GameSpite Quarterly 8 | Final Fantasy VII

My first teenage crisis did not involve a zit that blinked to life right before prom night, nor did it involve wrecking my father’s car on a bender in Tijuana. I was at home on a Friday night (natch), reading an issue of Ultra Game Players at my parents’ kitchen table. I espied a small news blurb that had been squashed into the corner of the page by breathless articles about the Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, the PlayStation, and the stellar crop of 16-bit games that saw out the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.

The little grey news box mumbled something about Squaresoft being dissatisfied with the N64’s cartridge format and moving Final Fantasy VII to the PlayStation instead.

I don’t remember how I explained to my parents why I was blubbering over a game magazine.

Final Fantasy VII is one of the most significant game releases of all time. By the time it released, RPGs were no longer eyed as nerd fodder by the mainstream. Thanks to a marketing blitz orchestrated by Sony and Squaresoft, role-playing games were suddenly as cool as the spiky-haired dude with the big sword who spent the game moaning over the death of his ghetto-dwelling girlfriend.

But the technical history of Final Fantasy VII has been relayed over and over again. Some day, our great-grandchildren will pen college entry essays about the Great RPG War that was fought between Nintendo, Squaresoft, and Sony through the latter half of the ’90s. With all the industry drama that occurred over the game, it’s easy to forget that Final Fantasy VII did more than widen the Western world’s acceptance of RPGs. The game also elbowed a lot of us out of our comfort zones, and we fell smack in the middle of one of the most tumultuous culture shifts in gaming’s history.

The PlayStation’s launch in 1994 complicated our lives from day one. We grew up with the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and Sega Genesis, and we simply assumed we’d transition painlessly to the Sega Saturn and the “Ultra 64” when the time came. Nintendo would continue to make Mario games, Sega would continue to make Sonic games (whoops), third parties would continue to support their favorite console engineers, and life would carry on in 32 and 64 bits.

The PlayStation was an unforeseen variable. It had no familiar mascots backing it up, nothing that indicated it was a threat to the N64 or the Saturn. But its presence was disturbing, nonetheless, and it became downright hostile when Squaresoft moved Final Fantasy VII to Sony’s mystery box.

Squaresoft’s defection was as disruptive as a bee up the nose. No longer was the company an automatic ally of Nintendo. To make things even more unsettling, Square had developed some of its best work on the SNES, including Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan), Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. Not only had the world of every Nintendo supporter been flipped topsy-turvy, but we were all stumbling around with voracious appetites for quality RPGs. We needed more Final Fantasy, more Chrono Trigger. But we didn’t want to turn our backs on Mario and Link. We didn’t want to move away from our solid, faithful cartridge games in favor of these...these... see-dees.

Nevertheless, many of us did, though it wasn’t an easy decision. At the time, we still relied on our parents’ dollars to fund our habit, and requests for both the N64 and the PlayStation were met with “LOL!” So we bought our PlayStations and our copies of Final Fantasy VII, and then we spent hours trying to wash the blood off our hands. When we were ready to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and Nintendo, we began to play.

Everybody who’s experienced Final Fantasy VII has a different story about the precise moment when the game made an indelible mark on their heart. For me, I was awestruck when I made my first visit to a Mako reactor. For the first fifteen minutes into the game, we knew nothing about Shinra’s evil beyond a loose rant from Barret. Everything that the kind-hearted but less-than-articulate AVALANCHE leader was incapable of saying about the corporation was summed up by the image of Cloud scuttling across the maze of tubes that sucked up the aqua-blue lifeblood of the planet to power the grey slums outside, while the bells that punctuated Shinra’s theme clanged in the background. Compared to Shinra, the good guys were no more significant than a flea on a wolf’s back. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger certainly had imposing moments, but CD storage allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds that could play around with scale and make us feel fear with quiet efficiency.

It was our first taste of culture shock in a brave new world, and there was plenty more to spare. Those of us who’d spent the ’90s with the Super Nintendo had never so much as seen a wayward “damn” in our games, which made us take an unfortunate kind of delight in the foul-mouthed misogynist, Cid Highwind. Early in the game, Cloud made a joke about sleeping with Tifa. And the “mature” storytelling climaxed with the death of Aeris—though most longtime RPG fans had long since been desensitized by the passing of Tellah, General Leo, and Crono.

Our transition from cartridge to CD-based RPGs finished off with a bang—or, more accurately, a Latin chorus. Looking back on “One Winged Angel,” it’s an odd, odd song, but man, it sounded important.

When we reminisce about Final Fantasy VII, we invariably wonder if that’s when it all “started to go downhill” for Square. A near-unlimited amount of storage space let the studio play around with all kinds of neat special effects and cool storytelling techniques, but there was also a lot of excess in Final Fantasy VII and subsequent releases, a lot of fat that would have been trimmed out of necessity on a cartridge-based platform.

But there’s no point in treating Square like a Zelda game and penning alternate histories for the company. The path Square chose is unalterable, and however you feel about it, it’s still an integral part of the industry’s history -- and our own histories.

By Nadia Oxford? | July 4, 2011 | Last: Chapter 4: Juggernaut Days? | Next: Company and Fan Interaction?