My favorite game in the Final Fantasy series is Final Fantasy IX, and it was somewhat jolting to learn how many gamers didn’t like it. It had the most cohesive group of characters and plot-driven gameplay since Final Fantasy IV, which was another popular game in the series and one which, like Final Fantasy IX, was set in an outright fantasy world and stripped down to basics. You would think the contingent of gamers constantly bitching about Final Fantasy’s abandonment of its roots for the Philip K. Dick emo festivals the two previous games were made into would have been satisfied by the only real fantasy offering since IV, V, and VI rocked the role-playing realm, but the internet had become the world’s most importantly ubiquitous celebrity by then and was lighting up. Apparently gamers were loving the new tales of Final Fantasy hipster characters, so after IX, Square returned to the series 32-bit roots and has been tinkering with them ever since.
There are two camps of Final Fantasy fans: The Before Crowd and The After Crowd. The before and after in question requires no introduction. It’s Final Fantasy VII, that great Playstation juggernaut which captured a slew of people who, before then, would have beat up anyone who described a favorite game as an interactive silicon book. The advertising blitz for Final Fantasy VII didn’t quite reach the highest level – I’ll still insist that Super Mario Bros. 3 will always hold that record because a full-length, live action feature film, The Wizard, was made for the sole purpose of making sure people knew about it – but it was unprecedented for an RPG. RPGs were the video games of choice for the most outcast of the outcasts back then, which was my social class. When Final Fantasy VII began showing up in TV ads and display features, people took notice, and being a geek became a little bit easier. All the cool kids who had been obsessed with the fighting game wars just a few years before were standing with the geeks, openly wondering what secrets Cloud’s past held and wondering if the death of Aeris was a designer ruse or for real. Aeris’s sudden murder is one of the greatest pieces of video game lore; it captured imaginations to such an extent that even today – 17 years after the original release of Final Fantasy VII and long after rumors of any shot at bringing her back within that particular game have been denied by developers and obliterated by every gamer fool enough to try – new rumors continue to pop up about this or that absurd, far-out method of resurrecting her.
Role-playing became mainstream. Hallelujah for Final Fantasy, right? I guess, except for the little detail of Final Fantasy VII not being the best game in the series for miles. A grand survey of folks who were playing games before 3D was an accepted norm reveals that VII was outclassed by almost every other game in the series, with the possible exception of the first. You can usually tell what kind of Final Fantasy fans gamers are by asking them about Final Fantasy VII. The Before Crowd will give it a vicious verbal thrashing before stating a case that one of the earlier games – mostly likely Final Fantasy VI – is the absolute pinnacle of gaming perfection and you’re not a gamer if you think otherwise. The After Crowd lavishes its endless affection on Final Fantasy VII and claims it a revelation that turned gaming on its head. Somewhere in the middle of this weird war of magi, though, is a third crowd that just wishes they could nuke the other two into their morning coffee.
I’m a member of this third crowd, and it’s a constant oddity because being there means constantly fighting with everyone about the commercial and artistic merits of Final Fantasy VII. For every greatest game ever list FFVII tops, every best hero/villain list topped off by Cloud and/or Sephiroth, every wish for a chocobo race simulator, every Gamefaqs tournament ending with Cloud or Sephiroth in the final, and every petition to rename Las Vegas “Gold Saucer,” another little motor unit inside me fries to death. I want to champion Final Fantasy VII, but that’s impossible because doing so against anyone means going extreme in the opposite direction since concessions mean you automatically lose the debate. Unfortunately, the perceived infallibility of FFVII has gotten to be too much to bear, so even though I like the game a lot, I find myself beating it up more and more as more people born after the 16-bit era come of age and regard FFVII as their greatest seminal experience in video games.
I don’t get the character attachments. When the game begins, you take control of Cloud, the main character and an acting mercenary for a group of eco-terrorists. Cloud is only looking after himself through the first segment of the game. As is the won’t of Final Fantasy, though, Cloud does make his presto chango, but it comes a wee bit too early and with too much convenience to character for a guy who spends a lot of the game supposedly grappling with himself. It’s too easy to lump him up with Squall, the insufferable lead of FFVIII, but Cloud does manage to change, overcome his personal demons, and become a headstrong leader in the end of the game, so that much I can give him. Unfortunately, his past is laid out and scattered in such a way that one of the side quests – the visit to Gongaga – is of utmost importance if you’re to figure out the significance of this Zack guy to him, and even then, you’re still forced to piece it together like a jigsaw even after Tifa’s visit to his head.
The most inexplicable story decision, though, is trying to figure out the villain. To their credit, the writers managed to envision one of the most pointlessly cruel, hateful, hostile, spiteful, inhumane, and just plain evil villains of all time…. Only to place him on the side to an anime porn prettyboy named Sephiroth. Anytime there’s a new FFVII-related form of media saturation, Sephiroth is guaranteed to be a part of it. Poor Hojo, meanwhile, was there and killed and never seen again. While Hojo was a by-the-book mad scientist most of the time, his strength as a villain came from his lack of redeeming qualities. He was like Kefka in FFVI in that at the conclusion, you wanted him gruesomely tortured to death with his head mounted on a nice plaque in your study. There’s a weird dynamic at play in RPG world savior scenarios because when the villain is humanized, the need to differentiate between good and evil is blurrier, even though you still know in the end that he’s trying to destroy the world and will have to kill him rather than redeem him. It kinda nullifies the whole point of one or the other. Sephiroth, after all, turned out to be more or less a de facto bad guy whose mommy issues would blow up Sigmund Freud’s brain. Hojo was evil to the bone, and no other bad guy in the game held the importance he did. Who was as terrible as him? Certainly not Sephy. Rufus Shinra? He was almost a complete nonfactor once Cloud made it out of Midgar. Even the game didn’t consider him important enough for the party to kill, leaving the dirty work to Diamond Weapon…. After Hojo shot Diamond Weapon with the Sister Ray. The Turks were easy battle victories and hired hands. Heideggar and Scarlet were clear graduates of the Dr. Claw School of Henching. Dyne wasn’t around for very long. Yuffie was theoretically one of the good guys.
Speaking of Dyne, his good guy counterpart Barrett opens about ten barrels of worms people don’t want to point out. Barrett is one of the first characters we meet in the game – he even enters the screen right before Cloud, and is on your side for the entire game. He has a gun for an arm, a violent temperament, a short fuse, and a high level of melanin. Now, Square deserves a ton of credit for doing something which had almost never been done before in creating a minority (black) hero in a video game who played a significant role and never got corrupted or killed. But there’s almost certainly a larger picture or idea that can be introduced about society – our society – by merit of his bad temper, tough demeanor, and gun arm, and I’m fairly sure it isn’t good. The fact that his daughter, Marlene, is white probably helps reinforce said picture or idea. Elaboration, I’m sure, can be found in the writings of sociologists and psychologists who study critical theory professionally, but I can point out that Barrett reinforces an awful lot of negative stereotypes which he never quite sheds in his journeys. I don’t think I’m in the wrong by holding a spotlight to Cid, either, and his borderline abusive way of treating Shera.
The most famous scene is easily the death of Aeris, and that’s for a damn good reason. Not only is the death done in a very powerful way which solidified the idea that CG cutscenes have a place in video games, but absolutely no one was expecting it. Aeris was the main love interest and the last member of a race that was being exploited, which made her something of a big deal to Hojo and therefore a major plot point. Her death was an emotional moment for most of the people who played the game, and it was a shock to everyone who played it. It was also an evasion. Aeris flirted her way through through her parts of the game and never seemed to show a whole lot of concern, and one strategy guide I read had the idea that there was some kind of hidden meter in the game that showed how much she liked Cloud. Although I haven’t been able to confirm that, it fits her character. When she finally does realize the gravitas of the situation, she bolts from the party, thus freeing the writers from having to develop her, and when the party catches up in the Forgotten City and she threatens to have to grow a third dimension again, she’s conveniently rubbed out. To their credit, the death and sendoff and haunting, emotional, and beautiful, but they’re still a way of getting around having to write her more. To think, these are the same writers who whipped up a silly character named Cait Sith who joined the party for a ridiculous reason, wiped him out, and immediately replaced him with a Cait Sith II (yes, that’s exactly what he called himself in the game), and nobody gave another thought to it.
You can breed chocobos in FFVII. Now, if you weren’t reading a strategy guide, how would you ever know that was even possible? Breeding them is important if you’re to grab the most powerful spell in the game, Knights of the Round, a devastator which totally cuts through everything the game can throw at you, including the last boss. Unfortunately, it involves knowing little insider details the game doesn’t tell you, like the difference between the highest level chocobos. I love thinking outside the box in video games, but this is thinking outside the marble containing our universe. Knights of the Round is mentioned casually by a lot of sources giving you ways to beat the game, but chocobo breeding requires virtually turning your life over if you’re starting from no knowledge. The summon spells also take forever to cast because the animations are long and can’t be skipped. Knights of the Round is a well-known culprit, taking over a minute.
It’s not that I don’t have problems with the other games in the Final Fantasy series. I do – Final Fantasy VIII is as bad as they come, and I even have a problem with the way the “infallible” Final Fantasy VI basically castrates itself in the second half, forcing players to figure out everything about where to go and what to do in a brand new world. Those two don’t annoy me as much as FFVII, though. Final Fantasy VIII is acknowledged as a terrible game in a lot of places, and FFVI doesn’t have the amount of saturation and hype as FFVII. My problem with FFVII isn’t the fact that people love it so much as it is the fact that it’s so fiercely beloved and defended that everyone pretends the flaws don’t exist. It’s like The Beatles.
There’s only one reason why Final Fantasy VII is as popular as it is: It was the My First RPG for an enormous contingent of people who either didn’t realize the genre existed until then or spent a lot of spare time bullying the people who did play RPGs. Yes, it’s wonderful to finally be able to play RPGs openly and not be poorly judged, but it certainly cost a lot of the genre’s integrity. Final Fantasy used to set standards. Now, because people loved Final Fantasy VII, Square found its commercial breakthrough, and so Final Fantasy is merely standard.