Why the original Final Fantasy 7 remains essential, even after the remake – Polygon

April 16, 2020

The Final Fantasy 7 Remake worries me.

It’s the fear that some may see it not as a companion piece to the original game, but as a replacement for it. Remake may cause some players to conclude that the original PlayStation game, with its dated graphics and old-fashioned, turn-based battles, is now obsolete.

It’s not.

If anything, contrasting the 1997 game with Remake reveals a variety of wonderful qualities that remain unique to the original, and that make a powerful case for why the PlayStation classic is still very much worth experiencing today, even if you’ve never played Final Fantasy 7 before.

Getting the whole story

The most important thing to remember is that you still only have one choice if you want to experience the entire story. It’s understandable that Square Enix would want to release Remake in segments; the project is a massive undertaking, and selling multiple games makes sense from a business perspective as well.

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But the first Remake release ends right where the 1997 game feels like it’s just about to get going. You spend your first six or eight hours in Midgar when playing the original release, and Midgar is a metallic, stratified city that feels vast — until you finally take your first steps beyond it and see the entire world map spreading out before you.

It’s one of the greatest “Wow!” moments in all of gaming, and Remake doesn’t give you that … at least not yet. The credits roll just as the heroes are about to venture into the wider world, robbing players of that jaw-dropping experience until the next release. It’s a bit like The Fellowship of the Ring ending right when Frodo and the other hobbits are about to leave the Shire.

But the biggest limitation that comes with Remake’s decision to end at that moment isn’t how you get cut off from exploring the wider world, but how you’re held back from exploring Cloud as a character.

Cloud begins as a seemingly fairly typical brand of male hero: a little cold, and cut off from his own emotions. Once you venture into the world beyond Midgar’s gates, however, you also start venturing deeper into Cloud’s psyche and his past. A real human being starts to form where at first there was only the shadow of a person. Losing that journey, or at least holding off until whenever we’ll get the next installment, is a disappointment when Cloud’s journey is handled so well, with such solid pacing, in the original release.

FF7 is about a lot of things, but central to its story is Cloud’s path into the fullness of himself, as he learns what it is to lose, to grieve, and to care about something larger than himself. Though Remake will someday offer us Cloud’s entire journey — presumably, at least — it currently begins and ends without Cloud undergoing much character development at all.

It’s a serious detriment to Remake’s narrative arc, and we won’t be able to judge whether it was a wise decision until the whole of the Final Fantasy 7 remake is released, which will likely take years. Final Fantasy 7 itself, on the other hand, is finished now, and its comparatively simple graphics don’t hurt the quality of its storytelling and character development nearly as much as you might think from looking at screenshots.

If you want the whole story, with no multi-year pauses between acts, the original release is your only option.

Doing more with less

The lack of Cloud’s character arc and the frustration of seeing credits roll just as the story really begins are temporary matters, however. Remake will eventually tell the complete story of the battle Cloud and his friends fight to protect the planet from Sephiroth. So what then? Will it still be worth going back and playing the original?

Absolutely. The original FF7 will still be as vital as ever, in fact. Just as the sophisticated CGI of 2005’s King Kong can’t render the beauty of the stop-motion animation featured in the 1933 original obsolete, 1997’s Final Fantasy 7 will always possess unique qualities that make it worth seeking out and experiencing. In many cases the limitations of the original technology led to unique and effective creative choices that still hold up, even if the graphics themselves have clearly come from a different time.

Consider how FF7 handles the lack of voice acting. One mark of great art is its ability to turn limitations into assets, and one way that FF7 does this is through some genuinely powerful cutscenes that convey a great deal of emotion and meaning without spoken words.

My favorite example of this is an early cutscene that depicts the collapse of the sector 7 plate in Midgar, a calamity caused by the evil Shinra corporation for its own benefit. In one moment, we get a terrifying point-of-view shot from the ground in the slums below as the plate comes crashing down, crushing hundreds of people.

A moment later, we’re looking down on the collapse from a vantage point high above. The camera pulls back, and we’re enveloped by the sounds of classical music as we see President Shinra regarding the destruction while safely ensconced in his tower, clearly unmoved by the loss of life, the incalculable human cost of his actions. And no one has to speak in order for the power of that moment to come through.

This economical scene tells us everything we need to know about the balance of power in Midgar, whose lives have value, and whose don’t. To its credit, Remake emphasizes FF7’s political themes in its dialogue, but there’s an elegance to the way the original game says so much here without a word. To quote a popular cliche about writing, it shows, instead of tells.

Similarly, a later scene in which a character dies — arguably the most famous video game death scene of all time — is a masterwork of powerful emotion being conveyed through staging and music alone. We haven’t seen Remake’s take on this moment yet. It may be very powerful in its own way, but it will almost certainly be quite different, and my worry is that someone is going to open their mouth and somehow rob the experience of some of its operatic power.

I’d even argue that Final Fantasy 7 finds ways to turn its own blocky character models into a strength. Not unlike Baby Yoda eliciting feelings of tenderness that his full-grown namesake doesn’t, the awkward character models of 1997’s FF7 crack my heart open in ways that their much more lifelike counterparts in Remake aren’t able to. Their wonky proportions and stiff movements call to mind a child’s careworn dolls, and this is fitting, in a way, because Cloud himself often behaves like a naive child. This is a story about flawed people doing their best, and the clunky character models drive that point home, even if that extra layer of meaning has been added by time, and not an original intention of the design. That doesn’t make it any less real, or effective.

Cloud seems surprised by his own reaction to an experience of intensely painful emotions in one scene. “My fingers are tingling,” he says. “My mouth is dry. My eyes are burning!” The moment in which Cloud is being painfully awakened to his own humanity works because he looks something like a toy.

The emotional texture would be entirely different if I were watching someone who looks like a grown man say these things, and I suspect that Remake will have to find its own way of navigating this particular emotional and psychological territory as a result.

In the original, it’s like we’re watching him turn into a real boy, whereas the remake is much too realistic and detailed to allow any other interpretation of events than what the designers intended. A lack of detail can often work in a game’s favor, as our imagination gets to fill in the rest. Final Fantasy 7 Remake, however, drowns us in detail, to such an extent that our imagination has nowhere to go, and no blanks to fill in. We see what Square Enix wants us to see, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Final Fantasy 7 benefits from being able to nimbly shift from one tone to another to another without seeming jarring or tonally inconsistent because its visuals owe little allegiance to “realism.” The game can mire us in the industrial intrigue of a reactor bombing run in one scene, the physical comedy of Cloud fumbling his way through a military parade a bit later, and the simultaneously poignant and absurd act of heroic sacrifice undertaken by a stuffed animatronic cat later still, and it all works because the graphics don’t limit our expectations of what’s possible in this universe. Just as 2018’s Into the Spider-Verse demonstrates that there are still things animated films can pull off that the live-action Marvel films can’t, FF7 makes the most of its ability to ping-pong from mood to mood in ways that a more visually grounded game might struggle with.

Don’t get me wrong, Remake seems to handle serious and heartfelt moments just fine, but there’s a whole wide range of tonal territory yet to come, and I question whether it will be able to so deftly navigate those shifts when the time comes. The realistic design could, in fact, hold back some of the more emotional reactions inspired by the original release.

A matter of perspective

And what of the world that these characters inhabit? It may be ostensibly the same environment that we’re experiencing in Remake, but our perspective on that world has completely changed. While Remake’s camera typically follows Cloud closely, FF7’s reliance on pre-rendered backgrounds meant that its creators had to choose specific vantage points, and the results are often striking.

Sometimes the framing emphasizes the industrial and military power of the Shinra corporation, as in one scene where Cloud moves through a shipyard, a barely visible speck, dwarfed by a massive airship looming above him. At other times, it’s the natural beauty of the game’s world that’s foregrounded, as in the view of the observatory in Cosmo Canyon, shown against the backdrop of a stunning purple sky.

Remake’s camera may let us see the world more closely, but these breathtaking shots have a power of their own, and they more effectively contextualize Cloud as one small figure in a vast and varied world. What Remake adds in immediacy, it lacks in the power of the sweeping grandeur of the original.

There’s no question that Remake’s rendering of that world is far more richly detailed, thanks to the benefits of modern technology, and more immersive, too. But that doesn’t mean that the original game’s world doesn’t have a magic all its own.

The challenge faced by the artists responsible for creating the environments of Final Fantasy 7 laid in how to make them feel alive, despite the limitations of pre-rendered backgrounds and a static camera.

The team rose to this challenge with aplomb, understanding that subtle touches could go a long way toward making these places feel like more than just static images. It’s all about a flickering candle here, some steam hissing from a vent there, small details that make these places feel like scenes in an enchanted storybook.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with Remake’s approach. They’re just two entirely different ways of presenting a living world, each a product of the time in which it was created, and I marvel at what the makers of FF7 did with the tools they had available. Both takes have value, and merit, and work best as companion pieces instead of a binary choice.

An adventure for everyone

Finally, I appreciate that Final Fantasy 7 feels so inviting, especially when compared to Remake. The new game may be well-suited to seasoned players who already know their way around contemporary real-time combat systems, but I’ve seen more than a few experienced gamers struggle with its first real boss battle. Remake wants you to know right off the bat that it’s not messing around.

And that’s fine, but part of the magic of FF7 can be found in its broadly appealing characters and world. I want as many people as possible to experience the enchantment that it offers, and I think the makers of the 1997 game did, too, and designed the game accordingly.

FF7 eases you into the complexities of its combat in such a way that even those who are new to JRPGs can grasp the basics, and it does so without sacrificing depth, and while still offering ample opportunities to test your tactical chops. Inexperienced players might bounce off of Remake, and hey, not every game has to be for everyone. I love my Dark Souls, but everyone who wants to deserves to experience the wonders of this epic tale. So if someone who doesn’t play a lot of games asks me which version of this quest will be friendlier and more accommodating to them, well, it’s an easy answer.

It’s true that Remake offers options that make the combat much easier, but they go too far, making combat feel like a passive affair in which your input is barely required. There’s a sweet spot where the combat could have been accessible to newcomers while still being engaging, but Remake misses it.

Debates about whether the original FF7 or its shiny new Remake is the better game aren’t very interesting, and I’d rather not go in that direction. They both have a lot to offer potential players, and while they seek to tell the same basic story, they look so different, and feel so different to play, that there’s no way one could reasonably replace the other.

But I hope people continue to seek out and play the original. Although it may be a product of another era, Final Fantasy 7’s magic remains as timeless and irreplaceable as it was the day it was released.

That’s the thing about masterpieces. From Casablanca to 1999 to Final Fantasy 7; there may be imitators, cover versions, and even straight-up remakes, but the original will always be worth a return trip, or a first-time visit. What the original team accomplished was a triumph, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake builds on that triumph without rendering it obsolete. My hope is that both games continue to find a home with players eager for a story that feels larger than life, no matter which way they decide to play.


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