As someone who largely experienced 90s video games as a teenager in the mid-2000s, the overwhelming popularity of Final Fantasy VII has always been a bit jarring. The reasons for its commercial success are largely nonsensical now; this was seen as an example of cutting edge technology? But what gets people to pick something up in the first place can differ from what sticks with them. Square sold this game based on cutscenes which looked much better than the standard gameplay, but people who bought in were rewarded with the latest iteration of a solid franchise that had been largely overlooked during the previous generation.
Square simply does memorable characters better than most companies. While plenty of games feature deeper protagonists with stronger characterization, that quality rarely extends to the supporting cast. With Tetsuya Nomura’s distinctive designs, each individual party member has become a video game icon. One of Final Fantasy’s greatest strengths is its Seven Samurai-styled collection of disparate heroes coming together for a shared cause, and VII is absolutely the most consistent cast in the series. Even relatively minor characters like Zack Fair and Rufus Shinra have captured the imagination.
Final Fantasy VII truly outshines its legacy. Cloud Strife is absolutely deserving of his place as one of the definitive video game protagonists. Square themselves seems to have lost track of what made him special, framing him as the quiet brooding type in later appearances like Kingdom Hearts. The whole point of his actual character arc is that Cloud is deeply disturbed and has been clinging onto a personality which is not his own. One of the game’s defining moments has Cloud break out of this shell and become his true, more joyous self.
What makes this change special is how it affects our understanding of the cast itself. Cloud is caught inside gaming’s most famous love triangle, which is already complicated by one of the participants being the victim of gaming’s most well-known spoiler. But with this twist comes the realization that Aerith is drawn to the performance while Tifa has been longing for the real Cloud.
The surprise of FF7 is how it wades through some complex territory. Ecoterrorism, corporations killing the planet, identity, betrayal, death – this features some heavy stuff compared to most mainstream hits, and it seems that later entries were wary of tackling anything too controversial once 7 shot the series into the spotlight.
So many of these moments are magical. Stepping onto the world map for the first time, Sephiroth standing amidst the flames, that famous twist at the end of disc one – Square knew how to direct our attention. The standard presentation would have never been enough for this ambitious story, so the cutscenes really do assist in generating emotional resonance.
But the highlight of the presentation has always been the score. Nobuo Uematsu is the biggest name in video game music for a reason, and everything about Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack is phenomenal. Beyond the simple beauty of the music, Uematsu expertly links many of these songs together through distinct motifs. Even as the party strays far from where they began, these motifs are a constant reminder of everything being connected.
What made Final Fantasy such a definitive JRPG experience between the SNES and PS2 eras was the way each game offered its own unique spin on a sturdy foundation. While VII stands as the most popular, they are each of a distinct quality where any individual entry would be a reasonable favorite (except perhaps VIII). The Materia system does a fantastic job of giving the player control over what their characters can do. The fact there are many powerful Materia throughout the world also makes it essential not just to level but to hunt these items down – any JRPG that gives a meaningful way to power up outside of shopping and grinding has a distinct advantage.
The hunt for these Materia also highlights the size of this world. There are so many sidequests and secret bosses. Yet even while restrained to Midgar, this world feels huge. There’s always some new corner to explore, and the game offers some serious rewards, including two full-fledged party members.
I’ll never quite have the nostalgic association with FF7 like those who got to experience it upon release. Even then, the core experience stands strong – turn-based gameplay never really ages and the narrative concepts have remained unique. There’s a reason everyone had been clamoring for a remake – the graphics have always been the sole barrier for new players from an otherwise flawless game. But with Square deciding to experiment with the remake, the original remains a distinct and definitive experience.