Why the Bombing Mission Has the Best Opening in Any Final Fantasy Game
No other Final Fantasy game has ever topped such a memorable opening level
“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 opening mission of the game and why it stands as one of the most iconic moments in gaming history.
When approaching any sort of “medium,” it’s vital that it “sets the tone” or provide some type of establishment in terms of the direction that the viewer or consumer can follow and understand. In the case of video games, it’s usually when you start the very first level of a game that tells you the kind of experience you’re going to get. It serves as an introductory course on how to play the game and tells you your goals and how to accomplish it. These features can make or break a game and it’s vital that the player can grasp early on what they need to do.
To me, the definitive example on how a video game properly sets the tone is the very first level of the original Super Mario Bros. video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom in Japan). “World 1–1” — which is what it’s often called — is the tutorial level of the game without ever actually telling the player on what they’re supposed to do with some text messages on screen. You are essentially given the freedom to experiment and see what you can and can’t do. You the player take control of Mario and learn that you can move vertically but your destination is at the right of the screen so you must move right. You’ll come across a Goomba, an enemy type of the game and it will likely kill you even though the enemy can easily be avoided by jumping over it. There’s no penalty so you even when you die you can try again and “learn” not to repeat the same mistake. After you move past the Goomba you’ll come across an arrangement of blocks, a few of which are colored in gold. By bumping one of the gold-colored blocks from below, a coin pops out. This gives you the player the intuition that there may be secrets in these boxes and you should see if you can get anything else by doing something like that again. If you bump another gold-colored box you’ll make a Red Power Mushroom come out of it. You the player may not initially realize it but it’s actually a power up that can make Mario stronger. Since you learned from the Goomba that you just defeated that mushroom-shaped beings are bad, you’ll likely try to jump over the mushroom in order to avoid it, however the blocks are arranged in such a manner that any player attempting to dodge the mushroom immediately hits and is deflected by the block downwards onto the mushroom, which lands the player onto the power-up. Once Mario touches the Mushroom he grows bigger and stronger, and thus you the player realize that Mushrooms can give Mario super powers.
The next obstacle course features a series of four vertical, green “warp pipes” that must be jumped over. If you continue to use your intuition you can discover that one of the pipes can “warp” you into a secret bonus room that has a hidden block that contains a 1-UP Green Mushroom that can give Mario an extra life after death. It also allows you to skip most of the level and reach the end quicker, serving as a shortcut. However, if you choose to stick on the original path course, you’ll have to learn that the pipes have different heights, subtly teaching you that the longer you hold the jump button, the higher your jump goes. You will eventually come across large pitfalls and must learn how to use the button for running, because running makes a bigger jump across the pits.
The “goal” is to reach for the flagpole at the end of the level and slide down to move forward to the next section of the level inside a castle. The higher you reach for the flag, the more bonus points you’ll receive. It’s an ingenious way of encouraging multiple playthroughs while at the same time teaching you the player on how the game is played. That’s why World 1–1 is so revered by gamers everywhere. It’s the perfect tutorial system that many video games have followed in terms of design philosophy.
The Final Fantasy series has had several great opening moments in their games but there’s a reason why VII stands above the rest as the most memorable in terms of appeal. Nowadays it’s easy to shrug it off but back in 1997 nobody thought video games could have such cinematic openings. The Fifth Generation of Video Games — also known as the “3D Era” — introduced the gaming world to full 3D polygon graphics along with more color depth, increased display resolutions, and full motion videos. Leave it to Square Enix (then called Squaresoft) to take advantage of the groundbreaking technology at the time and create something new that would rock the industry. Presentation in a game is everything and Square made sure to take full advantage of it.
When you start a “New Game,” it begins with the camera turning in a 360° angle looking around what looks to be outer space but then you suddenly see a young woman (Aerith Gainsborough, the lead heroine of the game) fade in and it appears she’s tending her flowers. That’s when you realize you weren’t looking at space but rather pollen from the flowers the young woman was growing. As she collects the flowers from her makeshift garden, it’s clear from the setting that she’s tending her garden in a dirty city. She walks down an alley and enters the main street as you witness her emerge among a crowd in a bustling metropolis. The camera begins to zoom out and pull back as you begin to see the city of Midgar in all of its glory. The brilliant music in the background begins to build tempo as the camera continues to pull back viewing Midgar. In an epic display of hype, the drums and horns begin to kick in as the title “FINAL FANTASY VII” immediately flashes onto the screen, clearly welcoming you to an epic grand adventure.
As the camera begins to zoom in at a section of the city, there are intercuts of a moving train (which would be an important message as the story progresses) arriving at a station. The camera finally comes to a halt at the station and we suddenly see two guards get taken out by two people (Biggs and Jessie). Another man (Wedge) jumps out of the train to join them along with a man with a gun on his arm (Barret Wallace, one of the secondary protagonists of the game). Finally, we see a blonde-spiky haired man (Cloud Strife, the game’s hero and lead protagonist) jump from the top of the train onto the ground to join the group. Barret says to the man, “C’mon newcomer. Follow me.” It’s not only a message to Cloud but also to you the player as you finally take control of the game and begin the journey.
As you proceed forward, you are forced to face two additional guards looking to take you down. It is here that you are finally introduced to the game’s combat system called “Active Time Battle.” This is brilliant because you are immediately thrown into the action but are not overwhelmed as the game will take time to explain to you what you can and can’t do (much like the first level of the original Super Mario Bros. game). As with most RPGs, you have your HP (“hit points” or “life points,” which is your health) and MP (“magic points,” which determines how much magic you can cast) but the difference from other RPGs (at the time anyway) is that there’s two additional bars called “Limit” and “Time.” The “Limit” bar is for the “Limit Break” where you can use special, high powered attacks and moves after taking enough damage from enemies and surviving enough to retaliate in full force. The “Time” bar is for the period where you essentially have to wait your turn to use the command menu and determine your next course of action, forcing you the player to be strategic and plot on how you want to proceed while facing opposing enemies. Once the “Time” bar fills up, you can activate the battle command menu. The battle command menu introduces three choices to you: “Attack” where you use a physical attack on an enemy, “Magic” where you cast a magic spell, and “Items” where you can use any specialized items to provide you an advantage on the battlefield. After taking out the two guards, you are introduced to the “Battle Results” screen which showcases what you’ve earned after your fight. You’ve gained enough “EXP” (experience points) to immediately upgrade your character to Level 7. You also gained 4 “AP” (ability points) which would be used later on to upgrade your magic items. You also obtain 20 “Gil,” the game’s currency system. Experience points are used to upgrade your party in terms of physical strength, vitality, amount of magic used, agility, etc. Ability points are used to upgrade Materia, the game’s magic system and ability feature that allows you to add additional move sets to your characters. Gil is essentially money. You use it to buy additional items and weapons at any of the stores within the game’s universe. The game will eventually explain each feature through continued tutorial text messages on screen but you are also free to explore those features for yourself but it won’t amount to much since you can’t really do anything at this point of the story.
As you move on closer to the Mako Reactor №1, Biggs begins to talk to you (or more specifically Cloud), providing some exposition in the story. He mentions it’s not everyday that you meet a person like Cloud since you were part of SOLDIER, an elite military task force employed by the Shinra Company, the multi-global corporation and governing body that rules the planet, Gaia. Jessie mentions that Shinra are essentially the “bad guys” so why is one of them part of their rebel group called AVALANCHE. Biggs responds to Jessie that Cloud is an EX-SOLDIER (as indicated earlier in the battle menu in the ATB system) meaning that you are no longer working for the company and are just hired help. He then asks for your name again and it is here that you can write the name of your main character and lead party member for the duration of the game but if you want to stick to the nature of the story you can choose the default name which is Cloud Strife. As Cloud introduces (or in this case reintroduces) himself to the group, he makes it clear that he’s not interested in knowing who the people he’s working with right now. Once the job is done, he’s leaving AVALANCHE. Barret approaches the group and criticizes them for not following the plan of remaining separate so they don’t get easily captured. He also reminds them that their objective is to target Mako Reactor №1 and they will meet at the bridge before proceeding forward. Jessie is finally able to open the door to the Reactor and the party moves as Barret lets Cloud know that he doesn’t trust him but also lets him — or in this case you the player — know that you can run by essentially hitting the “X” button and move by using the directional keypad. The camera immediately zooms in on Cloud and moves slightly upward to showcase him looking at the Mako Reactor and then proceeding forward.
As you proceed forward you fight a few more enemies and it allows you get more comfortable with the game’s combat system. You finally arrive at the Reactor and it’s emphasized with the dense, darker score playing in the background, serving as the theme song for the Reactors in the game. Game composer Nobuo Uemtasu does an excellent job of using the soundtrack to relay the mood and gives you the sense that something big is about to go down. Barret tries to tell Cloud about the purpose of Mako Reactors and how they are sucking the life force of the planet. Unfortunately, Cloud remains apathetic to Barret’s lectures and reiterates that he just wants to do the job quickly and get it over with. Annoyed with his standoffish attitude, Barret declares that Cloud will come with him so that he can keep a close eye on him and it’s here that Barret officially is added as a member of your “party” in the game. As you move forward inside the Reactor, Barret continues to implore Cloud about the purpose of AVALANCHE, which is to liberate Gaia from Shinra’s grasp and ensure that the planet does not die off due to the corporation’s greed. Cloud once again states that he doesn’t care and that’s AVALANCHE’s problem, not his (much to Barret’s annoyance).
You push on inside the reactor, climbing down ladders and stairs while facing off more enemies as you get more accustomed to the game’s combat system but with an additional party member added in Barret who can fire long range attacks against enemies thanks to his gun arm. It is especially helpful to have him since he can attack enemies who happen to be at a distance that are difficult to be reached by Cloud’s physical sword attacks. You eventually come across a SAVE Crystal, which will allow you to save your progress. Jessie will remain behind at the top of the Reactor’s core to provide support for the eventual escape. As you approach the Reactor’s core, Barret instructs Cloud to set the bomb and its timer much to the latter’s dismay. Suddenly, the screen flashes red and Cloud has something of a slight reactionary freak out while cryptic messages appear on screen saying, “Watch out! This isn’t just a reactor!” After that strange freak out, a concerned Barret asks if there’s anything wrong but Cloud apologizes and says he’s fine. After setting the bomb, they accidentally trip off the alarm and Shinra’s last line of defense for the Reactor finally appears in the Guard Scorpion, the first official boss fight of the game.
It is here where you are finally tested to see how well you’ve grown used to the game’s battle mechanics. You can cast Bolt (Thunder) on it to deal additional damage since it’s a machine-type enemy and its extremely weak to lighting-based magic. The Scorpion’s attacks can cause more damage to you than the previous grunts you dealt with prior to this boss fight. After dealing enough damage, the Scorpion will change tactics and raise its tail up in order to use its devastating attack “Tail Laser,” which could kill your party in an instant. Cloud will warn Barret not to attack while its tail is up so you won’t have to deal with getting hit. The attack only works as a counter move if you attack it head on (on a side note: the “infamous” flawed English translation of the game will tell you to attack while its tail is up leading to most players dying during the fight. Eventually players figured out not to do that but its one of the many reasons why a Remake of this game is welcomed since it can have chances to correct blunders like this).
After the fight, you are given only ten minutes to escape the facility thanks to the bomb and timer you setup so you need immediately get the heck out of the Reactor! You proceed to head upwards and spot Jessie who currently has her leg stuck underneath some debris. You actually have the option to leave her behind but doing so prevents you from exiting the Reactor since she has the codes to open the door so the game actually would “punish” you for leaving her behind. So you have help her in order to escape. After you get Jessie, you fight more enemies as you try to escape as the timer winds down. Eventually you get to the main hall and Jessie and Biggs will open the door and allowing you to escape. After meeting up with Wedge on the bridge, you and the rest of AVALANCHE will immediately depart from the Reactor and you’re treated to an amazing cutscene where you witness the destruction of Mako Reactor №1.
So right off the bat, the game introduces you to the battle system, the setting of the story, some of the characters of the game along with their personalities, traits and philosophies, the primary antagonist (so far), and the objective we need to accomplish. And mind you this happens in a span of fifteen minutes or so. We immediately understand the basics so far and haven’t been locked out the loop or end up lost in the shuffle. The story is being kept simplified enough but reserved enough to not show all its cards. It’s a masterful way of introducing newcomers into the game’s world and doesn’t put you in a position where you feel like you could get lost.
It’s not hard to see why this opening level is recognizable by gamers everywhere. Everything from the music, the setting, and the character design was wonderfully setup that you’d be hard pressed to not find a gamer who’s not familiar with the opening scene in Final Fantasy VII. Heck, there’s a reason why it was used as a “tech demo” for the PlayStation 3 back in E3 2005.
It was also the perfect way to reintegrate old gamers who played the original game back in 1997 into the world once again as the opening scene served as the teaser trailer for the Remake back in E3 2015 and again for the PlayStation Experience.
Moments like this are hard to top so it’s no wonder that Square hasn’t had an opening scene in a Final Fantasy game as memorable as the Bombing Mission of Mako Reactor №1. Its break neck pace, hard action, memorable score, and excellent characterization set it apart from not just other Final Fantasy games but also from other games as well. This is how you start a level 1 experience for any gamer.