I have an embarrassing gamer confession to make: I have never played any of the Final Fantasy games. I was much more of a Nintendo 64 person when I was young, and as an adult, the closest I’ve gotten to playing the famous Japanese RPG was picking Cloud in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. But at age 31, I wanted to give them a try.
So after 66 hours of gameplay, I completed the original FF7 on Switch and Part I of the remake on PS4. Playing through the story of Avalanche, a group of eco-terrorists bent on demolishing the evil natural-energy conglomerate called Shinra, was a fun and unique experience.
An Old Story Through Fresh Eyes
The games’ main narrative is a powerful allegory on environmental justice and the dangers of corporations amassing the power of governments. With the climate change issues we face in 2020, it has a visceral resonance in the present. Both games deal with a core moral and philosophical question: In noble causes, are the sacrifices really worth it?
In the original, the rebels are somewhat distanced from the ramifications of blowing up Mako reactors. But in the remake, the player is face-to-face with the chaos. You see the destruction first hand, hearing citizens of Midgar search for their loved ones amidst the debris. Characters like Tifa ask vulnerable but tough questions, wondering at what point does the ends not justify the means, and whether Avalanche had caused the destruction it sought to prevent. Though the original isn’t bad at this, I think the remake gives the main characters more depth and more complex motivations, and it doesn't let Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and Aerith off the hook as perfect heroes.
Since the game has been out since 1997, I already knew that Aerith was going to get killed by Sephiroth. Her death is one of the most loaded plot twists in video game history. As Niles P. Muzyk wrote in The Psychology of Final Fantasy, it affected both the story and the gameplay, as “the player depended on her healing role within the group … the party is placed under urgent threat to reorganize when the character with whom the player has bonded is suddenly gone.”
Waiting for the ax to fall undercut some of the scene’s power in the original game, yet I actually thought the destruction of Sector 7 was the more intense event between the two games. The catastrophe loomed over the rest of the game and made Shinra a much greater focus as a nemesis than Sephiroth was. I also thought the suspense in the original game’s scene was better augmented through silence and atmosphere than with the music playing shortly after Aerith's demise. However, it did establish “Aerith Theme” as a leitmotif that gets stuck in your head and heart. When I hear it now, it not only reminds me of Aerith but has become the song I associate with Final Fantasy. I can only speculate, but Aerith’s death in Part II is probably going to hit me a lot harder than the original did.
Both games did a great job at balancing the macro of saving the planet from destruction and getting revenge against Sephiroth. The story makes the enormous task of saving the planet more personal, and therefore more obtainable. Most major games focus on singular heroes, but I really enjoy ones where collectives save the day. Though he is an iconic character (and I get busy with him in Smash), I can’t imagine that a game with just Cloud would have had the same resonance. Cloud and the gang save the planet, but they do it by saving each other.
The Gameplay Couldn't Be More Different
Final Fantasy VII took 120 developers and around $45 million to make. In April 2020, Square Enix took it to the next level with the remake. The exponentially improved graphics give the game an expansive and textured environment—though Grace Benfell wrote a great piece explaining how pre-rendered backdrops added a bigness to the original that the remake ironically lacks. Benfell argues that the bigness off the original game's landscape gives the player a sense of the enormity of the group’s quest, while the remake’s tight camera focus on Cloud makes the story more of a personal narrative. Though cinematic and visually stunning, the remake didn’t seem as gritty to me as the original.
But a benefit of the more realistic visuals was that the characters had more depth, since you get to see the shifting emotions on their faces, as opposed to the polygonal avatars stuck in one expression (one of the only animations Cloud could do in the original game was a shrug). However, they also drew attention to something that tugged me from my suspension of belief—how could Avalanche remain incognito? I was a bit tickled seeing Barret, the gunslinger, walk through the train or Sector 7 in 3D as if no one would notice the enormous man with a machine gun for an arm. Cloud isn’t exactly discreet either, brandishing a broadsword as long as his body. I obviously was not expecting reality in a sci-fi fantasy video game, but I hadn’t noticed the absurd aspects when playing the original.
Both games have their own unique mechanics—the turn-based tactics of the original and the hack-and-slash grind of the remake. I have experience with both, having played games ranging from Quest 64 to Kingdom Hearts to Indivisible to Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time. At first, you have the tendency to want to just keep attacking and stick to one character, since you are getting accustomed to the controls and the monsters are still relatively weak. But as your opponents get stronger and the game gets more difficult, you start to develop strategies for offense and defense.
Another interesting difference between the two games is in the relationships between the characters—particularly between Cloud and Aerith. In the remake, Cloud comes off guarded but caring, while the dialog options in the original sometimes make him seem like kind of a dick. Aerith’s lightheartedness and connection to nature helps Cloud shed his soldier’s stoicism and reveal his softer side. Both games had long (often too long) cut-scenes, but I would argue that the remake was better at developing their friendship through cut-scenes and story line, while the original forged it mainly through battle and gameplay.
As a healer, Aerith was a crucial member of the squad, and you come to rely on her to endure long and difficult fights. In the original game, even when you equip healing materia to one of the surviving characters, the other characters don’t heal as much as Aerith did. Aerith’s death lit a fire in the group, but for the player, it sharpens your understanding of how important each individual member is to the group. Cloud is the main character, but you can’t take down Shinra alone.
Both games delivered with their intense boss fights. Each time I fought Sephiroth, it felt like a test of all the battle strategies that I had developed up to that point. Ironically, I ended up landing the final blow with Tifa. If you are a gamer, you enjoy the combination of triumph and relief you get when you beat a game. Beating either version of FF7 is definitely memorable in that regard.
Exploring the twin VII games made me want to check out other parts of the Final Fantasy series, particularly Final Fantasy XIII. And the trailer for Final Fantasy XVI looks promising. Though I enjoyed all the slashing, spell-casting, and healing, I had a sense that I was probably missing out on a greater experience by not having played any of them before. Each Final Fantasy has its own unique story, but I’m sure the larger meta-narrative makes each individual story more rich and interesting.
But playing the original Final Fantasy VII and Part I of the remake were great games that I’m glad I got to experience (better late than never!) And I’m more than sure that whenever Square Enix releases Part II of the remake, it will deliver on the unique story and its beloved characters.