Remaking Final Fantasy VII in HD may be the most common sense decision that a gaming company has ever ignored. A revolutionary title in its day that has dug a comfortably nostalgic place in most gamers’ hearts, the relatively cheap process it would take to polish up the texture work and put Uematsu’s score to a symphony seems like a no brainer. Hell, they’ve pretty much done it already through the years, with touring Final Fantasy concerts and a series of game spinoffs that sold far more than they deserved. But if there is one thing those in the internet trenches love to do more than bemoan the lack of a Final Fantasy VII re-release, it’s theorizing why it hasn’t happened yet.
While I can’t pretend to have the answer, I stumbled along a factor that could be contributing to Square Enix’s reticence. In a story filled to the brim with corporate overreach, grandiose environmental messages, and clones, we take a bit of a detour in the first act to dress the game’s spiky yellow haired male lead Cloud as a woman to try and seduce information out of a gangster. It’s played off with a lot of sitcom-esque humor, but this mission takes a few turns that could be problematic if bumped to HD.
We first enter the Wall Market with our recently acquired tagalong Aeris, hunting for Cloud’s childhood friend Tifa. The market is a red light district-dominated outcropping of shops in the slums of one of the sectors of the industrial city of Midgar, lorded over by “legitimate businessman” Don Corneo. Listening around the marketplace informs the group that Tifa has entered into Corneo’s private estate as a potential “bride.” Word has it Corneo is retiring from the “legitimate business” routine and looking to settle down with the choicest chick he can find.
Given the danger that even a badass like Tifa could get into when alone with a (presumably perverse) mob boss, Cloud and Aeris decide to head into to Corneo’s mansion themselves. Turned away at the front gate due to Don’s “no dicks” policy, Aeris proposes that – if he wants to accompany her – Cloud needs to Mrs. Doubtfire his way inside. Needing only a few dialogue screens to be persuaded, a new mission is underway to doll Cloud up enough to pass as female.
I’d make a pun about the androgyny of Final Fantasy male characters, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not a mistake that many of the RPG franchise’s heroes can be characterized as bishonen, a Japanese term for young male characters with a beauty aesthetic that is traditionally interpreted as feminine. It’s a frequent archetype in Japanese pop culture; a subversion of the idea of masculinity by having traditionally masculine traits like athleticism embodied in very, for lack of a better term, girlish boys. But while both the original audience and those that played the game since may be familiar with the bishonen trope, the Wall Market missions take it to a level that the mainstream gamer crowd (at least as perceived by business heads) may not be comfortable with.
The first mission plays out as a five-part fetch quest, trading various items with NPCs to acquire some accessories and clothing. A dress, wig, cologne, tiara, and underwear/makeup fill out the checklist, their varying quality determining just how successful Cloud’s drag ultimately is. Informing a dress maker of your plan inspires him to make you the gown, entering a squat competition gets you the wig, giving an ill woman some meds gets you cologne, and scoping out the vending machine of a local inn for a guy banned from the premises gets you a tiara. But it’s what you have to do to get the underwear that takes the humorous undertone of this mission to another level.
You see, the Wall Market also houses a bathhouse/brothel/hostess club thing known as Honeybee Manor. This is where Corneo has been getting his pool of potential brides, and where the lingerie Cloud could use to complete his disguise is. Getting a membership card from an NPC and leaving Aeris to a crowd of slobbering men out front, Cloud has his pick of a couple rooms inside. Before choosing, players can peek into several other rooms for a few more jokes. Oddly enough, Cloud does this in full view of one of the employees, so we can assume it’s not a rare occurrence.
After learning the President of the Shinra Electric Power Company is a fan of naughty roleplay, Cloud can choose to enter the “Group Room” or the “&$#% Room.” Being gamers of class, most are likely to go for the room with the censored name. Inside you will find a hallucinatory version of Cloud that spouts vague phrases and sends Cloud fainting. Waking up and talking to the attendant will net you a “lingerie” item, and you off to Corneo’s mansion. But the group room, that’s where Cloud takes a sauna with eight muscle daddies.
Selecting the room will activate a few questions from the Honeybee Manor attendant about feeling lonely. Answering them will eventually flood the room with mustachioed, polygonal beefcakes –clad in either boxer shorts or wrestling singlets – urging you to relax and “spend some time with them.” Led by the very friendly Mukki (who’s dialog is regularly interrupted by pants) the men undress Cloud, commenting on something they discover underneath with a “Wow, would you look at that!” We are then heaved into the bath tub to wash off our dirty, dirty protagonist.
In the crowded bathtub, Mukki will ask Cloud (or “bubby”, as he has been calling him) if he’s feeling good. If the player has Cloud say that’s a bit too stuffy for his taste – the option listed as the rather suggestive “It hurts” – Mukki suggests counting to ten. The beefcake asks Cloud’s age as he counts down, floating the idea of joining his “Young bubby’s club.” According to Mukki, they have camping trips in the country. If that’s not direct enough, when Cloud finishes up and tells the group he’s getting out, Mukki whines that “Daddy’s so lonely.” With no other options, the muscle daddy takes his leave of Cloud, leaving a parting gift of a “bikini briefs” item.
Taken as a whole, the mission plays out mostly for cheap laughs. Male NPCs of the same character model-size as the machine-gun arm badass Barrett are shown are shown fighting over a wig of their dominant female boss, and the formerly unenthused dress maker only begrudgingly makes a dress for Aeris after returning to work to make Cloud pretty. But after the dress is donned, rescuing Tifa takes on a bit more subtext.
It should be noted first and foremost that Cloud takes to the idea of this disguising like a champ, definitely putting an effort into playing the part. Sharp-eyed viewers will note that the character’s idle stance changes when he adopts the disguise. In his normal vigilante/ex-PMC wear, Cloud’s arms remain fixed at their sides, a rather neutral pose. Once gussied up, however, Cloud’s hands are crossed in front of him, in what could be attributed to a bit of gender acting. The more submissive posture is Cloud’s way of adding to disguise, mimicking what he believes to be a very feminine stance to complete his new look.
Depending on the quality of the items received in the previous mission, Cloud can either be a gorgeous geisha vision, an average girl next door, or an outright dog, and the NPC commentary will let players know exactly where they stand. Finding Tifa in a dungeon room in the mansion (complete with medieval rack and a threatening line of weapons on the wall), the three line up in front of Don Corneo as his options for the night. Cloud, Tifa or Aeris can be selected by the horny mob boss, with the other two tossed unceremoniously to his lackeys. If Cloud is not selected, he is hit on by the underlings until he removes his disguise and initiates a combat sequence. However, if the disguised Cloud is selected by the Don, we are lead to the bed chamber. The room can be searched for a “hyper” item behind the bed, as Corneo creepily follows Cloud’s movements from a crouched position atop the mattress.
Players can act the part of potential mob wife one final time, flirting with the Don to stall for time until the others arrive. However you play it, the other two show up and help you outnumber the crimelord. After repeated threats of castration, Corneo reveals that the Shinra Company is set to wreck the slums of Sector 7 to flush out the eco-terrorist group AVALANCHE, to which many in Final Fantasy VII’s main character party have ties to. Don then pulls a Bond Villain and activates a trap door to the sewer, sending all three down to the stinking depths.
So, imagine all of that in shiny 1080p: gender play, a muscle daddy sauna orgy of insinuation, a lustful mob boss with an S&M dungeon. Even played for laughs, there is only so much of that you can keep in the upgrade to CG Movie quality while still keeping that T for Teen rating. And even then, selling that to today’s 11-18 year old demographic, not to mention a news media that turned even the hesitant sex of the first Mass Effect into a sensationalist jerk job, is not an easy task. Other markets could make it work, sure. But cutting out the States on such a big project with Square’s core franchise is never a solid marketing decision.
Even when it plays out in such a non-explicit (and optional) way as the missions in the Honeybee Manor and Corneo’s Mansion, the possibility of discussing gay sex has never sat well with releases that need to play in as broad a market as can be made available. More importantly, it clashes with the built of star text Cloud has built up over the years. In the same way that Metroid’s Samus has developed a strong, independent persona outside of any actual narrative canon, Cloud has become an icon of brooding, attractive angst. A powerful swordsman who can effectively woo two supporting females, he’s like Twilight Archie, only with character development and emotional range.
To place him in such homoerotic situations is not out of the ordinary for a bishonen character. Hell, there are whole manga and anime genres devoted to the very idea. It’s a shame it has to be explored through a position of sexual victimhood, but that’s a topic for another day. Cloud’s particular brand of bishonen-ness is more of the silent, tortured guy than any other romantic archetype, and subsequent versions of the character have really dialed up these traits. The additions of voice acting and higher quality animation have emphasized how gorgeously melancholy he can, rather how adorably awkward he could be when tempted by the gays. Directly translating Final Fantasy VII into HD could mean reminding people – or introducing those that never played it the first time – a side of the character that jars with the history that has built up in the intervening years. But if there is anything we’ve learned about gamers, it’s that they are open to new ideas taken with beloved characters. Right?
Again, I’m not saying the Wall Market missions are the only reason Final Fantasy VII has not be remade in HD. But I am 100% sure that it was underlined on a white board somewhere during a business meeting. Facets of the American market have definitely become more reactionary since the internet and market proliferation of the late 90s. Perhaps more significantly, Cloud has grown into a character whose past adventures in gender bending may not be appreciated by his new audience within his current context. It’s not enough to derail a complete production, but Mukki’s “Young Bubby’s Club” may have been a factor in making sure one never started.