Look back at the 1997 television ads for Final Fantasy 7 now, and it’s clear that Square had something to prove. The pre-rendered CGI graphics with explosions ricocheting through a dystopian city gave it a movielike gravitas above other games of the time. And Sony wanted the world to pay attention, making sure that publications like Wired, USA Today, and Playboy took notice.
“When it came to Final Fantasy, it wasn’t like the most amazing thing compared to today, but for then it was quite stunning,” says Harold Goldberg, founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle. Goldberg was one of the few journalists to see the game during a press event at Square’s offices in Hawaii back in 1996, when he was freelancing for Wired.
Looking at the original Final Fantasy 7 in 2020 with fresh eyes can leave many bewildered. This is the beloved game that defined a generation? The characters are chunky Mega Bloks-style humanoids running through a gray and muddy-brown Midgar. Unlike Final Fantasy 6, which preceded it on the Super Nintendo with gorgeous sprite work and 2D visuals, or Final Fantasy 10, which came afterward on the more powerful PlayStation 2, FF7 was stuck on a system where 3D graphics were innovative yet held together with duct tape.
“The character models were exaggerated and unrealistic due to the limitations we had on the number of polygons and the amount of skeletal framework we could rig in a character’s body,” says Yoshinori Kitase, director of the original game and producer of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, in an email interview.
“I was manually animating the character’s performances in the cinematic scenes that I had designed,” Kitase adds. “Back then, character models were still quite simple, so we got away with the comic-like, over-the-top acting.”
Regardless, FF7 left an indelible impact for its mature story, likable characters, complex protagonist, and memorable music. “When the original came out, the Final Fantasy franchise did not have the status in the Western market that it has achieved since,” says Kitase. “As such, we felt like a new challenger with nothing to lose.”
It’s not often that a director can help lead an original creation as well as its remake two decades later. Back in the ’90s, Kitase and his team could get away with using pre-rendered backgrounds and clever camera tricks; the level of immersion expected today has completely shifted the design paradigm.
“The scale of the cutscene department and the environment department have gotten bigger,” says Naoki Hamaguchi, co-director of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, in the same email interview. Scenes in the original, which had been nothing more than text dialogue, have been reimagined as full cutscenes, with voice-overs, camerawork, and motion. “This is why the size of the cutscene department grew,” Hamaguchi continues. “Additionally, since background elements are now rendered in 3D — and players are now able to view everything from a 360-degree view — we needed to design and implement environments with far more fine detail.”
For example, the team put a greater focus and investment on boss battles. It assigned a single designer to work on only two or three boss battles, allowing them to put their full attention on this part of the design. This required more resources and developers, ones that did not exist during the making of the original game.
With Remake, the team created a new experience for players, stretching out the first five hours of Final Fantasy 7 to 30 or more. Now, as players run around, characters will chime in with their own thoughts and quips, making the world feel all the more realized.
“We believe Remake has turned into a game that will bring about new discoveries even for people who already know the story of Final Fantasy 7,” says Hamaguchi. Those discoveries include a greater emotional connection between character and player. In the original, it was impossible to animate faces outside of pre-rendered cutscenes, so the team opted to use character icons with exaggerated expressions to convey feeling.
“It’s also now possible to convey the protagonists’ emotions through just facial expressions without speech, just like in movies,” says Hamaguchi. “That is why the depiction of the aftermath of the Sector 8 explosions serves as a major foreshadowing in expressing the conflict and struggles the protagonists go through.”
[Leading up to the game’s launch, some fans have criticized Square Enix for not referring to Final Fantasy 7 Remake as “Part 1” in its marketing, since it’s a remake of part of the Final Fantasy 7 story, not the entire game. In Polygon’s email interview with Kitase and Hamaguchi for this story, we asked why Square Enix chose not to label the game that way, and whether the company felt that was misleading. We also asked about Square Enix’s strategy for launching the first entry in a multipart game series at the end of a console generation. Square Enix declined to answer these questions.]
The Final Fantasy series, up until FF7, had always been released on Nintendo consoles, but in the mid-’90s, Square decided to switch to Sony. Where Nintendo opted to use expensive memory chip-based cartridges with the Nintendo 64, Sony went in the direction of discs. A PlayStation CD could hold 650 MB of data, far exceeding cartridges, which topped out at 64 MB. Even then, the scope of Final Fantasy 7 was so large that it shipped on three discs.
The scope of Final Fantasy 7 Remake is similarly massive by modern standards, utilizing two Blu-ray Discs at 50 GB each.
“The Mako Reactor in Remake is comprised of nine million polygons,” says Hamaguchi. “If you consider the complexity that was processable 20 years ago, the level of presentation we can achieve today is tens or hundreds of times more than what we were capable of back then.”
It’s not just the visuals, story, and music that have gotten significant expansions; the gameplay systems have been overhauled, too. Final Fantasy 7 was a turn-based game in its original form, but Remake utilizes a more contemporary Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Instead of having the enemy and player take turns attacking each other, like in a board game, Remake has both parties charging at each other in real time. But there is an element of strategy: The game essentially slows down time to allow the player to choose more powerful attacks between their sword slashes, almost like a game of speed chess.
This mode has irked some longtime fans who preferred the turn-based combat of the original game. To remedy this, Square Enix added a “classic” mode, but it’s not entirely what fans had hoped for. The classic mode is the game’s easy mode, where all the real-time sword-slashing is done automatically. As a player’s ATB gauge fills, they can then select from a menu and use special attacks.
“One way of imagining it is that the ‘action battle’ portion assists while the ‘ATB battle’ portion scores a goal,” says Hamaguchi.
Video game remakes are a complex endeavor tied up in rose-tinted nostalgia. There’s pressure to appease fans of the original while meeting modern demands. A balance must be struck between those two forces, which ultimately might leave some disappointed that it’s not the exact game they remember. And, in the same way that fans lament George Lucas’ editing of the Star Wars movies, so too will some protest decisions that Square Enix made with Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
Kitase, Hamaguchi, and the rest of the team have decided to go down a wildly different path from the original game. And unlike two decades ago, every major publication is now paying attention.