Popping Cherries: Final Fantasy VII

Mako’d for the very first time

Nobody has time to play every video game. We all have classic games that have slipped us by for whatever reason, be it time constraints, money issues, initial lack of interest, or any number of other things. But that just means it’s still possible to experience a great game for the very first time, and that fresh perspective on a classic can be just as enlightening as the opinions of those who are more than familiar with the game already.

This month, CJ Andriessen finally played Final Fantasy VII for the first time ever. As it’s one of my favorite games, and something I’ve played many times in the past, the two of us sat down to chat about our experiences both as a newcomer and as a veteran ex-SOLDIER. 

CJ: Let me start with a short history of my time with Final Fantasy and how I missed out on playing this groundbreaking title.

So, I’ve been gaming since the days of the NES, but didn’t come across Final Fantasy until the SNES rolled around. My first Final Fantasy was Final Fantasy IV, and from what I could remember, I played it until you got to the moon, but then stopped. For my eight-year-old self, it got too difficult and the random encounters came too often. When Final Fantasy VI came out, I borrowed it from a friend and finished the entire game. As I recall, that cartridge cost roughly $80 new when it first came out. When it came time to upgrade to the PlayStation, it was my brother who got the console, but he wasn’t into RPGs, especially JRPGs. So, while there were many games I got to experience for the system like Metal Gear Solid and Spyro the Dragon, I unfortunately missed out on the chance to play Final Fantasy VII, even though it was the game everyone wouldn’t stop talking about. When the next console generation rolled around, I went with Sega and then Nintendo, and have been primarily a Nintendo fan ever since.

Since then, Final Fantasy VII was always a game that stuck in my head as one I should play. The fact that people still talk about the game nearly 20 years later is one of the reasons I ended up getting a PlayStation TV and downloading the game.

Ben: Wow, you made it really far in IV as a kid! My first Final Fantasy was also IV, but the farthest I ever made it back then was the Antlion. I had never really heard anyone talk about Final Fantasy growing up. All I knew about the series was the fourth game, which we owned. I never played another one until I saw Final Fantasy IX at a Blockbuster and rented it because I thought the characters on the cover looked cool. After IX, I became obsessed with playing all the previous Final Fantasies, and from there I played VII, VIII, I, V, and VI, in that order. Final Fantasy VII was one of my favorites though, and I ended up playing through the entire game at least four or five times.

CJ: Which game do you like more: IX or VII?

Ben: IX is my favorite Final Fantasy by far.

CJ: Okay. We’ll have to do this thing again for that game in the future. But you played through VII four or five times. What was it about the game that kept you coming back?

Ben: The first time I beat it, I hadn’t found everything yet, so I knew I wanted to come back to it again later. The next year, I played through it a second time and attempted to 100 percent the game, completing everything I knew about, including Gold Chocobo breeding and fighting all the weapons. I never did 100 percent it, though, because I never got Aerith to learn her final limit break. When I was older, I started replaying the game every now and then for the memories. I think the music and characters play a big part in my appreciation.

CJ: Looking back to the first time you played it, did you find the materia system to be daunting?

Ben: I think I figured out the basics of the materia system pretty quickly, but I didn’t learn how to use it efficiently until much later. I liked that I could basically do whatever I wanted with materia, equipping any piece to any character. It’s definitely more straightforward than VIII‘s system, at least. What did you think of materia as a new player?

CJ: I really enjoyed the materia system once it clicked for me. As soon as I figured out how combining them could lead to more powerful weapons, more powerful spells and the such, I really started testing combinations to see which ones would work the best for me. I also had 19 years worth of materia combining guides online to rummage through looking for combinations I didn’t consider. Even as it became evident to me late in the game that the materia system pretty much broke the game in terms of difficulty, I still had a blast with it. It was genuinely fun seeing how powerful I could make a character. There were more than a few materia I came across that didn’t get any use as they were essentially useless by the time I got them, but had I attempted to 100% the game I would have had a blast maxing those things out. One issue that I see with the materia system is that it makes it pretty pointless to have more than three characters. Past Final Fantasy games had characters with specific jobs, whereas in this game, everyone could do anything. Yes, the characters do differ like Yuffie not being good with magic and Vincent being great at it, but Yuffie could still be a healer and Vincent could still be a tank with the right materia.

Ben: Yeah, with the materia system, choosing which characters to use basically comes down to who you personally like the most. I really enjoy that aspect of the game. Any three characters could make a viable team.

Speaking of Yuffie and Vincent, were you able to find them easily?

CJ: So, Yuffie I came across randomly after like two battles in the area where I later found out you were supposed to encounter her. I didn’t know how to get Vincent, but a co-worker insisted I get him. I eventually did, but goddamn did I hate having to unlock that fucking safe. I don’t know if it was the controller that I was using or what, but I kept going past the damn numbers and had to restart. It probably took me about 20 tries at the safe before I got it right. But once I got Vincent, I kept him in my party because he was obviously a badass vampire gunslinger. Yuffie… not so much.

Ben: Yuffie always takes me a long time to find. I usually end up grinding battles in the forests until I finally get her. And then I sometimes forget the dialogue options you need to choose in order to recruit her, and have to find her all over again, haha. Vincent is a bit of a pain to find too. The first time I got him, it took me about an hour to finally figure out the safe combination, unlock it correctly, and kill the boss inside. My opinions about the two are opposite from yours, though. Yuffie is actually my favorite character in the game, but for some reason, Vincent never really did anything for me.

CJ: Listen, I’m not one to usually hate on the wacky sidekick, as I love wacky sidekicks… but fuck Yuffie. I’m glad she spent her time on the airship barfing her brains out.

Ben: Hahaha, Yuffie gets so much abuse! Poor Yuffie…

CJ: That said, I would rather have a party that was nothing but Yuffie than play with Cait Sith. I honestly thought Cait Sith would be my favorite character from the game based on appearance alone, but once he betrays you I didn’t want to spend another second looking at him. I sat his ass on the bench and never put him into play again.

Ben: Yeah, Cait Sith is an interesting case. I was of the same mind as you; as soon as I got Cait Sith in my party I thought I was going to keep him with me for the rest of the game. I mean, he’s a cute little cat riding a big, cuddly Moogle! But I had a hard time forgiving him after the incident at the Gold Saucer. I did use him as part of my main team in a later playthrough, after my hatred of him started to mellow.

So aside from Vincent, who else did you primarily use in your party?

CJ: My main three were Cloud, Vincent and, for some reason, Barret.

Ben: I usually use Cloud, Yuffie, and Cid, but sometimes I’ll switch Cid out for Red XIII. I never use Barret, but I do like him as a character.

CJ: See, I’m not a fan of Barret. It was only chance that I kept him in my party. Since switching out materia was too much of a hassle, I kept him in because I happened to like the materia he had at the time and just kept going from there. When I think of the characters in the game, and this goes back to the materia system basically eliminating the need for more than three characters, I found a lot of them to be unnecessary. Ignoring the bonus characters, I think the only ones that were necessary to the story were Cloud, Tifa, Aerith and Cait Sith. Cid was introduced way too late in the game for me to really want to invest the time in developing him, Red XIII didn’t seem to play that big of a role in the overall story, and Barret seemed unnecessary with Tifa being a member of the same group. I did enjoy each of their stories for the most part, but in terms of the overall narrative I don’t feel they added that much except for an excessive amount of Q-Bert swearing to the script.

Ben: Maybe it’s because I first played it as a youngster, but I never thought about how some of the characters could be considered unnecessary to the story. I suppose it’s true that Barret, Red XIII, and Cid don’t do much in terms of the main plotline with Sephiroth. Barret and Red XIII were more involved in the Shinra side of the story. That’s also true for Cid, but you’re right about him being introduced way too late. Even though he’s one of my favorites, I can see how he’s a bit of an excess character. Still, I always appreciated that everyone got their own story arc and enjoyed watching them develop.

CJ: Oh yeah, all of the individual vignettes were interesting to watch play out and I was surprised how dark the game got at points. That’s one of the big takeaways. I mean, I know Kefka destroyed the world in the last game (and let me just say how nice it was to see the world rebuilt after he did that to it), but this game got downright bleak at points. When Barret confronts Dyne and Dyne attempts to leave to go kill his daughter so she could be with mommy, that was fucked up.

Ben: Yeah, things get pretty heavy at times. That scene with Dyne in particular always makes me really sad. And then, of course, there’s the infamous scene with Aerith…

I’m sure that part had been spoiled for you already, but I’m curious to know what you thought about it as a first-time player. Did you expect it was going to happen when it did?

CJ: Yeah, that particular plot point was spoiled for me years ago, but surprisingly that was the only one. I honestly didn’t know anything about Cloud’s story. But as for Aerith, I was surprised that it happened so early in the game. The way people fawn over her, I thought she was there all the way up until near the end. But nope, end of disc one, she’s outta there. I knew it was coming once she abandoned your party, at that point I knew I was coming up on it. But early on I thought she would have at least lived until the end of disc two. And I think that says something about how beloved this game is. Here is a character who dies halfway through the game (or way earlier depending on how long you play it) and people have done everything to get her back. I’ve seen the rumors and hoaxes on how to get her back. People just couldn’t let go and I think that speaks to how well developed the character was. I knew it was coming, but I was sad to see it happen. Mostly because her limit breaks were extremely useful.

Ben: I first played the game knowing literally nothing about it beforehand, so Aerith’s death was very shocking to me. Especially since she’s built up as one of the most important characters and seems to be the primary healer (in terms of limit breaks), and then she dies so early on. I honestly figured there would be some way to resurrect her later in the game, as is the case in many games when a main character dies, but nope. I was definitely sad, because she was such a friendly character. I never tried to look up any secret ways to get her back though. By the end of the game, it was pretty clear to me that she was never supposed to come back.

CJ: Yeah. To bring her back I feel would have worsened the story a bit. She was supposed to die. It’s how it was supposed to be and clearly it’s what she knew had to happen in order to really save the world.

So, looking up the history of this game, it seems it started out as a SNES title. If it had been exactly the same in terms of story and gameplay, but the graphics were of the SNES era, do you think it would have been as popular as it was?

Ben: It’s hard for me to imagine what it might look like in the SNES style. Assuming it would have battle screens and a map similar to other Final Fantasies of the 16-bit era, I’m not sure it would have gained any more popularity than the earlier titles. Granted, I’m still not sure exactly why VII was the first game in the series to really take off over here. Even though the graphics look rather awful today, I honestly feel like the big, open 3D world had to have something to do with its success.

CJ: I think the advertisements featuring nothing but the CGI cutscenes probably played a big part in that. But it was also in development for the N64 before Nintendo stupidly decided to stick with cartridges. After Final Fantasy VII, JRPGs were the hottest genre in gaming for several years. That probably wouldn’t have happened had Square launched the game on the SNES or N64, right?

Ben: Possibly, although look what happened with GoldenEye 007. I wouldn’t have expected the successful genre of console FPS games to originate on the N64, so maybe the same could have happened with JRPGs if Nintendo had given it a go. Of course, a huge game like Final Fantasy VII wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive on a cartridge, that’s for sure.

CJ: It’s like six cartridges.

Ben: That would have been hilarious.

CJ: It’s like getting the Bible on tape with a large book-sized case. Hell, I was surprised they managed to fit Resident Evil 2 in a single cartridge.

When was the last time you played Final Fantasy VII?

Ben: I played it again last year while I was writing about it for an Experience Points piece. I was playing the original copy I’ve always had, so I still had to deal with all the discs.

CJ: Looking back at your last playthrough, were there moments in the game where you were like, “ugh, not this again?”

Ben: Yes. Two parts at the beginning in Midgar: the train graveyard and the wall you have to climb up to get to the Shinra building. I somehow get lost in those areas every single time, probably because it’s often difficult to tell what you can actually walk on. Also, the tower defense part in Fort Condor, because it takes forever. Though on my last playthrough, I figured out you can win by just letting the enemy reach the top of the mountain and then simply fighting them. Were there any moments you hope you never have to do again?

CJ: Pretty much anything having to do with the Great Glacier, from the snowboarding to the wandering around. For me the game moved at a brisk pace, but this area brought everything to a screeching halt. The snowboarding was especially bad. Maybe back when it first came out I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I’ve had 19 years of excellent snowboarding games and I just wanted that segment to end. I commend Square though for trying, and that’s one of the things I really like about the game: it switches things up every once in a while to keep you on your toes. Snowboarding, riding the motorcycle, the submarine missile segment, Chocobo Racing, falling through the railroad tracks; I like that they put in the extra effort to vary up the experience, and I’m sure all of those segments will be better in the remake with tighter controls and more powerful hardware to properly develop them.

Ben: I actually really like the Great Glacier area for some reason, especially the snowboarding segment. That might be my favorite mini-game behind the motorcycle part. That being said, I can definitely understand why some would find the Great Glacier frustrating. It’s a huge area and kind of maze-like, so it’s easy to get lost.

Speaking of the remake, what changes would you like to see Square Enix make in the new game?

CJ: I think they should probably improve the graphics. That would be a big first step.

Ben: Haha, that’s a given. And it’s honestly the thing I’m most looking forward to.

CJ: In all seriousness, I think the main focus should be fixing the materia system. I get that it’s awesome to be that powerful at the end of the game, but to beat Sephiroth that easily was pretty anti-climactic. Mind you, I didn’t really excessively level up my characters. I stuck mostly to the story and ended up beating it in about 34 hours. So there were a lot of side quests that I skipped and whatnot. By the time I got to Sephiroth I had two characters leveled at 62 and one at 61 and I basically wiped the floor with him. And really, it’s not just the materia that makes you so powerful. If you’re smart and save your megalixirs, you’re almost impossible to beat. Plus, ribbons seem to be grossly unfair to your opponents. I have no opinion on changing from a turn-based game to the more action-oriented game, but one thing I believe they should fix is how lopsided your characters are when you reach the end of the game. What about you?

Ben: Yeah, Sephiroth was disappointingly easy compared to most other final bosses in the series. I can get behind that change for sure. Personally, I don’t think I would change much else about the game, but the one thing I really hope they do change is Chocobo breeding. I don’t know if you tried it at all when you played, but it’s incredibly obnoxious and always feels like a waste of time, and unfortunately you need to do it to get the coolest summon in the game. If they scrap the Chocobo breeding system entirely and rebuild it from scratch, I’m sure they could make it a lot less tedious, and maybe even make it fun for once.

CJ: No, I didn’t really get into the breeding of the Chocobo. So we know the combat system is changing and a lot of people are upset about it. I don’t know where you stand on it, but what is something that you wouldn’t want them to change or remove in the remake?

Ben: I would have preferred if they kept the combat system the same, simply because I’ve always enjoyed that kind of turn-based combat, but it’s not a deal breaker that they’re changing it. I’ll have to wait and see how it actually feels to play. Maybe it could be really neat! As for other stuff, I don’t think I’ve heard about what they’re doing with the music yet, but I hope they don’t change the soundtrack too much. Ideally, I’d prefer if they re-recorded the music so that it sounds like it actually fits with the more modern graphics, while still keeping the same tunes.

CJ: The music was interesting. Some of the tunes sounded straight out of Twin Peaks and I liked it. For me, there are a few scenes in the game that I really hope they don’t drop. For starters, the cross-dressing needs to stay. That’s a must. I think we all want to see HD Cloud doing his best Tootsie impression. Second, they should keep the catfight between Tifa and Scarlet on the end of the giant gun. If Square Enix does decide to change that, I hope they do so by maybe adding mud or KY jelly to the mix. Or maybe even give them pillows and just have them giggle through it Family Guy style. Last but not least, they should probably keep the gay rape.

Ben: Hahaha, I hope they keep all of those things too. I think I heard that the cross-dressing section is confirmed to be in the remake, so I’m really excited to see how that plays out in glorious HD. I get the feeling they will probably alter the Honey Bee Inn scenes somewhat (out of curiosity, which room did you choose?), but I hope they don’t remove them entirely. They’re so awkwardly hilarious. And on the censorship note, I honestly hope they keep the censored swearing for Barret and Cid, because I’d find it funnier that way. Maybe they could even add those bleeping sound effects to the voice acting.

CJ: I chose the room where you walk in, pass out, and wake up with some big guy on top of you. Couldn’t believe Cloud just got Cosby’d. And I love how your choices are act disgusted or shrug it off like you’re the dean of Columbia University. As for Barret and Cid, they’re going to have to change something unless they want the game to get an M rating. Cid’s scene with Shera alone is something you would find in a red band trailer. If they do keep all the swearing, I demand they get ’80s Andrew Dice Clay to voice Cid. “Hey Shera, you’re a dumb bitch, ehhhhhhh.”

Ben: I cannot wait to hear Cid’s voice, haha. I already think Barret’s voice actor is perfect, judging by the trailer. He sounds badass without being a caricature. I’m also wondering what they’ll do with Cait Sith. I know they’ve all had voices before in Advent Children, but I hope they try something new this time around.

CJ: Cait Sith should probably be Alan Tudyk doing his King Candy impression.

Ben: Yes, that would be perfect!

CJ: So I think I’ve run out of questions to ask, but there is one you haven’t asked me yet.

Ben: Ah yes, the most important question. So having played it for the first time in 2016, did you like Final Fantasy VII?

CJ: Before this month, I had always heard two arguments about this game. It was either the greatest JRPG ever made or the most overrated. Having played through just the story, I can say that while it’s not the best JRPG I’ve played, it’s certainly a great game and the reason for that is Cloud. I now get the obsession with Cloud, why everybody seems to love him. His story just seemed to get more and more interesting as time went on, and the big reveal when you’re in his head was so wonderfully done that I really felt for him. I know what it’s like to tell everyone you’re going to be big and then fail at that. It was all really endearing to me. So I could look past the dated graphics, the clunky 8-way directional movement, the game crashing on me several times and constantly pausing in the heavy CGI cutscenes, because I wanted to see where all of this went with Cloud. So between Cloud and the materia system, this is definitely one of the better JRPGs I’ve played and has certainly put me back in the mood to play through more turn-based games.

Ben: Excellent! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and it’s nice to hear some of the more dated aspects didn’t hold it back too much. That’s part of the reason I’m excited for the remake, so that players who might not be able to look past things like poor graphics or clunky controls will still be able to enjoy Final Fantasy VII‘s story.

Ben Davis