Happy birthday Final Fantasy VII, 18 years old today – you’re now old enough to drink, vote and gamble – but is it time to gamble on that elusive remake?
Let’s get this out of the way up-front: there is no remake of Final Fantasy VII in the works. However at the Playstation Experience event in early December 2014, Shinji Hashimoto of Square Enix caused a bit of a stir when he announced that one of their “most iconic titles” was being released for PS4 in Spring 2015. The audience’s interest was suitably piqued. Then the Final Fantasy VII logo popped up on the screen and everyone went a little crazy, and understandably so – the seventh instalment of the venerable series regularly tops polls of the most requested remakes in gaming.
The trail began to play and the goosebumps started, as we followed that train into that dystopian metropolis. Then it all started to get a little too familiar, and when a gourad-shaded blur of purple and yellow leapt from the train looking every bit 1997, the audience were instantly deflated as they realised this was no more than a basic port of the original onto Sony’s latest-gen console. Upscaled, you say Square Enix? Sorry, nobody cares! You can re-live the hilarious coverage of the event here, from raucous excitement at 0:30 to polite, disappointed applause at 2:05, and I defy anyone to not be reminded of Lisa Simpson breaking Ralph Wiggum’s heart live on television.
Worse still, the PS4 release is actually based on 1998’s PC port from the Playstation original – which is notorious for it’s inferiority – particularly concerning issues with muddy-looking rendered backdrops and inconsistent sound quality. So Final Fantasy VII will be coming to PS4 in the next couple of months and while it’s not what fans were hoping for, to be fair, it is exactly what most of us were expecting. I can’t decide what is more likely to actually get released; a full remake of Final Fantasy VII, or the seemingly lost in another dimension Half-Life 3.
Just because something is old does not mean it is without value, though, and there are those among us (myself included) who love it just the way it is. Yes, even with the funky English localisation. Classics are best left in their original state, and I would rather they didn’t apply the modern Square Enix (barely) interactive movie experience of Final Fantasy XIII et al to one of the greatest games of all time – who really wants to see Michael Bay re-make Citizen Kane? Anybody? I didn’t think so.
There ain’t no getting’ off of this train we’re on!
Development began on Final Fantasy VII back in 1994, immediately following the release of the outstanding Final Fantasy VI on the SNES. Squaresoft (as they were then known) had a long-standing relationship with Nintendo, so it was a surprise to the industry when they defected to the new kid on the block, the Sony Playstation, citing the increased storage capacity of CD ROM (over the traditional cartridge) as the key driver for this decision. Even more surprising perhaps, was the fact the game was actually named as the seventh in the series.
Only half of the series to this point (the first, fourth and sixth titles) had been given a global release, and in the Western world they had been re-numbered in the order of their release outside of Japan. To avoid confusion, apparently. So while Final Fantasy I kept its name, Final Fantasy IV was renamed to II, and Final Fantasy VI became III. Yes that’s right, it was designed to avoid confusion. Perhaps Microsoft have been taking lessons from Squaresoft when naming modern iterations of Windows? In any case, Final Fantasy bucked the odd numbering trend, and was first released on 31st January 1997.
To those outside of Japan, Final Fantasy VII has more than one birthday. While it was first released into its native Japan in January 1997 it didn’t see release in the US until September 7th of that year, and finally landed in the UK and Europe on November 17th.
You look like a bear wearing a marshmallow
Why did it take so long? Primarily because localising a game with thousands of lines of written dialogue, that must fit into fixed-size text boxes, is very difficult indeed. Ted Woolsey (who had done a remarkable job translating Final Fantasy VI) was unavailable, so the translation was undertaken by the original development team, as they had done with the first and fourth titles in the series. This did lead to some relatively clunky exchanges of dialogue, but for better of worse, it certainly give the Western gamer a more authentic Final Fantasy experience.
During the very first boss fight against a giant mechanised scorpion you’re told by a companion, “Attack while it’s tail is up,” and like a dutiful little SOLDIER you tear into the beast with your giant sword. “…and it will counter-attack with it’s laser,” continues the instruction, a few seconds too late, and you’re torn to shreds by a powerful counter. None of these minor confusions are detrimental to the overall experience though, and they’ve become something of a talking point over the years.
More interesting than the words themselves are the concepts that didn’t translate altogether that well, though. One of the the strangest sequences in the game involves protagonist Cloud, the silent, muscular mercenary, collecting items to engage in a little casual transvestitism in order to seduce a crime lord. Depending on how well you do in collecting items to make Cloud “cute”, including a squats competition with other cross-dressers in a gym for a blonde wig, determines whether you get to meet with the Don, or get cast down into the basement as a reject.
An optional oddity involves the game’s romance mechanic, in which Cloud goes on a date with one of the other main characters; just who he steps out with is determined by how you have spoken and interacted with other characters earlier in the game. If you handle every situation just right, Cloud can actually take foul-mouthed Mr T lookalike Barrett Wallace out for a magical evening. Hands up who has replayed the game in full from a detailed guide, just to get Barrett on the date…
What you pursue will be yours, but you will lose something dear
So we’ve covered the bad, in Square Enix’s remake trolling, and we’ve covered some of the weird, with the rather unorthodox localisation – now let’s get onto what’s good about Final Fantasy VII – in short? Absolutely everything.
We’re not going to re-review Final Fantasy VII in full here, simply because nothing that was in the original reviews has changed, at all. Those perfect 10s, those 5 stars, those 96% scores are all still as valid today as they were upon release. Dwelling on the graphics would be pointless – if you compare any game from eighteen years ago to modern titles they will look dated, but the 3D-rendered characters on show here had an unprecedented range of motion for the time (when other RPGs were 2D flat sprites) and the pre-rendered backdrops and cinematic camera angles that were revolutionary in 1997 still look genuinely beautiful. Nobuo Uematsu’s score is as astonishing now as it was then, and hearing his work performed by a full symphony orchestra (accompanied by chugging metal guitars for the boss theme) will make every fan’s spine tingle.
Final Fantasy VII was a technically astounding experience, but where it really excelled was the unprecedented experience it provided, at a time when most video games still predominantly rewarded heading from point A to point B collecting something. Even most RPGs at the time were fairly lifeless affairs, with soulless archetypal ‘heroes’, and worlds populated by NPCs that were no more interactive than signposts. The player is thrust into a world of grey ambiguity here, where our ‘hero’ is a mercenary for hire, bombing power stations in densely populated areas in the employ of an environmental terrorist organisation, in an attempt to topple the energy company who are killing the planet.
What follows is a tale of struggle and despair, where heroes wrestle with their identity and the actions of their past, and we experience enormous, painful loss. Where most games relied on testing reflexes and pushing frustration to engage with the player, Final Fantasy VII was one of the first games that truly had the capacity to hurt the player emotionally. When the game is over you don’t unequivocally feel like you won, which might seem commonplace today, but was revolutionary at the time. There are no fanfares, there are no parties; just a sense of relief, and sorrow at the friends and loved ones we lost along the way. There’s a reason why it regularly tops the polls of saddest games, in addition to those requesting remakes.
Closing remarks, then? People may have been disappointed with Square Enix last month, but it truly doesn’t matter that it’s just a re-release and not a full remake – Final Fantasy VII is still one of the greatest games of all time, and if you haven’t played it, then you really, really should. It’s already available on the PSN and for the PC via Steam, and it will be released with upscaled graphics on PS4 in the next few months, so tell me; what’s your excuse?