header is screenshot from Final Fantasy VII Remake
Nostalgia Animated
Yussef Cole

One of the brief flashes of brilliance to show up on my timeline in the last month is a fan animated homage to Secret of Mana, the beloved Japanese RPG released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1993. The short’s creator, Benoit Tranchet, proclaims himself a “huge fan of everything about it” and employs a painstaking hand-drawn animated style to flesh out and expand a world that—while special to him and many others—has largely remained hidden behind the technological limitations of its time. The short’s gorgeous reenactment is how Tranchet today envisions the game he enjoyed three decades ago; a sharply unique vision, a novel creation in and of itself.

Animation is often used to create new images from new ideas. But it can also be used, and powerfully so, to inject new life into old ones. Because old ideas, old objects of art, aren’t dead, aren’t permanently interred in their spot in history, never to be resurfaced or recycled. They can be brought back, and there is plenty of value in doing so. It allows us to dive into our collective memories and reframe what we may have once thought settled, to reinvent and make new images from old stories, forever changing how we thought about those stories in the first place. 

Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII Remake seems designed with this task in mind. It grapples, inevitably, with the legacy of its progenitor, released all the way back in 1997, and offers plenty of examples where reframing and reinvention were applied liberally to memories long considered unshakable pillars of canon. New graphical technology allows its creators to add flesh to the same characters we’ve known and thought about for decades as low-poly blocks, and to add nuance that was impossible to convey using chunky text boxes and pre-baked cutscenes.

But there are also downsides when bringing the world of the abstract into that of the representative. With detail and nuance comes a clarity of perspective and a narrowing of interpretation. The potential is transformed into the defined, at least during the time we spend with it. And, in spite of the ways in which the Final Fantasy VII Remake enriches what came before it, its interpretations don’t always feel like reinvention as much as disappointing reification.

The original Final Fantasy VII was considered visually revolutionary in its own time. I remember being floored by television ads which showcased slickly animated full-motion video cutscenes from the game, establishing a level of artistry levels above the meager offerings that 3D animation had provided for games up to that point. Its pre-rendered art added a rich backdrop which enriched otherwise rudimentary 3D scenery. Playing it today, it's easy to see the boundaries, the flat edges of a diorama meant to evoke something more substantial. It’s difficult to look past the fingerless hands and the Duplo toy block faces, with lines and strokes standing in for lips and teeth. The game ran miles with its limited aesthetic and committed itself to the minimalism forced upon it, using bold colors and musical motifs to excellent effect, but the limitations remain a hindrance when it comes to depicting these characters with any detail or depth—depicting them purposefully rather than leaving it solely to the player to imagine how they might really look, or sound.

Remake opens a door to some of this submerged characterization, and, at its most successful, serves to deepen our already rich memories of these characters. Cloud is one example. In the original he felt closer to a sketch than a character, a collection of the sort of edgy quips you’d expect to see emblazoned on a rack of Hot Topic t-shirts. You got that he was a wannabe bad-ass with a sketchy memory who carried a big ass sword, and that was it—and that was fine! But the flavor added to Cloud’s character in Remake generates an empathy that would have been much more difficult to extend to his original incarnation, save for players who spent extra time excavating it from the game’s broader plot points. Remake puts at the forefront new nuance and detail, such as the small moments of hesitation that happen when he is required to connect with others emotionally; not knowing how to match Aeris’ easily buoyant energy in their chapter alone together, for example. We see the infantilization implicit to his character, someone who didn’t really get to grow up normally, and how that manifests as fearful glances at the other adults in his party, as if he is worried they might sus out his own shortcomings, his inability to meet them at their level. Not only do these flourishes allow us to see the world better through Cloud’s eyes, it cements him as a more plausible character, rather than a sketch of one.

Meanwhile, another character, in spite of all the texture and flavor that are layered on him by Remake, remains an utterly unflattering sketch. Barret, in the original Final Fantasy VII, was a ridiculous caricature of black masculinity: big and boisterous, dumb and angry; a simple minded brute, built from the shortsighted interpretations of racist tropes. While Remake does a good job at better fleshing out the shape of his political ideology, most of the other lazy character details of the original are only doubled down on, cast in even sharper and uglier detail. His only updates seem to be in his poorly conceived relaxed curls and the media references that compose his character. “They ain’t got nothin’ on me!” he now quips, like Denzel does in 2001’s Training Day, in addition to the ready-made Mr. T-isms that have always plagued his character. He dotes over his daughter, serving as a sexless (and therefore safe) parental figure who we are meant to assume has no chemistry with Tifa despite the many other factors that signify their relationship as a traditional family unit. He flexes and rages and seems unable to maintain his cover despite being a guerilla warrier operating through subterfuge. It’s all deeply insulting, especially when put up alongside other characters who are made more human, rather than more cartoonish, through the layers of detail Remake adds.

There is a power and a responsibility in fleshing out ancient skeletons. Especially when those skeletons are imbued with the potency of nostalgia. Nostalgia grants the work an implicit value, one that can be boosted by the deft hands of the artist bringing it back to life, or deflated by replacing ambiguity with disappointing clarity. These are the pitfalls of nostalgia, the life that is brought back is always shaped by who is doing the bringing. When Studio MDHR released Cuphead, they brought many of the demons of Fleischer era minstrelsy-inspired animation along with it. Their strict interpretation of the source material, one that tried to sidestep its problematic legacy, revealed as much by what it ignored as by what it included.

It’s important to remember, though, that flawed reimaginings like Cuphead or Remake’s Barret are only singular interpretations of historic material. They are but one avenue through which the past is brought back into the spotlight. These routes may shape how we remember the past but they don’t limit or define its potential. Meanwhile, the original Final Fantasy VII, in spite of the success of Remake, remains a self-contained memory with explicit borders which surround a unique and timeless collection of evocative imagery. It can always be picked up and run with by someone else. In twenty years, a gifted animator could transform its simple shapes into something totally different, something perhaps more relevant to the aesthetics of that future moment. That potential to transform and to shape old ideas into new images is what makes art and animation such an exciting place. It's comforting to know that for all the shortsighted and limited interpretations, there remains an endless horizon of others, without boundary or definition, full of unrealized potential.


Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer living in the Bronx, New York. He writes primarily about how video games intersect with broader cultural contexts such as class and race. His writing stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.