Returning to Midgar 23 Years Later
Final Fantasy VII Remake’s debut is momentous for gamers everywhere
Here we are. Just a few weeks before the launch of one of the year’s — perhaps, the decade’s — most long-awaited titles: Final Fantasy VII Remake. For those who didn’t grow up with the legendary JRPG, the remake presents an opportunity to see why older generations just won’t shut up about this game, as they head to Midgar to meet Cloud, Tifa, and the rest of the gang for the first time. I can’t say I don’t envy them; what I wouldn’t give to experience this story again for the very first time. But there’s value in being a Final Fantasy VII veteran, too — the opportunity to return to the world we so fondly remember (and for that world to be so strikingly realised thanks to many thousands of hours of human effort, buttressed by the wonders of modern rendering technology) is a day we only ever dared dream might be possible. In fact, that shared dream — that endless passion — has been the fuel that filled the impossibly large tank necessary to make Final Fantasy VII Remake a reality.
The way players experience games can be influenced, at least in part, by the time and place they first played it. Final Fantasy VII debuted on the PlayStation in 1997 — a time when most conversation about the game occurred in person among friends. At the time of its release, it’s fair to say that among PlayStation owners, there were those who owned Final Fantasy VII and…those who coveted it. The launch was accompanied by a then-unprecedented global marketing effort that emphasised the then-revolutionary approach to full-motion video as well as its enormous scale (it took up three CD-ROMs!) A game of this scale — and filled with secrets (and plenty of conspiracy theories) — became a natural focal point for gamers’ conversations. Friendships formed, bonds were forged, and players found something to share with one another for many years beyond launch.
Of course, as much as Final Fantasy VII was a watershed moment for the franchise (and for video games in general), time moved on — and so did the series. To their credit, Square Enix continued to experiment with the franchise over the years. Some titles had a heavy emotional impact (IX, X), others were admired for their bold changes to gameplay systems (XII) or their audiovisual fidelity (XIII, XV), while others still became a haven for fans to share their love for the constantly expanding franchise (XI, XIV). Despite their many efforts, however, Square Enix could never quite find that ideal recipe that truly spoke to the heart of the fan base as much as their lucky seven.
As a fan of Final Fantasy VII, you may think me biased when I speak of the ideal recipe. But there’s ample evidence — accumulated over many years — that fans did generally regard Final Fantasy VII as a standout title in the famous franchise. To a large degree, this became evident with the birth (well after the game’s launch) of online community forums and comment sections; whenever a new Final Fantasy product (any kind of product) was mentioned or discussed, there were always at least a couple of people chiming in with comments like “…they will never reach the levels of success they had with VII,” or “after VII, it all went downhill,” or “why don’t they just remake VII instead of releasing all of this?”
It wasn’t just the fans, either. The developers themselves had long been toying around with the idea of a remake. You may recall the 2005 PlayStation 3 technical demo, which recreated the opening sequence from Final Fantasy VII. The team responsible for that demo went on to create Final Fantasy XIII. As one might expect, that demo caused fans around the world to go wild, as it planted the very definite seed that a Final Fantasy VII remake might be possible. It also cemented ideas about just how exceptional the experience could be when channeled through more modern technology. The overwhelming reaction from fans was hardly surprising at the time, and Square Enix were very aware of said reaction. They decided to rekindle the flame of hope, but not exactly in the way fans imagined.
Rather than remake the original game, Square Enix took a different path. They decided to dramatically expand the Final Fantasy VII experience by telling various stories from the game’s narrative universe. These stories were presented under the broad banner known as Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, a series of games, movies, and other forms of media that Square Enix regarded as a ‘thank you’ to longtime fans (and a nice way to cash in on all that pent up fan fervour, no doubt — Ed).
The Compilation gave rise to numerous projects, but the two most notable were Crisis Core (a game released on the PSP) and the CGI feature film Advent Children. Interestingly, Square Enix expressed a desire to reach Advent Children-levels of visual fidelity in their games — evidently, this just wasn’t achievable at the time, and it would take further advances in hardware and software technology (as well as the no doubt enormous commitment to invest the time and money) to make a genuine remake possible.
Building a dream
E3 2015 was the moment of truth: Final Fantasy VII Remake was officially announced to the world. I know it’s a cliché, but this was a moment that broke the internet. Thousands of fans the world over cheered, yelled, and cried, as the three very familiar notes echoed gently in their ears. They held their faces in disbelief as Barret’s gun arm — and an equally-familiar figure with his trademark Buster Sword — emerged on their screens. Even then, they wouldn’t allow themselves to believe the tantalising possibility — at least, not until they saw the confirmation on their screen. This was, indeed, a full-on remake.
Five words stood out on the trailer: “…the promise has been made.” By no means had Square Enix completed their work on this ambitious project. They weren’t about to ship anything. Rather, their gruelling uphill climb had only just begun.
Initially, the plan was for popular developer CyberConnect2 to assist in the creation of Remake. That decision didn’t sit too well with fans. CyberConnect2 are more well known for their work on anime-based games (and even there, none of their work shone through as ‘groundbreaking’ or anything close to that). Arguably, their work has generally been focused on very specific audiences (their latest release, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, was released to mixed reviews and isn’t recommended for those who aren’t fans of Dragon Ball Z itself). The team at Square Enix ultimately decided to part ways with CyberConnect2 after the 2015 PlayStation Xperience trailer for Remake debuted (rumours say the Square Enix team were disappointed with various aspects of the work done up until that point); the impact, of course, was that Square Enix themselves had to do an enormous amount of re-work, which would take them a great deal of time and energy. The crucial decision at this point was that the entire project would be handled in-house with the core team — these were the folks, after all, who genuinely understood their own creation and had built a longterm relationship with the fans.
More than 18 years had passed between the release of the original game and the announcement of the remake. In that time, many people who were fans of the original game had taken their first steps into game development. Square Enix ultimately hunted several of these people down in an effort to have them join the development team for the remake — the key, though, was that they had to have played the original when they were young and they needed to be motivated to build the greatest experience possible. It was all about doing justice to Final Fantasy VII, after all.
Love of the game
It may have been a long wait, but eventually this team made up of veteran developers and veteran fans would be able to show the fruits of their labor. As every new trailer for Final Fantasy VII Remake dropped, it became clearer and clearer that this project is not only ambitious on its own terms, but that it’s the kind of love letter to the original that longtime fans have been looking for all these years. It’s plainly obvious that the people on the remake’s development team were there with us, back in 1997, when we so excitedly took up the battle to save the planet from some of the most iconic video game villains of all time.
We are on the eve of the remake’s global launch. A sizeable playable demo is now available on the PlayStation Store — if nothing else, this demo is the ultimate sign that our dreams are becoming a reality. It’s one thing to see the beautiful trailers; it’s another to finally leap off that train as it pulls into that station in the middle of the night, enveloped in plumes of smoke. Soon, millions of us will return to Midgar — return home— and eagerly awaiting the coming chapters of this newly-realised classic. At long last, the promise has been fulfilled.