In the mid-1990s, video gamers who were alive in this day and age were lucky to experience massive, game changing releases every few months. Huge, revolutionary hits altered the direction of the video game world quicker than the seasons could change.

And I’m not talking about slightly newer, ever so bigger, maybe beefier AAA games that barely improve upon the games you played last fall, I’m talking major revolutions in the way we look at games. This is Minecraft coming out every three months or Breath of the Wild landing in our laps before we had time to digest it.

From the 3D worlds of Super Mario 64 to the cheats and objectives of Goldeneye 007 to the cinematic storytelling of Metal Gear Solid, the epic adventure of Ocarina of Time, to the handheld addiction of Pokémon, the Dreamcast, and everything in between, the years 1996 through 1999 were easily the most exciting era in the history of video games.

I can think of no bigger game the exemplify this movement than Final Fantasy VII, which launched in North America on Sept. 7, 1997. For as big as each of those games were at the time, Final Fantasy VII represented a massive power shift in video gaming culture.

A brief history

For one, Final Fantasy VII solidified the JRPG as a mainstay of the video game world, which while dwindled these days, is still around for those who love the genre. Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger had their fans, but it was Final Fantasy VII that turned the masses onto JRPGs, making it more than a niche hobby for geeks. Selling 10 million copies in the mid-90s was no small feat, but that’s exactly the allure that this game had.

Its twisting storyline, it’s memorable characters, and most importantly, those polygon graphics, everyone wanted to see what this game was about, even bloodthirsty DOOM players.

Final Fantasy VII also was the successful hit that Sony needed to wrestle domination of the video game world away from Nintendo. In 1997, the PlayStation had been doing a solid job keeping up with Nintendo and trading blows with help from Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, Parappa the Rapper, and a host of mediocre mascots, but what it lacked was a megahit, a game that flat out made it impossible to refuse the PlayStation brand name. A game that said, “You needed to own a PlayStation more than you needed to own a Nintendo 64.”

Luckily for Sony, Nintendo was having a hard time following up its early roster of Nintendo 64 blockbuster hits, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was still a year away from release, suffering from countless delays as Miyamoto and team ground it out to perfection. While this was happening, Square developed Final Fantasy VII in under a year, blitzing through production at a speed that would be unheard of in this day and age.

This relentless pace, tied with Nintendo’s lack-thereof, allowed Square to slip its mega-hit in before The Legend of Zelda came out.

The results were pretty clear. The world wanted more JRPGs, Square would lead those gamers to the promised land, and while Ocarina of Time was truly a masterpiece upon release, it wasn’t enough to win Nintendo back the gold. Players had already experienced a sprawling story, an epic world, and those sweet polygon graphics in the form of Final Fantasy VII. If you could only imagine the even larger impact Ocarina of Time would have had if Nintendo’s premiere franchise hadn’t been beaten out the door.

But it didn’t. Final Fantasy became the dominant franchise in the gaming world, a torch it would hold all the way through Final Fantasy X, and Square surpassed Nintendo as the world’s leading developer.

A revised history

And yet, Final Fantasy VII isn’t nearly as universally loved as it once was. Never before has a game’s legacy and reputation seen such a tug-of-war. Where its graphics were once praised as revolutionary, people now say the “Popeye-people” models are ugly. Where its music was once celebrated to no end, fans now say that the soundtrack is loaded with filler they prefer to skip over on playlists. Its story is a rip-off of lesser known anime, Chocobo breeding it a huge waste of time, and most damning of all, Materia isn’t nearly as deep as you thought it was!

I’m hardly innocent in this evolving view of Final Fantasy VII. I go back to it every once in a while, and like a favorite book or movie, I find my feelings change each time I play. The last time I dove into it, it must have been three years ago, I remember not liking it that much. This was at a time when I was only looking for two things in an RPG: either sweet 16-bit retro graphics (that classic Dragon Quest/early Final Fantasy feel) or the ability to break a game’s mechanics wide open. Naturally, Final Fantasy VII doesn’t have 16-bit graphics, and breaking the RPG mechanics is surprisingly hard because there is hardly enough substance there to break.

Final Attack + Phoenix… Knights of the Round. Great… Did I master the game? Does that make me good?

The localization too really leaves a lot to be desired since it leaves out a good many story details. I went pouring over the Wikipedia page recently while getting ready to play this weekend, brushing up on the plot, and I couldn’t remember half of this stuff being in the game. The clones, the reunion, the Jenova specimen mutating into Sephiroth, the Nibelhiem coverup. I mean, I saw the scenes unfold before my eyes countless times, but events were not explained in proper English, I guess.

Or, I was just twelve years old when I first played, and I couldn’t really grasp it all.

Regardless, Final Fantasy VII has acquired a reputation over the last decade or so as a game that is all flash and low on substance. Some claim that it was merely he graphics that lured in a lot of people and turned the course of video gaming history, and they are not entirely wrong. Of those 10 million who bought a copy, I can guarantee that not even half beat it.

These critics, myself included, also say it is a game that didn’t really deliver anything new on the gameplay front. Super Mario 64 used 3D to recreate how we approach the Mario formula. Metal Gear Solid did as well. Final Fantasy VII used 3D to re-establish everything we already did in Final Fantasy VI with a more modern aesthetic. In fact, it’s even shallower than Final Fantasy VI because characters don’t stand out from one another in combat. Apart from Limit Breaks and the occasional long range weapon, few characters are able to really be unique to the game, becoming nothing more than hollow vessels for your Materia setups.

Only the magic user Aerith, a name I’ve gotten used to finally, is unique among her teammates, but yeah. You can’t really take advantage of that in the end game, can you?

An evolving history

So with these combating memories on my mind, I picked up Final Fantasy VII recently. I’ve been diving through old favorites one more time before I have my first kid this coming November, and I’m five hours in, I just escaped from Midgar, I’m about to run through the flashback scene, and I gotta say…

I’M HAVING A BLAST! No doubt about it, I’m having fun, and it feels great to be playing the game without expectations or making comparisons to anything else. I’ve closed my mind off to Chrono Trigger and other games from the genre that I love, and I’m trying to bask in the memories and story one more time before my gaming life takes a hit. It’s working so far.

Yes, Materia is shallow, and I know that nothing really awaits me down the line in that department. Yes, none of the characters stand out in terms of gameplay, but I might use Barret and Cid just because they are the only two I’ve never brought into the final fight with Sephiroth. Heck, I might as well just use all the characters at some point! Why not?! I’m in no rush to beat this game, and I don’t want to follow any formula or rules. I just want to absorb it one more time and hope that my nostalgia is not for granted.

A few observations. Midgar is an amazing setting. It really is. I was taking Cloud through Wall Market in the infamous quest where he has to wear a dress, and I was stunned at all the neon kanji I could read on the signs. I mean… I could read it! I couldn’t as a kid, but now I know the meaning of each kanji I see, the context of each store makes a lot more sense.

Midgar’s design is also this cool twist of sci-fi slums meets Showa-era Japan, a sort of jungle of wires, makeshift buildings, lights, and no zoning laws to regulate any of it. “If there is space, use it!” The city feels much more like a character itself this time around than any previous time I played it.

I criticized Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack a little bit earlier, but it, too, really hones in the depression of living in Midgar. That’s another thing about Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack. It’s not something you really want to listen to on its own, but in the game, each tune fits its scenes perfectly.

And raiding the Shinra Headquarters… what a blast! At the very top, where Sephiroth shows up and the story takes a dramatic turn, I got a ping of just how hardcore Japanese pop-storytelling was in the mid to late 90s. Final Fantasy VII reeks with that post-Evangelion, “deconstruction of everything you love” mindset a lot of Japanese writers had on the brain after a decade of stagnating economy and the loss of the national enthusiasm it had throughout the 80s.

This mindset works to Final Fantasy VII’s allure because it’s a game about a dying world with no future, and that’s the way many in our current generation feel.

And man oh man, this CG scene is still awesome! I just about fainted after seeing it for the first time in what feels like years.

Final Fantasy VII is a retro classic and is best looked as a time capsule of the culture it was released in

That’s just how to approach Final Fantasy VII this weekend, which you should do to celebrate 20 years of its ups and downs. It has been given to the ages, and despite being twenty years old, even young gamers still flock to it, either fascinated by its role in gaming history, its twisted weird lore, or even pulled in by some of its awful spin-offs. Final Fantasy VII is a game of its era, and it perfectly encapsulates everything that made the fifth-generation of consoles one of the most exciting. The weird storytelling, the awkward graphics, the aged art direction, everything.

Take it in as that, and just try to have fun. Don’t worry about breaking it or finding any deeper way to approach it because you won’t find it. It’s a shallow, bombastic adventure that I can’t wait to sink 35 more hours into. And hey, there’s a remake on the way!