Square-Enix’s E3 2015 announcement that it would remake the seventh installment of its popular Final Fantasy series inspired a resoundingly enthusiastic response among those in attendance, proving that the impact of Final Fantasy VII remains powerful even eighteen years after the game was first released.
But why all the excitement?
To fathom the enormity of Square-Enix’s success with Final Fantasy VII, we here embark on a frighteningly comprehensive analysis of the game’s meteoric rise and sustained success. This is the first of a four-part series that examines the development of Final Fantasy VII as a game and icon. Part 1 looks at the game itself; Part 2 looks at FF7‘s prequels, sequels, and spin-offs; Part 3 studies the PC underground mod culture that’s taken root with FF7; and Part 4 analyzes what lies ahead for the celebrated game. So strap on a diaper and prepare to bask in this glorious historical overview.
Final Fantasy VII: the game
FF7 was the series’ first 32-bit entry, utilizing 3D graphics and what was then considered next-gen musical accompaniment. Making use of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), the game’s sound effects and music were vastly superior to the 16-bit synth tracks of the prior six titles. Development began in 1994 and ran through ’97, during which time Square began moving away from Nintendo in favor of Sony.
Four men headed development: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase, Kazushige Nojima and Nobuo Uematsu as producer, director, head writer and musical composer, respectively. Sakaguchi created the Final Fantasy series and directed the first five parts while Kitase wrote and directed Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, perhaps the two most celebrated Role-Playing Games (RPGs) on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Uematsu had worked with Square since the mid ’80s, establishing a passionate following for his popular video-game soundtracks while Nojima was a relative newcomer, having joined the company the year that development on FF7 started.
Strange as it may seem in hindsight, the creative team first envisioned Final Fantasy VII as a New York detective story. Hmm…for better or worse, that vision never came to fruition.
Instead, the story focused on a band of rebels struggling to liberate civilization from the hands of the tyrannical Shin-Ra Corporation. The plot revolves around Cloud Strife, a mercenary and amnesiac who aids the small rebel outfit for the sake of his childhood friend and love interest, Tifa Lockheart. Deeper into the game, the plot takes a complex turn when Sephiroth, a haunting figure from Cloud’s past, and Aerith Gainsborough, a mystical flower seller, enter the scene and spark a struggle to determine the fate of all life on the planet.
FF7‘s 3D graphics and CGI cutscenes gave the story a coating more vivid than any RPG before it. The characters appeared more realistic than in any previous Final Fantasy game, making them and their odyssey more relatable and vivid to players. Hence, players–many of them newcomers to the genre–were struck by the story’s highly unique triumphs and tragedies. And given this success took place during the rise of the internet, many players took to the worldwide web to express and share their emotional takeaways from the game. In truth, FF7‘s narrative milestones–betrayal, death, etc.–were common features in the series, but few outside Japan were aware of that and none witnessed those milestones on a 32-bit scale.
Aesthetics aside, Final Fantasy VII was a conventional RPG with exploratory and combat dimensions. The player navigates a setting as he would a typical action game. He will eventually, and thereafter frequently, be drawn into a battle on a separate plain where two parties (player and computer) take turns attacking each other until one side is defeated. Combat experience and equipment enhance the player’s stats, enabling him to progress and take on ever more powerful adversaries.
The game’s reception was unprecedented for an RPG thanks to a massive ad blitz by Sony. Commercials, movie trailers, comic and magazine ads spread throughout the West, generating plenty of hype and curiosity along the way. Following its release in 1997, sales soared past the million mark in both Europe and North America–a first for the series. The game then went on to received several honors from magazines to trade associations, including GamePro, GameFan, Electronic Gaming Monthly, and GameSpot. Eventually, Final Fantasy VII would see a majority of its sales come from outside Japan. Total sales currently approach the 10,000,000 mark, a figure that no other Square RPG before or since has matched. The strong response prompted Eidos Interactive to publish a Windows version in 1998. In time, that PC version would take on a life of itself.
The strong reaction was a big boon for Square, which saw global interest in Final Fantasy and its other titles, like Dragon Quest, SaGa, and Mana, find large and loyal followings. The Japanese RPG no longer catered to a small segment of the Western gaming market, but rather to a wide and expansive demographic that could not be ignored. Not surprisingly, other Japanese RPG publishers took note of the dynamic shift and ported over their titles to a hungry American and European public. But despite growing competition, the Final Fantasy franchise remained Square’s commercial darling, consistently topping sales charts.
Even with the passing of time, the story of Final Fantasy VII still lingers. Over the years, Square has paid homage to the FF7 game with character cameos in its other titles, notably a fighting game called Ehrgeiz and the Disney/Square crossover RPG Kingdom Hearts. It soon became clear that sporadic appearances of characters in other games were not going to be enough. The story of Cloud & Co. would have to resume.
And resume it did.