The gameplay of Final Fantasy VII is mostly comparable to earlier Final Fantasy titles and Japanese role-playing games. The game features three modes of play: the world map, the field, and the battle screen. At its grandest scale, players explore the entire world of Final Fantasy VII on a 3D world map. The world map is littered with representations of areas for the player to enter, including towns, environments, and ruins. Natural barriers—such as mountains, deserts, and bodies of water—block access by foot to some areas; as the game progresses, the player receives vehicles that help traverse these obstacles. Chocobos can be found in certain spots on the map, and if caught, can be ridden to areas inaccessible by foot or vehicle. In field mode, the player navigates fully scaled versions of the areas represented on the world map. For the first time in the Final Fantasy series, this mode is represented in three-dimensional space. The player can explore the environment, talk with characters, advance the story, and initiate event games in this mode. Event games are short minigames that use special control functions and are often tied into the story. While in field mode, the player may also find shops and inns. Shops provide an opportunity to buy and sell items that can aid Cloud and his party, such as weapons, armor, and accessories. If the characters rest at an inn, their hit points and mana points will be completely restored, along with any abnormalities contracted during battles.
At random intervals on the world map and in field mode, and at specific moments in the story, the game will enter the battle screen. This screen places the player characters on one side, the enemies on the other, and employs an "Active Time Battle" (ATB) system in which the characters exchange moves until one side is defeated. The damage (or healing) dealt by either side is quantified on screen. Characters have many statistics that determine their effectiveness in battle; for example, hit points determine how much damage they can take from enemies, and magic determines how much damage they can inflict with spells. Each character on the screen has a time gauge; when a character's gauge is full, the player can input a command for that character. The commands available change as the game progresses, and are dependent on the characters in the player's party and their equipment. Commands may include attacking, casting magical abilities, using items, summoning monsters, and other actions that either damage the enemy or aid the player characters. Final Fantasy VII also features powerful, character-specific commands called Limit Breaks, which can be used only after a special gauge is charged by enemy attacks. After being attacked, characters may be afflicted by one or more abnormal "statuses", such as poison or paralysis. These statuses and their adverse effects can be removed by special items or abilities. When all the enemies are defeated, the battle ends and the player may be rewarded with money, items, and experience points. If the player is defeated, it is game over and the game must be loaded back to the last save point.
When not in battle, the player can use the menu screen. On this screen, the player can review each character's status and statistics, use items and abilities, change equipment, save the game (when on the world map or at a save point), and manage Materia. The main method of customizing characters in Final Fantasy VII, Materia are orbs that may be added to equipment to provide characters with new magic spells, commands, statistical upgrades, and other benefits. Materia level up with their own experience point system, and can be combined to create different effects.
Final Fantasy VII takes place on a world referred to in-game as "The Planet", though it has been retroactively named "Gaia". The planet's lifeforce, called the Lifestream, is a flow of spiritual energy that gives life to everything on the Planet. Its processed form is known as "Mako". On a societal and technological level, the game has been defined as an industrial or post-industrial science fiction milieu. During Final Fantasy VII, the Planet's Lifestream is being drained for energy by the Shinra Electric Power Company, a world-dominating megacorporation headquartered in the city of Midgar. Shinra's actions are weakening the Planet, threatening its existence and all life. Significant factions within the game include AVALANCHE, an eco-terrorist group seeking Shinra's downfall so the Planet can recover; the Turks, a covert branch of Shinra's security forces; SOLDIER, an elite Shinra fighting force created by enhancing humans with Mako; and the Cetra, a near-extinct human tribe which maintains a strong connection to the Planet and the Lifestream.
The central protagonist is Cloud Strife, an unsociable mercenary who claims to be a former 1st Class SOLDIER. Early on, he works with two members of AVALANCHE: Barret Wallace, its brazen but fatherly leader; and Tifa Lockhart, a shy yet nurturing martial artist and childhood friend of Cloud. On their journey, they meet Aerith Gainsborough, a carefree flower merchant and one of the last surviving Cetra; Red XIII, an intelligent quadruped from a tribe that protects the planet; Cait Sith, a fortune-telling robotic cat controlled by repentant Turk Reeve Tuesti; and Cid Highwind, a pilot whose dream of being the first human in outer space was not realized. The group can also recruit Yuffie Kisaragi, a young ninja and skilled Materia thief; and Vincent Valentine, a former Turk and victim of Shinra experiments. The game's main antagonists are Rufus Shinra, son of President Shinra; Sephiroth, a former SOLDIER who reappears several years after he was thought dead; Jenova, a hostile extraterrestrial life-form imprisoned by the Cetra 2000 years before; and the Shinra Corporation. A key character in Cloud's backstory is Zack Fair, a member of SOLDIER and Aerith's first love.
AVALANCHE performs a successful bombing operation at a Shinra Mako reactor in Midgar. A second run on another reactor goes wrong, and Cloud falls into the slums of the city. There, he meets Aerith and defends her from an attack by the Turks. Meanwhile, Shinra finds AVALANCHE's location and collapses part of the upper city, killing most of AVALANCHE along with the slum population below. Aerith is also captured, as her status as a Cetra can potentially reveal the "Promised Land", which Shinra believes is overflowing with exploitable Lifestream energy. Cloud, Barret and Tifa rescue Aerith but are captured after encountering a specimen dubbed "Jenova". They awaken to find their prison cells opened, and escape to find President Shinra killed. A katana in the President's body indicates that the attacker was Sephiroth, who was presumed dead seven years earlier. The party escape Midgar and pursue Sephiroth across the Planet; along the way, they are joined by Cait Sith and Cid, and can recruit Yuffie and Vincent.
The party meet Sephiroth at a Cetra temple, where he reveals his intent to use the Black Materia to summon "Meteor", a spell that will fatally injure the Planet with a meteorite strike. At the point of impact, Sephiroth will absorb the Lifestream as it attempts to heal the wound, becoming a god-like being. The party drives Sephiroth back, retrieving the Black Materia, but Sephiroth manipulates Cloud into surrendering it. Aerith sets off alone to stop Sephiroth, following him to an abandoned Cetra City. During her attempt to pray for help from the Planet, Sephiroth tries to force Cloud to kill her, then kills her himself before fleeing, leaving the Black Materia for the party to reclaim. The party then learns more of Jenova, whose remains were unearthed by Shinra scientists several decades earlier and mistaken for a Cetra. In an experiment at Nibelheim, Jenova's cells were used to create Sephiroth, effectively making her his mother. Five years prior to the present, Sephiroth and Cloud were sent to Nibelheim on a mission, where Sephiroth discovered the truth about his origins. Driven insane by the revelation, he murdered the townspeople, then vanished when confronted by Cloud.
The party heads to the Northern Crater, where Sephiroth will use the Black Materia. Confronting him, they learn that the "Sephiroths" they have encountered are Jenova clones created by the insane Shinra scientist Hojo. Confronting the real Sephiroth as he is killing his clones to reunite Jenova's cells, Cloud is again manipulated into delivering the Black Materia to him, summoning Meteor. Sephiroth then taunts Cloud by showing another SOLDIER in Cloud's place in his memories of Nibelheim, suggesting that Cloud is also a Sephiroth clone. Sephiroth summons Meteor; Cloud falls into the Lifestream and the party evacuates with Rufus and the Turks, who subsequently arrest them. Shinra focuses its efforts on protecting humanity from the Planet's defensive force ("Weapon") and attempting to destroy Meteor directly, which eventually costs the lives of the majority of Shinra's personnel, including Rufus. Escaping Shinra, the party discover Cloud at an island hospital in a catatonic state from Mako poisoning. Tifa stays with him, and when the island is attacked by a Weapon, the two fall into the Lifestream.
Within the Lifestream, Tifa helps Cloud reconstruct his memories. Cloud was never accepted into SOLDIER and instead became a infantryman, and the SOLDIER in his memories was his friend Zack Fair. At Nibelheim, Cloud was injured, but fatally wounded Sephiroth, who only survived due to Jenova. Cloud and Zack were then taken for experiments by Hojo, with Zack escaping four years later with a catatonic Cloud. The two were eventually cornered by Shinra soldiers, and Zack was killed; the combined trauma of his experience, the experiments and Zack's death triggered an identity crisis, with Cloud constructing a false persona around Zack's stories and his own fantasies. Realizing and accepting his past, Cloud recovers and together with Tifa reunites with the party. It is revealed that Aerith's prayer to the Planet was successful: the Planet had attempted to summon Holy to prevent Meteor's impact, but Sephiroth blocked Holy. After killing Hojo when he tries to aid Sephiroth, who is revealed to be Hojo's biological son, the party descends into the Planet's core and defeats both Jenova and Sephiroth. The party escapes and Holy is summoned, attempting to block Meteor as it descends on Midgar. As Meteor is too close, Holy cannot block it, but the Lifestream rises from the planet and aids Holy in destroying Meteor. Five hundred years later, Red XIII is seen with two cubs looking out over the ruins of Midgar, which are now covered in greenery, showing the planet has healed.
The initial concept talks for Final Fantasy VII began in 1994, following the completion of Final Fantasy VI. As with the previous installment, series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi again reduced his role to that of producer and granted others a more active role in development: these included Yoshinori Kitase, who had been one of the directors of Final Fantasy VI. The next installment was initially planned as a 2D game for Nintendo's Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), which would have been the safe path given the imminent release of consoles capable of rendering 3D graphics. After creating an early prototype of Final Fantasy VII for the SNES, the team postponed development to help finish Chrono Trigger.
Once Chrono Trigger was completed, the team resumed discussions for Final Fantasy VII in 1995. The team decided to take the riskier option and make a 3D game on new generation hardware, but had yet to choose between the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 (N64) or the CD-ROM based PlayStation from Sony Computer Entertainment. The team also considered Sega's new Saturn console and Microsoft Windows personal computers (PC). Their decision was influenced by two things: a tech demo based on Final Fantasy VI created using the new Softimage 3D software that impressed both staff and external developers; and the escalating price of cartridge-based games, which was limiting Square's audience. Tests were made for an N64 version of the game, which would use the planned 64DD peripheral, even in the face of a lack of development kits and changing hardware specs. This version was scrapped during early testing, as the 2000 polygons needed to render the series' Behemoth monster put too much of a strain on the N64 hardware, causing a low frame rate. It was later estimated that it would have required thirty 64DD discs to run Final Fantasy VII properly. Faced with both technical and economic issues on Nintendo's current hardware, and favorably impressed by the increased storage capacity of CD-ROM when compared to the N64 cartridge, Square shifted development of Final Fantasy VII, in addition to all of their planned game projects, onto Sony's PlayStation.
In contrast to the visuals and audio, the overall gameplay system remained mostly unchanged from that used since Final Fantasy V, using lessons based on research done to promote player control. The initial decision was for battles to feature shifting camera angles. Battle arenas had a lower polygon count than field areas, which made picking out distinctive features for each one more difficult. The summon sequences benefited strongly from the switch to the cinematic style, as the team had struggled to portray their scale using 2D graphics. In his role as producer, Sakaguchi placed much of his effort into developing the battle system, also proposing the Materia system. Materia provided more character customization than previous Final Fantasy games: battles no longer revolved around characters with innate skills and roles in battle, as Materia could be reconfigured between battles. Nomura also contributed to the gameplay, creating the Limit Break system as an evolution of the Desperation Attacks used in Final Fantasy VI. The Limit Breaks helped bring out each character's personality. As with every game prior to Final Fantasy VII, Square had continued to approach game development in the way they had done with their early projects, but now had the resources and ambition to create the game. This was because they had extensive capital, which means they could focus on quality and scale rather than obsessing over their budget. It eventually became ranked as one of the most expensive video game projects at the time, coming in at an estimated $40 million USD, which adjusted for inflation came to $61 million in 2017. Development of the final version lasted just over a year, and included a staff of between 100 and 150 people. As video game development teams were usually only 20 people, Final Fantasy VII had what was described as the largest development team of any game up to that point. The development team was split between both Square's Japanese offices and its new American office in Los Angeles, with the American team primarily responsible for city backgrounds.
The game's art director was Yusuke Naora, who had worked as a designer for Final Fantasy VI. With the switch into 3D, Naora realized that he needed to teach himself drawing all over again, as 3D visuals required a very different approach than 2D. With the scale and scope of the project, Naora requested and was granted a development team devoted entirely to the game's visual design. The department's duties included illustration, modeling of 3D characters, texturing, creation of environments, visual effects, and animation. Naora later defined the art style of Final Fantasy VII as "dark" and "weird". The Shinra logo, which incorporated a kanji symbol, was drawn by Naora personally. Promotional artwork, in addition to the logo artwork, was created by Yoshitaka Amano, an artist whose association with the series went back to its inception. While he had taken a prominent role in earlier entries, Amano was unable to do so for Final Fantasy VII, due to commitments at overseas exhibitions. His logo artwork was based on Meteor: when he saw images of Meteor, he was not sure how to turn it into suitable artwork. In the end, he created multiple variations of the image, and asked staff to choose which they preferred. The green coloring represents the predominant lighting in Midgar and the color of the Lifestream, while the blue reflected the ecological themes present in the story. Its coloring directly influenced the general coloring of the game's environments.
Another prominent artist was Tetsuya Nomura. Having impressed Sakaguchi with his proposed ideas, which were handwritten and illustrated rather than simply typed on a PC, Nomura was brought on as main character designer. Talking of his role as character designer, Nomura stated that when he was brought on, the main scenario had not been completed, but he "went along like, 'I guess first off you need a hero and a heroine', and from there drew the designs while thinking up details about the characters. After [he'd] done the hero and heroine, [he] carried on drawing by thinking what kind of characters would be interesting to have. When [he] handed over the designs [he'd] tell people the character details [he'd] thought up, or write them down on a separate sheet of paper". Something that could not be carried over from earlier titles was the chibi sprite art, as that would not fit with the new graphical direction. Naora, in his role as an assistant character designer and art director, helped adjust each character's appearance so the actions they performed were believable. When designing Cloud and Sephiroth, Nomura was influenced by his view of their rivalry mirroring the legendary animosity between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojirō, with Cloud and Sephiroth being Musashi and Kojirō respectively. Sephiroth's look was defined as "kakkoii", a Japanese term combining good looks with coolness. Several of Nomura's designs evolved substantially during development. Cloud's original design of slicked-back black hair with no spikes was intended to serve as a contrast to Sephiroth's long, flowing silver hair in addition to saving polygons. Nomura feared, however, that such masculinity could prove unpopular with fans, and therefore he changed Cloud's design to feature a shock of spiky, bright blond hair. Vincent changed from researcher to detective to chemist, and finally to the figure of a former Turk with a tragic past.
Sakaguchi was responsible for writing the initial plot, which was substantially different from the final version. In this draft for the originally planned SNES version, the game's setting was envisioned as New York City in 1999. Similar to the final story, the main characters were part of an organization trying to destroy Mako reactors, but they were pursued by a hot-blooded detective named Joe. The main characters would eventually blow up the city. An early version of the Lifestream concept was already present at this stage. According to Sakaguchi, his mother had passed away while Final Fantasy VI was being developed, and dealing with the theme of "life" helped him cope with her passing in a rational and analytical way. Elements from the original plot were used in later Square projects, for example resulting in the New York setting for Parasite Eve. While the planned concept was dropped, Final Fantasy VII still boasted a drastic shift in setting from previous entries, dropping the Medieval fantasy elements in favor of a world that was "ambiguously futuristic".
When Kitase was put in charge of Final Fantasy VII, he and Nomura entirely reworked the initial plot. Scenario writer Kazushige Nojima joined the team after he had finished his work on Bahamut Lagoon. While Final Fantasy VI adopted a style of making all playable characters equally important, the team soon decided that they needed a central protagonist for Final Fantasy VII. The pursuit of Sephiroth that made up a large part of the main narrative was suggested by Nomura, as it had not been done in the series before. Kitase and Nojima conceived Avalanche and Shinra as opposing organizations, and created Cloud's backstory as well as his relationship to Sephiroth. Among Nojima's biggest contributions to the plot were Cloud's memories and split personality; this included the eventual conclusion involving his newly created character of Zack. The crew helped Kitase adjust the specifics of Sakaguchi's original Lifestream concept.
Sakaguchi gave the instruction "It's not enough to make 'life' the theme, you need to depict living and dying. In any event, you need to portray death." As a result of this, Nomura proposed the idea of having the heroine die. Originally, Aerith had been the only heroine, but her potential death led to the creation of Tifa. It was decided that Aerith was the one to die as her death would be the most devastating and consequential. Kitase wanted to depict it as very sudden and unexpected, leaving "not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness", "feelings of reality and not Hollywood". The script for the scene was written by Nojima. Kitase and Nojima then planned that most of the main cast would die shortly before the final battle, but Nomura successfully protested against the idea, thinking that it would take away from Aerith's death. Several character relations and statuses underwent changes during development. Aerith was originally going to be Sephiroth's sister, which influenced the design of Aerith's hair. To bring depth to Aerith's backstory, the team then made Sephiroth a previous love interest of hers, but later changed this to Zack being her former boyfriend. Both Vincent and Yuffie were originally intended to be part of the main narrative, but due to time constraints, they were nearly cut and eventually relegated to being optional characters.
Nojima was charged with writing the scenario and with unifying the team members' ideas into a cohesive narrative, as Kitase was impressed with his earlier work on the mystery-like Heracles no Eikō III: Kamigami no Chinmoku. To make the characters seem more realistic, Nojima wrote them so they would not unanimously agree, with some raising objections instead: while this inevitably slowed down the pace of the story, it added depth to the characters. The graphical improvements enabled even relatively bland lines of dialogue to be enhanced. Another writer who contributed was Masato Kato, who wrote several late-game scenes including the Lifestream sequence and Cloud and Tifa's conversation before the final battle. Initially not involved with the project, he was called upon to help flesh out less important story scenes. He wrote his scenes to his own tastes without outside consultation, something he later regretted.
With the shift from the SNES to the next generation consoles, Final Fantasy VII became the first Final Fantasy project to use 3D computer graphics. Developers initially considered overlaying 2D sprites on 3D backgrounds, but decided to forgo pixel art entirely in favor of polygonal models. Aside from the story, Final Fantasy VI had many details undecided when development began, with many things filled out along the way. In contrast, with Final Fantasy VII, the developers knew from the outset it was going to be "a real 3D game", so from the earliest planning stage detailed designs were in existence. The script was also finalized, and the image for the graphics had been fleshed out. This meant that when actual development work began, "storyboards" for the game were already in place. The shift from cartridge ROM to CD-ROM posed some problems: according to lead programmer Ken Narita, the CD-ROM had a slower access speed and so actions during the game were liable to be delayed, so the team needed to overcome this issue. Consequently, certain tricks were used to conceal load times, such as offering animations to keep players from getting bored. When it was decided to use 3D graphics, there was discussion among the staff whether to use sprite-based character models or 3D polygonal models. While sprites proved more popular, the polygon models were chosen as they could better express emotion. This decision was influenced by the team's exposure to the 3D character models used in Alone in the Dark. Sakaguchi decided to use deformed models for field navigation and real-time event scenes, while realistically proportioned models would be used in battles. This was because he thought the deformed models would express emotion better than realistic ones. In anticipation of the move to more powerful hardware and 3D graphics, the team purchased high-end Softimage 3D and PowerAnimator software, which many among the team had never seen before, as well as a toolkit called Nichimen N-World, all of it running on Silicon Graphics workstations. The purchasing of this equipment accounted for a large portion of the game's expenditure: including both hardware and software, Square spent an estimated $21 million.
The transition from 2D graphics to 3D environments overlaid on pre-rendered backgrounds was accompanied by a focus on a more realistic presentation. In previous entries, the sizes for characters and environments were fixed, and the player saw things from a scrolling perspective. This changed with Final Fantasy VII; environments shifted with camera angles, and character model sizes shifted depending on both their place in the environment and their distance from the camera, giving a sense of scale. The choice of this highly cinematic style of storytelling, contrasting directly with Square's previous games, was attributed to Kitase, who was a fan of films and had an interest in the parallels between film and video game narrative. Character movement during in-game events was done by the character designers in the planning group. While designers normally cooperate with a motion specialist for such animations, the designers taught themselves motion work, resulting in each character's movements differing depending on their creators—some designers liked exaggerated movements, while others went for subtlety. Much of the time was spend upon each character's day-to-day "normal" animations. Motion specialists were brought in for the game's battle animations. The first characters who the team was able to work with were Cloud and Barret. Some of the real-time effects, such as an explosion near the opening, were hand-drawn rather than computer animated.
The main creative force behind the overall 3D presentation was Kazuyuki Hashimoto, the general supervisor for these sequences. Being experienced in the new technology the team had brought on board, he accepted the post at Square as the team aligned with his own creative spirit. One of the major events in development was when the real-time graphics were synchronized to computer-generated full motion video (FMV) cutscenes for some story sequences, notably an early sequence where a real-time model of Cloud jumps onto an FMV-rendered moving train. The backgrounds were created by overlaying two 2D graphic layers and changing the motion speed of each to simulate depth perception. While this was not a new technique, the increased power of the PlayStation enabled a more elaborate version of this effect. The biggest issue with the 3D graphics was the large memory storage gap between the development hardware and the console: while the early 3D tech demo had been developed on a machine with over 400 megabytes of total memory, the PlayStation only had two megabytes of system memory and 500 kilobytes for texture memory. The team needed to figure out how to shrink the amount of data while preserving the desired effects. This was aided with reluctant help from Sony, who had hoped to keep Square's direct involvement limited to a standard API package, but they eventually relented and allowed the team direct access to the hardware specifications.
Final Fantasy VII featured two types of cutscenes: real-time cutscenes featuring polygon models on pre-rendered backgrounds, and FMV cutscenes. The game's computer-generated imagery (CGI) FMVs were produced by Visual Works, a then-new subsidiary of Square that specialized in computer graphics and FMVs creation. Visual Works had created the initial movie concept for a 3D game project. The FMVs were created by an international team, covering both Japan and North America and involving talent from the gaming and film industry; Western contributors included artists and staff who had worked on the Star Wars film series, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and True Lies. The team tried to create additional optional CGI content which would bring optional characters Vincent and Yuffie into the ending. As this would have further increased the number of discs the game needed, the idea was discarded. Kazuyuki Ikumori, a future key figure at Visual Works, helped with the creation of the CGI cutscenes, in addition to general background design. The CGI FMV sequences total around 40 minutes of footage, something only possible with the PlayStation's extra memory space and graphical power. This innovation brought with it the added difficulty of ensuring that the inferiority of the in-game graphics in comparison to the FMV sequences was not too obvious. Kitase has described the process of making the in-game environments as detailed as possible to be "a daunting task".
The music for Final Fantasy VII was composed, arranged, and produced by Nobuo Uematsu, who had served as the sole composer for the six previous Final Fantasy games. Uematsu had planned to use CD quality music with vocal performances for the game to take advantage of the console's audio capabilities, but found that it resulted in the game having much longer loading times for each area. Uematsu then decided that high quality audio was not worth the trade-off on performance, and opted instead to use MIDI-like sounds produced by the console's internal sound sequencer, similar to how his soundtracks for the previous games in the series on the Super NES were implemented. While the Super NES only had eight sound channels to work with, the PlayStation had twenty-four. Eight were reserved for sound effects, leaving sixteen available for the music. Uematsu's approach to composing the game's music was to treat it like a film soundtrack and compose songs that reflected the mood of the scenes, rather than trying to make strong melodies to "define the game", as he felt that approach would come across too strong when placed alongside the game's new 3D visuals. As an example, he composed the track intended for the scene in the game where Aerith Gainsborough is killed to be "sad but beautiful", rather than more overtly emotional, creating what he feels is a more understated feeling. Uematsu additionally said that the soundtrack had a feel of "realism", which also prevented him from using "exorbitant, crazy music".
The first piece that Uematsu composed for the game was the opening theme; game director Yoshinori Kitase showed him the opening cinematic to the game and asked him to begin the project there. The track was well received in the company, which gave Uematsu "a sense that it was going to be a really good project". Final Fantasy VII was the first game in the series to include a track with digitized vocals, "One-Winged Angel", which accompanies the final battle of the game. The track has been called Uematsu's "most recognizable contribution" to the music of the Final Fantasy series, and Uematsu regards it as his most popular work from the series. Inspired by The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky to make a more "classical" track, and by rock and roll music from the late 1960s and early 1970s to make an orchestral track with a "destructive impact", he spent two weeks composing short unconnected musical phrases, and then arranged them together into "One-Winged Angel", an approach he has never used before or since.
Music from the game has been released in several albums. Square released the main soundtrack album, Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack, on four Compact Discs through its DigiCube subsidiary in 1997. A limited edition release was also produced, containing illustrated liner notes. The regular edition of the album reached #3 on the Japan Oricon charts, while the limited edition reached #19. Overall, the album had sold nearly 150,000 copies by January 2010. A single-disc album of selected tracks from the original soundtrack, along with three arranged pieces, titled Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks, was also released by DigiCube in 1997, reaching #20 on the Japan Oricon charts. A third album, Piano Collections Final Fantasy VII, was released by DigiCube in 2003, and contains one disc of piano arrangements of tracks from the game. It was arranged by Shirō Hamaguchi and performed by Seiji Honda, and reached #228 on the Oricon charts.
Final Fantasy VII was officially announced in February 1996. Square president and chief executive officer Tomoyuki Takechi was fairly confident about Japanese players making the game a commercial success despite it being on a new platform. A playable demo was included on a disc giveaway at the 1995 SIGGRAPH, dubbed Square's Preview Extra: Final Fantasy VII & Siggraph '95 Works. The disc also included the early test footage Square created using characters from Final Fantasy VI. The initial release date was at some point in 1996, but to properly realize their vision, Square postponed the release date almost a full year to 1997. Final Fantasy VII was released on January 31, 1997. It was published in Japan by Square. A re-release of the game based on its Western version, titled Final Fantasy VII International, was released on October 2, 1997. This improved International version would kickstart the trend for Square to create an updated version for Japanese release, based on the enhanced Western versions. The International version was re-released as a physical disc as part of the Final Fantasy 25th Anniversary Ultimate Box Japanese package on December 18, 2012.
While its Japanese success had been taken for granted by Square executives, North America and Europe were another matter, as up to that time the Japanese role-playing genre was still niche in Western territories. Sony, due to the PlayStation struggling commercially against Nintendo and Sega's home consoles, lobbied for the publishing rights in North America and Europe following Final Fantasy VII's transfer to PlayStation—to further persuade Square, Sony offered a lucrative royalties deal with potential profits equal to Square self-publishing the game. Square accepted Sony's offer as Square itself lacked Western publishing experience. Square was uncertain about the game's success, as other JRPGs including Final Fantasy VI had met with poor sales outside Japan. To help with promoting the title overseas, Square dissolved their original Washington offices and hired new staff for fresh offices in Costa Mesa. It was first exhibited to the Western public at Electronic Entertainment Expo 1996 (E3).
To promote the game overseas, Square and Sony launched a widespread three-month advertising campaign in August 1997. Beginning with a television commercial that ran alongside popular shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, the campaign included numerous articles in both gaming and general interest magazines, advertisements in comics from publishers such as DC Comics and Marvel, a special collaboration with Pepsi, media events, sample discs, and merchandise. According to estimations by Takechi, the total worldwide marketing budget came to USD$40 million; $10 million had been spent in Japan, $10 million in Europe, and $20 million in North America. Unlike its predecessors, Final Fantasy VII did not have its numeral adjusted to account for the lack of a Western release for Final Fantasy II, III and V—while only the fourth Final Fantasy released outside Japan, its Japanese title was retained. It released in North America on September 7, 1997. The game released in Europe on November 17, becoming the first Final Fantasy game to be released in Europe. The Western version included additional elements and alterations, such as streamlining of the menu and materia system, reducing the health of enemies, new visual cues to help with navigation across the worldmap, and additional cutscenes relating to Cloud's past.
A version for PC was developed by Square's Costa Mesa offices. Square invested in a PC version so they could reach as wide a player base as possible; many Western consumers did not own a PlayStation, and Square's deal with Sony did not prohibit such a port. Having never released a title for PC, Square decided to treat the port as a sales experiment. The port was handled by a team of 15 to 20 people, mostly from Costa Mesa but including help from Tokyo. Square did not begin the port until the console version was finished. The team needed to rewrite an estimated 80% of the game's code, due to the need to unify what had been a custom build for a console written by multiple staff members. Consequently, programmers faced problems such as having to unify the original PlayStation version's five different game engines, leading to delays. The PC version came with a license for Yamaha Corporation's software synthesizer S-YXG70, allowing high-quality sequenced music despite varying sound hardware setups on different user computers. The conversion of the nearly 100 original musical pieces to XG format files was done by Yamaha.
To maximize their chances of success, Square searched for a Western company to assist with releasing the PC version. Eidos Interactive, whose release of Tomb Raider had turned them into a publishing giant, agreed to market and publish the port. The port was announced in December 1997, along with Eidos' exclusivity deal for North America and Europe at the time. To help the product stand out in stores, Eidos chose a triangular shape for the cover and box. They agreed on a contract price of $1.8 million, making initial sales forecasts of 100,000 units based on that outlay. The PC version was released in North America and Europe on June 25, 1998; the port was not released in Japan. Within one month, sales of the port exceeded the initial forecasts. The PC version would end up providing the source code for subsequent ports.
The localization of Final Fantasy VII was handled internally by Square. The English localization, led by Seth Luisi, was completed by a team of about fifty people and faced a variety of problems. According to Luisi, the biggest hurdle was making "the direct Japanese-to-English text translation read correctly in English" because the "sentence structure and grammar rules for the Japanese language is very different from English", making it difficult for the translation to read like native English without distorting the meaning. Michael Basket was the sole translator for the project, though he received the help of native Japanese speakers from the Tokyo office. The localization was taxing for the team due to their inexperience, lack of professional editors, and poor communication between the North American and Japanese offices. A result of this disconnect was that the name Aerith, which was a combination of the words "air" and "earth", was localized as "Aeris". The team also faced several technical issues, such as dealing with a fixed font size, and having to type in additional symbols using language input keys so the code would function. Consequently, the text was still read as Japanese by the word processor; the computer's spellcheck could not be used, and mistakes had to be caught manually. To complicate matters, the Japanese text used obscure kanji symbols carried over from Chinese writing. Swear words were used frequently in the localization to help convey the original Japanese meaning, though most profanities were censored in a manner described by Square employee Richard Honeywood as the "old comic book ‘@#$%!’-type replacement". The European release was described as being in a worse condition, as the translations into multiple European languages were outsourced by Sony to another company, further hindering communication. For the PC port, Square did its best to fix translation and grammar mistakes for the North American and European versions, but did not have the time and budget to retranslate all the text. According to Honeywood, the success of Final Fantasy VII in the West encouraged Square to focus more on localization quality; on future games, Square hired additional translators and editors, while also streamlining communication between the development and localization teams.
The International version of Final Fantasy VII was released on PlayStation Network (PSN) on April 10, 2009. This version was compatible with both PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable. This version was later released in Western regions on June 2. The PC version was ported to Steam, releasing on May 16, 2013. This was again the International version, and was the first time the PC version was released in Japan. It released in the West on on July 4. This version featured optional "Cloud Saves", and a "Character Booster" feature that maxed out characters, and optimization for modern PC hardware. A release for iOS, based on the Steam version and adjusted for mobile devices, was released on August 19, 2015. A version of the Steam port was released for PlayStation 4 on December 5, 2015. The PC and PS4 ports were both handled by DotEmu. The PS4 and iOS versions also included cheats which enabled the player characters to become high-powered without the need for battles, and the ability to switch off random encounters. A version for Android was released on July 7, 2016.
Final Fantasy VII was both a critical and commercial success, and set several sales records. Within three days of its release in Japan, the game had sold 2.3 million copies. This popularity inspired thousands of retailers in North America to break street dates in September to meet public demand for the title. In the game's debut weekend in North America, it sold 330,000 copies, and had reached sales of 500,000 copies in less than three weeks. The momentum established in the game's opening weeks continued for several months; Sony announced the game had sold one million copies in North America by early December, prompting business analyst Edward Williams from Monness, Crespi, Hardt & Co. to comment, "Sony redefined the role-playing game (RPG) category and expanded the conventional audience with the launch of Final Fantasy VII." By the end of 2005, the game had sold over 9.8 million copies worldwide, making it the highest-selling game in the Final Fantasy series. By the end of 2006, the The Best bargain reissue of the game alone had sold over 158,000 copies in Japan. Final Fantasy VII is credited as "the game that sold the PlayStation," as well as allowing role-playing games to find a place in markets outside Japan. By May 2010, it had sold over 10 million copies worldwide, making it the most popular title in the series in terms of units sold. The original PC version surpassed Eidos' expectations: while initially forecast to sell 100,000 units, it quickly exceeded sales of one million units, garnering royalties of over $2 million for Square. As of December 2016, the Steam version has sold over 1.1 million copies, and total sales have exceeded 11 million copies.
The game received widespread acclaim from critics upon release. It was referred to by GameFan as "quite possibly the greatest game ever made," a quote selected for the back cover of the game's jewel case. GameSpot commented that "never before have technology, playability, and narrative combined as well as in Final Fantasy VII," expressing particular favor toward the game's graphics, audio, and story. IGN's Jay Boor insisted the game's graphics were "light years beyond anything ever seen on the PlayStation," and regarded its battle system as its strongest point. Computer and Video Games's Alex C praised the story, stating that the "many characters that come and go throughout the story are well developed, and players will feel the ups and downs of the protagonists as if it were a film," and that the "structure of the story is such that, just when you think you've seen it all, something even more awesome comes along to totally knock your socks off." Edge noted, "The ‘interactive movie’ has long been a dirty term to anyone who values a playable videogame, but FFVII succeeds in coming closer than any title yet," with the "highly complex, melodramatic story and excellently orchestrated chip music" combining "to make players feel real empathy with the characters," a "task usually shied away from by the action/comedy-orientated western graphic adventures." RPGamer praised the game's soundtrack, both in variety and sheer volume, stating that "Uematsu has done his work exceptionally well" and "is perhaps at his best here."
Reviewers also praised the PC version, but criticized its various technical faults. Computer Games Magazine said that "[no] game in recent memory" had such a "tendency to fail to work in any capacity on multiple [computers]." Computer Gaming World complained that the "music, while beautifully composed, is butchered by being dependent on your sound card," and Next Generation Magazine found the game's pre-rendered backgrounds significantly less impressive than those of the PlayStation version. However, the latter magazine found the higher-resolution battle visuals "absolutely stunning," and Computer Games Magazine said that they "[show] off the power of [a] PC equipped with a 3D card." All three magazines concluded by praising the game despite its technical flaws, and PC Gamer summarized that, while "Square apparently did only what was required to get its PlayStation game running under Windows," Final Fantasy VII is "still a winner on the PC."
Final Fantasy VII has received some negative criticism as well. Square's announcement that it would be produced for Sony rather than Nintendo and that it would not be based on the Final Fantasy SGI demo was met with discontent among some gamers. Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine (OPM) and GameSpot questioned the game's linear progression. OPM considered the game's translation "a bit muddy" and felt the summon animations were "repetitive." RPGamer cited its translation as "packed with typos and other errors which further obscure what is already a very confusing plot." GamePro also considered the Japanese-to-English translation a significant weakness in the game, and IGN regarded the ability to use only three characters at a time as "the game's only shortcoming."
Final Fantasy VII was given numerous Game of the Year awards in 1997. It won in the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences' first annual Interactive Achievement Awards in the categories "Console Adventure Game of the Year" and "Console Role Playing Game of the Year" (it was also nominated in the categories "Interactive Title of the Year", "Outstanding Achievement in Art/Graphics" and "Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Design"). In the Origins Award, it won in the category "Best Roleplaying Computer Game of 1997." It was also awarded the "Readers' Choice All Systems Game of the Year", "Readers' Choice PlayStation Game of the Year" and "Readers' Choice Role-Playing Game of the Year" by EGM, which also gave it other awards for "Hottest Video Game Babe" (for Tifa Lockheart), "Most Hyper for a Game", "Best Ending" and "Best Print Ad".
Since 1997, it has been selected by many game magazines as one of the top video games of all time, including as 91st in EGM's 2001 "100 Best Games of All Time", and as fourth in Retro Gamer's "Top 100 Games" in 2004. In 2005, it was ranked as 88th in IGN's "Top 100 Games of All Time" and as third in PALGN's "The Greatest 100 Games Ever". Final Fantasy VII was included in the "The Greatest Games of All Time" list by GameSpot in 2006, and ranked as second in Empire's 2006 "100 Greatest Games of All Time", as third in Stuff's "100 Greatest Games" in 2008 and as 15th in Game Informer's 2009 "Top 200 Games of All Time" (down five places from its previous best games of all time list). GameSpot placed it as the second most influential game ever made in 2002; in 2007, GamePro ranked it 14th on the list of the most important games of all time, and in 2009 it finished in the same place on their list of the most innovative games of all time. In 2012, Time named it one of "All-TIME 100 Video Games".
It has also appeared in numerous other greatest game lists. In 2007, Dengeki PlayStation gave it the "Best Story", "Best RPG" and "Best Overall Game" retrospective awards for games on the original PlayStation. GamePro named it the best RPG title of all time in 2008, and featured it in their 2010 article "The 30 Best PSN Games." In 2012, GamesRadar also ranked it as the sixth saddest game ever. On the other hand, GameSpy ranked it seventh on their 2003 list of the most overrated games.
Final Fantasy VII has often placed at or near the top of many reader polls of all-time best games. It was voted the "Reader's Choice Game of the Century" in an IGN poll in 2000, and placed second in the "Top 100 Favorite Games of All Time" by Japanese magazine Famitsu in 2006 (it was also voted as ninth in Famitsu's 2011 poll of most tear-inducing games of all time). Users of GameFAQs voted it the "Best Game Ever" in 2004 and in 2005, and placed it second in 2009. In 2008, readers of Dengeki magazine voted it the best game ever made, as well as the ninth most tear-inducing game of all time.
The game has inspired an unofficial version for the NES by Chinese company Shenzhen Nanjing Technology. This port features the Final Fantasy VII game scaled back to 2D, with some of the side quests removed. The game's popularity and open-ended nature also led director Kitase and scenario writer Nojima to establish a plot-related connection between Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X-2. The character Shinra from Final Fantasy X-2 proposes the concept of extracting the life energy from within the planet Spira. Nojima has stated that Shinra and his proposal are a deliberate nod to the Shinra Company, and that he envisioned the events of Final Fantasy X-2 as a prequel to those in Final Fantasy VII. The advances in technology used to create the FMV sequences and computer graphics for Final Fantasy VII allowed Sakaguchi to begin production on the first Final Fantasy film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The game introduced a particular aesthetic to the series—fantasy suffused with modern-to-advanced technology—that was explored further in Final Fantasy VIII, The Spirits Within, and Final Fantasy XV. Re-releases of Square games in Japan with bonus features would occur frequently after the release of Final Fantasy VII International. Later titles that would be re-released as international versions include Final Fantasy X and other follow ups from the franchise, as well as the Kingdom Hearts series.
Several characters from Final Fantasy VII have made cameo appearances in other Square Enix titles, most notably the fighting game Ehrgeiz and the popular Final Fantasy-Disney crossover series Kingdom Hearts. Additionally, fighting video game Dissidia Final Fantasy includes Final Fantasy VII characters such as Cloud and Sephiroth, and allows players to fight with characters from throughout the Final Fantasy series, and its follow-up, Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy, included Tifa as well. In 2015, Cloud was released as a downloadable content character for the Nintendo fighting game Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, along with a stage based on Midgar. Aerith's death in the game has often been referred as one of the most significant moments from any video game.
The world of Final Fantasy VII is explored further in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, a series of games, animated features, and short stories. The first title in the Compilation is the mobile game Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII, a prequel focusing on the Turks' activities six years before the original game. The CGI film sequel Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, set two years after the game, was the first title announced but the second to be released. Special DVD editions of the film included Last Order: Final Fantasy VII, an original video animation that recounts the destruction of Nibelheim. Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII and its mobile phone counterpart, Dirge of Cerberus Lost Episode: Final Fantasy VII, are third-person shooters set one year after Advent Children. Dirge focuses on the backstory of Vincent Valentine, whose history was left mostly untold in Final Fantasy VII. The most recent title is the PlayStation Portable game Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, an action role-playing game that centers on Zack's past. Also included in the Compilation is On the Way to a Smile, a collection of seven short stories written by Kazushige Nojima, and set between Final Fantasy VII and Advent Children.
Releases not under the Compilation label include Maiden Who Travels the Planet, which follows Aerith's journey in the Lifestream after her death, taking place concurrently with the second half of the original game. Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding is a mobile port of the snowboard minigame featured in the original game, featuring different courses for the player to tackle. The game is downloadable on V Cast-compatible mobile phones, and was first made available in 2005 in Japan and North America. Final Fantasy VII G-Bike is a mobile game released for iOS and Android in December 2014, based on the motorbike minigame featured in the original game.
With the announcement and development of the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, speculation spread that an enhanced remake of the original Final Fantasy VII would be released for the PlayStation 3. This conjecture was sparked at the 2005 E3 convention by the release of a video featuring the opening sequence of Final Fantasy VII recreated using the PlayStation 3's graphical capabilities. Throughout the lifespan of the PS3, SquareEnix stated that such a game was not in development. A high definition remake was eventually announced at E3 2015 for the PlayStation 4. The game will be more than a high definition remaster, with director Tetsuya Nomura stating that the game will have changes made to its story and combat system.