Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 3: Playing Final Fantasy VII (or, Old Man Yells at Cloud)

22 Dec

Fair warning: this article includes plot spoilers of Final Fantasy VII.

Historians and critics like me usually have to play the know-it-all in order to be effective at our jobs. My work flow begins with me going out and learning everything I can about a topic in the time I have available. Then I decide what I think about it all, find a way to structure my article, and share it with you as if I’ve been carrying all this information around with me all my life. Often I get things wrong, occasionally horribly wrong. But I can always count on you astonishingly knowledgeable folks to set me straight in the end, and in the meantime being direct is preferable in my book to equivocating all over the place. For, with the arguable exception of a wide-eyed undergraduate here or there enrolled in her first class in postmodern studies, absolutely no one wants to read a writer prattling on about the impossibility of achieving Complete Truth or the Inherent Subjectivity of criticism. Of course complete truth is an unattainable ideal and all criticism is subjective! I assume that you all know these things already, so that we can jump past the hand-wringing qualifiers and get right to the good stuff.

Still, I don’t believe that all criticism is of equal value, for all that it may in the end all be “just, like, your opinion man!” The most worthwhile criticism comes from a place of sympathy with the goals and expectations that surround a work and is grounded in an understanding of the culture that produced it. It behooves no one to review a blockbuster action movie as if it was an artsy character study, any more than it makes sense to hold, say, Michael Crichton up to the standards of fine literature. Everything has its place in the media ecosystem, and it’s the critic’s duty to either understand that place or to get out of the way for those that do.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why I start getting nervous when I think about rendering a verdict on Final Fantasy VII. I am, at best, a casual tourist in the milieu that spawned it; I didn’t grow up with Japanese RPGs, didn’t even grow up with videogame consoles after I traded my Atari VCS in for a Commodore 64 at age eleven. Sitting with a game controller in my hand rather than a keyboard and mouse or joystick is still a fairly unfamiliar experience for me, almost 40 years after it became the norm for Generation Nintendo. My experience with non-gaming Japanese culture as well is embarrassingly thin. I’ve never been to Japan, although I did once glimpse it from the Russian island of Sakhalin. Otherwise, my encounters with it are limited to the Star Blazers episodes I used to watch as a grade-school kid on Saturday mornings, the World War II history books I read as an adolescent war monger, that one time in my twenties when I was convinced to watch Ghost in the Shell (I’m afraid it didn’t have much impact on me), a more recent sneaking appreciation for the uniquely unhinged quality of some Japanese music (which can make a walking-blues vamp sound like the apocalypse), and the Haruki Murakami novels sitting on the bookshelf behind me as I write these words, the same ones that I really, really need to get around to reading. In summation, I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to console-based videogames and Japan alike.

So, the know-it-all approach is right out for this article; even I’m not daring enough to try to fake it until I make it in this situation. I hesitate to even go so far as to call what follows a review of Final Fantasy VII, given my manifest lack of qualifications to write a good one. Call it a set of impressions instead, an “old man yells at cloud” for the JRPG world where the joke is quite probably on the old man.

In a weird sort of way, though, maybe that approach will work out okay, just this once. For, as we learned in the last article, Final Fantasy VII was the first heavily hyped JRPG to be released on computers as well as consoles in the West. When that happened, many computer gamers who were almost as ignorant then as I am now played it. As I share my own experiences below, I can be their voice in this collision between two radically different cultures of gaming. The fallout from these early meetings would make games as a whole better in the long run, regardless of the hardware on which they ran or the country where they were made. It’s this gratifying ultimate outcome that prompted me to write this trilogy of articles in the first place. Perhaps it even makes my personal impressions relevant in this last entry of said trilogy, despite my blundering cluelessness.

Nevertheless, given the intense feelings that JRPGs in general and this JRPG in particular arouse in their most devoted fans, I’m sure some small portion of you will hate me for writing what follows. I ask only that you read to the end before you pounce, and remember that’s it’s just my opinion, man, and a critic’s aesthetic judgments do not reflect his moral character.

The trains in Final Fantasy VII look like steam locomotives. This doesn’t make much sense, given what we know of the technology in use in the city of Midgar, but it’s kind of cool.

I had heard a lot about Final Fantasy VII before I played it, most of it extremely positive, to put it lightly. In fact, I had seen it nominated again and again for the title of Best Game Ever. For all that I have no personal history with JRPGs, I do like to think of myself as a reasonably open-minded guy. I went into Final Fantasy VII wanting to be wowed, wanting to be introduced to an exciting new world of interactive narrative that stood apart from both the set-piece puzzle-solving of Western adventure games and the wide-open emergent diffusion of Western RPGs. But unfortunately, my first couple of hours with Final Fantasy VII were more baffling than bracing. I felt a bit like the caveman at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing with this new bone I had just picked up.

After watching a promisingly understated opening-credits sequence, accompanied by some rather lovely music, I started the game proper. I was greeted with a surreal introductory movie, in which a starry sky morphed into scenes from a gritty, neon-soaked metropolis of trains and heavy industry, with an enigmatic young girl selling flowers amidst it all. Then several people were leaping off the top of a train, and I realized that I was now controlling one of them. “C’mon, newcomer!” shouted one of the others. “Follow me.” I did my best to oblige him, fumbling through my first combat — against some soldierly types who were chasing us for some reason — along the way.

The opening credits are the last part of Final Fantasy VII that can be described as understated. From that point on, even the swords are outsized.

Who the hell was I? What was I supposed to be doing? Naïve child of 1980s computer gaming that I was, I thought maybe all of this was explained in the manual. But when I looked there, all I found were some terse, unhelpful descriptions of the main characters, not a word about the plot or the world I had just been dropped into. I was confused by everything I saw: by the pea soup of bad translation that made the strictly literal meanings of the sentences the other characters said to me impossible for me to divine at times; by the graphics that sometimes made it hard to separate depth from height, much less figure out where the climbable ladders and exit points on the borders of the maps lay; by the way my character lazily sauntered along — “Let’s mosey!”, to quote one of the game’s famously weird translations — while everyone else dashed about with appropriate urgency; by the enemies who kept jumping me every minute or two while I beat my head against the sides of the maps looking for the exits, enemies whom I could dispatch by simply mashing “attack” over and over again; by the fact that I seemed to be a member of a terrorist cell set on blowing up essential civic infrastructure, presumably killing an awful lot of innocent people in the process; by the way the leader of my terrorist group, a black man named Barret, spoke and acted like Mr. T on old A-Team reruns, without a hint of apparent irony.

What can I say? I bounced. Hard. After I made it to the first boss enemy and died several times because, as I would later learn from the Internet, the shoddy English translation was telling me to do the exact opposite of what I needed to do to be successful against it, I threw the game against the metaphorical wall. What did anyone see in this hot mess, I asked my wife — albeit in considerably more colorful language than that. She just laughed  — something that, to be fair, she spends a lot of time doing when I play these crazy old games on the television.

The first hill on which I died. Final Fantasy VII‘s original English translation is not just awful to read but actively wrong in places. When you meet the first boss monster, you’re told to “attack while it’s [sic] tail’s up!” The Japanese version tells you not to attack when its tail’s up. Guess which one is right…

I sulked for several weeks, deeply disappointed that this game that I had wanted to be awesome had turned out to be… less than awesome. But the fact remained that it was an important work, in the history of my usual beat of computer gaming almost as much as that of console gaming. Duty demanded that I go back in at some point.

When that point came, I steeled myself to fight harder for my pleasure. After all, there had to be some reason people loved this game so, right? I read a bit of background on the Internet, enough to understand that it takes place on an unnamed world whose economy is dominated by an all-powerful mega-corporation called the Shinra Electric Power Company, which provides energy and earns enormous profits by siphoning off the planet’s Mako, a sort of spiritual essence. I learned that AVALANCHE, the terrorist cell I was a part of, was trying to break Shinra’s stranglehold, because its activities were, as Barret repeats ad nauseum, “Killin’ the planet.” And I learned that the main character — the closest thing to “me” in the game — was a cynical mercenary named Cloud Strife, a former member of a group called SOLDIER that did Shinra’s dirty work. But Cloud has now switched sides, joining AVALANCHE strictly for the paycheck, as he makes abundantly clear to anyone who asks him about it and most of those who don’t. The action kicks off in the planet’s biggest city of Midgar, with AVALANCHE attempting to blow up the Shinra reactors there one by one.

With that modicum of background information, everything began to make a little more sense to me. I also picked up some vital practical tips on the Internet. For example, I discovered that I could push a button on the controller to clearly mark all ladders and exits from a map, and that I could hold down another button to make Cloud run like everybody else; having to do so basically all the time was a trifle annoying, but better than the alternative of moseying everywhere. I learned as well that I could turn off the incessant random encounters using a fan-made application called 7th Heaven, but I resisted the temptation to do so; I was still trying to be strong at this point, still trying to experience the game as a player would have in the late 1990s.

Things went better for a while. By doing the opposite of what the bad translation was telling me to do, I got past the first boss monster that had been killing me. (Although I didn’t know it at the time, this would prove to be the the only fight that ever really challenged me until I got to the very end of the game). Then I returned with the others to our terrorist hideout, and agreed to help AVALANCHE blow up the next reactor. (All in a day’s work for a mercenary, I suppose.) While the actual writing remained more or less excruciating most of the time, I started to recognize that there was some real sophistication to the narrative’s construction, that my frustration at the in medias res beginning had been more down to my impatience than any shortcoming on the game’s part. I realized I had to trust the game, to let it reveal its story in its way. Likewise, I had to recognize that its environmentalist theme, a trifle heavy-handed though it was, rang downright prescient in light of the sorry state of our own planet a quarter-century after Final Fantasy VII was made.

Which isn’t to say that it was all smooth sailing. After blowing up the second Mako reactor, Cloud was left dangling from a stray girder, hundreds of feet above the vaguely Blade Runner-like city of Midgar. After some speechifying, he tumbled to his presumed doom — only to wake up inside a cathedral, staring into the eyes of the flower girl from the opening movie. “The roof and the flower bed must have broken your fall,” she said. While my wife was all but rolling on the floor laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of this idea, I bravely SOLDIERed onward, learning that the little girl’s name was Aerith and that she was being stalked by Shinra thugs due to some special powers they believed her to possess. “Take me home,” she begged Cloud.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” he grunted in reply. “But it’ll cost you.” (Stay classy, Cloud… stay classy.)

And now I got another shock. “Well, then, let’s see…” Aerith said. “How about if I go out with you once?” Just like that, all of my paradigms had to shift. Little Aerith, it seemed, wasn’t so little after all. Nonetheless, playing Cloud in this situation left me feeling vaguely unclean, like a creepy old guy crashing his tweenage daughter’s slumber party.

Judging from his facepalm, Cloud may have been as shocked by Aerith’s offer of affection for protection as I was.

Ignoramus though I was, I did know that Japanese society is not generally celebrated for its progressive gender politics. (I do think this is the biggest reason that anime and manga have never held much attraction for me: the tendency of the tiny sliver of it which I’ve encountered to simultaneously infantalize and sexualize girls and women turns me right off.) Now, I realized that I — or rather Cloud — was being thrown into a dreaded love triangle, its third point being Cloud’s childhood friend and fellow eco-terrorist Tifa. Going forward, Aerith and Tifa would spend their character beats snipping at one another when not making moon-eyes at Cloud. Must be something about that giant sword he carries around, tucked only God knows where inside his clothing…

I was able to identify Tifa as an adult — or at least an adolescent — from the start, thanks to her giant breasts, which she seems to be trying to thrust right out of the screen at you when you win a fight, using them as her equivalent of Cloud’s victoriously twirling sword. (This was another thing my wife found absolutely hilarious…) The personalities of the women in this game demonstrate as well as anything its complete bifurcation between gameplay and story. When you control Aerith or Tifa in combat, they’re as capable as any of the men, but when they’re playing their roles in the story, they suddenly become fragile flowers utterly dependent on the kindness of Cloud.

Anyway, soon we got to Wall Market. Oh, my. This area is unusual in that it plays more like a puzzle-based adventure game than anything else, featuring no combat at all — what a blessed relief that was! — until the climax. Less positively, the specific adventure game it plays like is Leisure Suit Larry at its most retrograde. Tifa gets abducted and forced to join the harem of a Mafia kingpin-type named Don Corneo, and it’s up to Cloud and Aerith to rescue her. Aerith decides that the only way to get Cloud inside Corneo’s mansion and effect the rescue is to dress him up like… gasp… a girl! This suggestion Cloud greets with appropriate horror, understanding as he does that the merest contact with an article of female clothing not hanging on a female body carries with it the risk of an instant and incurable case of Homosexuality. But he finally comes around with all the good grace of a primary cast member of Bosom Buddies. Many shenanigans ensue, involving a whorehouse, a gay bathhouse, erectile dysfunction, a “love hotel,” cross-dressing bodybuilders, and a pair of panties, all loudly Othered for the benefit of the insecure straight male gaze. What the hell, I wondered for the umpteenth time, had I gotten myself into here?

You can’t make this stuff up…

But I didn’t let any of it stop me; I pushed right on through like the SOLDIER Cloud was. No, readers, what broke me wasn’t Don Corneo chasing Cloud-in-a-dress around his  bedroom, but rather the goddamn train graveyard. Let me repeat that with emphasis… the goddamn train graveyard.

In a way, this area illustrates one of Final Fantasy VII‘s more admirable attributes, its determination to give you a variety of different stuff to do. It’s a combination of a maze and a sort of Sokoban puzzle, as you must climb in and over broken-down train carriages and engines in an abandoned depot, even sometimes putting on your engineer’s cap and driving a locomotive out of the way. This is fine in and of itself. What I found less fine was, as usual, the random combat. I would be working out my route in my pokey middle-aged way, coming up with a plan… and then the screen would go all whooshy and the battle music would start, and I’d have to spend the next 30 seconds mashing the attack button before I could get back to the navigational puzzle, by which time I’d completely lost track of what I had intended to do there. Rinse and repeat. Words cannot express how much I had learned to loath that battle music already, but this took the torture to a whole new level, as combat seemed to come at twice, thrice, five times the rate of before. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. Not willfully… I just stopped playing one evening and didn’t start again the next. Or the next. Or the one after that. You know how it goes.

The second hill on which I died.

So, real life went on. But as it did so, my conscience kept pricking me. This game is important, it said. People love this game. Can you not find some way to make friends with it?

I decided to give it one last shot. This time, however, I would approach it differently. Final Fantasy VII has a passionate, active fan community — have I told you that people love this game? — who have done some rather extraordinary things with it over the years. I already mentioned one of these things in passing: 7th Heaven, an application that makes it effortless to install dozens of different “mod” packages, which can alter the game in ways both trivial and major, allowing you to play Final Fantasy VII exactly the way that you wish.

Now, I normally consider such things off-limits; my aim on this site is to give you the historical perspective, which means playing and reviewing games as their original audience would have known them. Still, I decided that, if it could help me to see the qualities other people saw in Final Fantasy VII that I all too plainly was not currently seeing, it might be okay, just this one time. I installed 7th Heaven and started to tweak away. First and foremost, I turned off the random encounters. Then I set it up so Cloud would run rather than mosey by default. Carried away by my newfound spirit of why the heck not, I even replaced the Windows version’s tinny MIDI soundtrack with the PlayStation version’s lusher music.

And then, having come this far, I really took the plunge. A group of fans who call themselves “Tsunamods” have re-translated all of the text in the game from the original Japanese script. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also found a way to add voice acting, covering every single line of dialog in the game. I went for it.

I was amazed at the difference it made — so amazed that I felt motivated to start the game all over from the beginning. The Tsunamods voice acting is way, way better than it has any right to be — far better than the average professional CD-ROM production of the 1990s. Being able to listen to the dialog flowing by naturally instead of tapping through text box after text box was a wonderful improvement in itself. But I was even more stunned by the transformation wrought by the fresh translation. Suddenly the writing was genuinely good in places, and never less than serviceable, displaying all sorts of heretofore unsuspected layers of nuance and irony. Instead of fawning all over Cloud like every teenage boy’s sexual fantasy, Aerith and Tifa took a more bantering, patronizing attitude. The Wall Market sequence especially displayed a new personality, with Aerith now joshing and gently mocking Cloud for his hetero horror at the prospect of donning a dress. Even Barret evinced signs of an inner life, became something more than an inadvertent caricature of Mr. T. when he expressed his love for the little orphan girl to whom he’d become surrogate father. And I could enjoy all of this without having to fight a pointless random battle every three minutes; only the meaningful, plot-dictated fights remained. I was, to coin a phrase, in seventh heaven. I had abandoned all of my principles about fidelity to history, and it felt good.

At the same time, though, I wasn’t really sure whose game I was playing anymore. In his YouTube deconstruction of Final Fantasy VII‘s original English translation, Tim Rogers states that “I believe that no such thing exists as a ‘perfect’ translation of a work of literature from one language to another. All translation requires compromise.” I agree wholeheartedly.

For the act of translation — any act of translation — is a creative act in itself. Even those translations which strive to be as literal as possible — which in my opinion are often the least satisfying of them all — are the product of a multitude of aesthetic choices and of the translator’s own understanding of the source text. In short, a work in translation is always a different work from its source material. This is why Shakespeare buffs like me get so upset when people talk about “modernizing” the plays and poetry by translating them into 21st-century English. If you change the words, you change the works. Whether you think it’s better or worse, what you end up with is no longer Shakespeare. The same is true of the Bible; the King James Bible in English is a different literary work from the Hebrew Old Testament or the Greek New Testament. (This is what makes the very idea of Biblical Fundamentalism — of the Bible as the incontrovertible Word of God — so silly on its face…)

Needless to say, all of this holds equally true for Final Fantasy VII. When that game was first translated into English, it became a different work from the Japanese original. And when it was translated again by Tsunamods, it became yet another work, one reflecting not only these latest translators’ own personal understandings and aesthetics but also the changed cultural values of its time, more than twenty years after the first translation was done.

Of course, we can attempt to simply enjoy the latest translation for what it is, as I was intermittently able to do when I could shut my historian’s conscience off. Yet that same conscience taunts me even now with questions that I may never be able to answer, given that I don’t expect to find the time and energy in my remaining decades to become fluent in Japanese. Lacking that fluency, all I am left with are suppositions. I strongly suspect that the first English translation of Final Fantasy VII yielded a work that was cruder and more simplistic than its Japanese source material. Yet I also suspect that the latest English translation has softened many of the same source material’s rough edges, sanding away some racism, misogyny, and homophobia to suit the expectations of a 21st-century culture that has thankfully made a modicum of progress in these areas. What I would like to know but don’t is exactly where all of the borders lie in this territory. (Although Tim Rogers’s video essays are worthy in their way, I find them rather frustrating in that they never quite seem to answer the questions I have, whilst spending a lot of time on details of grammar and the like that strike me as fairly trivial in the larger scheme of things.)

What I do know, however, is that the Tsunamods re-translation and voice acting, combined with the other tweaks, finally allowed me to unabashedly enjoy Final Fantasy VII. I was worried in the beginning that forgoing random encounters might leave my characters hopelessly under-leveled, but the combat as a whole is so unchallenging that I found having a bit less experience to actually improve the game, by forcing me to employ at least a modicum of real strategy in some of the boss fights. I had a grand old time with my modified version of the game for the first seven or eight hours especially, when my party was still running around Midgar on the terrorist beat. Being no longer forced to gawk at the writing like a slow-motion train wreck, I could better appreciate the storytelling sophistication on display: the willingness of the plot to zig where conventional genre-narrative logic said it ought to zag, the refusal to shy away from the fact that AVALANCHE was, whatever the inherent justice of its cause, a gang of reckless terrorists who could and eventually did get lots and lots of innocent people killed.

After I carried the fight directly to the Shinra headquarters, I was introduced to the real villain of the story, a fellow named Sephiroth who used to be Cloud’s commanding officer in SOLDIER but had since transcended his humanity entirely through a complicated set of circumstances, and was now attempting to become a literal god at the expense of the planet and everyone else on it. Leaving Midgar and its comparatively parochial concerns behind, Cloud and his companions set off on Sephiroth’s trail, a merry chase across continents and oceans.

Wandering the world map.

This chase after Sephiroth fills the largest chunk of the game by far. Occasionally, dramatic revelations continued to leave me admiring its storytelling ambition. While the tragic death of Aerith at the hands of Sephiroth had perhaps been too thoroughly spoiled for me to have the impact it might otherwise have had, the gradual discovery that Cloud was not at all what he seemed to be — that he was in fact a profoundly unreliable narrator, a novelistic storytelling device seldom attempted in games — was shocking and at times even moving. Whenever the main plot kicked into gear for these or other reasons, I sat up and paid attention.

But a goodly portion of this last 80 percent of the game is spent meandering through lots and lots of disparate settings, from “rocket cities” to beach-side resort towns to a sprawling amusement park of all places, that have only a tangential relation to the real story and that I don’t tend to find as intrinsically interesting as Midgar. I often got restless and a bit bored in these places, with that all too familiar, creeping feeling that my time was being wasted. I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of Western RPGs whose watchword is “Go Forth and Explore,” but that approach didn’t work so well for me here. I found the game’s mechanics too simplistic to stand up on their own without the crutch of a compelling story, while the graphics, much-admired though they were by PlayStation gamers back in the day, were too hazy and samey in that early 3D sort of way to make the different areas stand out from one another in terms of atmosphere. Even the apparent non-linearity of the huge world map proved to be less than it seemed; there is actually only one really viable path through it, although there is a fair amount of optional content and Easter eggs for the truly dedicated to find. Being less dedicated, I soon began to wish for a way to further bastardize my version of the game, by turning off the plot-irrelevant bits in the same way I’d turned off the random encounters. Like a lot of RPGs of the Western stripe as well, Final Fantasy VII strikes me as far, far longer than it needs to be, an enjoyable 25-hour experience blown up to 50 hours or more, even without all those random encounters. I was more than ready for it to be over when I got to the end. The last fight was a doozie, what with my under-leveled characters, but it was nice to be pushed to the limit for once. And then it was all over.

What, then, do I think about Final Fantasy VII when all is said and done? For me, it’s a game that contains multitudes, one that resists blithe summation. Some of it is sublime, some of it is ridiculous. Sometimes it’s riveting, sometimes it’s exhausting. It certainly doesn’t achieve everything it aims for. But then again, how could it? It shoots for the moon, the sun, and the stars all at once when it comes to its story. It wants to move you so very badly that it’s perhaps inevitable that some of it just comes off as overwrought. Still, I’ll take its heartfelt earnestness over bro-dudes chortling about gibs and frags any day of the week, and all day on Sunday. “Can a computer make you cry?” asked another pioneering company almost a decade and a half before Final Fantasy VII was released. Square, it seems, was determined to provide a definitive affirmative answer to that question. And I must admit that the final scene, of ugly old Midgar now overrun with the beautiful fruits of the earth, did indeed leave a drop or two of moisture in the eyes of this nature lover, going a long way toward redeeming some of my earlier complaints. Whatever quibbles I may have with this game, its ultimate message that we humans can and must learn to live in harmony with nature rather than at odds with it is one I agree with, heart, mind, and soul.

My biggest problem with Final Fantasy VII — or rather with the version of it that I played to completion, which, as noted above, is not the same as the one Square created in Japanese — is that it tries to wed this story and message to a game, and said game isn’t always all that compelling. It’s not that there are no good ideas here; I do appreciate that Final Fantasy VII tries to give you a lot of different stuff to do, some of which, such as the action-based mini-games, I haven’t even mentioned here. (Suffice to say now that, while the mini-games won’t blow anyone away, they’re generally good enough for a few minutes’ change of pace.)

Still, and especially if you’re playing without mods, most of the gamey bits of this game involve combat, and the balance there is badly broken. Final Fantasy VII‘s equivalent of magic is a mystical substance called “materia,” which can be imbued with different spell-like capabilities and wielded by your characters. Intriguingly, the materia “levels up” with repeated usage, taking on new dimensions. But the balance of power is so absurdly tilted in favor of the player that you never really need to engage with these mechanics at all; there are credible reports of players making it all the way to the final showdown with Sephiroth without ever once even equipping any materia, just mashing that good old attack button. (To put this in terms that my fellow old-timers will understand: this is like playing all the way through, say, Pool of Radiance without ever casting a spell.) Now, you could say that this is such players’ loss and their failure, and perhaps you’d be partially correct. But the reality is that, if you give them the choice, most players will always take the path of least resistance, then complain about how bored they were afterward. It’s up to a game’s designer to force them to engage on a deeper level, thereby forcing them to have fun.

When I examine the history of this game’s development, I feel pretty convinced why it came to be the way it is. Throwing lots and lots of bodies at a project may allow you to churn out reams of cut scenes and dialog in a record time, but additional manpower cannot do much beyond a certain point to help with the delicate, tedious process of testing and balancing. What with a looming release date precluding more methodical balancing and the strong desire to make the game as accessible as possible so as to break the JRPG sub-genre for good and all in the West, a conscious decision was surely made to err on the side of easiness. In a way, I find it odd to be complaining about this here. I’m not generally a “hardcore” player at all; far more vintage games of the 1980s and 1990s are too hard than too easy for my taste. But this particular game’s balance is so absurdly out of whack that, well, here we are. I do detest mindless busywork, in games as in life, and if mashing that attack button over and over while waiting for a combat to end doesn’t qualify for that designation, I don’t know what does. If it couldn’t be balanced properly, I’d have preferred a version of Final Fantasy VII that played as a visual novel, without the RPG trappings at all. But commercial considerations dictated that that could never happen. So, again, here we are.[1]The game’s tireless fan base has gone to great lengths, here as in so many places, to mitigate its failings by upping the difficulty in various ways. I didn’t investigate much in this area, deciding I had already given the game the benefit of enough retro-fitting with the mods I did employ.

As it was, I found my modified version of Final Fantasy VII intermittently gripping, for all that I never quite fell completely in love with it. It’s inherently condescending for any critic to tell a game’s fans why they love it despite its flaws, and I don’t really want to do that here. That said, it does occur to me that a lot of Final Fantasy VII‘s status in gaming culture is what we might call situational. This game was a phenomenon back in 1997, the perfect game coming at the perfect time, sweeping away all reservations on a tide of novelty and excitement. It was a communal event as much as a videogame, a mind-blower for millions of people. If some of what it was and did wasn’t actually as novel as Generation PlayStation believed it to be — and to be fair, some of it was genuinely groundbreaking by any standard — that didn’t really matter then and doesn’t matter now. Final Fantasy VII brought high-concept videogame storytelling into the mainstream. It didn’t do so perfectly, but it did so well enough to create memories and expectations that would last a lifetime.

Even the romance was perfectly attuned to the times, or rather to the ages of many players when they first met this game. The weirdness of Wall Market aside, Cloud and Aerith and Tifa live in that bracket that goes under the name of “Young Adult” on bookstore shelves: that precious time which we used to call the period of “puppy love” and which most parents still wish lasted much longer, when romance is still a matter of “girls and guys” exchanging Valentines and passing notes in class (or perhaps messages on TikTok these days), when sex — or at least sex with other people — is still more of a theoretical future possibility than a lived reality. (Yes, the PlayStation itself was marketed to a slightly older demographic than this one, but, as I noted in my last article, that made it hugely successful with the younger set as well, who always want to be doing what their immediate elders are.) I suspect that I too would have liked this game a lot more if I’d come to it when the girls around me at my school and workplace were still exotic, semi-unknowable creatures, and my teenage heart beat with tender feelings and earthier passions that I’d hardly begun to understand.

In short, the nostalgia factor is unusually strong with this one. Small wonder that so many of its original players continue to cherish it so. If that causes them to overvalue its literary worth a bit, sometimes claiming a gravitas for it not entirely in keeping with what is essentially a work of young-adult fiction… well, such is human nature when it comes to the things we cherish. For its biggest fans, Final Fantasy VII has transcended the bits and bytes on the CDs that Square shipped back in 1997. It doesn’t exist as a single creative artifact so much as an abstract ideal, or perhaps an idealized abstraction. Like the Bible, it has become a palimpsest of memory and translation and interpretation, a story to be told again and again in different ways. To wit: in 2020, Square began publishing a crazily expansive re-imagining of Final Fantasy VII, to be released as a trilogy of games rather than a single one. The first entry in the trilogy — the only one available as of this writing — gets the gang only as far as their departure from Midgar. By all indications, this first part has been a solid commercial success, although not a patch on the phenomenon its inspiration was in a vastly different media ecosystem.

As for me, coming to this game so many years later, bereft of all those personal connections to it: I’m happy I played it, happy to have familiarized myself with one of the most important videogames in history, and happy to have found a way to more or less enjoy it, even if I did have to break my usual rules to do so. I wouldn’t call myself a JRPG lover by any means, but I am JRPG curious. I can see a lot of potential in the game I played, if it was tightened up in the right ways. I look forward to giving Final Fantasy VIII a try; although it’s widely regarded as one of the black sheep of the Final Fantasy family, it seems to me that some of the qualities widely cited as its failings, such as its more realistic, less anime-stylized art, might just strike my aesthetic sensibilities as strengths. And I understand that Square finally got its act together and sprang for proper, professional-quality English translations beginning with this installment, so there’s that.

Now, to do something about those Haruki Murakami novels on my shelf…

Where to Get It: The original version of Final Fantasy VII can still be purchased from Steam as a digital download. If you’re an impatient curmudgeon like me, you may also want to install the 7th Heaven mod manager to tweak the game to your liking. For the record, the mods I wound up using were “OST Music Remastered” (for better music), “Echo-S 7” (for the better translation and voice acting), and “Gameplay Tweaks — Qhimm Catalog” (strictly to make my characters “always run”; I left everything else here turned off). With 7th Heaven alone installed, you can toggle random encounters off and on by pressing CONTROL-B while playing. Note that you need to do this each time you start the game up again.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.


1 The game’s tireless fan base has gone to great lengths, here as in so many places, to mitigate its failings by upping the difficulty in various ways. I didn’t investigate much in this area, deciding I had already given the game the benefit of enough retro-fitting with the mods I did employ.

Posted by on December 22, 2023 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction


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82 Responses to Putting the “J” in the RPG, Part 3: Playing Final Fantasy VII (or, Old Man Yells at Cloud)

  1. arthurdawg

    December 22, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    Same here! I had an Atari VCS and then a TI before the golden age of the Tandy 1000.

    I’ve never owned another console set and am a complete incompetent failure at playing them.

  2. Feldspar

    December 22, 2023 at 6:41 pm

    “Old man yells at Cloud”… pun intended??

    It’s nice to see that in the end the article wasn’t entirely negative, as I was expecting from the title, lengthy preamble and comments dropped in earlier articles. I appreciate that you went out of your comfort zone to try this game and ended up giving it a fair evaluation that I pretty much agree with. I don’t think the regular readers of this blog are the type to write hate mail for disparaging the sacred FF7, so no need to be so cautious with the introduction.

    The high encounter rates combined with easy/simplistic combat keep me from replaying some games from this era, even though I enjoy their story and atmosphere. The genre has pretty much moved away from this style of random encounters in recent decades, outside of deliberately “retro style” games. Also in a lot of other games the normal battles are a little more involved than just mashing “Attack” like you can in most Final Fantasy games.
    I don’t think FF7 has anything like it, but some of the later games like 8 and 10 have abilities or items that you can equip that turn off random encounters.

    I think most people would agree that Midgar is the strongest location in the game and some of the plot towards the end like the huge materia quest feels like filler. A lot of Final Fantasy games put their strongest foot forward in the beginning trying to wow the player with a lot of flashy cinematic set pieces, and tend to lose steam somewhere in the middle. I have heard that in early development the game was originally going to take place entirely in Midgar but it was considered too radical of a departure for the series. (sorry don’t have a source handy).

    I don’t really think the more realistic art style of FF VIII is viewed as a negative point…it was more or less adopted by the later games in the series as technology improved, and the character models have aged much better than VII. The game is usually criticized for its bizarre game mechanics and plot twists, or likely at the time just because it was different from VII.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 22, 2023 at 7:12 pm

      Oh, “Old Man Yells at Cloud” is just too good, isn’t it? That was tickling at the back of my brain somewhere all along, but somehow I never made the proper connection. Oh, well, we can still change it here. Thanks for making me seem smarter than I am!

      • John Harwood

        December 22, 2023 at 11:50 pm

        Let’s just pretend that was intentional and you’re being unnecessarily modest. That’s my preferred reality.

    • Sniffnoy

      December 22, 2023 at 7:38 pm

      Turn-off-random-encounters items don’t only exist in the later games; in FFVI, for instance, there’s Molulu’s Charm which has this effect (though it can only be equipped by Mog, an optional character only available pretty late in the game) and the Ward Bangle which merely reduces random encounters (and which doesn’t have this restriction).

    • JMO

      December 24, 2023 at 1:58 am

      “I have heard that in early development the game was originally going to take place entirely in Midgar but it was considered too radical of a departure for the series. (sorry don’t have a source handy).”

      Some of the developers talk about that in this oral history:

      The idea that they considered setting it in New York fascinates me. That wouldn’t be as bizarre as, like, the last Game of Thrones book taking place in NY, because of the lack of story/world continuity in the FF series. But it sure would have been an intense, very surprising choice

      From the oral history:

      “At that early point we were all still going back and forth about what the story should be. Nothing had been clearly decided on yet. … [In] the first plot treatment that Sakaguchi-san wrote, it took place in New York, there was an organization there that was trying to destroy the Mako Reactors and a character named Detective Joe was investigating them. There were other characters involved, too. One of the members of this organization trying to destroy the reactor was the prototype character for [eventual FF7 main character] Cloud.”
      -Tetsuya Nomura
      Character and battle visual director, Square Japan

      • Gnoman

        December 27, 2023 at 6:14 pm

        The New York aspect became the cult-classic Parasite Eve.

  3. Kevin Higgins

    December 22, 2023 at 7:18 pm

    It’s a side note, but characterising the violence of the 90s shooters as for “bro-dudes” misses that they were an *appropriation* of violent masculinity by weedy, often puritanical nerds. It’s that gap between desire and real life that made them such uniquely tempting terrain for modders. To ignore this contradiction, and the haunted space it opens, is to miss something about the culture.
    Speaking of culture I loved the insights into 90s lad culture in the recent PS1 piece!

  4. Jason

    December 22, 2023 at 7:52 pm

    If you were going to play another PS1-era Final Fantasy, my personal recommendation would be Tactics rather than 8 or 9. The combat and character-building is much more interesting and the writing is more compelling. It still has a bad translation but in an interesting, foreign way, rather than the obviously bad way that 7’s original release was. There was at least one remake of it but I don’t know the state of being able to play it today.

    • Tyler Bartlett

      December 25, 2023 at 5:01 pm

      I think Jimmy would enjoy Tactics more than any other FF game, but in terms of historical importance and cultural impact it might be hard to justify its inclusion

  5. Greg

    December 22, 2023 at 8:43 pm

    As a 12 year old in the US when released and someone who still holds FF7 in high regard, I completely understand the impressions you had with it. The game certainly has not aged well, but the feelings it invoked haven’t faded. I feel like what keeps it in the minds of so many who played it initially is that it had so many firsts for us. It was the first time we experienced something with somewhat adult themes. The first time we really ever experienced a 3d environment. The first time we fell in love with a character. The first time we got into passionate debates in school with our friends. You hit the nail on the head with your ending statements. It’s a game that transcends its technology. I always admire your ability to balance a critical eye with an appreciation for the subject’s impact.

  6. Destron

    December 22, 2023 at 9:25 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful write-up (and all the others you’ve done). I’m also someone who played FF7 very late (during the pandemic, in fact), and largely felt the same way you did. It’s easy to see why the game was such a big deal when it came out; the sheer scale of its ambition was unprecedented (or close to it).

    But it is pretty clunky in a lot of respects. The storytelling is more remarkable for what it attempted to say (in the context of its time) then what it actually ended up saying. While the background environments still look pretty impressive, the character models are rather lacking. Compare them to the character models in FF8, which still look pretty decent from a modern perspective.

    You can also see how FF7 influenced a lot of Western RPG designers going forward. FF7 did have a few personal quests you could undertake for some of your companions, and that’s become nearly a requirement for party-based RPGs these days.

    So yes, I can definitely see why people love it so much. If I’d played it as a youth, I might well feel the same way. Personally though, it’s a game I respect more than I can love.

    • Frans

      January 15, 2024 at 8:21 pm

      Nah, I already felt that way about it when it was new. The game was decent enough overall and quite good in many spots but the incessant random encounters sucked much of the fun out of it, necessitating breaks from playing. (Pretty much the only real exception I can remember is when you’re battling up floors in some skyscraper: there the random encounters worked thematically to enhance the story.) I still had a good time with it overall but let’s not exaggerate this back in 1997 it was better spiel. :-)

  7. David

    December 22, 2023 at 9:59 pm

    As a fellow JRPG-curious gamer, I’m glad that you took the time to write about Final Fantasy. The advice I got from my JRPG-loving friends is that Chrono Trigger, not Final Fantasy, was the idea entry point for a newbie to the genre. I ended up enjoying Chrono Trigger immensely despite its faults (many of which it shares with Final Fantasy 7, although the translation seems to be better). Unfortunately, it doesn’t really qualify for this blog as it was never released in a PC version in the 90’s.

    You convinced me to give Final Fantasy 7 a try. I’ll definitely skip the “historical” playthrough in favor of a heavily modded experience so I can skip the frustration you experienced.

    • fform

      December 22, 2023 at 10:11 pm

      To be honest, Chrono Trigger actually fixed a lot of the problems that Final Fantasy suffered, but never really corrected. If you found faults with it, you would find as many or more with FF.

      As far as JRPGs go, I’d recommend Secret of Mana (for the 16-bit 2D type) or the much later Persona 4, both of which have novel and much less irritating gameplay and compelling stories.

    • Bob

      December 24, 2023 at 4:45 pm

      It’s not just that Chrono Trigger it’s a better entry point, but that FF7 was only a good entry point when the production values were the best available on the market: All the bad things about it went away when a summon animation that lasted over a minute was a positive, not a negative. Out of all the FF games, it’s probably the one that needed the remake the most.

      If you want to start with Final Fantasy, 5 and 6 are a better choice. If you want it to be a 3d one, 9 , 10 or 12, depending on whether you want a very old school one with 3d graphics, a very linear, but well executed tragedy, or something that pretends to be an MMORPG in single player. The original 7, like most 3d PS1 games, has aged badly.

  8. fform

    December 22, 2023 at 10:00 pm

    I was a PC gaming kid when FF7 came out, I’d had an N64 but didn’t own a Playstation and never played any of the SNES or NES versions (weirdly I had played some of Secret of Mana which I adore to this day) so it was very far from my FPS-oriented wheelhouse at 12 or 13. Shockingly, though, Square actually ported it to PC, and most of my PC gaming school friends got into it. Never clicked with me, just like when they got into Everquest a few years later. The irritation of random combat encounters turned me off to the entire RPG concept until at least a decade later in life (not to mention being used to a higher quality of graphical and user interface thanks to 3d cards and keyboards).

    I absolutely agree with your comments on translations, and find it a bit amusing that you brought up Murakami since I plowed through all of his at-the-time available english-translated works about twenty years ago and they seemed both well done and incredibly difficult to have translated. I believe his American translator wrote an entire book of his own about the process. The only other non-english author who I would compare, solely on difficulty of re-interpretation while maintaining the essential quality of the original writing, would be Stanislav Lem. There’s a quality of experience in each author’s voice that could very easily be stripped by the lazy interpreter, and the effort involved in pulling it through makes it very clear the talent of the translator. A company recently released a point-and-click adventure game based on one of Lem’s books called The Invincible which you might want to check out on Steam, if you find the time to game for pleasure rather than research.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 23, 2023 at 8:50 am

      That’s great to hear about the Murakami translations. I read the first pages of Norwegian Wood in a bookstore and found it elegiac and lovely, without that gauze barrier of translation between me and the work that one usually senses. I’m definitely going to read it properly soon.

      • Michael Russo

        December 26, 2023 at 2:30 pm

        My favorite is still one of the early ones like Wild Sheep Chase or Hard-Boiled Wonderland, but the longer ones like 1Q84 and Wind-Up Bird were great too. Not everything has the same quality level, but he has an easy style but still engages your mind, it’s pretty unique.

      • Christopher G

        January 2, 2024 at 6:12 pm

        Reading Murakami helped me finally engage with the relentless surreality of so many Japanese works like anime (Neon Genesis), Miyazaki and, yes, replays of FF7

  9. Another Jason

    December 22, 2023 at 10:22 pm

    For what it’s worth, FF8 is my favorite entry in the series (although I didn’t play anything before FF7).

  10. John Harwood

    December 22, 2023 at 11:46 pm

    Out of curiosity, how long did it take I real time from start to finish with the times you bounced off it and returned later? A couple of months?

    What I’m most impressed with is that you kept coming back to it, a feat I did not manage when originally playing it at release in my late 20s.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 23, 2023 at 7:10 am

      Oh, quite some time. Probably six months. My wife was annoyed with me each time I started again. “You’re back to that thing again?”

  11. Keith Palmer

    December 23, 2023 at 12:05 am

    In the late 1990s I was getting into anime in a pretty fair way, and I did notice other fans mentioning “JRPGs”; the advertising blitz for Final Fantasy VII hadn’t altogether missed me either. Not having a game console or even a Windows PC, I was left just sort of wondering about them (although I wasn’t very familiar with “domestic CRPGs,” either). This different perspective has been interesting and perhaps useful. I have to admit to some surprise at learning just how far some fans have gone to provide a new translation lens for the experience.

  12. Krsto

    December 23, 2023 at 12:28 am

    “The trains in Final Fantasy VII look like stream locomotives”, is it supposed to be steam locomotives or maybe I’m missing something?
    I never played genuine JRPG, closest things to that genre were Anachronox (which was really good and I hope you will cover it) and Septerra Core (which was meh). Anyway, because of it’s historical impact I’m interested in playing FFVII, but also would really like to know, is it possible to play it with a mouse only, because controller and mouse/keyboard combinations are not my thing.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 23, 2023 at 7:08 am

      Nope, should be “steam.” Thanks!

      Final Fantasy VII has no support whatsoever for the mouse, I’m afraid, and I haven’t seen a mod that adds it. You can use a game controller — I used an XBox controller with no problems — or keyboard only, which is a little more awkward, but not too bad. (You do everything from the numeric keypad.) But it’s one or the other; there’s no reason to use *both* controller and keyboard.

  13. Colin R

    December 23, 2023 at 12:37 am

    I don’t think this is an unfair review; I don’t think that anyone playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time in 2023 would likely fall in love with it, any more than they would with Zork or Wizardry. And I think many of the criticisms you have were true back in 1997: the translation was so bad that the story was sometimes completely opaque; the gameplay was easy to break over your knee (though this meant you could keep chasing the adrenal hit of more story beats); even at the time, the graphics were in some ways a step back from 2D predecessors.

    But I think it’s difficult to convey the experience of what it was like in 1997 too, except to compare “JRPGs” to their contemporary predecessors from America. In the early 90s you still largely had either Ultima, or you had your dungeon-crawling blobbers; in the late 90s you had Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Planescape: Torment; many of these are great games. But not even the best of them even tried to approach the cinematic scope and feel or melodramatic punch that Final Fantasy games were swinging for. I remember playing adventure games or RPGs and swapping tips with friends at school on how to solve certain puzzles or get through mazes or dungeons. But Final Fantasy VII led to sprawling debates about what it even MEANT (and yeah, part, but not all, of that was due to bad translation.)

    I also think that while the cinematic scope and melodrama would eventually be copied by “Western” rpgs like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Witcher, there is a degree of vulnerability to Cloud and his Final Fantasy successors that still isn’t quite allowed to exist among most of the gruff dudes and sad dads of ‘western’ games.

    • Vince

      December 23, 2023 at 7:40 am

      While I think there has been a definite influence from JRPG to western RPGs in terms of how the story and characters are handled, the first have been always more based on the concept “you play as the main character”, while the latter “you ARE the main character”.

      Even in western RPGs where you play as a very fleshed-out character, like in the Witcher games, you are still allowed quite a bit of agency over how the character reacts to the story and other characters, while in FF7 and most JRPGs (of course there will be exceptions, on both sides) you are a passive observer watching the story unfolds, with main character acting autonomously according to his personality.

      I played both Baldur’s Gate 3 and Final Fantasy 16 this year, arguably the most high-profile representatives of their genres in 2023, and in those games that difference still holds vey much true.

      • Colin R

        December 23, 2023 at 4:19 pm

        I think I would push back on that. If I look at early RPGs, whether from Japan or elsewhere, there is not a big difference in whether you are ‘playing as the main character’ or not, because character development in general is almost completely absent. RPGs started out emulating the nitty-gritty character classes and spells and dungeon-crawling of D&D, while being completely unable to replicate its drama or interactive worlds. If there was a difference, it was as previously noted the technology; the focus on consoles forced Japanese RPGs to streamline the games and make them more playable and more dynamic, while ‘western’ RPGs often reveled in the obtuse complexity their keyboard-driven interfaces allowed.

        As technologies allowed RPGs to become more complex, I think those same technologies encouraged games to explore different sides of RPGs. Computer-based RPGs became more mouse-driven, which allowed for easier interaction with environments–games like Ultima VII and Daggerfall pointed toward the “open-worlds” of Morrowind, Skyrim, and Baldur’s Gate 3, but also today’s survival games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky.

        I think console games instead found inspiration in the drama inherent in tabletop, and started translating that into their games; simply at first, by simply focusing more on dialogue and music. What I think made Final Fantasy VII in particular special was not that it did anything particularly novel, but its scale and scope and reach; you might dismiss a lot of things about it, but you couldn’t dismiss that it was swinging for the fences with its storytelling and drama in ways that even the best “Western” RPGs couldn’t match.

        It doesn’t seem like the connection between “Being the main character or playing the main character” is really the strong division you say. When I think back on the big RPGs of the past twenty years, plenty of them give you a fairly limited number of identities to choose from, if any at all. What seems to divide audiences to me is the power fantasy: a certain kind of player wants to be in control of events, and strongly objects to things happening that they cannot avoid.

        I think this expresses in some philosophical puzzles for games, where they want to have the heft of personal drama with the freedom and power to shape the world to your whim. Mass Effect distorted its own game world around the actions of the player so that you were almost always justified; the result was that your choices didn’t really matter, and its ending was perfunctory and nonsensical. Fallout 4 tried to balance the personal drama of a broken family with the freedom to build your own character and explore the world, and didn’t really succeed.

        I’m getting long-winded here, but I’ve also been playing Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s a marvelous game, but it still suffers from the same puzzle in some ways. Most of the drama that is inherent in the game doesn’t come from the player character, but from the terrific NPCs. The player character is largely just an observer to Shadowheart, Astarion, et al. going through their stuff. Meanwhile, twenty-five years ago, Cloud’s personal identity was shattered, the depths of his soul plumbed; RPGs are still trying to sort out how to put all of this together.

        • stepped pyramids

          December 24, 2023 at 2:38 am

          I think you make some great points here. I also think that modern gamers have read a degree of “meaningful roleplaying” into CRPG history that isn’t supported by the evidence. You can play a bad guy in Ultima IV, but you can’t win the game that way.

        • James H

          December 25, 2023 at 6:25 am

          I now think the distinctions we attribute to “Japanese” game design vs “Western” mostly rest on confluences between two elements:

          1. Legibility. Whether the game calls out what you need to do to solve a puzzle, or if it hides things from you.

          2. “Holodeckiness”. How much the game is premised around the puzzles as formal challenges, versus ways to express an identity through the game world.

          When you consider what Jimmy did to finish his playthrough of FFVII, he punched both buttons: he enabled the Holodeck(combat mod) and he added legibility(new translation). This isn’t actually different from trying to figure out a Wizardry game by reading spoilers and modding character stats.

          The difference comes from whether a game advertises and positions itself as a Holodeck or a difficult cipher, if the back of the box says: “choose to be good or evil”, or if it says, tauntingly, “you’ll never figure out how to survive the challenge ahead of you.” FFVII isn’t exactly either of these.

          When the game is foreign, it loses some legibility. But the illegible element *becomes* the puzzle. The formal, legible puzzles of FFVII – the combat and exploration – are super simple, so the nostalgia for this game has to rest on the first-time experience being new and mysterious, which for people young at the time, especially if they’re unfamiliar with the Hayao Miyazaki-esque pastoral themes and the character stories being told, they’d come out of with a strong impression. But it’s not durable as a traditional story experience, since it’s so tied to the formal structure of combat and exploration, and the poor legibility isn’t an intended design.

          What’s been popular in recent years has been “Souls-likes”, and those are illegible like Wizardry is, just along a slightly different axis. Instead of the paper maps and party logistics, you have to learn some action puzzles and routing to get through the game. The story is pushed to the background of the scenario, a trope applied heavily in Wizardry from VI on.

          On the other hand, the ultimate aim of Holodeck-y gaming is the thing that compels use of generative AI technology – to distill the “role-play” experience into something you can request and design like a dollhouse: “now I am a barbarian warlord, and I’m commanding a sci-fi pirate ship, and the troops are all different races of time travelling aliens, and…” And this kind of thing produces stuff like Fallout or Mass Effect, where they might not have the AI tech, but they can add in a bunch of “building blocks” to customize.

          The genre seems to oscillate between these points and optimums of them allowed by the tech and production conditions: if the structure is too obscure or narrowly defined, players throw tantrums over difficulty or arbitrary limitation. If it tries to allow every possible interaction, the scope is diluted and it becomes flat or unbelievable. If it never challenges a player decision, the scenario becomes very ho-hum. The subgenre titles just reflect which mix is being aimed for.

        • Jason Dyer

          December 29, 2023 at 2:58 pm

          >Most of the drama that is inherent in the game doesn’t come from the player character, but from the terrific NPCs.

          I’m guessing you’re not playing as Dark Urge.

          (Apparently Dark Urge was meant to be “the PC” but players really wanted a more flexible roleplaying slate to work with so they could play whomever they wanted, hence Tav became the default.)

          • Colin R

            January 2, 2024 at 5:52 pm

            I think there is a qualitative difference in the way that the player’s drama unfolds in BG3 versus a Final Fantasy game. In BG3 the drama is essentially external–it’s drama driven by how your decisions affect the external world. Much of the drama in Final Fantasy works in the opposite direction; no matter how bombastic and world-shaking the plot becomes, the external circumstances largely serve as expressions of internal drama and conflict.

            At the end of Final Fantasy VII, I’m still not sure that what the party is doing is really all that important to the outcome of what Aerith has already put into motion. But it’s important to them that they do something anyway. The stakes of Cloud’s final confrontation with Sephiroth aren’t really about saving the world, but about breaking the hold Sephiroth has over his own psyche. I’m not sure this kind of story really works in a game like Baldur’s Gate.

            The exception that proved the rule is Planescape: Torment, which combined both kinds of storytelling almost perfectly–and in a way very difficult to replicate. Because PS:T had a world where making decisions inherently shaped its world, and because you were still operating with essentially a defined character, with a defined past–what you really had control over was only your reaction to who the Tormented One was, and how well he comes to terms with that.

  14. Gnoman

    December 23, 2023 at 5:00 am

    ” I strongly suspect that the first English translation of Final Fantasy VII yielded a work that was cruder and more simplistic than its Japanese source material. Yet I also suspect that the latest English translation has softened many of the same source material’s rough edges, sanding away some racism, misogyny, and homophobia to suit the expectations of a 21st-century culture that has thankfully made a modicum of progress in these areas.”

    This is wrong, for the most part. Aeris and Tifa were intended as subversions of stereotypes from the beginning, having exactly the opposite personalities that they’re “supposed” to from their appearance and apparent role. Their “fawning” over Cloud comes across badly in the original translation but in both cases are a lot more about their own personal issues than they are about trying to form a harem – I think you missed some Implications of how Cloud not being the guy he thinks he is mixes with their stories.

    The homophobia aspect is mostly because Japanese stereotypes about homosexual men are very different from the ones in the US – the retranslation may well not be any “softer” than the original, just conforming closer to the original stereotype.

    Pretty much every change you’ve explicitly mentioned in the translation is giving the characters the personalities and behaviors that they’re supposed to have.

    “Still, and especially if you’re playing without mods, most of the gamey bits of this game involve combat, and the balance there is badly broken. Final Fantasy VII‘s equivalent of magic is a mystical substance called “materia,” which can be imbued with different spell-like capabilities and wielded by your characters. Intriguingly, the materia “levels up” with repeated usage, taking on new dimensions. But the balance of power is so absurdly nerfed in favor of the player that you never really need to engage with these mechanics at all; there are credible reports of players making it all the way to the final showdown with Sephiroth without ever once even equipping any materia, just mashing that good old attack button. (To put this in terms that my fellow old-timers will understand: this is like playing all the way through, say, Pool of Radiance without ever casting a spell.)”

    These are “challenge” runs, done by devoted fans trying to get more content out of the game they have. For the “average” player, trying to do that will get you very familiar with the Game Over screen.

    Most of the “trivialize combat” tactics you see people doing involve careful exploitation of Materia combinations.This is also a huge part of the meat of the game that your approach of disabling random encounters completely bypasses – much of the mechanical fun is continually tweaking your setup, finding neat ways to mix things, finding hidden materia in out of the way places, etc. If you’re doing nothing but boss fights, you aren’t doing that. Especially if the “turn off random encounters” mod you used has a “let’s give you the EXP and AP that you’re supposed to have so you aren’t underleveled” component.

    In a very real sense, this is a review of half a game – playing it this way means you’re barely engaging in the combat section at all compared to a normal player – where you end up feeling that there’s something missing. There is.

  15. Michael

    December 23, 2023 at 8:28 am

    I think most JRPG gamers in 2023 are able to admit that Final Fantasy 7 is far from perfect. It’s lofty status is in large part due to its novelty in the western world when it was released. I was certainly part of that group, a teenager at the time and completely unfamiliar with the genre until a friend invited me to play FF7.

    I was instantly hooked by several aspects of it. As you mentioned, starting the game in media res felt so different to what I was used to, and was very exciting to me. The story itself felt compelling to teenage me, full of twists and turns. The game genuinely looked fantastic for its time, for all that the polygonal character models looked blocky even back then. The combat simply felt fun, after years of tedious combat in games like Ultima – even though in practice it could be won by hitting attack over and over, I had fun playing with the various combinations of spells and abilities. The poor translation didn’t bother me all that much, horrible mistranslation on the first boss aside (thankfully my friend clued me into that one!) It was just a new experience for me, one I enjoyed to the point where I even played the PC demo (covering the period from Mount Corel to the Gold Saucer) over and over again in between visiting my friend’s house to continue the real thing.

    I can look back now and recognise that much of what I enjoyed about the game was the novelty of it all. It felt different, shinier, more immediately satisfying than the CRPGs I was used to playing. My positive feelings for the game now are mostly wrapped up in nostalgia.

    Jimmy – if you are interested in looking to experience JRPGs from roughly this time period that are likely to be more to your tastes, I suggest giving FF10 a go. It’s much more narratively driven, the combat is turned based so you have time to think, and it’s competently voice acted (despite a thousand Youtubers clambering to make fun of the “laughing scene”).

  16. glorkvorn

    December 23, 2023 at 9:39 am

    I guess I’ll be that guy and leave a negative comment. Yes, the game has its flaws, but this review does feel like you’re exaggerating them and too old/western to appreciate it’s strengths.

    Yes, it starts in medias res. Is that really so confusing? We all pretty much understood that as teenagers. The main character starts out being named anonymously “Ex-SOLDIER” should be a big clue that there are mysteries here to be resolved. You don’t go looking for plot spoilers in the manual, you just embrace the mystery and figure it out as you go.

    The translation… don’t you live in a foreign country? Surely you’ve experienced some less-than-perfect English? The first boss is called “Guard Scorpion,” and it raises its tail in a threatening way. Don’t you think that might be a bad time to attack it? Honestly I don’t even remember that boss, it just seemed trivial. I’m not trying to be insulting but… millions of us figured it out easily as teenagers, without any internet help.

    Cloud as a character… yeah, he’s an antihero. He has moral flaws, like the fact that (initially) he’s more concerned with money than the fate of the planet. He’s not supposed to be some aesop’s fable that teaches children the shining path of virtue. He’s in the same vein as Han Solo, Mad Max, and Snake Plissken.

    And just like all of those characters he’s also… you know, *cool.* Really, really cool. He’s a badass ex-elite soldier who’s now a mercenary for hire, saving the planet while getting all the girls. He wields an awesome giant sword while riding a motorcycle and also magic. It’s just hard to get any cooler than that. If you want to understand why this game was so compelling to teenage kids, well… there’s your answer.

    The random encounters I agree with you, they were pretty annoying (especially with loading screens). But they do contribute to the sense of coolness. Cloud is just effortlessly mowing down all these monsters while he’s doing his mission… sugoi. You have to, you know, *role play* to appreciate it. If you want actually challenging combat, go with the earlier FF games, or FF tactics.

    And Barett. Sure, the translation could be better, but I think it came through. I always had the impression that, although he’s a little crazy (as you’d expect from a terrorist cell leader!) he also sincerely cares about the fate of the planet and especially his daughter. He’s making some hard choices in a bad world. He’s probably the most morally “good” character in the early game. And how many other fantasy games from this era had a black character at all?

    And the sex comedy. OK, it’s not exactly subtle or sophisticated. But it’s *funny*. You don’t think a young male, fresh out of the military, would have some misgivings about putting on women’s clothes and underwear to try to look sexy for a guy? Or going to a gay bathhouse? Would *you* be comfortable doing those things? Compare this to the typical western RPG where… oh, there just isn’t any sex at all. Usually they’re just copycats of Tolkien, who barely had any female characters at all. So if FF7 is “young adult,” then the entire Western RPG scene was firmly rated G, suitable for 6-year-olds. Massive step forward to acknowledge that sex exists, and can be suitable for entertainment outside of porn, which it seems western media is still struggling with.

    • stepped pyramids

      December 24, 2023 at 2:43 am

      I had the same “come on, it’s in medias res” reaction you did, but he goes on to call himself out for not giving the game enough credit there.

      “If you want interesting combat, play another game” is not really a defense of this game.

    • Plestor

      December 24, 2023 at 5:22 pm

      Good grief dude. He only spent FOUR paragraphs explaining and defining WHY this wasn’t going to be review that hardcore gamers would appreciate… smh

    • Cereal Killer

      April 18, 2024 at 3:47 pm

      No, the homophobia and transphobia was not funny then and is even less amusing 25 years larer MAGA dude.

  17. Giom

    December 23, 2023 at 9:39 am

    I loved final fantasy vii at the time when the pc version was released but the only reason I loved it was because I very quickly found a way to disable random encounters and because I played either the French translation which might have been better than the english translation.

    That said I much preferred ff8.

  18. Mateus Fedozzi

    December 23, 2023 at 10:14 am

    glorkvorn said: “Yes, it starts in medias res. Is that really so confusing? We all pretty much understood that as teenagers. The main character starts out being named anonymously “Ex-SOLDIER” should be a big clue that there are mysteries here to be resolved. You don’t go looking for plot spoilers in the manual, you just embrace the mystery and figure it out as you go.” And I totally agree with him. The beginning of your article makes it clear you went into this game wishing to be disappointed. I mean, how many books and films start in media res? Even as a teenager who could barely speak any English back then I was able to understand and appreciate the plot in the American version of FF7.

    About the battles, if you turn them off, you’re missing half the narrative. The plot in a game is not only in its verbal text. The enemies you didn’t see, their character designs, are also part of the story. The feeling of getting stronger and stronger thanks to all the fights is another part of it you missed (you could argue again that you’re not into RPGs, but neither were most of us when this game was out). Cloud is a freak, a broken mess, a loser posing as a war hero, and I can’t imagine the lifestream Tifa scene having the impact it had on most of us to a player who hadn’t fought a lot alongside his virtual friends before that scene.

    Your article is not a bad text, I really enjoyed it. It’s cool to read a text about someone playing an old game I love for the first time in the 21st century. But again, most of the time your writing gives away this not so hidden prejudice PC gamers of yore have againt console gaming. Either because they have supposedly inferior narratives, or because they have supposedly inferior gameplay, or just because most of them were of Japanese origin. It’s not the first time a Digital Antiquarian text made me feel wishing for more, but usually I with for more information, for more of your refined writing, for more text. This time, I was left wishing for a more rigorous approach to history.

  19. Alex

    December 23, 2023 at 2:38 pm

    Regarding the status which this game gained, I really think it´s quite brave for you to swim against the stream of praising. While I can´t say anything about the translation problems (the german translation was really good), I can speak about being disappointed. When I was getting back into playing games about two years ago, this was one of the first titles I started again, thinking that it was the pinnacle of gaming (it sorta was when I was a teenager). Boy, was I in for a surprise. I just can repeat what you and others wrote here: It really felt old instead of timeless regarding some aspects of storytelling and gameplay. As soon as I rediscovered the world of Crpgs, I immediately forgot about Final Fantasy for good. It was really a good lesson on the impact of nostalgia.

  20. Dan V.

    December 23, 2023 at 3:29 pm

    I have to say I’m not surprised at this reaction. FF7 is one of those “you had to be there” games, whose flaws were apparent at the time but were papered over by exuberance and novelty. This is similar to how a friend of mine, very much a JRPG type, engaged with both Half-Life 1 and 2.

    Unsurprisingly, this is true of many of the games on this blog, particularly text adventures and old cRPGs. I’m not taking this text too literally—Old Man Yells At Cloud is a humorous way to deflate the incongruity. I found it highly entertaining to read as one man’s struggle to engage with something that’s been hyped up his whole life, and I think we’ve all been there.

    When it comes to translations, I get the trepidation at “not truly experiencing it” because you’re not engaging with the native text. But that way lies madness. Even us native speakers can argue endlessly about our great English literary texts; and adaptation is a common event without translation. A modern reader engaging with Shakespeare is going to be in trouble without an annotation guide.

  21. David

    December 23, 2023 at 6:10 pm

    I think overall this is a pretty fair review. I actually came at FF7 from the opposite direction, that is, I had already been playing Final Fantasy since the first one came out in the US in 1990. Initially I and a good friend of mine were very skeptical about the switch to 3d, but eventually I came around and enjoyed it. I agree though that the combat is pretty boring (it didn’t bother me in 1997, but I’m a lot less tolerant of time wasting now).

    Unfortunately, I predict you won’t enjoy FF8 based on your complaints about 7. The main problem with 8 from my perspective has much less to do with the style than with the tedium of the battle system. They tried to do some interesting things in 8 but unfortunately they were implemented quite poorly and one of the main game mechanics, drawing, is insanely tedious. The main character is also much less sympathetic than Cloud.

    • Gnoman

      December 24, 2023 at 6:40 am

      “Tedious drawing” is not an intended way of gaining magic in Final Fantasy VIII – you’re supposed to get the bulk of your spells from refining items, an ability you are likely to get no later than half an hour into the game.

      Much of FF8’s bad reputation comes from people not using most of the systems and deciding that playing it in the absolute stupidest and most tedious way possible is the “correct” way.

      As for Squall, maybe you find a war orphan child soldier with horrendous abandonment issues (likely to the extent of all-up PTSD) to be “unsympathetic”, but it is more likely that you simply didn’t put all the bits together and mistook his “I’m going to be what a child imagines a Real Adult is, and block out the rest of the world so nobody else can hurt me” facade for his entire personality.

      • Colin R

        December 24, 2023 at 2:04 pm

        I’m not sure if refining items is more or less tedious than spending a few minutes ‘drawing’ magic out of a monster the first time you run into a spell. Either way, I think Final Fantasy 8’s system is an interesting failure; the best I can say about it is that the combat is easy, it’s easy to turn OFF, and the game might be more fun and challenging if you keep random encounters off.

        But yeah, I think it’s quite unfair to describe Squall as unsympathetic. This is one I have actually replayed fairly recently (the Hi-Def remake), and while I think it’s easy to mistake Squall’s terseness as bratty or standoffish, closer inspection reveals how sensitively he is portrayed from the start. (I also think it is hilarious that while he’s outwardly terse, he has these overwrought internal monologues, and other characters are obviously aware that he is standing around thinking hard at himself.) I caught some of this, but not all of it, when I played it in 1998.

        I think it is a result of American action media in particular that we’re maybe not trained to expect, accept, or recognize vulnerability in men. It’s OK for a sad dad like Kratos to be sad and angry that his family is dead, but it is expected to drive his goals and he is expected to ACT on it: to murder a bunch of people. To have a hero who is simply a bit broken and lonely is less acceptable.

      • Sniffnoy

        December 24, 2023 at 6:21 pm

        “Tedious drawing” is not an intended way of gaining magic in Final Fantasy VIII – you’re supposed to get the bulk of your spells from refining items, an ability you are likely to get no later than half an hour into the game.

        Much of FF8’s bad reputation comes from people not using most of the systems and deciding that playing it in the absolute stupidest and most tedious way possible is the “correct” way.

        Game designers have to expect that players will play in the way that is winningest, regardless of whether it is fun or not. If the winningest way is not fun, that is a failure of game design, not the fault of the players for doing what game’s systems are incentivizing them to do in search of victory.

        I’m not personally familiar enough with FF8 to state for a certainty whether that’s what’s going on here, but it certainly sounds like it is, because that’s usually what’s going on in such a case. If players aren’t using most of the systems because using those systems would not contribute to victory — that is a failure of game design. If players are playing it in a stupid and tedious way because that way wins more — that is a failure of game design. It is the job of the game designer to ensure that short-circuting systems and playing tediously is a route to failure! If you have to ignore the game’s system of incentives to have fun, then you are having fun despite the game.

        I mean, there are other possibilities as to why people might ignore systems or play in a tedious way, such as a failure of the game to communicate the available options to the player, but it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s going on.

        • stepped pyramids

          December 24, 2023 at 6:43 pm

          Drawing is definitely not the “winningest” strategy for the game, because refining allows you to smash the difficulty curve into smithereens. Drawing is just a much more obvious mechanic. If you don’t catch on to how much more effective refining is, you’ll be stuck using a tedious and weak mechanic for way more of the game than intended.

          • Sniffnoy

            December 26, 2023 at 6:16 pm

            Oh, well, oops then. Guess I’m just wrong then! Sorry. This sort of thing comes up so often that I kind of just pattern-matched. Oops!

        • Jimmy Maher

          December 24, 2023 at 9:27 pm

          Yes, I was ready to say the same. “But you’re playing it wrong!” is very, very seldom an effective rebuttal to a review — or at least not to a thoughtful review written in good faith. It’s up to the game designer to get the player to play *right*.

          An example that springs to mind is Civilization I. The first versions of the game made it very easy to win by totally ignoring most of the game’s systems. Research only a couple of technologies, then build city after city, never letting them grow beyond a small size. Use them to pump out primitive units whilst building no Wonders or other civic infrastructure, doing no research, never changing governments, ignoring diplomacy, etc., etc. Just pump out chariots and pikemen and use them to conquer the map.

          Players quickly discovered they could easily win this way and did so again and again, all whilst complaining loudly about how boring and easy it was. This was *not* the fault of the players; it was the fault of the game design. To their credit, Sid Meier and his colleagues at MicroProse recognized this and slowly patched it out of the game, thereby forcing players to have fun.

          • Gnoman

            December 25, 2023 at 1:35 am

            To use the Civilization 1 analogy, the “tedious drawing” approach to Final Fantasy VIII is the equivalent of trying to conquer the world using nothing but peasants and the basic combat unit (forget what that’s called in Civ 1) because “the game didn’t scream at me to find the research button”. Not because it is effective – it adds literally tens of hours to play time, and is much harder to get through the game.

            To clarify what’s going on, FF8 throws out a lot of the traditional mechanics of the series in favor of trying to do something new. You don’t have “magic points” to limit your spell casting – spells are a consumable object instead. The first way you learn to acquire said spells is by extracting “drawing” them from monsters in groups of 2-10 (Cap is 100 per spell). This is tutorialized.

            You also pick abilities for your magic spirit companions to learn, giving you more options in and out of combat. This is also tutorialized in a very explicit way.

            An entire group of said abilities is the “*-mag RF” line. This converts the various items dropped by enemies or bought at the shop into spells (which spell depends on the specific RF ability and the item in question of course) in groups of 5-10 per item. This is not explicitly tutorialized because (having pointed you at the ability menu, the devs assumed that you can notice the abilities in the list).

            Using this, you can max out your spells very quickly just by killing random encounters and converting the stuff they’ve dropped, not to mention buying things at the store and converting them.

            So people playing the way David describes will be spending three hours on “tediously” maxing out everybody’s basic spells, while somebody playing in a more reasonable way does the same thing in like 20 minutes.

            Maxing out the spells is important because FF8 doesn’t use traditional equipment – you basically equip your stockpile of spells to a given stack, which boosts that stat based on how many of said spell you have.

            The game also has a level scaling mechanic where enemies get stronger as you level up, and in many cases the increase is greater than what you get by raw leveling. This is not a problem as designed because the main increases to your stats are gained from equipping spells, and higher-level monsters drop better stuff to turn into better spells that makes you power curve go up exponentially.

            If you’re not refining, however, you decide “leveling up in this game is stupid” and extend every random battle to three or four times the length it should take so you can complete it in a way that doesn’t give you experience.

            • Sniffnoy

              December 26, 2023 at 6:18 pm

              Oh, huh, so it really is an explanation issue, not an incentive one. Well, shows what I know! Sorry, kind of pattern-matched there, because this sort of thing comes up so often…

              • Feldspar

                December 27, 2023 at 12:56 pm

                If you’re extremely dumb like I was when I played FF8, you can pretty much never draw, refine, junction or use magic at all, and get by just fine to the end of the game by repeatedly summoning GFs at zero cost and using limit breaks. I think it was only in the very late game that I started to actually use drawing and junctioning magic. Also missed out on all the permanently missable GFs that you have to draw from bosses. Still I have a huge soft spot for the game for reasons I don’t understand (nostalgia I guess?)

                I think FF8’s system was just radically different than other Final Fantasy games and other RPGs in general, and the game is never really hard enough to force you to learn it, so most people including me didn’t bother really learning its systems.

                Also I love how comments on an FF7 review have turned into an argument about FF8, it’s one of those games that is a magnet for internet arguments whenever someone so much as casually name drops it. (For example Dark Souls 2 is another one like this).

  22. vykromond

    December 23, 2023 at 7:18 pm

    Nit: ‘But the balance of power is so absurdly nerfed in favor of the player’ clanged badly for me due to metaphor mixing- is there any reason ‘nerfed’ shouldn’t just be ’tilted’?

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 23, 2023 at 7:22 pm

      Yeah, that does read better. Thanks!

  23. Nate O.

    December 23, 2023 at 7:52 pm

    I was very much a Nintendo person in 1997, and I was always more interested in what Mario and Link were up to than whatever was going on with Final Fantasy. But I had a whole lot of friends who played this game religiously, over and over. That was true years later, after the PS2 had rendered FFVII even more of a relic of its time than it already was. I did try my hand at FF IX and X, and in their way I enjoy both, but I never got more then 10 hours or so into either one, and since I’m not writing about it I quit.

    The experience convinced me that I just didn’t care much for RPGs in general, since they were my first real exposure to the genre. It wasn’t until I played Baldur’s Gate and games from that era all the way in 2018 or so that I realized I actually REALLY like RPGs, just not JRPGs very much.

    I’ve come around on them a little though. I am an anime liker, if not an actual fan, and I understand a lot of the tropes that these games are dealing with. But like you I find the relentless combat a bit exhausting, especially the random encounters. There’s also a lot of…I guess folderol that goes into the genre. Long animations that play when you do a sweet move, long overwrought stories, etc. Those are all fine but not for more than 10-15 hours for me.

    The game that has changed my mind a little though is Persona 5 Royal, one that has entirely charmed me. It’s a much newer game, so it benefits from the better graphics, translation, and voice acting than anything from the 90s. But it’s also got a very snappy feeling, and a great sense of design both visually and sonically. It’s also got a lot to do when you AREN’T battling, and it does a good job at giving you all of the life-sim/visual novel elements when you aren’t dungeon-crawling and fighting demons. It’s not a game you’ll be getting to anytime in the foreseeable future, but it has convinced me of the power of the JRPG formula.

    • stepped pyramids

      December 24, 2023 at 6:39 pm

      Have you played any of the other Persona/Megaten games?

      • Nate O.

        December 24, 2023 at 7:13 pm

        No, I haven’t. I intend to get around to Persona 4 at some point, I’ve heard very good things about that one too. Shin Megami Tensei kind of appeals to me, until I remember that I’m not that into games for the sake of challenge.

        • giom

          December 26, 2023 at 2:21 pm

          Persona 4 golden has a very similar feel to Persona 5 royal. So worth playing for sure.

          Other than that, a much older game that’s a classic but worth trying is Chrono Trigger. It doesn’t have any random encounters, instead you see them on the map. For me it actually feels more modern than FF7 because of that.

  24. Gordon Cameron

    December 24, 2023 at 12:22 am

    >This is why Shakespeare buffs like me get so upset when people talk about “modernizing” the plays and poetry by translating them into 21st-century English.

    Tangential to Final Fantasy 7 obviously, but just wanted to ferociously agree here. I consider the ‘translations’ in No Fear Shakespeare to be a blight upon English. If you want to read something easier, just *read something easier* until you are ready for the Bard!

  25. Jaina

    December 24, 2023 at 7:50 pm

    their character beats snipping at one another when not making moon-eyes at Cloud.” Snippy snip snap. I’m amused by the phrasing but suspect that you meant sniping.

    I think this is a fair review of the game. I sometimes want to reply it, but so much of the back half feels like filler. And that’s pretty tragic. FF8 is a different vibe… Definitely an interesting experience.

    • Jimmy Maher

      December 24, 2023 at 9:41 pm

      I don’t know… I think it might be okay usage. “Snipping” isn’t that far from “snippy”…

  26. sj

    December 25, 2023 at 4:10 am

    This is an interesting and reasonable review, and as you point out, these reviews are unavoidably about subjective, personal experience. I’ll only comment on a few things that I feel weren’t quite true or fair, or that I disagreed strongly with.

    It seems you never changed your mistaken first impression of Aerith as “little Aerith”? Aerith (22) is in fact older than Cloud (21), as mentioned in the manual. There is a flashback in the story to Cloud’s mother, with her saying she thinks Cloud should be with someone older – that’s clearly meant to be alluding to Aerith. She is at worse cutesy at times, but never infantilised; and there is absolutely nothing unclean or creepy about the interactions between Aerith and Cloud. I offer no defence for the sexualisation of Tifa; but if you finish the game thinking that that is the most interesting thing about Tifa to comment on, I feel you have missed out on a lot of the story. “When you control Aerith or Tifa in combat, they’re as capable as any of the men, but when they’re playing their roles in the story, they suddenly become fragile flowers utterly dependent on the kindness of Cloud” is a fundamental misreading of their characters. If you know the story, you know that if anything, it is *Cloud* who is the fragile flower! Plenty to criticise about, say, Tifa’s ridiculous postures and body language, or how so much of her storyline is centered around Cloud – but this is not it.

    I don’t think the turn-based combat is *great* – I agree with you on that – but I do think the materia system is wonderful (*so many* creative combinations!), and the enemies are hilarious in their diversity and creativity in their designs. Yes, random battles are annoying – but if you think about it, they’re not that much different from unavoidable enemies that you can see. And as pointed out in one of the comments, if you mod out and skip the random battles, no wonder you didn’t get much enjoyment out of the combat – they’re only the battles designed to form the majority of the game! They’re where you experiment with different combinations of materia, learn all the “enemy skills”, etc. I do agree that the combat is a bit too easy, just not to the extent you suggest – I feel that you may possibly have had a distorted impression because of the mods.

    And speaking of the mods: if the voice acting mod is the one I’m thinking of (I don’t think there’s another one?), then I disagree quite strongly on it being good, especially for a first playthrough. I’ve caught bits and pieces of it in watching streamers’ playthroughs, and it often changes the original text for no apparent reason, and not for the better. (Full agreement that the original localisation is bad! It’s just, the mod was not better – it might’ve made a few lines better here and there, but also made others distinctly, unnecessarily worse. And if it’s the mod that made Aerith say “Thank you” at the end, instead of her being silent as in the original – that is an awful choice. I really don’t want to criticise the work of fans who love the game and put so much work into it – and taste is all subjective – but I really disagree with the idea that a new player’s first experience should be with that, or any, fan-made voice acting mod. Use one on a second playthrough, by all means – you may well end up prefering the fan-made voice acting anyway – but if your first and only impression of the game is with the voice acting mod, then you are getting and commenting on a fundamentally different experience. Honestly, apart from the high-res mods, I have never seen a mod that actually improved the game; not the voice acting mod, and not the mods that are supposed to improve on the blocky characters – they always look worse. I don’t think it’s my nostalgia; I think what the mods are attempting to replace are still better integrated with the rest of the game in ways that the fan-made mods have not been able to match. I’m not opposed at all to *good* mods – I’ve heard that there is a script with a much better localisation (without voice acting), for example, that I’ve long been meaning to try – but every mod I’ve seen so far has been worse. And if you use mods for your first playthrough, then you unfortunately have no basis for comparison – they may seem better compared to the early parts you saw of the original, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if they make the game worse later on.

    “Cloud and Aerith and Tifa live in that bracket that goes under the name of “Young Adult” on bookstore shelves”

    I mean, the game is primarily targeted at teenagers. Most FF games are. That’s why it’s become a common joke how FF characters in their thirties are portrayed as much older than they are in the games.

    “Instead of fawning all over Cloud like every teenage boy’s sexual fantasy, Aerith and Tifa took a more bantering, patronizing attitude.”

    Aerith/Aeris was always assertive, confident, teasing, etc. – she didn’t take on a bantering, patronising attitude because of the mod. From the script:

    “(Upon reaching Aeris in the streets outside the slums.)
    Aeris: You’re up bright and early.
    Cloud: How could I ask you to go along when I knew it would be dangerous?
    Aeris: Are you done?”


    “(In the Sleeping Forest.)
    Aeris: Cloud, can you hear me?
    Cloud: Yeah, I hear you. Sorry for what happened.
    Aeris: Don’t worry about it.
    Cloud: …I can’t help it…
    Aeris: Oh… Then, why don’t you REALLY worry about it? And let me handle Sephiroth. And Cloud, you take care of yourself. So you don’t have a breakdown,okay?”
    where it always seemed to me like she was almost disappointed in and a bit dismissive of Cloud at this point.

    Or the Aerith who was a dick to Barret at the Gold Saucer. I could go on.

    Tifa was not bantering or patronising, because it was never her character – she was the gentle and kind soul, with many insecurities of her own. The couple of moments I can remember of her “bantering” with Cloud were her trying to joke with a just-recovered Cloud, trying to lift his spirits. If the mod gave an impression of Tifa as bantering and patronising, then… let’s say I disagree strongly with their interpretation.

    “The Wall Market sequence especially displayed a new personality, with Aerith now joshing and gently mocking Cloud for his hetero horror at the prospect of donning a dress.”

    She always did in the original. She was always laughing at him and teasing him. And I always remember how Cloud was, despite his initial protest, incredibly accepting of dressing up in women’s clothes, makeup, perfume, the whole set – especially for 1997.

    I mean, the whole idea that Cloud could be attractive enough as a woman that it would work in the first place was already something for 1997, wasn’t it?

    There *is* an awful homophobic scene in the Honeybee Inn (with Mukki) – no defence of that at all.

    “Even Barret evinced signs of an inner life, became something more than an inadvertent caricature of Mr. T. when he expressed his love for the little orphan girl to whom he’d become surrogate father.”

    This is not something the mod changed – that’s what he always was. His character was based, in appearance and mannerisms, on a racist caricature of Mr. T; but the mod did not come up with his story with Marlene and Dyne; it didn’t come up with the Barret who was able to recognise that he wasn’t the best leader. The depth was always there.

    The localisation is bad – no argument at all. But it is not so bad that these aspects of the characters that you like didn’t come through. It may be that you are one of the people for whom voice acting is much preferable to reading lots of text dialogue. But my personal experience of the voice acting mod – I think there’s only one – is that it did not present the story and dialogue in the way I would’ve hoped. And I generally think the voice acting in the Remake, portraying the same characters, was really good, so it’s not like I’m some kind of purist in regard to voice acting.

    I find it quite thoughtlessly dismissive when people ascribe love and admiration for FFVII to nostalgia. Firstly, I have watched multiple streamers, many of whom weren’t even born when the original came out, fall in love with it. No mods, or only the most basic mods that increase the resolution. So it is clearly a matter of personal taste. (If you are interested, I can even link you to a few!) Secondly, it has been *26* years – it should go without saying that many aspects of game development and storytelling in games have advanced. You would hope so! So naturally, many things are not so good by modern standards. But that does not mean people who love and respect it today do so out of nostalgia. Sometimes criticisms of FFVII’s more dated aspects make me imagine how the same people would talk about, say, black-and-white movies; the fact these movies do not give a good representation of the colours in the scenes is not something worth commenting on – you go into it with the understanding that it was made with different technologies and restrictions. It doesn’t mean someone who tells you that their favourite movie is a black-and-white movie must be operating out of nostalgia – they clearly care about different things than the colours. Do you see what I mean? Personal taste aside, I would love it if you could give me many examples of better games with reveals of a twist as elegant as one involving a character turning slightly to the left (and a twist that is also emotionally meaningful and immensely cathartic at the same time); with a soundtrack this great; a game that takes you up into space, and down into the deepest ocean (I’m guessing you didn’t see all the secrets down there!) – and includes an *entire* amusement park and arcade. *In 1997*! Arguments aside, I would genuinely love to hear about any game that is this creative, that seems to add mini-games and details just for the love and fun of it.

    I wonder if you saw the flashback in the mansion basement; the letter from Zangan; the four notes in the basement and the scratches on the tanks; the missable party members. None of them should have been missable, and it is a flaw of the game that they are, but many people never even see or experience them.

    And in case it comes off like I would brook no criticism of the game – I could write essays on all the things that I wish were better about the game. (An example: the ridiculous portrayal of the Turks after what they did to Sector 7 and Jessie, Biggs and Wedge, and the idea that Barret and Tifa would ever cooperate with them. And as mentioned, how Tifa’s story is far too centred on Cloud’s. Just to name two of many.) It’s totally fine if you don’t like or love it as much as the fans do – it is always hugely subjective, and people look for very different things in their games. I just find it frustrating when the love for it is ascribed to nostalgia with no evidence that it is the case; or when its less modern aspects (like the blocky characters or older graphics) are spoken about as if they are universally intolerable, instead of a matter of personal taste.

    Anyway, I know this is long, but as you wrote quite a lot too, hopefully you’ll see this as a worthwhile comment, and not too much of a rant :) I would also recommend, if you are interested in trying another Final Fantasy, that you try FFX before VIII, as X has voice-acting (even if it has some infamously awkward scenes due to it being the first FF to have voice-acting), and I feel a slightly more grown-up storyline that you may find more interesting :)

    • stepped pyramids

      December 27, 2023 at 7:56 am

      I think it’s funny that, decades later, people are still being thrown off by how Aeris and Tifa effectively swap stereotypes — the flower girl healer is worldly and snarky and the brawling bartender is a tender-hearted worrywart.

  27. Copyrighted Name

    December 25, 2023 at 3:03 pm

    In regards to the difficulty, both of the reasons cited probably have some truth to them – and in fact the game had several tweaks done to the western release to make it easier, including lowered enemy encounter rates and simplifying some puzzles – but a lot of it also simply reflects a difference in difficulty preferences between Japanese and western gamers. Keiji Inafune discussed this in an interview for 1Up several years back:
    “Japanese gamers will quit if a game is too hard. They want an RPG where you never die. If you play an RPG correctly, you should not die. That is the point. Most RPGs are not concerned with raising your skill, they are concerned with raising your EXP – Experience.”

    You can find the full quote here:

  28. Whomever

    December 25, 2023 at 10:07 pm

    So I’ve never played Final Fantasy anything, but as someone who has followed Jimmy’s blog for years, I find it striking on a meta level just how many people are commenting on this post. Like it’s an order of magnitude more than any other. That alone is an interesting signal…

  29. Michael Russo

    December 26, 2023 at 2:38 pm

    (oops I accidentally clicked a reply link for this comment)
    One thing that occurred to me (as a longtime reader of this blog especially) was that whole period adventure gaming went through not many years before this, when FMV and live-action cutscenes, book and movie adaptations, basically film+video-game, was seen as “the future”. But that was a narrative dead end. FF7 and the type of storytelling that it ushered in really turned out to be the future of big fictions in videogames.

  30. Tall Snoopy

    December 28, 2023 at 7:18 am

    Very much enjoyed this review and this series of articles as a whole, but I find it funny that all the stuff that I found most charming in this game is pretty much exactly what you ended up modding out. I’m not a fan of tedious battles in JRPGs myself, and I agree that mechanically FFVII doesn’t have much to offer, or at least that the game doesn’t really force you to engage with the interesting stuff, but I was so taken with the enemy designs that I found (almost) every battle a delight. A particular high point comes when you’re wandering around a junkyard and find yourself fighting several demon-possessed houses, that I guess someone… threw away?

    I also loved all the plot-irrelevant stuff, and I especially loved that so much of it was included in the main thread of the game instead of being relegated to optional Easter eggs. Like you I played it for the first time long after it came out and it had also been built up for me as the Ultimate Video Game, so when I actually played it I found it so wonderful that the often ambitious and nuanced writing could coexist with all these silly asides. I guess it’s just a matter of taste, though I suppose being familiar with Japanese pop culture in general and other JRPGs specifically probably helped too.

  31. Christopher C. Theofilos

    December 29, 2023 at 5:03 pm

    It’s hard to argue with an opinion, but a lot of this article seems to be based more upon playing the game in 2023 than in 1997,which I realize is your experience,but one that should be tempered with the lens of a 26 year old Playstation port to a windows version that doesn’t exist anymore. Other than movement, what is the difference between the combat on this and the gold box games? The localization wasn’t great,but neither was it so poor that characters didn’t have nuance within their individual stories. The materia system is something I wish would be iterated upon in a modern game. There were mini-games, side content that you might never see, and hidden bosses that were up there with the Mulmaster Beholder Corps. Not to mention for the time the it had some of the best CG cutscenes in video game history. Also “One-Winger Angel” is still a banger. Final Fantasy 7 is where Western RPG’s really took stock and began drawing inspiration from their Eastern counterparts

  32. Alex

    December 30, 2023 at 7:04 am

    Regarding the lens: Jimmy talked about this before, and I think he´s right. The only thing that matters when playing a game is the fun I have with it in this moment, no matter how old it is. I always can respect its historical significance, but the most important thing should always be the fun factor. If there are some elements that aged poorly in your eyes, then you should talk about it honestly. You can still have fun with it, you´re just looking at it from various angles. Given the hype about so many games old and new in recent times that can really foggy your perception, I think that´s really important.

    I also have to repeat that I´m quite floored how many people here just talk about this game without any exaggeration. I really didn´t think it would turn out this way.

  33. Sebastian Gerstl

    December 30, 2023 at 9:37 am

    I had actually a bit of JRPG experience before Final Fantasy VII hit the scene; as a Mega Drive owner my first entry into the world of JRPGs was Phantasy Star IV, and thanks to the power of emulation on the PC I shortly thereafter got to enjoy (the US SNES versions of) Final Fantasy II (IV JP) and III (VI JP) as well. And I was smitten, particularly with the latter. Fantastic world building, a versatile cast of different and yet engaging characters, shocking plot twists, an at first puzzling and weird but later on truly terrifying villain… and I’ll always cherish the Opera sequence, which was the first time I actually fell in love with a piece of video game music.

    So when Final Fantasy VII came out, with the huge media campaign surrounding it, I was very interested indeed. But whereas many of my friends who had never played a JRPG before fell truly in love with the game and constantly gushed about it, I admit I was thoroughly underwhelmed. Some plot beats or events that my friends found shocking or unexpected had me comparing them so similar scenes in FF III or PS IV, and while FF VII certainly presented them with more bombast, their impact was weakened on me. And other events like the whole crossdressing/harem thing I just found juvenile (an interesting comparison coming from someone who was barely adolescent at the time the game came out). It took me years until I could bring myself to give the game another try and finish it eventually.

    I kind of see how the game left a huge impression on those who were completely unfamiliar with JRPGs and their form of storytelling back in the day and for whom FF VII was their first contact. And while its presentation was certainly levels above what their 16bit predecessors had to offer, in terms of plot and characters I’ve always preferred Final Fantasy III/VI. Admittedly nostalgia seems to play a big role there: I know others who also played earlier Final Fantasy titles before playing VII who also think Final Fantasy VI was the better of the two, while others who only played the earlier games after first experiencing FF VII seem to think contrarywise.

  34. Boonq

    December 31, 2023 at 11:29 pm

    “Who the hell was I? What was I supposed to be doing?”

    I suggest that the next time you play a game that begins in media res, you give it the same charity you gave the equally explains-nothing-about-you and gives-no-apparent-purpose “This is an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.”

    • P-Tux7

      January 3, 2024 at 9:01 pm

      >examine me
      As good-looking as ever.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 4, 2024 at 12:54 pm

      This is very sound advice, albeit advice I already gave to myself, as described in the article: “I started to recognize that there was some real sophistication to the narrative’s construction, that my frustration at the in medias res beginning had been more down to my impatience than any shortcoming on the game’s part. I realized I had to trust the game, to let it reveal its story in its way.” (I’m a little surprised how many folks seem to have missed this mea culpa.)

      That said, Zork’s beginning really isn’t an example of in medias res. You don’t know why you’re there at the beginning, no, but neither do you at the end. “In medias res” literally means “in the middle [of the story]”; there’s no real story whatsoever in Zork to start in the middle of, just spaces to explore and puzzles to solve to collect treasures and score points. In this sense it’s the opposite of Final Fantasy VII, which has story out the wazoo. I’m having trouble thinking of an Infocom game that does have a genuine in medias res opening. Some may seem that way initially, but all of those that I can think of are actually continuing stories begun in the manuals.

      Shakespeare, on the other hand, did it all the time. If you were looking for a zinger, that would have been a better choice, given my professed love for Shakespeare in this article. ;)

  35. minusf

    February 20, 2024 at 11:42 pm

    i have never played ff7 but i am what you would call a Japanophile.

    this article was very painful to read for the obvious reason of being painful for you to play it.

    things forced are rarely fun and i think it’s rather disingenuous to try and “like” something because millions of people did so and try to tiptoe around issues you find fundamental for fear of being cancelled. games should be played when enjoyed and i think this article was a waste of time for both you to write and me to read.

    you describe yourself as jrpg curious, but i can tell you that without any genuine interest in japanese culture (which you quite clearly hasn’t shown), and understanding the japanese soul at least a tiny bit (i.e. minimum required reading is Shogun) you will just keep hitting the “japan is weird” glass ceiling and there will be very little point in writing about japanese games.

    it’s tough, but an “open mind” is simply not enough to write in depth about works of art with different cultural underpinnings.

    • Jimmy Maher

      February 21, 2024 at 6:17 am

      Shogun? ( As a Japanophile, you don’t wish to recommend a book that’s native to the culture?

      • declain

        February 21, 2024 at 9:03 am

        Ouch! He walked right into that one…

      • minusf

        February 22, 2024 at 3:01 pm

        i can’t help but read that article as another “it’s kind of great, but grumble grumble, not really sure why people like it” piece…

        but very good, now that shogun is out of the way, here is a short list of some of my recommendations. i hope you’ll forgive me including manga as proper work of literature, considering the culture.

        Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
        Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa
        Japanese Tales by Royall Tyler (not a native, sorry)
        Maison Ikkoku by Rumiko Takahashi
        Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike
        Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
        Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow
        Hajime no Ippo by George Morikawa
        Bashō haikus

        you mentioned somewhere that Murakami is catching dust on your shelves and actually a number of his books are not really about japan, and i wouldnt recommend them to learn about japan.

        Books are great, but I think movies provide the best avenue to peek deeply into japanese culture, simply because they provide an audo-visual representation of a country very difficult to imagine from scratch. Here is a short list of movies to begin with, again i hope you will forgive me including anime considering the culture.

        Tampopo by Jûzô Itami
        Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi
        My Neighbor Totoro by Hayao Miyazaki
        Perfect Blue by Satoshi Kon
        Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa (but really any Kurosawa)
        Kill! by Kihachi Okamoto
        In the Realm of the Senses by Nagisa Ôshima
        Battle Royale by Kinji Fukasaku
        Millennium Actress by Satoshi Kon
        Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki
        Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata
        Departures by Yōjirō Takita

        But in the end nothing can replace visiting and staying in japan itself. It was quite an eye opener for me.

  36. Offendedmanchild

    March 29, 2024 at 11:53 pm

    Perhaps I should have known not to start reading when I read your premise, the whole “Is this revered movie/book/game really all its cracked up to be?” is rarely indicative of someone willing to give a fair assessment and what do you know it wasn’t. From confusion over it starting in media res to being a bit thick in regards to Aeris’ age you weren’t off to a good start. Your complaints of the translation seemed really off, its fine apart from that flub in regards to the tail. Barrett is a good characters, the translators chose to have him speak in a particular vernacular may be stereotypical but it was perfectly reasonable. Speaking of racism I found your generalizations of the Japanese to be just that and that’s where I gave up on this review. Waste of time.

  37. Alex

    April 20, 2024 at 8:01 pm

    I hope you´re still reading this. After some hesitation I gave the 7th Heaven Mod a try today and in short I see the game in a completely new light. Even though I still see it´s flaws, I can enjoy it now like a movie (even the voice over is working on my original german copy, although of course it changed the game into the english version). Thanks a lot for mentioning it, I never thought I could enjoy it once again! Plus, it´s one of the (very) few mod-managers that I can understand and get to work ;)

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 24, 2024 at 4:50 pm

      It sounds like we were in exactly the same boat! Glad you found a way to more or less enjoy the game, as I did.

  38. Tim Kaiser

    April 25, 2024 at 4:03 am

    As someone who has played RPGs (both Western and JRPGs) most of my life and who played FF7 upon its release in 1997, I can say that the game was an exemplary JRPG at the time. As you covered, JRPGs started as Dragon Quest 1 and Final Fantasy 1 which were fairly simple, with little plot and gave you a basic “save the world” quest with a various degree of non-linearity. Along the way, you fight countless random battles (much the same with Western RPGs like Wizardry or Ultima).

    Over the years as the JRPG genre evolved, the games became more and more linear and more and more story heavy. Thus by 1997, you get FF7 with its intricate story and linear path through the game. Random battles remained a constant.

    What really set FF7 apart was the spectacle of it. The story was really good for the time with all its twists and turns. The 3D graphics were great. The cut scenes were AMAZING. The music was great. And the entire package was just very well put together. When I played it as a teen, I never noticed anything wrong with the translation.

    It certainly has dated since 1997 but your main criticisms seem to be with JRPGs in general. Random battles are a big part of the game. Cutting them out is like excising a big chunk of the content. The story is the main impetus to continue so if you’re not digging the story, you won’t enjoy the game.

    It seems like the JRPG genre is just not your cup of tea. I suspect if you played other JRPGs your feelings would be similar to this. But it’s good that you dipped your toes in the water at least.


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