Warning: The following piece contains some major spoilers for Final Fantasy VII.
I was 14 years old, walking down the hallway of my middle school when it happened. A kid I’ll call The Bastard passed me. Mischief roiled in his eyes. “Hey Matt,” he said. “Did you replace that memory card?” I had. “How far are you now?” He asked. I told him I’d just left Midgar.
“Oh, wow,” he said. “So you haven’t even gotten to the part where Aeris dies yet.”
The Bastard passed by me, on his way to another class, a glint of joy on his face. He knew what he had done.
I didn’t enjoy Final Fantasy VII. Given my love for JRPGs at the time, I should have. But a faulty memory card and the cruelty of an adolescent boy robbed me of what is now considered a foundational experience in gaming. I beat Final Fantasy VII, but it was a bitter experience, a game I pursued to its conclusion out of spite. Final Fantasy VII Remake is more to me than just a chance to play through an old story with new graphics, it’s a chance for me to reclaim lost joy.
I plan to take it.
Squaresoft (as Square Enix was known back then) released Final Fantasy VII just two days shy of my 14th birthday. The last console I’d owned was an SNES, and Earthbound and Final Fantasy III (the U.S. release of Final Fantasy VI) had been my favorite games. Friends and I spent hours wandering the ruined world of Kefka, Terra, and Locke. I didn’t have a PlayStation, but when I learned the next installment in my favorite franchise was coming to the system, I knew what I wanted for my birthday.
After a consummate amount of begging and back forth, my parents obliged. In the store after my birthday, my father learned he had to buy a memory card for the PlayStation or I wouldn’t be able to save my game. These were new concepts, but dad was an IT engineer working in Silicon Prairie—the tech nexus of North Texas—so he rolled with it. Then came the first blow—a choice that would have far reaching consequences.
The helpful clerk informed my father that he could, of course, buy a Sony branded memory card—like a rube. Or he could buy a fancy off-brand memory card. Sure, it was a little more expensive, but the Mega Memory Card had an LED display and contained the equivalent of 24 normal memory cards. Dad thought it was a pretty good deal and I trusted Dad.
Home with the system, the game, and the memory card, I dug into Final Fantasy VII with the ravenous glee only an adolescent could feel. This was my first 3D system and the music, graphics, and gameplay stunned me. I was drawn into the dirty world of Midgar and the thrilling story of environmental terrorists fighting an evil corporation.
Then I got out of Midgar. I was ecstatic. Every JRPG I had played up to that point followed the same structure. Start off in a small town or city, and then eventually leave. At some point, the player would be free to travel on a world map. That’s when the game opened up and a player would begin to pick at its secrets. Having gotten to the vast open green land of Final Fantasy VII’s world map, I saved the game and turned it off.
When I sat down to play the next day, my saved game wasn’t there. Worse, Final Fantasy VII told me the save game was "corrupted." In the PlayStation’s user interface, I inspected the card, and my system told me I had to reformat the memory card to use it. I obliged. All my hard work in Final Fantasy VII was gone. 10 hours out the window. I had to start over.
This happened two more times, more hours wasted. Every time I’d escape Midgar, my "fancy" memory card would corrupt and I’d have to format it. Distraught, I shared my misery with my friends. One, The Bastard, said he thought he knew what was going on.
A few days later, The Bastard brought an old Electronic Gaming Monthly to school. The magazine had a consumer watchdog section where a writer took questions about problem equipment and other issues. He had also written about my memory card. It turned out that the large off-brand memory cards had a tendency to fritz out when loaded with larger save files like Final Fantasy VII, Gran Turismo, or Madden. A-ha.
I thought The Bastard had saved me. I would be able to get out of Midgar and unlock the secrets of Mako and Sephiroth. I would get to race chocobos. I thanked him and managed to convince Dad to get me a replacement memory card, and promised myself I’d never buy another off-brand video game peripheral. It’s a rule I still keep today.
The fourth time, I finally left Midgar. But I had another problem: the spoiler. Aeris. Once I knew how Aeris’ life would play out, I started to lose interest in the game. I didn’t care about Cloud’s plight, the fate of the planet, or the joys the Golden Saucer had to offer.
I rushed through the rest of Final Fantasy VII. I just wanted to beat it and get it off my plate. I didn’t race or breed chocobos. I didn’t bother gathering fancy materia. I never got Knights of the Round, set up the never die materia combo, or conquered the Emerald and Ruby Weapon. I didn’t care. I wanted it to be over.
I haven’t been able to enjoy a JRPG since. I’ve tried most of the Final Fantasies, dipped into Persona 5, and messed around with a few Dragon Quests, but nothing takes. It’s like Final Fantasy VII, the faulty memory card, and The Bastard robbed me of my ability to enjoy the genre, and I turned to western RPGS and PC Games. The Bastard would later pull the same exact stunt with The Wheel of Time book series, running a major character death with the exact same “Wow, you’re not even to the part where X dies yet” delivery. We did not remain friends.
And yet last night, I loaded up the Final Fantasy VII Remake demo. There’s Midgar, now as a high-resolution monstrosity. The orchestral strings swelled. The camera moved through the city, hitting Aerith’s (no longer Aeris) face before moving to a train. It was all familiar. All the same. But more beautiful. Something inside me moved. I felt a twinge.
The tempo picked up. Cloud, Biggs, Wedge, Jessie, and Barett disembarked the train. I had done this so many times that, even more than 20 years later, I still know so much of it by heart. But it’s been so long since that last frenzied run. It’s been so long since this game broke my heart.
I love the demo. I didn’t expect to. But the smart combat changes and updated graphics have changed something so familiar just enough that I can see myself coming back to it with an open heart. And the music. God, the music. I’ve heard that opening theme and that bombing mission track so many times that I didn’t realize how embedded it was into my soul.
This time, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t see a chore when I looked over the landscape of Midgar. I saw hope. I saw a chance to reclaim something I thought I’d lost. And this time, I'll have cloud saves.