While the SNES arguably had better releases in the Final Fantasy series, it was the seventh entry on the original PlayStation that truly brought the RPG genre into the eyes of the mainstream. Final Fantasy VII’s multi-disc spanning epic was a smashing success in 1997, selling nearly 10 million copies worldwide, and changed the gaming industry forever.
This was not only the first time a Final Fantasy title would appear on a non-Nintendo platform (although it initially began life as a SNES project in 1994 before Square decided the PlayStation’s CD Rom format was the smarter option), but also the first game in the series to release in Europe. And although we could talk all day about the game’s absurdly expensive developmental costs, how it helped PlayStation become the brand it is today, the translation issues, and the deeper themes expressed throughout the story, others have already done that far better than I ever could.
I was one of those 10 million people that purchased Final Fantasy VII, and although I’ve often referred to the legendary RPG as “overrated” over the years (and still prefer VIII in the PS1 trilogy), I’ve since come to terms that I was just being an edgy prick. These days I can fully admit that it’s one of my absolute favorite games of all time.
It’s an incredibly special game that arrived at a time when I was completely vulnerable, having just transferred schools in the middle of 10th grade due to relentless bullying. I never looked forward to facing those I couldn’t stomach to be around, but I always had Final Fantasy VII to come home to. Video games have always been my escape.
I had my original PlayStation for nearly two years, and up until that point, I hadn’t really found much to play beyond Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, Twisted Metal, and Resident Evil. I was still relatively new to RPGs with only chunks of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy III (VI), and Super Mario RPG under my belt, so it wasn’t like I was overly excited about Final Fantasy VII. I was just excited to finally have something, anything, new to play on a console that went mostly unused since Christmas of 1995.
I was 16, so I wasn’t driving at the time. I remember picking it up the day it released, though, which means my mom probably drove me to Video Game Exchange (our only local game store) after an exhausting 12-hour day at work. Bless her. I also remember opening the jewel case and wondering why there was more than one disc, which would eventually become commonplace.
So I began my adventure just like many of you, mouth wide open while Nobuo Uematsu’s “Opening Theme, Bombing Mission” played during the introduction of Aeris, the Mako reactor, and its surrounding city of Midgar. Cutscenes were still special at this point in gaming, and I always looked forward to the next major story event that would use them as a narrative tool — Sister Ray consuming every ounce of Mako energy from Midgar to blast Diamond Weapon remains my favorite.
Uematsu’s composition is equally enthralling. “Flowers Blooming in the Church” serves as a fantastic, emotional reintroduction to Aeris. “Cosmo Canyon” still gets me all misty-eyed and is easily my favorite piece of music in gaming history. Just recalling the moment Red XIII learns that his father, the man he believed all this time to be a coward that abandoned his people, was actually turned to stone while defending them… it’s so fucking tragic.
I’ve never been the type to change a character’s name, so when the blue and yellow LEGO-bricked hero emerged from the train I naturally stuck with Cloud. My stoner friend Harry, however, took the liberty of renaming him Cloud9 in his game (with Aeris becoming Lotahooter and Tifa having a similarly derogatory name, I’m sure). I became attached to the supporting cast, with Red XIII being my favorite in-game and Vincent the one I liked to draw most during class instead of doing actual work.
Final Fantasy VII sucked me in immediately, and within a week I found myself nearing the end of the first disc. However, my inexperience came into play and my overall lack of grinding lead to my severely underpowered band of heroes getting progression-locked on the Demons Gate boss. What a jerk. I tried numerous times to no avail, but eventually recalled how repeatedly battling monsters in Chrono Trigger made things far simpler just two years prior. So I started over.
This time, after finishing up the Corel storyline between Barret and Dyne, I spent two straight weeks grinding XP, powering up materia, and unlocking limit breaks. I was ready to dish out some sweet revenge on the Demons Gate, but wasn’t prepared for the event that followed. In retrospect it’s a goofy cutscene, with Sephiroth clearly missing his gloves as he impales Aeris, only to have them reappear in the next cut, but I hadn’t really been exposed to death in video games outside of Mario falling in a hole, or Link being struck down only to reappear in the overworld as if nothing happened.
A character I grew to love over the last 50 hours was gone forever (kind of) and there was no Phoenix Down big enough to bring her back. It was my first dose of video game tragedy, really.
We didn’t have the internet at the time, so I spent my allowance on the official strategy guide to help locate hidden materia, breed chocobos for Knights of the Round, and eventually completed the game to the fullest extent possible. I’m not sure if Cloud9 ever became a world-saving hero, or even witnessed the death of Lotahooter in Harry’s game, though.
Final Fantasy VII helped solidify my love of role-playing games, much in the way Resident Evil did for horror, which is an impact that still holds true today. My game shelf and digital backlog largely consist of RPGs, many of which would have been ignored completely had it not been for Cloud and company. Final Fantasy remains my favorite RPG series of all time, and since finishing the seventh entry 20 years ago I’ve gone back to play the “classics,” picked up spin-offs, and am currently dabbling in Final Fantasy XV’s post-game content.
As I mentioned earlier, I did go on to enjoy Final Fantasy VIII more than VII (and Final Fantasy Tactics more than all of them), but there’s no denying the importance of this day back in 1997. We can all look back at the blueprint of games that helped define who we are today, and I count Final Fantasy VII among them.