Weaponized Nostalgia: Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square Enix, PlayStation 4)
How Final Fantasy VII Remake’s opening hours use nostalgia and modern gaming ideologies to redefine how we think about remakes.
Spoiler warning: This piece contains open spoilers for Final Fantasy VII Remake’s first five chapters and the entirety of the original Final Fantasy VII.
Few games have changed their respective genre as much as the surprise 1997 PlayStation hit Final Fantasy VII. It released to a market broadly unfamiliar with Japanese RPGs — with most of the genre’s popularity relegated to a small but passionate fan base that had enjoyed the likes of Chrono Trigger on the Super Nintendo and Phantasy Star IV on the Sega Genesis. Final Fantasy VII features a large meteor in its logo, and, like a catastrophic omen, it collided with North American audiences with similar force, changing the gaming landscape entirely thanks to its cutting edge combination of 3D graphics and detailed pre-rendered backgrounds, iconic characters, and cinematic ambitions. Its developer Square had high hopes for its release, and budgeted accordingly, but could not have anticipated the enormous demand for Final Fantasy VII. Suddenly, JRPGs were cool. In the 23 years since its release, Final Fantasy VII has sold an estimated 12.6 million copies worldwide — more than five times the sales of its predecessor, Final Fantasy VI — making it one of the most successful Japanese RPGs of all time.
In 2005, Sony showed off its upcoming PlayStation 3 hardware by featuringa tech demo of Final Fantasy VII’s opening sequence remade in full 3D. This created an instant and nearly insatiable clamouring from fans for a modern remake of the beloved but poorly aging game.
It took 15 years and nearly two console generations before Square Enix delivered what fans were asking for with Final Fantasy VII Remake for the PlayStation 4. The anticipation for a full-scale remake never died, and Final Fantasy VII Remake released in April, 2020 to massive critical and financial success — selling an estimated 3.5 million units as of this writing.
How does one approach remaking a game that literally changed gaming when it first released? How do you tap into the nostalgia that kept those cries for a remake alive for 15 years while also crafting a modern game that appeals to new fans? These are the sorts of questions I was asking myself as I booted up Final Fantasy VII Remake for the first time.
In this piece, I’ll be examining my first several hours with Final Fantasy VII Remake, focusing on my experiences, how it feels to play the game as a long time fan of the original, and unpacking how Square Enix manipulates nostalgia for great effect by both fulfilling the player’s desire for nostalgia and also subverting those expectations to create an experience that feels at once familiar and unsettling.
For simplicity’s sake, from here on out I’ll be referring to the games as FFVII and Remake, indicating the 1997 and 2020 versions respectively.
2020: A Midgar Odyssey
Playing the original FFVII in 2020 — as I did in the months preceding Remake’s release — is an experienced defined by the player’s familiarity with early PlayStation JRPGs, nostalgia, and context. Removed from those elements, players will find a clunky experience with truly dreadful character models running around pre-rendered backgrounds that range from static and boring to rich, detail-filled, and still impressive today. The battle system moves by at a frantic pace, but its mechanics are simple and the player is confined to only three players. The entire experience of playing FFVII nowadays is a recognition of how cobbled together it was upon release. Cut scenes feature different character models depending on when and where they were created; Midgar is a perfectly paced mini-RPG, but then things slow down dramatically as soon as you step beyond its walls into the greater world of Gaia; the bones of great characters and sub-plots are there, but they’re buried beneath a truly horrific localization that borders on unreadable.
FFVII was loved not for what is was, but for what it represented.
Under Hironobu Sakaguchi’s lead, FFVII expanded on its predecessor Final Fantasy VI’s experimentation with set pieces and a more cinematic storyline. FFVII was the first step for JRPGs for a more movie-like experience, and that opened the doors to a whole new mainstream audience that would never have bought into the D&D-influenced dungeon crawling of the series’s past. It’s impossible to describe how such a ramshackle game, held together by spit and duct tape, managed to lead a wholesale revolution for the genre, but FFVII was incredibly ambitious, and even if the technology wasn’t quite there to realize those ambitions, it had such verve and confidence that it rewrote history books through sheer will alone.
Remake feels like a culmination of all FFVII’s ambitions — warts and all.
The Grand Uncanny Valley
My immediate first reaction was how impressive the game is visually during the Mako Reactor 1 raid and Cloud’s escape through Midgar’s upper plate. From truly impressive set pieces to dramatic lighting, fast-paced combat filled with gorgeous particle effects, and amazing character models, the opening hour of Remake feel like an early glimpse at the next generation of gaming graphics.
But it doesn’t last.
As you get deeper into the game and reach the Sector 7 slums, some of the shine begins to wear off, and it becomes clear (very clear) that a lot of attention was paid to graphical elements important to the game’s critical path — the kind of stuff you might see in a game trailer — and many other areas were skimmed over. While it might feel fitting for Remake to be a graphical mixed-bag like its source material, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game with such a vast and deep canyon between its most impressive graphics and its worst.
From poor textures straight out of a PlayStation 2 game to awkwardly animated NPCs, flat skyboxes, and low geometry models, Remake’s edges are so rough it makes you wonder whether development didn’t cobble together the game’s interstitial environments and assets at the last moment, after spending the majority of development crafting the impressive story-important set pieces and character models.
The overall effect works, and the level of detail throughout Midgar helps bring to life a world that lived in my head for 20+ years, but one can’t stop and think a game of Remake’s calibre deserved better.
Cloud’s back, in realtime form
When we first caught glimpse of Remake’s action-based combat system, the old school JRPG fan in me cried foul. As someone who happily sank a hundred hours into Dragon Quest XI last year and regularly plays through old JRPGs, I have no problem with turn-based battle systems and generally prefer them to the more frantic, reflex-based battle systems favoured by recent JRPGs. FFVII’s battle system was basic, but its bones were good and I saw no reason to change it.
I’s obvious, thought, that Remake has two intended audiences: longtime fans, like me, who’ll show up for the serotonin kick of seeing beloved characters return in full HD glory, and newcomers, who are only familiar with the game through osmosis and may not even have been born when the original game was released. Dragon Quest XI succeeded by embracing its old school roots, but Remake, like its predecessor, has ambitions of redefining what players expect from JRPGs.
And, boy, did it deliver.
The battle system in Remake is a perfect mix of modern action-based combat with the considered, turn-based style of older JRPGs thanks to its refreshed Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Like many of the post-NES Final Fantasies, Remake allows the player to make actions when their ATB meter fills up, including casting spells, using unique abilities and items, or summoning huge monsters.
In prior games, the ATB bar would fill over time, and once full the character would take their turn, causing their meter to empty. While Remake’s ATB meters do fill slowly over time, the player can also speed it up by using physical attacks in a traditional action-based approach. Press square and Cloud will pound his enemies with a comically large sword; switch to Barret and you can take out enemies from afar using his ranged weapon; Tifa relies on combos; so on and so forth. ATB charges can be saved and unleashed in a flurry, or used as soon as they come available. The choice of strategy is up to the player, and takes into account the relative weaknesses of various enemies. Some are prone to magic, others are easily staggered by repeated physical attacks (sending them into a paralyzed state where they take extra damage from all attacks). This strikes an ultra fine balance between a fast, engaging action-based battle system and one that also relies on more strategic thinking from the player. The game even allows the player to turn on a battle mode that does all the physical combat automatically and prompts them when it’s time to use their ATB charge. I was certain this would be the mode for me, but in eight hours of gameplay, I haven’t even been tempted to turn it on because the battle system is so fun.
So, serve me up a dish of crow, because I went into Remake skeptical about this mixture of systems, but would now welcome news that Final Fantasy XVI (whenever it’s finally revealed) would use a refined version for its combat.
FFVII is remembered fondly for its story, tragic villain, and everybody’s first fictional crush in Aeris, but one of its most defining and relevant elements was the Materia System, which returns in a deeper and more nuanced form in the remake. Players can find and purchase various different materia throughout the world and equip it in their weapons and armour. Depending on the type of materia, it will grant the character new spells or passive abilities that power up as the character earns SP by defeating enemies. It’s mechanically almost identical to the Materia System in FFVII, but, over 20 years later, it remains one of the most interesting, fun, and flexible character building systems featured in the long-running Final Fantasy series.
Remake also features a new weapon upgrade system that creates even more flexibility for the player to build their characters by letting them spend points on stat increases for the weapon. This gives the player the option to pursue various character builds — whether it’s focusing on physical attack, magic, defense, or several other strategies. Players can also specialize different weapons for different roles, equipping a more more magically powerful weapon when about to face off against a boss vulnerable to spells.
While the Materia System in the original game made it so that characters were more or less interchangeable, thanks to Remake’s focus on variety and build options, each character feels more unique and better suited to certain situations. Unlike many action-based battle systems, I’ve often felt compelled (if not outright demanded) to switch control away from Cloud to make benefit of Barret’s long-range weaponry or Tifa’s ability to quickly fill stagger meters. Combining those specialties with the materia and weapon upgrade creates a system that has all of what made the original Materia System so compelling, but with a refined execution that helps the characters retain their individuality and usefulness.
The reactors are alive with the sound of music
FFVII’s original score by Nobuo Uematsu was one of the finest of the generation. As an early JRPG on the PlayStation, Uematsu had not mastered the system’s ability to use high-end samples, which we’d see in his later work like Final Fantasy IX, but the brilliant compositions and melodies rose above the poor instrumentation to provide a moody, sweeping, and suitably epic score for the game. In a way, the cold, metallic feel of the instrumentation suited FFVII, which is about a world grappling with the inexorable tide of progress, as technology literally sucks the earth dry of its life source. Later games in the series would feature more organic and clean sounding music, but FFVII by its very nature is not organic or clean.
Remake takes Uetmatsu’s soundscape and pushes it above and beyond anything that would have been possible on the original PlayStation — finally doing justice to the famed composer’s masterful work. It’s not only an improvement on the original soundtrack, but one of the absolute best in a series known for its impressive scores. Grimy, guitar-heavy instrumentation are the perfect fit for Midgar’s dystopia, and there’s never a missed opportunity to accentuate the game’s more tender moments with music to suit. Just like Cloud and Tifa’s idyllic childhood memories stick out in the dilapidated Sector 7 slums, so too does the quieter, more hopeful score that accompanies them.
FFVII’s story and narrative were quite unlike anything else on consoles at its release in 1997, but it was hampered by a very poor localization. English speaking players had to muddle through its complex themes of self-identity, environmentalism, and anti-capitalism through sheer will, a lot of interpretation, and a reliance on visual story telling. Fortunately, FFVII’s visual story telling was unparalleled in JRPGs at the time, and many of the game’s most iconic moments, including its state-of-the-art cut scenes, retained their intense emotional impact and created many lasting memories.
Playing through FFVII for the first time as a teenager, my experience was entirely emotional. I didn’t pick up on a lot of themes. Instead, I was sad about Aeris, inspired by Cloud, and infatuated with Sephiroth and his troubled history. The game’s core themes largely passed me by until I completed a play through just before Remake’s release — my first in over a decade. Grown up, and with the Internet to guide me through the gibberish localization, I discovered a majorly ambitious story that stumbled in its execution. Some characters like Barret were over the top, and others like Cloud barely had a personality. Even when the game broke away from its disingenuous stereotypes, it wasn’t enough. I had trouble deciding who I wanted in my party because, after the, erm… Aeris incident, I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Tackling big themes is great, but the point becomes lost if the player isn’t properly emotionally invested in the fates of the characters telling the story and exploring those themes.
Remake expounds on that by greatly broadening the scope and complexity of the game’s themes, and seeding many of the narrative’s more complex plots earlier in the game. Just by virtue of spending 40 hours in Midgar instead of eight, Remake has room to breathe, building up its themes one bit at a time, and linking them directly to Midgar, its many inhabitants, and the characters Cloud spends time with along the way. The Shinra Corporation — the ostensible villain for FFVII’s Midgar portion — always felt like a big bad in FFVII, but in Remake you spend dozens of hours fighting your way through their authoritarian grip on Midgar.
Shinra is an immensely wealthy and powerful corporation, a city-state unto itself, and yet its facilities — especially those that provide things like power and light to the poor residents of the slums below the plates — are neglected and overrun with massive insects mutated by mako exposure, energy distribution is uneven and sporadic (at one point Cloud has to turn off one of the “sun lamps” that provide light to the slums just so he can open a gate that isn’t drawing enough power from the grid), and exhaust vents spew thick, black smog directly onto the people below. All of this highlights Shinra and Midgar as a failed dictatorial state that pours excessive money into luxuries for the wealthy and the militarization its police force to ensure the continued subjugation of the city’s poorest people. It’s also a thematically powerful takedown of the capitalistic tendencies and privileges that have created a huge wealth divide in nearly every nation on Earth.
This was all present in FFVII, but the intricacies of how it all worked required the player to piece a lot of smaller parts together and fill in the blanks with their own interpretations. Remake takes this concept and spins it into a chilling (and unfortunately familiar) portrait of a capitalist dictatorship. We see exactly how Shinra operates, and how the residents of the sub-plate slums are slowly squeezed by the very hand that feeds them.
One of the most subtle but powerful moments in FFVII is when you arrive at Aeris’s home and meet her mother. It’s a quiet scene, but there’s a tremendous amount of vulnerability that hits the player like freight train after the game’s first few hours focus exclusively on high stakes mercenary missions. This not only gives the player a moment to breath, but it also establishes Midgar as not just a setting for AVALANCHE’s activism, but a real place that’s home to real people. By meeting Aeris’s mother, dining in her home, and being caught trying to escape, the player forms an emotional connection with Aeris that feels utterly different than the frenetic and violent mercenary relationship Cloud maintains with AVALANCHE.
In all my play throughs of FFVII, Cloud always failed to establish himself as a real person in my head. He’s always a cypher, a catalyst for the plot, a device used by the greater story, even as it delves deep into his psyche. I never knew how to read Cloud. In Remake, however, there are many new layers of nuance to Cloud’s character, and it’s drawn out of him through his relationships with the AVALANCHE members, who themselves are all more fleshed out and individualized than in the original game.
None more so than Jessie Raspberry, AVALANCHE’s red bandanna-wearing technical expert. Almost immediately, she establishes herself as a standout through her confident swagger, impressive technical knowledge, and relentlessly thirsty flirting with Cloud. Hiding behind the tough exterior of a mercenary, Cloud rebuffs her efforts, but over time you can see his affection for her grow into something softer.
Cloud’s entire character arc in the original game revolves around this barrier of false perception he builds up around himself, and to see that addressed in such a personal manner, as Jessie and his childhood friend Tifa slowly peel him back, layer by layer, is immensely satisfying and feels more natural than the original game. When Cloud’s reality begins to unravel as he discovers the truth about his past, we’ll already understand him to be someone who hides behind the false and desperate identity of a mercenary.
At one point, Wedge warns Cloud that it’s all an act, and the player remembers that Jessie harboured dreams of being a famous actor before she joined AVALANCHE to take revenge against Shinra. By contemplating her relentless flirting, the player has to wonder how much of it is a game for Jessie, a coping mechanism for the violence and destruction she experiences and creates, or a ploy to get him more emotionally invested in their activism, and how much of it is genuine. From the moment she began flirting with Cloud I was infatuated, because their rapport, with Jessie constantly egging Cloud on in ways designed to push all his introvert buttons, felt genuine and real. By Chapter 4, Remake goes back to the original’s playbook by taking the player to Jessie’s childhood home. The player doesn’t meet her mother, only getting close enough to hear her in conversation with the other AVALANCHE members, but they do meet her father, who lies in a coma after an accident at a Mako Reactor, and another layer of complexity is unveiled, making Jessie a more rich and multilayered character than anyone we met in 1997.
Having played the original, and knowing the fate of Barret’s AVALANCHE cell, my heart aches each time Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge reveal a part of themselves to Cloud. We do not just get to know the fighters, but we also come to understand exactly why they’re putting their lives on the line because we’ve established emotional connections to the places and people they’re trying to save. I haven’t even gotten to the part where I join Aeris in earnest and meet her mother, but Remake has already made me care more about Midgar than the entirety of the already impressive sequence in the original manage in its entirety.
FFVII surprised me when I replayed it due to its environmentalist and anti-capitalist themes. They escaped me 25 years ago, but feel more relevant than ever in 2020. That its remake can not only retain those themes in a foundational manner but actually expand on them illustrates how ahead of its time FFVII was when it released in 1997, and how few games in the series have been so thematically powerful since.
The spoilers in the room
As a child of the Internet, it was almost impossible for me to avoid spoilers for Remake’s divisive ending. I’m not going to discuss specifics here — I’ll save that for a post-mortem review , but I do want to mention briefly how my knowledge of those spoilers — and their meta-textual impact on the game itself — impacted my enjoyment early on.
Where other recent remakes like Trials of Mana employ a faithful approach to adapting their source material, Remake toys with the very definition of what a remake can be. Knowing what I know about the ending, I’m finding a lot of new life in the story — not just in the sweeping new additions, like everything that happens between the Mako Reactor raids, but also smaller, more subtle things like Aeris’s introduction when she’s swarmed by shadow monsters and seems distressed but not surprised by them, before disappearing with a knowing look as she helps Cloud stay on course with the story beats from the original.
Remake leans heavily into nostalgia and uses it as a warm blanket to lull players into a sense of familiarity, but it also knows how to weaponize that nostalgia and turn it against the player. The first, and perhaps most effective way it does this is by changing the game’s introductory movie. In the original game, players are immediately introduced to Aeris and Midgar. Remake opens with a much wider shot, highlighting the desolate landscape surrounding Midgar before panning in on the city’s upper plates, revealing a society very similar to many of Earth’s metropolitan cities, before zooming in further to see the way life withers as Shinra sucks the planet dry of mako. It takes just under two minutes before the opening cut scene catches up with the original, and already the player knows that this is not just the Final Fantasy VII they grew up loving, it’s also something new and different.
After that, the game continually toys with the player’s memories and nostalgia for the original game. Sephiroth shows up very early, surprising the player and Cloud; Aeris meets Cloud in a dramatic new fashion, and seems to have hidden knowledge that she couldn’t possibly have had the first time around; Cloud is recognized early on by a Shinra guard, planting earlier seeds about his true identity; and Shinra is painted in a more sinister light when it’s revealed they were responsible for the destruction of Mako Reactor 1, not AVALANCHE, which in turn provides very real human moments for Jessie and Tifa to question the cost of their activism and how that weighs against what they’re fighting for. Remake takes the original story, and applies pressure in all the right ways, and in doing so keeps both the player on their toes, and also finds new opportunity to enliven the overarching story with more details.
One of my main concerns is that Remake’s co-director Tetsuya Nomura and co-writer Kazushige Nojima are both known for their work on games that spin wildly out of control as their stories progress. Final Fantasy VIII loses all steam midway through with its orphanage amnesia twist, the Kingdom Hearts series makes LOST seem like a kids show, and Final Fantasy XV’s plot requires players to watch a feature length film just to get up to speed before the game opens. This is all to say that while Remake opens with a lot of promise, the creative team behind the game has a questionable track record when it comes to tying off stories in a satisfying and comprehendible manner.
Nobody knows where the Remake series will go from here, but bold changes to the story that make it simultaneously a remake of the older game and a pseudo-sequel suggest that players might be in for some of Nomura and Nojima’s eccentricity before Sephiroth’s eventual demise several years from now.
Remakes are all about capturing the original lightning in a bottle feeling of older work while smoothing off the rough edges and leaving a more modern veneer over the familiar story. Remake succeeds not only in tapping into the FFVII nostalgia that’s baked into my soul, but, eight hours in, has exceeded its predecessor in key areas like characterization, writing, and combat.
Final Fantasy VII Remake isn’t a carbon copy of the 1997 original, rather it attempts — and succeeds — in capturing and emulating the feeling of playing the original way back at its release. The scenes that played out in my head, acted by chunky, polygonal characters, come vividly to life on my screen. The Midgar I explored bursts with detail and life, a living city that you the player are as motivated to save as the AVALANCHE activists. One of the hallmarks of aging is our pursuit to recapture nostalgia. To discover again that warm feeling of wonder that came so naturally during childhood. It’s why we hold so dearly to Star Wars and Final Fantasy. Watching Final Fantasy VII Remake boot up for the first time, raiding Mako Reactor 1, and meeting Aeris revived all those old emotions in me. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how to modernize an old story. The only question is whether all the changes — the rewriting of history, as it were — will become a burden or an opportunity.
Only time will tell.