I have an embarrassing gamer confession to make: I have never played any of the Final Fantasy games. I was much more of a Nintendo 64 person when I was young, and as an adult, the closest I’ve gotten to playing the famous Japanese RPG was picking Cloud in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. But at age 31, I wanted to give them a try.

So after 66 hours of gameplay, I completed the original FF7 on Switch and Part I of the remake on PS4. Playing through the story of Avalanche, a group of eco-terrorists bent on demolishing the evil natural-energy conglomerate called Shinra, was a fun and unique experience.

An Old Story Through Fresh Eyes

The games’ main narrative is a powerful allegory on environmental justice and the dangers of corporations amassing the power of governments. With the climate change issues we face in 2020, it has a visceral resonance in the present. Both games deal with a core moral and philosophical question: In noble causes, are the sacrifices really worth it?

In the original, the rebels are somewhat distanced from the ramifications of blowing up Mako reactors. But in the remake, the player is face-to-face with the chaos. You see the destruction first hand, hearing citizens of Midgar search for their loved ones amidst the debris. Characters like Tifa ask vulnerable but tough questions, wondering at what point does the ends not justify the means, and whether Avalanche had caused the destruction it sought to prevent. Though the original isn’t bad at this, I think the remake gives the main characters more depth and more complex motivations, and it doesn’t let Cloud, Tifa, Barret, and Aerith off the hook as perfect heroes.

Since the game has been out since 1997, I already knew that Aerith was going to get killed by Sephiroth. Her death is one of the most loaded plot twists in video game history. As Niles P. Muzyk wrote in The Psychology of Final Fantasy, it affected both the story and the gameplay, as “the player depended on her healing role within the group … the party is placed under urgent threat to reorganize when the character with whom the player has bonded is suddenly gone.”

Waiting for the ax to fall undercut some of the scene’s power in the original game, yet I actually thought the destruction of Sector 7 was the more intense event between the two games. The catastrophe loomed over the rest of the game and made Shinra a much greater focus as a nemesis than Sephiroth was. I also thought the suspense in the original game’s scene was better augmented through silence and atmosphere than with the music playing shortly after Aerith’s demise. However, it did establish “Aerith Theme” as a leitmotif that gets stuck in your head and heart. When I hear it now, it not only reminds me of Aerith but has become the song I associate with Final Fantasy. I can only speculate, but Aerith’s death in Part II is probably going to hit me a lot harder than the original did.

Both games did a great job at balancing the macro of saving the planet from destruction and getting revenge against Sephiroth. The story makes the enormous task of saving the planet more personal, and therefore more obtainable. Most major games focus on singular heroes, but I really enjoy ones where collectives save the day. Though he is an iconic character (and I get busy with him in Smash), I can’t imagine that a game with just Cloud would have had the same resonance. Cloud and the gang save the planet, but they do it by saving each other.

The Gameplay Couldn’t Be More Different

Courtesy of Square Enix

Final Fantasy VII took 120 developers and around $45 million to make. In April 2020, Square Enix took it to the next level with the remake. The exponentially improved graphics give the game an expansive and textured environment—though Grace Benfell wrote a great piece explaining how pre-rendered backdrops added a bigness to the original that the remake ironically lacks. Benfell argues that the bigness off the original game’s landscape gives the player a sense of the enormity of the group’s quest, while the remake’s tight camera focus on Cloud makes the story more of a personal narrative. Though cinematic and visually stunning, the remake didn’t seem as gritty to me as the original.