Nintendo had achieved victory in the 16-bit system conflict, and everyone expected it to repeat it when the next generation of systems began. The Sega Saturn was doomed to die a lonely death, and the newcomer Sony was viewed as an oddity, but not much else.
And then Square came careening around the corner with Final Fantasy VII, a game that did for the genre something similar (if on a lesser scale) to what "Nevermind" did for alternative music. Final Fantasy VII sold fifteen million copies worldwide, and firmly established Square (and the PlayStation) on the throne of the RPG domain. This was the first sign that role-playing games could easily become part of the mainstream; indeed, many people became gamers (and underwent a great deal of bullshit from their "hardkore" Internet peers) after having experienced Final Fantasy VII.
And it certainly was a hell of an experience. Right from the start, the game gives you a typical "space...the final frontier" camera view, then speeds up and throws you abruptly straight into the middle of a dirty, grimy city called Midgar. Indeed, the Big, Dangerous City, while a fairly common idea in games, was never as gloomy, or as menacing, as Midgar. Cars throw exhaust into the atmosphere; crime and prostitution run rampant; and most of the population lives in the filthy slums at the bottom of the city. The pre-rendered backgrounds and FMVs conveyed the oppressive, dirty, stagnant atmosphere flawlessly. And Nobuo Uematsu reached new heights with the soundtrack (one of the only three game soundtracks I would recommend buying), achieving both diversity and depth.
If that wasn't enough, this marked the end of the "family-friendly RPGs" era. Final Fantasy VII not just got rid of censorship, it went deliberately over the top, and the city provided the perfect background to do so. The (rather gratuitous, at least for the first non-censored RPG released in the U.S.) profanity seemed as natural as the graffiti on Midgar's blackened walls. And in case the lifting of "the language barrier" wasn't enough, the city featured prostitution in not-so-euphemistic terms (two words here: Don Corneo).
But all this would have been rather fatuous if the game's story wasn't so strong. And believe me, it was. The game throws you right into the action from the start, into the role of Cloud Strife, a mercenary who had teamed up with a slum rebel group to perform acts of terrorism against Shin-Ra, an omnipotent corporation engaged in destroying the planet. But after a couple of acts, things get a lot more complicated as Cloud is separated from the others and Shin-Ra brutally retaliates (opting to destroy a whole section of the city to get what really is a handful of rebels, like trying to crack a nut with a steamroller). The story blossoms from there.
But that isn't what's so good about the plot. Despite such action-filled events, the characters get plenty of camera time, and genuine development. Barret Wallace (the RPG world's first black character) starts out as your generic Mr. T lookalike, but grows to struggle with his own conscience after he sees how Shin-Ra killed hundreds of people just to get his little band of mercenaries. Rufus Shinra, on the other hand, may be a cruel bastard, but you can't help but admire his bravery in more than one scene, especially when compared to the vile cowardice of his subordinates. Likewise, Sephiroth is evil through and through, but only became so through the dishonorable actions of others who used him. Aeris Gainsborough may seem to be yet another "sweet, gentle healer" character at first, but she also has a genuine warmth to her that, say, Rosa never had. And Vincent Valentine, should you take the time to discover his backstory (in a short yet brilliantly directed scene), is one of the most tragic and poignant characters to ever grace the genre. In the end, most of the standard good guy, bad guy definitions disappear, and there is no clear black and white as far as the characters' roles go - just shades of grey. And if RPG plotlines were ever meant to develop far enough for anyone to take them seriously, that's exactly what needed to happen.
Square's first PlayStation Final Fantasy was remarkable in every way. The two following PSX installments didn't even come close to having the awe-inspiring effect of the first one (admittedly because this game left some pretty huge shoes to fill). And although this game received quite a bit of entirely undeserved flak on the Internet, the sheer volume of controversy that occurred at the time is yet another testament to the game's impact. Although the complete success of Final Fantasy VII gave Square the resources to try many new things, producing the intriguing (if flawed) Parasite Eve, the superb Xenogears and the brilliant Vagrant Story, this game remains the pinnacle of the renowned Final Fantasy series and an achievement that Square has been unable to surpass ever since.