time they seem more concerned with hanging out and maintaining their mondo-cool image. The ringleader is Tseng, who seems to have a history with Aeris and is never actually seen in battle. Reno is a torpid narcissist with a cool weapon, and I can't look at him the same after Advent Children. (Yuck.) Rude is a taciturn bare-fisted fighter with a secret crush on Tifa. Elena, lastly, is the spunky and motivated rookie who seems to be smarter and stronger than her comrades; but as a female in a JRPG, she always needs to be rescued and told what to do by Rude and Reno.


PROFESSOR HOJO



It's a close contest, but none other than Hojo can be properly be deemed the most despicable son of bitch ever listed on Shinra's payroll. He's a lot like Final Fantasy IV's Doctor Lugae - a mad scientist with the morals and methods of your average Nazi doctor, and better equipment and a bigger budget to boot - but Hojo has hours' more screen time and a much more far-reaching backstory. He was a part of Shinra's top secret Jenova Project when it began thirty years ago, and more deeply involved with Sephiroth's creation than anyone else. It was Hojo who postulated the Jenova Reunion Theory, and he is also responsible for the legions of Sephiroth "clones:" failed attempts at recreating Sephiroth by subjecting human beings to Jenova cells and Mako. At the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, Hojo has been tasked with researching the extinct Ancients to uncover clues pertaining to the elusive Promised Land.


WEAPON

Final Fantasy VII's Planet is a living organism with an inscrutable degree of sentience and control over itself. In response to a threats that would endanger its very existence, the Planet is capable of taking measures to defend itself. One such case occurred two thousand years ago with the cataclysmic arrival of a malignant cosmic entity. The Planet developed beings with which it could mount a counterattack, but before they could be activated, the Ancients themselves had neutralized the threat. Though the extraterrestrial had been rendered inactive, it still wasn't destroyed. Weapon has lain dormant all this time, watching and waiting for Jenova to make its move.

When Sephiroth acquires the Black Materia, Weapon awakens and goes ballistic - and no one ever says why. If their job is to protect the Planet and eradicate Jenova, why are they screwing around? What is Ultimate Weapon doing way down in Mideel when Jenova and Sephiroth are still up north? Wouldn't it make more sense for all of them to try to destroy the barrier around North Crater instead of tearing about on aimless rampages? Why not really try making themselves useful to the Planet by using all that strength and firepower to do something about Meteor? Is Sephiroth controlling them somehow? Or does Weapon figure that if resolving the immediate threat to the Planet is out of their depth, they might as well do the next best thing and polish off all those Lifestream-mooching humans? Or, once again, am I just not supposed to ask...?


SAPPHIRE AND DIAMOND WEAPON



Leviathan and Behemoth of Revelations. Sapphire Weapon is an aquatic nightmare with its sights set on Junon, and is (fortunately?) never engaged in battle by the player. There's no such luck with Diamond Weapon, though. When it's spotted plodding towards Midgar, Cloud and his buddies get to be the ones to try dissuading it from going any farther. "Keep poking at its ankles, Cid! Aim for its knees, Barret! I think it might be about to notice us!"


ULTIMATE WEAPON



The Atma Weapon returns, sporting a brand new look and having taken a lesson or two from Doom Gaze. With one exception, the Ultimate Weapon can only be fought by flying into it with the airship. It's hard to decide which is more tedious: flying aimlessly flying around the World of Ruin and waiting for the random Doom Gaze encounter or following the Ultimate Weapon's zigzagging flight path and waiting however long it takes for it to decide to stop and put up its dukes. When Final Fantasy VII's version of the Atma Weapon monster is defeated, it relinquishes Final Fantasy VII's version of the Atma Weapon sword.


EMERALD AND RUBY WEAPON



Maybe I brought up Revelations too soon. Or maybe these guys are something like Leviathan Plus and Behemoth Deluxe. These two are Final Fantasy VII's take on Final Fantasy V's Shinryuu and Omega: a pair of ludicrously powerful million-HP superbosses whom the player is never required to fight. I'm not sure how well that concept sits with me these days. Defeating Emerald and Ruby is not really a demonstration of one's exceptional gaming prowess, like beating Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, finishing Doom on Nightmare! or completing all of Mission Mode in Guilty Gear XX. All it requires is looking up a strategy and materia combinations on GameFAQS, power leveling your party members and materia, and then just going in there and winning. Skill is irrelevant. When I got that Gold Chocobo for beating Ruby Weapon some years ago, I was more than a little disappointed at how anticlimactic the whole affair turned out to be. Here's what I think would make it worth all the life-hours spent level grinding and chocobo racing: once a player defeats both Emerald and Ruby, a serial number appears on the screen. He or she then copies that number onto a special postcard that came with the game, and mails it off to Square. Once Square receives the postcard and confirms its validity, it dispatches an employee dressed like Tifa, Aeris, or Yuffie (Cloud, Sephiroth, or Reno for the player who prefers men) to the player's home address to administer a congratulatory sexual favor. (You reading this, NIS?)


CRISIS FROM THE SKY
The only other name I could think of for this section was "Sepphy n' Pals."


METEOR



Summoned by Sephiroth with the Black Materia. Once it drops, terrestrial life goes extinct. Meteor isn't a character or even a sentient being, but nevertheless, it's what AVALANCHE spends the second half of Final Fantasy VII trying to stop. Interesting concept: whereas Final Fantasy VI's second half takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, VII's is about a doomed world waiting for the end to come.


JENOVA



About thirty years ago, a mummified lifeform was discovered by Shinra scientists in the frozen wastelands to the north. It was mistakenly determined to be the preserved body of an Ancient and given the name "Jenova." Ironically, this so-called Ancient was in reality the mortal enemy of the Cetra: a voracious alien being whose origins and purpose remain a mystery. Some of this bizarre organism's properties include shapeshifting, the ability to read and alter the memories of other sentient beings, and a carried "virus" of an unspecified nature that it used to infect and decimate the Ancients' population. But Jenova's most uncanny attribute is a phenomenon called "the Reunion:" if its body is dismembered and scattered, Jenova's undying cells will eventually reconverge at a single location. summoned by When the game begins, Jenova has been dormant for at least two millennia. It was nice while it lasted.



Jenova gets gypped. Even though she's the single most important figure in the story and makes such an engaging and downright frightening antagonist, she just ends up playing second fiddle to the pretty boy in the black cape. Maybe it's the Lovecraft fan in me, but an ancient cosmic being coming back to life and manipulating humans to its own insidious, unfathomable ends seems more menacing and deserving of the "primary antagonist" designation than a Norman Bates with a nicer wig and longer knife - especially when you consider who it was the original psycho answered to. But as it goes, Jenova's role in the plot is gradually marginalized as Final Fantasy VII unfolds, and then she barely even puts up a fight during her final showdown with AVALANCHE. I can't say why, but I feel I should be blaming Nomura for this one.


SEPHIROTH

The most overrated video game character ever - but I'm jumping the gun. Sephiroth was once SOLDIER's top-ranking officer, Shinra's most powerful operative, and probably the single most dangerous man on the Planet. For a few years he seemed content with dutifully carrying out his orders, but during what should have been an uneventful mission to Niebelheim, an aberration occurred that made Sephiroth begin questioning his own origins. He read into it, didn't like what he found, and went insane. What goes through Sephiroth's head is anyone's guess. At first, Sephiroth sounds like he's sporting an Oedipus complex for his "mother," Jenova, whom the reports from the Shinra mansion basement erroneously classify as an Ancient. Believing Jenova to be an Ancient, and therefore believing himself the Ancients' heir, Sephiroth resolves to travel with Jenova to the Promised Land and make humanity pay for squandering what the Ancients had passed onto them. But sometime during the two years between then and the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth abandons the "mother, mother!" shtick, forgets about the Ancients and the Promised Land, and decides he wants to become a god by dropping a meteor on the word and absorbing the spirit energy gathered by the Planet to heal its wound. No, we're not given any explanation, but who cares? JUST LOOK AT HIM IN THAT FMV SHOT! SO COOL! WHAT DOES IT MATTER IF HE DOESN'T MAKE SENSE?



So. Nobody knows what the hell Sephiroth's motives are. He spends the entire game frozen in a crystal while his black-coat flunkies and Jenova's pieces do everything for him. He rips off Kefka's fallen angel performance. He has the most irritating attack in the game ("BEHOLD! MY ULTIMATE 'SUPERNOVA' SPELL DESTROYS THE ENTIRE SOLAR SYSTEM AND STRETCHES A FIFTEEN-MINUTE LONG BATTLE INTO HALF AN HOUR FOR NO GOOD REASON! MWA HA HA!"). And not to sound even more anal, but wasn't Sephiroth's plan to be at the center of the planet's Meteor-inflicted wound, because that's where the lifestream will be gathering? Meteor is hovering above Midgar. Sephiroth is stuck underground in a crystal at the north pole. Is this a tremendous oversight on Sephiroth's part or does he have some other power I'm not aware of because the game never bothered telling me? No, I don't think this is unreasonable. Ambiguity is one thing; plot holes are another. I admire the greater depth and complexity Final Fantasy VII provides its narrative and characters, but what's often lacking is consistency. Exdeath's backstory may be virtually nonexistent, but at least what little we're told about him adds up. It's unnecessary to ask why Kefka suddenly sprouts wings because he's the new God of All Magic, silly. He can do that. It's kind of a cheap plot device, yes, but it's consistent. Where the hell do Safer Sephiroth's wings come from in Final Fantasy VII's final battle? Jenova? Lifestream? JRPG villain garage sale? Final Fantasy VII fleshes out its story and world to a far greater extent than previous installments and tries not to use the "well, uh, it's magic" safety net as much as earlier installments, which is admirable (not to mention a leap forward for video games as a mode of storytelling), but it certainly wouldn't have hurt its designers and writers to think things through more than they did. I shouldn't have to consult the Final Fantasy VII Ultimania Omega Guide and/or retconning DVD releases to have this stuff clarified, dammit. Sephiroth confounds me. I can't decide whether to lay the blame on Nomura or Evangelion. (NGE game out in 1995, between Final Fantasy VI and VII. Final Fantasy VII has a mindfuck plot and a villain sharing his name with the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, whose image constantly appears throughout Evangelion. I doubt this is a coincidence.)

...All that said, Sephiroth looks damn cool in those FMVs.


Strange and Wonderful Places

Final Fantasy VII's character models, overworld maps, and battle scenes are now three-dimensional, but the series hasn't fully made the leap into 3D just yet. The town and dungeon maps may no longer be made up of flat, tiled grids, but they're all still two-dimensional. The 32-bit Final Fantasy games are unique for their pre-rendered environments. Whereas the eight and sixteen-bit games' environments were confined to tilesets and the more recent installments are limited to a finite - though large - number of textures and skins, the Playstation-era games' environments' only limitations were what could be produced with an artist's pen and imagination.

The greatest narrative strength of Final Fantasy VII isn't its characters or plot. It's the setting. The player might be controlling Cloud, whom the game's events revolve around, but more often than not Cloud is just a little bluish-gray and yellow speck on the screen as he makes his way through a gigantic Mako reactor or trudges through a sweeping stretch of wilderness. The Planet itself is Final Fantasy VII's star, thrust into center stage by the game's immense, beautifully-rendered environments.

With that in mind, let's move on from Final Fantasy VII's cast, and take a look at its setting. Here are - in this fan's humble opinion - the game's seven most memorable locations. #1 should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody.


VII. GREAT GLACIER



The largest "dungeon" in the game (this place is huge), and the farthest away from Midgar Final Fantasy VII takes you before handing you an airship and making you revisit places you've already been. Barret, probably delirious from hypothermia, goes off on a tangent about how the northern tundra is like the antithesis of Midgar, and I think he's on to something. The path of Cloud's journey to find Sephiroth begins in a place that has been totally co-opted by humanity, and ends here: in a pristine wilderness completely under nature's domain, where humans are incapable of sustaining themselves for long. I guess the message here is that what's most desirable is a middle ground between the two.


VI. COSMO CANYON



Ah, speak of the devil. Here's your middle ground. I'm sure Cosmo Canyon is more than a little derived from an idealized portrait of the American Southwest and its indigenous peoples, but what the hell do I know? Cosmo Canyon is what every commune wishes it could be, and in all honesty, it's where I'd be posting this article from if it actually existed. Even though Red XIII is the party's connection to Cosmo Canyon, the jolly and wise Bugenhagen most represents the place's spirit: humanity, nature and technology existing in balance. (Eerie real-life counterpart: Earthdance.)


V. WUTAI



Forced to disarm after its humiliating defeat in its war with Shinra/Midgar fifteen years ago, Wutai now peddles its ancient and unique culture to tourists from the very lands that defeated. Though Wutai is a land of many deities, but most of its inhabitants no longer believe in them as strongly as they used to. Much generational friction exists in Wutai over the war and adherence to custom and tradition. Also, Wutai is full of pagodas, ninja, and giant Buddha statues. Eerie real-life counterpart? Huh. I'm stumped.


IV. NIEBELHEIM



Oh, god. Cloud and Tifa's hometown seems more like the setting of a psychological horror film than a JRPG village. Niebelheim is where you'd end up if you took the wrong exit while driving to Silent Hill. It's the backdrop for Final Fantasy VII's most disturbing events and lies at the very core of Cloud's delusions. Even scarier is the notion that somebody could watch their neighborhood burning and their neighbors and family slaughtered, then come back two years later to find everything standing exactly as it was before, populated by strangers who insist nothing ever happened. The thought alone is enough to make the paranoia-prone lose whatever sleep they're still capable of getting. I just want to know what the hell Niebelheim's founders were thinking when they decided to start building their new town in the shadow of a mountain range that looks like it came straight from the hellscape of one of Edgar Allen Poe's nightmares.


III. THE FORGOTTEN CITY



Feels like Square took a cue from H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Out of Time in constructing the utterly alien City of the Ancients. The sepulchral Forgotten City is deserted, bewildering, and more than a little unnerving in its strangeness (a quality which is enhanced by its ominous exclusive BGM). This place is a cornucopia of mystery, and everyone who might have been capable of unlocking all its secrets is dead. The Forgotten City certainly has a kind of eldritch beauty about it, but I'm always relieved to depart and reluctant to return. Even 128-bit games have trouble being this atmospheric.


II. GOLD SAUCER



Glitzy and gimmicky, often cheesy, and always expensive, the Gold Saucer is Final Fantasy VII's Disneyland. There isn't a Square fan on the planet who can't identify the Gold Saucer theme within three notes, as most of them have spent more hours here than anywhere else in the game. Awfully considerate of Square to consolidate virtually all of Final Fantasy VII's minigames and endgame sidequests into one (semi) convenient location, no? Curious though, how the Planet's premier playground for rich people is located right above its largest prison and can only be reached by passing through the world's poorest, most destitute region. Is this some sort of masked commentary, or just a coincidence?


I. MIDGAR

I said you wouldn't be surprised. Midgar is Final Fantasy VII. It's about as much of a cyberpunk's wet dream as Blade Runner's Los Angeles, but Blade Runner doesn't give you the freedom to explore its city on your own. Imagine how much better Final Fantasy VII would have been if the gameplay hours spent revisiting old places in those "Huge Materia" missions in Act 2 were cut out and replaced with more exploration quests throughout Midgar. For that matter, would anybody be willing to argue with me if I suggested that the entire first disc should have been dedicated entirely to Midgar? Think about how monumental and disorienting an event leaving Midgar is. Now imagine how much greater the effect would be if you spent twelve game-hours in Midgar before finally becoming aware of an outside world. It would turn Final Fantasy VII into a cyberpunk video game retelling of Plato's allegory about the people in the cave. Whether or not that would actually improve the game is a matter of opinion and conjecture - and a total moot point, anyway - but it would have, at the very least, probably resulted in a more focused storyline; and if there are any storytellers out there who require blinders and shorter leashes, it would be your average JRPG writing staff. (If you think Final Fantasy VII's storyline was convoluted, just wait until we get to VIII.)



When I ask people what they remember or enjoyed most about Final Fantasy VII, the answer more often than not pertains to Midgar. It's also no coincidence that the game gradually becomes less engaging as you are lead farther and farther away from the city, then picks up again once the party leaves the North Crater and starts getting drawn back towards it. Even though Midgar is supposed to be a futuristic dystopia, a gritty depiction of urban hell, it has the same inexplicable charm as the New York subway. It's dank, grimy, devoid of sunlight, full of shady people, and (I'd imagine) smells faintly of stale urine; but it's rarely ever uninteresting, and after you've left you sometimes find yourself missing the experience of just being in such a place.




Unsettling Scenery

Up until the late 1990s, console games were colorful, quirky, amusing, engaging, addictive, and hypnotic - but relevant? Now there's a concept. Most pre-1997 console RPGs and adventure games' prevalent themes were along the lines of "power of hope, love and friendship," "absolute power corrupts blah blah blah," "elemental crystals, mystical jewels, and/or mana seeds are best left alone," and the occasional "hey, don't trust Christianity." Most of these games took place in medieval storybook lands inhabited by elves, knights, fairies, dragons, princesses, and talking trees, and their stories were usually about a small band of misfits defeating an evil wizard or king so the world could live happily ever after and abolish all wars forever. Then we get to the Playstation era. Final Fantasy VII might not quite be this generation's Great Gatsby or On the Road, but it captures the turn-of-the-century Zeitgeist like no previous game could and which few games have been able to surpass.


HYPERCAPITALISM



Evil empires are a mainstay of RPGs and adventure games. To most gamers, they are things of the distant past. The traditional expansionist kingdom with its conquering hordes and cruel monarch, like the ones depicted in Shining Force, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy VI just seems so 2003 1939 1800s in the past. So Final Fantasy VII gives us Shinra, a megaconglomerate that had dominated the world's market to such an overwhelming degree that it has become the Planet's most influential entity. Shinra is technically nothing more than a business firm operating in (what appears to be) a capitalist system, and yet it has grown so powerful that it has superceded the government of the country in which it has based, take over other cities (like Junon), and even maintains its own military force. I'll spare you the arguments and extracurricular materials and assume you're capable of connecting a few dystopic dots yourself.


OIL MAKO COMPANIES ARE EVIL


It's rare passing a town or city in Final Fantasy VII that doesn't have its own Mako reactor, indicating that Shinra has the world's energy market in a ball-grip. Here on Planet Earth, oil companies - well, you know where this is going. Here's a more interesting one: remember Barret's story about Shinra security forces razing Corel? Truth is scarier than fiction.


PARANOIA



Shinra destroys Sector 7, killing hundreds, then blames it on AVALANCHE and enjoys increased support and profits. I'm not saying I buy this "9/11 Was an Inside Job" business, but the parallels are too frighteningly easy to make here.


OFFICE SPACE



This is so neat. Most JRPGs eventually have you storming the evil king or wizard's castle, which is usually a wide, torch-lit stone building filled with red carpets, suits of armor, padlocked wooden doors, prisons, and miles of empty hallways. The core of Final Fantasy VII's evil empire is a modern corporate skyscraper, complete with bustling suits, overworked secretaries, vending machines, break rooms, conference tables, etc. Now this is the kind of place I'd expect to find the evil despots of today.


TERRORISM



Rebels and resistance groups opposing the evil empire in spite of impossible odds are another common sight in JRPGs. Terrorists, though? Now that's kind of new. True, most of the differences between "rebels" and "terrorists" are semantic, but I don't recall seeing the Returners looking up how to build bombs on the Internet and then sneaking into Vector to detonate them, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in the process. The Final Fantasy VII's depiction of its rebels isn't as picturesque as previous installments', but certainly more realistic.


NUCLEAR DANGERS



Gongoga = Chernobyl. Next.


TEENAGE SUICIDE


What?! Somebody confirm if that's really what happens here. Two ennui-stricken youths hanging around the train station sigh that there's nothing to do, ask "shall we?" and then keel over one another. They don't move or speak at all after that. Given Japan's high suicide rate, this scene might not be as far-fetched as you think.


SEX


Romance is nothing new to Final Fantasy. Cecil and Rosa's makeout scenes were so steamy that Nintendo of America saw fit to remove one of the frames of their shared "embracing" sprite for fear the youth of America wouldn't be able to handle such an uncompromising depiction of raw passion. We've already seen procreation in the series, too: as Final Fantasy VI clearly shows, when Terra's human and esper mother and father magically flew through the air together, two specks of the glitter falling from their bodies collided to form the game's heroine. But sex? Well, you don't see much of that in Final Fantasy - until you turn a corner in Midgar and stumble across the Honeybee Inn, Wall Market's renowned whorehouse. Final Fantasy VII is the first and last game in the series to contain a brothel, and I'm not sure why the idea didn't catch on. The Honeybee Inn is exactly the kind of place I'd like to take Yuna - unconscious, bound, gagged, and with a little note pinned to her dress reading "To: Don Corneo, Love: Santa."


TEXAS


Son of a bitch. You mean to tell me there's more Texases (Texi? Texes?) out there on other planets? (Rocket Town's "Shanghai Inn" and the Wall Market eatery's Korean BBQ dish just raise further questions.)


"THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US"



JRPGs and other video games have had environmental messages before (Global Gladiators, anyone?), but Final Fantasy VII is a hardliner on the issue. Bugenhagen explains that the purpose of the White Materia and Holy is to induce the Planet to purge itself of anything threatening it. This not only means it will repel Meteor, but a very real possibility exists that humanity will be erased in the process. I'm used to hearing poets and environmentalists tell me that the world would be glad to see us gone, but this is some pretty heavy shit coming from a video game.


POST-INDUSTRIAL DISAFFECTION


One of Final Fantasy VII's outspoken messages is that a post-industrial society like Midgar's (which isn't such a far cry from the cities of today) is degrading to the human spirit. Midgar is spreading. The blight to the land inflicted by its Mako reactors creeps outwards, and Shinra's economic and technological influence is changing civilization. The old ways of life are dying out as more people adopt Mako technology and conform to Shinra's ways. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, technology's role in human life continues to grow unchecked, and a whole lot of people are getting concerned about the globalization trend. If there's a point Final Fantasy VII is making somewhere at the heart of its labyrinthine story, it's that such developments are not in people's best interests. Once again, this isn't the kind of statement you'd expect from a video game back in 1997, especially coming from the folks whose company name you probably last saw stamped on Secret of Evermore and Super Mario RPG.


CONCLUSION

Here we are at the end, and I've hardly discussed Final Fantasy VII's gameplay at all. What can I say? Its battle and party development mechanics are fun, even if sometimes a little too simple. Thing is, thanks to the Playstation's better hardware and new format, Final Fantasy VII offers a much more multifaceted experience than its predecessors - an experience whose ATB battles and character maintenance are often overshadowed by its other aspects. Final Fantasy VI performed a successful balancing act between gameplay and narrative, even if the scales sometime tipped more towards narrative. If the last Final Fantasy on the SNES marked a change in direction, then Final Fantasy VII was a wild sprint in that direction. It builds on much of what made VI successful, but somewhere along the line, the balance was totally thrown off. Final Fantasy VII is about narrative. The battles are fun, but they're certainly not what sold 9.5 million copies.

I don't think Final Fantasy VII is overrated. Ten years later, it's still the game every JRPG tries to be. It actually broke the genre. Final Fantasy VII is now to JRPGs what Street Fighter II is to fighting games: a standard that can't possibly be met. The successful JRPG will be the one that manages to break as much ground, sell as many copies, and stir up as much of a popular and critical tidal wave, and that's about as likely as Street Fighter IV resurrecting the American arcade scene. It's probably not going to happen.

Ignore the hype. Final Fantasy VII isn't perfect. Don't expect perfection, because you shouldn't anyway. For better or worse, this is one of the titles that helped push video games into their current identity crisis. It was a forward stride in the evolution of a genre and a medium, and the next step will occur when the genre is able to get past it. Square Enix: DO NOT REMAKE THIS GAME.

So, Final Fantasy VII gets a perfect score. For all its imperfections and hype, it offers too memorable and inimitable a trip to deserve anything less.


VERDICT! 5 OUT OF 5 BUSTER SWORDS!


Notice the title of this collection of articles: "The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy." We've just passed the high-water mark. You know what that means.





Next: ...whatever.







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