Eighteen years after its initial release, Final Fantasy VII remains one of the most beloved games in the long-running Japanese franchise. Now, the news of the Final Fantasy VII Remake promises to bring this PlayStation powerhouse to the current generation of consoles. Some wept with joy at the announcement; others sneered with contempt – and all of this hubbub demands some sort of retrospection.
This blockbuster made the gaming industry capable of producing blockbusters in the first place. Games were elevated from playthings to entertainment. An ad for the game teased audiences with this extremely 90s line: “Now, the most anticipated, epic adventure of the year will never come to a theater near you.” It wasn’t sold as a game, it was sold as an experience that you’d be stupid to miss out on (ah, 90s advertising).
Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) began long before the PlayStation was even a glimmer in Sony executive Ken Kutaragi‘s eye. They enjoyed success as delivering memorable stories and characters to players willing to invest countless hours diving into the worlds of Mother, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, and many more. But they weren’t exactly the kind of games most people sought after when they bought their first console. So, the JRPG was relegated to a niche corner of your local Toys R’Us.
Speaking of PlayStation, this flagship title for Sony’s square grey box was almost a Super Nintendo game, and then a Nintendo 64 game! In fact, Final Fantasy VII was nearly a different game from the final product.
It all started back in 1994. Fresh off the release of Final Fantasy VI, Squaresoft began developing the next entry in the Final Fantasy franchise as a 2D game. Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of the franchise, originally wanted the game to star a hardened detective aptly named “Detective Joe” who would stalk the streets of modern New York to track down a terrorist group responsible for destroying a portion of the city – a story beat that found its way in the final game.
Only problem was, most of the team members tasked with working on the game were also involved in another Squaresoft project: Chrono Trigger. Some ideas from this primitive build of Final Fantasy VII made their way into Chrono Trigger, and the whole modern New York detective story found its home in another Squaresoft game: Parasite Eve.
Resuming development a year later, Yoshinori Kitase, director of Final Fantasy VII, grew concerned that the Final Fantasy franchise would be left in the dust compared to the fancy new 3D games. But as demand for more game memory grew, the lack of suitable hardware to actually house the game became harder to find. Up to this point, Squaresoft released Final Fantasy games on cartridges that would play exclusively on Nintendo’s Famicom and Super Famicom (NES and Super NES). Because of this, Squaresoft and Nintendo enjoyed a long, fruitful partnership.
The advent of 3D gaming demanded Nintendo join in on the 3D revolution with the Nintendo 64. Ultimately, Nintendo’s choice to continue with a cartridge-based gaming console led to a dispute with Squaresoft. Final Fantasy VII simply didn’t fit on a cartridge. So, in 1996 Squaresoft announced that they would be releasing Final Fantasy VII exclusively on the Sony PlayStation.
Upon its release, Final Fantasy VII enjoyed critical and commercial success, selling 2.3 million copies in Japan within its first three days on the market. Success of the game reached US shores and helped fuel the hype that let sales soar in North America. The game sold 500,000 copies within its first three weeks (insane numbers for a JRPG in the late 90s).
But why was Final Fantasy VII so successful?