Final Fantasy VII –A 20 Year Legacy
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There are very few games I can say have shaped me as a person, or had such an impact on me that I had to step back and reconsider what I thought games were capable of. Like many teenage boys growing up through the mid 1990’s, I desperately wanted a PlayStation. I can vividly remember the first time I played the console at my friend Errol’s house sometime during 1996, marveling at the graphics of Tekken and Destruction Derby. Friday night sleepovers at his house going forward would sometimes result in a trip to the local Civic Video, the next 18-24 hours a mad rush to spend as much time playing whatever game had grabbed our attention from shelves brimming with potential.
It was during one of these weekend sessions 12 or so months later that I would play Final Fantasy VII, the first in the series to reach Australian shores. Sony had spent heavily on advertising for months following its Japanese release. To this day, seeing the full-page comic book ad, featuring an iconic image of Cloud Strife clutching the Buster Sword as he stares up at a Shinra building still puts a smile on my face when I think back to how engrossing I found it at age 12. I recall wondering what Final Fantasy VII could possibly be about based on this image and why I hadn’t ever seen the other six games in the series anywhere. Heck, any series that managed to reach seven entries had to be good, right?
Being 12 and not particularly well off, purchasing games wasn’t a frequent occurrence for my friends and I, so we tended to rely more and more on renting as our gaming habits grew over time One of the challenges of hiring Final Fantasy VII shortly after its release in 1997 was that it seemed to be perpetually ‘out’, frequently for lengthy periods of time with the added downside that we would missed any reservation we put on it because people simply wouldn’t bring it back on time. I have to imagine that the better-stocked Video Ezy we began frequenting on the other side of town made a fortune from late fees on this game given its length. Mod chips hadn’t really taken off in the area we lived yet, so a lot of people were still renting games to actually play them and not just make a quick copy. After a few failed attempts, one glorious Friday afternoon we arrived at the store to see Final Fantasy VII available, the rental case sitting just behind the original Black Label release with the iconic meteor cover art.
It’s here that my memory starts to get a bit patchy – I don’t remember exactly what we did that afternoon, but we must have played some other games and had dinner before firing up Disc One. What I can recall almost as if it were yesterday is sitting on the floor of the living room, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, bathing in the flickering light of a CRT television. It was late at night for our age, easily past 11PM by my reckoning. Errol had fallen asleep watching me make my way through the first Mako Reactor, and I drifted off myself shortly after I’d reached Tifa’s Bar and sleepily saved the game. When I left for home the next morning, he was taking his turn through the opening section, and I was very jealous. It would be another 12 months before I sat down with my own PlayStation console to finish Final Fantasy VII.
By late 1998, Sony had dropped the price of the PlayStation several times. My birthdays placement at the end of November was fortuitous, as Christmas Sales were well underway. I had already told parents and grandparents that the day of my birth was to be celebrated with cold, hard cash. On Saturday the 28th of November, 1998, my dad took me to a Big W, where I spent every last cent of birthday loot I had buying a PlayStation console and memory card with a Platinum copy of Final Fantasy VII. My paternal grandmother, in the type of endearing gesture only grandmothers seem capable of, bought me an official PlayStation carry case which I still have to this day.
I spent the next few months absolutely engrossed in the world of Gaia, uncovering every secret Final Fantasy VII held and frequenting GameFAQs to help me breed a Golden Chocobo, find the Knights of the Round Materia and easily beat the Ruby and Emerald Weapons with some Mimic spamming. My save file hit the cap of 99:59:59, mostly due to farming AP around Mideel to ‘breed’ materia so I could have two Knights of the Round. I completely exhausted the game to the point that I never really returned to it. While I’ve started it a number of times over since, I fail to get far – sometimes stopping shortly after the now bittersweet meeting of Aeris, or escaping Midgar before losing my motivation to continue.
With 19 years having passed since, it’s hard to put into words exactly what I loved so much about Final Fantasy VII. Despite now being considered the most cliché ‘first JRPG’ a person can have it really was a revelation, especially in Australia where we were often overlooked for JRPG releases. The teen angst coursing through my veins no doubt helped me find many of the characters and themes endearing, while the story was light-years ahead of the simplistic narratives I was used to in other games of the era and more closely matched the fantasy novels of David Eddings and Raymond E. Feist that I was devouring. Perhaps the reason I hold it so dear is because Final Fantasy VII was the first title that showed me how engrossing and moving the medium of gaming could be, causing me to care about pointy polygonal characters and their quest to save the planet from the destructive pursuits of Shinra and the mania of Sephiroth. Final Fantasy VII pushed me further and further towards gaming as my primary hobby, and instilled a love of JPRG’s that has followed me through many subsequent generations.
And yet for all my fond memories, I have no desire to go back. As I’ve mentioned, there has been the odd occasion where I spend a few hours catching up with Cloud, Tifa, Barrett and Aeris, but my heart has never really been in it. No matter what I do, I’ll never capture the magic of that initial experience again. It simply isn’t possible to feel that same level of shock and sorrow at seeing Sephiroth descend upon Aeris, the thrill of flying the Highwind over the ocean or the deep ache as Nanaki and his children visit the overgrown ruins of Midgar. I want to preserve my time with Final Fantasy VII, not rewrite it – returning to it with a much more experienced eye could only tarnish the memories and feelings I currently hold towards it.
I remain skeptical that the FFVII: Remaster will live up to the expectations of an audience for many of whom the original was a transformative moment in their gaming history. I expect that given the changes already announced for it, the remaster isn’t so much intended for original audience members but instead the subsequent generations of gamers who have grown up with the legacy of VII amongst the Final Fantasy oeuvre but haven’t the patience for a 20-year old game. For those yet to play it, I can’t say whether it is the ‘best Final Fantasy’ – but it certainly helped many people gain an appreciation for games that they didn’t have previously, myself included. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
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It was whilst toiling away in the bowels of the now mythical Australian Gamer forums that Stephen del Prados attempts at writing were recognised by then up-and-coming Matt ‘Hewso’ Hewson as “not terrible”. Since then Stephen has contributed to such sites as The Age’s now defunct Screen Play, the recently retired Black Panel and currently serves under Editor-in-Chief Hewso for Player2.net.au, at least until the pattern of decline obvious in his previous engagements is picked up by Hewso and he is exiled from games journalism forever