Final Fantasy VII
Based on: A Hironobu Sakaguchi X Silicon Graphics slashfic crossbred with a really poorly planned D&D campaign
The human brain is a strange thing, and most of the time a very malfunctioning thing. We, as humans, aren't really all that smart, especially when it comes to subjective matters. Our brains can fool us into thinking that something very bad is actually very good, and vice versa. This is known as "taste," and while they say there's no accounting for it, I beg to differ. Taste is a function of the spongy grey stuff in our skulls, and bad taste is a function of that grey matter's horrible imperfections.
And when these imperfections happen en masse, millions of people flock to something terrible and hold it aloft as a beloved gem. It's hardly news, of course; just one more thing to add to the list of reasons our civilization is doomed.
Which explains Final Fantasy VII. Square's first 32-bit RPG is, in retrospect, one of those mediocre games that commands a massive following, a loyal flock of well-meaning but hopelessly mistaken folks who treat it like the consecrated word of God. If not for my remarkable emotional stability -- known in some quarters as "all-consuming apathy" -- seeing the kinda-crappy FFVII festooned with love while far more deserving games languish in obscurity would almost certainly make me deeply angry. But thanks to my general disinterest in the universe at large, I can't say I particularly care. If anything, I welcome its benighted existence.
FFVII does have some value -- for instance, as a litmus test. In many ways, it serves as a convenient dividing line between different classes of gamer. Yes, I know, we're all egalitarian in our refined modern society, but when the day comes to divide ourselves into castes to ensure our survival at the hands of merciless capitalism run amok, you'll be glad we have the winnowing rod that is FFVII.
First, there are the people who don't hate FFVII, but generally think it's a pretty weak game. That is, the sensible, rational gamers. Then there are the people who deeply despise the game to the point of venomous resentment; they most likely have some emotional issues that they should be forced to sort through before being allowed to use the Internet again lest they turn into FAQtards?. God knows we don't need more of them.
And then there are the gamers who totally love FFVII. Inexplicably, they number in the millions. Some of them are simply nice but misguided people, but generally speaking, they're youngsters who had never actually played a role-playing game before 1997. (Or who suffer from intense, debilitating head trauma.)
Of course, to call FFVII a role-playing game is to stretch the term to the point where it gets so thin you can see the veins through its skin. Any more and it would outright rupture, spilling blood and guts and D20s all over the place. FFVII has about as much in common with a true role-playing experience as that Dungeons & Dragons cartoon did with the tabletop game that "inspired" it.
On the whole, the D&D cartoon is a whole lot better than FFVII, because at least the characters were pretty likable and spoke coherent English. That's a lot more than you can say for the game.
Part of what makes FFVII's popularity so enduring is the nefarious power of "firsties" syndrome. That is, it was pioneering in many respects and thus netted a lot of attention for its novelty -- including attention by a lot of people who were new to the RPG genre and thus had no metric for determining a good one from a sloppy, mediocre one. Back in 1997, FFVII was pretty jaw-dropping; the graphics were detailed even though the game world was huge, the integrated cinematics were awe-inspiring, and it basically seemed to embody everything the "next generation" promised. It was the PlayStation's decisive blow against the up-and-coming Nintendo 64, the single volley that determined the dynamic of the console race.
So impressive was the game in its time that overlooking its glaring flaws was entirely too easy to do. Like the inconsistent art direction. Characters came in three different versions: squatty midgets, lanky puppets and detailed humans, and depending on when a given video sequence was rendered (and by which studio) the designs jumped around from event to event like a crack-addled grasshopper. The music was nothing to write home about, either; it was pretty well-written, but whoever programmed the sound decided that "out of tune Moog" would provide the ideal sonic texture for heartfelt moments. The story was a damned mess, patterned largely after Neon Genesis Evangelion not only in content -- alien force crash-lands in the arctic, spiritual connections with mom, dopey religious symbolism, etc. -- but also in terms of plot structure and its overreliance on obtuse crypticism. (I don't even know if "crypticism" is actually a word, which is fair enough, because I'm also not sure if FFVII's plot is actually a story.)
In short, FFVII was very much a product of its time and has aged more poorly than any other Final Fantasy, except maybe Mystic Quest. Alas, people are largely unwilling to question the validity of their nostalgic fondnesses, so FFVII has remained a much-loved creation despite the fact that it's really mostly terrible.
Tomb Raider? is another game that enjoys the benefits of firsties syndrome, but it's harder to resent that particular series because (1) it was pretty widely reviled until about a week ago when Tomb Raider Legend came out, and (2) Lara Croft is no longer being crammed down our collective throat. Not so with FFVII -- there's Advent Children and Before Crisis? and Dirge of Cerberus? and Crisis Core? and god knows what else. And since Advent Children is pretty much the only thing that made money for Square Enix last year (despite being a wretched exercise in visual overkill at the expense of story) we're practically guaranteed to see a hell of a lot more AC-style crap in the coming years.
Which is good if we're talking about "Cait Sith's Summer Vacation." Bad if we're talking about "Cloud and Vincent in: Angststurm-X."
FFVII was an unfortunate first in a lot of senses, but probably none so tragic as the really annoying archetypes and clichés it established. Prior to Cloud Strife, RPG heroes were either upbeat or, better yet, totally laconic. Now they're all a bunch of surly jerks who seem a lot more interested in hair care products than in social graces. I'm certainly not the most outgoing person you'll ever meet (or at least notice sitting standoffishly by myself), but Strife makes me look like a social chihuahua with an espresso IV drip.
Then again, he's actually a brilliant character in a lot of ways -- particularly in proving just how well Square knew its target audience. Cloud seems like a carefree badass at the adventure's beginning, a self-assured mercenary with a heart of ice and an oversized sword that appeared to have lived a former life as a jumbo jet tailfin. But he really wasn't. On the contrary, he was a neurotic loser wracked with insecurity and incompetence; though he aspired to badassery, he was in truth a SOLDIER program reject who cravenly patterned his personality and mannerisms after his personal hero, Zack. Hell, he even went after sloppy seconds with Zack's old girlfriend... it doesn't get more pitiful than that.
Which just proves how cannily Square recognized its customers. What better way to sell to people than by speaking directly to them? Cloud Strife is the everynerd -- wrapped up in delusions of greatness when allowed to take things on his own carefully-selected terms until he sees the world for what it is and is forced to come to grips with the fact that he's actually completely pathetic. That's your average game-obsessed message board dork in a nutshell: the petty tyrant of a tiny little niche of the Internet but a failure in real life. It's the kind of parable Jesus would have been proud to have shared with the hungry masses between bites of magical fishloaf, the cigarette ad of nerd coming-of-age stories -- a promise to nerdlings that if you face down your demons, accept your failures and struggle to move beyond them, you'll save the world and your childhood crush will fall madly in love with you. And, P.S., she's totally stacked now and, if the CG movies are to be believed, has never heard of this thing called a "brassiere."
Of course, the CG movies are the real culprit here. FFVII arrived right as Pixar-quality animation started to become available for the humble masses, and the PlayStation provided a large enough medium to allow them to dole it out in massive doses for eager eyeballs. Seamlessly, too -- once players saw that opening movie as the camera zoomed in on Midgar, further and further until it met up with the interspliced train engine and the player's party hopped out without a hint of load time, that was all it took. Never mind that the load times throughout the rest of the game were atrocious, that moving from screen to screen was met with a lengthy pause. Or that the frequent random battles took longer to load than most random battles in Final Fantasy VI had taken to complete. Or that the bulk of the "play time" was empty padding. That was the FFVII revolution: half the game, spread across twice as much time.
Worse, the filler-heavy 60-hour clock time quickly became the new standard for console RPGs -- who cares that Chrono Trigger? was 25 hours of unmitigated awesome? After FFVII, anything less than 50 hours suddenly became a rip-off; developers responded, tragically, by giving gamers exactly what they wanted. Parasite Eve? was soundly rejected for its shocking!! 10-hour story; its spiritual successor Vagrant Story? (which would have made a powerful 20-hour game) was stretched to 30 via tons of copy-and-paste corridor design.
Sadly, the follow-the-leader nature of Japanese RPG devs meant that they trod lemming-like into wretchedness, following FFVII's lead into tedium and excess. Gamers, they discovered, would suffer through any amount of boring combat as long as there were flashy cinematic special effects (which had the net effect of dragging things out even more). They'd traipse along in pursuit of the dangling carrot provided by 30-second nuggets of slick FMV, regardless of how boring or illogical the story in between turned out to be.
Come to think of it, "wretched exercise in visual overkill at the expense of story" (and gameplay) makes for a pretty good description of FFVII in general. In that sense, Advent Children was a chip off the ol' Materia. Square even tried to compensate by tossing in a handful of minigames, which were simultaneously terrible and inappropriate. Hey gang, Aeris just died a tragic, heartbreaking death -- it's time for snowboarding!
A quick survey of the console role-playing genre reveals a creative landscape pockmarked with the scars left by FFVII's world-crushing success. Stiflingly linear narrative-driven adventure games bogged down with excessive menu-driven combat. Sissy-boy heroes. Incomprehensibly dense plots with at least two obligatory twists, usually centered around the protagonist's conveniently forgotten connection to the villain or crisis at hand. And, oh god, the villains.
Thanks to Sephiroth, we'll never be able to take an RPG villain seriously again. Tetsuya Nomura's discovery that leather-daddy albinos are inherently evil means that Sephiroth has become the template (and fashionplate) for the RPG villain: effeminate, ridiculous and driven by obscure motives. It's pretty sad that FFVI's Kefka literally dressed like a clown, yet represented a far more significant threat than his successor. Kefka broke the world in his quest for raw power, then ruled over the ruined remains with divine fury; Sephiroth wanted a hug from mommy and babbled a lot. Advantage: Kefka.
It's taken the Final Fantasy series nine years and five chapters to dig itself out of the hole that FFVII dug. Final Fantasy XII does things right: it has a story that's worth a damn. Characters -- including villains -- who actually have motivation and personalities. Fast, fluid gameplay. A brilliant character skill system that offers even more flexibility than Materia without turning the party into a handful of useless, interchangeable meatbags.
But don't worry, FFVII fanatics. Nomura and Kitase are rumored to be in charge of Final Fantasy XIII, so you can be sure the status quo of anime-inspired superficiality will be restored in due time. In the meantime, you can wallow in fantasies of the alleged FFVII remake for PlayStation 3. Because god knows that if you fix the horribly dated graphics the whole thing will magically be good again.