Final Fantasy VII Rebirth Sets the Curve for Revisiting Old Games

Mike Powers
Final Fantasy VII Rebirth Sets the Curve for Revisiting Old Games


The newly-released Final Fantasy VII Rebirth is the second chapter in the modern retelling of the 1997 classic Final Fantasy VII, expanding the middle chunk of the original game into a new 80+ hour experience. Rebirth is a triumph and a joyful modernization that thoughtfully reimagines the original and sets the curve for video game remakes. It also proves that Final Fantasy VII is probably the only game that deserves to be remade in such a way.

No other classic game has such a following of beloved fans, or such an infamous moment that spawned decades of impassioned discourse. Spoilers for a 24-year-old game: midway through, spritely and sweet Aerith is suddenly and permanently killed by the game’s villain. 

Read more: 5 things to do right away in Final Fantasy VII Rebirth

Aerith’s death rocked the gaming world, so much that it continues to overshadow FFVII’s other groundbreaking qualities: an iconic lineup of main characters in a plot that transitions between heartbreakingly serious and comically absurd, a successful mix of tragic backstory and goofy minigames. This was all in a game with the most advanced graphics of its day, bringing the storied Final Fantasy franchise from flat 2D sprites to dynamic 3D polygons. 

2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, the first in Square Enix’s trilogy remaking the original game, set the style and developed the real-time combat system as it follows Cloud and company through their escape from industrial Midgar. From the first moments of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, it’s clear that the middle game is a whole new level of modernization with expansive open world areas filled with activities and sidequests, inviting players to run from lush grasslands to rocky seaside cliffs to beach paradises to arid deserts to verdant jungles and more. 

Watch this: Final Fantasy VII Rebirth: Bringing an Old Story Into a Vast Open World

Looming over all of this gameplay grandeur is the storytelling door opened by Remake, which added a meta-level of plot awareness: characters literally fight destiny at the end of the game, and seemingly gain the power to change the course of the plot we knew from the original. Thus Rebirth opens with the daunting possibility: will Aerith die in this game, too?

Rebirth is like the conversation you’ve been having in your head for decades, and it ponders the same thing: can a story without its tragic peak be as impactful? The new game takes literally until its final moments to answer the question — spoilers for Rebirth ahead — but after a staggering 102-hour playthrough, I can confidently say that no matter the outcome, Rebirth has done something unbelievable: it’s boundless enough to make me feel like I was playing the original again. 

It makes me wonder whether any other older game can — or should — get the same colossal investment to be expanded into a multi-game remake. It’s seductive to want to re-inhabit these worlds that opened our eyes in ways that appeal to modern tastes, but short of singular culture-defining works like FFVII, maybe it’s best that other remakes simply modernize the graphics and gameplay, but let our memories do the heavy lifting. 

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth: Photo Mode Screenshots From the Frontier

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Of Segways and Sephiroths: they don’t make worlds like this anymore

Rebirth is a gorgeous and expansive game, with care and thought put into the six massive regions you can visit. I frequently caught myself finding ledges overlooking vistas, pausing to admire and take screenshots. The soundtrack — including a ballad Aerith sings written by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the original FFVII’s music — is a fantastic mix of styles with nary a miss in its extremely deep catalogue, and I struggled to find a favorite (but Gongaga’s theme is up there). Dappled light, grand cinematic views, a lush soundscape — it makes the game’s world feel richly textured. 

More importantly, Rebirth masterfully adapts the tone of its source material and makes it sing. The original FFVII had spiky-haired Cloud and company pursuing the mass-murdering silver-haired villain Sephiroth between segments riding dolphins and visiting outlandish desert casinos. 

Rebirth preserves that flow, with deft tonal transitions — midway through, you take a joyful minecart ride to end up at the dilapidated hometown of one of the characters, destroyed years ago by Shinra. An hour later, you’re in a hotel that looks patterned after Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, complete with costumed workers committing to the bit. It makes the world feel huge, varied and inhabited.

Cloud stands with his friends in a jungle, light dappling through verdant trees and brush. Cloud stands with his friends in a jungle, light dappling through verdant trees and brush.

Square Enix

The metatextual knowledge of Aerith’s potential coming demise looms over the whole game, so it’s a relief that Rebirth finds ways to deepen your connection with characters through joyful, goofy moments. You get plenty of sad backstories, but they’re cushioned by levity and mischievous playfulness among heroes and villains alike. Yes, you’re still pursuing Sephiroth, but you gotta take a few hours to ride a segway around Costa del Sol’s beach town. When a plot moment has Cloud and company posing as Shinra soldiers, you can stumble on a secret social club patronized by the ever-serious antagonist Rude — and you’ll be nearly kicked out for not meeting the hilarious membership criteria.

I could rattle off two dozen such standout moments in the game, but I won’t for how much poorer they appear on paper. Their silliness broadens and enriches the game. I wanted to exist in the world where Cloud and company stumble into such antics on the trail of a world-threatening villain. 

Some of these moments are modernized versions of the originals, but many others appear for the first time in Rebirth. With gorgeous landscapes accompanied by top-notch music, great real-time action and easily over a hundred hours of game to chew through, Rebirth feels like I’m being reintroduced to FFVII for the first time. I don’t know if any other classic game’s experience can be revived in quite the same way.

The full moon frames a lion protector perched on a rocky crag long turned to stone...and his son, howling in grief below. The full moon frames a lion protector perched on a rocky crag long turned to stone...and his son, howling in grief below.

In a famous moment in the original game, Red XIII re-examines his own past tragedy.

Square Enix

Which other games deserve to be revisited like this?

After over a hundred hours of playing, I believe that Rebirth comes the closest of any remake to making me feel like I did when I first popped open an old CD jewel case and let a soon-to-be-iconic game wash over me. What’s kept and what’s changed is a lovely alchemy, showing the challenge of modernizing a bygone classic for current audiences. Which other classic title would benefit from being expanded into a three-game trilogy?

Every gamer has a pantheon of formative games, defining their taste and challenging their worldview from a young age. I struggle to think of games that achieved FFVII’s trifecta: incredible popularity, revolutionary-for-its-time gameplay and graphics and a storyline so dynamic it continues to inspire debate. The latter especially is what makes Square Enix’s Remake project so apt for revisiting, so fertile for re-examining with a modern lens, even if — at least thus far — its changes are more supplementary than serious, more philosophical than plot-diverting.

It’s hard to think of a classic game that is worth taking the time to do differently. What would be gained by changing the plot of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Perhaps the original Metal Gear Solid would suit an introspective remake, but is there enough fodder to expand into multiple games? Most game studios shrewdly choose retcons and reboots for their new versions of older titles, like then-Square Enix did with the 2013 Tomb Raider series, which admirably reset protagonist Lara Croft as an adventuring survivor but didn’t go much farther to re-examine tenets of the original game that may have aged poorly — like, say, raiding tombs to pillage other cultures’ artifacts. 

Admittedly, not every game’s universe supports a re-examination in the middle of play as Remake and Rebirth do with their destiny-enforcing Whisper ghosts and Sephiroth’s vague mission to find a universe where he won’t lose in the end. FFVII’s mix of fantasy and science fiction in particular allows reality-altering weirdness in ways that others don’t. That would probably be tough to do with, say, the Resident Evil remakes we’ve gotten in recent years, which are more focused on revitalizing its gameplay than dramatically altering the original story. 

There’s nothing wrong with just updating an old game to modern tastes, and it’s certainly less of a risk to simply reproduce an old game as players remember it rather than tease big changes this time around — and then deal with the consequences whether the plot differs or not.

Okay, but DOES Aerith live? (Spoilers)

This section will delve into spoilers. This is your last chance to leave it a mystery whether Aerith dies at the end of Rebirth.

Ready?

Yes, Aerith still dies at the end of Rebirth. In a choice that will surely divide fans as much as her first death rocked gamers’ hearts in the original, Rebirth teases that her fate lies on a knife’s edge: as Cloud fights off both Sephiroth’s influence and the literalized forces of fate (the ghost-like Whispers from Remake) bending his sword to take Aerith’s life as she prays to the planet, our hero resists and even deflects the killing blow from Sephiroth’s own sword. A few moments later, this possible future is recorrected (seemingly by Sephiroth) and Aerith falls, mortally wounded.

Cloud holds Aerith on the ground as she lays down, Lifestream swirling around her. Cloud holds Aerith on the ground as she lays down, Lifestream swirling around her.

Square Enix

From a literal perspective, it’s a cheat for the player, who is shown saving Aerith moments before. It’s also a betrayal of sorts to the promise that the whole trilogy set up: at the end of Remake, after defeating fate and moving beyond the knowable plot, Aerith says that ahead of them lies “boundless, terrifying freedom.” For the most part, Rebirth follows the original FFVII story, beat by beat, leading up to losing Aerith — who upon returning to the planet’s Lifestream walks as a spirit around her mourning friends but only for Cloud to see, and the game ends with her waving goodbye as they continue the quest.

Doubtless, some players will revolt, teased by the possibility that things could’ve been different. Heck, there’s an entire subplot in Rebirth where side character (and Aerith’s first love) Zack Fair, who originally dies just before the events of FFVII, appears in Midgar only for his ultimate fate to boil down to surviving in an alternate universe, but not this one. That seems to be the case with Aerith as well, and the radically different Rebirth we could’ve gotten — where Aerith lives or Cloud dies or something else detours the known into the unknown — remains a dream for players.

There’s an argument that saving Aerith lowers the stakes for the third game to come, or that it would dilute the enduring impact of the character. And we’ve yet to see what happens in the third chapter, which could follow Remake and Rebirth with, say, a Reunion that reconciles the possibility of different outcomes and the sorrowful acceptance that we can’t change everything. (Or perhaps even…a Resurrection.) But whether it’s fair to players or not, even teasing a different fate gives players so much to chew on that it reinforces FFVII’s enduring appeal, which Square Enix recognizes and tinkers with right in front of players. 

While Square Enix ultimately reined in Rebirth’s possibilities, it’s still more self-awareness than we’ve gotten in most media revisitations of old ideas. It’s one of a handful of recent projects that thoughtfully re-examine — and sometimes radically change — the original story. The Scott Pilgrim Takes Off anime Netflix released last year, for example, dramatically altered the plot to recenter the story on Ramona Flowers and other side characters given short shrift in the original material, which led to the introspective skewering of poorly-aged parts of the Scott Pilgrim comic and Edgar Wright film adaptation.

I’m still disappointed that Rebirth didn’t get the same radical change to its plot, but the Remake trilogy has so far done plenty of work to reimagine characters and beats in quieter moments sprinkled through the games. While Aerith doesn’t escape her fate, she’s far more self-actualized and given a real friendship with Tifa. In a side quest, Barrett wonders aloud how good of a father he’ll be to his adopted daughter Marlene. Upbeat Yuffie mourns her former partner. Barrett and Tifa get to toast their old Avalanche comrades. As an older gamer, these character moments are what draw me deeper into the games I play.

I’m reminded of another iconic nerd experience that recently got updated — the classic Lego Galaxy Explorer set got a modern re-release, keeping the old colors but with new parts so that it feels like you’re playing with the original while appealing to modern, more complex tastes. The quiet message of that is this: You can’t go back and play with the exact same toy and expect to feel the same way. Recapturing that wonder takes experimentation of what to change and what to keep.

Ultimately, veteran gamers buying Rebirth to revisit the story are chasing the high from when they popped the first disc into their PlayStation decades ago. More than other remakes, Rebirth succeeds in resurrecting that experience by challenging player feelings on how the biggest gamer event of their childhood went down, and whether it should be changed. The trick of nostalgia is that it will never hit like it did all those years ago, especially at formative ages. To paraphrase the closing lines of Stephen King’s Stand By Me, I never play games like I did when I was twelve. Man, does anyone? 





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