Final Fantasy VII bosses on transcending the videogame remake trend
Around the time when Naoki Hamaguchi came aboard as co-director of Final Fantasy VII, the 2020 remake of the genre-redefining 1997 videogame, he went to the movie theater to see the live-action Beauty and the Beast, a different kind of remake to a different kind of classic.
“I believe that the purpose of a remake is to offer a title that has a universally beloved world to people of the current generation so that they can have an experience that’s just as surprising and moving as it was back then, and leave that title behind as a form of entertainment to be handed down for the next two decades to come,” Hamaguchi tells EW through a translator. “The animated version of Beauty and the Beast,” he adds, “was relatively close in generation to the original Final Fantasy VII, so I found it very insightful in how it treated the original with respect while being very thoughtful in its portrayals.”
That became his goal with Yoshinori Kitase, the famed Japanese game director of the original FFVII, as they embarked on their own remake, one of several videogame reboots that dominate the current release slate. The developers at Capcom found much success last year in releasing a horror revamp of 1998’s Resident Evil 2 for a modern gamer audience, and this year alone sees the debut of remakes for Resident Evil 3, DOOM Eternal, and FFVII, the latter selling 3.5 million copies from shipping and digital orders in the first three days of release. Kitase also confirms that “development is already moving forward for the next game in the [Final Fantasy] remake project.” The trend that has dominated the Hollywood space for years has also taken over gaming.
“The worlds created by stories and characters have something universal about them, and I think we can say that titles like the ones mentioned are still so beloved because their worlds are so amazing,” Hamaguchi comments on the trend. “However, what isn’t universal is the portrayal.” Specifically, he means in terms of technology, which has vastly evolved since the '90s.
In 1997, FFVII was a “turning point” in the role-playing genre for many reasons, according to Kitase. The game envisioned a planet being drained of its natural resources for energy by a corrupt corporation called Shinra. In the city of Midgar, Cloud, an ex-military mercenary with one hulking sword, is enlisted by eco-terrorist group Avalanche to take down a Shinra reactor, setting him on a path to reunite with Sephiroth, a figure from his past thought to be dead. (One can see why the developers felt this story would still resonate with the remake's audience.) 1991’s 4D Sports Boxing computer game had informed Kitase’s decision to move away from the two-dimensional graphics that defined retro gaming visuals at the time to 3D. 1992’s Alone in the Dark then inspired his approach to “creating an adventure in which players could explore a 3D space from various perspectives in order to progress the story,” while also “abandoning familiar rules and clichés” of the fantasy genre and RPG format.
Hamaguchi was 15 years old when he first played FFVII. “Back then, there was no form of entertainment that let you experience a fantasy world so realistically,” he recalls. “To this day, I still remember the impact I felt when I experienced that world when playing the game. In Japan, you would receive a strategy guide if you preordered the title through DigiCube, so I would reread the strategy guide even when I wasn’t playing, just to immerse myself in the intoxicating world lore.” It was the first time, he adds, that he realized games could “move people and give them hope.”
So, how do you remake something that was so revolutionary for the time? It's a quandary often thought about in Hollywood. The answer here became the same approach Kitase took to make the original.
Movie remakes have seen animated Disney princesses now played through actors in live-action and animated lioness princesses portrayed through photorealistic CGI. The technology within the current videogame consoles (and once still being developed) also took visibly noticeable strides through 3D and even 4D experiences, which allowed Kitase and Hamaguchi to both introduce novice players to the world of Midgar and offer a fresh, even awe-inducing experience for veteran gamers.
Talks for a FFVII remake began in 2012, and Kitase’s first thoughts were on “the visual level we wanted to reach. 2005 saw the release of a Final Fantasy movie called Advent Children, and the team wanted “the same level of quality and detail” for their new game. An ambitious plan, to say the least, but one that gave way to modern gameplay elements. Resident Evil 2 and 3 traded the blocky retro graphics of the originals for a more cinematic approach, offering, as a result, a newfound focus on suspense and jump-scares. DOOM, the remake, brings a more satisfying crunch with new visuals and controller response. For FFVII, Kitase says they could depict 3D in real time.
"We are able to see Midgar, which has a very distinct city structure, from many different angles," he explains. "It gave this metropolis a sense of realism and provided more depth to the lore.” More than that, Hamaguchi notes the attention to character expression: “When the characters were trying to express their emotions back [in the original], they would react in an over-exaggerated way to convey their feelings to players more directly. In the remake, not only were we able to portray a richer array of facial expressions for the characters, but voiceovers were added, and these elements enabled us to depict things the same way as in a movie.”
Hamaguchi grew up as a fan of the game and held "fan expectation" as the highest principle. He made it his mission to also enhance things like materia (orbs used to advance and customize character abilities), "action-oriented controls" for "more depth to combat," and revamps of mini-games, like that oddball squat challenge.
When Cloud arrives at Jules' gym in Midgar, he's challenged to a squatting contest inside the ring against a resident juice head. "The decision on what should be carried over [from the original game] was largely entrusted to the creativity of the game designer responsible for [creating] the location," Hamaguchi says. "The process that I asked the designers to follow was to 'always expand elements from the original when designing the game.' ... We hadn’t initially anticipated including the squats mini-game in Wall Market, but the game creators on-site were passionate that 'the players are definitely looking forward to this, so we have to have it,' and this led to it becoming a reality."
No matter the entertainment medium, remakes at their best offer something new to say: a fresh perspective, modern techniques, a deeper look-see. FFVII has that. "I think there will continue to be a demand for remakes for movies and games alike," Hamaguchi remarks. "I would be happy if Final Fantasy VII could be seen as a new benchmark."