The first major feature of the Junon region isn’t Junon itself, but rather a place called “Fort Condor,” found in the south near your exit tunnel. Fort Condor is a mountain with a few rooms inside, and is so named because of the giant bird on top of its peak. The Condor has laid an egg and Shinra wants it, to such a degree that they launch armed assaults on the fort nearly 24/7. This creates something of a dissonance in the fiction that was a source of comedy for me and Kyle, given how Shinra seems to have enough soldiers around to try to make an omelette, but not enough to accomplish any number of other military tasks that come up across the course of the game.
The point of Fort Condor was to house a mini-game, a full-featured real-time strategy game with (unfortunately) just one map. The idea is that you use your own party’s money to buy mercenaries to defend the mountain, then deploy them as you see fit. The game is gruellingly hard if played fair, and unrelentingly slow, which made it all far more than we could take. If you’ve never played the game, you have no idea how long it takes even to deliberately lose. The rewards aren’t even worth it, which is to say, the rewards aren’t not only aren’t worth the time, effort and gil spent to win the mini-game, but they also weren’t worth the effort it takes to even get to the mini-game, as you have to keep going back to Fort Condor across the course of the game if you want every single available reward. You’re supposed to be able to pay the fort off to defend itself in your absence (something that takes far less money than actually defending it, might I add) but you get fewer rewards for doing so. Like I said, it’s not worth it.
Finally you head up the coast to Junon, which is Shinra’s second and arguably only other town, a coastal city. While you only explore the buildings on the coast at first, I do want to talk about the city’s design in general. Junon, as I said in the Crisis Core Journal, is a fortress made up of a city of layers. This was an odd decision on the part of the original FFVII. While a city made up like a layer cake is fairly unusual from an over-the-shoulder perspective like Crisis Core, from an angled top down perspective, it’s essentially just a series of straight lines, and FFVII had to position the camera from some really awkward angles just so the identical streets would looks somehow distinct from one another. I suppose I’m mentioning this here instead of in Crisis Core because every time I went to Junon in FFVII, I would think, “Wow, this place looks awful! Didn’t this place not used to look awful? Oh, wait, that was the other game.”
There, we met a girl named Priscilla and her friend, Mr. Dolphin, who, just in case I needed to clarify, is in fact a dolphin. Priscilla mistook us for Shinra troops. Geeze, what confused you? The heavy weapons or the man wearing a SOLDIER uniform? We only won her trust thanks to the timely arrival of a boss monster from the polluted waters. This was the Bottomswell, a sea serpent able to trap characters in a drowning bubble when attacked. The drowning bubble has to be attacked by your party members to break it, but is targeted in an entirely different way from Reno’s pyramid. This makes the bubble a good example of FFVII’s rocky, “developed as they went along”-approach. We’ve seen several games that seem have to be developed in a similar manner, starting incomplete and refining as the game’s story went along (FFLI and II especially), but those games were merely weird under the microscope. FFVII, meanwhile, presumably as a consequence of the brand new world of 3D gaming, is left with some really shoddy mechanical moments that are sometimes fixed later in the same game, or were simply changed outright at a later point, adding a level of confusing irregularity. Incidents like this are why the game still needs a thorough ironing to this day.
After the fight, we had to revive Priscilla with some Hollywood CPR in the form of a minigame, after which she was happy to help us get up to the upper levels of Junon by, urm, riding on Mr. Dolphin’s nose as he did high jumps. Whatever you say, FFVII. By the way, I’d be in the wrong if I talked about things in this game that need ironing and not talk about the fact that one of the Fort Condor missions springs up at the moment you start the mini-game with the world’s strongest dolphin, and is sealed off by the time you’re able to return to the world map. Which, by the way, you can’t do after you clear the dolphin minigame. That means that if you want the prize, you have to bail out mid-minigame just to grab it. Sheesh.
I got through the jumping mini-game almost entirely through luck. I’d have a few choice words about my issues about platforming in isometric games, which includes a good deal of bitterness left over from Landstalker: The Treasures of King Nole, but I’ve decided to sit on my hands and simply hope that it never comes up again. Cloud infiltrates the facility alone, because the dolphin doing three dozen jumps to get one heavy human being to the second floor is reasonable, but doing it for two other party members is just out of the question! Once inside, Cloud disguised himself as a Shinra grunt and got roped into a parade for Rufus Shinra, who had just arrived on-scene. This led to the very memorable but also frankly ludicrous situation where your attempts to march in formation somehow determined the television ratings for the parade. And let’s not even talk about the fact that a soldier marching out of step would definitely grab more ratings out of sheer comedy than someone marching in step. Thankfully (and if I may say so, rightly) the prizes for this are low-value and easily replaced. More valuable were the prizes you get from Rufus himself when presenting arms in a later scene, and Kyle repeated the task just to get the top prize. Ironically, one of these prizes is irreplaceable, a permanent HP Up item that’s found not at rank 1, but rank 2! I suppose I’d be remiss if I forgot to mention that the game forgets to tell you one of the buttons for the presentation of arms, but Kyle pulled it off by basically mashing everything.
I skipped past a bit of content in that last paragraph, but it was mostly shops and the like. Honestly, the most significant thing in this entire section besides the mini-games was a scene with the Turks at a bar, which is where you frankly see them a lot.
After seeing Rufus off (he was bound to another continent on the trail of Sephiroth), Cloud snuck on board Rufus’ cargo ship, where he discovered that the rest of the party had already gotten ahead of him, making this whole sequence memorable but completely pointless. After reuniting with everyone, we heard word of a stowaway on board. Hoping it wasn’t one of the party, we started to search the ship and found half the crew dead, killed so efficiently that, apparently, no one was able to get out a word of further warning! Yikes! Of course, the stowaway was Sephiroth, though when we encountered him he… flew away… and left behind nothing less than a strange, mutated part of Jenova called “Jenova BIRTH.” You know, I’m not sure why I’m surprised that Sephiroth could fly like Superman, considering there was no other way he could have left Shinra HQ. In any event, aside from BIRTH’s ability to use Stop, the battle wasn’t really that notable and ended quickly enough. Soon the party was off at Costa del Sol, a resort town, with everyone on the ship acting as though there hadn’t been an attack by a horrible flesh monster in the engine room moments prior. I’m not sure what to say about the editing in FFVII, but something’s screwy, that’s for sure.
Costa del Sol was full of interactions, and looking online, it seems Kyle and I somehow missed a whole whack of them, including an encounter with minor NPC Johnny from Sector 7, and a villa you can outright purchase! Maybe I was eating or something when I should have been taking notes? One of the interactions we did see involved Yuffie temporarily leaving the party to work part time and sell the party Materia. The most important interaction was probably with Hojo from Shinra, but even that could be easily summarized as an exchange of taunts, and we were swiftly back on the road on the trail of Sephiroth.
After leaving Costa del Sol, we shuffled the party, my notes reminding me that “Operation ‘Don’t Use Aeris'” was apparently still in effect! Yeah, we weren’t so fond of her, sorry to say. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that’s a function of the game’s party system? Like I said at the end of Midgar, written at the end of a previous session, the game gives up on accounting for all party members from this point out, and as a consequence, it doesn’t feel like your entire party is with you at all times, just the three in the immediate party. The forced party members from the linear opening got a lot of character development, but now that we’re in the real world, it doesn’t seem to matter who we bring with us at any given moment. Now don’t get me wrong: I feel FFIV’s way of forcing the party to shuffle around without warning was even worse than this, but I feel like FFVI did an okay job at giving everyone enough screen time? I admit it’s a hard trick to pull off, but that doesn’t make it less disappointing how I have no emotional attachment to half of our party here in FFVII, growing to 2/3rds of our party by game’s end!
Up the path from Costa del Sol was a mountain path dungeon that played home to the Corel Mako Reactor, a reactor surrounded by a whole rollercoaster worth of busted minecart tracks. The music in this area kept swapping between one mood or another, like it couldn’t make up its mind which atmosphere it wanted to go for. While the reactor made for an interesting spotlight zone, most of the dungeon took place on the minecart tracks… or under them as the case may have been. You see, the game hid items on the scaffolding of the tracks, so you had to voluntarily fall off and climb back up to find all the items! Square did something similar in the final dungeon of Mario RPG, but this is a much better implementation.
Should you have ignored the hidden items, the dungeon could have been cleared very quickly, but I want to clarify that it’s not necessarily a complaint. Not only do I understand that dungeons are shrinking because of the time-consuming process of creating unique backgrounds, I also understand the space limitations of CD format. On top of all that, I actually prefer these smaller dungeons to the maze dungeons from the 2D era. I never want to see anything like Ronka Ruins again and I welcome this shift to a tighter focus wholeheartedly! It makes for much more enjoyable gameplay on my part at the very least, though it does tend to look a little shallow in Journal format. Now that I’ve noticed the problem, I’ll see what I can do to jazz it up… probably by not calling attention to it unless I really am bored.
Oh, but before we leave the dungeon, let’s not to forget the classic “We’re the heroes” moment where we killed a mother bird for prizes that we probably never even used, leaving her children to starve. “Times are tough,” Cloud said by way of justification. Too true.
After the dungeon, we arrived in what remained of the town of Corel, a mining town that had been destroyed a few years back for reasons tied up in Barret’s past. Barret explained after the fact: the town voted to stop being a coal-mining town and to start hosting the Mako reactor we saw up the hill. A man named Dyne opposed the Mako plant on a traditionalist basis, but the rest of town went through with the plans without his support. The game makes it clear the coal had been mined for generations, which it presents as a point of pride and a counter-argument for adopting the reactor. Coal represents the Traditional Way of Life, and That is Good. Unfortunately, the coal angle made the opposite impression for me. If you’ve been mining coal here for generations, it sounds to me like you might soon run out of the stuff, which has been the death of many a real-world mining town, leading to the poverty and displacement of its unfortunate occupants! Coal isn’t eternal, which is something that an environmentalist game like FFVII should have been aware of! It seems that FFVII’s anti-modernization/urbanization narrative was more important to the developers than its environmentalism narrative, because FFVII ignores the limited fossil fuel problem entirely, even though it’s sitting like, right there, just right there!
Tragically, at some unspecified period of time after the vote, the original town of Corel was burned down by Shinra troops, supposedly because of an explosion at the plant that they blamed on terrorists. Ironically, when I first saw this I assumed the plant had melted down or otherwise exploded of its own accord, and Shinra had blamed the townspeople as a way of covering up for their own fuckup, but later evidence (and the fact that the plant is still in operation to this day) suggests otherwise! Which is strange, isn’t it? It really does seem like a stock meltdown narrative: the evils of modernization (nuclear power) and the good of traditionalism should be demonstrated by showing the evils of modernization, right? And not… what this turns out to be?
I have so many issues with this game’s moral message. The villains are cartoon characters and the evil life-sucking technology hasn’t really demonstrated the dangers of its life-sucking in more than a scant handful of ways (like the dark land around Midgar)? By the time the game finally reinforces that mako use is evil by the end of the game, it’s in response to a new bad guy, similar to the damaged environmentalist message of FFV. Remember, FFV accidentally stopped saying “Support the environment or the environment will collapse,” and started to say “Support the environment or an Evil Tree Ghost will kill you.” Despite a better head start, FFVII eventually heads down the same, grungy path! I cannot believe they made the same mistake twice! I’m getting ahead of myself, but would it be asking too much for the game to back up what it’s trying to say?
You know, it really goes to show that by the time of Advent Children and its short-story compilation tie-in, On the Way to a Smile, Barret is off looking to modernize the world, and in a way that would pollute like hell. It’s as though On the Way to a Smile and Advent Children were going in the exact opposite direction from FFVII. Either the sequels had a different set of politics and were ready to call FFVII’s shaky bluff, or they simply forgot about the environmental message in the same manner as FFVII itself! I find myself believing the world of On the Way to a Smile a lot more, too, and while that is a compliment to On the Way to a Smile, it’s also got a lot to do with FFVII being a great, disorganized mess.