I honestly can’t say if Final Fantasy VII is as divisive as it used to be, but like I said last time back in the day you were either pro-VI or pro-VII. And I was so vehemently, fanatically pro-VI that I’m ashamed to admit that I actually refused to acknowledge VII. It was years before I actually played it, and even longer before I actually completed it. In a lot of ways, VII truly is in many ways the literal and spiritual sequel of VI, despite all the differences on the surface. Both toy with if not flat-out deconstruct Japanese RPG tropes; both make full use of their non-traditional (or more exactlynon-medieval) backgrounds; and they both push a series already known for its emphasis on plot even further.
From the very start, VII already breaks the mold. You start the game not as a member of a group like the “Light Warriors” or as a lovable rogue like Locke from VI, but as a mercenary working for a terrorist group the game explicitly tells you is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people. VII’s hero, Cloud, tends to get remembered as a brooding, mopey protagonist, but that’s not the whole story. What then looks like it’s become a straightforward story of misfits – two terrorists, a bartender, the remnant of an ancient civilization “disguised” as a flower girl in the slums, a sentient lion-like being, and (possibly) an amateur ninja/thief and a gunslinging vampire-like entity – against a powerful, sinister corporation slowly killing a planet in a short-sighted quest for greed subtly becomes something else: a tale about identity, memory, and the fight against a tragic villain and a truly incomprehensible, Lovecraftian threat. It takes Final Fantasy to the next level of storytelling the same time it took the series to the next level of technology.
Of course, even people who praise the game do admit that it started trends that would lead to the downfall of the series, leading to a real divide between the “pre-VII” and “post-VII” fans. It taught Square the wrong lessons, leading the Final Fantasy games to emphasize cinematics over art and to cling to contemporary and sci-fi aesthetics rather than experiment with worldbuilding further, and unleashed the anime and cosplay hordes upon the franchise, although arguably that invasion wasn’t really launched until VIII came along.
Still, you can’t blame VII like I childishly and stupidly did, and VII definitely isn’t responsible for one of the problems that emerge later: over-experimental and overcooked gameplay. Instead VII‘s gameplay is beautiful simplicity. The characters do lose a lot of the “gameplay individuality” the characters in VI has, but with the materia granted characters spells and abilities there is a certain degree of strategy to the character building, which doesn’t need to be learned inside or out just to do well.
So in the end I’ll have to conclude that both VI and VII are the golden age of the franchise. However, the fall did come quickly…