This week marked the 25th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII’s North American release—and a new book by Aidan Moher, out October 4, examines the game’s scope of influence, not just on its legions of fans, but on the realm of Western pop culture itself. io9 is pleased to share an exclusive excerpt from Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West, including a special introduction by the author.
“Twenty-five years ago this week, Japanese RPGs exploded in North America thanks to the latest release in a long-running series. That game, Square’s legendary Final Fantasy VII, lies at the heart of my new book, Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West. Its release is looked upon as the moment when Japanese RPGs went from niche eccentricity to mainstream darling, a meteoric rise in popularity that even its bullish creators didn’t see coming.
From its early 8-bit days with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Entertainment System to its first Golden Age on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, the genres brightest minds—from Hironobu Sakguchi to Reiko Kodama, Soraya Saga to Yuji Horii—searched for the creative and technical limits of a genre obsessed inviting players into sprawling worlds, dangerous quests, and finicky gameplay systems. They were immediate hits in their home country of Japan, but no game managed to find similar success in Europe or the Americas. Until Final Fantasy VII.
This excerpt from my Fight, Magic, Items explores Final Fantasy VII’s risky origins, its unique visions, and, ultimately, examines why it did what so many other games couldn’t: popularize Japanese RPGs with Western gamers.”
There are moments in a person’s life when they know with certainty that things have changed and a new era has begun. That they’re taking a step forward in history. Drenched in the glow of a CRT, a group of friends explored the slums of Midgar and knew, with absolute certainty, that things would never be the same again. That night lasted forever and was over in the blink of an eye. When they stepped out into daylight the next morning, Midgar’s Sector 7 was burning at their backs, and they set forth into a new era of JRPGs.
Such was the impact of Square’s Final Fantasy VII. It changed not just the kids in my friend’s basement, but the entire genre its predecessors had helped establish a decade and a half earlier, crossing the threshold of a new era of JRPGs without looking back.
I had been a Nintendo die-hard my whole life, but later that morning, blurry eyed and sleep-deprived, I somehow convinced my dad to take a multi-hour trip by ferry and car to the Sony Store and lay down a few hundred bucks. We left with our very own PlayStation and a beautiful, shrink-wrapped copy of Final Fantasy VII— the allure of Square on PlayStation was irresistible.
Sony’s gamble had paid off.
This little Nintendo fanboy was now a PlayStation fan.
“When it debuted in 1997, the world had never seen anything like it,” wrote Matt Alt in his book Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World. “Though blocky and primitive by current standards, it was fully rendered in three dimensions—a major technological feat for the era. Even more groundbreaking, it dared to presume something new: that a videogame could have the dramatic pull of a Hollywood blockbuster.”
But it wasn’t a Hollywood product at all, he continued. “It was a Tokyo blockbuster, and it would inject a megadose of Japanese sensibilities into the American mainstream: big-eyed, bushy-haired anime characters and their manga-style melodrama; androgynous heroes; the very idea that videogames could be meditative explorations as well as thrill rides.”
Previous games in the series set the player up against evil knights and fascist empires, but Final Fantasy VII offered a new villain: capitalism. Though it would eventually circle back to the genre’s favorite trope of a big, magical baddie trying to rule and/or destroy the world, Final Fantasy VII kicks off with a group of ecoterrorists called AVALANCHE facing off against an antagonist familiar to anyone crushed by capitalism and climate change: the planet-destroying Shinra Electric Power Company. Final Fantasy VII went on to sell an astonishing ten million units worldwide—more than three times its predecessor. Square expected big things from the first PlayStation Final Fantasy, but not even they expected it to become a worldwide phenomenon. How did it become far and away the series’ most successful title to date? The complex answer lies in new technologies, aggressive marketing, a Western audience with anime fever, and the cinematic ambitions of series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.
Sakaguchi was well known by colleagues for his intense drive and as a creator who was often unsatisfied with the limitations placed on his work, always looking to the future. Sakaguchi’s earlier entries in the Final Fantasy series hinted at his grand desire for cinematic, movie-like storytelling in video games, but it wasn’t until his partnership with Sony that he would finally have the tools needed to execute the vision he’d been chasing through six previous titles.
“In the late ’90s, all the game companies had lots of money—especially Square, of course,” recalled Final Fantasy VII’s movie director Motonori Sakakibara in an oral history of the game. “So Square prioritized quality rather than obsessing over costs.” As Sakaguchi’s budgets and teams grew in size, so did his grand vision for cinematic gaming.
“I think calling him a god would be going too far,” said programmer Tatsuya Yoshinari, “but it kind of felt like that. He was a superstar.”
“I remember us calling him ‘The King,’” responded assistant marketing director Kyoko Higo. Just… never to his face.
“Yeah, ‘king,’” agreed Yoshihiro Maruyama, executive vice president of Square USA.
Though he laughs now, Maruyama recalled Sakaguchi’s iron-tight grip on the project. “Without him, there were no decisions made.” By this point, Sakaguchi had unilateral control over the project, dictating development timelines and even the game’s marketing direction. “So yeah, he was the king. He was controlling the entire operation.”
President and CEO of Square, Tomoyuki Takechi, estimates that Final Fantasy VII cost $40 million to develop, with about a quarter dedicated to the game’s graphics. Nowadays it’s standard for video games to use cutting-edge technology to produce impressive visual experiences, but Sony and Square’s willingness to invest that amount of capital in a JRPG that had no guarantee of corresponding success (especially outside Japan) was unprecedented, Alt told me. “No other company had that kind of technology or was even attempting it.”
The game’s breakout was a perfect storm of luck, gambles paying off, and a good read on the rising interest in anime among American teenagers. By pumping an enormous amount of money into new, unproven tech, giving Sakaguchi free rein to chase the vision he’d lusted after for over a decade, and priming the market with a huge media blitz, Sony and Square positioned the series to become a mainstream success—but at great financial risk.
And it worked.
Film has “He sees dead people.”
For books, it’s “They all did it.”
“It was all a dream” is ubiquitous with television pop culture.
For games? Nothing comes close to replicating the shocking moment when protagonist Cloud Strife’s counterpart and love interest Aerith Gainsborough is killed midway through the game. The cut scene is comically melodramatic nowadays, but at the time it proved Sakaguchi’s ambitions and set the genre on its cinematic path. It feels impossible now to describe the cold dread that washed over millions of gamers as Sephiroth’s sword emerged from Aerith’s impaled chest. The unrepairable hollowness of melancholy as we watched Cloud release her body to the Forgotten City’s subterranean lake. The absolute certainty there was a way to revive her.
How cheeky—how bold, and clever, and awful—of Final Fantasy VII’s creators to never give players that chance.
Aerith’s death was a watershed moment for JRPG narrative. It changed the genre by proving its storytellers could take risks and shock players—they allowed the player to fall in love with a character, and then used that as leverage as they twisted the knife deep. This was the equivalent to spilling your popcorn halfway through A New Hope when Leia’s killed by Vader. Imagine if the Jurassic Park dinosaurs ate Tim and Lex?
Gather a group of mid-’90s gamers together, and chances are they remember Final Fantasy VII, even if they didn’t touch another JRPG afterward. Its explosive sales numbers were the direct result of buy-in from players who’d never experienced the genre before, and its momentum shifted expectations of success for the genre.
There’s an apocryphal tale about the passing of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s mother during Final Fantasy VII’s development. Supposedly, this contributed to Aerith’s death and the game’s concept of the Lifestream. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking—but only half true. Sakaguchi’s mother passed away while he was working on Final Fantasy III, several years earlier, and Aerith’s death was actually proposed by visual director Tetsuya Nomura. The game’s theme of “life,” however, was all Sakaguchi.
“Life exists in many things,” he said in a 1997 interview, “and I was curious about what would happen if I attempted to analyze life in a mathematical and logical way. Maybe this was my approach in overcoming the grief I was experiencing.”
Long after the decision to kill Aerith was sealed, and development had progressed well past that point in the story, Nomura recalls visiting composer Nobuo Uematsu in his room “just to hang out and talk about random things.” Soaked in guilt at killing off someone who was sure to be a fan favorite, Nomura asked Uematsu whether they had made the right decision.
“I was really surprised when she died so early on,” said Uematsu, a mirror image of the millions of heart-shattered fans playing the game. “Everybody probably thought she was going to be one of the main popular characters, but then she just died right away. Maybe that’s the reason why everyone remembers it so much.”
“When a character in a video game dies, no one thinks it’s that sad,” said Nomura. “They’re just characters in a game, after all—you can just reset the game and try again, or you can always revive them somehow. I felt that their lives just didn’t have much weight. With ‘life’ as our theme for FF7, I thought we should try depicting a character who really dies for good, who can’t come back. For that death to resonate, it needed to be an important character. So we thought killing off the heroine would allow players to think more deeply about that theme.”
Final Fantasy VII was the first time I felt a true empathetic connection with characters in a video game. The theme of “life” is woven throughout the entire game, supported and expanded upon by villains trying to redefine the concept of human life and heroes trying to preserve the life of the planet. The team had a personal story to tell—and it all traced back to Sakaguchi’s years-long journey to unravel the impossibility of life.
Back in the late ’90s, a fierce debate raged about whether video games would ever look as good as Pixar’s 1995 film Toy Story. It was the first impressive use of CGI for a feature-length film, featuring pre-rendered computer graphics at a level far beyond what contemporary gaming consoles, or even powerful personal computers, could produce. Though Final Fantasy VII’s blocky polygonal characters and enemies were nowhere close to Toy Story’s fidelity and detail, it was clear the creators wanted to get there one day. Two decades later, what stands out about Final Fantasy VII aren’t the elements we’ve see replicated in so many JRPGs since, but how it boldly ventured forth without a blueprint.
That’s Final Fantasy VII’s true legacy. It brought change to the JRPG genre and the video game medium by altering our understanding of the types of stories video games could tell—and the ways in which they could tell those stories. In 1997, Final Fantasy VII was the most creative and bold video game I’d ever played. Its merging of 3D characters with highly detailed pre-rendered backdrops changed the way we explored fantasy worlds. Its settings and themes were unlike anything that had been seen in gaming, intriguing a generation of millennials with its critical exploration of anti-capitalist environmentalism. Its legacy has no doubt shaped video games by providing a blueprint for a genre that was in flux while also touching the lives of its players.
And the genre took that blueprint and ran with it. Future JRPGs, including Square’s own Final Fantasy sequels, would continue to build off what Final Fantasy VII created and oftentimes doing it better—which is to be expected. The growth of the series and the genre doesn’t invalidate Final Fantasy VII’s achievements. Change came at a rushing gallop in the mid-’90s but did not stop with Final Fantasy VII. You cannot look at a JRPG from the past two decades and not see its fingerprints. Smudged, perhaps, but still there.
Final Fantasy VII was flawed, ambitious, bold, unafraid, and raw. It changed JRPGs by proving they could be a financial success on par with any other genre. It changed gaming by redefining how they told stories.
And it changed me.
Excerpt from Aidan Moher’s Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West reprinted by permission of the author and Running Press.
Fight, Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPGs in the West by Aidan Moher will be out October 4; you can pre-order a copy here.
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