How Sephiroth Emerged as One of Gaming’s Most Iconic Villains
Sephiroth didn’t simply become popular just because he looked cool but rather thanks to clever setup in the story, a great personality, and smart planning from the villain
“Final Fantasy 7: Remake” comes out this Friday, April 10, 2020. I’ve played the original “Final Fantasy 7” game back in 1997 and it stands as one of the greatest games of all time and one of my personal favorites. I’m excited to see what this new remake has in store for a beloved game of my childhood. To celebrate, I’ll be doing an article series tackling on some different aspects of the game that I find interesting and what made it so memorable. Be careful as there are MASSIVE SPOILERS throughout this article series so approach with caution (if you care). Today’s article will focus on the “Great Sephiroth” and how he initially became a popular villain and what I hope the Remake keeps in tact for the foreseeable future.
What makes a villain memorable to the story? Is it the cool factor they present? Is it because they go against the status quo? To me, a villain is memorable based on two important factors: their presence and what they stand for.
Villains in pop culture usually stick out for being either larger than life personalities or having beliefs that make them understandable but not necessarily justifiable. They are still committing horrible acts towards people — innocent or otherwise — and cannot be shrugged off just because they had good intentions. They also don’t necessarily have to be misguided souls. They can be frightening and have a commanding presence whenever they appear in the story. For example, the Joker from the Batman comic books is memorable due to his chaotic nature, brilliant design, and is antagonistic relationship with the titular hero. There’s no real definitive backstory for Joker (even Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” doesn’t even serve as the “true” backstory for the Joker since it’s often believed to be made up by the villain himself)so his actions are strictly of his own doing and nothing more.
In the case of Final Fantasy VII’s chief antagonist Sephiroth, his popularity in the gaming community is somewhat similar to that of the Joker. He has a great design and was an intimidating force. Even if you’ve never played the game, you are definitely at least familiar with the guy since he’s one of the most recognizable characters from the franchise right up there with other characters like Kefka, Cloud, Lightning, and Squall. As I mentioned in my previous article, there’s been a misunderstanding of the character years after his creation and it’s not uncommon considering that the original FF7 came out 23 years ago. Some critics and fellow gamers believe that he’s a shallow villain and he’s only popular because “he looks cool.” While his design is part of the reason of his popularity, it’s also a misinterpretation of what made him memorable in the first place. It’s actually the way Sephiroth was introduced in the game and how the payoffs of his setup made him into a larger-than-life villain.
For the first ten hours or so of Final Fantasy VII, the game establishes Shinra as the primary antagonist with President Shinra as the figurehead and initial enemy Cloud and his party must confront. You witness the destructive powers of the Mako Reactors and how they suck the planet dry. You also see the oppressive nature of Midgar and how it affects the daily lives of the people living beneath the plate. The slums are dirty, cramped, and congested. People are physically sick and do not have the means of a supportive healthcare to help themselves. There’s a sheer economic difference between those living on top of the plates and those living at the bottom and how those on top are benefiting from those who are less fortunate. Shinra, of course, runs the whole show from the center of the city on top and is completely apathetic to the plight of the people so as long as they generate money and maintain power.
The game also establishes Shinra as a powerful force that cannot be so easily defeated by a ragtag group of rebels. All of Cloud and his friends’ efforts to beat Shinra get thwarted for the majority of the time they’re in Midgar. It’s only the bombing of the first Mako Reactor that the group is only able to find some sort of success. Everything else ends in failure. When Cloud, Barret, and Tifa go to blow up the Mako Reactor in Sector 5, President Shinra appears, telling them that Shinra has anticipated them and they fight the Airbuster, failing to defeat Shinra. It gets worse when the corporation decides to drop the Sector 7 plate on top of the slums where Barret’s group AVALANCHE has been hiding out and proceeds to kill not only his allies but all of the people living on top and bottom just to ensure that Cloud, Barret and the others don’t survive. When Cloud and the others go to rescue Aerith, they get captured by the Turks and are at the mercy of Shinra. Nearly every single action Cloud and his friends try to do ends in failure.
So you’re probably asking where’s Sephiroth in all of this? Well he doesn’t appear in this part of the story. He’s something of a “boogie man.” He’s only mentioned in passing several times in the game either by other characters or in flashback scenes. All you need to know at this point is that he supposedly “died” before the events of the game. Even the game’s instruction manual states that information on him is “Shinra classified.” This is done on purpose to add to the mystique of his character. It’s meant to draw you in until his eventual reveal and it’s quite a stunning moment when he finally “appears.”
When Cloud awakens in his prison cell after dosing off, he discovers his cell door open and the guard having been murdered. He awakes Tifa to inform her of the incident and she quickly proceeds to free the others while telling them to stay on high alert. Cloud and the others proceed to leave their cells and follow the trail of blood. The unsettling music heightens the tension in the area as monsters are found all over the Shinra building. As they finally reach to the main President’s office, they discover that President Shinra has been murdered with Sephiroth’s trademark Masamune sword planted in his back. They also find Palmer, the head of the Space Division of Shinra, hiding in the corner like a beaten dog, terrified of what he witnessed. Sephiroth is indeed alive and his murder of President Shinra was his grand way of saying “I’m back.”
This was a great way to introduce gamers to the “real Big Bad” of the game. The all powerful President Shinra — who seemed untouchable at one point — gets brutally murdered with ease. Shinra no longer seems as invincible at this point. Now there’s an even bigger threat and it will definitely fall on Cloud and his friends’ shoulders to stop this guy.
After escaping Midgar, Cloud and his friends retreat to the village Kalm where Cloud tells the party of who Sephiroth is and what’s the relationship between them. Because this is a long flashback sequence, game director Yoshinori Kitase made the correct decision in allowing players to play out this sequence. It’s here where the player gets to witness Sephiroth’s strength at first hand and “whoo boy” he’s a deity compared to Cloud. You the player don’t necessarily have access to actually play Sephiroth even though he’s in your “party.” He’s auto-controlled by the computer and you see him use high level spells and attacks to make quick work of the strong enemies in the flashback sequence.
The game easily could’ve just told you that Sephiroth is strong and you’d just take their word for it. However, it’s rather better that the player experiences Sephiroth’s strength at first hand. It’s important because it sets the grave reality that Sephiroth is above and beyond more powerful than anyone Cloud has faced at this point. If he wants to beat this guy, then he’ll need to actually prepare because it’s all but clear that Cloud doesn’t have a prayer’s chance of beating Sephiroth anytime soon.
The game continues to foreshadow Sephiroth’s strength after you leave Kalm and continue to pursue him by heading into some caves not far from the town. You would have to get past the Midgar Zolom, a giant snake beast that has high level spell attacks that can one shot kill your party with ease if you’re not careful. To get past it, you’ll need to catch a chocobo and ride it to the caves since it has the speed to move quickly away from it. Once you reach the entrance of the caves, you’ll see that one of the Midgar Zolom’s have been brutally killed and impaled on a tree. The party is in complete shock and they realize that Sephiroth is not a man to be underestimated. This wasn’t just a simple display of his power. It was a warning for anyone who was following him.
I believe those moments help draw players in to Sephiroth as a character. He provided fear and intimidation when you saw him. His presence established him as a bigger threat than Shinra. While the corporation did need to be stopped, Sephiroth was not only a danger to the people of the planet but to the other villains as well. That’s how much you knew he was a serious force to be reckoned with. What was also important to note wasn’t that he was simply powerful. He was cunning and manipulative as well. When he needed the Black Materia to complete his goals as a god and the power was beyond his reach what did he do? He tricked Cloud into getting it and he stole it from him. When Aerith had the power to defeat him, what did he do? He kills her to ensure that she doesn’t conflict with his goals. How does he make sure that Cloud and no one else stands in his way? He breaks Cloud’s will, giving him the freedom to summon Meteor with the Black Materia and continue his plans without any distractions.
Sephiroth didn’t become a popular villain due to having a cool design. He earned his status.