Game of the Month: January 2017
Final Fantasy VII - Playstation 1 / PC
Have you ever heard of the expression ‘a perfect storm’, chances are you probably have and very probably for many differing reasons. The genuine meaning is that of a series of events that combine at the same time to produce an event that aggravate a situation drastically, sounds scary doesn’t it? Well it should, because for those at Sea it’s used to drum in the importance of always respecting the ocean and the elements in order to return safely to land. For people like us though, retro fans that is, it means something slightly different. It often means the culmination of something beyond special, it often heralds in the dawn of a true classic experience that transcends opinion and taste, instead forming something unquestionably magical.
For the month of January in the year 2017 it is absolutely a genuine pleasure to take you all back to one particular videogame that helped to change everything. With it’s 20th Birthday just around the corner let’s all travel back in time to 1997 when all manner of choices, circumstances and events combined to produce something that would rock the foundations of the gaming landscape forever. Ladies and Gentlemen and everyone who queued up around the block two days in advance hoping to get a free gift bag it’s time to fall in love once more with Final Fantasy VII.
Being a sequel can be tricky. Fans, as we all know, have that delightful mixture of expectation of new experiences mixed with insistence of requiring a similar feeling from previous entries when it comes to videogames. Double standards from gamers kill more games than magazine or internet reviewers sometimes it seems. When you are the 7th game in a series the pressure could be thought of as insane however when you are in the mid 1990’s and it’s the RPG genre things are a little bit different. Today in 2017 the RPG genre is firmly established globally with millions of fans all around the world invested in numerous franchises from several developers but it never used to be that way. There once was a time when an entire region (Europe) very often missed out on games from this genre from Japanese game developers and, along with North America were very much fixated on Fighting games, Beat ‘em Ups and of course plat formers. In fact, North America itself was more of a cult follower of the genre than die hard fan due to also not getting a full range of the genre’s best games from the region that absolutely dominated the gaming scene in this time period, Japan.
One series however that was famous in Japan and very well known in North America was called ’Final Fantasy’ this was a group of games under the same banner offering different adventures with different casts of characters but somehow feeling familiar thanks to presentation and game direction styles. On platforms such as the Famicom (NES) and the Super Famicom (SNES) these games had built a large and hungry fan base. With the series also venturing into North America it was well established and well loved by a modest number of people, in Europe however the reality was very different with only serious import gamers even truly knowing anything about the series outside the Gameboy spin off offerings. Nintendo was very much under Sega’s boot in this region so not only were RPG’s themselves a very select fashion taste for a minor number of people but we got around 20% of the games made during that time external to western developers.
Final Fantasy was very much the Nintendo gamers series. So in 1994 development began on a new title for the Super Famicom, the 7th game. Shortly after work began however the market began to undergo huge transformations in technology and so ambition from developers changed, thus pushing this new game onto Nintendo’s new 64-Bit console, codenamed Ultra 64 (N64). During the development however the game’s designers at ‘Square‘, now called ‘SquareEnix’ became increasingly frustrated with the formats cartridge based technology and therefore massive limitations. CD-ROM technology was now being widely accepted as the new format and so after seeing the power of a new machine from Sony called the Playstation, Square changed formats once more and switched the game’s release to this new and exciting 32-Bit console. It was at this point the storm began.
Thanks to the Playstation’s media format and power three radical changes to how the series were created changed significantly. The first being the ability to generate full 3D polygon graphics over the top of pre-rendered backdrops which instantly transformed the look of the game and propelled it visually into a whole new level of excellence. The second was the ability to add in huge intro and story cut sequences that would partner the in-game action to take this from just being a game and into a true realisation of an interactive movie. Early formats and developers had tried this using FMV but it’s here that the true vision was realised and executed in magnificent style. With the gameplay having pre-rendered backdrops the sudden jump from playable action to cut sequence felt way more natural. The third advantage of the switch to the Playstation was that of the CD-ROM format being able to play audio at an incredible sample rate. Instead of chip tunes or sampled sound an orchestral soundtrack could accompany the game itself. Final Fantasy 7 whilst not being the first to do such a thing is very probably the moment when CD quality sound, cut sequences and story telling through interactive visual media truly came of age.
Released in January 1997 in Japan, a few months after a demo appeared on another title from the same developer, Final Fantasy 7 proceeded to begin to crush sales records and change everything. Selling 2.3 million copies in just 3 days it not only heralded a massive new interest in the game series but also walked even more Sony Playstation consoles into homes. People purchased Sony’s 32-Bit machine, sometimes, just to play this game. If people thought Namco and Capcom were selling machines based on arcade conversions then Square were about to show them just what an RPG could do. The mania that gripped Japan pre and post launch was so big and so strong that it sent ripples across the globe with retailers in North America throwing all other plans out the window to prepare for the chaos that was about to hit there. A near 6 month pre launch campaign with pre-orders through the roof promptly ensued leading up to the moment where in September 1997 FF VII hit North America and people lost their damn minds. In the first weekend 330,000 copies were sold with that figure exceeding half a million inside it’s first two full weeks on sale. Whilst this may not sound impressive now, this was in the mid 1990’s and it was for a Japanese produced RPG. Trust us when we say this was huge!
With the two major territories going crazy over this new entry in a popular franchise it was just two months wait for Europe to get it’s very first entry in the series. Considering how small the RPG genre’s following was in this region gamers flocked to stores to throw cash at it and it caused an enormous surge in hardware sales as people purchased a PS1 just to play this game. Final Fantasy VII went from small info box in one or two games mags to overnight pop culture sensation in Europe. Very often selling to people who had never even enjoyed videogames before. By the end of 1997 FF VII had, in all seriousness, changed gaming forever.
The three discs tell the story of Cloud Strife, a mercenary, who completes a job for an Eco Terrorist group called Avalanche and in doing so joins a series of events that link to his past, his childhood’s best friend’s past and the future of the entire world. With an incredible amount of characters to meet and interact with it, this feels like a full on Hollywood blockbuster story… that you direct. Being an RPG it’s a mixture of free roaming around huge areas, interacting with people in order to complete tasks and objectives and tactical based combat. Moving fluidly between these pre-rendered local environments and the larger world map you encounter random battles as well as set sequenced conflicts. Combat is that of a turn based system with a time element based on the Active Time Battle system however it is the first game in the series to only allow 3 players to be in battle. Traditional weapons can be used such as swords or axe’s etc but also a magic system is included that allows you to also summon creatures to attack your enemies. These summons each have spectacular animated sequences to really drive home the epic nature of the event. At first glance to an outsider this whole system can be a bit daunting, however after a mere hour’s or so play everything feels second nature, giving more proof to the often spoken term that Final Fantasy VII was the game that took the RPG genre further than anything prior.
Behind the scenes of this game every single factor works perfectly. The story is exceptional, even if the translation for the English version is poor at times. The locations, characters and environments are still, to this day, mind blowing. For the mid 1990’s they were literally the work of magic. Everything moves at a perfect pace, the gameplay is absolutely pinpoint spot on. It’s soundtrack does what very few can, in that it manages to convey the story itself without ever having to use words or cut sequences. Tense moments feel 100% more epic because of the music in the background. Specific tunes resonate with precise moments or even to characters adding in even more layers of depth that simply couldn’t be done on any other format of the time other than the playstation’s CD-ROM. Nothing feels out of place, ever! Even when you switch from being in a town environment to a sudden cut sequence it all feels on the same level, even when it’s clearly not. The music plays a huge part in this and is another reason why it remains to this day so monumental.
It’s hard to describe Final Fantasy VII outside the conventional terms of it being an RPG and to do so invites several key failings, because for millions of people it’s not a game. It’s not an RPG, it’s not an adventure, it’s not a story, it’s not a technical masterpiece of design. It’s all of those and it’s more… way more in fact! Final Fantasy VII is ‘that’ moment, the time when gaming moved far outside it’s intended recreational past time and landed into everyday life with a thump so large that it sent shockwaves around the world. Tremors that still exist 20 years later as a benchmark to anything that even dares to follow in it’s wake. By the end of December 2016 it is estimated that more than 11 million copies of this game has sold worldwide. Think about that for a moment, because that number is huge, especially when you think that RPG’s were never a dominant genre outside of Japan on it’s original PS1 release and in 2017 they are far from a defining aspect of a console or games platform purchase. So in those two decades Final Fantasy VII has, mostly all on it’s own, created an enduring legacy based purely on the excellence of it’s parts combining to form an essential videogame.
Very few times in the gaming industry has something come along that has completely thrown the book out of the window and changed things on such a truly global scale. You can point to Super Mario Brothers for the NES and of course Sonic the Hedgehog. Some folk can pinpoint the Wii console or the DS console as moments where things transformed completely. Those examples are of course correct but only go to illustrate that since the dawn of the games industry in the 1970’s there have been perhaps a dozen or so truly momentous moments where the world paused for an intake of breath, followed by a gasp of near total astonishment at what lie before them. Final Fantasy VII is one of those moments, and such a moment that it went on to propel a franchise to heights it could only ever have dreamed of. Whether it’s the best one is absolutely a matter for debate and personal preference but make no mistake folks, it’s the most important one. Because even now, its still the game people compare everything too.
Surviving two previous format switches, taking a huge risk on a still emerging technology for a genre only truly popular in one region and combining 3D rendering, CD Quality Audio, stage direction only ever seen prior in blockbuster movies and a story that will make you gasp, laugh and cry Final Fantasy VII not only created a perfect storm, it navigated it with ease and then landed on shore to a standing ovation from those lucky enough to have witnessed it. For some it’s great, for others it’s another RPG but for a games industry it was the start of something truly remarkable that is so much more than the sum of it’s parts.
To describe it as a videogame does disservice to it’s quality, achievement, impact, legacy and your own ability to ‘feel’ because at the end of it all that’s what Final Fantasy VII does with precision and panache. A 3 Disc rollercoaster of pure emotion, a world you wish you were part of, a series of characters you wish you could either be or know. From the moment you load it till the moment you complete it your world will never be the same again and then the urge to hit start once more will be almost overpowering. This is how great gaming can be, this walks the line between immersion, expression and art, taking all elements in it’s stride and even giving you things you didn’t even know you needed. A perfect storm, a perfect videogame, a perfect moment in time captured forever for future generations to experience.
And if none of that stirs the heart then let me finish by simply saying this… Have you ever been able to look at a flower selling girl without feeling heavy in the heart? Trust me, 11 million people know what I’m talking about right now… Final Fantasy VII is the perfect storm… go out and get soaked!