Before I begin, let me make one point abundantly clear:
I am aware that gaming has advanced quite a bit since 1997. I’m not saying Final Fantasy VII couldn’t be better from a technical and artistic standpoint; of course, it could. I’m not saying nothing exists that’s superior to FFVII from the graphics and general technical perspective. That’s just silly.
I am, however, saying that one of the most iconic names in video games has every right to be included in the “best of all time” discussion, and after playing 75+ RPGs in my day, I have yet to find one that I’d say is better than Squaresoft’s masterpiece.
Oh, don’t worry, I have my reasons.
First of all, the turn-based mechanic isn’t automatically inferior
The death of the turn-based gameplay system in AAA blockbuster RPGs is a bitter disappointment to me. It’s just not fair. Those who are familiar with the JRPG genre know how various developers pushed the turn-based mechanic; we always got highly creative and even innovative iterations of that system. Look at the Arts in Legend of Legaia, the Judgment Ring in Shadow Hearts, and the various combat structures we’ve seen in Legend of Dragoon, Suikoden, Wild ARMs, Star Ocean, etc.
Just because you’re not always moving and pressing buttons doesn’t make the game any less involved. Strategy is part of the turn-based entertainment. Taking one’s time and planning out the next move is a critical part of the enjoyment, as far as I’m concerned. I got into RPGs because I didn’t like playing the fast-action games that required a constant hammering of buttons. I wanted to rely on my mental capacity as opposed to my dexterity.
I will always maintain that to this day, some of the most imaginative and fulfilling gameplay mechanics have been found in turn-based RPGs.
FFVII’s gameplay, story, and setting are almost unparalleled
Think about it: First, the Materia system is an excellent idea. What most players don’t remember (and some didn’t even know at the time), is that each character had a set of base stats, and those stats were altered based on the Materia you equipped. It allowed you to turn Barrett into a mage, if you so chose, and represented a form of freedom and customization that we see everywhere today.
Compared to a later mechanic like the Sphere Grid, the latter actually seemed simpler and more restricting. Materia was multi-dimensional; you could build up each and every piece and furthermore, once built, anyone could equip it. To some, this is a minor thing; to the experts out there, this is a huge plus.
The story still comes under fire to this day. You’ve got cynical haters everywhere desperately trying to prove that the story actually sucked, that it’s full of holes, that the characters are stupid and dull, etc. This is just your standard knee-jerk reaction to the lofty status of the game. Any time something is revered, there are bound to be idiots who have to prove their own “genius” by proving that everyone else is wrong.
Yes, the writing could’ve been better. Back in those days, the dialogue wasn’t great. But the depth of that story, the levels and dimensions on which it operates, the pacing that seems just about perfect; it all combines to create a highly enjoyable experience. It has philosophical and psychological angles that few really appreciate, and Sephiroth remains the greatest villain of all time for one big reason: He’s simultaneously sympathetic and brutal. The hallmarks of any memorable villain.
The character list is filled with interesting personalities, even if they’re not all brought into the open. I haven’t seen a cast so appealing in so many ways, have you? The writers even implemented side-stories for most of the characters, which is something we didn’t often see in those days, and really expanded the game’s emotional attraction.
Then the setting: I loved that world. A better world map, I have never encountered. Full of mystery and variety, from exploring the ocean depths in a submarine to zipping about the skies in your airship to traveling around on a chocobo, it was about as dynamic as any interactive world could’ve been. Each town had a style and persona all its own, each area had a specific appeal, and how each character reacted to each region was also important.
It’s the moments we remember
There’s a reason why one of the most memorable moments in history is when Sephiroth slays Aeris. Sorry if that was a spoiler but if you haven’t played FFVII yet, you’re no gamer, anyway. 😉 Just kidding, of course.
The point is that those who remember FFVII don’t merely remember the game as a whole. They remember specific moments. They remember the times when they reacted to what they say, and the bottom line is that we kept reacting throughout. It seemed like every new scene was worth storing in our memory banks, because it affected us in a completely new and even profound way. No matter what happens in gaming from here on out, you know you’ll always recall these scenes. That’s what makes for a special game.
When you factor in everything, and you take into consideration the era in which it was released, I don’t think there’s any doubt about it: Final Fantasy VII is still the best RPG ever made.
End note: Some people still like to use this argument: “If you say FFVII was the best ever, it was your first RPG.” Yeah, no. Doesn’t apply to me, trust me on that.