Gaming Memories: Final Fantasy VII

Welcome to “Gaming Memories,” a blog series where I reminisce about my favorite video games. I will slowly but surely get to every game on the list (and possibly beyond), and speak to why each holds a special place in my heart. That not only means I’ll talk about why I think each is a great game that speaks to my tastes, but also where and how it affected me in a larger context. I hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading.

SPOILER WARNING: This blog contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VII.

Midgar seemed huge. I spent hours in this city, becoming familiar with its inhabitants, its politics, its neon signs, its grungy back-alley streets. We went on bombing missions, evaded the Turks, and infiltrated the Shinra headquarters. Important people died, and shocking revelations occurred. And yet, after all those hours in Midgar, and all those twists and turns already, it felt like I had only scratched the surface of this massive city. There was a lot left to see, and a lot of questions left to answer. But while this was just the beginning of Final Fantasy VII, the rest of it would not take place in Midgar.

Midgar provided a wonderful opening act.
Midgar provided a wonderful opening act.

One of my most distinct memories from Final Fantasy VII is that very moment when I left Midgar for the first time. I was, perhaps naively, convinced that the entire game took place there. It seemed so impossibly large, and I had already spent close to the length of some entire games there, that I couldn’t imagine a larger world outside. So when I finally stepped foot into that larger world, and realized just how small Midgar was in the grand scheme of things, I knew I was in for something special. Final Fantasy VII’s opening act remains one of my favorites I’ve experienced in a game. It set up the world, let you explore a contained space, experiment with the mechanics, learn the characters and what the story is about. And then, once you had settled in and had a firm grasp of the basics, it took off the training wheels, both mechanically and narratively. It revealed that the area you’d been free to roam in thus far was but a small piece of a much larger game, one that only continued to become more impressive and daring as it expanded its scope.

What followed Midgar’s opening act was a globe-trotting adventure punctuated by some of the most brazen and powerful moments of any game I’ve played. When I think back to Final Fantasy VII, I primarily think of it as a series of bombastic set pieces and insane story revelations, dramatic moments that landed hard time and again. Every time I thought it couldn’t possibly up the ante any more, it did. When Shinra was murdered by Sephiroth, a legendary soldier everyone thought was dead. The emotional death of Aerith, and the unexpected loss of a beloved party member. Learning about Jenova, an alien life form whose cells were used to create Sephiroth. When Cloud discovered that all his memories in SOLDIER were fake, and had to piece together his past. We traveled into outer space, fought giant robots that rose out of the ocean, and conjured ancient magic to stop meteors from crashing into the earth. It was a pretty weird tale about politics, the environment, science, the concept of self, and all sorts of other ideas jumbled together in ways that didn’t always make coherent sense; not to mention the spotty translation of the original US PlayStation version. But it was exciting. Final Fantasy VII’s story was a ride, and while it could be too grandiose for its own good sometimes, it was an incredibly memorable one with numerous moments that stick with me to this day.

Final Fantasy VII was a good JRPG at its core too.
Final Fantasy VII was a good JRPG at its core too.

Almost as critically, that story and its pivotal moments were drastically more cinematic in their presentation than anything I had seen at that time. For as dated as Final Fantasy VII looks now, it had a bold, striking look in 1997 that was impressive. No such concessions need to be made for its music, however. The Final Fantasy series has a legacy of amazing music, and this one’s score ranks among my clear favorites. Final Fantasy VII was a tight, well-playing JRPG too, a fact that is often overlooked in favor of everything else it did. Its “active time battle” system was en vogue during the 1990s, and this one executed it as well as any. I particularly liked the simple customization of the materia system. It was intuitive and easy to grasp, but allowed for all sorts of creativity; you could build some pretty awesome combos with it. The encounter design was solid, and the game was paced extremely well and full of fun side content. I did essentially everything there was to do in Final Fantasy VII, and it never dragged or overstayed its welcome, despite being a sizable game. And then, when I finally finished, it gave me one final moment. I remember sitting there with my brother, who more or less played through it with me, staring at the post-credits screen for a good long while. We had just completed one of the most bizarre and impactful journeys we had ever been on, and I let it wash over me. Where would, or could, games go from here? I had no idea, so I did the only thing I could. I started up a new game all over again.

In a way, it can be hard to have a measured conversation about Final Fantasy VII anymore. It was such a cultural phenomenon that it garners extreme reactions in every possible direction. But I prefer to look back on Final Fantasy VII much more simply: it was a very well-made game that came at the right time and place for a lot of people, myself included. It was one of the first RPGs I played, one of the first 3D games I played, and easily the most ambitious one I had played from a narrative and cinematic standpoint at that time. But the thing I always think about most when it comes to Final Fantasy VII is its countless hard-hitting and unforgettable moments. Most games would give anything to have a single moment so powerful, but Final Fantasy VII pulled them off like it was nothing. Few games have wowed me quite like this.

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