Ian R. Larson is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine in the Informatics department. His research focuses on exploring alternative histories of play through analysis of devices, games, and communities that fall at the cultural and geographical gaming peripheries.
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The game starts with a familiar scene: Cloud Strife, our blonde spiky-haired protagonist, exiting a train and being confronted by soldiers on route to blowing up a reactor owned by the evil Shinra corporation. However, unlike how the scene played out in the acclaimed 1997 Playstation title that featured groundbreaking 3D polygonal graphics, this representation of Cloud is entirely in 8-bit two-dimensional graphics. More visually reminiscent of the original Final Fantasy (Squaresoft, 1987) than its 3D iterations, Final Fantasy VII (Shenzhen Nanjing Technology, 2005)—herein referred to as Final Fantasy VII Demake—is an independently developed 2D demake of the 1997 Playstation title released for the Subor line of bootleg Famicom hardware. Developed by Shenzhen Nanjing Technology and later translated and reworked by the romhacking community, the game is a strange confluence of pirate development and fan activity that has been largely ignored and deemed illegitimate by the gaming community. With the release of Square-Enix’s own reimaging, Final Fantasy VII Remake (Square-Enix, 2020), it is worth looking back on this first re-creation to glean what lessons can be learned in the act of remaking a transnational game with steep fan investment. This article troubles the usage of legitimacy as an indicator of gaming realness by interrogating how it is applied to official and non-official releases using the concepts of glocalization and dubbing. Notions of legitimacy are often called upon within the Western gaming community to deny games that fall outside of the traditional video game industry their meaningful contribution to global franchises. In the case of unlicensed games and romhacks like Final Fantasy VII Demake, this denial devalues the productive forces of fans and independent laborers that went into their creation. To expand the definition of what labor is considered legitimate, I call for a more nuanced understanding of fan and pirate productions as hybrids of the modern glocalized gaming medium; one that factors in class, location, and access as defining markers of regional gaming identity.
Avalanche: Pirate Development
The process of demaking a game refers to the act of remaking an established title for a more technically limited platform. Notable demakes such as Ed Fries’ recreation of Halo: Combat Evolved (Bungie, 2001) for the Atari 2600 entitled Halo 2600 (2010) or Dan Fornace’s Super Smash Land (2011), a reimagining of Super Smash Bros (Nintendo, 1999) as a Gameboy game, are often designed to show how technical limitations precede creativity and imagine what modern titles might have been like in former gaming generations (Pearson, 2011). Demaking is unique among fan development practices in its focus on games for platforms that never received the official product either because of hardware limitations, platform retirement, or lack of intellectual property rights. Final Fantasy VII Demake exemplifies all three cases: it was released several years after the official retirement of the Nintendo Famicom—which was never officially released in China—and lacks any licensing rights from Square-Enix—who never officially brought the original to the country.
Information about Shenzhen Nanjing Technology, the developer of Final Fantasy VII Demake, is scarce, but the Chinese company has earned notoriety among the gaming community for developing more than 100 unlicensed games, including demakes of popular titles such as The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Nintendo, 2004). Why they focus primarily on demakes is unknown, but it’s likely the company produces them to market popular Western and Japanese titles on platforms that are more readily available and accessible to the Chinese audience. Because of a government ban on foreign gaming devices and a general anxiety about the merits of gaming, the Chinese console market has primarily centered on gray market games and devices (Liao, 2016). Accordingly, Final Fantasy VII Demake was developed for the Subor line of game consoles, unlicensed hardware clones of Nintendo’s Famicom console (Jou, 2013). Unique game development for pirate consoles is not out of the ordinary, as numerous countries have histories in which regional bootleg consoles were popular enough to warrant localized and unique titles by local developers.
Due to Shenzhen’s peripheral place in the industry and their unsanctioned use of intellectual property, the company is commonly disregarded as a pirate developer and their work seen as illegitimate. In Gaming the Iron Curtain (2018) Švelch critically challenges game scholars to consider creative transformations and regional imitations as important cultural benchmarks for establishing emergent game industry regions that fall outside the dominant gaming industry. Further dissecting how gaming piracy and regional imitations have contributed to the trajectory of the medium is an essential task in understanding the medium’s current ubiquity. Under this lens, Final Fantasy VII Demake is not a cheap imitation pirate product but a meaningful localization effort that extends to the global game community. As the globalized gaming market expands to new areas, where histories of access and copyright traditions vary substantially, it is worth considering gaming piracy as a response to contextual limitations and barriers rather than a wholly illicit act.
Midgar in Two Dimensions
Given the notoriety of the original, a ROM of the demake circulated the internet widely. Although many gamers commended it for its attempt to recreate a then modern title on an earlier platform, the game was often jeered for its poor resemblance to the original and its status as an unlicensed pirated product. Numerous Let’s Plays, forum posts, and articles labeled the game as a bootleg, a moniker typically associated with poor quality games that use intellectual property without the consent of the original developers. Consalvo and Paul (2019) contend that developer, platform, and ties to existing properties are markers used by the gaming community to imbue a game with legitimacy, i.e., gaming realness. They put forth that when a game does not match the gaming community’s standardized definition of realness it is seen as illegitimate and lesser, such as when labeled as a bootleg and left unacknowledged in discussions of the franchise. As we will see, however, Final Fantasy VII Demake has many of the markers of a real game.
Anyone who has played a Final Fantasy game will recognize the ties to the long-running series upon first viewing the Shenzhen demake. The overhead point of view that transitions into horizontal battles, where the screen is then segmented between heroes, enemies, and battle menus has become iconic among Japanese role-playing games. The Shenzhen demake also utilizes many hallmarks of the original game, such as the usage of a simplified version of the Materia magic system, an abridged version of the original 40+ hour story, and a segmented map filled with discoverable items.
Although commendable, the 2005 demake does not fully represent a lot of what fans of the original would expect from a title bearing the Final Fantasy VII name. While the game follows the same story beats of the Playstation title, the visual aesthetic of the game heavily departs from the original and features many confusing or poorly designed assets. Fans may recognize the protagonist Cloud Strife, but other party members are less recognizable or completely absent. Acknowledging the demake suffered these consistency issues, romhacker Lugia2009 released a patch in 2013 that reworked significant elements to more closely resemble the original (Sorlie, 2013). This fan’s revered four-year project changes a number of things, including redesigning sprites, reworking map layouts to be less confusing, altering music to be 8-bit approximations of the original’s tunes, and adding cutscenes. The modder even added themself into the title, forever immortalizing their avatar in the world of Final Fantasy. Even while being heralded by the fan community, the labor of Lugia2009, like that of Shenzhen, is unlikely to be considered a legitimate contribution to Final Fantasy VII’s cultural importance because it is not an official product.
Despite lacking sanction from Square-Enix, Shenzhen Nanjing Technology’s and Lugia2009’s work emulate much of what is loved and considered essential to Final Fantasy VII and the JRPG genre. Both modder and bootlegger have created unique experiences that extend the world and characters to new audiences, yet, their labor is undervalued as their product lacks gaming realness. If realness is defined by a game’s connection to well-known titles and developers, then Final Fantasy VII Demake’s realness is marked by its connection to a prolific, yet disparaged, development team and its celebration of the Final Fantasy franchise alongside the original Playstation game. To echo Paul and Consalvo, breaking down hierarchical definitions of gaming realness invites the experiences and perspectives of communities that may otherwise be relegated to the gaming margins.
What You Remember, That is the Illusion
Questions of legitimacy pervade the discussion on fan and pirate creations, yet the same questions are rarely applied to the “legitimate” games industry. But, what constitutes legitimacy in titles that span numerous decades? The 1997 English version of Final Fantasy VII has such a notorious reputation for its sloppy localized script, including memorable lines as “this guy are sick”, that multiple fan efforts to re-translate and discover what was lost in between varying versions exist (Rogers, 2017; Yin-Poole, 2015). The 1998 PC conversion had to have 80% of its code rewritten and suffered numerous technical difficulties that impacted its graphics and sound quality. Even Japan received an updated version with features and optional bosses added in from international versions, thus making the original Japanese release incomplete. More recent ports, which largely build off of the PC conversion, include abilities and speed-up mechanics not found in any of the 90s releases (Lifestream, n.d). With all of these various copies bearing different add-ons and technical changes, adherence to the code of the original does not define legitimacy.
Even the initial 1997 Japanese release of Final Fantasy VII proved muddled with modifications. Multinational game releases like Final Fantasy VII are representative of gaming glocalization, whereby developers design a game with multiple regions’ interests and cultures in mind (Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter, 2009). Using Tom Boellstorff’s (2003) concept of dubbing, Consalvo (2016) argues that the process whereby multinational game companies localize and convert video games to numerous audiences concurrently with any “official release” clouds reasons to claim a definitive release. This mindset brings into question the existence of a true legitimate original, “showing that it too is a dub, that its traditions are the product of social contexts with their own assumptions and inequalities” (p. 103). Consalvo instead argues for a reconceptualization that posits transnational products like video games as cultural hybrids.
With such wide variations persisting in the “official” release, disregarding Final Fantasy VII Demake on the notion of legitimacy only serves to devalue the extensive productive forces that went into it, both on the part of Shenzhen and Lugia2009. Even in the case of Shenzhen, who presumably received financial compensation for their work, they did so as actors who encompass more than just localizers or romhackers; they served as cultural brokers, translating and converting the game for new audiences with unique desires and needs. Romhackers like Lugia2009 contribute to this process too, by offering their labor up for little in return. According to Consalvo (2015), the work of cultural brokers should not be devalued, for they have created unique artifacts that “artfully arrange these various notes and voices, letting each have some expression to work together in creating fascinating hybrids” (p. 148).
The term hybrid is apt for Final Fantasy VII Demake. While the game borrows its story and world from the original, it becomes reborn in local character and limitations. It’s the convergence of the increasingly globalized nature of the video game industry and the expectations and contributions of the wider video game fan community. It’s no less a product of pirates as it is of fans, a game that brings together the labor of multiple sources in celebration of a title that has had a global impact. In the act of demaking, the larger gaming community contributes to the growing network of games and services offered by the gaming market. Doing so blurs the line between consumer and developer by adding in new voices outside of the realm of the traditional video game industry. This new form of hybridization of game development extends beyond corporate culture and asks us to dismantle preconceived notions of who is included in the game design and what is legitimate play. Not only will adopting this lens of hybridization allow us to welcome experiences and communities at the gaming margins, but it may enable us to relive our gaming pasts in new and different ways.
The Classic Returns
In 2015, after years of speculation, Square-Enix finally revealed their plans to remake Final Fantasy VII for modern consoles. With the project’s first part released in 2020, Final Fantasy VII Remake builds upon the original 1997 game by expanding upon characters and scenarios and revamping the battle system to be more active. The remake’s hype was in large part due to concerted efforts by Square-Enix to expand the game’s characters and world into new mediums and franchises, such as Kingdom Hearts (Square-Enix, 2002) and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate (Nintendo, 2018). For better or worse, and perhaps reluctantly for Square-Enix, Final Fantasy VII Demake has undoubtedly contributed to this game’s global presence. It’s reasonable to imagine that some gamers first experienced the world of Final Fantasy through the demake yet, players who first encountered Cloud and company this way are likely to see their experience deemed illegitimate even when there is plenty the remake can learn from the demake. The story of Final Fantasy VII Demake exemplifies the tenacity of cultural products to emerge in areas not initially intended. It highlights the dedication and emotional ties fans have attached to a particular game and how this attachment leads them to spend years of their life contributing to passion projects that offer the experience of playing the game in new ways. It reveals how an iconic game’s world and characters can continue to live outside the developers’ hands, well beyond the game’s release.
As a project that reimagines the experience of the original in a new and exciting way, Final Fantasy VII Remake is also a hybrid asking to navigate players’ assumptions and establish an understanding of what Final Fantasy VII is. The legitimacy this modern hybrid brings is no more and no less than that of the demake. It, too, will have its naysayers and critical comparisons to the original. While it’s unlikely the remake will ever earn the designation of “bootleg”, it too has to work for its legitimacy in the eyes of fans.
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