Words aren’t enough for Ehrgeiz.
As you may have heard, Final Fantasy 7 put Squaresoft on the map. I will argue until the day I die that Chrono Trigger was a better game, and Final Fantasy 6 was subjectively better than FF7, but that is immaterial to the fact that Final Fantasy 7 not only made an airship full of money for Squaresoft, it also dramatically increased Square’s cultural footprint. The likes of Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami were synonymous with gaming for a couple of console generations, and Enix was a hulking cyclops in its native Japan, but now Square and the Sony Playstation brand were the guys to beat. Someone at the top of Square must have noticed, because, instead of simply relying on the genre that had earned Square its (ultimately fleeting) elevated position, they decided to try a few new things.
But, you know, they still hung on to that FF7 IP. They knew what primed their potions.
In retrospect , 1998 was an interesting year for gaming. The Playstation was starting its dominance of the console market that would last for another generation to come, and Nintendo, for the first time, was stuck with a dud that seemed downright archaic next to Playstation’s wondrous world of FMVs. But even amongst the rise of “arcade graphics” on the home consoles, the arcades were still if not exactly booming, at least healthy. The fighting game fad hadn’t completely subsided yet, and while Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were gradually making their way to a permanent home on the couch consoles, the likes of Tekken and X-Men vs. Street Fighter were offering amazing experiences for anyone still willing to donate enough quarters. In a way, it was a “healthy” time for gaming, or at least one where forty bucks would net you a forty hour game, and fifty cents would nab an experience a little bit more interesting than Mappy Land. And, yes, since the arcade was still reigning supreme, “arcade games” were considered above their console brethren: you can play Tekken at home, but the real experience is at the mall.
So you can imagine my amazement when, wandering around a local arcade, I saw my old friends Cloud, Tifa, and Red XIII staring back at me.
This is, as ever, a weird thing about video games. Yes, any entertainment medium with a story worth its salt does its best to endear its characters to you, and thus make them part of your fictional, mental “family”. Arguably, this is the entire concept that currently drives Hollywood and marketing in general: you already like Harry Potter and his wizarding friends, so here’s another seven movies with those kids, and maybe a spin-off about animals or something. Like that Lord of the Rings? How about we bleed a trilogy out of that old guy with the hairy feet? You’ll watch that, right? But video games are even worse in that regard, as I’ve argued before, you so totally inhabit a character in a long-form, video game narrative that you inevitably grow more attached to your digital avatar than you would a hero you simply watch. I journeyed from Cloud’s awkward SOLDIER days in a tube in the basement to the center of the Earth itself right there with him, so you better believe I care what happens next and where he goes.
When you get right down to it, this is the (obvious) thinking behind the whole “Compilation of Final Fantasy 7” or whatever Squeenix was calling it, but back in 1998, that was still years away. I reiterate this from during my Kingdom Hearts coverage, but well before the likes of Dissidia, Theatrhythm, and other Square-Enix games that make my spellcheck spaz out, when a Final Fantasy game ended, it ended. Kefka bragged about creating a monument to nothingness, but about a half hour after he was defeated, his world was… nothing. The mere fact that Cloud had escaped a similar fate was an event all on its own, and then there was the little fact that he was, ya know, playable.
Let’s revisit Final Fantasy 6 again (hopefully for the final time in this article, but no guarantees). Sabin was likely the most “physical” party member in that game, and his most enduring animation was either flipping a train 180 degrees or quickly spinning around an enemy with sporadic epileptic flashes. The ultimate spell, Ultima, created some kind of blue dome… was that supposed to be ground erupting, or just an expanding sphere of pure magic? Who knows? And the ultimate summons was a trio of static drawings that shrunk and flashed as needed. Even when Final Fantasy 6 was at its dramatic height for graphics, you had to use a healthy amount of imagination to fill in the gaps.
In that regard, Final Fantasy 7 was an amazing upgrade. I can’t have been the only person that was shocked when Titan flipped the very ground below an enemy, or when Sephiroth summoned a meteor that incidentally destroyed half the galaxy. But even though graphical splendor was radiating Final Fantasy 7, the average playable character was still fairly limited. Everyone remembers Cloud’s Omnislash, but his earlier limit breaks were simple affairs, like a generic “sword beam” or three slashes that managed to produce kanji. And Cloud’s basic slash involved a weird, “instant” dash the didn’t even bother animating Cloud, ya know, walking/running. Yes, there’s untold grandeur in Bahamut’s multiple appearances, but the main party of FF7 (complete with randomly shifting models between FMVs, battle scenes, and maps) never really felt like they were built to actually “move” in a real environment. For all the polygons and modeling that went into Sephiroth, I never really believed he had that many more movement options than accomplished hunk of lumber Ex-Death.
Now, here was Ehrgeiz. Not only could Cloud walk, run, and jump at will, but he could battle on a 3-D plane. He could use multiple attacks (some based on Final Fantasy moves, others… not so much). He could block, fall down, and get right back up again. In short, Cloud Strife was now a “real” person… or at least as real as the cast of Tekken 3. Tekken 3, incidentally, is my ruler by which “realistic” graphics are measured exclusively because the girl I had a crush on through junior high (and high school) (and college) (and not insignificant portions of the last decade) who had absolutely no interest in video games took one look at T3’s Eddy Gordo and responded, “Wow, he’s pretty hot.” Aside from sparking a lifelong rivalry with practitioners of Caopeira, this event taught me there’s a significant difference between the “abstract” models of most JRPGs, and the more realistic (and evidently hotter) models of more kinetic games like those in the fighting genre. Cloud had belonged to the former grouping, but now was firmly entrenched in the “real” world of Ehrgeiz.
And it wasn’t just Cloud! Cloud, Tifa, and Red XIII were all palling around the arcade, and by the time Ehrgeiz hit the home consoles, Yuffie, Vincent, Sephiroth, and Zack had joined the melee. This was huge! Yuffie and Vincent were hidden characters in FF7, so their inclusion here legitimized a pair of fan favorites that previously weren’t even allowed to participate in their own ending (and the fact that you could play as a Turks version of Vinnie was just icing on the cake). Zack was practically unseen throughout FF7 (which, yes, deliberate move), but now here he was, running around and doing squats like a champ. And Sephiroth? Holy cow, Sephiroth. A… not insignificant portion of Final Fantasy 7 is dedicated to telling the player exactly how incredibly badass Legendary SOLDIER 1st Class Sephiroth happened to be, and, back in the late 90’s, we hadn’t quite come around to the nuanced reading that that’s all there to contrast with the vaguely weak and ineffective “real” Sephiroth. So this, the opportunity to play as the one and only Sephiroth, God, it’s still hard to put into words.
Never mind the fact that the majority of the FF7 cast was now simply little more than costume swaps for the real Ehrgeiz characters (Red XIII literally was a costume swap, Vincent, Yuffie, and Zack are all reused movesets), and never mind that this is a “dream match” situation, where the plot doesn’t have to make a lick of sense, and the majority of Final Fantasy imports don’t receive proper endings. This was, plain and simple, an attempt to elevate Ehrgeiz above the fighting/arcade competition, and, while I’d like to claim my peers and myself were above such naked pandering… it worked. It worked like gangbusters. I guarantee you there are more than a few copies out Ehrgeiz out there where the entire original cast was completely untouched, but the Sephiroth portion of the disc is worn into oblivion.
So, you know what? Ehrgeiz might not be part of the official Compilation of Final Fantasy 7. No, it doesn’t reveal what Cait Sith was up to in his spare time, or fill in the backstory on Tifa’s orthopedic underwear, but it might be the most important video game featuring Cloud and company, even if they never speak a word. This was the game that said, “You know what? It doesn’t make any sense, some of these characters are dead, and others are tossing around landmines for some reason, but here is a portion of the cast of Final Fantasy 7 in another video game? You want to play?”
I suppose there are words for Ehrgeiz, and those words are, “Yes, please. May I have another?”
FGC #177 Ehrgeiz
- System: Playstation (1), and arcade. I understand this game has seen some random rereleases in Japan, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see similar either before, after, or during the Final Fantasy 7 remake release window.
- Number of players: Two. You can have Cloud and Sephiroth fight, or Cloud and Zack fight, or Cloud and Tifa fight, or, I don’t know, one of those nobodies from the proper cast.
- Favorite Nobody: Most of the original Ehrgeiz cast are forgettable “Ryus”, that is to say, a bunch of random muscle dudes who want to win the tournament to be better martial artists or whatever. However, this is likely just because “Yoyo” Yoko Kishibojin hoarded all the other available tropes. She’s a high school girl/police officer/archeologist that attacks with jujutsu and a mechanical, spiked yo-yo. The only other remotely unique character is Jo, who basically holds a more “mature” version of Blanka’s backstory. Figure that one out.
- Favorite Final Fantasy 7 Character (Ehrgeiz edition): Vincent Valentine was my boy in Final Fantasy 7 and out, so, even today, he’s the first character my cursor gravitates toward. And he gets his own suit! That said, for actually playing the game, I choose Tifa, who practically already was a fighting game character anyway, so her gameplay adapts really well to the ring. You know what, if the next Dissidia doesn’t allow Tifa and FF6’s Sabin to team up, I’m getting out of the biz.
- Barrett? No Barrett.
- Dungeon Times: There’s also a rogue-like 3-D beat ‘em up in there, as would be expected of the people that brought you Tobal No. 1. It’s very rogue-like, as you’ve even got a hunger meter to worry about, but I never played this mode for more than ten minutes because you can’t play as Cloud. What’s the point? At least magic in that area is said to come from “materia”, so that’s a step in the right direction.
- Did you know? Technically, Nomura designed all the characters in this game (FF7 cast included), but the game was also directed/designed by Seiichi Ishii of Virtua Fighter/Tekken fame. Not that the early VF or Tekken characters were all that original or distinct to begin with, but it seems Ishii may have had a great influence over Nomura here, as practically every character in Ehrgeiz has a Tekken lookalike. Also, I don’t see that many zippers…
- Would I play again: This game was a Trojan horse to begin with, and the only reason I ever played it in the first place was to satisfy my desperate biological need to play as Cloud Strife just one more time. Ehrgeiz is important because it proved exactly how popular Final Fantasy 7 was/is (very), but it’s not all that great of a game, particularly compared to its Playstation fighter buddies (and their descendants). It’s not terrible, but, aside from a strangely adult Yuffie, there isn’t much to see here.
What’s next? Anybody else remember how the Compilation of Final Fantasy 7 kicked off? I do! So grab some popcorn and get ready to re-experience the most expensive cell phone advertisement ever!