Origin Story | ‘Final Fantasy VII’

Marc Griffin
Games
Games

Final Fantasy VII is a masterclass in game development. While Final Fantasy is one of the most popular RPGs of all time as an overarching franchise, Final Fantasy VII, in particular, is both the most well-known and influential of the FF series. Before FF7, RPGs were seen as a niche genre in America, with only a few dedicated fans in the states. Hell, when Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest) first arrived on the shores of America, the game did everything but fly off the shelves! The long waits for localizing these JRPGs wasn’t worth it to most American gamers, and the gameplay, themes, and characters of these games didn’t have that oomph, you know? Plus, Japanese game devs had a common misconception that Americans were not nuanced enough to appreciate the complexities of their RPGs, which was directly related to the poor game sales of the genre in America.

But then came Final Fantasy VII, and all of that changed. The movie-like cut-scenes, impressive, groundbreaking 3-D graphics and complex thought-provoking storylines that have become mainstays in the RPG genre were all created and revolutionized by Cloud and that beautiful, spiky hair of his. Achieving both critical and commercial success upon its release back in ’97, Final Fantasy VII has become a franchise within a franchise as a sub-series called the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was created to expand the world of the iconic series further. This would give birth to movies, spin-off games, prequels, mobile games, and even books as the creators looked to cement FF7 as the icon we all know it as today. But how did this legendary video game come to be, and why is it so darn influential? Why is the music so good, and why is Cloud Strife’s hair so darn spiky? To solve these mysteries and to celebrate the release of FF7 Remake: Intergrade, we’re uncovering the origins of one of the most remarkable role-playing video games the world has ever seen: Final Fantasy VII.

In the Beginning, There Was SquareSoft

Hironobu Sakaguchi and Hiromichi Tanaka in 1984

Before copies of Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, and Dragon Quest were flying off the shelves, Sqaure Enix, then known as Square, struggled to see any serious earnings and commercial success from their games. Humbly beginning as a company created by Masafumi Miyamoto in 1983, Square started as the computer game software division of a power line construction company called Den-Yu-Sha, owned by his father. Miyamoto padded out the basis of the Square team with many young creatives that showed a lot of promise; two of these critical players were Hironobu Sakaguchi and Hiromichi Tanaka.

In need of a little extra cash, Sakaguchi began looking for a part-time gig; that tedious job search led him to Square’s front door. This meeting ultimately led to Sakaguchi (and Tanaka) joining Square. In the Spring of 1983, the two university students dropped out of college and began working as part-time employees for Miyamoto. Two years after they joined, Sakaguchi approached Nobuo Uematsu, a self-taught musician who had just graduated from Kanagawa University with English. Uematsu was an employee at a music shop when Sakaguchi asked him if he would be willing to work for Square and compose music for their games. Uematsu agreed, and he decided that he, much like Sakaguchi and Tanaka, would work for Square. Initially, Sakaguchi and the guys joined the team with the sole purpose of doing something more along the lines of part-time work, but fate (and Miyamoto) had other plans.

Their first game came about in the fall of 1984, created by Sakaguchi, who at the time was a young university graduate with no plans to develop video games. The game was a silent text-based project called Death Trap, released for the NEC PC-8801 in Japan. Besides its significance for being one of the first games to be released in Japan with options to utilize both English and Japanese language for the text-based gameplay, it was hugely a flop. From there, the company made games almost exclusively for the NES and, the first three games that the company made over the next 2-3 years had failed, according to the small company’s standards. Miyamoto would take some time to reevaluate the practices at the company and ultimately decide that some changes were long overdue if they wanted to survive.

With his mind made up, Miyamoto decided to separate itself from his father’s company and become its own entity entirely; Square moved its business and relocated to Ueno, Tokyo in the year 1987, became Square Co., Ltd and quickly began brainstorming new game ideas that would help save the company from going under as they were nearing their last bit of cash. Miyamoto would also decide to hire more people in hopes of becoming a more well-rounded company. Miyamoto added some real firepower to the company hiring the likes of a videogame designer by the name of Kouichi Ishii; Akitoshi Kawazu, a game director, producer and designer; Yoshitaka Amano, visual artist, character designer, illustrator, scenic designer for theater, and costume designer; Nasir Gebelli, a programmer and game designer; and Kenji Terada, a scenario writer, anime director, and series organizer. These new additions would result in the company being split into two teams for maximum efficiency: Team A, led by Sakaguchi, was in charge of developing Square’s game cartridge format for use on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Team B, led by Tanaka, focused on designing game titles that would work on the NES’ disk system (which, ironically was believed to be more critical at that time).

Even with all the new changes made by Miyamoto to ensure that the company’s worst failures were behind them, Sakaguchi felt like maybe this company wasn’t for him. Maybe, he thought, he wasn’t meant to be in the videogame business at all. So, as both Tanaka and Sakaguchi began brainstorming projects for their respective teams to tackle, Sakaguchi was coming to terms with the fact that whatever game he would make next would be his last. “The name ‘Final Fantasy’ was a display of my feeling that if this didn’t sell, I was going to quit the games industry and go back to university,” said Sakaguchi in an interview with the Japanese magazine Famitsu in 2011. “I’d have had to repeat a year so that I wouldn’t have had any friends — it was a ‘final solution.” Although the first entry into the series would be riddled with development hell, externally from Nintendo and internally from Square, the game would be released in 1987 for NES in Japan (and later in America) and be the company’s first successful game. Naturally, the company (and the rest of Japan) took notice, and Final Fantasy became the premier property for Square. Feeling reinvigorated and reborn as a game developer, Sakaguchi pressed onward as his creation took the company to new heights.

But this article isn’t about FF1, is it? No, see, the actual role-playing game revolution would come just ten years later with lucky number seven—and gaming as we know it would change forever. Before that, though, a lot of issues needed to be resolved. Specifically with Nintendo. For one, the company was making games exclusively for Nintendo, and with that came its own set of problems, specifically in the software and censorship department. These issues were leftovers from the first six FF games, and if Sakaguchi were going to create the game they always envisioned, they would have to resolve their issues with Nintendo.

Bombing Mission

Nintendo of America (NOA) and Square’s relationship wasn’t the greatest; it was more of a tolerated situation. Both NOA and Square were all in on the misconception that American gamers didn’t have the brain capacity to understand and appreciate the art of JRPGs and, as a result, Final Fantasy, as it stood in America, wasn’t nearly as popular as it was in Japan due to lack of support for it, or better yet, need for it. The first Final Fantasy games were localized in the states around 1990, and it managed to do better in America than it did in Japan in 1987. While Square celebrated this W, Nintendo felt that it wasn’t enough to justify the consistent localization of the series. The second FF game wouldn’t even get an American release as Nintendo felt that the game was far too similar to the first installment, deeming it redundant and not worth the hassle, and passed on the third game as well. Final Fantasy wouldn’t be localized again for American audiences until the fourth entry into the series as Square made the jump from the NES to SNES hardware.

While Japanese audiences loved the vibrant new graphical showcase of FFIV and its excellent sound, the American fan base was not so much. Due to Nintendo of America’s strict company guidelines for third-party game devs, the version of Final Fantasy IV that Japanese audiences raved about, Americans wouldn’t receive. Instead, Americans received a dumbed-down version of the game that NOA felt would be easier for them to digest. Some items, areas, and character skills were removed entirely, swear words were omitted, references to sex and death were banished, and with that, the intended vision of the game was a bit lost. Nonetheless, the game was a success in the states but didn’t meet the same commercial standard set by its Japanese counterpart. It was at this moment that Miyamoto began to think about the future of their relationship with Nintendo.

On the one hand, the graphical fidelity of the SNES was beautiful, and Nintendo gave them a platform to get their games off the ground. Still, on the other hand, there was a creatively hindering combination of Nintendo’s aging SNES hardware and the exhausting censorship practices that the company’s guidelines invoked upon third-party devs. So with FF7, Square Co., Ltd deciding to end their exclusive relationship with Nintendo, they began exploring their options as far as systems go to see which one would make for the most groundbreaking experience. As the Nintendo 64 and Sony’s Playstation crept along the horizon, Square knew the decision would ultimately be between the two new systems.

“Square planned to build a game for the next-gen Nintendo machine, but the [development] kit wasn’t available, and the technical [specs kept changing],” says Kazuyuki Hashimoto, CG supervisor, in an interview with Polygon. “So I suggested we could go with a standard environment and we could see what we could do with it. Then, later on, we could optimize this idea to the small machine. Initially, we could do something with the most powerful environment so we could be more free — free to figure out what we could do in 3D.” More or less, may the best man (or system) win.

Soldier, First Class

Production on the seventh installment to the acclaimed RPG series began back in 1994 after the completion of FF6. Members of Square’s Team A and B worked hard to find new ways to break new ground with their latest game. The brainstorming often led to a stalemate, but one thing was sure: they wanted this game to flip the gaming industry on its head. Around this same time, the team became burned out on the constant back and forth that the FF7 brainstorming brought about. They were unsure about which system they wanted to put the game on, based on hardware capabilities and possible limitations. So, to revitalize the team, Sakaguchi thought it would be wise to take up another project. Development for Final Fantasy VII was put on hold, and all the attention was shifted to a title called Chrono Trigger. During this time, Tetsuya Nomura, who joined the company around ’91 and showed promise working on Chrono Trigger, had been promoted to the role of Team B leader, as he and Kitase would take the reins on Final Fantasy VII.

Once Chrono Trigger was completed, the team shifted its focus back to Final Fantasy VII. Kitase and Sakaguchi were prime advocates for the game going full-on 3D, but after completing Chrono Trigger, they decided to explore their options as to what FF7 could end up looking like.  The two gentlemen were also concerned with how powerful the N64 and the Playstation would end up being, so they wanted to make sure the company had all their bases covered. So, two versions of the game were being worked on: one as a 2D pixel art reminiscent of their other FF games and another being an entirely 3D version that would utilize the new Silicon Graphics hardware that the company had recently purchased. Using the new SG hardware, Square managed to create a 3D demo of what a new FF game could look like based on the characters from Final Fantasy 6. With the demo completed and ready to be showcased to an audience, Hashimoto figured they could take it to the Siggraph conference and begin to build hype for a potential fully 3D Final Fantasy game there.

“Square was very new to the 3D graphics industry, so Silicon Graphics didn’t pay much attention to us. After we made this demo, we wanted to show it at the Siggraph conference in Los Angeles, and we couldn’t bring over a machine from Japan [because it was too large],” says Hashimoto in an interview with Polygon. “We needed to lease a rental from the SGI headquarters, and they didn’t recognize us. But I had a friend at Silicon Graphics in the U.S., and I asked him to coordinate a loan, so we successfully loaned one machine for the demonstration.” To their surprise, the demo received a great response, and Kitase decided to ax the 2D version of FF7 and went with the fully 3D spectacle. All they had to do now was decide between Sony or Nintendo, classic-gamer problems.

The Nintendo 64’s specs looked promising, and Square already had a working relationship with the company, so, to most, this decision seemed like a no-brainer. But, as more tests were done on the framework for FF7 and the project became more ambitious than the previous build showcased at the Siggraph conference, the decision to go with Sony over Nintendo, even though they were the rookies in this situation, became more apparent. “Of course, back then, I wasn’t the president of Square. There was a management level above me, and I talked with them to make the decision. But PlayStation games being on CDs was the biggest factor. If you wanted to make a 3D action game on a Nintendo 64 cartridge with that limited space, you could do it. But I wanted to create a 3D role-playing game. It was obvious in my head what I wanted to make, but that would have been difficult on Nintendo’s hardware,” said Sakaguchi in an interview with Polygon. “The biggest problem was, of course, memory. Based on our calculations, there was no way it could all fit on a ROM cartridge. So our main reason for choosing the PlayStation was just because it was the only console which would allow us to use CD-ROM media.” So, in 1996, Square made it official and signed an exclusivity deal with Sony, dumping Nintendo in the process. Final Fantasy VII would be the beginning of a cultural shift in the gaming industry, and games manufactured on CDs—not cartridges—were the future.

The success of the first six Final Fantasy games within the Japanese market brought in enough money for the company to finally set out to make the game that they have always wanted to make without cutting corners due to financial restrictions. Free of these limitations, both hardware and financially related, Sakaguchi and Kitase planned to improve every aspect of the Final Fantasy foundation; they wanted to make players feel like they were a part of a movie, a real blockbuster experience. Amongst a multitude of changes, the team wanted to be some of the first devs to make a fully 3-D game experience; they had ambitions to create characters that captured and replicated actual humans and, above all, wanted to reach audiences in America. Plus, with the company finding a new home at Sony’s rookie system, the Playstation, it was unsure how things would pan out for them and Final Fantasy VII.

Rumblings of Square’s ambitious plans for the game had made their way throughout the industry and, as a result, cast doubt, both internally and externally, on the company’s next FF title. “We felt a wind of change inside the company during the development process,” said Yoshinori Kitase, director of Final Fantasy VII, in an interview with EDGE in 2003. “There was this incredible feeling I’ll never forget: we were making a new thing…making history. Imagine.” Kitase was relatively new to the Square team; he joined the dev team during the FFV era, where he replaced Tanaka as the director of the series. Kitase’s childhood dreams of becoming a film director (inspired by Star Wars) eventually led him to Square, where his cinematic vision and noticeably more mature voice took the series into a bold new direction. And with the new technology the team was invested in, Square was definitely on the verge of greatness.

Time To Make History

Once the decision was made to leave Nintendo, Square had only a year to get the game done in time for the scheduled release on Sony’s Playstation. The budget for Final Fantasy made it one of the most expensive video games of all time (at the time), coming in at about $45 million. Development began picking up in early 1996; Square’s dev team for this game had reached upwards of 100 different artists and programmers, mimicking a Hollywood movie in scope and team size.

“A larger developing team will not always create a better game, but with a project of such a scale as this, you get to spend a lot of money, and you gain access to very high-qualified staff. We were able to use many high-end machines and work with approximately highly-qualified staff. I believe this was one of the largest game dev teams in history,” says Sakaguchi in an interview with Computer and Video Games Magazine in 1997. “As a result, the final game generates a tremendous amount of energy. My theory was always this: if one person creates a game (it can be a racing game or anything), and then ten people create the same game, the one created by ten people will eventually have a larger amount of energy in it. In Final Fantasy VII, we hired staff who had extra high levels of energy and passion. I definitely hope the consumers will feel the amount of energy coming out of this game when they play it. I’m pretty confident they will.”

With this philosophy, Square made sure to dump all their resources into hiring Japan’s best and brightest 3D tech/artists and buying a couple of hundred SG workstations. Sakaguchi also decided to invest just as much cash into Final Fantasy VII’s music, story, and art. And that’s where the true magic happened.

Please Make a Party of Three Characters

The cast of Final Fantasy VII are some of the most iconic characters in all of gaming; with the amount of money and passion that went into these character designs, though, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Final Fantasy VII was Tetsuya Nomura’s grand debut, designing all the leading characters in the game. He got on Sakaguchi’s good side by offering fantastic input now and then, which resulted in Sakaguchi coming to him more often for out-of-the-box ideas.

What Kitase admired most about him was his knack for writing all his ideas down on paper rather than typing them up. “I’ve been involved with the series since Final Fantasy 5. And on Final Fantasy 5 and 6, I would always talk about plans and mention ideas to Kitase-san,” says Nomura in an interview with Polygon. “But on 7, that was when I took a bit more of a leadership role and started coming up with proposals and speaking more clearly about what I wanted to do in the game.”

Two of his favorite characters that he designed for the game were Cloud and Sephiroth, of course. These two characters represented the game’s theme and set the tone for the rest of the cast. Influenced by the legend of Japanese swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and Sasaki Kojiro, Nomura wanted the main protagonist and antagonist to emulate their energy and philosophies. Cloud was essentially a stand-in for Musashi, and Sephiroth was Kojiro. Barret, Red XIII, Cloud were some of the first characters to be created (fun fact), and from there, Nomura felt the game needed its heroine and decided that Aerith (or Aeris), Tifa, and Yuffie would be that depending on how they played the game.

The rest of the cast was rounded out with Cid Highwind, Vincent Valentine, and Cait Sith. Along with the character’s designs, Nomura was also credited with coming up with the Limit Break idea, which expounded upon the desperation attacks in FFVI. Nomura figured that since FFVII allows for more personal customization by adding/removing materia, the limit break would express more of the character’s personality in battle.

Due to the game expanding from chibi-styled pixel art to full 3D renders, Nomura’s art style was finally appreciated at the level that he intended. The style that he popularized in FFVII would become synonymous with the brand, capturing the dark, grungy introspective tone of the game’s theme.

Theme

To cope with the passing of his mother and finally come to terms with the tragedy, Sakaguchi looked to make the theme of FFVII focused on life. Through this theme, Sakaguchi and the rest of the writers on the team looked to implement factions of philosophical theory into the game’s plot. “Ever since my mother passed away, which was when we were creating Final Fantasy III, I have been thinking about the theme ‘life.’ ‘Life’ dwells in many things and I was curious what will happen if I attempt to analyze “life” in a mathematical and logical way,” says Sakaguchi in an interview with Computer Video Games Magazine in 1997. “I’m an engineering major, so maybe this was my approach to overcome the mental shock in me. Although I’ve been occasionally sharing my thoughts on this issue with Mr. Uematsu, this is the first time in the series that this particular theme is actually brought up in the game. You might have difficulty noticing it, though.”

Music

Handling all of the music on the project, Nobuo Uematsu (often referred to as “the Beethoven of video game music”) took the pieces of art that Amano and Nemura crafted and made compositions based on them. Now that the game was going to be released on the Playstation, Uematsu no longer had to be hindered by the limitations once present on the NES and SNES; he could make structured musical compositions that rivaled orchestra pieces. But, with the new CD-ROM technology of the Playstation, there were a couple of other limitations that presented themselves: absurd loading times. So, Uematsu went back to the drawing board and began to brainstorm more ideas for the game’s music. He watched the opening sequence of the game, and he began to get in the mind of the protagonist, Cloud, envisioning music that would encapsulate the mood and tone of his character and the events around him.

“From the first Final Fantasy up to Final Fantasy V, the music has had a European atmosphere: the north, castles, blue skies,” said Uematsu in an interview with Dengki Playstation. “But FF6 started to break away from that, and FF7 begins with a new image, a dirty city of the future. So I was thinking the music should change too. I personally like a lot of different styles of music, so I saw this game as a chance to show parts of myself which I hadn’t been able to express before.”

Modeling the game after big-budget films, Square wanted the music to be boundless and free-flowing with little to no repeats of songs, like an official movie soundtrack. So, Uematsu was tasked with making songs for the game that felt cinematic in scope and created with the intention to be placed on a soundtrack of some kind. “Speaking of cinematic, we also wanted to have a soundtrack with no repeated music. In movies, you don’t hear music get repeated, you know. Depending on the scene, the tempo or the intensity might change, though,” says Sakaguchi in an interview with Dengki Playstation. “I think something like that should be possible… although there is the matter of how much available spirit/creativity we can get out of our composer, Uematsu. (laughs) Of course, FF7 is a game that takes over 40 hours, so some music is repeated, but our overall goal was to make it as cinematic as possible in that regard.”

Plot

All three elements of music, characters, and theme came together in the plot, which was done by Sakaguchi, Nomura, Kitase, and Nojima. They wanted to make a plot that rivaled a Hollywood film in scope and intimacy; they wanted the player to sit with the game and connect to the characters on a level that rivaled films. Through this basis, the plot evolved and became more extensive with each new write-up of the game’s script, from the game’s at times uneasy mood in seeing Sephiroth wreak havoc to the groundbreaking decision to make their protagonist, Cloud, an unreliable narrator. As the story progresses and the player gets bits and pieces of the story through Cloud’s shattered and rewritten memory, it becomes clear that this game wasn’t just your average JRPG; it was gunning for something much bigger.

“Visually, I wanted Final Fantasy VII to be a completely unified work, with a single style running from beginning to end. The cut-scene movies, overworld map, and battle scenes would not be disconnected but would instead smoothly and seamlessly transition into one another,” says Kitase in an interview with Dengeki Playstation. “To call this game “cinematic” would be correct, but what I wanted was something where all the compositions and shots would be imbued with meaning and show the intent of the creators. For all our previous games, when we’ve been in the phase of brainstorming ideas and sketching pictures, there’s always been the knowledge that we have to work within the hardware memory limitations. This time there were no limits and no restraints.”

With the game ready on all levels and ready to be shipped worldwide. The question remained: would this be the FF that breaks through the stubborn American market? With the amount of money, time, and passion that was poured into the development of this game, Square had one answer: we have no choice.

It’s Over, Sephiroth

In January 1997, Final Fantasy VII was finally released in Japan to critical acclaim and immediate success. Square was happy with the outcome, but the real challenge came later that year: the North American release. No Japanese RPG had ever broken through the NA market, and Square’s team had taken this as a challenge. Ads for the game appeared in magazines, TVs, billboards, subways; the game’s marketing was virtually everywhere.

After its September 1997 North American release, the game flew off of the shelves; it appeared the marketing and hard work had finally paid off. By October 1997, Final Fantasy VII had sold 1 million copies, breaking and setting the record for the amount of JRPGs sold in North America. The revolution had begun: Square and JRPGs had finally arrived.

The Future

The impact of FFVII is not to be understated; it’s still felt to this day and has become something of a cultural icon. JRPGs were forever changed and impacted by Square’s work on this game, helping to usher in the era of 3D rendered models in gaming and bringing the JRPG genre to a broader audience. Today, JRPGs are in abundance in the West, and you’ll have a hard time finding a gamer not interested in the genre.

As for FFVII, the game was remade and released last year as a timed exclusive for the Ps4. And, in Final Fantasy VII fashion, it broke a couple of records and won a couple of awards. Just a couple. As FFVII Remake Intergrade looms on the horizon, it’s safe to say that the future of the Final Fantasy franchise is bright.

Marc Griffin
Marc Griffin is a jack of all trades, master of some. He’s a reader, writer, musician, beatsmith, rapper, poet, and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man based in WNY. A current Master’s student, he seems to have a passion for comic books, video games, street fashion, and music..so we’re told..