There are two world-ending, record-shattering blockbusters released in 1997 that made their respective media a little bigger. There was Titanic, and there was Final Fantasy VII.
The game sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, earning $16.5 million in North America in its opening weekend—more than the opening weekend numbers of many Hollywood blockbusters up to that point. Its release swayed the console wars in favor of the PlayStation in Sony’s market debut against the Nintendo 64 and the soon-to-release Sega Dreamcast. In the West, Final Fantasy VII more or less popularized Japanese role-playing games, a genre in large part defined by turn-based, menu-driven combat with expressive mechanics, such as elemental magic, stat tradeoffs, and skills unique to a certain character or class. FFVII is one of those games that’s never gone out of fashion and never will. It’s been ported, in all its low-poly glory, to every active video game platform. Now you can play Final Fantasy VII—the title that marked the series’ defection from Nintendo to Sony—on the Switch. You can play it on your phone! For such a long and convoluted game, compared to The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario, it has such an absurd reach. Osama bin Laden died with a copy of Final Fantasy VII on his hard drive in Abbottabad.
Twenty-five years ago, to this day, Final Fantasy VII launched its strange journey. Disillusioned mercenary Cloud Strife joins the eco-terrorism group Avalanche for a couple bombing raids on the power reactors operated by the Shinra Electric Power Company. Through a fateful series of introductions and revelations, Avalanche’s crusade against Shinra becomes a quest to rescue the planet from a meteor summoned by the demented super-soldier —and Cloud’s nemesis—Sephiroth. The party recruits several misfits along the way, but the leadership includes Cloud and bitter revolutionary Barret Wallace, spunky barkeep Tifa Lockheart, and tragic heroine Aerith Gainsborough. Together, they escape the sunless slums of Midgar for the vast and troubled countryside. In a race to thwart the meteor with a direct petition for divine intervention from the planet itself, our heroes pile into a misshapen eight-wheel buggy and a couple junky airships cruising against a scrolling global backdrop.
Final Fantasy VII was a massive scope for a video game developed on the frontier of 3D console gaming. Three whole discs! FFVII wasn’t that much longer, but rather deeper and richer, than many games players had encountered before. That’s not a knock on the game’s contemporaries; Westerners just weren’t much into JRPGs until January 1997. It’s hard to pinpoint the secret ingredient in the game’s worldwide success. It was the intriguing character designs by the series illustrator Tetsuya Nomura. It was the tremendous 32-bit musical score by the series composer Nobuo Uematsu. It was a perfect storm of good taste and anime bullshit.
It was a critical breakthrough even by the high standards of 1990s JRPGs such as Chrono Trigger, EarthBound, and the game’s own predecessor, Final Fantasy VI. In fact, in the franchise’s fandom, there’s the long-outstanding question of whether FFVII or FFVI better represents the series. The two games are somewhat similar in their eagerness to reinvent the games. FFVI expanded the small roster of the earliest games into a diverse ensemble of playable characters. The game also succeeded the medieval style in the earlier titles with steampunk and magitek. The industrial revolution in FFVI prefigured the urban decay and environmental crisis in FFVII, both worlds crackling with an awful modernity.
Square Enix developed FFVI for the Super Nintendo in the last hurrah for 2D console gaming. The transition from 2D to 3D provides the shorthand basis for comparing FFVI and FFVII, respectively, but that’s underselling the difference in the extreme; FFVII didn’t simply replace sprites with polygons. That’s not even how I’d describe the evolution of more simplistic, kid-friendly blockbusters in this generation like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time. FFVII should’ve been a rough introduction to the technical potential for 3D console gaming, but instead the game turned out to be a pseudo-cinematic masterpiece in its own right. The stilted and speechless cutscenes in FFVII were in fact the crudest representation of the game’s ground-breaking cinematography. It’s more about the camera sweeping into battles and the textured backgrounds (compared to the sprite patterns in earlier games) that drew these characters, their blocky anatomy notwithstanding, a bit closer to the natural world. It was so many little things amounting, in the course of 36 gameplay hours, to the bigger, unprecedented thing.
I worry about this sort of game, this 32-bit wonder, in this age of remakes. For instance, Capcom developed the original Resident Evil for the PlayStation and then six years later remade the game for the GameCube; the remake quickly displaced the original game in storefronts and overwrote its acclaim. I enjoy the remake but also resent that it’s not even trying to preserve the b-horror absurdity and localization of the original game; it’s so much more self-serious. These things are worth preserving even as we improve upon them. Mercifully, the recent Final Fantasy VII Remake, a lovely and fascinating game in its own right, never threatened to overshadow the source material. The first impression is everlasting. Resident Evil represents a subgenre—survival horror—that suffered a decline that ran much longer than its prime; Final Fantasy VII represents a larger and longer-lived ideal for single-player games. FFVII was an inexhaustible open-world concept with a nonetheless focused and engrossing story that kept us on the rails. It configured the great challenge for video games in subsequent decades: expanding the open world and enriching the lives of its inhabitants.
It’s a challenge that Final Fantasy, as a series, is now met with fatigue. Five years ago, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XV. It’s an odd, charming, but also misshapen game, with a long and troubled development culminating in strong sales but middling reputation and a shortened shelf life. The biggest entry in recent years isn’t Final Fantasy XV or even the FFVII Remake but rather Final Fantasy XIV, an MMORPG launched more than a decade ago sustaining a 25 million player base with biennial expansions. Taken together, the shortcomings of FFXV and the surprising longevity of FFXIV say as much about the general regard for those two games as the larger shifts in modern gaming. And even then, Final Fantasy VII persists into the 2020s.
The remake, which has been released over the past year and half on PlayStation and PC, takes great liberties with the source material. It’s not really a remake but rather a sequel, remixing the original game with some of the brighter sentiment and friendly whimsy in director Tetsuya Nomura’s other signature JRPG series, Kingdom Hearts. It was honestly a brilliant decision to restructure FFVII—once a three-disc set for the original PlayStation—with indefinite concern for mainline chapters but with few spinoff titles, such as the recent Intergrade edition that re-introduces the mischievous ninja Yuffie Kisaragi. That’s one way to ease the sort of scope overload that broke, for instance, the development of Cyberpunk 2077.
Meanwhile, there’s also a Final Fantasy XVI in development at Square Enix—an entirely new game. The earliest trailer, released a year and a half ago, gives a fast-and-loose impression of the priorities this time around: medieval style, embattled monarchies, verbose lore. It suggests a return to its high-fantasy roots on the NES after a decades-long transformation into youthful tech anime hijinks. There’s FFXVI for the restorationists, and FFVII for the weebs. I know which ticket I’m taking into space.