I never played Final Fantasy 7 until now. I had given it a try here and there over the years, never making it more than 20 minutes in. Something about the hype surrounding it always left a bad taste in my mouth, as though it existed in order to be a bunch of 14 year olds' emotional and sexual awakening back in the late-1990s and has been coasting on that reputation ever since. The 'extended universe' crap that's popped up since such as Advent Children more or less confirmed those beliefs. But I'm a bit more open-minded these days and I felt like going back and seeing for myself, especially now that it's so old I have no choice but to be amused by its rough edges and overwrought sincerity.
What I Liked:
-The Materia System. I was skeptical at first, but over time I really came to appreciate it. JRPGs aren't usually known for letting you have much control over your characters' growth (at least compared to the western RPGs that are closer to my style) but with materia they've got a very simple and easy-to-understand system for fully customizable character builds. It's cool that you can link two materia together to get different effects. Being able to swap them out makes characters more interchangeable but at the same time allows for experimentation and can lead to really fun setups. There are a ton of different ways to put your party together that are all viable and I can definitely envision a second playthrough feeling very different both in terms of combat and different characters getting more of a spotlight. To be honest I was not much of a fan of the esper system when I played FF6, and it seems like they took that and made some really interesting changes to it.
-The Momentum. Final Fantasy 7 moves really fast for a JRPG, especially one where you don't leave the first town for 5 hours. For a while it reminded me more of Super Mario RPG than the previous Final Fantasies I had played in the way that it throws setpiece after setpiece at you one after another and keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. Despite its reputation, the dialogue scenes are never long-winded and even plot-heavy segments (such as flashbacks) give you room to breathe and play around. It manages to maintain this for the entire 30-40 hours, with only one or two parts I can think of where they just dump you into the overworld and leave you to wander aimlessly.
-Few Dungeons. Speaking of momentum, the thing I associate most with JRPGs, and Final Fantasy in particular, is having everything grind to a halt while you're forced to wander around boring caves fighting the same boring enemies over and over again for a few hours at a time. This might be a byproduct of Square using pre-rendered backgrounds, but just about every area is about 3 rooms long at most and it's onto the next thing without much fuss.
-No Grind. Some people would probably say the game is too easy, but thank goodness. You can handily beat the game just by proceeding through the game normally and fighting most of the random encounters. The game is remarkably non-tedious for a JRPG of its time.
-The Scope. The game took me 40 hours to beat, but felt much longer-- In a good way. I've heard people complain about FF7's lack of focus, but I found the variety to be beneficial-- for the most part. Starting the game with five hours in Midgar works brilliantly, but even beyond that the game and its story both manage to feel much bigger than they actually are. In truth FF7 is much smaller than previous games in the series, which usually had twice as many towns and mutliple overworld maps, but it hides this fact very well through spectacle.
-It's Charming. This is tough. Even though I don't have rose-tinted nostalgia for FF7, I'm still not sure if I only find it appealing because it's so old that its flaws become cute, like I'm a millenial scoffing at a cassette tape or something. To break it down, I'll say that even though the graphics look like dorky, half-melted action figures I greatly prefer them to character designs that actually pull off Tetsuya Nomura's flawed, wannabe-cool style. I like the fun, expressive bobbleheads much better than the dumb, stiff, lanky guys that appear in the FMVs and battle screens, and I really do not care for what I've seen from latter-day FF7 content such as Advent Children. Speaking of which, Square has done a disservice to these characters over the years and I constantly found my expectations subverted. Cloud isn't the sullen, emo brat I expected. Aeris isn't the typical magical anime waif she's got the reputation as being, and Sephiroth doesn't really brood at all in spite of his hairstyle. This might lie in the fact that I played the Steam version, which is based on the Eidos PC port from 1998, and so the translation I experienced was much, much better than the one most people saw on the Playstation. Nonetheless, each main character has their own unique and endearing voice and developmental arcs that span the entire game. I liked all of them and was drawn in even though I gave each one a stupid joke name like "DUNK" and "TOILET".
-The Storytelling. Aeris wasn't the first main character in a Final Fantasy game to die. In Final Fantasy 4 half the cast dies, comes back to life, and then dies again. Cloud is also not the first protagonist with identity issues. Again, Cecil in Final Fantasy 4 is a moon man and in Final Fantasy 6 Terra is an esper and so on. The difference is that while previous games in the series (and pre-FF7 JRPGs in general) those ideas are divested as moments to be blurted out and then just sort of dissipate. In FF4, Palom and Porom sacrifice themselves to save you! And then... you just kind of forget about them. They had their moment, and now the moment is over. Cecil is told he's an alien of all things, but it doesn't inform much of anything else the game has or will throw at you. It's setup and payoff at the same time. What Final Fantasy 7 gets so crucially right is integrating these moments into the greater narrative. Cloud's identity is a mystery that slowly unravels over the course of 20 hours, and once it comes undone it genuinely recontextualizes everything that has come before and everything that will come after. Aeris's death is a culmination of the events of the entire first disc, is foreshadowed heavily, and has a huge pay-off much later than actually makes the event narratively worthwhile. This kind of storytelling isn't that big of a deal in 2016, but for 1997 I can see why it left such an impression on people. Ah, who am I kidding. To some extent it left an impression on me in 2016.
What I Didn't Like:
-Forced Character Switching. At several points in the game party members are forced upon you or forced away from you. I understand that there's a plot going on, but fuck this underlevelled piece of shit I've specifically not been using and fuck you for making me rearrange all my materia because Cait Sith needed a moment to shine. This is my most hated thing in JRPGs and FF7 does it pretty often. Granted, it's not as bad here as it was in Final Fantasy 6 which expected you to level up and equip twelve party members by the end of the game. But the characters you choose and do not choose to put into your party is one of the highest-level gameplay decisions you make in an RPG and it sucks to have that thrown out the window at the designers' whims.
-The Minigames. I complimented the game on its variety earlier. Not all variety is a good thing. FF7 has a ton of minigames-- A TON-- and they're all garbage. There's a shitty version of Road Rash, a shitty version of Cool Boarders, a shitty tower defense game, and a shitty horse racing game where you can both participate and gamble on them. These are the "big" minigames, and the overarching theme is bad controls, bad implementation, and taking long enough to wear out their already limited welcome. There are also minigames for sneaking past guards (annoying and has to be repeated for all three party members), breathing air into a child's lungs (pointless), jumping off of a dolphin (braindead), marching in a parade (poorly explained and terrible), saluting the evil president (simon says), playing Chuck-E-Cheese basketball (impossible), arm wrestling (mash buttons), VR battling (basically random), feeding a moogle kupo nuts (it's more of a long, boring cutscene you can fail at and you don't get anything for "winning"), chasing a rabbit through a cave (annoying), a password hacking minigame (obnoxious), and a submarine combat minigame (this is the best one because you mash square and win in 10 seconds). These are all of the minigames I can think of, but I'm certain there are more that I've forgotten that are at best inoffensive. For years I've been seeing the Golden Saucer being hyped up as the coolest place ever, but I get there and it's just the worst because it's nothing but these crappy minigames. The amount of these you must play to advance the plot is also quite high.
-Navigating the Pre-Rendered Backgrounds. I don't mind the use of pre-rendered backgrounds, but it tends to be a pain in the ass here with camera angles and scene compositions being far below the standard of even the first Resident Evil despite being much prettier. But pretty didn't amount to much as I found myself constantly fumbling around, unable to discern which elements are meant obstacles. Many scenes have you walk behind the scenery and thus out of view of the camera entirely! Interacting with objects is a huge pain since doing so requires finding sometimes very specific 'sweet spots' and also requires you to face the object in a very specific way. I got stuck during one sidequest in the Oriental town because I had to ring a gong that was obscured by foreground details-- and that I had already tried to ring but assumed it wasn't any use when my attempt to interact failed. Some maps make you run way way way wayyyyy into the horizon for some reason. Furthermore the game has a problem with its directions. Unlike Resident Evil, FF7 doesn't use tank controls. That's somewhat admirable, but it leads to a problem common in much older isometric games where you're never sure what the directional buttons are going to do. Pressing "Up" might make you go right, or it might make you go left, or it might make you go up. It's a huge pain in the ass, and constantly grinding the D-Pad around to navigate these wonky controls around an environment where the edges are not clear is a pain in the thumb.
-The Music Is Overrated! I mean, it's not bad. In fact, it's all pretty appropriate, but mostly low-key and ambience-driven. But where are the standout tracks?! "One Winged Angel" is famous, sure, but are you going to listen to that in the McDonalds drive-thru? Well, ok, you might. There are tracks from this game I like just fine, such as the overworld music and the Jenova boss theme. But then I think of all the times I heard that fairly boring Mako reactor music, or that cloying plink-plonk music that they trot out whenever something mystical is happening. And the musical quality is such a step down from the SNES! It all sounds so compressed and tinny. All I'm gonna say is that this game has a reputation for its apparently 'godlike' soundtrack but Final Fantasy 6 handily shits on its lunch.
-"Buy a Strategy Guide" Shit. Hidden stuff is fun, but the Final Fantasy series tends to take it to an extreme and 7 is no exception. Important items are locked behind ridiculous series of events, often contingent on having specific characters in your party in specific places and at specific points in the game. One materia in the snowy area requires you to interact with a nondescript part of the environment (a hot spring), then travel to an obscure part of the maze-like area and suddenly an NPC is there who hates the fact that you touched a hot spring and turns into a boss. That's the logic. I suppose I get it somewhat, since it's a powerful summon materia. Even if it is an inane process it should be difficult to get. However, I missed out on a few very important, practically crucial cutscenes just because I didn't do things like return to the bottom of a dungeon I had already completed ten hours beforehand or make sure to pixel hunt every inch of every pre-rendered background. That just sucks.
-Limit Breaks. This system seemed a bit silly to me at the outset. I suppose it gets its inspiration from fighting game meters, but handing out powerful attacks in an RPG as a result of taking lots of damage seems counter-intuitive and more like it should be attached to a gimmicky materia or something. On the other hand, the game does work well with it and there are bosses that take advantage of the fact that almost killing you is less devestating as a result, and it does spice up random encounters with a bit of an X factor. But I somehow managed to get through the entire game without levelling up anybody's Limits at all. I think there are four tiers as well, making it all the more baffling. I even managed to pick up a few characters' Final Limit Breaks, which are specifically hidden behind sidequests and such, but couldn't use them. I have no idea what I may have missed here. Looking it up, it seems each specific character has to personally kill a set amount of enemies, but somehow I managed to complete the entire game without Cloud getting 120 kills, which seems wrong to me. This didn't seem at all necessary and it appears to me to just be an outlet for people who actually enjoy grinding.
Edit: I have been informed that different levels of limit break have to be selected manually. The fact that I finished the game without knowing this signifies that it's still a problem regardless.
-Lack of True Side Content. The sidequests in FF7 mostly revolve around Chocobo breeding, minigames, and a few optional bosses. It's a bit dissappointing considering that this was the Final Fantasy that came in the wake of Chrono Trigger, which had a ton of really developed sidequests. Final Fantasy 6 was no slouch, either. In FF7 I can only remember a brief and fairly lame aside where Yuffie steals all of your materia for no fucking reason and you have to play hide and seek with her to get it back. I also found a sunken cargo ship that had some treasure and a few tough monsters in it. It wasn't much, but it was cool to stumble upon. As it stands, finally getting the airship proves to be a bit of a disappointment since it doesn't really open any new doors for you, it just makes the old ones easier to get to.
The short answer is that everyone was right. Final Fantasy 7 doesn't live up to the idealized dream version of Final Fantasy 7 that a bunch of people have in their heads, but by sitting on the sidelines and rolling my eyes I was definitely missing out on something. Now that I've played it, FF7 is not suddenly one of my favorite games of all time. It's not even my favorite JRPG. But it does earn its place in one of those "101 Games You Must Play Before You Die" lists pretty handily, and not just for historical relevancy.