March 3, 2009 - Videogames are occasionally overrated, but some titles just take on a rhapsodic life of their own. They achieve a mythical status that makes them practically impervious to anything but the most glowing analysis. A passionate fanbase digs a moat around a game to defend it against criticism of any sort, even benign curiosity about an aspect of the game that might be improved is treated with open hostility. But as videogames mature, it's important to cast a critical eye back at these proverbial sacred cows. How else can game design improve if we do not seriously consider the possible demerits of even the most vaunted games?
With that as a mission statement of sorts, IGN Retro is taking a look at videogames that some may consider overrated. First, we took a critical look at the enshrined Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Now, Square's magnum opus, Final Fantasy VII, gets the same treatment.
Based on a Lie?
"Final Fantasy VII was a lie from the get go."
IGN Insider's Michael Thomsen
wastes no words describing Final Fantasy VII. Square's 1997 adventure is revered as not just one of the best role-playing games of all time by legions of fans, but as one of the best videogames, period. The game is one of the most crucial releases for the original PlayStation, giving Sony's console the last dose of legitimacy it needed before the PlayStation solidified its place as the de facto console-leader of the generation. But it wasn't originally intended to be such.
had a strong relationship with Nintendo
at the time. All previous Final Fantasy
games had been released on Nintendo consoles. However, Square's vision for a sweeping epic outgrew cartridges. When Nintendo ultimately decided to stick with silicon for the N64, Square
had no choice but explore other pastures and decided on the PlayStation, which was a forward-looking console from a hard-charging newcomer in the videogame landscape.
Spanning three discs, Final Fantasy VII was unparalleled, both in size and in scope, for a console RPG. The new medium let Square
craft a series of CG-animated cutscenes for which the company is now known for, for better or worse. While the dedicated Final Fantasy audience followed along without question, these cutscenes and other commercialized aspects of the game were responsible for introducing the genre to a whole new audience of gamers. After all, these heroes did not exist as flat sprites in a world of repeating backgrounds and eight-level-deep menus. Hellzapoppin magic effects filled the screen. Characters looked somewhat adult, which dovetailed nicely with Sony's plot to bring games to an audience that had previously dismissed them as playthings.
But Thomsen doesn't buy it, characterizing the sales pitch as nothing short of gimcrack. "It sold a vision of gaming that, for a moment in history, convinced a lot of people that RPG's were more than just Dungeon's & Dragons-style chart-keeping," says Thomsen. "Final Fantasy lured people with the promise that gaming was an action-packed spectacle filled with dozens of hours of razzle-dazzle that outstripped Hollywood."
So then how does Thomsen describe Final Fantasy VII? The hardcore fans that celebrate the game as one of the unshakable greats best skip to the next paragraph. "FFVII was an unholy hybrid of Chuck Norris action, surreal anime, turn-based combat, and an obtuse weapon upgrade system," he snorts.
Tough words. But does Thomsen have a point? So often we get wrapped up in the hype and hope of a game that we force it to fit our expectations. Final Fantasy VII, ripped from Nintendo fans, became both a whip for stinging N64 owners and a cudgel for punishing gamers that owned a Saturn. Admiration can also tip into near-blind reverence with the passage of time, too. Games can take on a life of their own and gather kudos just for being
. It's hardly the first game to achieve such status. Last month, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time withstood the same line of questioning.
Narrative or Nonsense?
RPGs -- particularly Japanese RPGs -- often feature fantastic plots and the story of Final Fantasy VII is no exception. Two of the most common praises for the game seen around the Internet are narrative and atmosphere. Final Fantasy VII deviated from the "for king and country" medieval quest and introduced a fantasy/sci-fi/steampunk hybrid world in its place. SEGA's Phantasy Star series occupies this universe, too, as seen in Phantasy Star II for the Genesis, but Final Fantasy VII enjoyed far more play that that franchise, and so it is largely credited with advancing this aesthetic
It isn't just the setting that makes Final Fantasy VII engaging to its fans, though. According to Ryan Clements
, associate editor on the IGN PlayStation team, "Final Fantasy VII did one thing better than any of its predecessors: create unbelievable atmosphere. Within the first few hours of the game, the player is taken on a heart-pounding train ride through an impossible city, wanders the slums of a neon-lit town and plots an underground movement in the secret basement of a bar. There's charm at every turn."
The characters, specifically Cloud, Aeris, Cid, and Sephiroth
, are credited as being more mature than those in previous games -- and not just in design. Thanks to the expanded medium and the ability to create cutscenes with a soaring soundtrack, Square gave a greater sense of life to the cast of Final Fantasy VII than in previous games with text-driven narration and dialog.
Eduardo Vasconcellos, IGN associate editor, praises the characters. "Cid's quest to be the first man into space, sacrificing all that he's worked for to protect everyone he loves. Yeah, Cloud's kind of a jerk, but when he went nuts and his backstory was explained, that made him easier to sympathize with, and did a solid job explaining why we should consider him a hero. The fact that Sephiroth wasn't exactly a villain -- he was kind of trying to save the world, though it was in his own demented way. It broke the mold of the over-the-top screwball bad guy."
Not everybody agrees with Vasconcellos's sentiments. Colin Moriarty
of IGN Guides smacks down the Final Fantasy VII crew with, "Cloud is a useless main character, and his supporting cast is a laughable collection when you consider the casts of Final Fantasy IV
Well, did you cry?
One of Final Fantasy VII's characters is responsible for what IGN Database editor Meghan Sullivan
refers to as "one of the most shocking moments in a video game to date." The death of Aeris at the hands of Sephiroth is a seminal moment for a lot of gamers. It is the first time a game really ripped your heart out. And in the context of the game's narrative, a wide struggle for the control of a planet that touches on everything from genetic manipulation to the destruction of an entire city, it is given an extra degree of weight. Provided you actually enjoy the story in the first place, of course.
Its many twists and turns are the template for future massive plots in the franchise -- but not everybody appreciates what Square was reaching for with Final Fantasy VII.
Thomsen comments, "It lacks narrative cohesion and indulges in the bizarre a little more freely than previous games."