Monday, November 12, 2012

Playing it Through: Final Fantasy VII

I was debating what to play the other day after taking a trip through Simon's Quest and then Luigi's Mansion (gearing up for Halloween next month...).  Aimee and I are playing Donkey Kong Country Returns, so that was satisfying my platforming itch, and I was looking for something RPG-ish, but I didn't want to start a whole new thing.  That's when I got another itch, a non-platformy itch that comes around every year or so, an itch that calls me to play through what might be the single greatest story-driven (Japanese-style, if you like) RPG ever, Final Fantasy VII.  When a game is as great as FFVII, it calls to you to play it.  It calls to you to come to the planet's defense against the evil of Shinra one more time.  And you have to answer.

And I have.

I started playing FFVII yesterday afternoon (after I got my chores done, of course), and the rest of my day was a loss.  10 hours later I'm standing outside of Junon Harbor.  There is a reason why FFVII is heralded as one of the greatest games of all time:  it's just fun to play, no matter how many times you run through it.  There is a charm here that doesn't get old.  Sure there are parts that I like less than others (the parade in Junon comes to mind...), but even those don't seem so bad when you are wrapped up in the game's engaging story.  And FFVII brings story to the table in spades.  Even for those like myself who have played through this dozens of times before, it is difficult to not get engaged in the characters and the mystery of the Ancients, and Sephiroth and Aeris, and the plight of the planet.  There are enough twists and turns in the story to make it fun to watch even when you know how it comes out (like watching Babylon 5 over again).
As great as the story is, what makes FFVII compelling for me, time after time, is the game play.  Really tight turn based battles, great combat aspects like Summon magic and Limit Breaks, and a character customization system that is both simple and yet deep make playing the game a fun experience every time.  I love the Materia system and the fact that your magic grows and even multiplies the more you use it.  Equipping the materia to different weapons and armor and choosing weapons and armor based not solely on their power, but on the number of materia slots and the growth rate lends a unique and interesting dynamic to an RPG mainstay.

I had an absolute blast yesterday crawling around Midgar, dressing like a girl to meet Don Corneo (Aeris got picked though, I think I had the wrong dress, so no "poik-poik-squish" this time...), speeding down the freeway whacking Shinra bikers with a stick, and falling through a church roof to meet an ill-fated young flower girl.  Even when you know what you are doing and moving at a good pace, it takes about 7 hours to get out of Midgar and on to the world map. Midgar is such a cool place, though, and so smartly designed it's no loss to spend time there.  But for me the game really opens up when you get to the world map.  There are chocobos to catch and ride (still not my favorite part of the game, but fun), Midgar Zoloms to run screaming from, and a cute little Ninja you can't turn your back on.  It's like leaving your hometown for the first time and realizing that the interstate goes to many other amazing places.
After fleeing Midgar, I grinded levels for a bit (something that in this game like few others, is actually fun) and then went Chocobo hunting.  No amount of grinding at this time will prepare me for the horror of the Zolom and his vicious Beta attack.  One of the best things you can do this early in the game is pick up the Matra Magic Enemy Skill from one of the machines that wander around Midgar's immediate area.  Easily the most powerful abilities you can possess at this point in the game, it makes the bands of little tree monsters and those horrible flying purple birds much easier to combat.

After picking up the Chocobo (always throw the greens FIRST) I dashed across the Zolom marsh, with that horrible shadow giving me much chase, and into the Mythril Mine.  I forgot how short that mine is, so after the encounter with the Turks, I hung out for a bit and grinded a few more levels.  The Mythril Mine is home to the always important Long Range materia.
Sephiroth takes the honey badger approach to the Midgar Zolom

Back outside, I went ahead and cleared the Fort Condor strategy game.  This is a fun and surprising little side game that completely baffled me years ago when I played it for the first time.  What is this strategy game doing in my RPG?  Confusing yes, but FFVII is full of asides like this, so not uncharacteristic.  That said, being a pro, I easily defeated the Shinra attackers and won the day.  The best part of Fort Condor is the free room and board!  Now if only they'd let me have that Phoenix materia....

Leaving Condor, I did what you really must do next: get Yuffie.  Her super cool limit breaks and plucky spirit make it really hard to play through this adventure without her.  Plus, you can grind a few levels waiting for her to show up.  I cannot tell you how many times I screwed up catching her the first several times I played this game.  That save point is so alluring.  But you cannot take your eyes off Yuffie, and you have to play equal parts hard to get and stroke her ego in order for her to join, but once she's in, she's in (well, until later...).
So that's where I am now.  My current party consists of Cloud, Red XIII (I give him his real name: Nanaki) and Yuffie.  I almost never play with Barret because I get my fill of him in Midgar and I don't really care for his limit breaks or combat skills.  I love Tifa and almost always play with her which means that Red or Yuffie get sidelined.  So this time I'm taking those two on the adventure!  I don't play with Aeris much anymore because I can't take the heartbreak.

And with that we're off to Junon!  I'll keep updating with commentary and other tidbits from the adventure as we go along!  Please join me as I play through and feel free to toss out your own comments in the Comments section!

Follow the rest of my adventure after the JUMP!

UPDATE!  9.27.12

Guess who forgot to talk to the chocobo in the pen at the farm and get the Choco/Mog Summon.  Yep, me.  And I already crossed the Zolom marsh as well.  At level 21 my party is not ready for the Zolom.  I know this because I tried to take him on 6 times and got very close, but also very dead.  The only virtue of the Zolom is that he usually knocks one person out of battle before he goes Beta on your ass, so even when you are wiped out, the knocked out party member can resurrect the remaining characters.  The bad news is that you cannot learn Enemy Skill Beta this way.
That didn't stop me from getting my Summon, though. Oh no.  There is a way to sneak across the marsh without fighting the Zolom.  First you have to switch from top down perspective to the angled view.  Then locate the Zolom's shadow.  Keep an eye on it while you search for the closest point of field across the marsh; it should be straight across from the cave entrance and look like a jagged triangle of grass.  Wait for the Zolom to bound off toward the upper right hand part of the screen, make sure he is heading away from you, then MAKE A RUN FOR IT LIKE ALL HELL.  You can make it across, I did, and it is a real rush!

With Choco/Mog in hand, I returned to Junon and faced the damn parade.  It always feels like this part of the game takes several hours, when it can be done in about 30 mins, but I think that is because I really hate the timing games.  I completely hosed the marching parade and got a grenade for my efforts.  It is really hard to get in line in time and keep the march going.  But I did pretty well in the ceremony itself and netted the HP Plus Materia.  Not perfect, but I'll take it and whats more, it gets me on the boat.
Ah, the boat to Costa Del Sol, while it may not be the most memorable part of the game, there is that awesome fight with Jenova and Red XIII in his soldier uniform to keep the trip from being a complete loss.

I always think that Costa Del Sol is bigger than it really is and has more to do (other than buy an overpriced vacation home), but really all you have to do is talk to Hojo at the beach, regroup and set out for Mt. Corel, which happens to be one of my favorite areas of the game.  The Corel reactor is a really well designed level and the roller coaster like railroad setting is one of the game's best.  I just got to the save point on the tracks and got exploded by some of those bomb guys, so I am poised for some really great adventure next time around...
All photos hastily taken with my iPhone, can ya tell?

UPDATE! 9.30.12!
It's 10 Phoenix Downs, you can live without it.

I always forget how short the initial stay at Mt. Corel really is.  You explore the railroad tracks, NOT steal from the bird's nest no matter what Yuffie says, and then scope out the depressed mining town of Corel and that's about it.  You do get a nice little piece of Barret's story, but not enough to make me want to play with him.  After that it is off to the Gold Saucer.  Equal parts super-fun mini-game plaza, and annoyingly distracting side-quest town, the Gold Saucer is a pleasure palace with a seedy underbelly.  When you first arrive it seems like there is a tremendous amount of things to do and no real direction about where to go.  The team splits up to explore and you are left to do the same, unfortunately the Gold Saucer runs not on Gil, of which you have plenty (-3000 for the admission fee), but on GP, a guaranteed way to prevent you from having any instant fun at GS.  Nearly all of the attractions at GS require GP to participate in and the only way to get GP is to win it incredibly slowly at Wonder Square by playing arcade games or by trading Gil for GP from the old man who (occasionally) hides out near the entrance.

If you just have to have the full GS experience right away, your best place to get a usable sum of GP is from the Mog House Game in Wonder Square.  The game itself will not net you much but the guy watching you play will give you something like 30 GP if you win the game.  As for the Mog House Game itself, well, it's just a beautiful little slice of Japanese what-the-fork.  Feed Mog 5 Kupo nuts the first time around and 3 the second.  You can also earn GP extremely slowly by playing the arm wrestling or basketball games, but that is a really boring way to do anything.  The rest of the fun games in Wonder Square are going to be locked up at this time because they are in game mini-games of things you will soon be doing.  The one that is unlocked is the Motorbike chase on the bridge in Midgar.  It's pretty fun, but nothing like the submarine and snowboarding game that will soon be available.  That's mostly why I play the story part of the GS adventure and come back for the "full experience" later.

Oh you can also win GP betting on Chocobo races, but there is plenty of Chocobo racing coming up, and gambling on the races has never been very successful for me.  There will be plenty more from the Gold Saucer coming up, but for now I just head for Battle Square and my impending imprisonment.
Corel Prison is a fairly forgettable place that you don't stay long at nor do much of great import.  Barret fans will dig the pay off story with Dyne, everyone else will buy time until we get access to the buggy.  I'm not saying Barret's story is weak, it's pretty cool, I'm just not a fan.  The desert is a good place to grind, killing Sandworms and the like, but it is also a good place to get your ass handed to you by those machines with the Matra Magic.  If you don't have it yet, now is a good time to get it.  Eventually, though, I just like to wander the desert until the Mystic Chocobo Carriage gives me a lift back to prison.

Getting out of prison is also the Chocobo racing tutorial and as long as you give it a decent try, is pretty automatic for moving the plot.  Be certain to get the Ramuh Summon Materia from the jockey's room, it is your only chance and Ramuh is strong at this point in the game.  Winning the Chocobo race and hence your freedom from Corel Prison is great and all, but the real win is access to the Car!
Going Ramuh on a Sandworm is very satisfying
 Yes, the car!  And with the car comes the chance to do some more free roaming!  Free roaming is the best part of FFVII and the car expands your horizons significantly in that capacity.  The car can cross shallow streams and deserts and other terrains previously thwarting egress.  Eventually this will open up a lot of new areas.  Instead of heading straight south, I like to take the car back north and check out Costa Del Sol and Corel again, just to get some rest and pick up materia I couldn't afford before like Seal.  I also like getting a chance to grind a little and fight baddies like the Jokers who more often than not heal my party in the process.  Eventually I work my way down to Gongaga, perhaps the most forgettable village in the game.  Apart from getting the Titan materia and learning a few things about Shinra's motivations, there isn't much to remember about Gongaga.  When you know the full story, it is kind of cool to see an exploded Mako reactor site, however, so there is that.
Besides who wants to hang around depressing old Gongaga when Cosmo Canyon is just up the map?  Cosmo Canyon is a really nice self-contained level that gives you the full story on Red XIII and puts the main story into its macro perspective.  You also find out that Red XIII's name is Nanaki, and if you already knew that there is an opportunity for a chuckle when the village elder reveals this little fact.  Cosmo Canyon has an undeniable American West Indian vibe and a great soundtrack.  It also features some great craziness like Nanaki's grandfather who is apparently a human weeble-wobble, despite the fact that Nanaki is some kind of dog-lion thing.  The Gi Cave is a a great dungeon and slowly develops Nanaki's story in a fun way.  The cave is also a great place to grind against some enemies that are not super-lethal.  What the boss fight lacks in difficulty it makes up for in just being fun.  The reward for surviving the Gi Cave is the culmination of Nanaki's history and one of the game's truly poignant moments.

After the Gi Cave, the party reforms and gets ready to set out again for parts unknown.  And that's where I am!  My part is still Cloud, Yuffie and Nanaki, but I am very tempted to play with Cait Sith, who is an interesting character for both his story arc and his abilities, but I have dedicated to Nanaki and Yuffie at this time, so I'm sticking to it.  I've played through with each character with the exception of Barret and Vincent before, so I'm not looking for certain new experiences as much as I am looking for a different experience than I have had in the past.  I may trade Yuffie for Vincent when the time comes.  The hard part will be not playing with Cid, maybe my favorite character in the game.  Anyway, we are at level 26, 29 hours deep into the game and ready for more!
In the immortal words of Mr. Ed: "It's bigger than all of us."

UPDATE! 10.3.12

Oh how time flies.  Fixed buggy in hand and off to Nibelheim where Sephiroth is cooking something spooky.  And spooky is the right word.  The haunted Shinra mansion is fit-giving with all of the status-altering enemies that you come up against.  The Dorky Faces (pumpkin heads) are the absolute worst.  The rest of the mansion is a fun puzzle and you get the incredible Odin Materia!  Admittedly the puzzle is less fun the first time as you try to dodge random encounters and remember how many steps you took north of that creaking board... Taking down the mini-boss in the safe is no easy task, but worth it because in addition to Odin you get access to Vincent!  Oh, and somewhere in all of that, you also find out what Sephiroth is up to, which is no good.  And in the Back-up a Bit Department, I must have botched the piano playing in Tifa's house, because all I got was her 1 gil savings not the good prize.  Fortunately, I am not playing with Tifa this go-round.  I did, however, pick up Vincent and he immediately replaced Yuffie in my party.  I've never played the game through with Vincent, ever, so this is his time to shine.  The biggest knock on Vincent is that you lose control of him during his limit break and that gripe is legit because this can leave you totally screwed.  Don't give Vincent any critical materia or make him your party's healer because once he goes off, he's gone.  This screwed me greatly when I was fighting a green dragon who is healed by fire attacks and one of Vincent's beast form's attacks is fire based.  Without the ability to control him, Vincent was routinely healing the dragon and the dragon was routinely kicking my ass.  Vincent can be a powerful ally, but you have to use him wisely.  I'll keep you posted.

Post Nibelheim, it's right up Mt. Nibel, where the creepiness continues.  The gnarled peaks and deserted reactor are a horrible setting for something ominous that doesn't quite happen, yet...  All in all, though Mt. Nibel is surprisingly short and BAM! you are in Rocket Town where you pick up two very important game elements.  First, Cid, who is perhaps my favorite character in the game.  He's foul-mouthed, cranky, and generally doesn't care about anything since Shinra screwed him over.  Somewhere under there might be a heart of gold, but he's not showing it.  Getting Cid and his story is part of the fun, but the real adventure starts when Shinra shows up to steal Cid's plane, the Tiny Bronco.  Of course, our heroes get there first, fight a battle with the ridiculous Palmer, then take off with the Bronco.  However, Shinra will not go down without a fight, and they shoot the Bronco out of the sky.  It may never fly again, but that's ok, this is a Final Fantasy game and you always get the boat before the Airship. The downed Bronco makes a perfect boat and opens the game up once again to FREE ROAMING!  The sequence with the escape and downing of the Bronco is one of my favorites so let's take a little trip down memory lane...

Once you have the Bronco there are all kinds of great places to go and check out, from the Bone Village in the north to the Temple of the Ancients in the south, but there are two very important places you must go before you get too far ahead of yourself.  First, head back to Midgar.  There is a particular Zolom there who is no longer a credible threat and who possesses one of the most powerful Enemy Skills in the game: Beta.  With a more powerful party, the Zolom goes down easy and does not kill everyone with Beta before he does. I cannot stress enough the value of this pick-up.

A pick-up of even greater importance, however, is the trip to Wutai.  Like Yuffie, Wutai is entirely optional, but very much well worth the journey.  Yuffie's story alone is worth the trip and the aside with the Turks and Corneo is pretty hilarious.  Heck, reaching Wutai sans materia after getting so accustomed to having it is challenge enough.  Playing hide and seek with Yuffie, the house full of cats, and the best weapon shop you've seen yet are just the tip of the iceberg.  I always play the Wutai level if for no other reason than picking up the Leviathan materia.  Yuffie's challenge at the dojo is pretty easy until you get to the final fight.  I equip Yuffie with Counter, Restore, Enemy Skill (Beta and Trine come in really handy), HP Plus, Barrier, and Choco/Mog.  Choco/Mog is non-elemental and can cast STOP on some enemies.  Barrier keeps you safe from physical attacks, and Counter gives you an extra attack at a time when you need it most.  It can't hurt to enter the battle with the Fury status either, as you will need the limit breaks.  The final fight is the only one that is brutal and only then if you don't have MBarrier, because the boss casts Trine and BIO2 a lot.  When he gets near death, he tends to heal and then immediately cast a status spell.  Mini is the worst of the lot, so have some remedy ready.  The Leviathan materia is the reward and it is once again, the most powerful summon you have to this point.

After I get done beating around Wutai and checking out the new sights the Tiny Bronco allows (an early trip to Bone Village doesn't hurt anything, especially when you can pick up the Diamond Armlet), its time to visit the Hermit who lives near the Temple of the Ancients and find out about the Keystone.  From there it's back to the Saucer, this time for the full treatment.
The scariest part of this scene is the reflection of the doorway into my kitchen in the upper right hand corner. Creepy!

By this time I've got enough Gil to buy the lifetime pass, but sadly I am out of GP.  I tried for about 10 minutes to get the little trader outside the station to load, but no dice.  So it was off to the Chocobo races where I lost the first two, but won the second.  I got button-happy though, and traded my winnings for an item instead of GP.  GAAAHHHH!  So two more races later, I finally collect my GP and head off for the good times that await.  That's when I remember that you do not need GP for this part of the story.  GREAT.  So anyway, I botch the battle arena, but its ok, you get the Keystone anyway, but miss out on a Protect Vest and Choco Feather, no big loss.  From there, I somehow end up with Aeris on the date.  I made no particular effort to have any particular character on the date, but I guess I was nice enough to Aeris to have her selected.  Its the most bittersweet date you can have, but it might also be the best.  I've never had the date with Barret, though.

After the date, Cait Sith betrays the group and pulls his blackmail scheme (one of the main reasons I never play with him), and then we are off to the Temple of the Ancients, chasing Shinra.  I just didn't have the heart to start that part of the game tonight. I know what's coming.  I know too much.  Maybe this weekend....

UPDATE 10.8.12
So I went in there anyway.  I knew better, but I went in.  This is such a bittersweet part of the game.  I both envy and pity those playing this part of the game for the first time.  The trip inside the Temple is pretty standard video game fare with Sephiroth reading the hieroglyphics and then figuring out how to bring about the destruction of the planet using Meteor.  The save by Cait Sith is a nice rebound for that character and may be enough to make me reconsider him the next time I play through.  (I always forget about this part because of what comes next).  I love the puzzle elements of the Temple of Ancients and always try to figure out the wizard and doors puzzle without resorting to the strategy guide.  Sadly, I usually default to the guide.  Note: be sure you clear the Temple entirely because you will not be able to return once you complete the level.  The door boss can be a pain, but hit him with lots of summons and he'll go down ok.
Knowing the game well is a bitch at times because I already know to go to Bone Village and dig, and I already know what lies beyond the Sleeping Forest, so I usually take this opportunity to run around and do anything else I want to do under Disc One parameters.  Its a good time to make a last trip to a few towns like Wutai to pick up weapons for characters you may soon be using and not know it, also a great time to restock on items as the next part of the game will ask you to have a ready supply.  I also enjoy the puzzle game in Bone Village, even if it is pretty easy, it is still fun to go around and see what other prizes the miners can dig up.  Also, don't miss the Kjata materia in the Sleeping Forest.

Then it is off to a date with grim destiny.

This journal has been wrought with spoilers already, and chances are good there a few FFVII virgins among you, but I really have to put this here to safeguard what is one of video gaming's finest moments.

Don't go in there, don't do it!
The City of the Ancients is both really cool and really creepy.  You almost know when you begin the level that something is going to happen and not in that "this place is going to explode" kind of way.  The place is completely empty, even of enemies to battle.  It can be tough to figure out what to do or where to go, but when all else fails, sleep on it.
I said it above, but I'll say it again here, what follows is perhaps one of the most powerful and iconic moments in video game history.  Right up there with Mario being told the Princess was in another castle and Samus Aran taking her helmet off at the end of Metroid, the death of Aeris is a video game moment where every gamer who reaches that point takes a moment and says "wow, that just happened."  Honestly, though, this moment doesn't fully pay off until you get to the final battle on Disc Three where you realize that Aeris is not coming back and that this moment is a real and final thing.  Playable characters don't die.  Not really.  There is almost always a way to get them back into the party.  But not Aeris.  When Sephiroth puts that sword through her back, that's it.  Insane.  And then the burial scene with Cloud in the pool outside the house is one of the few moments in a video game where I actually teared up the first time.  I might be a big softy, but this is one incredible moment in a video game that has such compelling characters it is hard not to be emotionally attached to them.  This moment also demonstrates that pretty much anything can happen in this game.  All bets are off and no one is safe.  It really does an amazing job of setting the tone.  Much like the end of Fellowship of the Ring, it removes the innocence of an otherwise charming experience and forces the game to grow up a bit.
I rarely play with Aeris anymore.  Partly because you lose her for good at the end of Disc One and partly because her loss is so poignant.
This fish baffles me. Is it real?  An illusion?  Why is it there?  Where does it go when the stairs appear?
To compound the weight of the scene, right after Aeris' death you have to fight a Jenova boss battle and the Aeris music plays instead of the boss battle combat music.  This makes an already creepy and ominous boss fight even more intense.  Don't lose your head though, this is still a real boss fight.  Your best defense is MBarrier and the Water Ring.  Wail away on Jenova and be sure to learn Aqualung, a vicious Enemy Skill attack.

 To lighten the mood after the heavy events at the end of Disc One, Disc Two starts with a fairly whimsical trip to Icicle Inn and the maddening maze that is the Great Glacier.  I always discount just how deep and difficult the Great Glacier is and I tried to do it this time without my strategy guide and ended up missing the Alexander and All materia that are located on the Glacier (looks like I'll be heading back there soon...).
The Great Glacier is home to a large number of puzzles and the Glacier itself is a confounding maze, but before we delve into that experience, we have to talk about how one gets to the Glacier in the first place and perhaps the best thing about FFVII within FVII:  the snowboarding mini-game.
How do I describe this?  Simple: this is the best snowboarding game for any system of this era.  SSX doesn't even come close.  The controls are simple, but allow for increased level of depth in the game play.  The goals and objectives are straightforward, but demand skillful play.  And most of all, the game is just fun.  Fun Fun Fun.  This is the reason why I can sink three and four hours of game time into the Golden Saucer on Disc Two.  I have fired up the whole game solely for the purpose of playing the snowboarding game before.  It's just sick.  You'll see, later when I have some free time and I'm wasting time racing Chocobos, there will be plenty of snowboarding time worked in there.
Welcome to the Great Glacier.  A lot of it looks like this.
But on to the Great Glacier.
The Great Glacier is the reason FFVII has a strategy guide.  A deceptively complex maze set in on a blizzard-riddle snowfield, GG is far larger than it appears and even with the map you are given in the game, not easy to navigate.  To make matters worse, there are some great things hidden in the maze (like the Alexander materia I missed) that you will never find if you just make a beeline for the goal (marked with a red check on your map).  To be honest, you are better off to leave the map alone and just wander around for a while. You have a much better chance of finding all of the cool things and seeing all of the cool sights the Great Glacier has to offer.  The Glacier also features some really great puzzles like the blizzard field, where the only way to get across is to use markers to keep track of your location as the constant snow storm disorients you step by step.  Also fun is the "lights out" style puzzle with the ice floes (see photo).
The snowboarding game is so awesome, I usually forget just how fun the Great Glacier is.  That is a mistake, because is maybe one of the game's best levels.  Just be sure you load up on Fire materia and Ice Rings.
I used to think climbing the mountain was difficult, but as long as you stop to warm up between climbs, its pretty much a piece of cake.  Just remember linger long enough to fight a Stilva or two and get the Magic Breath Enemy Skill (you can also get Trine from it if you missed earlier).

Atop the mountain is Gaea's Cliff, a fairly unspectacular level by comparison, save for the boss fight with Schizo, who is either easy-peasy to defeat or a real ball buster.  If you are not prepared, this fight can wipe you out fast.  Schizo attacks with two heads, one that breaths Fire 2 and once that breathes Ice 2.  He can also cast Quake 2 on the whole party.  Properly equipped with Fire and Ice rings and MBarrier, Schizo goes down like a paper lion. Not properly equipped, be ready for the fight of your life.  This time around, I forgot about Schizo.  Stupid difficult fight.

Now you did it.
For a PSX FMV, I am fairly impressed with the breast physics at play here

Then the plot takes over for a bit.  I'm not a real big fan of being forced to play with characters, but to serve the plot, the next hour or two of game play will require playing with Tifa, Cid, Yuffie and Cait Sith.  Like an idiot, I've sold off all of the weapons for these characters so this is going to be a challenge.  The FMV's of Sephiroth in the Crater, Weapon waking up and the Highwind's escape are all really cool, though and keep the tone of the story as established at the end of Disc One.
The subsequent stuff at Junon with Tifa running about is alright, but it's completely plot driven and again, forces me to use a lot of characters I have no weapons for (and no materia for really).  I like the puzzle with Tifa in the gas chamber, though, and the cat fight between Tifa and Scarlet is not to be missed.  The real fun comes with the FMV of Weapon attacking Junon and then, of course, the acquisition of the Highwind!

You know what that means, right?  FREE ROAMING AGAIN!  The Highwind opens up a lot of new territory and afford the opportunity to return to anywhere that you've been before you might need to return to (what a weird sentence, and I even edited it to make it better!).  But I don't usually do all of that just yet.  See, I need Cloud back and I need to get my materia straightened out.  To do that there are two really great quests to be completed.

Mideel is a charming little town.  Too bad.
The first is the near destruction of Corel, revising a level I already love and in a real "truth or consequences" kind of way.  Shinra has a train loaded with Huge Materia headed straight for Corel.  Cid and crew must catch the train, defeat a series of sub-boss fights, and then stop the train before it destroys Corel.  And all of that has to be done in 9 minutes. The best part is that you can fail and destroy Corel.  I know, I failed the first time through playing this game.  Since that spectacular failure, I have managed to save Corel every time capturing the Huge Materia and the Ultima materia for free.  This time around I did it with 2:09 to spare, but it was looking rough toward the last mini-boss fight.  I kind of botched the train controls catching up to the Shinra train and lost a lot of time there.  Liberal use of the Comet materia greatly reduced the time I wasted on the train battles.  I missed getting Catastrophe, but it's only Barret's Ultimate Limit Break, so no big loss.  Maybe if I'm in the area again...
With Corel saved it's off to Fort Condor, where my previous success proves to not be a fluke.  I handily wipe the face of the fort with the Shinra forces.  Having a fat bank account doesn't hurt either.  The reward, again, is the Huge Materia and the coveted Phoenix materia!  I love me some Fort Condor.  This strategy mini-game is highly underrated.  Remember, Fire Catapults and the thing that rolls three boulders are vital to success.  Back that up with some attackers, defenders, and fighters and you are golden.  I know you can toss the game and just fight the boss, but it's not nearly as much fun and the Imperial Guard is good, but you can get it later. The main thing is to get the Phoenix materia.
From there it's time to serve the story again and get our party back in action.  I always panic when the battle with Weapon happens.  For some reason I forget that it is a story battle and all I have to do is stay alive.  It's pretty intense despite all of that. Cloud's existential trip into the mindscape is interesting and I think for the first time I actually understand Cloud's true story arc.  I think.  Still not sure if he is a Sephiroth clone or not.  But none of that matters.  Cloud comes back and I have the Highwind.  The future is wide open!
My current party is Cloud, Red XII and Vincent (I'm sticking with it).  Party level is 45.  I really want to do the underwater reactor next, but there are lots of other things to be doing as well.  Might be time for a trip to the Gold Saucer....

UPDATE 10.11.12

Woo-boy!  I spent a lot of game time this past session, but advanced the story only the tiniest bit and only then to get the Shinra Sub.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, because my journey began with a serious backtrack to the Great Glacier to get that Alexander and Added Cut materia I missed.  The stupid Glacier gave me more fits the second time around than the first.  But I finally found everything I missed, including an All materia I passed over.

With all of that in hand, it was time to take full advantage of everything the Highwind has to offer, mainly FREE ROAMING all over 90% of the map!  And since it tends to take while to get going, the first stop is Chocobo hunting.  In order to access that other 10% of the map, I need a Gold Chocobo, and Gold Chocobo's don't just show up on the world map.  Breeding a Gold Chocobo is very simple and systematic, if you know how, but it takes some time to get all of the breeding and racing done.
I spend the better part of a half hour here
Getting a Gold Chocobo starts by catching a "Good" Male Chocobo from southeast of the Gold Saucer, and a "Great" Female Chocobo from the area west of Mideel.  This doesn't happen overnight.  There is a lot of back and forth over the Chocobo tracks, catch and send Chocobos to the farm, then fly to the farm, have them evaluated and then keep or release as fits.  A lot of that went on this time around trying to get the Good Chocobo.  I got the Great one pretty much first shot, but it took about 12 catches to get the Good Male.  It doesn't end there, however, because now they have to be feed (10 Sylkis Greens each) and then race them at the Gold Saucer up to "A" Class.  This isn't hard, but it takes time.  The positive side effect is that it generates a decent amount of GP (for the battle arena later).  For those looking for advice, I basically gun the Chocobo at the start of the race and by the time we get to the tunnel (always take the short course) I turn it over to the autopilot.  But don't turn away, watch the race.  Occasionally, an aspiring dark horse will get hooked on a feeling and make a play at the end of the race.  Also the CPU has a tendency to just gun it all the way to the finish and can max out your chocobo's stamina giving the dark horse a window to steal the race.  This is a lock strategy for "C" Class, "B" requires a bit more attention.

Once raced up to "A," its back to the farm for some chocobo consummation.  A quick side trip to the grassy patch on the fish tail peninsula on the northern continent.  For it is there that we find the red dragon who greedily hordes the previous Carob Nut we need to make the consummation of chocobos spectacular (and successful).  He's no slouch, though, so if you go, go prepared.  The good news is that Added Effect-Contain can freeze him and then you can steal and wail on him at will.

That chore complete, its back to the fornication farm for some choco-lovin'.  You have a 50/50 chance of getting a green or blue chocobo from this pairing, so just have at it and see what comes.  Whichever you get, take note, because the next time around you need the opposite gender of the other color.  But let's not get ahead of myself.  This time around I got a green female.  I'd love to try again for a blue male, BUT there is an absurdly long, in game, statute of limitations between breeding times for just bred or just born chocobos.  Stupid simulated nature.

So while I wait, I knock out a LOT of other stuff.  There is that Junon loose end to tie up that nets access to the sub-oceanic part of the game.  I cringe whenever I have to return to Junon because I have flashbacks of that stupid parade.  I get through it and I land the Shinra Sub.  This does two very important things, first it unlocks access to a couple of very key areas, and two it unlocks the submarine game in the Gold Saucer (soon, very soon...).  But since we are underwater already, let's stay there and poke around a bit (the plot desperately wants me to head to Rocket Town, but Rocket Town will wait).  First, there is the downed red sub with the Huge Materia to swing by and recover, but that's small potatoes compared to the other treasures down here.
The first, and greatest, treasure to be explored is the crashed Shinra plane, the Gelinka.  Basically a mini-level that is full of great items and a really badass summon materia, the Gelinka does not features a boss fight (there is an encounter with the Turks, but its pretty easy), but it is inhabited by three of the most fearsome regular enemies in the game.  All three are named Unknown (1,2, and 3 accordingly), and all three attack you with strong physical and magic attacks as well as a bevy of status attacks.  Each one of these is like a boss fight and can leave your team decimated.  Ribbons are your best friends and Added Effect-Contain will help a lot.  There is also a save point, so take a dozen tents and save often.  Explore the Gelinka by making short trips (its not very deep, but I promise this is the best way) and returning to the save point after getting your butt kicked by an Unknown.  At least that's how I do it.  Again, lots of great things in this sunken aeronautic treasure chest, but the best is the Hades summon materia.  Hades does decent damage, but also inflicts the gamut of statuses on your enemies at the same time.  I've seen Hades single-handedly take out a full field of bad guys by hitting them hard, freezing them and poisoning them.  The trip to the Gelinka is worth it for him alone.
Oh poop.
 After that its time to make one last little trip that won't fully pay off until Disc 3, but its a fun trip to make now.  This is also a good time to do a shorts check, because you are not alone beneath the waves.  Emerald Weapon also patrols the undersea world and although it will not seek you out, if you don't pay close attention you can run smack into him and pretty much end your game (at least at this point, I'll take him out later).  He likes to guard the Red Shinra Sub and the Gelinka as well, so you have to be ever vigilant.

  Dodging him, I make my way north and west to the very small, well hidden cave that leads to the large pool dead center in the main continent.  After surfacing, the waterfall here hides Lucrecia's cave. (It is a video game law that there must be something behind at least one waterfall in any game that features a waterfall.  I do not lie)  Lucrecia and Vincent share a moment and we see Vincent's origin story.  I'll be back in Disc 3 to get his ultimate Limit Break.

Submarine fun complete, it's time to get out of the tub and see what else we can do.  Oh what the hell, I'm off to Rocket Town.  It's no major thing and it is a pretty cool story point.  Yadda-yadda Cid and company launch into space and then I have a major meltdown and cannot seem to remember the access code to get the Huge Materia out of the rocket before we all die.  They give me plenty of time, but I am just an idiot, so with about 2 minutes left I drop everything and dive into the strategy guide to get the code (I'm weak, so sue me).  I punch in the code with, I promise you, 2 seconds left.  Ha!  The Huge Materia is mine and we blast safely back to earth in the escape pod.  SCENE MISSING and we are back on the Highwind. I guess we just assume that everything went to plan with the escape pod and re-entry and splash down and those other messy details...

 Surely by now I can breed my two chocobos again, right?  NOPE!  But no despair, for it is now that I remember that my green chocobo is a Mountain chocobo and gives me access to a few things I hadn't considered.  There is a cave on the Wutai continent that is accessible with the Mountain chocobo AND there is another little treat waiting in Wutai as well.  So that's where I go. The cave is a fabled Materia Cave famous for having some of the strongest materia in the game.  This cave holds the incredible Mime materia which will be indispensable when I go up against the Weapons later in the game.  Start leveling it up immediately. The other treasure in Wutai is in the fire cave that was inaccessible during the original trip to Wutai.  But with the Leviathan Scales found in the treasure chest in the submarine launch beneath Junon, the fires are easily quenched and the Steal As Well materia is also now mine.  With this and the Steal-Added Cut combo, two characters can now steal during battle!  Love it.

What else can I do to kill time?  Well, there's always the Chocobo Sage to visit, who can sell me the Sylkis Greens I need to boost my chocobos.  I cheat a bit here, because I already went to see him while I was north earlier for the Great Glacier, but I go see him again for greens and some scintillating conversation.  There is also the return to Midgar which is always fun.  To get access to Midgar, I need the Keycard to Sector 5 that some schmoe accidentally dropped during a visit to Bone Village.  So back to Bone Village where I manage to dig up the Mop and the Bluntline before remembering to search for Normal Treasure instead of Good Treasure.  A couple of searches and a Megalixir later, the Keycard is mine and I'm back in Midgar.
Astute Observation from the Lovely Wife:  Only in Final Fantasy is a jet crashed into a dinosaur skull a throw-away piece of the background.  She is exactly right.

The programmers of this game are cruel, cruel people because the first thing you see when you return to Midgar is Aeris' Church.  Thanks, I needed to see that.  Apart from memory lane, there are two important things to get in Midgar, one is Tifa's Ultimate Limit Break (not for me this time around, but still good to have) and the Sneak Glove which increases your likelihood to steal from enemies.  The most annoying part of the return to Midgar is the random encounters that are hardly worth the time it takes to load them and press attack 3 times.  But such is the way.
By this time, I've pretty much run out of things to do that are constructive and those damn chocobos are still resting from their festivities, so its time to kill some time doing what I do best: snowboarding at the Gold Saucer.  I kill about an hour making runs down the various courses.  I get GOOD scores on all but the Crazy Course, which is crazy, where I rank AWFUL way too many times.  I'm about to make another run, when my mind wanders to where else my Mountain Chocobo might take me and I recall the Ancient Forest. I'm pretty sure he can get me there, it's located on the plateaus outside of Cosmo Canyon, my next plot stop.  And it is full of great things that you really want to get your hands on as soon as possible.  Ancient Forest here I come, next time...
Look who finally showed up!
UPDATE 10.14.12

Plot?  What plot?  It's side quest time part II, baby!  I played a lot of Final Fantasy yesterday, but I didn't advance the plot one inch!  What I did was rack up all kinds of great weapons, equipment and materia, and have a LOT of fun.

The meat of Disc Two is where this game truly shines.  I may have said this already, but FFVII is the perfect synthesis of story-driven RPG and side quests, mini-games, and adventure gaming.  This point in the game demonstrates that perfectly.  Oh, sure, I can race over to Cosmo Canyon, talk to Bugenhagen about the Huge Materia and City of the Ancients and charge headlong in to the crater in the north.  Sure, I can do that.  OR,  I can wander about the world seeing all that is has to offer, gather some of the most powerful items in the game, and strengthen my party for the hard times to come. Either choice is totally valid, but for my money, the latter is where it's at.

When I last left my team they were parked outside the Ancient Forest and I was wondering if my Mountain Chocobo could grant me access to that magical land.  The Brady Games strategy guide says you can only access it on Disc 3 or if you have a Gold Chocobo.  Brady Games is wrong.  My green chocobo scaled those plateaus with ease and deposited me on the doorstep of the Ancient Forest, a level I never remember.
Another mini-game-like area, the Ancient Forest is a self-contained puzzle that features lots of great items for the party, especially if you get there early in the game (as I am doing it.  You can actually get here a little earlier, as soon as you get the Highwind, if you have been breeding chocobos heavily).  Think crashed Gelinka, but sub devious puzzles for hardcore random encounters.  The main thing to remember in the Ancient Forest is that you can always reset the entire forest by pressing SQUARE.  This comes in handy a lot, especially on the first screen.  On later screens you can just leave and return.  It also helps to remember that the bugs and frogs you pick up always interact with stuff in the background and usually in the immediate area.  Frogs and bugs go in the pitcher flowers and frogs leap out giving you a boost.  The Slash-All materia and Apocalypse sword for Cloud are key pick-ups here.  The Typoon summon is ok, but it kind of freaks me out, and there are much better summons on the way.  The Ancient Forest is very frustrating when you first start to work the puzzles, at least for me, but once you figure out what they are looking for, it's a pretty short trip to the candy shop.

Once the Ancient Forest is clear it is time to try breeding chocobos again, and as luck would have it, sufficient time has passed.  Now, the important thing to remember is to have the Carob Nut, have an empty stall in the barn and to save before you enter the farm.  Your chance of getting the color and gender you are looking for is 50/50 for each quality so you may need to reload several times before you get what you are looking for.  For me that's a blue male and I get him on the fourth try!  Now, of course, there will be no more hanky panky for quite some time, but that's ok, because we've got racing and feeding to do, and I need to take young Bluey here out for a spin.  There's a materia cave on the eastern most island chain that is calling my name.
This is an important stop because this particular materia cave holds the Quadra Magic materia that lets you cast a single spell four times consecutively.  It has no practical application in most world map situations, but for some of the big battles that are coming, it will be foundational.

Having made that stop, it's time to race some chocobos, burn some time, and have some fun!  Before setting off for the Saucer, I need to feed up my two colorful chocobos to make sure they are race ready.   10 Sylkis Greens each will do the trick, but after my trip to the Chocobo Sage to purchase such victuals, my bank account is a little light.  Not good.  You cannot go the Gold Saucer with an empty wallet, not and play hours worth of snowboarding and submarine games anyway.  Fortunately, I recently mastered my Deathblow materia, and a mastered Deathblow will fetch 700K gil on the open market!  That sold, I now have bank and Gold Saucer here I come!

Both chocobos need to be raced up the A class and that will take about 30-45 minutes to do.  As previously mentioned the C and B class races are a wank and a snore, and the A class isn't much different.  The main thing is to not panic out of the gate.  Well-fed chocobos will have superior stamina, which means that by the time the rest of the pack reaches the top of the spiral, they will be exhausted and you can charge to victory.  As always, watch for the incomprehensible dark horse (with a grateful nod to our friend Matt over at Dinosaur Dracula).  As you get up into A and S classes, the chance to run up against Teioh, that black chocobo riding son of a bitch, increase.  But fear not, he can be beaten.  The main trick with Teioh is to get ahead of him right out of the gate.  Once you do that, keep him directly behind you.  Do not get far ahead and do not waste stamina unless he starts to get past you.  If he blows past you and gets a sizable lead, it is over.  Keep him directly on your butt and only use speed bursts to keep him from passing.  You will not win every race with Teoh, but you will at least have a chance.

But I cannot race chocobos non-stop all night.  It makes me weary.  So in between racing up my green chocobo and my blue one, I take a break and saunter over to Battle Square where there is an Omnislash Limit Break and several materia that I need to pick up.  Battle Square is pure fun, but it requires some commitment.  You are going to need at least 100 GP (10 GP per battle), I usually take 300 just to be safe, because if you leave the Square you lose all of your Battle Points.  So if you are going to go to win, you better be ready to stick around.  You also will need to swap out some materia and equipment since only one character can compete.  So an average trip to Battle Square is going to want an hour's commitment, minimum.
Here's how I take on the challenge:  I use Cloud (always).  His limit breaks are the best for the arena (Tifa is also pretty good) and he is usually the highest level party member. (oddly enough Red is one level higher right now in my party).  I equipped him with the Crystal Sword (6 linked materia slots), the Escort Guard (6 linked materia slots) and the Ribbon (nullifies status effects, essential).  My materia arrangement was something like this: Restore (Master), Time (for Haste), HP Plus, MP Plus, Counter Attack, Slash-All, Added Effect-Contain, Quadra Magic-Ultima (just in case), Neo Bahamut, Hades.  Everything is pretty self-explanatory, but for the sake of discussion.  The Crystal Sword has the most slots and all are linked.  The Escort Guard cuts elemental attacks in half (very important) and has six more linked slots for materia.  The Ribbon protects against statuses which are plenty in the arena.  Unless you roll broken accessory on the slots, this takes that element of the arena out of play.  Master Restore gives you Cure3 and Regen and both are very useful here.  Time grants Haste and I almost always cast it first thing when the battles start and then anytime it wears off.  HP and MP Plus are obvious, with 1/2 MP and HP and 0 MP on the slots, you will need all you can get.  Counter gives you multiple attacks per turn and can give you a breather when you need to use an item or helpful magic like Restore or Haste.  I've played entire battles letting the Counter do the attacking and using my turns for maintenance.  Slash-All is a tough call for me, but I like it better than 2x Cut because it allows me to attack an entire group in a single turn rather than just hitting one member really hard.  This doesn't matter much late in the battle, but early on it can really help, particularly with this next essential piece of the puzzle.  Added Effect-Contain might be the best all purpose materia combo in the game. Most of the enemies in the game are vulnerable to some aspect of Contain's effect.  Therefore, every attack has the potential to instant-kill your target.  Couple that with Slash-All and you can take out entire rounds of enemies in a single turn.  Very important, and not just for Battle Square usage either.  Quadra Magic-Ultima is my fail safe.  Often you will come up against an enemy who can knock you clean out of the battle and end the challenge immediately (the Ghost Ship comes to mind), Quadra Magic-Ultima can usually handle these kinds of threats as long as you have the MP and are willing to commit to it first thing.  It's my back door.  Finally, Neo-Bahamut is the strongest summon I currently have, so he's in and Hades is great for it's status attack.
Using this set-up I am usually able to win 3 of 5 battles (there are a few enemies that can wipe me out fast like the aforementioned Ghost Ship, those horrible 8 Eyes, and the dreaded Master Tonberry) and get enough battle points to purchase the Omnislash pretty quickly.  One key strategy is the slots.  There are different kinds of slot wheels you can get and some are better than others.  If you get a good one, try to stop it on the same penalty each time.  For instance, one time around I got a slot wheel that had "Toad" as the penalty on it.  With the Ribbon, the Toad penalty is nullified, so I tried to land the wheel on Toad every time, hence, no penalty.  Or if you are unfortunate enough to have your weapon break, try to land each subsequent wheel on weapon break to prevent incurring new penalties.  This hurts your battle point earnings a bit, but it is better to survive and win the full 8 battles than get knocked out because you were penalized to death.   It is also a good idea to stock up on some basic items like X-Potions, Ethers, and a few combat items in the event you lose your magic and your weapon. Just a thought.
In addition to the Omnislash Limit Break, I also picked up the Enemy Lure, Pre-Emptive, and Speed Plus materia and with my remaining points loaded up on remedies.  They are handy to have.

Whew!  That took some time.  So back to the chocobo races and race up my blue chocobo this time around.  I manage to beat Teoh and win the Enemy Away materia in the same race, so added win!  Enough time has elapsed so it's back to the farm for some chocobo tomfoolery.  Again, save first because you are just as likely to get another blue or green chocobo as you are to get a black.  It takes me 3 tries, but I get him!  This allows me to access the next Materia Cave and get the HP<->MP materia, which I have never fully understood how to use properly.  Maybe this time around.  After getting the Black Chocobo I need to capture a Wonderful Chocobo from the western part of the northern snowy continent.  It takes a few tries, particularly since I need a female and chocobos in that climate are either wonderful or near death.  Nevertheless, I get her and head back to the farm.  Both chocobos need to be fed 25 Sylkis Greens each (watch that 700K gil get cut in half fast!) and then raced to S Class.  Besides, the black chocobo won't be eligible for romance for a while.

Back to the Saucer to race both up to S Class.  I race the black chocobo first, then head over to Wonder Square to burn some time snowboarding and playing submarine attack.  I managed to clear all 5 submarine attack levels with relative ease, score some additional GP and a few items.  I also manage to get new top scores in my Beginner and Crazy courses on the snowboarding. I still rank AWFUL on the Crazy course, sadly.  But none of that matters because those games are so much fun, I'm probably going to spend an hour or two every gaming session playing them. After that I race my Wonderful chocobo up to S and win a second Counter materia in the process!

With a little more time to kill before my black chocobo is ready to fornicate, there are a few other errands I can run.  First, it is always worth a chuckle or two to stop by Cactaur Island.  It is not on the map, but lies due south of Cosmo Canyon in the middle of the south ocean.  The Cactuar are a ridiculous, but poweful enemy that you can run into in the Corel Prison desert, but they originate here on this tiny island where they live alone because they pack a hell of a punch and no one else wants to live with them.  You get decent XP and AP for defeating them, and damn they are hilarious to watch.

Another important stop is far east on one of the small islands in the northeastern ocean.  On the larger island there is a forest and in that forest live the Goblins.  Like the Cactuar, the Goblins live here alone, probably because they smell bad.  But offensive odor aside, they are the sole source of the Zeio Nut which you need to breed the Gold Chocobo.  You can also add Goblin Punch to your Enemy Skill if you like.

Zeio Nut properly stolen, I head back to the farm where I get my Gold Chocobo after only two tries (remember, save first!).  You know what that means!  Off to Materia Cave #4 and the Knights of the Round summon materia!!!!!

So for those of you scoring at home, the way to get a Gold Chocobo is as follows:
1.  Capture a Male Good Chocobo from southeast of the Gold Saucer and a Female Great Chocobo from west of Mideel.
2. Feed each 10 Sylkis Greens and race to A class. (Buy Sylkis Greens from the Chocobo Sage)
3. Mate them using a Carob Nut (stolen from the Red Dragon on the Northern Continent's fish tail pennisula) and get either a Blue or Green Chocobo.  Mate again (when available) to get a chocobo of the opposing color and gender. (save first!!)
4. Feed each 10 Sylkis Greens and race to A class.
5.  Mate the Green and Blue chocobos using a Carob Nut to get a black chocobo.
6. Capture a Wondeful chocobo of the gender opposite your black chocobo from the northern continent.
7. Feed the Black and Wonderful Chocobos 25 Sylkis Greens each and race to S class.
8. Mate the Black and Wonderful Chocobos using a Zeio Nut stolen from the Goblins on Goblin Island.
9. BAM!  You have a Gold Chocobo!
Oh, mama!

So that's where I'm at.  I guess I'll head to Cosmo Canyon next and get back to the story.  I've also decided that, for the sake of this blog and because it's fun, I'm going to take on the Emerald and Ruby weapons when I get to Disc 3.  It's been a long time since I've given them a go and I'd like to make a documented run at them again.  Not much has changed in terms of party stats, but I will divulge that my play time is around 50 hours at this point.  See you next time.

UPDATE!  10.21.12

It's almost cruel to get so close to the end and then not finish the game.  I think this is why I never 100% completed this game in the past.  I always left the Weapons and the Master Materia along because as soon as I got into the North Crater I rode the wave of momentum and finished out the game.  This was also due in part to my being scared to death of the enemies in the Crater and my ignorance of how to leave the Crate once you got deep inside.  But not this time around!  No sir!  This time, we are getting the Master Materia, we are taking down Emerald and Ruby Weapons, AND we are FINALLY getting ALL of the Enemy Skills!  I will warn you, however, that doing so is going to take some grinding, so bear with me.
But, alas, I am getting ahead of myselfFirst, it is off to Cosmo Canyon to meet with Bugenhagen, learn about the Huge Materia, obtain BahamutZERO, and then return to the most painful location in the game.  Since all of this comes so close to the end of the game, my memory is always hazy when playing this part and it's almost like playing it again for the first time.  That makes all of this a lot of fun, but it also means that I never really know the full story.  So apparently, Aeris was praying for Holy when she was killed, but Sephiroth in the North Crater is blocking Holy from being able to move against Meteor.  Sephiroth must be taken out to save the planet.  Pretty clear, pretty simple.  But there are a few ugly details to clean up and one of them just emerged from the sea just north of Midgar!
This is one of the few places in the game where something happening on the world map is urgent and needs your attention. In a very cool sequence, Weapon marches across the strangely shallow sea (maybe he has stilts?) toward Midgar.  He must be stopped or all the innocents in Midgar are lost.  What spurs this attack on is President Rufus's decision to move the Junon Canon, now christened "Sister Ray," to Midgar and blow all of the mako reactors for one giant shot at Sephiroth.  This is such a great battle. It combines plot devices, a big showdown with an absurdly huge enemy, and great anticipation at Weapon slowly lumbers forward.
The sequence that follows is ultra cool as Sister Ray goes off, Weapon is taken down, and Sephiroth's shield is destroyed and Rufus pays the price for his choice (which is almost kind of redeeming in a heroic way).  The race to stop Sister Ray gives you one last chance to roam Shinra HQ, pick up some important items, and fight Proud Clod, Shinra's last line of defense.  The parachuting sequence into Midgar is pretty cool too, but really should have been an FMV.  The battle with Hojo is a nice capper and there is a nice Darth Vader at the end of Empire Strikes Back moment.  Let's pause a moment and take it all in...

If you are following plot, then there is but one thing left to do: make for the North Crater and get Sephiroth out of the way of Holy and save the planet.  But just because the game takes you someplace, doesn't mean you have to stay there.   As a matter of fact, Disc 3 has a nice free roaming component much like the middle of Disc 2 and I wonder how many people just see Disc 3 as the final battle and credits roll, without realizing how much more game there is.  But, again, ahead of myself.  Let's not forget this touching moment between Cloud and Tifa as the team contemplates their move against Sephiroth.  This moment more than any other proves to me that, as cool as Aeris is, Tifa is the only real choice for the romance sub-plot with Cloud.  Tifa rules.  My next playthrough will definitely be with Tifa and probably Cait Sith.

The worst thing you can do upon starting Disc 3 is go into the Crater.  There are far too many other things to do. First, I head over to Lucrecia's cave to pick up Vincent's Final Limit Break and Ultimate Weapon.  Let me take this moment to say, after playing with Vincent the entire game and using his limit breaks, including his final limit break, that despite being kind of a cool character with interesting side story, Vincent SUCKS.  Vincent fans, I apologize, but he just flat out sucks as a member of the party.  All of his limit breaks require you to give up control of his character for the remainder of the battle, and NONE of them are good enough to make up for that fact.  The best limit break is the chainsaw Jason Voorhees rip, and only that because he has an attack that inflicts all statuses on all enemies.  The other attack Jason/Vincent has is super weak and on a single target.  His Final Limit Break, Chaos, is about as good as most other characters' Level 2 limit break.  The main attack is good and while the Satan Slam is great against enemies weak against instant death, it sucks against the rest of the field, including bosses who are rarely vulnerable to instant death.  Sure I saw it take down a Behemoth King once, but Cosmo Memory it is not.  I'm glad I played through with Vincent for once, but I can tell you this, it will also be the last.

Rant aside, post Lucrecia, it's time to go get Cloud's Ultimate Weapon, Ultimate Weapon, from, you guessed it, Ultimate Weapon.  This scary bastard's bark is worse than his bite since you get to fight him in three stages in between which you can heal up.  He starts out in the giant crater behind Midgar and you have to fly into him to initiate the battle.  The cool part, though is that the battle takes place on the deck of the Highwind!  Very, very cool.  After pummeling him with Knights of the Round (yeah, why not?), he takes off and flies around the map for like two hours (seriously, I followed him for 10 minutes before I gave up and went and fed my Gold Chocobo and other things), before settling near Gongaga.  As mentioned, while I waited for UW to calm down, I fed my Gold Chocobo (I named him Heavy) some Sylkis Greens, I cashed in my prize at Turtle's Paradise in Wutai (I was missing the flier in Cosmo Canyon's Inn and the one in Yuffie's house), went ahead and bought the house in Costa del Sol (why not, I've got gil for days), stocked up on Ethers, Phoenix Downs, and Hypers (I have real problem with Sadness in the Crater, it's an emotional disorder).  I also visited a few other towns just to talk to people and see what they thought about Meteor's approach and stopped by Cosmo Canyon to witness Bugenhagen's Yoda moment and get Red XIII's Ultimate Weapon.  The Red XIII storyline might be one of the best character stories in the game.  I am so glad I played through with him!

Finally, UW settled himself about Gongaga and it was on again.  This time the battle happens on the ground, less exciting, but again, Knights of the Round gets the job done (very hard not to abuse the privilege on this one...).  I guess this time Ultimate Weapon got his ya-ya's out because he went straight to Cosmo Canyon and waited for me to ram him a final time.  The final battle with UW takes place back on board the Highwind and I combo'ed Cosmo Memory with Quadra Magic Ultima and Vincent's meager Chaos Limit Break to take him out.  His death throes create a crater in the eastern part of Cosmo Canyon allowing anyone who has not already been there (meaning people other than me) access to the Ancient Forest.  Chumps.
With that out of the way, it is time to pick up any last materia that I have been missing and then on to the grind!  I know I am missing some materia from the Gold Saucer.  I forgot all about buying the GIL PLUS and EXP PLUS materia from the candy striper in Wonder Square.  There are also a few that are prizes from winning at Chocobo racing, and I need to get the W-Summon from Battle Square.  And, what trip to the GS would be complete without some snowboarding and submarining?

I forgot how ridiculously easy chocobo racing is with a well fed Gold Chocobo.  Heavy is winning races against S class opponents on Automatic.  It is just silly.  Of course, when TEIOH races, Automatic will not do and it is a struggle to win, but it is possible using the strategy I mention above.  Win enough races against TEIOH and the girl who registers you will give you virtually all of the elite prizes winnable in the races.  Sweet!
After about an hour of racing, it is off to Battle Square, where my previous strategy proves solid and I walk away with the W-Summon materia and unlock the special battles (more on this in a minute).  By this time I have so much GP from Chocobo racing, that buying the two independent materia from Wonder Square is no problem, and while I'm there I finally manage to get that GOOD ranking on the Crazy snowboarding course!  Eat that!

Ok, so time to grind.  The best place to grind in the whole game is the North Crater.  It features the strongest enemies that grant the best AP and proves to be the most fun.  You can only sit and kill so many Headhunters outside of Mideel before things get tedious.  But, before I tell you the aggravating story of the Crater, LV5 Death, and The Brady Games Strategy Guide, I have to swing down to the undersea tunnel at Junon and morph the stupid Ghost Ship into the Guidebook.  For those of you not savvy, the Ghost Ship only appears in the undersea tunnel at Junon, and if you can stay in the battle long enough, remember his stupid Goannii attack can remove you from battle, and if you can avoid killing him outright, you can morph him into the key item "Guidebook."  The Guidebook can then be taken to the Kalm Traveler who lives upstairs in the far right house in Kalm, and who will trade you the Underwater Materia for it.  The Underwater materia is essential because it removes the 20 minute time limit on the battle with Emerald Weapon.  So, I did all of that.  It's a lot like that episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye has to get Radar a date with a hairdryer so he can get a new boot.

Now, as promised, the Story of the Crater, LV5 Death, and the Brady Games Strategy Guide.  For two hours, I was grinding along great.  I had cleared the first level of the Crater, before the team splits up, and was making my way back to the Highwind to save and plan my expedition into the second level when I came up against a couple of Gargoyles.  No big deal, I had been smacking them around all night, and I did not fear their final attack LV5 Death because it was missing my party every time (well, it killed Red XIII once, but no big).  And then, it happened.  You know what happened.  IT.  I was not paying attention and my entire party was level 70.  WIPEOUT.  Two hours gone.  I was pretty heated, but I was also willing to chalk it up to inattention and bad luck. I also knew that, as aggravating as it was, there was a solution to this problem:  Final Attack.  The back door materia that salvages just such a situation.  But where to get it?  I forget.  So I consult my trusty Brady Games OFFICIAL FFVII Strategy guide.  It says "Final Attack" "Chocobo Racing Gift."  Huh.  Really? I thought I already cleared that out, but ok.  So I reload my game, feed Heavy another round of Sylkis Greens and make for the Gold Saucer.  I race another hour's worth of Chocobo races, win all kinds of prizes and restock my GP, but never even SEE the Final Attack materia as a prize.  Annoyed, I decide that something must be wrong.  The game is telling me one thing, but my trusty Brady Games Strategy Guide is telling me something else.  It couldn't be my trusty Brady Games Strategy Guide could it?  It says OFFICIAL right on the cover and promises "all of the secrets straight from Squaresoft."  It couldn't be wrong.  Squaresoft themselves told them where to find the Finall Attack materia.
It was wrong.  A quick check of pretty much any online walkthrough or FAQ will tell you that the Final Attack materia is won by competing in the special battles in Battle Square.  Angry Face. Very Angry Face.  Three hours of game play shot thanks to inaccurate "official" information.  Thanks Brady Games! (more on you later)

So I saunter over to Battle Square and take on the special battle.  This one is different, so the strategy used above will not fly.  Since I have it and materia growth means nothing, I equip the Ultimate Weapon.  Drop the Slash-All and equip 2x Cut, as there will only be single enemies.  Equip W-Item as it may be necessary if things start breaking.  Barrier is more important than ever so it goes in.  Any extra summons, HP and MP Plus, and Speed Plus are also welcome.  You need as close to 9999 HP and 999 MP as possible.  Just treat each round as a boss fight and you'll be fine.  My final battle was with Proud Clod, ugh, and not even Knights of the Round could take him down alone.  Luckily I was able to hold on long enough to hit him with Quadra Magic Ultima and a few Counter Attacks and he went down.  Final Attack was mine!  (I'm sparing you the true details about how I went into the Crater a second time after the Chocobo Races because I wanted to try again and see if my LV5 Death wipeout was  fluke.  That was another hour of grinding lost, but I'm leaving that out of this version.  It will be on the Blu-Ray bonus features when that comes out...)

So back to the Crater with Final Attack-Revive equipped on Red XIII.  This time, grinding is successful and I start leveling up materia like there is no tomorrow.  I clear the top level of the Crater with ease and then head to the second level.  Here is where the best grinding can happen, and it can happen without too much boredom.  Because the second level is made of three circular paths, each with a different set of enemies to fightm and no enemy with less than 100 AP, there is plenty of variety as you while away the hours, conferring with the flowers, consulting with the rain.  (Sorry, I break out into numbers from Wizard of Oz when prompted)  My favorite trick is to steal Elixirs from Master Tonberry then use them during the Magic Pot battles.  Magic Pots cannot be hit unless you first hit them with an Elixir.  That makes them vulnerable and then they go down like they are made of paper.  They also grant a whopping 1200 AP each!  That makes for much faster grinding!  Lots of enemies down here also drop Turbo Ethers and X-Potions.  Great things to have in the days ahead.
As of now the part is at level 82, about half of the materia is mastered, I am still missing Sneak Attack, which I think is another Battle Square prize (my strategy guide says so, but you know...), and I have cleared the entire Crater. My Save Crystal is used just before the descent to Sephiroth.  This allows me to stay in the second level of the Crater as long as I have tents to restore my party (I have a LOT of tents).  It also gives me a save point right before the final battle.  I have also equipped Cloud with the Apocalypse sword since it has Triple materia growth.  It has half the slots of the Ragnarok, but the growth is worth it.  It is going to take a few more hours of grinding, but soon the Master Materia will be mine, and then, Emerald and Ruby, here I come!  I also have plans to complete my Enemy Skill materia for the first time ever this go round.  So, if you've been with me this long (and I thank you for your diligence and patience), why not stick around and see how this pans out.  I promise big time strategies for success (hoo boy!) and maybe a few other tips and tricks along the way!

UPDATE!!  10.29.12

Well, time has passed, and I have nearly mastered all of the materia, but things are far from rosy.

Let's start with the ugly.  Remember the story above about the Brady Games Official Strategy Guide?  Well, it struck again.  If you'll recall, the only materia I was missing was Sneak Attack, a great first strike materia that is available only through the Gold Saucer.  But where in the Gold Saucer do you get it?  According to Brady Games it is a prize after the "Boss Battle" in Battle Square.  So, trusting idiot that I am, I went back to Battle Square, fought the special battle about eight times, racked up 3 Combat Diaries, 2 Autographs, and 3 Gamblers, but no materia.  Skeptical, and frustrated, I asked the wife to double check online and make sure I was not being lied to, again.  I was.  Sneak Attack is only available as a Chocobo Racing Prize and is most easily obtained in the A class races.  This makes sense as I have raced nearly 50 S class races and never once saw a Sneak Attack.  It appears more often and is more easily won in A class.  That doesn't necessarily mean it will be a cakewalk, however, as it seems that the A class racers have been practicing and it took some strategic racing to walk away with the prize.  Here's a tip, unless you kept racing them, both the Water and Mountain Chocobos in your stable will still be A class.  Fatten them up with some Sylkis Greens and then race them.

Sneak Attack in hand, I thought that while I was out and about I would saunter over to Cosmo Canyon and see what all of the Master Materia hooplah is about.  I had already mastered all of the Green and Yellow materia (sidebar, turns out Flash, the highest form of Slash-All materia, is really, really good), so I knew I could turn them into Master Materia, but I wasn't sure how the whole thing worked.
Turns out the Master Materia requires you to sacrifice all of your mastered materia in order to be created. That's right, you have to give up all of your hard mastered Green Materia to make one, big, fat green materia that contains all of the mastered green materia and its accompanying spells.  That's great and all, but there are distinct advantages to having the individual materia and equipping it to different characters.  So, I saved, then I made both Green and Yellow Master Materia. I checked them out, pretty cool, and subsequently hard reset my game.  The Master Materia is neat, but it may not be as functional as I had hoped.  I suppose if you have other materia, like Restore and Barrier, mastered as back-up, it's a real boon, but otherwise, I think it is best to save this kind of thing for the very end of the game.

A little disheartened by the double-edged nature of the Master Materia, I was not terribly motivated to head back to the Crater and resume grinding my remaining materia (I will, for sure, as you will soon see the reason), so I needed something else to do.  Everyone in my party is pushing level 99, most of my materia is mastered, I've got tons of great items, why not go ahead and take on Ruby Weapon?
Who is that poking his nose out of the sand?

Rumor has it, Ruby is the easier of the two Weapons, so in my arrogance, I figure I stand a pretty good shot of taking it down now.  But first, let's prepare.  I equip all of my characters with their Ultimate Weapons and set Cloud up as my physical damage and W-Item character, Red XIII as my magician loaded up with the best Green materia, and Vincent as my Summoner, equipped with Knights of the Round, Bahamut ZERO, and Phoenix.  It doesn't take long for Ruby Weapon to teach me the futility of my efforts.
Vincent fights alone.  He's a goner.

First thing first, Ruby Weapon is invulnerable as long as its claws are not stuck in the sand, which is how this fight begins.  Before he'll bury those claws in the sand, he will eliminate two of your party members with his Whirlsand attack.  This means you'll have to take on Ruby Weapon with only one party member.  That seems pretty impossible.  However, after playing Ruby Weapon for 2 hours, I have learned four very important things:

1.  Ruby Weapon generally does not Whirlsand characters who are dead.
2.  Ruby Weapon usually eliminates the flanking characters and leaves the middle character.
3. Ruby Weapon is not terribly vulnerable to physical attacks, but is vulnerable to Bahamut ZERO.
4. Ruby Weapon has very powerful magic attacks.

This means you do not have to fight Ruby alone, and even if you do, you can often dictate who that character is and arm them accordingly against him.  Pick the character you want to take Ruby on with (make sure they have 9999 HP and 999MP).  Equip this character with Final Attack-Revive, Phoenix, Quadra Magic-Bahamut ZERO, Barrier, Restore, Time, and W-Item. W-Summon isn't bad either, nor is W-Magic nor Mega All. Equip your two other characters with anything else you might think is helpful, but think more in the way of supporting the main character since you may not have them in the fight. If possible, reduce the HP of the two support characters to 1, or if you like, go ahead and kill them off.  Then attack Ruby Weapon.
Nanaki goes it alone this time.  It don't look good...

When the battle starts, kill off your two companions if they are not already dead (a good low level spell should do it).  Then wait Ruby out.  Soon it will bury those horrible claws and their tendrils will emerge behind you in the sand.  One tendril hits you for 50-90% of your HP, the other hits you for upwards of 500MP.  They are evil.  Ruby himself will continue to wail away with Shadow Flare (keep your Enemy Skill handy), Ruby Ray, and Ultima.  Once the claws are buried, resurrect your allies with Life2 (or Phoenix, although chances are good Ruby will retaliate for that one).  If you can, fire off MBarrier or Wall and Haste. Then set-to with the Quadra Magic-Bahamut ZERO barrage.  As long as you can, use your other characters to support the main attacker with Turbo Ethers, Elixirs, and anything else that will keep them able to cast QM-BZ.  If a supporting character has Mime, use that as to mimic the QM-BZ.  This should, should I say, should be the death knell for Ruby Weapon.  I will let you know soon...

FINAL UPDATE!  11.11.12
Ruby is DOWN!  It took 2.5 hours and a lot of patience to set up and execute but Ruby is down!  I'm not going to say it was easy, but with the right materia set up, once you get the combo going, it is pretty easy.  Here's how I did it (with much respect and kudos to shadow460 at
Put Cloud in the middle slot of the party with full health, Bahamut ZERO-Quadra Magic-W-Summon-Mime-Hades-MPPlus, Final Attack-Phoenix (all at Master level).  Shield, Enemy Skill, HP Plus, Magic Plus, and Speed Plus are helpful as well.  Equip Cloud with Ultima Weapon, Imperial Guard, and Ribbon.  Cloud is flanked by Vincent and Red XIII each with Mime, Bahamut ZERO-HP Absorb and anything else that you might find helpful (HP Plus, Speed Plus, etc.) I gave Red XIII a back-up Hades and W-Summon just in case.  Make sure that each has their ultimate weapon and Wizard Bracelets (for the materia slots mainly as you will never do any physical damage during this fight). I give Red the other Ribbon and Vincent the Sprint Shoes.  Also make sure both are as near death as possible or already dead when the fight starts.

Ram into Ruby's head and initiate the battle.  Ruby's first attack should take out the two weaker members of the party. (Usually Big Sweep).  If you have time, cast Shield on Cloud.  When only Cloud is left, Ruby will almost immediately bury his claws in the sand and become vulnerable.  Cloud casts Phoenix and gets everyone back in the game.  On his next turn, Cloud casts W-Summon-Bahamut ZERO-Hades.  If another party member gets a turn, DO NOT DO ANYTHING to attack Ruby Weapon, skip their turns or cast protective spells on the party (Resist is good for Vincent since he has no Ribbon).  Once Cloud casts his W-Summon combo, everyone uses Mime to keep it going.  Cloud should use Mime as well since this will prevent any further MP use.  The only time Ruby should be able to retaliate is during the initial casting of the combo since he will not be stopped by Hades yet.  This may cause you to scramble a bit, but only if someone dies.  Otherwise you should be able to keep the mimed combo going until Ruby dies.
In my game, Ruby shrugged off Hades' effect about halfway through and took Vincent out with Whirlsand, but I was able to re-establish Hades' effect and finish him off with Cloud and Nanaki.  Each casting of the combo takes about 5 minutes to execute so you have some time to get a drink, make a sandwich, or whatever else you need to do.  Just make sure you are back in time to hit Mime again for each character as it comes up.  Mime is crucial here as I said above because it reduces MP use and it eliminates any worry that Quadra Magic or Bahamut ZERO will max out their uses before Ruby dies.  Hades' paralyze effect should keep Ruby docile for the entire battle, barring a fluke (not a Chinese liver fluke, mind you, the other kind)

It takes a bit of time (for me 2.5 hours), but with Ruby dead you get the Desert Rose.  If you like, you can take this prize to the old man in Kalm and trade it for a Gold Chocobo, but if you are like me (and generally by the time you are strong enough to take out Ruby Weapon) you already have a Gold Chocobo, so this reward is pretty worthless.  Because Ruby was such a bitch to take out, I kept the Rose as a memento of my struggle.

With Ruby down, it was time to turn my attention to Emerald Weapon.  Emerald has been heralded as the hardest boss character in FFVII.  With attacks that can wipe out the entire party in one fell swoop, multiple cannons that attack in unison and devastate HP and MP, Emerald packs a serious punch.  I beat him on the first try in about 10 minutes.  No kidding.

The set-up for Ruby works pretty well for Emerald as well, with a few modifications.  Give Cloud W-Summon-Knights of the Round-HP Absorb, Final Attack-Phoenix and Mime (all at Master Level).  I also gave him Magic Counter-Gravity (Emerald is weak to Gravity), HP Plus, Magic Plus, and Speed Plus.  Red XIII got the exact same set-up (just in case).  Vincent got as much of that set-up as I could afford; his KotR and HP Absorb were not at Master Level, nor was his W-Summon.  Since Emerald is immune to Hades' effect you will have to do some maintenance should Emerald get off a lucky shot and kill someone, but when you are not Reviving, Megalixiring, or Phoenixing start the following combo:   W-Summon-Knights of the Round (x2)-Mime-Mime-Mime.  HP Absorb should keep everyone healthy if Emerald attacks and Final Attack-Phoenix will bring the party back in the worst case scenario.  Occasionally, if Emerald hits Cloud, he'll retaliate with Demi3 and this can get picked up by your Mime chain, so if you don't want to risk that happening, leave it out.  I kept it in because Demi3 packs a serious punch and the Magic Counter gives you an additional attack, but it can disrupt your KotR combo.

If you can keep the Mime chain going, you can take Emerald out pretty easily.  You may not even need the Underwater Materia.  I equip it anyway, but it doesn't seem to be necessary as Emerald goes down much faster than Ruby.
Now THIS is a prize!

For taking out Emerald Weapon you get the Earth Harp which you can, and should, take to the old man in Kalm and trade for, get this, ALL THREE MASTER MATERIA.  That's right.  No need to sacrifice your hard mastered materia when you can get all three for virtually free.  The main thing this tells me is that next time around I need to take Emerald Weapon out as soon as possible during my next playthrough.  All three Master Materia is a champion prize and well worth the effort.  It makes a Gold Chocobo look like the Tissue consolation prize at Battle Square.  So, yeah, I traded it, fast.

Having challenged and defeated both Weapons, I now feel qualified to make an evaluation of both of these super-hard extra boss battles.  Opinion varies on this subject with strong lobbyists in each camp. For my money, Ruby Weapon is the hardest boss in the game.  Sure, there is a knock-out combo which can take Ruby down pretty as you please, but A). surviving long enough to figure out the right combo materia is really hard, B). leveling up and replicating all of the materia needed takes a lot of time and patience since most of the materia needed are unique, C). getting all of your characters into the battle long enough to execute the combo is not easy, even if you know what you are doing, D). surviving long enough to execute the combo once Ruby is vulnerable is never a guarantee, E). Hades' doesn't always keep Ruby paralyzed a full turn, so he can "wake up" at the worst possible moment and take out one or two party members making it very hard to keep the killer combo going, and F). Even with the killer combo, Ruby takes a LONG time to kill.

Stacked against all of these qualities, Emerald Weapon, despite its devastating lethality, seems like a chump.  At least that was my experience.  This was the first time I ever took on either one of these monsters.  It took me much longer to figure out how (even with great help as credited above) to beat Ruby and then even longer to do it.  Emerald went down on the first try and rather quickly at that.  Both battles are great, Emerald Weapon being more fun and less regimented, and worth the time and effort it takes win them.  The reward for beating Emerald is the clear winner.

I am not even REMOTELY kidding.  What follows is a blow-by-blow account of everything that happens at the conclusion of this amazing game up to the final screen after the credits.  If you don't want to know, then stop reading a go do something else.  You have been warned.

And Then There Was One.

Having taken Ruby and Emerald out, there is but one thing left to do and it lies in that ominous Crater I have virtually lived in for the past several weeks.  Countless times I have been to the edge, to the point of no return, but I have always turned back because there was more to do.  That barrier no longer prevents me from marching boldly into the belly of the beast(s).  This is the part of the game I hate the most.  Hate, you say?  Yes hate.  This point in the game says there is nothing left to do.  Nothing new to see, no new secrets to ferret out, nothing left.  The adventures in the world of FFVII have come to a close.  Mournfully, I make a final tour of the world via the Highwind (I actually do this too, it's not hyperbole, ask the wife).  Goodbye Rocket Town, goodbye Midgar, goodbye Chocobo Sage, goodbye Cactaur Island, and so on.  Then I head for the Crater and descend.
One last trip down the giant, freaky spinal column...

With no real reason or need to level up much materia, I equip Enemy Away and work my way down to the final save point. When I arrive at the meeting place, I am reminded that this game has a plot and that all of the Sephiroth clones are marching into the Crater toward some impending doom.  It's been a long time since that all went down, so I appreciate the patience of the clones allowing me to run around the world for hours on end before reaching their baleful end.

This is my final save file. 96 Hours, wow.
The game forces a split into three parties, but particularly on this playthrough, it's not really necessary since the core party is strong enough to fend for itself all the way to the end.  The final descent after the point of no return is pretty trippy as you jump past an FMV backdrop and the creepy music begins to play.  Even with Enemy Away, I get a few enemy encounters, including one with the most elusive enemy in the game, the Iron Man.  It is really too bad that this enemy only shows up here in the Crater after the point of no return.  I waste no time and give him a heavy dose of KotR, but I would love to have more time to battle it out with this guy.

At the bottom Jenova in all of her disgusting glory attacks.  This thing is just plain gross.  What is that?  Some kind of big nasty flesh ball with tentacles and breasts?  Ick.  There is only one course of action, obviously, Knight sof the Round.  My party is so stupid strong at this point that Jenova closes up shop almost as soon as the battle starts.  Seriously, Jenova maybe gets off a single attack and is then red and gone.  Wow.
Just gross!  Kill it!

Next up, Sephiroth appears ready to take his beating. Poor sap, he has no idea how badly he is about to be crushed.

Bizzaro Sephiroth is actually Sephiroth riding atop some kind of giant.  "Bizarro," indeed.  But much like Jenova, a few rounds of Mimed KotR and he is a distant memory.  I did blow Red XIII's and Cloud's Limit Breaks on him just to use them up. Nanaki did ok hitting the many parts for big damage.  Cloud's efforts were mostly wasted as he predominately attacked the invincible core, but it was fun turning them loose nonetheless.  I probably should have let them take on Jenova instead.  Ah well.  The battle was over pretty fast and I never had to check in on my other party (nor would I have anyway).

As if Bizzaro Sephiroth was not odd enough, Safer Sephiroth takes the whole thing one step further with his pale tentacle legs and giant bird wing arm, not to mention the super-creepy "Sephiroth " choral chant that serves as the background music for the fight.  Safer Sephiroth got off a few attacks on me, most notably Shadow Flare which I learned at the last possible minute to complete my Enemy Skill set (ha!), but I cast Big Guard and then laid in with Mimed KotR.  Like the previous two battles, this one was over relatively shortly.  My level 99 party was just too much and after surviving Emerald and Ruby Weapons there wasn't much these battles were going to be able to show me that was worthy of concern.

Defeated, Safer Sephiroth dissolves into the ether and the game is over, or at least the part of the game that requires my interaction.  The concluding FMV takes over and reveals the fate of the world and the heroes that we have come to know and love. Let's take a minute to soak it all in.  Commentary to follow.

If anything the final scene in the Crater proves once and for all that Tifa is the correct choice for the Gold Saucer date.  The look-in at Marlene in Kalm is a nice way to tie the huge plot back together and return it to the street level where it started.  Barret's comment about Holy being the answer to AVALANCHE's prayer also does a nice job of bringing it all back down to earth. Midgar gets a good pounding and despite Cait Sith's assurances that all of the Midgar citizens have taken refuge in the slums, I have a bad feeling that not many survived Meteor's final thrust.

Even though it's not playable, the final showdown between Cloud and Sephiroth is epic.  Even though Aeris is taken at the end of Disc 1, she is clearly not forgotten and remains a key element of the plot here at the end.  An enormous end to an enormous game, and the credits roll.

And then...

This final scene is incredibly cool and a fitting way to cap what has been an emotional significant ride.  FFVII is fun to play because of its engrossing characters, engaging game play, and titanic plot.  The weight of all of that is nicely bound up in this final moment.  Seeing Midgar ruined and the descendents of Nanaki looking over the promise of a new day and the renewal of the planet puts a bow on Cloud and company's story, which is kind of sad, but does so in a way that goes beyond the simple "happy ending."

Now, I've played through Final Fantasy VII upwards of a half a dozen times.  I have loved it each time.  The first playthrough is always the best because everything is new, but the game is extremely well made and I keep coming back for more.  This go round was particularly fun because I finally poked into a couple of corners I had never dared before.  Mastering all of the materia, learning all of the Enemy Skills, and defeating Ruby and Emerald Weapon gave me new insight to the depths and complexities of this truly superior RPG.  Even after 15 years, I maintain that FFVII is the single greatest Japanese-style RPG.  It's so good I honestly wouldn't mind starting right back over and playing it again.  But you folks deserve more than endless playing of FFVII, so I'll try to move on to another, exciting project.  I hope you have enjoyed this new feature, Playing it Through, and I hope you'll join me on my next PiT romp, whatever that might be!
Thank you for reading along, I know it's been a long ride!

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