At the age of seven, gaming was very much something that held a sense of wonder and enchantment for me, and I guess not much has changed over the past twenty-odd (plus a few…) years. It took a long, hard think to come to a final decision on what I’d call my first favourite game, because there are just so many to choose from.
I had a list, and not just any old list, there were about 15 games on it that I played fervently throughout much of my childhood. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t talk about every one of them now – we’d be here all day. From Sonic the Hedgehog to California Games, and Lemmings to Rampage, most of my spare time as a child was spent with a controller in my hand. And every single one of those games I played hold different memories for me, both good and bad. As I went through them, though, I began to realise that I wasn’t really looking at my first favourite game, I was merely considering my first games. I loved them, but they didn’t really hold that ‘favourite’ title. They wouldn’t necessarily keep me coming back time and time again, even now.
No, that accolade lies elsewhere, later on in my life. About four years later, to be exact. Because in 1997, when I was a mere eleven years old, a game that changed the way I looked at video games forever was released. It took everything I knew and had experienced previously, and turned it on its head. Gone were my days of 2d platforming and plinky plonky music, and in their place was an in depth story – which I probably never really understood a the time, to be honest – and characters with real lives. My linear stories and limited landscapes were replaced with an entire world map, and I didn’t even have to go where it wanted me to, for the most part. I had freedom to play a game how I wanted to and to go where I wanted to go. Yes, probably somewhat predictably, I’m going to talk about Final Fantasy VII.
Much like the infamous sandwich spread, you either love or hate Final Fantasy VII. Some deem it over-hyped and nothing special, preferring the later instalments in the series, and others would give their left (or even right) arm for a remake of it. There are a more than a few reasons behind my choosing it as a favourite, but the main one is that it is almost entirely responsible for my obsession with RPGs and JRPGs. It was the first game of that sort I’d ever set my hands on, and I was terrible at it. I mean, really, really bad – but I persevered.
‘C’mon newcomer. Follow me.’ are the first words I’m greeted with when I first start playing. It seems quite apt, me being a complete novice at anything other than a jumping blue hedgehog and making a 16-bit athlete throw a discus, so I follow. And within a few minutes, boy am I glad I did.
Winding my way around Midgar’s dark, dank mako reactors and the downtrodden settlements beneath, I revelled in its detail. Taking in every minute part of it, thrilled at how… good it looked. ‘Should she be playing that?’ was muttered by my mother as I laid waste to another group of SOLDIER troops with my Buster Sword. There was no hyper blue hedgehog here, no butt-bouncing Mickey Mouse or tiny death seeking lemmings, no overly cheerful music that kind of detracted from any sense of danger you might otherwise feel. This was atmospheric, and dark, and felt no shame in allowing you to grow to love a character before brutally taking them away. More than playing a game, it felt like you were directing some sort of blocky, fantastical movie.
From the blackest of story lines in death and loss, to the downright bizarre in dressing up a big, manly ex-soldier as a woman and competing in squatting contests to win a transsexual’s wig, there was never a dull moment playing through Final Fantasy VII. One minute you could be fighting goblins, the next feeding nuts to chocobos in the hope of breeding one of another colour. What’s that? We’re going into space now? Oh, go on then.
The second reason I’ve such an affinity with this game is that it introduced me to one of my favourite composers, Nobuo Uematsu. There’s one thing that strikes me about the music in Final Fantasy VII, and it’s something I come across very rarely in games – everything fits. There’s not one piece of music that plays at any given point where I think it shouldn’t be there, or it just sounds ‘wrong’. Every piece is wonderful in its own right, and every single track still resides in my music collection today. As detailed and wonderful as the setting and story of the game is, the music just sets it off beautifully. From the peaceful tones of Kalm Village to the dramatic and wonderfully orchestrated One Winged Angel, the soundtrack is just stellar.
It seems strange to some when I say this, but even now, with games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect to satiate one’s appetite for an open world RPG, I’ll still return to Final Fantasy VII from time to time. There aren’t any achievements or trophies, and there aren’t really any surprises for me now, either; but it still draws me in in such a way that no other game has quite managed since. It genuinely changed the way I look at video games for the better, and concreted them as a big part of my life. And that’s an experience I think everyone who loves games should have.