Retro-Graded Games: 20 Years of Final Fantasy VII

Can you believe it’s been 20 years since we first boarded the train to the Shinra Mako reactor? Back in 1997, we could have never expected a simple adventure about a band of heroes stopping a malevolent force would become one of gaming’s most iconic names. Final Fantasy VII is no longer just a game – it’s history. And one that, even for those who have never played a Final Fantasy game, most gamers are familiar with when they think about this series, or one that regularly ranks as one of the best video games ever.

It’s not like Final Fantasy VII was launching a new series at the time. While this entry may have been the first FF game some gamers played (this writer included); by the name alone, it was the seventh game in the franchise. The devastation of the evil clown Kefka from Final Fantasy VI and the set character classes in Final Fantasy IV were just some of the stories/features introduced prior. But it’s what the seventh game did that pushed the limits of what a video game could be.

Firstly, the graphics and visual style of the series were updated to fit the capabilities of the next generation console of the time: the Sony PlayStation. Up until FF7, the series only supported 2D graphics with the characters set in a mystical realm of knights, mages, ninjas and other roles. That all changed when launched on the PlayStation – the graphics featured moveable 3D models for both characters and enemies in an expanding open world from land, sea and sky. The growing size in scale against the previous 2D style added to the awestruck feeling of wanting to explore what this new land had to offer.

When I was a child, the moment our band of heroes escaped the corrupted city of Midgar and entered the large open world was when the impact of a Final Fantasy video game hit me. There was SO MUCH content in this one city (Shinra! AVALANCHE!), I never realized it was just the tip of the iceberg. This one city we spent HOURS is barely less than 5% of the game – I wouldn’t be shocked if it was less than 1%. Seeing the open world made it clear that there was more to discover. And while the field area of exploring the open world felt bare bones in comparison, the design of the backgrounds while in locations and towns shifted to a more artistic and complex design. (You try and deny those backgrounds didn’t look beautiful!)

The enhanced 3D models also gave new life to the battle segments. We got to see the stark differences between the characters – what made them unique and the specialty in their move sets – as well as the monsters and abilities. Having our heroes appear tiny in size next a gigantic Ultimate Weapon helped to make the fight feel more realistic; in actuality, these monsters would be sometimes double or triple the size of the party members. And having the attacks and magical spells translated to 3D seriously amped up the action. And I can never forget the Summons – the new and improved designs made the moment of calling one more of a cinematic experience, regardless if it the video was really long. (I’m looking at you, Knights of the Round Table!)

Speaking of cinematics, we can’t talk about Final Fantasy VII without discussing the story and feel of the game. The story is one of the best in the series. The game opted for more of a modern look (monsters and magic notwithstanding) and adapted this vibe to the clothing, settings, characters and premise of the story. Instead of “Steampunk-esque” machinery or medieval tropes, it tied back closer to the look of modern society…in a more fantastical and futuristic version. This is Final Fantasy, after all.

Final Fantasy VII focused on the story of Cloud, an ex-Soldier member who joins the radical group AVALANCHE to stop the evil corporation Shinra from corrupting the planet. But when an evil murderer Sephiroth plots to destroy the world, the group must band together to stop the danger once and for all. Final Fantasy VII has an alternating group of heroes (three per fighting group), but whereas some previous FF games included changeable party lists, FF7 had set characters and abilities once someone joins the party. Besides Cloud, the group includes AVALANCE leader Barret, bartender Tifa, Aerith/Aeris (based on port) the flower girl, Red XIII the experiment, Cait Sith the toy, Yuffie the ninja, Vincent the hybrid vampire, and Cid the pilot.

Despite the set linear progression for plot points that must be achieved, the video game is open world-style once you leave the city of Midgar. There are secrets to be discovered, new towns to explore that are well off the beaten path, and countless powers/summons that can be uncovered. My favorite secrets were the ones that took actions within all three game discs – the Chocobo racing and breeding , while fun, caused me to pull out my hair a few times. Though, the reward was so worth it during the final boss battle (it helped me win!).

And finally, we can’t forget the music – the main theme alone is so iconic and memorable that it fits the tone of the game perfectly (dark and mysterious yet hopeful). The battle score, on the other hand, is more intense. Once a battle begins (loud crash) and the music shifts to the upbeat tone, the tension raises when trying to defeat the monster, and when it ends with the horns, the moment feels like a true victory. These two tracks are the perfect reminder to relive the feeling of Final Fantasy VII. Well, that AND the incredibly heartbreaking song after Aerith’s death scene. I couldn’t handle it then and it still makes me sad now…

In the years since it was released, Final Fantasy VII has lived on in other forms. Spin-off video games, movies, toys, short stories, and cosplays are just some of the ways this story, and these characters, have continued beyond the original PlayStation release. The next biggest adaptation will be the upcoming remastered remake of the original game, which is set to be released later this year. I’m hoping that they don’t change main story elements or alter with the game as a whole – the original was a success for a reason. Instead, simply update the graphics and add a few new surprises to discover…that will be enough for me.

Whether you loved or hated the game (some fans do tend to disagree), Final Fantasy VII is a video game that has left its mark on the gaming community. It has grown from its original release to become one of the most iconic games in history, and it’s still one that can be played now. The story in the first disc alone is worth the play. If you haven’t played it yet or watched a walkthrough…what’s the hold-up? It’s been 20 years. Get on it!

Justin is a fun-loving twenty-something living in downtown Toronto, Canada. He’s an avid TV buff, movie fan and gamer. In addition to writing for The Young Folks, he has contributed to EW's The Community, Virgin.com, ghostwritten for The Huffington Post and The Globe and Mail, and he runs his own blog, City Boy Geekiness. When he's not writing about his latest favorite guilty pleasure, he's working in the Comms and Social Media field. Follow him on Instagram & Twitter: @JustinMC16.