“The following is a contributor post by the Beer Mage.”
I’ll open today’s article by asking a question…Have you ever read a book, played a video game, watched a movie or listened to an album that changed you as a person? It’s not often we experience something that has a lasting effect on our lives, but on Christmas Eve, 1997, I had such an experience. I received a video game: an RPG (Role Playing Game). It utterly captivated me and lead to a long relationship with the genre that still continues today.
That game was Final Fantasy VII.
I’m sure many other people can also credit Final Fantasy VII for getting them into RPGs. The title exploded in North America like no other RPG had done. Prior to that, RPGs were a niche genre that few people talked about or even paid attention to. I never discussed games like Dragon Warrior with my friends back in those days. We mostly talked fighting games, platformers and first-person shooters. Looking back now, it’s a true shame, especially considering that the 16-bit generation was a powerhouse for turn-based RPGs. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve thankfully taken the time to go back and play most of those titles, and I’m glad I did. I feel like I appreciate them more now than I would have when I was 10.
Christmas of 1997 was a confusing time for me as a kid. I had turned 12 earlier that year and was struggling to find my place. At that age, you spend a lot of time trying to fit in, and that’s where you get to learn some hard lessons about life and yourself. I’m a pretty shy person by nature, so making friends hasn’t always been the easiest for me. Needless to say, I wasn’t doing a very good job at becoming one of the cool kids. I even tried out for the soccer team, but most of the kids on the team had played travel leagues for years (which meant I had a permanent seat on the bench). I was in desperate need of something to help me cope with this confusing time. I found it the night before Christmas, wrapped in shiny red foil paper.
Every year on Christmas Eve, my family would go to my grandparents’ house to celebrate Christmas. It was a tradition I loved as a kid, and when I think of Christmas nostalgia, their place is always what comes to mind. We would typically arrive an hour before dinner and congregate around the massive Christmas tree in their living room. It was customary to open a few gifts that night, so my brother and I would wait by the tree to catch of glimpse of the boxes my father would bring in. When we thought no one was looking, we’d sneak a peek at the name tags on the boxes, only to get scolded by our parents for potentially ruining the surprise.
That year in particular, my mother chose to wrap our presents in a shiny red wrapping paper that brilliantly reflected the lights from the tree as they flickered. The anticipation for getting gifts was always a bit unbearable, so when my mother finally handed them over, I tore at the paper as quickly as I could. I was a torrent of hands, fingernails and paper.
The first few boxes were clothes (which I quickly thanked my parents for and tossed aside). Then my mom handed me a smaller package. It was light and felt rigid. My first thought was, “Oh no, not music CDs!” I was at the age where I didn’t want my parents to pick out the music I listened to–which is funny because now I mostly listen to their music from the ’70s. Pulling back the paper, I came face to face with my first multi-CD PlayStation game: Final Fantasy VII. “What an odd name,” I thought. Not familiar with this type of game, I asked my Mom what it was. She said that the guy at Toys ‘R Us recommended it, but should couldn’t really tell me more than that.
I carried it around the rest of the night, admiring the artwork and reading the description on the back over and over again. On the ride home, I anticipated popping the game into my PS1 and giving it a whirl. I couldn’t wait. Little did I know that soft opening music would be my first steps into a world that still keeps me coming back today.
The start of the game is unforgettable. As you watch the train pull into the station, the heart-pumping soundtrack lets you know things are about to get serious. Then your first battle happens almost immediately; two Shinra guards stand in your way. As the screen transitions with a spin, you realize your character is brandishing an absolutely massive sword–one unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Final Fantasy VII broke the mold of most games I had played to that point. I was hooked right from the beginning.
I remember getting to the first boss that night: a towering robot that obliterates you if you attack him while his scorpion-like tail is raised. I failed miserably. Most of the games I played didn’t reward patience and strategy. I wasn’t used to that, and I found the different approach fascinating. Usually if I lost in a game, I’d turn it off and call it a day. But not FFVII. Typically I’d have gone to bed at noon on Christmas Eve if that meant Christmas morning would come quicker. But that night, my mother had to call me to bed. It was clear that this game and I were going to be spending a lot of time with one another.
After I returned to school from Christmas break, I discovered I was not the only kid in my class to receive FFVII. It was the buzz amongst everyone, even the cool kids. This was it! A way to make friends while still being myself! FFVII became a common ground for myself and my classmates to discuss something we were all extremely passionate about. I found myself in the middle of conversations about everything from secrets we’d found to bragging how far we’d gotten. I even remember lying that I had played Final Fantasy 1-6 when I was younger, completely unaware most of those games weren’t even released in North America. Thankfully, I was able to remedy this as an adult, and most of those games are pretty spectacular. It’s funny what you lie about to seem cool when you’re a kid.
One friend in particular was the guru of Final Fantasy VII. He seemed to have all the answers about how to unlock secrets and how to defeat tough bosses in battles. Bear in mind, this was during the infancy of the internet. GameFAQs wasn’t really a thing. No one was uploading “let’s play” videos (and even if they had, it would’ve taken you weeks to watch them with your 56k dial up modem). But I digress.
It boggled my mind that this particular friend was so good, until one day I went over his house and found the source of his power. He had the FFVII Official Strategy Guide and had spent hours pouring over its pages until he had them memorized. I begged my mom for a strategy guide of my own, but as it was just after Christmas, buying additional gifts wasn’t exactly in the budget.
The next day, I broke open my metal savings bank in my room, collected my coins and dollar bills, and headed straight for my local Electron Boutique to buy my very own strategy guide. When I finally had it in my hands, it was like holding the Rosetta stone. Everything I could ever want to know was in there, and it really enhanced my experience and love for the game. I cherish this game and its guide so much, I still have both items in very good condition at my house.
Eventually, I completed the game and unlocked all of the special items/materia. Each location was a new experience: chocobo breeding and racing, fighting the special weapon bosses, going to an amusement park (gold saucer), and just enjoying the relaxing music of casa del sol. It was a memorial experience, and one that I try to do at least once every year. To me, it never gets old.
FFVII really opened my mind to the RPG genre, and eventually these became the only games I would get excited for while waiting for their release. On the PlayStation alone, I got deeply into FFIX, FF Tactics, Breath of Fire III, Dragon Quest 7, and Tales of Destiny. These games are like seeing the story of your favorite book unfold in front of your eyes, except it’s better because you’re in the driver’s seat. They are certainly not the hardest games out there, but I care more about immersing myself in a good story–one that makes me feel a gamut of emotions as I play. A few years later, I even ended up creating my own stories when I joined a few fantasy D&D-style role playing online communities, and I found out that I was actually pretty good at it.
I’ve also gained lifelong friends from talking about these games. To this day, it’s what I do for fun on my podcast and on social media. Final Fantasy VII allowed me to find one of my passions, and it has defined the person I am today. I am grateful for that. Did it make me one of the cool kids in the end? Absolutely not. But after seeing the adults those cool kids became, I am pleased I didn’t go down that path. So let’s raise a glass and say “cheers” to Square. For myself and countless others like me, you are the makers of magic and memories.
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