Jennifer takes us back to the winter of 1997, when a certain Japanese role-playing game took her into an adventure that included titanic bosses, golden creatures and… cross-dressing.
Really? Are you really sure that’s the only way? Can’t I just kill him?
Back in late 1997, I was relatively normal as 12 year olds go. I played soccer regularly for a team, dabbled in table tennis, and spent plenty of time with my friends. I had a pretty idyllic childhood overall, one with video games living happily in the background. As much as I’ve always liked games, back then they were not the be all and end all of my existence. Sure, they were fun to play when I had nothing better to do outdoors or any books to read, but gaming was simply one of many pastimes to me. At least, that’s how things were until the fateful Christmas day that Final Fantasy VII was entrusted to me. With it, gaming transformed from a hobby into a passion.
Final Fantasy VII wasn’t my first RPG. Titles such as Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy and The Story of Thor on the Sega Genesis had garnered my interest years earlier, both classic examples of action RPGs. I certainly enjoyed them but neither gave me much interest in the genre. In retrospect, it was mostly down to two things: the combat and the storylines. The combat in both titles worked perfectly adequately, but I wanted more strategy. I wanted to be able to think my moves through, take my time and then strike with all my might. Maybe, I was – and still am – a bit of a control freak. I wanted to control every single action possible, not just press one button to attack with my sword.
The storylines in both cases were good, but they lacked that cutting edge. However, this was at a time when cinematic, epic stories were simply too difficult to translate to the gaming world. I had similar problems with turn-based RPGs like Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday and Suikoden. Buck Rogers had a very generic story that was far from the greatest story in the world, but it had one major advantage: at select moments it offered branching dialogue sequences, something felt like revolutionary. Finally I could make decisions that affected proceedings slightly. Suikoden’s saving grace was that it offered characters that I actually cared about. When they died, even if it was just in battle, I couldn’t help but feel sad for them.
I had the urge for an emotionally captivating, epic storyline, a turn-based combat system, and the sense that I was actually affecting events within a game world. Looking back on it, it makes perfect sense that Final Fantasy VII would be the game for me, but I didn’t cotton on to that until it was in my hands. I can only barely remember my reasoning for asking for Final Fantasy VII. I think it came down to reading a brief magazine preview at around the same time as my mother asking me what I wanted for Christmas. Isn’t fate a wonderful tool sometimes? As Christmas veered closer and closer, I became more and more excited by the promise of Final Fantasy VII. I wasn’t sure why admittedly, but I hoped it would be as good as Suikoden. When the day finally arrived, I could contain myself no longer.
And for the next two months, it was all I played. I lived and breathed Final Fantasy VII. To me, it was the epitome of all gaming. It provoked every emotion possible and educated me abpit gaming, and even life. The day after Christmas Day, I had reached Wall Market and that hugely memorable cross-dressing quest, a quest that was very, very surreal. In retrospect, it was plain disturbing, especially for a 12 year old to play, but at the time I took it in my stride and carried out the task. It wasn’t the actual cross-dressing that was disturbing, that was relatively normal compared to the rest of the game. Instead, it was things like ’the gym’, a building that was more like a gay brothel, full of beefy men desperate to wash and bathe Cloud. Or watching women dancing erotically in suits of armor for the President of Shinra. The finale of Wall Market was perhaps the most disturbing sequence of all, in which Cloud is chosen by the Don from a line-up of (real) girls for a night of romance and, presumably, a threesome with Tifa. At the age of 12 this all went over my head, but I can see why my uncle, who saw me playing through this sequence by chance, seemed rather concerned for my mental health.
Final Fantasy VII provided me with plenty of experiences, ones that paved the way for future RPGs. As a young RPG player, I made the crucial mistake near the end of the first disc of overwriting my save file, this ending up stuck with limited resources and the inability to level up easily. Ahead of me was Demon’s Gate, a challenging, intimidating boss that would continually defeat me despite many attempts. I didn’t want to restart the game so I tried, and I tried to beat it. My friend would come and watch me struggle, offering me moral support throughout the ordeal. This one, relatively average boss, had become one of the game’s vivid and memorable fixtures. Finally, after a mere sixteen days of trying, I finally succeeded. The exhilaration was huge, and a feeling that I still chase after even now. Simply put, no boss has challenged me in quite the same way. That’s not wishing to sound arrogant. I’ve certainly been stuck on an RPG boss since, but I’ve always planned ahead and had a previous save file at the ready, or ensured that I’ve always been at a relatively high level for that stage in the game. Demon’s Gate was a terrific bump in my RPG learning curve. It was the gaming equivalent of a life lesson really.
This was Demon’s Gate. This was my Everest.
There was one other pivotal feature within Final Fantasy VII that consumed my existence: Chocobo Breeding. It was a relatively simple system. Midway through the game I was provided with a chocobo farm in which I could breed chocobos, the big yellow flightless birds that are synonymous with the Final Fantasy franchise. Each of the birds were of a slightly different quality depending on where they were caught. Eventually, with a mixture of solid breeding, good quality greens to feed the birds with and some chocobo racing to keep them in shape, players could end up with a gold chocobo. But while it sounds easy, in practice it took a hell of a lot of work to get to that gold chocobo, especially given how there was no online walkthrough to consult at the time. Every night I would come downstairs for dinner and my ever-supportive parents would ask me whether I’d managed to get the gold chocobo yet. They must have been a little concerned by their once normal daughter becoming increasingly obsessed with the breeding of a virtual creature, but to their credit they hid it well. That fateful day came eventually, the day on which I finally achieved my goal. I could finally use this ultimate chocobo to travel across to the little island that concealed the Knights of the Round materia, and…well, that was it. It was a anticlimactic to say the least. I had spent hours upon hours trying to get to this point. Now I felt lost. By that point I had achieved pretty much everything I wanted to achieve in Final Fantasy VII. It felt like a great loss and even at that naive age, I knew something special was over.
Since then, I have played many a RPGs, particularly Japanese ones. None of them have quite done it for me. On paper they’ve all been fantastic, but much like potential relationships they’ve all just lacked that certain something that gives you butterflies in your stomach. Final Fantasy VIII did come very close to emulating the level of joy of Final Fantasy VII but it just missed the spot; it was all style and no substance. Like a first love, I suspect that Final Fantasy VII will always have my gaming heart, no matter how much I realise it is flawed. I can ignore all of that because that’s what love is: overlooking flaws in favour of how it makes you feel. Or is that just infatuation? Either way, nothing will ever replace it.