Final Fantasy VII both saved and ruined the Final Fantasy franchise. Now, before you get out your pitchforks and torches (again), wait just a moment. There is no denying the high level of craftsmanship present in the game or the enormous impact it has had on the RPG genre and the industry as a whole. However, there is also no denying the shadow it has cast over the rest of the series. Like a kid trying out for team quarterback just because it made his big brother a star at school, almost every post-VII entry in the series has felt the need to emulate the PSone classic in to maintain popularity. This is stifling the franchise’s creativity, preventing it from truly evolving past its Playstation zenith.
But, hold on. First let’s talk about what made FF VII the success it was and why it is so fondly remembered. Final Fantasy has always been about ambition, both in terms of each game’s actual development and in the worlds of the games themselves. Just as how the player is always taking on greater and greater enemies to earn more precious XPs, Square-Enix continues to expand its size and scope in the hopes of attracting new fans. This model worked pretty well for every Final Fantasy game in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, but it wasn’t until FF VII rolled around when this bold approach to development really started to payoff.
FF VII took over 120 people and $40-$45 million to finish, an unheard of feat back in 1997. Ever the innovators when it came to new storytelling technology, Square’s team of artists, designers, and programmers spent three years using this budget to perfect the game’s CG cinematics and pre-rendered backgrounds. It was this ambition and innovation that caught the attention of not only gamers, but the mass media, as well. FF VII was a built from the ground up to be something people had never experienced before, made all the more obvious in its advertising. This balls-out approach to development made Squaresoft feel like something of a maverick in the games industry and only bolstered its popularity amongst gamers. You never knew what the studio would come out with next or what new innovation it was going to incorporate into its next big release. This was especially true of Final Fantasy.
This strength, however, would tragically become the series’ greatest weakness. Just as how each game from one to six expanded its size and scope, so too did the post-FF VII entries. This was not always for the better. Final Fantasy VIII, as noble an attempt as it was at trying to craft a classic love story for gaming to call its own, waded further and further into the depths of angst and melodrama. Likewise, the game expanded on VII’s use of CG cinematics, and it was here where Square started to really get cocky with its new toys. Featuring one of the most self-indulgent intros in video game history, it was almost as if Square had become drunk off of their own brilliance.
To make matter worse, the game suffered delays in order to ensure its graphics were up to the ridiculously high standards of the industry. This becomes all the more worrying when one considers how much Square-Enix wanted XIII to measure up to the impact FF VII had when it was first released, as they wanted XIII to have the same impact on the Playstation 3 as FF VII did on the PSone. It cannot be said for sure whether or not this affected the overall quality of the gameplay, but it certainly shows how Square-Enix is scared to death of releasing anything the general public does not consider to be “cutting edge.”
And then there is the Fabula Nova Crystallis fiasco, which was a pretty apparent attempt to inorganically milk spin-offs out of the game the way the company did with the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII series. It’s worth noting how one of those games, Final Fantasy Agito XIII, had its name changed to Final Fantasy Type-0 and was never released in North America, while the other, Final Fantasy versus XIII goes further and further into development hell with each passing day. Even when cynically emulating its past successes, the series is still bogged down by the weight of its own reverence for a bygone classic.
Final Fantasy is in serious need of a new business model. Final Fantasy VII has been the standard for the series for so long, it has almost lost all meaning. With every step away from VII’s legacy Square-Enix makes (FF IX, XII,) it takes two steps back with games like VIII, XIII, and, to a certain extent, X. It is time the series cleaned off its slate and started over from scratch, both in its game design and its marketing, as the train built by Final Fantasy VII cannot run much further without being derailed by over bloated technology, cold corporate marketing, and a lack of clear vision beyond emulating what has already proven popular.