sunnuntai 25. elokuuta 2013

The legacy of Final Fantasy VII

In January, I played around with the thought of taking a second look at certain games - ones I've deemed masterpieces, utterly horrible games that for some reason might've deserved a second chance, and perhaps even some games I know to have misjudged in the past. Well, since it's RPG Time! and I'm currently engaged in yet another (and very likely the last) playthrough of my favourite video game in history, I think it's time to look back at perhaps the most popular and influential Japanese role-playing game of all time. 16 years after its original release, Final Fantasy VII has still not been remade. No-one knows why, except the big wigs at Square Enix - they know what's best for us gamers. Or so they say.

My brother always misread this as "Stinking
Staff". It kinda stuck on me, too.
Back in that time, there was no Square Enix. There were only Square, and Enix. Enix was most famous for the Dragon Quest franchise - of which the first two games actually served as great inspiration for the first Final Fantasy game. However, for some reason, most Enix games remained safely tucked on the Japanese market. The last Enix game to be released somewhere else was the fabulous RPG Terranigma, which was one of the last SNES games to be released in Europe. Before that, Illusion of Gaia was the last game to have an international release, and after Terranigma, two years passed before the next Enix game came as far as Europe. As many cult games of the past generations as they have under their belts - Brain Lord, Dragon Quest, ActRaiser, and the original Star Ocean - Enix could never compete with Square outside Japanese borders.

Why is that, exactly? Square wasn't any better in making their products known, and they had plenty of problems to go with the already annoying refusal by North American testers, which translated to us gamers: "the Japanese wanna fuck the world". It was always made Japan's fault if we didn't get those games. Anyway, as an avid reader of a Finnish video game magazine I have mentioned way too many times for my own comfort, I can safely say that even though neither Square or Enix managed to get their products up for international release, Square's games were promoted a hell of a lot more than Enix's. Let's put it this way: both companies had a huge hit in Japan, at the same time: it was Square's game that we were told about, extensively, while Enix's game might've been briefly mentioned. I don't remember reading one single Dragon Quest review, ever, but I damn well remember reviews for both Final Fantasy IV (II) and Final Fantasy VI (III), plus Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest on the side, and we Europeans didn't have the slightest potential to see these games at the time. So you see: I knew this series long before its time. Oh, I might as well mention that Chrono Trigger - a game that was also never released in Europe in its original form - got a six-page review complete with illustrated character profiles, while Illusion of Gaia (Illusion of Time in Europe) got a common two-page commentary with a large font, a lot of screenshots, and just some vague text that could easily be summarized as something like "Enix needs to try harder". I don't remember one Enix game getting over 90 points, and in turn, I don't remember one Square game besides the semi-serious Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest getting under 90 points. As much as I owe that old magazine, I see its errors in judgement clearer and clearer as time goes by, and the more I play horrible games they declared the best in the world, and at least perfectly playable games they declared horrible wastes of time.

Jenova - the root of all evil.
Rewind to 1987. Square had flopped, and done it bad - all the way to the brink of bankruptcy. Writer and designer Hironobu Sakaguchi was a huge fan of Enix's Dragon Quest, and decided that if Square was going down, they were going to do it with style. Contrary to popular belief, the first Final Fantasy game for the Famicom was actually not named such, 'cause Square was sure the game - to which they poured the last of their resources in - would be their swansong, but because of Sakaguchi's personal decision to quit making games if this game was not to succeed. Sakaguchi's epic tale of warriors of light, knights of the dark, dwarves and elves turned out a massive hit in Japan. 400,000 copies were made to help finance a sequel, and exactly a year later, Final Fantasy II hit the shelves - a game that started the tradition of each Final Fantasy game being totally different from the last, but holding on to certain key elements. In the spring of 1990, Final Fantasy III was released, and it combined elements from both previous titles, marking the first of what you might perceive as a true Final Fantasy experience. In November 1991, the next chapter in the Final Fantasy saga was released in North America, and it was called... Final Fantasy II. ...What?!

It took three years for the first Final Fantasy game to make it to North America. It sold quite well, well enough for cult gamers to look forward to a sequel. What most people did not know was that the game already had two sequels, better games at that, but only back in Japan. A fourth game, originally planned as the last NES title in the series, was in works for the then-upcoming SNES system. So, instead of letting North America have their two previous games, Square had their localization team change Final Fantasy IV's name to Final Fantasy II in the U.S.. Get this: they did it so gamers wouldn't feel confused. Short-sighted, much?

Summon magic looked incredible in action, and
it was always exciting to try out a new piece of
Well, the farce certainly didn't end right then and there. Sakaguchi's last Final Fantasy game in the capacity of main designer - Final Fantasy V - was planned for a U.S. release as Final Fantasy III. North American testers eagerly put the game for a spin, and threw it back at Square, claiming that the game was horrible, and not only that, but extremely difficult to understand. After months of both parties trying to settle on an agreement, it was decided that Final Fantasy V would join the ranks of the original Final Fantasy II and III, and remain in Japan. It was at that time the simplified action-RPG Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was quickly conjured up and sent to the U.S. as consolidation. Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was also the first Final Fantasy game for a major console to be released in Europe. How about that? Apparently it's so simple that even us Europeans can understand it! Yay! (To be completely frank, off the current record, Final Fantasy V was a great game of its very own kind, and if I was one of those testers, I would've felt pretty fucking embarrassed once the game finally got an international release in some shape or form.)

1994 - the time of Final Fantasy VI. A change was coming, the wind was turning. Final Fantasy VI was the most epic, the biggest game ever seen. And, apparently simple enough, 'cause the U.S. loved it. As if to completely disregard the efforts made with Final Fantasy V, the development team (with Sakaguchi as producer) picked up from where Sakaguchi and his closest cohorts left off in Final Fantasy IV. Traditional fantasy mixed with futuristic and industrial landscapes was to become the series' trademark, as well as individual scenes and features that were made to squeeze all the juice out of the current platform - in this game's case, the famous opera house scene, and the multi-phased final battle against Kefka, who was the first in line of several truly memorable, incoherently evil, criminally insane lead villains in the Final Fantasy franchise. After witnessing the overwhelming response to the game in Japan, the development team was feeling pretty damn good and wanted to explore the game's daring themes even further. But, Nintendo was Nintendo. They had their rules. Renaming the game Final Fantasy III in the U.S. was utterly expected, but what Square did not expect was Nintendo telling them to ease up.

Welcome to Gold Saucer, where minigames are
born and where they come to die...
The "Dream Team" - Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii and famed manga artist Akira Toriyama - had begun work on a time-travelling adventure called Chrono Trigger back in 1992. The game was finally released in 1995, to we-know-what sort of response. Many ideas from early drafts of the game were cleverly set aside to be used in an unnamed project. Around the same time, Nintendo commissioned Square to start development on a 3D Final Fantasy game for the Ultra 64, which was soon to be known as the Nintendo 64. Square tested the Ultra 64's capacity with a battle scene from Final Fantasy VI, remodelled to 3D, and both parties were very pleased with the result. However, Nintendo wouldn't give up cartridge-based technology, while their main competitors Sony and Sega were both using CD-ROM-based technology, making it very hard for Square to do just the kind of game they wanted, and at the very least a game that was relatively just as big as Final Fantasy VI. Also, Nintendo returned many drafts to sender with the only explanation being "You can't do that." The funniest thing about it is that I sincerely doubt the game's most shocking scenes or tabooed subjects were even considered back then. In January 1996, Square did what is still considered one of the most shocking developments in the corporate history of gaming: they severed their ties with Nintendo, and announced that Final Fantasy VII would be exclusive to the Sony PlayStation.

Shocking, but definitely worth it.

...Yes, even the bad ones.
Originally released in Japan on January 31st, 1997, Final Fantasy VII not only changed the face of J-RPG or the face of the industry; it changed everything. First of all, it was the first main series game to be released internationally, by its original title. Since I was very interested in RPG's - at that time, more because of their looks and proportions, not that much because of actual gameplay - I knew some of the confusing history behind the title, but I knew plenty of people of my age who had never heard of Final Fantasy before, and some adults, such as my brother, figured there was no sensical numerical order to the games. He knew some of the confusion behind II/IV and III/VI, but since Final Fantasy V had virtually never been heard of, he might've figured the "VII" for a sales stunt. It's a cool number and all, and it might've had something to do with its year of release. To a lot of folks, Final Fantasy VII was the first ever role-playing game. European console gamers really didn't have much to compare it to; there was only a handful of semi-popular genre games that had been released in Europe up 'til that point. To them, The Legend of Zelda was an RPG.

In spite of the transition to 3D, Final Fantasy VII retained a familiar basic look, but constantly surprised the player with the most fantastic FMV cutscenes of the era, special cinematics in combat such as the use of magic and summoning, its sheer size, and finally, its well-known vulgarity - which has been outdone about a million times over since, but at that time, it was a game you necessarily didn't want your 13-year old son to get infatuated with. Mild language was only the start of it - some of the first tasks in the game were taking part in a terrorist mission that would most definitely cost dozens of innocent lives for a "greater purpose", and saving a young girl from a local mob boss with extreme sex addiction, by dressing yourself up as a girl and attempting to shift the old bastard's attention to yourself. This also included going to a local whorehouse to gain some more accessories for your disguise, including a bra by (strangely enough) taking part in a gay gathering. Later on, in the end of "part one", came the most shocking scene of all: the unavoidable death of a lead character, the most pure- and kind-hearted one at that. Trolls went to ridiculous lengths in spreading rumours how you could resurrect Aerith, and they still do it after all these years - IT IS NOT POSSIBLE. These are the same people who spread rumours about how you could create a Sephiroth clone, and took screenshots to "prove it". They took those screenshots from Cloud's flashbacks and actually thought even a total retard wouldn't notice the difference. But, seeing how active trolls have remained surrounding the myths of the game just goes to prove how popular it still is.

Ominously put, I'd say. The first and last time
the whole team's present.
I've been writing this article for days, progressively in tandem with my current replay of the game, and as I was walking home from work yesterday, I figured I should address something at this opportune gap. Although Aerith's death was a devastating shock, it wasn't the first or last time a party member died in Final Fantasy - only the most memorable and abrupt tragedy, and the only time it has truly affected the rest of the game. Several people died in a game as far back as Final Fantasy II, but all of them were temporary party members who didn't have much significance in the big picture, and after the first two deaths, you realized they were going to be expendable all the way to the end and that they were killed off only so the slot for your fourth member would constantly remain vacant between levels. They even made a "minigame" dedicated to all the dead folk in the Dawn of Souls remake, to be unlocked after you completed the main game. Many more folks "died" in Final Fantasy IV, only to make a (frankly ridiculous) comeback in the end of the game; they were pretty much killed off in various ways - such as having one guy jump off an airship - to make people want to try out the whole huge cast of playable characters before finally getting to choose five of the best for the final battle. Also, even if they had died for real, it seemed that the surviving characters wouldn't have given two shits about it - the original localization made the game feel like the most emotionally hollow game ever.

Still one of my favourite scenes ever. Not a
pleasant one, though.
Fan favourite Galuf died in Final Fantasy V, but he was immediately replaced by his granddaughter Krile, who also inherited her grandfather's experience, abilities and equipment, so it didn't really affect the gameplay all that much, especially at such a late stage of the game... just the storytelling, which Galuf, along with Faris, had saved from extinction up 'til that point. Another fan favourite, Shadow, died in Final Fantasy VI, but it was up to the player to keep him alive and/or along for the ride most of the time anyway, and he actually died during the final scene. Similarly, Tidus and Auron both ceased to be - neither of them were really alive to begin with, so I refuse to say "died" - in Final Fantasy X's climax. Only Tidus made it back in Final Fantasy X-2, which shuffled things up a little too much for the whole story's benefit. The original Cait Sith was crushed by his own will just an hour or two before Aerith's demise in Final Fantasy VII, but he was immediately replaced with an identical copy with the same person still controlling him, and that's exactly it: he was an expendable toy - I still really don't see the purpose behind all that drama that took place, adults feeling sorry for a mere doll. I think that's about it; Aerith disappeared and died - with emphasis on the fact that she was MURDERED, unlike any of the other characters - after the first third of Final Fantasy VII, leaving a permanent gap in the party, as well as the player's psyche. That makes her death unique. Of course, we also have to note that it's been Square's tradition for years to remove the lead character from the fray for a while, sometimes on several occasions, and sometimes, it's strongly speculated that he/she has perished, but that's never been the case. Cloud suffers a breakdown halfway into the second part of the game, leaving the party, and while he does go on a catatonic soul search to discover his true identity, I think the main purpose of this part of the game was to make the player feel helpless and lose direction, like any group when their well-established leader's been taken out.

Gigas - a perfect example of having way more
bark than bite.
Final Fantasy VII was the furthest from a traditional fantasy game than any of the games had ever been. Its setting was timeless, as it took something from our time, something from medieval mythology, and a huge chunk from a dystopian future in which mega-corporations prevail and common man's well-being is utterly secondary; frankly, common man is considered collateral. However, you don't need to analyze the game too much to realize how similar it is to previous Final Fantasy games - the themes are pretty much the same, they were just "updated". In many previous titles, a group of people set out to search for magic crystals. In this game, magic crystals were known as materia, condensed forms of the planet's life energy. A mega-corporation named Shinra was out to suck the planet dry of that energy to build more advanced machines for construction work, public transportation and whatnot, caring very little for any damage they did to the planet itself. An evil empire, right there - complete with standout villains in charge. However, the main villain of the game was someone different: a supersoldier formerly in Shinra's service named Sephiroth. Upon finding that he was yet another one of the company's monstrous genetic experiments he was originally tasked to keep in control, he went on an insane killing spree until he disappeared and was presumably killed. When bodies started hitting the floor with Sephiroth's signature all over them, our main character, Sephiroth's former colleague and close companion Cloud, shifted his group's attention somewhat away from Shinra and on someone he considered the greatest threat the world had ever seen. Besides, it was Sephiroth who was killing most of Shinra on their behalf on his path of purging the imperfect world - in other words, summoning an ancient power from outer space to utterly destroy and "renew" the planet. The plot twisted and turned a lot further than that, and I'm afraid we didn't quite understand all of it.

Shinra, Inc. - a whole group of standout villains.
The original international print of Final Fantasy VII was full of translatory mistakes that deeply confused us, all the more towards the end of the game. Also, since the polygon characters were so rough around the edges, you couldn't make out any expressions or detailed movement that would've given us at least some hint of what they were actually doing, since the text didn't help us much. These are the main reasons why we've asked for a remake for so long. These, as well as the huge graphical overhaul of the game's sequels - the feature film Advent Children and prequel Crisis Core at the forefront due to their remade scenes from the original game - and their much, much better use of the English language, complete with very satisfactory voiceover work. Around the time of the game's 15th anniversary, rumours really started flying about a Final Fantasy VII remake. Square, now Square Enix, with the original main contributors to Final Fantasy VII long gone from the fray, told us that they would not remake Final Fantasy VII until they had made a whole new Final Fantasy game that would hold its own against the classic. (If I'm completely frank: they could just as easily say that hell will freeze over before a Final Fantasy VII remake.) No, we didn't get that friggin' remake; we got something else.

The best incarnation of series stalwart Cid.
Back to the late 90's again. Few games were as popular as Final Fantasy VII. In school, my fellow students talked about the game as long as it took from Square to brew up Final Fantasy VIII; as I've documented in the past, the arrival of Final Fantasy VIII automatically rendered Final Fantasy VII obsolete and generic to many kids of my age. Me and my brother were in the minority that still preferred Final Fantasy VII, and now, years later, those people who used to worship Final Fantasy VIII to hell and back are wondering what the hell was going through their heads. Well, in case you're still not sure, let me spell it out: GRAPHICS. That's what was going through your heads. Anyway, word of Final Fantasy VII stretched so far that even PC gamers were intrigued. So, Square worked with Eidos Interactive for the first time of many, to port Final Fantasy VII for the PC. This was somewhat of another cult event in the history of gaming, but the PC version of Final Fantasy VII was not received as well as was imagined. It sold well, but it drew much criticism from its high hardware requirements, and quite simply put, people who had their own visions of how an RPG should be - having much more experience from RPG's than us console gamers - did not appreciate Final Fantasy VII's limitations, such as solid save points, linear character development and linear progression up 'til a certain, moderately far point in the storyline. Those high hardware requirements turned out the game's ultimate downfall, though - in just a couple of years, certain sequences in the game, such as the motorcycle and snowboarding minigames, were rendered completely unplayable due to basic PC hardware developing a little too much and fast. These sequences were way too fast to be fully enjoyed, it was like watching the game on fast-forward. Of course, patches were released, but in my experience, they didn't work properly. Until 2012, Final Fantasy VII was still pretty much considered a PlayStation-exclusive.

Time for a little mini-review to wrap this up. In early 2012, the PC version of Final Fantasy VII was re-released as a digital download straight from Square Enix, at the price of ten. This version of the game included some "anniversary bonuses", such as cloud saves and an EXP booster, and it came complete with Achievements. It had also gone under some audiovisual resampling, and harvesting of the problems that plagued the original PC version from a certain point of time forward. It sounded good enough for me to pay for - the next best thing from a remake - but the truth turned out quite different. It seems that being the best game in the world ain't enough.

That last line was perhaps a little misleading, 'cause there's nothing wrong with the game. As a matter of fact, I'm amazed how much kicks I still get out of this old friend after spending most of my life with it. I started playing Final Fantasy VII when I was 13 years old, and it was my second or third real RPG experience. I bought an official strategy guide for the game even though I didn't actually own the game, just because it looked so damn fancy and I loved the game - I wanted to learn to play it better, and through that book, I eventually learned to play RPG's the way they're supposed to be played. I learned one more thing from that book: how to squeeze absolutely everything out of the game. Nowadays you can squeeze everything out of a game in several ways, by several choices. Final Fantasy VII didn't have those choices, it was very linear in that sense - so, after 16 years, I still play the game just as I played it back then. I stay in the same grinding spots, figure goals for myself - such as "I'll stop after everyone's leveled up once each, used their Limit Break once each, or reach 10,000 Gil" - do everything in the exact same order as always, have everyone use the same equipment and materia as always, and use the same dialogue choices as always, because I know the minor consequences and benefits of each action. If I had the chance to really put myself in Cloud's boots, I'd prefer Tifa as the potential girlfriend, but I just think going on a date with Aerith (still localized Aeris in the re-release, by the way) fits the plot better - it's just how it was meant to be. As Commander Shepard or the Grey Warden, you can pretty much line all the pretty girls/boys/Liara up and take your pick, and the game lives by your rules, not vice versa. This freedom of choice was kinda present in Final Fantasy VII, but Aerith was the only date to make some sense out of the three possible options. That's why I set my sights on her, every - single - time. I know the game inside out - when I started the game up (with shaky hands) on the PC, I was certain I would've forgotten a lot of it by now, and indeed I had, some small details, and, with the PC's higher resolution, I found myself focusing on some details wholly new to me. Still, there was no ring rust - like I said, I grew up with this game. It's like riding a bike.

If we're going to review the game, let's go all the way - graphics and sound. Can you hear the evil laughter already? Well, in all seriousness, Final Fantasy VII doesn't look much like anything nowadays, but back in 1997, it was the most beautiful game ever made. Back then, those masses of polygons on pre-rendered (and glitchy) backgrounds was considered realistic and pretty. People gasped at how gorgeous the FMV cutscenes were, when they were actually totally out of proportion (several proportions at that), laggy and didn't feel like they belonged in the game at all. Still, they have retained their very own type of attraction, the old-school attraction, you know. Don't get me wrong - I'm not criticizing the game at all. It's just funny that the PlayStation - although it was clearly the best console of its generation - has the biggest library of once great-looking games that look grainy and outright ugly nowadays, and in turn, the much more polished Nintendo 64 games have begun to look better than they originally did! There are exceptions, including, but not limited to, the two sequels to this game that were released on the original PlayStation - Final Fantasy IX in particular. Even VIII still makes your chest throb during certain scenes, when it comes to purely audiovisual values.

Almost it...
What's funny is that I just laid down most of Final Fantasy's colourful history up 'til Final Fantasy VII, and failed to mention one of the men who made Final Fantasy what it was: Square's former court composer Nobuo Uematsu. I don't really have a favourite Final Fantasy soundtrack, 'cause every single game that Uematsu composed (let's just leave the others out of this discussion) has its fair share of marvellous tunes; if I had to pick a favourite Uematsu soundtrack, it would surprisingly be that of Chrono Trigger, which was _mostly_ his work. However, we're dealing with the Final Fantasy franchise here, and I'm not blindly on this game's side when I say VII has perhaps the greatest collection of songs out of the whole series. This version of the game suffers from some very odd mixing problems, which you can't even tinker with through the launcher or in-game settings, but most of it comes through, and in a strange turn, some individual tracks sound even better than they originally did all due to the actual sound quality. Hell yeah, still loving all the battle music - "Fight On!" suffers the most of all the mixing problems, though - "Bombing Mission", "Listen to the Cries of the Planet", "Turks' Theme", "Crazy Motorcycle"... ah, forget it. You know 'em classics.

Let's skip everything else, I don't feel the need to go over the game's wide variety of pros and the few cons (OK, I'll say it: chocobo breeding). Let's just focus on this re-release. In a word, it's useless. Final Fantasy VII goes for about the same price on Square Enix's website and Steam, as well as the PlayStation Network. Well, the PlayStation version is of course Final Fantasy VII in its purest form, but if you had the choice right now, and you've perhaps never played this game, THEN I would direct you towards this re-release. The reason? Simply put: the somewhat better English translation that helps you understand the plot a bit better without having to dig up the rest of the VII series (it's recommendable though, assuming you like the game and its mythos). Originally, I failed to understand half of what was going on in the end of disc two (PART two in this case), and even many years after learning exactly what's going on through some other source of information, I still don't understand it on the spot. The original localization of the game was just horrible - but then again, in the game's defense (somewhat), pit the translation against Final Fantasy IV's original translation, and you've got yourself a literary masterpiece here.

...and here we go.
But, that's it for the changes. This is still the very same game with some bonuses no self-respecting player ever uses for anything - EXP booster? Come on... you really want to water the game down with such bare unnecessities? 36 Achievements, now that's a sales point. Who wouldn't want to replay Final Fantasy VII with Achievements? Hell, I'm playing a version of the first Final Fantasy game on my smartphone and loving the hell out of it - just because it has a variety of Achievements, the magic of Xbox LIVE games for the Windows Phone. Any Final Fantasy game is automatically just a bump cooler with Achievements or Trophies - that's why I've been able to bear with Final Fantasy XIII for so long, and words aren't enough to describe my mental erection towards the upcoming X-HD collection. Anyway, back to the Achievements of Final Fantasy VII. A lot of them are either random or retarded, or both - but some are nice, and pretty much what I would've come up with myself (I once did a "what if Achievements?"-list for the remake that never came). It's nice to play this game and see the first Achievement light up at the bottom of the screen, in my case about two minutes into it. I go to my Xbox profile - again, my hands shake - to see my favourite title in the world invade the Achievement list. Well, it isn't there - these aren't LIVE Achievements, no Gamerscore for these. These are Square Enix Achievements, which are worth more than Square Enix's name nowadays - not much. Everything you do in this game is trackable on your generic Square Enix profile, which doesn't excite me in the least.

So, let's summarize: higher graphical resolution that might introduce you to some whole new details you might've missed during your years with the game, high-quality sound that however "comes complete" with odd mixing you can't play around with, and decent localization. That's all you get from this particular version of the game - if it's simply the greatest J-RPG ever made you want, you can get it from just about anywhere. A remake of this game is probably never going to happen as much as we'd like it to, and perhaps this really IS the next best thing - but it comes as a far number two.

After all these years, I might've grown a liiiiiittle bit tired of certain aspects of this game - such as the long, half-cinematic sequences, superbosses who you cannot beat with any other strategy than just one single extremely repetitive one, and chocobos in general; it's funny that as ultimate of a Final Fantasy experience the game is, it has the most annoying and in turn, most force-fed chocobo features out of the whole series. (Note: breeding's ten times more annoying on the PC since there's no soft reset like in the PlayStation version.) Still, in its entirety and most of all with its still quick, correct and comfortable tempo, Final Fantasy VII is the most functional and tide-turning Final Fantasy game of them all, and thus, my favourite game in history.

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