Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Top 50 Games - 1. Final Fantasy VII

I know what you're thinking. You're either balking in disgust, muttering "God help me, not another fan of that overrated garbage," or feeling a wave of fuzzy nostalgic warmth come rushing up into your chest. Final Fantasy VII is a polarizing game. A highly praised industry milestone whose brilliance has recently come into question, Final Fantasy VII is a decisive divider between two generations of gamers. Like many popular works, Final Fantasy VII is overrated, over-hated, and mostly misperceived. It is by no means perfect and by no means trash. Rather, it is an ambitious, remarkable, dated, flawed, somewhat misguided, and entirely soulful piece of entertainment whose novelties are given too much credit and whose true value is often ignored. If someone asks me what my favorite game is, I bashfully mumble "Final Fantasy VII..." If this person asks me why, I am most likely to answer with two unimpressive reasons: the music and the insignificant details. It's okay if my previous entries resembled little more than dopey-eyed reminiscing, but (while there'll be plenty of that here, too) my review of Final Fantasy VII must be an argument. No longer shall I be ashamed of my undying love for this game. Through this essay, I hope to confirm FFVII's place as one of the greatest games of all time (though certainly not the greatest) and as a more-than-worthy #1 on my personal list. Enough dilly-dallying; let's do this.
Final Fantasy VII maintains a special place in the history of video games. Originally intended as another 2D game for the SNES, after finishing Chrono Trigger, Square soon realized that it needed to bring the series into the 3D craze to ensure its continued survival. Upon learning of Nintendo's plan to stick with cartridges for the Ultra 64 (as the N64 was called early on), Square ended their long and fruitful partnership as the new Final Fantasy's data was too much for the limited memory of a cartridge to handle. In early 1996, the renowned RPG developer turned to Sony, whose first console, the Playstation, used higher capacity CDs. With stunning graphics and a large promotional campaign in the months leading up to its release, Final Fantasy VII was the game that sold the Playstation and erased the niche status of JRPGs in markets outside Japan. Sony's position in the industry and that of the role-playing game owe a great debt to Square's first 3D entry in their flagship franchise. Furthermore, FFVII's computer-generated cutscenes (much like Metal Gear Solid's in-engine cutscenes) established the notion of the cinematic video game and, for better or worse, Hollywood aspirations spread throughout the industry, driving the development of countless games for years. These indulgent CG mini-movies represent the main bone of contention certain gamers have with Final Fantasy VII; they see it as a misguided, maybe even pathetic attempt to rip off Hollywood glitz in the form of a video game. That view is reasonable; over the years I've grown out of cutscenes and have started to wish that games could tell their stories in a more elegant, hopefully interactive fashion. Looking to film for inspiration may also serve to dilute the developing identity of the modern video game, and sometimes I do wonder what the last decade's gaming landscape would have been like without Final Fantasy VII. Then again, as I said on this list's penultimate piece: in 1997, video games needed spectacle. There's a reason FFVII marks the spot where the first generation of gamer ends and the second begins; the old guard didn't need flashy FMVs to get absorbed, but it certainly helped draw in a new audience. Final Fantasy VII brought a lot to the table. Hell, it catalyzed a complete paradigm shift. For this it deserves respect, regardless of one's opinion, but it is obviously not why its fans are so hopelessly in love with it. Sometimes I feel that FVII's detractors think that it's nothing but "OMG graffix!!!1", even though its visuals are no longer outstanding, and forget why it is still one of the most beloved games of all time. To start, let's look at this seventh entry's place in the Final Fantasy series as a whole.
Snobby old-schoolers would have you believe that FFVI is the greatest RPG that's ever been. They're probably right. What they often misunderstand, however, is how VII compares to its immediate predecessor as well as to its successors. I can try to boil my thoughts down to a simple statement for the haters to digest: Final Fantasy VII is not Final Fantasy XIII. Some of you may be thinking, "Oh really? I couldn't tell from the roman numerals," but hear me out. I strongly dislike Final Fantasy XIII (if that makes me myself a hater, then so be it), and this is coming from someone who placed FFVIII (which was certainly more bold and unorthodox than VII) at #37 and just barely nudged Kingdom Hearts II out his top ten. As hard as I try, I cannot find a drop of soul, charm, or humor in FFXIII. It's all flashy graphics, whiny teenagers, and melodramatic bullshit. Unfortunately, this is what some people believe Final Fantasy VII is nothing but. Frankly, they are wrong. VI and VII are much more similar than most fans and non-fans would think. The big internal change-ups at Square happened between V and VI, with the role of director moving from Hironobu Sakaguchi to Yoshinori Kitase and Hiroyuki Ito. What differentiates VII in terms of development is merely that Tetsuya Nomura took over the art and character design from Yoshitaka Amano and the team was working on a foreign system in a foreign dimension. In the middle of the FFVI - FFVII Venn diagram is the ATB (Active Time Battle) system, the mix of magic and technology, the villain with a god complex, the world map and varied means of traveling it, Nobuo Uematsu's beautiful MIDI compositions, the summon spells, the unforgettable moments (the opera house in VI, Aeris' death in VII), etc. Final Fantasy VII has more existential angst, a more difficult plot, and fancy 3D graphics (although really, the characters outside of battle look like polygonal versions of the old sprite designs), but it can be just as light-hearted and charming. At its core, FFVII isn't much removed from FFVI, and if there are alterations to the formula that distance it from the "perfection" of VI, they are matched by evolutionary steps forward in presentation. VII is not VIII or XIII or Advent Children or Dirge of Cerberus or Crisis Core or the much-rumored (and personally dreaded) PS3 remake. VII is VII. Again, the roman numerals should help you figure that out.
Lest we forget, Final Fantasy VII is a game. It's a Japanese RPG with systems and mechanical contrivances. The nitty gritty nuts and bolts do not speak for the game's magic nor for my love of it. They do, however, lay the foundation for an experience that is deep and enjoyable. Then again, they can also bug the hell out of me. For now though, I'll detail what I like about FFVII's gameplay and leave my gripes for another paragraph. The game's battle system is turn-based, but it also takes place in exciting real-time, where enemies can wail on your party while you consider your next move. Most of the time, fights are brisk and breezy, which are nice traits to have when dealing with random encounters (again, more on my grievances later). During boss battles, however, FFVII's combat becomes strategic and carefully paced; major encounters were imposing challenges requiring deep concentration and micromanagement (at least they were when I was younger). Further augmenting the length of battles are Limit Breaks and summon spells. A retooling of FFVI's Desperation Attacks, Limit Breaks are powerful character-specific skills usable only when a party member has filled his or her respective Limit bar through receiving damage. Especially at 9 years old, these abilities and their elaborate animations were pretty nifty: Tifa's melee combos, Cait Sith's slot machine, Vincent's macabre transformations, Cloud's decimating Omnislash. The prospect of earning a new Limit Break made the grind a whole lot more bearable. Even more visually impressive than the Limit Breaks, and second only to the CG cutscenes graphically, were the summon spells. Whether it was Shiva's icy Diamond Dust attack or Knights of the Round's unbeatable Ultimate End, every summon animation, though sometimes unnecessarily lengthy, was an absolute stunner. Greatest of the innovations in Final Fantasy VII's gameplay is the introduction of Materia. A bit similar to VI's Magicite, Materia (which also plays a large part in the story) is the main resource used to develop your party. Unlike convoluted nightmares such as FFVIII's Junctioning, Materia is simple and relatively logical. If you place Earth Materia in one of the slots on Cloud's Buster sword (which can actually been seen as two holes punched through it), Cloud will be able to cast the Quake spell. If that Earth Materia is added to Cloud's armor, however, it will serve to defend him from Earth-based attacks. Equipping Materia affects other statuses, so deciding who will have what Materia in which slot can lead to some varied party configurations, and is fun to pay attention to. All of these attractive features, combined with an RPG's innately addictive nature and a multi-continent world full of explorative possibilities, make Final Fantasy VII one of the more enjoyable role-playing games I've played. Of course, I do have some complaints...
It's funny. Final Fantasy VII is without a doubt my favorite game, but there are more things that I hate in it than in some games that didn't even crack my top 50. I despise random battles. Or more precisely, I despise too-frequent random battles that pull me out of the field view and into a separate battle screen. Upon disposing of the pesky vermin, I'm returned to the field screen, where my few seconds of transitional disorientation lead me into another unwanted fight. A big reason why I would get stuck on boss battles so often was because I fled from the majority of these random and tedious encounters, thereby making my party under-leveled and under-prepared for the mandatory challenges they would face. I also dislike overwrought melodrama. You don't need the fate of the planet to be at stake to get your audience to care about the story. I find it hard to believe that I've become attached to spiky-haired amnesiac teenagers with oversized swords and big, bright anime eyes. The sound effects are awful. Most of all though, Square's approach to designing Final Fantasy VII does not jive with my own ideas as to what makes a great game. Although effort was made to include some mechanical elements such as Materia into the narrative, there's still a lot of unexplained abstraction in the gameplay. Furthermore, I believe that story and gameplay should be one and the same. Final Fantasy VII, however (and many games that I was raised on) dangle story in front of you as a reward for trudging through the gameplay. This story is also presented either through dialogue in text boxes with poor translation, or in CG cutscenes. While I don't hate the way FFVII tells its story the same way I hate random battles, I feel as though it oftentimes ignores the powerful storytelling methods unique to video games.
Regarding the story itself, I'm not sure what to say. On one hand, it's a cliched tale about a band of heroic companions preventing the apocalypse with some environmentalist messages and love triangles thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, it's probably the most captivating story I've ever experienced in a video game. It starts on a small, though (literally) explosive scale, with AVALANCHE, a ragtag group of rebels, successfully blowing up one of Shinra's Mako reactors. Shinra is an oppressive corporation/government seated in the center of a technologically advanced city called Midgar. Shinra has sinister intentions involving a monopoly on Mako, the planet's life juice. With the introduction of a certain silver-maned ex-SOLDIER, things get a lot hairier, leading Cloud and his friends on an epic adventure around the world. Especially with the burden of a rushed translation, Final Fantasy VII's plot is not the clearest and most sensical out there. It's a head-scratcher, but I appreciate its thematic depth and attempted maturity. When Sephiroth tells Cloud that he's just a puppet, when Red XIII saves his home of Cosmo Canyon from the Gi, when the Turks steal Aeris away in a helicopter... To me, there are no real lulls in the story, even when the tension has dissipated. To me, everything is special. Most magnificent of all may be the moments just after leaving Midgar for the first time. Upon reaching the town of Kalm and resting at an inn, Cloud tells his story to an audience of fellow fugitives in a long flashback. Starting in his hometown of Nibelheim, Cloud is joined for a bit by his two best friends, Tifa and Sephiroth. It is in this scenario that gameplay as story feels the most present. If the player leads Cloud to a location he's not supposed to go to, the iconic protagonist will narrate, "No, that's not what happened..." and turn around. What follows is intensely emotional and highly expository in a way that never gets boring. It is also in this section that we first witness the defining image of Sephiroth standing among the flames of a burning Nibelheim. Now that we're at it, why not talk about that stab-happy bastard?
Final Fantasy as a whole is more character-focused than probably any other video game franchise. Each entry in the long-running JRPG series introduces fresh faces, and despite (or perhaps partly because of) this, many of the colorful personalities we've had to say goodbye to over the years have remained with us. No characters in any other video game are as unforgettable for me as those in Final Fantasy VII's well-rounded and eclectic cast. Even the optional recruits are full of style and personality, like fan-favorite Vincent Valentine, an aborted Shinra experiment who is first found sleeping in a coffin. Of course, even more popular among Final Fantasy devotees is the surly, spiky-blonde-haired Cloud Strife. Wielding the ridiculously proportioned Buster Sword along with his lethal hairdo, Cloud was an invigorating contrast to the cuddly gaming mascots of yore. One of the most appealing and intriguing sides of Final Fantasy VII's story is witnessing Cloud's transformation as a character firsthand, moving from one tragic revelation to the next right alongside the troubled hero. His companions are just as memorable. There's Barret Wallace, the token black guy with an arm cannon who swears like a sailor; Red XIII, an eloquent orange lion-thing kept as a specimen by the mad Shinra scientist Hojo; the chain-smoking, expletive-flinging rocket mechanic Cid, who dreams of going to the moon and happens to be the best "Cid" of the series, and more. No Final Fantasy would be complete without a little bit of romance, and to that end we have two prospects: Tifa Lockheart and Aeris Gainsborough (You can call her Aerith, I call her Aeris). I'm not going to lie; I've always preferred Tifa and always will. Most people assume that there are two obvious reasons for that. Sure, Tifa's sex appeal helped draw me in, but there's more to it than cup size. The backstory of Tifa as Cloud's childhood friend and one-time love interest, along with her unimposing and kindhearted personality, attracted me in a way that a revealing outfit never could have. There's a scene early in the game in which Cloud has the option of giving the flower he bought from Aeris to either Tifa or Barret's daughter Marlene. Suffice it to say, Marlene never gets that pretty little 1 gil flower. The real key to my love for Tifa, though, is her theme music; but more on that later. While I admit that I would have bawled uncontrollable had it been Tifa that felt Masamune's long blade puncture her stomach instead of Aeris, I still felt for the green-eyed flower girl. Yes, her healing abilities were useful, but as the last remaining member of an ancient race learning to live with her destiny, she was also a beautifully-developed character with a huge role in the story. And then there's Sephiroth, the asshole who killed her. What can be said about this guy? He's one of the saddest, scariest, coolest villains in any medium ever. He's got mommy problems, the Meteor Materia, impossibly badass theme music (again, more on that later), and an even bigger sword than Cloud's. A nearly constant presence lingering in the background and executing his evil designs, Sephiroth is as plot-critical and deservedly legendary as antagonists come.
If I'm naming the reasons why I adore Final Fantasy VII (which I obviously am), then I have to mention Midgar. I said earlier that aside from the music, what really cements FFVII as my favorite game are the details. Mind you, by details I don't mean gameplay or story nuances. I'm talking about the insignificant little touches of humor and life that were so lovingly fashioned into this game's world. Be they sidequests, graphical flourishes, sound bites, or looping animations on the screen's periphery, all of them have affected me. Many of these can be found in the opening 10 or 15 hours, in the city of Midgar. Designed on multiple layers called plates, with the slums on the bottom (most of the poor folk have never seen the sky), the Mako reactors at the edges, and the cushy Shinra offices at the top, Midgar is a large and highly polluted corporate kingdom that many colorful characters call home. Here's another one of my lists: collecting a wig, a tiara, and perfume for Cloud to dress up in drag with, choosing whether to fight your way into Shinra's fortress or to ascend a painfully long flight of stairs, using a pinball machine as an elevator to the basement of Tifa's bar 7th Heaven, which doubles as AVALANCHE's hideout, watching two lovers ecstatically embrace at a train platform, hanging out on a playground with Aeris, escaping from the Turks (an elite cadre of suit-and-tie-wearing covert badasses) on the roof of the abandoned church, driving a motorcycle out to the city limits while eliminating the Shinra goons that are hounding you with swipes of Cloud's Buster Sword, etc. And that's just Midgar. From Bugenhagen's planetary lecture at the Cosmo Canyon observatory to Barret's tragic confrontation with Dyne at North Corel prison, there's a standout moment everywhere you go. The world of Gaia, its inhabitants, and their stories make up a good chunk of Final Fantasy VII's heart, but probably not much more than half. What supplies the rest? Glad you asked.
FINAL FANTASY VII HAS MY FAVORITE SOUNDTRACK OF ALL TIME. Yes, in caps. That's how much Nobuo Uematsu's MIDI compositions mean to me. To date, Final Fantasy VII is the only game that has ever made me cry (and no, it wasn't over Aeris' untimely demise). I honestly don't remember where in the game it was, but without a doubt the music is to blame. These beautifully written tracks, from the happy ones to the sad ones, glow with a unique synth-y warmth and add loads of emotional weight to a game that could already claim to have more than enough. The use of leitmotif, as in Final Fantasy VI, exponentially increases each character's personality, causing me to fear Sephiroth (Final Fantasy fan or not, you must bow down to the glory that is One-Winged Angel), become good friends with Barret, and fall in love with Tifa, as her song may be my favorite in the entire game. Music tied not to individual characters but rather the journey itself, such as Anxious Heart and Ahead On Our Way, can punch me in the gut with emotion just as hard. FFVII's music is more effective as a storytelling tool than cutscenes ever could be. As much as I love basking in the light of this aural bliss, I cannot remain in such a perfect place for too long. You see, it's difficult for me to play Final Fantasy VII. I haven't touched it in years. The songs are too arrestingly nostalgic, and although I'm heavily biased, I doubt I'll ever hear better music in this medium that I love so dearly.
If you dislike Final Fantasy VII and I haven't yet convinced you to give it some slack, then there's not much else I can do. Nevertheless, I feel as though many gamers and non-gamers don't see what I see in FFVII. It's not about what's in the video game history books: the FMVs and the financial success and the heroine getting killed off halfway through the game. Sure, that stuff was great back in the day, but why do I still cling so tightly to these three scratched-up CDs? Why does my blood boil when negativity is thrown in the direction of this piece of software, even though I'm fully aware of its flaws? Why haven't the dated graphics or corny exchanges of dialogue or frustrating random battles or overcomplicated plot twists pulled me out of its spell? Soul. Final Fantasy VII has soul, more soul than any example of interactive entertainment I've come across. Argue with me if you want, there's no changing my mind.
Another game might come along and take Final Fantasy VII's place eventually; I don't know. I suppose it's possible, though I've played many worthy would-be-usurpers since. As it stands today, though, and as it has for nearly ten years, Final Fantasy VII is my favorite game of all time.


  1. ok.. decent list but where is world of warcraft? Diablo 2? age of empires 2? Those all deserve a place on this list, unless you're just doing console games.

  2. The "Top 50 Games" headline may be misleading; the list is of my personal favorite games, not the greatest of all time.

  3. This was a great post. I too have a unexplainable obsession with Final Fantasy VII. Despite all its flaws, poor translation, plot holes etc. it's still my favorite game of all time...somehow!

    Also, our favorite games lists are creepily alike. Good to know there are gamers still around that value story, music, and art direction!