In 1997 I would have considered myself the average 11 year old American kid. On any given weekday I was busy going to school, doing homework, and skateboarding with friends. Although you might suspect that I was a hardcore gamer at the time, I wasn't. I dabbled with the SEGA Genesis, but would have rather watched Nickelodeon instead. That would soon change.
I remember my cousin explaining Final Fantasy VII to me like it was yesterday. After reading about it in a gaming magazine, he described a huge world to explore with interesting characters and powerful magic. It was a foreign concept to me at the time as my experience with video games was limited to much simpler games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros. At that point Faxanadu was probably the closest thing I had played to a Final Fantasy, and that was much more of a platformer than an RPG.
A few months later I would become the proud owner of not only a PlayStation, but Final Fantasy VII. Although I went in expecting something special, I had no idea how much of an impact it would have on my life.
Playing Final Fantasy VII for my first time was a rather indescribable experience. I had never before seen characters come alive in the way they did in Midgard. Meeting each new person, from Tifa Lockheart to Red XIII, brought with it a plethora of questions. Who is this person? What are they after? Am I going to bother using them in my party? Why would I play Ecco The Dolphin when I can play this?
Of course, my immaturity kicked in when the game prompted me to name the characters. Myself and my cousin had no hesitation in naming everyone something ridiculous, from Barrett being called 'MEATLOAF', to Cait Sith having the name 'S***HEAD'. While on one hand it resulted in some hilarious dialog exchanges, it also made for difficult discussion later when talking to other people about the game;—I had no idea what most of the main character names actually were until years later.
Cait Sith (or 'S***HEAD' as I called him), was just one of many interesting characters.
And then there was Sephiroth. Standing 6'1" in black leather bearing a katana long enough to chop a porta potty in half, he was by far the most interesting antagonist I had ever seen. Part of me wanted to kill him on the spot after what he did to Aerith, but I also kind of admired how cool he was. In hindsight, he played a big part in making the game great.
The entire Midgard section of Final Fantasy VII was brilliant, but my fondest memory is the moment when I left it and found myself in the open world. It was like entering a new video game dimension, realizing that virtual worlds can be massive and rich with things to discover like that of our own. I would later spend a lot of time flying around trying to unlock all its secrets, from Knights of the Round, to a Black Chocobo. I would even play Airship hide-and-seek with my sister, which I was quite good at.
Visiting the Gold Saucer was another highlight of the journey. Mini-games just weren't really a thing in gaming back in 1997, which made it a huge surprise. Running around trying to beat everything it had to offer while listening to the boisterous yet euphoric Gold Saucer theme song was enough to put a smile on my face.
Looking back, the craziest part of it all was I had a tendency to skip a lot of the story—you know, the best part. I was so concerned with seeing what's next, and making my party more powerful, that there apparently wasn't any time for me to read. I was busy finishing the latest Goosebumps anyway. Even then it would take me more than 60 hours to go from exiting the train in Midgard to saving the world from imminent doom.
And that's the thing. While Final Fantasy VII hasn't aged well, it was miles ahead of the competition back in 1997, something anyone who played it later wasn't able to bear witness to. Even speaking on graphics alone, its portrait-esque environments were reason to trek forward, and its CGI cutscenes were the most realistic thing in any video game at the time. The cutscene featuring Sephiroth with Jenova in particular sent a chill down my spine.
This was what "next-gen" looked like in 1997.
While I might have skipped a lot of dialog, that didn't prevent the music from sticking with me. To this day I can listen to almost any of the OST's 85 tracks and experience some kind of response—please don't play Aerith's Theme at a funeral or I might die. One Winged Angel might just be one of the greatest compositions of our time.
Today, Final Fantasy VII celebrates its 20th anniversary alongside the Final Fantasy franchise's 30th. While that fact makes me feel old, I have to say that I'm thankful that Square Enix made the game in the first place.
I wouldn't be where I am today without Final Fantasy VII. It was the game that single-handedly transformed me from someone who occasionally played video games into a gamer. It kept me out of trouble when I had friends doing stupid things, and demonstrated to me how powerful art can be. Considering that I am now someone who runs a video game website, I'd consider it an important factor in my travels.
There's no moral of this tale, or any climactic ending. But I believe that if you're reading this, chances are you have a similar story. It might not be centered around Final Fantasy VII—heck, you probably think Final Fantasy VI is way better—, but that's okay. At the very least you can understand how much this game means to a lot of people, including myself.
Please, Square Enix, don't ruin my memories with the Final Fantasy VII Remake.