Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


 

Final Fantasy VII


L
et me paint you a picture, if I can.

You’re in your late teens, enjoying your first semester of your junior year in high school, September…it’s barely began. It’s also 1997. The X-Files is still amazing. Titanic just blew up the box officer a few months before. The Fifth Element was money well spent at the movie theaters, Starship Troopers was about to be. Batman and Robin and The Lost World were not. Princess Diana just died, that Candle in the Wind song is on the radio all the time, and bands like Radiohead, Foo Fighters, Blink 182 and Oasis are your favorites.

As a part of a work-educational program in your high-schoool, you get out of school early. Your job? A small game and movie rental store on the other side of the mid-sized town you call home. The day is sunny. Your drive away from your high-school uneventful. You’ve already done it a few times this early in the semester. Your day is like any other…kind of. It’s a Thursday.


This Thursday was particularly good.

You pull in to a far-off parking space in the nearly-deserted stripmall where your small video-store job is housed, right between the Farmer’s Insurance and a tanning salon where everyone looked orange. Upon entrance, as expected, boxes of newly arrived merchandise sits in wait for you to count out, put in the computer system manually, price for sale or prep for rental copies, and slog through the day finding display room in your small store.

The boss is already there. He’s always there, likely contemplating regrets of his life as to how he ended up as the owner of a near-dying video rental store that would soon be out of business do to the onset of DVDs - the reason why many small stores went under as they couldn’t re-buy their entire inventory to compensate.  He does little, you do most of the work. It’s the way things are.

You also had another worker, who would be arriving shortly as he also got out of school early to join you. You might as well get started. These were obviously video game boxes in wait, and you as a gamer couldn’t wait to see what was inside. You know that there was one game you were keeping an eye out for. You grab the nearest box knife, slide out that razor blade and smoothly cut through the packing tape.

You needn’t worry about being patient, or having anticipation. Your wish is fulfilled right away as you open up that box, move a few of the packing peanuts aside and see a glorious stack of beautiful, shrink-wrapped copies of Playstation quadruple disk goodness.

Forget logging it. Forget prepping rental copies. Your co-worker has arrived and sees the open box. You share a look. The demo kiosk near the front desk is there. It’s slow at 2:30PM on a Thursday. The boss doesn’t mind as long as you don’t slack on the actual work and the stuff is ready by the time customers roll in around 4 or 5PM.

You use that same box knife to slice the thin shrink-wrap and peel it back. You gingerly remove the top security tape and slap it the back. This was to be the rental copy, that sticker being unbroken means you can use it as a label if need be. At the kiosk, you slide out the top drawer and pull out whatever game was sitting in that demo Playstation that you’d leave on and let the thing replay whatever it was replaying. 1997. A big year in gaming. The N64 was heating up with Mario Kart, Turok, Goldeneye and Star Fox out that year, but there wasn’t an N64 hooked up to play demo videos. Given the time Final Fantasy VII came out, there’s a good chance that the game you removed was Oddworld Abe’s Odyssey, which came out a few weeks before.

You popped it in and was treated to the most amazing opening of anything ever in the history of humankind: Final Fantasy FMV.

 

Final Fantasy FMV...Sony took this kind of stuff found in Final Fantasy VII and ran one of the most brilliant ad campaign in videogaming history.

 

Final Fantasy VII is listed to have an “official” street date of September 7th, 1997. That’s not correct. Back then “street dates” for video games didn’t mean much, especially for small stores in small towns. There was no “hard” date because the video game industry was still discovering itself. If Atari and the NES are infancy, the 16-bit era childhood, the time of the Playstation, Sega Saturn and Nintendo 64 were surely its teenage years: all piss and vinegar that’s for sure. It could have gone a lot of ways, what with the new crew that was Sony on the block still an uncertainty.

At the time, I loved Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs), and there was only one name that mattered in that world: Squaresoft, the developer of some of the greatest RPGs ever made. As I read in magazines like Gamefan or Gamepro or Electronic Gaming Monthly, the first time I can honestly say I “followed” video game news, Square was jumping ship to Sony’s Playstation, leaving their long-time console of choice (anything made by Nintendo) a thing of the past.

JRPGs were going through a bit of an evolution around this time. For the past ten years or so, they slowly began to make headway. Mechanics and gameplay systems began to get deeper, presentation through graphics more cinematic and artistic, stories far richer and with memorable characters. In the first Final Fantasy game on the NES, you had four nameless heroes out to defeat the evil bad guy and restore balance to the world. By Final Fantasy III on the SNES (which, technically, is the sixth game as the US didn’t receive all the Final Fantasy titles) you had a plot full of characters searching for internal peace and meaning, an evil empire that is overthrown, the end of the world and a dozen twists and turns weaved through a complex narrative that lasted for 50 to 60 hours of gameplay.

By the time Final Fantasy VII came out, it was still a lot of that, only now with the graphical power of the Playstation. Of course, that’s at the time. Looking back at it now, it’s kind of funny to see how ridiculous it all looked. Sure, the backgrounds still hold up, they’re pre-rendred and meant to look realistic. But the character models. Oh boy…

 

 

Gorgeous backgrounds on the left...and one of the in-game characters in the middle and one of the "battle screen" characters on the right, it made for an odd mesh, but one of the defining traits of the game, it turns out.

 

I didn’t play Final Fantasy VII on that demo kiosk, of course. In fact, I had actually played demos of it before. There were two: one on a Playstation Underground 2 demo, the only reason why I had a subscription to the magazine Playstation Underground, and another packed in with the game Tobal no 1, which is the only reason I bought the game Tobal no 1 as it was one of the lamest fighting games I had ever played. It was impressive.

But it wasn’t the game. It was just a demo. On this Thursday in September of 1997, I had the actual game. For the first time. A big thick double-CD packed game. A game I still own (I own all my old JRPGs, actually). I can’t detail playing the entire game, that would take all day, but I can tell you the feeling of playing it: mysterious.

If there was anything that the new power of the Playstation had, it was upping the presentation of what Squaresoft had been trying to do for those past ten years. It was cinematic, it was like a movie, it had camera angles and perspective and you explored every nook and cranny of those pre-renderd backgrounds in hopes of finding hidden paths and secret items. There were lighting effects, there was interaction with a slew of non playable characters throughout the world. There was a sense of mystery running throughout its world, its presentation, its story and its characters. 

There was also a snowboarding level...and a brothel with half-naked men.


F
inal Fantasy VII was epic. It was gorgeous. It had memorable music and memorable scenes that play out in the minds of anyone who played it, from one character discovering the truth about his father, to odd and unsettling flashbacks, to giant Weapon-monsters emerging form the seas, to a giant cannon shooting at said giant Weapon monsters, to going on a date and playing mini games, to an utterly epic set of Summon Spells the likes no RPG had ever seen before that cascaded across your screen like polygonal anime fetish…

It was also weird. Like, really weird. The world was dark and deranged. It was an odd mix of traditional fantasy elements with industrial steampunk (something Final Fantasy III had, but never presented like this). It was moody and intense. But it was also very angst-ridden and, naturally, appealed to that 14 to 19 year old demographic at the time (I was a perfect 16 years old, going on 17). It was full of philosophy and ambiguity and odd moments of introspection and piety…though years later I came to realize it actually didn’t tell its story all that well.

 

It was a whole lot of stuff, never settling for just one thing. Flawed, yes…but never uninteresting or uninspired in it's desire to tackle many different elements in style, gameplay and plot.



But even to this day, my nostalgia for it supersedes its shortcomings. Sure, the game implies more than actually says, and it never is able to develop its central characters as well as other Squaresoft games, and our lead character has a personality of a houseplant. But it didn’t matter because the “mood” and the “feel” of the game was one of a kind. It still is to this day. Hell, Squaresoft knows that which is why they’ve been milking the Final Fantasy VII brand for the past 17 years.

Is it my favorite Final Fantasy game? No. Not even in my Top 3 or 4. But it came at just the right time and did just the right things to make it happen. In 1997, as Sony waved Final Fantasy VII commercials in front of Nintendo’s faces, there was just nothing like it. No game looked like it. Sounded like it. Acted like it. There still isn’t a game that captures its uniqueness - this odd blend of “let’s do everything” with mystery and bad storytelling. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now in regards to its flaws. It staked a claim and it’s been that way for nearly 2 decades despite all the detractors and backlash it’s run in to.

    Boy. 17 Years. Graphcially, it may not hold up. But there’s nothing else like it. It's one of its defining traits, good (backgrounds) or bad (in-game characters), and I wouldn't trade it for anything. If you remake the game with better graphics, then it's not Final Fantasy VII anymore.


I think I beat Final Fantasy VII within a week - not too shabby considering the school and work schedule. It’s all kind of a blur as to the length I spent playing it, maybe 60 or 70 hours which seemed to be the going-rate for JRPGs at the time. But I still remember a lot of specific moments, musical cues, dialogue and the many, many locations you traverse. Of course re-playing it over the years make sure I did, though the original play through of any game is never something you can recreate. Some of my favorite moments:

___________________________________


"Memories...like the corner of my mind..."

 

-The opening, naturally. Then all the various FMV clips throughout the game from then on. I especially like the ones where they blended gameplay with the FMV backgrounds.
-A lot of Midgar stuff, like parades and jail and trails of blood as you escape.
-The motorcycle chase through Midgar. The first major new thing in the game.
-The Infiltration of Shin Ra Tower.
-The slums of Midgar and all the details as you explore them.
-The first time you step out of Midgar after a good 8-10 hours of playing it and realizing that Midgar was just one city in a vast, huge world (this one is a lot of peoples’ favorite moment, I find). That over world music hits, and you’ve realized there’s something special happening here.
-When you get to your first, quaint little town for a “breather” and some backstory.
-That flashback. And everything about it. You know which one. Yeah…
-The Fort Condor strategy mini game. It was dumb, but it was something I hadn’t seen before in a game like this also.
-The first time you meet Vincent. He’s a bit tired now, but back then it was pretty awesome.
-Chocobo Racing. Really anything at Golden Saucer.
-Nanaki (or Red XIII) backstory. If you want to find the heart of this game, this is it.
-Trying to figure out what the hell Cait Sith is.
-The frozen wonderland stuff. Some of the best atmosphere in the game.
-That first airship flight. A serious sense of freedom and tonal shift in the game.
-Meeting Cid and learning everything about him and his dreams. Plus he was quite saucy.
-Loathing Yuffie and her entire village which I wanted to burn to the ground.
-The Turks. Arguably the best personalties in the game, next to Hojo, of course.
-The mysterious forest, which is a great example of what the game did so damn well - sense of mystery is hard to create for games like this.
-Seeing Knights of the Round summoned for the first time.
-I guess that one scene involving a sword and a torso.
-The final boss and final boss music.

___________________________________


Now maybe you read all that and just went down memory lane with me, maybe you didn’t. But the point is: I remembered all that off the top of my head. The moments, the music, the way the characters were animated or the dialogue…it’s all vivid, and I can’t say that for a majority of the games or movies or books that I’ve gone through.

Even then I knew all the things that were wrong with it, and I certainly know now thanks to internet memes and message boards. But I wouldn’t trade any of that. That’s what concerns me about any talk of “remaking it” and “fixing” issues with it. Those “issues” are really a part of its identity, just as those blocky ugly polygonal characters are or rebook audio. That would be like saying “Hey, let’s remake Flash Gordon.” Don’t you fucking dare.

There’s a charm here that is completely unintentional due to those odd quirks and flaws, or those blocky characters and low-grade, yet immensely memorable, music and audio quality. Even mistakes in the translation have become a part of the whole that is Final Fantasy VII. The confusing nature of it can be attributed somewhat to bad plotting and storytelling, but some of it also due to bad localization…in both cases they’re reasons I love the game. Sometimes seeing a slight flaw in something, yet still knowing such heart and time and creativity went in to it, makes it feel more natural and real. 

 

 Oh are he sick? And on the right...that about sums up the plot.

 

Looking back, I find myself quite bittersweet about it all: that first time playing that game, or anything like it after, is never repeated. There was an odd magical mystery tour element of Final Fantasy VII, which was a game that had a reach that exceeded its grasp, but it grasps you all the way. It also came at just the perfect time: a rather boring and uneventful Thursday for a high schooler heading to work turned in to weeks of memories I still vividly recall. It’s small, but that’s something I kind of cherish. We tend to forget the smaller memories and only hold the big ones, it’s how the human mind works, I suppose.

The fact I can remember Final Fantasy VII, the moments up to it, after, and the many replays of it since that Thursday in 1997,  is something to be cherished - and the reason I do is because it wasn’t perfect video game, it was just perfect right then on that day, and that memory is perfect to me.

 

For past Not/Quite Remembering Videogame artiles, click here


 

 

  

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