Picture the scene; it’s 1997. The Spice Girls are at the height of their musical dominance, and platform trainers were being sold at almost six a second to pre-pubescent girls screeching about ‘Giw Powa’ to any man who didn’t really understand what was going on in life anymore. Tony Blair is voted into power and starts his War On… whatever was a problem at the time, and Katrina and The Waves win Eurovision. It was a massive year for popular culture, but for a quiet thirteen year old from the North, none of this made a tiny bit of difference (except the Spice Girls. The Spice Girls were brilliant).
All he was bothered about was finally getting the opportunity to own one of the greatest games that he’d ever seen; an accolade almost beaten in the subsequent years, but not quite. Although his fancier friends that owned, the now archaic PlayStation, had been playing it since the beginning of the year, he wasn’t fortunate enough to have parents who threw bad money after good and treat their little darlings to whatever they wanted. No, he had parents who were stingy and had a Hulk like grasp on their wallets. He had sat, watching in awe as the boxy sprites moved around pre-rendered backgrounds, working their way up towers to save the girl, or fighting through submerged submarines to level up enough to pose a threat in one of the most difficult boss battles that he had ever seen, or silently fighting the tears as the girl who had saved from the tower ultimately met her death at the hands of videogaming’s meanest villains, who incidentally had the greatest haircut. Coincidence? Rumour has it having a gravity defying haircut is one of the prerequisites to join Team Rocket.
Final Fantasy 7, Squaresoft’s latest addition to the stale roleplaying game series, was that game, and it made an indelible mark on that thirteen year old’s memory.
Obviously that thirteen year old was me. It’s not a Stephen King laden surprise to hear that surely? If it is, then you should cut yourself a massive slice of FF7 pie and chow on the twists and turns baked within. How good are pie metaphors as well?
Every game that I download for free, or pay a semi-extortionate price for, is compared to this benchmark. Every time there’s a giant sword hanging around, waiting for it’s owner to claim it at ComiCon, I compare to Cloud Strife’s. Every time that an overly complicated battle strategy is employed by game designers, I compare it to the simple Materia system that Final Fantasy 7 used. Such is the lasting image on my memory of how amazing Final Fantasy 7 was, I’ve bought versions for the short sighted purchase of a PSP, even though I don’t have the hours of life that it takes to complete it anymore.
Boasting around 60 hours of solid playtime (taking into account leveling up and all that disastrous Chocobo farming), FF7 took a massive amount of dedication. Compared to the shooty shootys like the Call Of Duty series, or beat em ups, like the cursed Mortal Kombat series, it took concentration and a huge portion of your life to fully complete. You can go through the game, doing the very basics, skirting your way around getting the heralded Knights Of The Round (that noise you can hear is the sudden intake of breath from around the country as grown men remember being told that you can cast it twice using W-Summon Materia), and focus on defeating the nefarious Sephiroth. But if you want to savour the bizarreness that is secret ninja slash thief Yuffie (who looks an awful lot like Bruce Springsteen era Courteney Cox), or the awful Vincent and Nibelheim Manor, you need to spend time that you could be using becoming fully socialised and appealing to the opposite sex. Or the same sex. Or just to sex.
It wasn’t just the secret characters like Yuffie or Vincent who took the time to find, the essential characters took hours to hone and prepare for battle, searching around shops for their most powerful weapons and armour, and fighting for the chance to upgrade their Limit Breaks (what Square Enix call “going all Chris Brown on them”). And Cait Sith, the Final Fantasy 7 equivalent of Ant and Dec, who had no discernible talent or purpose, took the longest. Mainly because the strategy needed to level him up was based on luck over tactics, it just made him an irritant.
60 hours would be a massive chore if it was a dull plot that limped along like a horse staring down the business end of a rifle, but in Final Fantasy 7 there’s subterfuge, intrigue, murder, romance, but most importantly, an allegory on global warming and how corporations are ruining the World, at one point sacrificing thousands of the poorest residents to save their own villainous plans. You wouldn’t find a well thought out plan to save the Planet in Doom, or Theme Park. They’re all about either a) making little Sims sick, or b) yourself sick. As the number in your party starts to increase to officially make a ‘gang,’ they get thrown into more and more dire straits. Not only are Shin-Ra (it’s not She-Ra’s Chinese cousin) wanting to destroy the Planet, but there’s also a blast from the main character’s past causing destruction and chaos wherever he goes. That man, dodging all spoilers, is Sephiroth. Frequently voted one of video gaming’s greatest villain, with an actually believable ethos and a threat level that would scare even the most hardened gamer, Sephiroth travels the Planet destroying all that he comes into contact with, his sole goal, possessing the power of his dead “Mother” and ruling over the Planet that he thinks is his birthright.
Obviously this is manic video game nonsense, and you’d be forgiven if you gloss over like a stunned rabbit, but compare it to other games out at the time and it’s one of the most adult attempts at bringing in modern issues and giving them a roleplaying spin. Apart from Grand Theft Auto and Grandia, FF7 sets itself as one of the most mature games out that year. Despite it being aimed at children.
But it takes more than immersive gameplay and catchy characters to make a timeless classic. You need a ridiculously catchy soundtrack as well. If there were such things as ear worms, then FF7 is an ear worm colony because you’ll be singing every song well into the night, and bopping along to the Chocobo theme on the way to work.
And everyone who hears you whistling the Boss theme will sport a knowing smile because FF7 has touched so many people over such a wide net. As soon as you mention FF7 on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll get flooded with messages about who your favourite Turk was (always Elena), who was your favourite character (always Tifa) and what’s your favourite feminine product (Always Ultra). Accompanying Cloud and his band of eco-misfits as they travel through around the Planet in the search for acceptance, revenge and, maybe most importantly of all, righting a wrong that changes what we know about the main protagonist forever, is at times thrilling, and at times emotionally exhausting, but from the very first raid to the apocalyptic climax, you’ll still be shocked by Sephiroth’s ultimate cock block fifteen years after it first happens.
The fact that I’m writing this, as a PC re-release has just been announced by Square Enix with trophies and a ‘Character Booster’ just shows how much of a lasting impression Final Fantasy 7 has had on me. It’s got to the point that I actually feel sorry for whenever a new RPG is released. Nothing will match the excitement of finding out Cloud’s secret, or the soul crushing realization that I’ll never beat Emerald Weapon.