This weekly column looks at classic video games both in how they looked back in the day and how they stand up today. Though scores will be assigned, our tough review standards will be relaxed a bit for these games to give a general overview instead.
All retro games come courtesy of Retro Games Plus, located at 1761 Post Road East in Westport, CT. If you’re in the northeastern part of the United States, please give them a look.
When talking about retro JRPGs, there’s a huge elephant in the room that cannot be ignored. We can talk about Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, Earthbound, or Legend of Dragoon all we want, but in terms of perception and historical impact, they’re appetizers before the main course: it’s simply not possible to talk about this medium without bringing up Final Fantasy VII. Even the people who don’t like the game for whatever reason have to acknowledge that this one game blew up the burgeoning scene and introduced us to a golden age of sorts. It wasn’t until Final Fantasy X came out over four years, three main-series games, and one system generation later that people stopped comparing every single JRPG to FFVII.
Now that Final Fantasy games seem to exist solely to drive DLC sales, we end JRPG Month by looking back at the most famous of them all to see how it plays in 2012.
HOW WAS IT THEN: People at this point in time simply had never seen a game that was large enough to take up three compact discs. In the mid- to late-90s, the whole point of CDs, other than being cheaper to produce, was the fact that they could store more information than cartridges. It was right around this time when developers started figuring out that “more storage space!” didn’t just mean “stuff in some crappy video!” and they were running with it. Simply put, FFVII was massive by any standard.
All told, Final Fantasy VII is one part a retelling of any kind of dystopian, authoritarian future (think 1984), and two parts massive adventure with the whole goal of saving the world like virtually any other JRPG of its time. There were nine playable characters, but one of the problems Square RPGs have always had was making them feel equally important. That problem was on full display in FFVII, which had the main character in Cloud; three co-stars in Barrett, Tifa, and Aeris/Aerith1 Gainsborough; and a collection of playable sidekicks and outright comic relief. The other characters, sadly, don’t figure much into the actual story of the game unless their back stories are being fleshed out in side quests where players could obtain key items. But the story itself started off with a bang, introducing the truly key characters and sucking people into a cause for a greater good, after which point they leave Midgar in their attempt to both get away from Shinra Corporation and help the planet. It’s at this point that they find out about Sephiroth, with whom they play a cat-and-mouse game until Sephiroth kills Aerith. At this point, the story kind of went into the tank, but there were a lot of side quests and some very big easter eggs for those that wanted to find them in the Ultimate Weapons.
For dedicated fans—and big fans of this game are borderline OCD about it—there was a lot to do and a lot to find within, including a story that stayed engrossing even after disc 1, when the stage started to separate and viewers could see the story was held together by Scotch tape and silly string. Some of the characters, even the minor ones, were well written and interesting, even becoming their own archetypes for other characters. And the graphics were revolutionary at the time, with 3D models on top of rendered 2D backgrounds. The characters might have been ugly to look at, but the FMV was something to behold in 1997; the renders were amazing. The battle system, while mostly tried-and-tested, expanded upon FFVI’s innovations, effectively evolving the magicite system from VI into the materia system in VII, which gave secondary experience points for developing magic and a further incentive to grind.
Even when it was new, I thought Final Fantasy VII was a bit overrated, but that doesn’t mask the fact that it was a good game.
HOW IS IT NOW Fans have been clamouring for a remake of Final Fantasy VII ever since the PlayStation 2 era, but that call has grown over the years to the point where Square Enix has to constantly placate their fans with empty assurances that they’re looking into it. Normally, calls for a remake of a game could be blown off, but they should be taken seriously with FFVII because it has not aged well.
The good parts should go first. The story is still very involved and very long with a lot to do and a lot of ways to occupy a player’s time. Whether going through the main story (easily forty to fifty hours if one were to bum-rush it), helping Fort Condor, or breeding chocobos, there are plenty of ways to play the game other than how it was intended to be played. The battle system still stands up in 2012 as well because it’s deep without being needlessly so; it’s simple yet effective. And some of the characters still stand up for being well written.
However, the interface has aged badly. Managing things like materia and equipment are much harder than they should be, requiring players to go through multiple menus, backing out of sales to check equipment, and essentially having to write things down to remember who has what. You simply can’t manage anyone’s equipment if they’re not in your active party, so if you want to check that all eight or nine of your people are ready to go, it requires PHSing them into the party separately, checking, and then getting three more in. Since you can’t PHS anyone in unless you’re in the overworld or at a save point, the game tends to get in the way at times.
Also, one thing that hasn’t stood out well regarding the battle system is that battle animations are unskippable. This isn’t a problem early in the game when you’re mostly casting fire spells. As summons get more and more extravagant and enemy attacks take longer, though, they take more time to complete and there’s nothing you can do about it. It got to the point where I loathed casting Knights of the Round, the best spell in the game, because it literally takes a minute and twenty-four seconds from cast to completion. The other summons are no peach, either, and it really slows down the game.
Finally, for such a vaunted story, there’s so much extraneous crap that it fluffs things out. I said the story was involved and long but I didn’t necessarily say it was good. Things start to fall apart on the second disc, and the third is good only for beating the game. By that time, players have gone through a story with enough holes to drive Bahamut through, enough shifts and swerves to make a professional wrestling promoter blush, and a sketchy translation that does no one any favours. And for the few characters that actually are well written, the crap-to-not-crap ratio is thin for a game with nine characters. Yuffie is completely worthless, Cait Sith is largely a joke, Vincent exists to appeal to people who were fans of Blade, and even Cid is overdone. That leaves Cloud, who’s convoluted; Barrett, who’s surprisingly deep for someone who had urban slang written for him by Japanese people; Tifa, who’s a doll; and Red XIII, a personal favourite. Notice I did not include Aerith, who struck me as cute and important, but not worth the fanboy reactions she’s gotten since her death scene. Other than being a possible love interest, there was simply no reason I should have cared for her to the point of overly mourning her death. Nei’s death in Phantasy Star II was not only better done almost a decade earlier, but there was more of a reason established to care about her. Heck, I’d argue Gremio’s death in Suikoden I was more traumatic, not to mention other JRPG death scenes that have since tried to ape what Square did with Aerith.
Notwithstanding those issues, there’s still a good time to be had here, especially for the price. This is a $10 PSX game simply because Squeenix can charge $10 and get away with it. This is the same company that charged the full $40 for the Chrono Trigger remake on DS, and though that’s a premium, it’s still worth it so long as gamers know to bring their wading boots to get past the bullshit.
1 – Her name is written as “Aeris” in the original release of FFVII and Final Fantasy Tactics, but it has appeared as “Aerith” since the release of Kingdom Hearts and other games where the character makes a cameo.