“Which is the best Final Fantasy game?” This continues to be one of the most fascinating debates in gaming. I will take the easy way out and say that’s a matter of preference. I will not get into which is my favorite, but instead explore the series’ most defining installment.
Dating back to the series’ inception in 1987, each work is a masterful collaboration. Genre leading graphics, music, story, and gameplay come together to create experiences so expansive the word “game” barely does them justice. Select devoted youtubers have discovered every nook and cranny the titles offer and aren’t embarrassed by the ticker next to their name. Some gamers play their way to the highest allotted time, which eventually freezes (99:59:59 here).
In seventh grade dinosauric Ms. Johnson posted our love poems on the wall. What possessed her to order twelve-year-olds to compose love ballads and reveal them I’m not sure. But Tim Contraros, who was my friend but not, composed his work in tribute to Final Fantasy VII; the series’ most transcendent epic. Tim even illustrated on the top of his paper:
I must have been missing out on something. At a time where my friends and I pasted ourselves to Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye 007 I was unaware that games could immerse you the way Final Fantasy could. I had no idea people waited in front of stores for days and some even broke windows to grab Final Fantasy VII on its release date.
Earlier in the nineties, Squaresoft hit it big with their series’ sixth incarnation, which was the third released in the US and the only one for the Super Nintendo. Final Fantasy III (but really VI) became an instant classic and upon its fiftyish hour completion fans grinded their teeth waiting to see how the series would venture to the third dimension in the next console generation.
Development on a CD expansion to the Super Nintendo—an effort to better Sega after the success of the Sega CD—gave Squaresoft a platform where they could incorporate video cut scenes into the next Final Fantasy. Nintendo partnered with Sony on their CD expansion while Square worked tirelessly on FFVII. The tables turned on Sony and the Final Fantasy franchise when Nintendo executives decided to abandon the CD expansion and focus instead on its third generation console, the cartridge-based Nintendo 64. Square felt betrayed by Nintendo, leading to a major fallout between the two companies.
As usual, Nintendo marched forward with Mario, Link, and Donkey Kong but Square found their alternative platform when Sony boldly released an independent version of the Super Nintendo CD expansion model they titled the Playstation. Square developed Final Fantasy VII over three years before its release in January 1997. Since, it has sold over ten million copies making it the franchise’s best seller.
Naturally, the game found its way to me. At first I didn’t understand the beefy jewel case. I learned the case was double thick because it housed three game discs. The game was so monumental it skipped the concept of two-disc games and went straight to three. Many hours into their quest, following a climactic cut scene a player would see artwork accompanying the message “Please insert disc 2.” You’re damn right I will. And you don’t have to say please.
Before Final Fantasy VII I played Super Mario RPG, another one of my favorites. But I hadn’t realized the system for acquiring and equipping items, and customizing characters was infantile in Super Mario RPG compared to the big boys. Fighting Culex was the game’s greatest challenge, but little did I know that “secret” boss and the terrific battle theme was born in Final Fantasy IV.
So I played. VII, IX, X, XII, XIII, and finally III. I replayed VII at least twice, and IX and X at least thee times. I never played VIII after being told it was overrated. From what I had read, the characters and storyline were not appealing. I understand it wasn’t terrible, but I’m afraid of disappointment.
IX is the purest title. We’ll get to that later. X has the most engaging, whirlwind story. We’ll get to that later. But VII wins in gameplay. And VII wins in being the biggest leap into a higher level of hardcore gaming.
What draws people to RPGs is a player’s creative control over their world and its characters. FFX’s sphere grid was a unique system of developing (mostly secondary) attributes to our heroes and heroines, and FFIX fixed them in their traditional classes. FFVII, however pioneered a mostly customizable setup.
Materia, which could be socketed to any equipped weapon or armor granted bonuses in statistics while declining others. In addition, Materia granted characters magic spells and unique abilities differentiating them from their allies. A player is free to develop nine distinctive characters.
Strategically combining materia can give you a melee, long-range, and magic attacker. You can also develop a thief, a healer, and support magic character. Some characters can specialize in abilities like Mime or Manipulate where they can learn from and convert enemies. Some can become summoners and sacrifice major attack and defense losses but gain the ability to call upon legendary beasts dealing catastrophic damage. Choice is what makes an RPG fun. In the original Super Mario Bros. there exists two ways to defeat Bowser. Run underneath him at the proper time and chop down the bridge (why he leaves an axe there I have no idea), or blast him with fireballs. There are countless ways to strategize victory in Final Fantasy VII.
Arguably, the seventh game had the best characters. Instead of FFX’s whiny Tidus who felt like his father never loved him, you have Cloud Strife, an elite ex-Soldier with a murky history and amnesia. Instead of annoying white Jamaican Wakka in FFX, you have the arm cannon-toting foul mouthed Barrett. Instead of a personality-free Yuna, you have Tifa Lockhart beating down enemies with her fists. She is an emotionally strong female character, though she is more famous for her giant breasts. The hyper-intelligent demon dog Red XIII remains one of the series’ greatest characters. So does chain-smoking pilot Cid Highwind, the enigmatic Cait Sith, bubbly Yuffie, and vengeful Vincent Valentine. And, of course, poor dead Aeris.
What separated Final Fantasy VII from its predecessors and many of its successors is its proliferation of secrets and minigames. In addition to the regular questing and battling, Cloud would budget war strategies with an army general, snowboard, swing baseball bats at enemies while riding a motorcycle, and competitively race and breed giant chickens called chocobos.
Also striking was Final Fantasy’s use of cinematic cut scenes. At FFVII’s most pivotal moments players would break from their pixilated journey and view an advanced cinematic of a crucial event. Scenes like Aeris’ death at the hands of the vicious Sephiroth are treasured memories in the world of nerds.
My friend Dan won’t play FFVII or FFIX because of their unimpressive graphics compared to XIII. Let’s be real. XIII is so cinematic and linear it’s not really an RPG. It’s more like an interactive movie, where 20% of the time you are afforded the opportunity to fight tedious enemies. FFX was a graphic marvel for its time, and its story is gripping, but as mentioned the characters are mostly hollow. Give me the classic Playstation Final Fantasies any day.
There’s a good reason why people keep coming back to these games. No matter which is your favorite, VII is incontrovertibly the most defining game in the series. No wonder why players have been demanding its PS3 HD remake for years. I would break a window to get my hands on that.