Final Fantasy VII NES Demake
Image: Nintendo Life

You’re probably aware of Square Enix’s lengthy and somewhat lavish efforts to remake the 1997 game Final Fantasy VII. The second instalment of this ambitious remake, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, was released just recently, and we’re still likely to be years away from any sort of conclusion. But you might not be aware of an earlier attempt to remake Final Fantasy VII – or more specifically, to demake it.

In 2005, a company called Shenzhen Nanjing Technology released a 2D version of Final Fantasy VII for the Subor line of bootleg Famicom consoles (AKA Famiclones). Although necessarily cut down to fit within the capabilities of 8-bit technology, this demake nevertheless managed to pack in most of the plot points from the 32-bit PlayStation game, and it was just one of many ambitious demakes from the time.

“A lot of bootleg developers were taking popular games in the West and then making Famicom versions of them, because the Famiclones were more prevalent in China,” explains Ian Larson, a graduate student instructor at the University of California Irvine, who has just completed a PhD on bootleg consoles and their cultural impact around the world.

Famiclones and other bootleg consoles were rife in China at the time, and are still being produced in great numbers today. The country’s lax intellectual property laws aided their proliferation, and the high tariffs attached to importing electronic goods meant it was costly or even impossible to access legitimate machines. In fact, the Chinese government banned the import and sale of consoles in 2000, a ban that was only lifted in 2013.

A few consoles escaped the ban: for example, Nintendo created the Chinese subsidiary company iQue to release the iQue Player in 2003, a version of the Nintendo 64 where the console and controller were combined into one unit. But it sold poorly, no doubt partly because it was far more expensive than the incredibly cheap bootleg consoles that were widely available through the black market. Indeed, by the end of the 1990s, manufacturers had squeezed all of the functions of a Famicom onto a single chip, making Famiclones even easier and cheaper to produce. “Once the NES-on-a-chip came on the scene,” says Larson, “all you really needed was a case.”

The Subor line of Famiclones produced by Xiaobawang Company were some of the most popular, although many of them were rebranded as educational devices to appease wary parents and the staunchly anti-video-game Chinese government. Hence we have models like the SB-486D, known as the ‘Chinese English Learning Machine’, which comes with a keyboard. But there was still huge demand for games, and Chinese gamers were no doubt aware of big releases from Japan and the US, like Final Fantasy VII. “There's an audience that wants to at least experience them in some way,” says Larson, and a Famiclone demake “is an interesting way to do it.”

Shenzhen Nanjing Technology produced a number of Famiclone demakes of popular titles. “They did a version of Pokémon Yellow on the NES,” says Larson, which was essentially a colour version of the Game Boy original. “They also did a Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap demake on the NES, which has the same areas, but it's actually a turn-based RPG.”

However, one of the company’s most popular and infamous releases was Final Fantasy VII, which appears to be a reworked version of the early Final Fantasy NES games, where the story and characters have been changed to match the plot of Final Fantasy VII. “It is maybe somewhat ROM hacking, but there's additional labour that's being put in that I would say goes beyond a ROM hack.”

Larson has played some of the original, Chinese language-only version of the Final Fantasy VII demake from 2005, but he has also played through the entirety of a patched version from 2013 that was created over four years by members of the community, led by a programmer called Lugia2009. This version was based on an earlier 2008 English translation of the original Chinese game, but it fixes many of the gameplay issues, and updates the graphics to more closely resemble the PlayStation game, as well as adding in things like more music tracks and optional bosses.

“It's a very interesting game,” says Larson. “It's notoriously difficult – there are random spikes of difficulty. But if you push through it, it's an interesting little game that represents how fans see Final Fantasy VII.” Despite balancing issues and technical problems, he thinks that if it had been released officially on the NES, it would have been seen in a positive light. “It’s a faithful recreation of the game, just in 2D,” he says. “Lugia2009 did some really interesting stuff converting the iconic look of Midgar or the Golden Saucer into 2D."

Not everything from the 1997 PlayStation version of Final Fantasy VII made it in, which is to be expected given the constraints of the Famicom technology. The game essentially misses out most of the content from discs 2 and 3, instead skipping from the end of disc 1 to the final confrontation with Sephiroth, and the elaborate cut scenes have been replaced with sprite animations or simple text. But Larson was nevertheless surprised by how many of the side quests and subplots were included, such as the segment with RedXIII and his father, and the storyline where Barret confronts his former best friend Dyne, "which is not a thing that I would have necessarily thought that they would put in, but good on them for putting it in there.”

We should be celebrating people coming to games rather than denying their experiences as being the 'incorrect' path.

Although necessarily cut down, Larson argues that this Famicom demake warrants attention. “It feels like a different version of Final Fantasy VII that can only be experienced in that form,” he says, something that should be considered as another take on a game that has already been reworked several times, including for mobile phones. Indeed, he has written an essay arguing that bootleg games such as these should be regarded as legitimate in their own right.

“The demake is another artist’s interpretation of that game, in the same way that the 2020 remake is an interpretation of the original,” he says. “In that article, I argue for the legitimacy of these as more than just pirate versions. I argue that it adds texture to the history of Final Fantasy VII, and we can question whether or not the version that we received in the English-speaking world was even the original version of Final Fantasy VII. So why do we deny this other version that is an interpretation? As Foucault would say, it's never great to look for the origins of things. Once you start holding the origin up as a thing that is important to us, you lose the value of anything that comes after it.”

One thing that the Final Fantasy VII demake brings home is that the history of video games is wildly different across different countries. It’s something I highlight in my book, Curious Video Game Machines: gamers in Korea, for example, are more likely to have played on the Daewoo Zemmix than the Super Nintendo, and Polish players of a certain age will have fond memories of the Pegasus. And Famiclones like this were still being widely played in many countries well into the 21st century, often because ‘official’ consoles like the PlayStation 2 or GameCube were either too expensive for the majority of the population or simply weren’t distributed in some regions.

“Some markets are just a few generations behind because of that lack of support, and because of the distribution networks that they get,” says Larson. “But I don't think that makes them any less meaningful, or makes those experiences of coming to games any less legitimate. We should be celebrating people coming to games rather than denying their experiences as being the 'incorrect' path. As long as they’re playing, I think that's good.”