Analyzing Final Fantasy VII without nostalgia goggles

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Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series of retrospective reviews of games released more than 10 years ago. We remove the rose-tinted glasses and grade the game in various categories with a total point scale of 100.

By Joe Delaney

Most video games age like bananas. You buy them and they’re really great for a day, maybe two. Then one day you come home, and suddenly they’re all brown, and gross, and have regressive views on gender and sexuality. Just like bananas.

But some games age much better than bananas. Some games have visuals and mechanics that don’t wither with age, but rather only seem to improve as time goes by. I’m struggling to think of a fruit-based analogy for something that gets better with age, so I’ll say that these special games are like pineapples. Do pineapples get better as time goes by? I don’t know. No one knows, because no one eats them.

Let’s find out how well classic games stand the test of time, judging them not with rose-tinted nostalgia goggles, but with a critical eye. I’ll be grading these games based on how dated they’ve become, and whether or not they’re still worth checking out today for someone who didn’t grow up playing them.

The first game I’ll be examining is Final Fantasy VII, arguably the most important RPG ever made. With the long awaited remake released, I figured it would be a good time to look at the PlayStation original.

I should preface this and say that this game really holds no nostalgic value for me; I was 7 when this game came out, but I didn’t play it until I was in high school. So I will try to examine this game as objectively as possible, grading it based on four categories: visuals, music, story and gameplay. I’ll grade each category a score out of 25, then add it up to provide its final grade.

Will FF7 ace the test and get into a great college where it chooses a useless liberal arts major, and after graduation gets a soul-sucking desk job? Or will it fail, and end up going into trade school and get a job making $60,000 a year by the time it’s 21? Let’s find out!

Visuals

Let’s get this one out of the way: No game from the 5th generation looks good.

In the 4th generation, the SNES and Genesis era, developers absolutely mastered pixel art, making games that still look damn good today. Instead of building on the foundation they laid in that generation, and really perfecting the 2D aesthetic, game developers in the PS1 and N64 era decided that, no, it’s time to make the jump to the third dimension… even though none of them were ready. 

Okay, maybe a few games from the 5th gen look fine today, like Paper Mario, Symphony of the Night and a few others. But those games are the exception because they harkened back to a simpler style, and didn’t even try to be 3D. Nearly all 3D games from this era are absolutely hideous today, and Final Fantasy VII is no different. Well, it’s a little different, so let’s talk about that. 

When you first boot up FF7 and start a new game, the first thing you’re greeted with is an evocative cutscene. While it’s not state-of-the-art anymore, it still looks pretty good.

We focus on Aerith, a young woman selling flowers on the streets of Midgar. The look of the city is immediately striking, with an aesthetic that seamlessly blends multiples styles all at once, from steampunk, to 1940’s noire. The camera zooms out from Aerith to reveal the entire city and the massive Mako reactor at its core, effectively establishing the scope of the game. After the game’s logo appears, we then zoom back in, but to a new location, one of the smaller Mako reactors, where a train is arriving.

And from that train emerges our game’s hero, Cloud, and he looks… oh no. 

The in-game models of these characters are absolutely baffling. Not all of them are horrible, but most of them are blocky and barely resemble human beings. Somehow, they made Cloud, the player character, look the goofiest. His tiny biceps combined with his massive forearms, his weird purple outfit that doesn’t match the cool black one from cutscenes and box art, all of it just adds up to one silly ass character design. 

Despite the laughable character models though, honestly the rest of the game doesn’t look too bad. The aforementioned cutscenes hold up pretty well, the battle character models don’t look too bad, and the hand-drawn backgrounds are actually quite beautiful. These aspects elevate it a little bit, but not enough to give it a high score.

Score: 10/25

Music

I’m not even gonna waste anyone’s time. Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack is one of the absolute greatest in video game history. There are so many iconic tracks here, from “Opening Bombing Mission,” to “Flowers Blooming in the Church,” to “One-Winged Angel.”

But for my money, it’s the game’s main theme that stands above all the rest. The composition sounds like something straight out of a classic 1940’s romance film, with a melody that sounds both longing and dangerous. Nobuo Uematsu is one of the best composers in video games, and his score for FFVII might be his magnum opus.

Score: 25/25

Gameplay

One of the most contentious changes made in the Final Fantasy VII Remake is how they’ve altered the combat.

The original game’s fights were turn-based, and featured Squaresoft’s famous Active Time Battle (ATB) system. The remake opted for a more action RPG approach. Purists swear by the ATB system of classic Squaresoft games and long for a return to this style.

But maybe we shouldn’t … because the ATB system isn’t very good.

Look, I have nothing against turn-based combat. Not everyone has great reflexes and timing. Some people want something a bit more strategic, a bit more thoughtful. But the ATB system does away with strategic planning and replaces it with frantically searching through cumbersome menus as fast as you can before the enemy attacks next.

It’s too fast to be turn-based, but too slow to be an action game, so instead it occupies this awkward middle ground that feels less like you’re involved in an epic showdown, and more like you’re working a customer service job trying to get someone’s information, but they’re speaking faster than you can type. 

Score: 15/25

Story

(Spoiler warning for this section)

Gameplay has never been the reason that Final Fantasy VII has endured. Its graphics were a selling point at the time, but they’re not what gets talked about to this very day.

No, the true secret to FFVII’s success was, and always will be, its story and characters. Cloud, Aerith, and the rest are some gaming’s most recognizable heroes, and their struggle to save the world from both corporate greed and cosmic deities has resonated with players for over twenty years now.

But was it really any good? Are we all just collectively being blinded by nostalgia and our childhood crushes on Tifa?

Nah man. The story is actually fantastic, and it holds up way better than I was expecting. The way the plot evolves over the course of the game is masterful.

It starts with a group of eco-terrorists fighting against Shinra, a corporation that is destroying the planet for profit (next time someone complains about modern games being too political, remind them that this game exists). The Shinra president serves as the main villain for the first few hours of the story, and does a great job earning the player’s hatred. He oppresses the underclass, kidnaps your love interest and kills a whole bunch of your friends. He checks all the boxes for being the perfect main bad guy…

And then he’s murdered offscreen by the game’s true bad guy. I won’t spend too much time talking about Sephiroth, because enough has been said about him. What I will say is that he absolutely deserves his place among gaming’s greatest villains. He’s complex, he’s terrifying, his boss theme is badass. And he’s responsible for one of the most heartbreaking scenes in gaming history. You know the one.

Score: 25/25

Final Score: 75/100 - C

It may not have aced the test, but last I checked, that’s a passing score, so congrats, Final Fantasy VII! You’re pretty ugly and I don’t like your battle system, but thankfully your amazing story and music make up for it.

At the time of this writing, I haven’t played the remake, but from what I hear, it makes quite a few substantial changes to the story that I’m sure won’t piss people off and make them review bomb the game on Metacritic. Regardless of how that turns out, the original game will always be here, and I’m happy to say it’s still worth playing today.

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Readers Comments (6)

  1. Great writing. But… I eat pineapples 😐

  2. I enjoyed the article, Joe. Actually my first time on the website. This might be a bit of a stretch, but you could use grapes/wine for a fruit that ages well over time.

  3. Great article, funny and insightful. I know I can trust the advice because you’re clearly not the pineapple on pizza sort.

    • Trust the review I mean. I guess this isn’t life advice. Except that I probably should’ve gone to trade school…

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