Bit-History: Final Fantasy VII

As blasphemous as it sounds, I’m not a huge fan of RPG’s.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed plenty – everything from The Legend of Zelda (I’ll count both original NES titles as RPG’s) to Dragon Age – but I find myself incredibly picky over what I’m willing to play.  Plenty of genre efforts come and go, never so much as blipping on my radar… and why?  I believe the answer begins and ends with Final Fantasy VII.

Sitting to write this piece really takes me back.  A nerdly friend of mine had purchased Final Fantasy VII without owning a Playstation… on purpose, because he was allowed to borrow the console from someone.  I spent numerous weekends at his place, and we did nothing more than take lengthy turns playing video games.  Frankly, when he excitedly told me about how far he had gotten in FFVII, I was like, “Great, I’m going to have to suffer watching this crappy game all weekend.”  Boy, was I put in my place.  He was nearing the endgame, and he was unleashing a bunch of impressive summons, including ‘Knights of the Round’.  My jaw was agape, and for the first time ever, I found myself intrigued by a turn-based RPG.

Keep in mind, up to this point, I was never interested in Final Fantasy or any other RPG with similar gameplay.  I was young, and wanted the instant gratification of arcade style gameplay.  You can play Final Fantasy III on the SNES all you want, but I was going to chill at home with Contra, Mario, Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon and Metroid.  My attitude, more or less had been, “What?  I have to READ to play this game?  And then I have to passively take part in a battle by choosing attacks from a menu system?  Wake me from my sugar cereal overdose in about a week, by which time you should be done with this boring tragedy you call a game.”  Ignorant, yes, but I was a kid… so shaddap.

I hadn’t realized it yet, but my life as a gamer was about to change forever.  My preconceived notions – and yes, ignorance – were about to catch wind and fly out the window.  Based on what I saw at my bud’s house, I ended up getting a Playstation JUST to play this game (although many games followed).  I was intimidated before I even pulled the shrink-wrap off the case.  “The game is on THREE CD’s?!  Goodbye, life…”  At the time of its release, playing a game that could take 40 hours, if not more, seemed like madness… at least to me.  After all, Ocarina of Time had not been out yet, and I can’t recall what the longest game I had ever played before it was.  I honestly had no idea if I had the stamina required to make it to the end… but I did.  Not only did I make it, but I actually went above and beyond to level up and find as much stuff as possible, playing for about 63 hours (I believe).  Never once did I feel the game drag, or ask myself when it was going to be over.  On the contrary – I wanted more, and when I was nearly finished, I was sad it was coming to an end.  Sure, I could go back and play it again, but a game like this?  Your second time is never quite like the first, you know?

So, why did this game change my life?  What made it such a unique experience?  For starters, the development of plot and character were on a scale I’d never seen… hell, on a scale that NOBODY had seen before.  For the first time, I actually found myself vested in the characters and their plight.  Things start off with a bang, as the main character – none other than the infamous Cloud – is taking down reactors as a merc for hire, but after your escape, the experience is mostly a slow burn with satisfying flashes of action sprinkled throughout.  Although you could spend up to 70 hours drilling through the game, the ebb and flow of it is all very even.  When you first meet certain characters, everyone is a little apprehensive, and for quite some time.  It isn’t until you actually feel comfortable with these characters YOURSELF, that the characters on-screen begin to warm up to each other.  From there, they all form an unbreakable bond, and you come to love each and every one of them in different ways.  Cloud often finds himself in the middle of two women who care for him deeply… one is new and mysterious, the other a fond memory from his past before… well, everything that happens in this game.  There’s a very ‘alpha dog’ male companion who gets on your nerves from time to time, but you eventually make up in a very ‘s’all good, bro’ kind of way.  I’m not sure I’ve ever felt to the characters in a video game since.  Have you ever cried while playing a game?  I have… when a member of my odd little fellowship winds up as collateral damage.

This makes Final Fantasy VII both a blessing and a curse – A blessing because it’s a game that was on a completely different level at the time of its release, and still stands as a template for RPG’s today.  It’s a curse however, because serving as my introduction to RPG’s in general, my expectations of what an RPG SHOULD be have always been through the roof.  As a result, I haven’t been able to joy many of the ‘average’ RPG’s.  I won’t even give a game my attention anymore unless there’s something about it that really grabs my attention.  The last game to do that was Ni No Kuni, which I’ve just picked up recently.  I’ve only been able to play for about 40 minutes, so I won’t be able to give any opinions on it just yet, but it definitely shows promise of being every bit of fun, magical and whimsical as its trailers promise.  Before that?  I don’t know… I don’t think I can even remember what the last turn-based RPG I played was.  I hope to rectify that, hoping that my age and gaming experience will have allowed my expectations to level realistically, so I can enjoy a bunch of the titles I’ve missed along the way, such as Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIII-2.

Amazing story and characters aside, Final Fantasy VII has pretty much perfected the turn-based genre, with its combination of menus which are easy to use and understand, ‘real time’ button presses which can aide in delivering more powerful blows, and materia-based upgrade system.  As a newcomer to this style of gameplay (at the time), I was surprised at just how intuitive it all managed to be.  Squaresoft had gone on record saying they thought that Final Fantasy VII would have been too complex for gamers in the US… and all I could say after beating the game was, really?  Some of the battles were difficult, especially if you didn’t take the time to grind and level accordingly, but to say this would have gone over our heads in the United States almost seems like an insult.  I know we’re all perceived to be stupid drones that do little more than credit card ourselves into a hole that’s loaded with unnecessary goods and greasy food, but come on… this wasn’t a complex game.  The only thing that really demanded you pay attention was the story, but it’s so easy to become invested in this world and everyone in it, that you never lose sight of the big picture.  Anyway – Final Fantasy VII did such a great job at implementing all of its core gameplay mechanics, that I remember the next installment – Final Fantasy VIII – being a huge letdown.  It wasn’t a bad system, but it wasn’t nearly as fun to experiment with as its predecessor.

I’ll never forget Final Fantasy VII… I obviously consider it to be up there as one of the best games of all time, if not THE best.  Remember, that’s coming from someone who wasn’t, and still kind of isn’t a huge fan of RPG’s.  Sure, over the years I’ve enjoyed the likes of Dragon Age, Demon’s Souls, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and I’m certain Ni No Kuni will turn out to be one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in a while… but the perfection that is FFVII is probably why I couldn’t get into games like Fable, Dragon Age 2, or Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  I’ve developed the opinion that an RPG simply isn’t worth it unless it’s going to be something extraordinary on EVERY front… otherwise, what’s the point?  It’s just going to be the same as any other RPG, right?  Right.

I love you Final Fantasy VII… and I hate you.  But I don’t love to hate you… I just hate to love you, because of what you’ve done to me as a gamer.

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