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The Secrets of Final Fantasy VII's Success

by Todd Ciolek,
Final Fantasy VII heralded many things when it arrived on the PlayStation in 1997. It legitimized a new era of cinematic video games. It marked a major victory for Sony in the game-console market. It started plenty of arguments. Final Fantasy VII may well be the most debated game in history; criticized, lionized, and discussed to no end.

It's fitting that Final Fantasy VII Remake is a rare thing: a new vision so meticulous that the game arriving this week merely covers the first half-dozen hours of the original Final Fantasy VII. Few remakes could get away with that, but Square Enix may very well pull it off. Because it's Final Fantasy VII.

How did Final Fantasy VII come to be so important anyway? What made it stand out? And why do we still talk about it so much?

Final Fantasy always had some international appeal. As any fan of the series is probably tired of explaining, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi named the original Final Fantasy with the intention of leaving publisher Square, and perhaps the game industry, if the game didn't become a hit. He had nothing to worry about: Final Fantasy soon became the flagship series for Square in Japan, and it caught attention overseas. Nintendo of America released the first Final Fantasy for the NES with a solid marketing push. Nintendo Power devoted months of coverage to the game, and every subscriber found a Final Fantasy guide in the mailbox.

Nintendo's efforts gave Final Fantasy a foothold in North America, but a problem emerged: by 1991 Japan already had Final Fantasy II and III for the Famicom, with a fourth game headed for the Super Famicom—or the Super NES, as the West knew it. Square began to localize the Japanese Final Fantasy II but switched gears as customers and publishers got behind Nintendo's new system. Final Fantasy IV became Final Fantasy II in North America, skipping two games and starting a naming oddity that continued years later. By 1994, Square had passed over Final Fantasy V and released Final Fantasy VI in North America…as Final Fantasy III.

It evinced an undeniable truth: console role-playing games weren't even half as popular in America as they were in Japan. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy dominated sales charts in their native country, but in America they were cult hits at best. They were lucky to be translated at all. Square skipped Final Fantasies, and Enix didn't bother localizing either Dragon Quest V or VI. RPG fans in America had to subsist with a trickle of RPGs in America each year, grinding through Vay or Lufia and the Fortress of Doom just because there wasn't much else to scratch that itch for random battles, sweeping storylines, and anime-like cutscenes.

Yet RPGs had a loyal and frequently loud following, and it grew over the years. When Final Fantasy VI rolled around as Final Fantasy III, a fan based coalesced and demanded more, writing to both game magazines and game publishers and asking for RPGs to be translated for North America. Each major Square RPG pushed the genre's popularity just a little in North America, and by the time Chrono Trigger arrived in 1995, it all seemed on the edge of mainstream appeal in the West.

The game industry was a big messy barroom brawl in 1995. The Super NES and Sega Genesis remained the dominant game systems, but a new breed of consoles had arrived. It had lurched to a start in previous years with the overpriced letdowns of the Panasonic 3DO, the Atari Jaguar, and Sega's 32X, but true contenders had appeared in the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation. And over all of it loomed Nintendo, promising a true technological wonder with the Ultra 64. The system's capabilities and games were vague at first, but one upcoming Ultra 64 game sold hordes of RPG fans on the system just on its name: Final Fantasy VII.

Behind the scenes, Square had considered a Final Fantasy VII for the Super NES (above), using 2-D graphics much like those of Final Fantasy IV (plus a story draft that took place in New York City). Soon the project moved to newer systems and the brave, shakily nascent world of 3-D visuals, and the Nintendo 64 was its apparent home. After all, Square had loyally supported Nintendo systems for years, never once straying to rivals like Sega.

The first public hints of Final Fantasy VII appeared in the fall of 1995, when Square showed off a demo at the Siggraph convention in Los Angeles. The mini game consisted of a 3-D battle featuring familiar Final Fantasy monsters and Final Fantasy VI characters, all downright stunning by the standards of the day.

Game magazines were quick to hype this as the first look at Final Fantasy VII and just how amazing it might be. It was not, in truth, the actual game. Square assembled the demo to exhibit their 3-D graphic prowess, and they would label the demo Final Fantasy VI: The Interactive CG Game. This detail escaped most Final Fantasy fans, who were now more eager than ever for the Ultra 64 debut of the series.

Everything changed in 1996. Nintendo had renamed the Ultra 64 to the Nintendo 64 and delayed it to the fall, but as far as anyone knew, Final Fantasy VII was still a lock for the system. That April, however, RPG fans opened up their copies of GameFan or GamePro or Electronic Gaming Monthly to see the first true screenshots and characters of Final Fantasy VII…for the Sony PlayStation.

This new Final Fantasy was a different creature for a different age. The graphics consisted of 3-D character models with detailed, prerendered backgrounds, a radical change from the 2-D sprites of the Super NES days. While most of the staff from Final Fantasy VI remained, including Sakaguchi as producer and Yoshinori Kitase as director, it was a surprise that artist Yoshitaka Amano, series character designer from its origins, wasn't behind Final Fantasy VII's cast. Amano provided some art, but the character designs were the work of newcomer Tetsuya Nomura.

It was a staggering turn of events: Square, who had built their RPG brand on Nintendo consoles, was now firmly in Sony's camp. The demo show at Siggraph had never been a Nintendo 64 game, and Square had clearly been working on Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation a good while. Fan reaction ranged from indignation over Square's betrayal to unclouded excitement over the early screens of Cloud, Aeris, and Barret (or Claud, Ealis, and Bullet, as some Western magazines initially translated it). The Nintendo 64 was still months from release, and the RPG crowd now had one good reason to jump to the PlayStation.

Square's rationale for siding with Sony was ostensibly technical: Final Fantasy VII was to feature plenty of video sequences and prerendered backdrops, and the PlayStation's CD format was much cheaper and better suited to storage than the Nintendo 64's pricier cartridges. There was clearly more at work, however, as the departure was absolute. All of Square's future projects were PlayStation titles.

It seemed an abrupt schism, but Square and Nintendo had not been the best of allies. Nintendo and Sony had teamed up in the early 1990s to develop a CD-based expansion system called the PlayStation, and Square had begun development of Secret of Mana for this new device. Nintendo pulled the plug on it, Sony took the PlayStation concept back to their own camp, and Square was left to remake and cram Secret of Mana into a compromised cartridge format.

Others pointed to Nintendo's strong-arm tactics. For nearly a decade the company had kept a tight reign over anyone who published games for its systems: Nintendo controlled the approval and manufacturing process and was free to implement whatever fees or content changes they wanted. The Nintendo 64 stuck with a cartridge format instead of embracing the less expensive CD option, and Square wasn't the only company that jumped ship: Capcom, Konami, Namco, and other major publishers threw most of their weight behind the PlayStation. Square's departure was easily the most bitter, though. The Nintendo 64 would never have much of an RPG lineup, and years later Nintendo's irascible president Hiroshi Yamauchi decried RPG fans as “depressed people who want to sit in their dark rooms and play slow games.”

This wouldn't be the last controversy Final Fantasy VII provoked. The game took shape throughout 1996, getting extensive coverage in Japan and America with each new character or feature unveiled. That fall Square released their first PlayStation title, Dream Factory's Tobal No. 1, with a Final Fantasy VII demo disc. It is speculated that a few people who purchased the game actually played Tobal No 1. before the Final Fantasy VII demo, but their existence has never been verified.

The demo laid out the game's strengths: a stunning cinematic crawl over the dingy streets of a city called Midgar, a battle system familiar to all series fans, and the impolite manner of mercenary protagonist Cloud Strife as he helped a pack of revolutionaries blow up a reactor. It was a departure from many RPG traditions, both in the hi-tech atmosphere and the choice of an evil corporation called Shinra for the antagonist, but beneath the sharp graphics and cinematic style, it was still Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy VII hit Japan in January 1997, with an American release scheduled some eight months later. Many fans imported the game rather than waiting, and so the debate began even before the game saw domestic store shelves. Some were turned off by the game's emphasis on cinematic cutscenes, chiding it as more movie than game. Others disliked the move to primitive polygons, as the game's characters often change appearance from big-headed, Popeye-armed munchkins to more realistic proportions. And when the game arrived in English, critics and players took issue with the rough translation and the questionable choice of “ebonics” patois for rebel leader Barret.

For many, though, Final Fantasy VII was everything they'd wanted and more. Its storyline invited ideas beyond saving the world, with a last act centered around Cloud's psychological issues and search for identity. The cutscenes were clear and well-directed, far removed from the grainy “full-motion-video” movie games of years prior. And it was still clearly a video game, with a quest that included everything from duels with skyscraper-sized monsters to a sessions of breeding Chocobo bird-steeds.

Final Fantasy VII's success elevated the whole RPG genre among video games, ensuring that fans no longer had to explain just what those letters meant. It was the stuff of game-magazine covers, store promotions, and TV commercials. Sony made the game a focal point of the console war. One print ad opened mocked Nintendo by showing an enormous high-tech Final Fantasy VII cannon and the line “someone please get the guys who make cartridge games a cigarette and a blindfold.”

The long-ago time of 1997 wasn't just thick with changes for the game industry. The Internet was now a prevalent force, especially among fans eager to connect and bond and quibble over video games, and Final Fantasy VII was the year's biggest release for many young nerds. It introduced them to online arguments, online fandoms, and something very important: spoilers.

Final Fantasy VII's biggest surprise was, of course, the death of Aerith…or Aeris, as she was then known. This was hardly the first RPG to kill off a major character, as any Phantasy Star fan might tell you, but it was new ground for a Final Fantasy. Previous games had offed only the most likely suspects among party members. Aerith was the face of Final Fantasy VII almost as much as Cloud: she's the first character the player sees and the impetus for the game's underlying threads about ancient races and cataclysms. And midway through Final Fantasy VII, she's dead.

Some players had a hard time accepting that. Even before the game's American debut, fans combed Final Fantasy VII for glitches and secrets that might somehow bring Aerith back to life. GameShark codes notwithstanding, all this speculation came to nothing. Aerith was meant to stay dead, to embody themes of loss, and in doing so she became arguably the most famous deceased character in video games.

Another important shift drove Final Fantasy VII's popularity: anime fandom. The original Final Fantasy had trudged through an American video-game market that often downplayed the anime elements of Japan-made titles. Final Fantasy VII arrived when major game magazines had dedicated anime sections, Blockbuster offered everything from The Venus Wars to Tenchi Muyo!, and Sailor Moon fans staged letter campaigns to keep the show on the air. Final Fantasy VII was unabashedly anime-inspired, from its character art to its references to Evangelion and Berserk, and so it fit perfectly into the wheelhouse of many a young anime geek.

So Final Fantasy VII packed a lot within its three discs and thirty-plus hours: a system-selling hit, a catalyst for cinematic games, a touchtone for sudden shocking death scenes, a lightning rod for nerd debates, and a by-product of a burgeoning anime-nerd sector. It was all impossible to duplicate. Subsequent Final Fantasy games had more consistent styles, smoother world-building, and better translations, but they didn't have Final Fantasy VII's exceptional timing.

It would be a while before Final Fantasy VII returned. The Final Fantasy series made a habit of never returning to a game once it was finished: despite half a dozen “Final” titles, each was its own self-contained tale. Indeed, this kept the series fresh, as every new game changed just enough to upset fans and ignite debates.

Square's fortunes took a dive in the early 2000s after the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie failed to make back its massive budget, and Square merged with longtime rival Enix. Sakaguchi, who had directed The Spirits Within, stepped down from his position as Vice President and, two years later, left Square Enix to form his own studio, Mistwalker.

The new and money-strapped Square Enix turned a mercenary eye to their properties, first reviving Final Fantasy X with the awkwardly named Final Fantasy X-2. Yet one return to Final Fantasy VII wasn't enough: it needed two sequels, two prequels, and an anime OVA, and all of it would be called the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII.

Square Enix aimed for an alphabetic nomenclature for its Final Fantasy VII follow-ups: the film Advent Children, the cell-phone RPG Before Crisis, the PSP action-RPG Crisis Core, and the PlayStation 2 action game Dirge of Cerberus. If Final Fantasy VII hadn't been the most popular piece of the series beforehand, it clearly was by 2005.

Alphabetical order gave way to production delays, and the first piece of the Compilation to see release was Before Crisis. Set six years prior to the events of Final Fantasy VII, it follows a gaggle of new recruits for Shinra's private security force, the Turks. Released in 24 separate chapters, Before Crisis is an overhead-view RPG with a menu-driven battle system, and all of it looked fairly impressive for a game from the age of flip-phones.

This would, unfortunately, keep Before Crisis in Japan. The game was available on DoCoMo's FOMA network in Japan, where cell-phone technology outpaced its North American equivalent. Before Crisis was too large a project for too small of an audience, though Square Enix at least had a Western version in mind. A booklet from the 2006 E3 gives Before Crisis a nice spread and mentions an upcoming release, but nothing ever arrived.

If Before Crisis was not destined for international appeal, the opposite was true of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. A full-length movie set two years after the events of the original game, it was the genuine sequel fans wanted—or thought they did. It brought back much of the game's staff: Kazushige Nojima returned for the screenplay, director Yoshinori Kitase served as Advent Children's producer, and Tetsuya Nomura was now in the director's chair. The only major absence was, of course, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

There was no question that Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children knew its audience. Assembled with polished CG and loaded with action sequences, the film assumes that viewers are already familiar with Final Fantasy VII, thus leaving it borderline incomprehensible for those who aren't. The film focuses on Cloud's relationship with childhood friend Tifa, his lingering guilt over what happened to Aerith, and Sephiroth's potential return. While some fans were delighted with the new direction, others found the film to be one big, gaudy battle. Others were miffed that Advent Children sidelines a lot of the original game's main cast, though fans of Cait Sith are another group whose existence has been theorized but never proven.

Advent Children was not the only animated adaptation of Final Fantasy VII. Studio Madhouse put together a 25-minute OVA called Last Order. Briefly summing up the intertwined histories of Sephiroth and Cloud, Last Order was available only in the special-edition releases of Advent Children in both Japan and America. It's a curious snippet of Final Fantasy VII's storyline, centered on an incident from Cloud and Tifa's past, but it ultimately recreates something that the original game already showed. The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII continued with an actual PlayStation 2 game. Dirge of Cerberus unfolds a year after Advent Children and focuses on Vincent Valentine, the gothic gunslinger who was an entirely optional character in the original Final Fantasy VII. Giving him some due attention, Dirge of Cerberus is an action-shooter with some RPG flourishes. It's also the least-loved part of the Final Fantasy VII comeback.

Dirge of Cerberus drew complaints about its unremarkable gameplay and seemingly irrelevant storyline upon its release in Japan. Changes were made for the American version, improving the controls while removing the game's online multiplayer mode entirely. Dirge attempted to be a lot of things, including a tribute to first-person shooters with a keyboard-and-mouse interface, rather than dedicating itself to a serviceable action game, and it found limited praise even among dedicated Final Fantasy VII fans. The last piece of the Compilation was Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for the PSP. A direct prequel to Final Fantasy VII, the game follows Zack Fair, a SOLDIER operative who figured into both Cloud and Aerith's background. Crisis Core sends him through the familiar ranks of Shinra soldiers, while battles have a direct interface that streamlines familiar Final Fantasy spells and attacks. It also adds a roulette wheel that unleashes random effects on enemies.

If some previous attempts to revive Final Fantasy VII had stumbled, Crisis Core endured. Its storyline, despite featuring characters named “Angeal” and “Genesis,” won accolades for turning Zack from a tertiary plot device to a fully-realized Final Fantasy protagonist. Its combat system proved an engaging take on Final Fantasy battles, slots and all, and the game looked remarkable among PSP titles. Even so, its status as a portable release robbed it of the same recognition that a PlayStation 2 title or a full-blown movie might find.

Most importantly, Crisis Core showed fans that Square Enix could occasionally be trusted with reviving Final Fantasy VII. Square Enix's other updates to Final Fantasy VII were sporadic with an extra Dirge of Cerberus chapter releases as an ephemeral mobile game, and a few bonus short stories available only in Japan. It all danced around what everyone expected: a full remake of the original game.

Final Fantasy VII has aged the roughest of the series. Crafted at the dawn of the 3-D era, its mixture of semi-realistic characters and oddly super-deformed gnomes is hard to take, as is the crude translation. Square Enix could have made easy money long ago by reissuing the game with consistent character models, an orchestral soundtrack, or perhaps just a decent localization.

Instead we have Final Fantasy VII Remake, a completely new take on the original game—or at least its first story arc spent in the city of Midgar. It's a detailed and visually striking treatment, expanding a few hours of gameplay into a full-length title and promising a few more chapters. Fans are divided between whether it's an impressive revisiting of the Final Fantasy that needed it most…or a meddlesome attempt to needlessly rewrite a story and serve it up in the most profitable fashion. Either way, Final Fantasy VII once again has all the attention.

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