Monday, September 23, 2013

Negating Nostalgia: Is Final Fantasy 7 actually a good game?

In 1997, Square released one of best known games of all time for the original Playstation, Final Fantasy 7.  At the time, it was praised as an instant classic and was instrumental in solidifying the Playstation as the champion of its generation. In the sixteen years since its release, a growing contingent of vocal gamers have been making the case that Final Fantasy 7 isn't all its cracked up to be and that the continued fondness for the game is mostly based in nostalgia rather than actual merit. Today I will explore the then and now considerations of Final Fantasy 7 in an effort to determine if it really is worth modern attention or if should stay a part of history.

Before committing to an exploration of the merits of Final Fantasy 7, it will serve to lay two pieces of groundwork. First, I think it is important to outline that the majority opinion of FF7 is that it is a great game, that said, I am going to take it at face value that at least some of the modern criticisms against the game are genuine; the game is not universally loved and those who are tepid towards it aren't simply trying to get a rise. As such, the exploration of the merits of the game is not a trivial exercise. Second, I am not trying to, nor do I think I could, convince anyone to change their opinion; one's personal standard of taste is not on trial here and I don't think it is fruitful or justified to consider either opinion wrong. Of course, I would hope that this post will encourage both sides to consider why they hold the belief that they do; introspection of the reasoning behind opinions is something that I feel all people ought to engage in whether it be for something as trite as gaming or as serious as global politics (otherwise why even bother to have an opinion in the first place?).

Graphics
Final Fantasy 7 is primarily realized through pre-rendered backgrounds with a polygonal objects overlay. The backgrounds are mostly static depictions of the world scenery with the player navigating their animated polygonal character through them. The notable exceptions are the battle sequences and the overworld map which are both fully rendered. Also, interspersed throughout the game are full motion video cutscenes that typically convey heightened action or provide a panoramic view.

Then
Prior to 1997, RPGs had been mostly sprite based. This afforded limited animation and an overall flat feeling. The few RPGs that went against the 2D grain generally opted for a first person perspective. As such, FF7 represented a massive leap forward in terms of how an RPG could be depicted. The pre-rendered backgrounds were impressive and provided an atmosphere and texturing that could not be rendered in real-time until later generations. On the other hand, the overlays were noticeably blocky sporting low polygon counts and flat textures. This was especially jarring when transitioning to the fully rendered battle sequences which inexplicable bumped the models to state of the art easily competing with some of the best looking 3D titles. The cutscenes took this to an even higher level and were among the best example of computer generated effects of any medium at the time.

Now
The blocky models still look as ugly as ever but the battle models are quite passable. The animation may feel a bit stiff but I don't think anything looks awful enough to immediately warrant passing the game over. The pre-rendered backgrounds still look amazing although, obviously, not rendered in the 1080p modern gamers have become accustomed to. The general concept of pre-rendered backgrounds has been largely abandoned as graphics processors are now capable of achieving results in real-time thus affording more flexibility with the camera. One high note is that the spell effects and lighting are still gorgeous and, by and large, could still function in a brand new RPG with minimal tweaking. With hindsight, it is pretty obvious that FF7 was ahead of its time in the graphical department and, although a bit dated, everything is still quite serviceable.

Sound

Then
The music features numerous riffs on classic Final Fantasy melodies and renders them in a high midi format. Sound effects are fully sampled audio clips. The midi effects were not the gold standard at the time as many games had taken to employing proper CD quality tracks. The concept of integrated compressed audio (ie. MP3) hadn't quite taken fire and thus, with limited space, the omission of high quality music was mostly forgivable (the game already spanned 3 CDs, fully scored music would probably have extended this to 5). The midi music was still pretty good and some of the original compositions such as One-Winged-Angel were jaw dropping in how they could convey an epic sense of battle. The sound effects were light years ahead of the beeps and boops of the 16bit generation with sword slicing being easily distinguishable from gunfire. Not the best of its time but certainly not the worst either.

Now
One-Winged-Angel still holds as one of the best boss battle themes of all time. Unfortunately, when you can hear the track fully orchestrated (complete with a live choir) it really does make the technological considerations to opt for midi instead of full CD audio seem regrettable. It really is a shame that the music hasn't stood the test of time due to system limitations because it is extremely well composed and worthy of a listen on its own merits. Looking back, the passable sound effects are each individually fine though they are repeated quite a bit. For example, the 'jumping' sound is also the same as the 'missed sword swing' effect. This isn't a deal breaker but is a lot more noticeable now. As with the graphics, I don't think the sound should be considered sufficiently lacking to justify dismissing the game altogether.

Gameplay
Aside from moving things to 3D, Final Fantasy 7 is, in many ways, a traditional JRPG with few new ideas. Realistically, I imagine that it would have totally been possible to produce FF7 for play on an older generation system.

Then
For many gamers, FF7 was their first introduction to the JRPG formula so everything felt new. While those who were seasoned JRPGers praised the materia system as a unique take on the magic and spell system. FF7 did employ more mini-games then its predecessors and the idea of tearing it up in a snowboard with the main character was really awesome. That said, almost every system including summons, airships, and secret bosses was a rehash from previous titles and little new was being brought to the table. On the other hand, the JRPG formula is enduring to this day and the mantra of "it it isn't broken don't fix it" could easily apply here.

Now
In hindsight, the materia system is interesting but no better or worse than any other magic system employed by the genre. Further, the minigames are mostly terrible and the 'cool' factor of snowboards is a non-factor for modern gamers. I think it is important to remember that, at the time of release, JRPGs were just starting to make headway in the European and North American markets so while it is technically fair to dock FF7 for not being too original, I think it would be unreasonable to expect Square to try to release something totally novel when they already had a proven formula to test on the largely untapped market. As stated above, the JRPG formula is still successful in modern gaming and I feel that boredom of the formula is not really a valid criticism against FF7 (its not like it botched the formula).

Story (potential spoilers ahead...)

Then
Often the biggest draw for RPGs is the story. I must admit that I often find the plot in JRPGs to be too convoluted with insufficient character development for my tastes. That said, FF7 delivers a sprawling arc that spans some 30 hours of gameplay and features a surprise twist about a third of the way through the game with Aeris being killed. The idea of a main character dying partway through the story was simply unheard of in games at the time and rightfully took everyone by surprise; this twist alone was worth the price of admission. The unique setting which merged swords and sorcery in a near future setting is also pretty neat. Further, some of the secondary story lines, particularly Barrett's troubled past explaining his current motivations, are decently told side tales. Finally, Sephiroth is a memorable villain even if mostly for successfully killing a main character as opposed to providing a unique take on world destruction trope.

Now
The concept of a key character dying is no longer a shocker to most modern gamers. Further, the main plot line is completely nonsensical at times and the main character, Cloud, is a two dimensional brooding hero stock character that fails to propel the story convincingly. Exasperating these problems is uneven pacing and a mid-game that really slams on the brakes. That said, I am hard pressed to not find these same failing in modern Final Fantasy games. As such, it seems unfair to single out FF7 as a bad game based on story as opposed to any other game within the series. One thing that is still compelling is the setting which explores an intriguing message of environmental ethics. Further, the concept of swords in modern(ish) times is still pretty neat and is a welcome change from the high fantasy which seems to permeate the genre.

Overall
I think that Final Fantasy 7 does a pretty good job of standing the test of time. It's biggest flaw, the story, is mostly forgivable in light of the brilliantly crafted setting. Further, based on my own experience, FF7's story is no worse off than modern incarnations of the series. The pre-rendered backgrounds are still a visual treat and the music, while lamentably midi, is well composed. While the game will certainly not be a draw for those burnt out on the JRPG genre, I see little reason why it can't be an enjoyable romp for those who are craving more. In other words, FF7 is a well crafted JRPG which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. I think that the high praise it received at the time of its launch and its enduring status as a classic is, generally, well deserved.