Was Final Fantasy VII really the ‘most returned’ game of all time?

1997’s Final Fantasy VII was nothing short of ground-breaking. Japanese role-playing games had only enjoyed limited success in the West before its arrival, often perceived as being a bit, well, nerdy.

RPGs were renowned for being slow-paced, text-heavy, and needlessly complicated – everything the instantly gratifying big hitters of the era, from Sonic to Mortal Kombat, weren’t. Adding to their reputation, they often shipped with offputtingly thick instruction manuals. Why read a book when you can watch a film? This ethos applied to video games too, it seems.

While SquareSoft themselves had managed to make the SNES shine with such games as Secret of Mana, RPGs were generally seen as being a bit dated and visually crude too. The fact both SEGA and Sony’s American arms limited the amount of 2D games on their 32-bit systems at launch, preferring flashy polygon-based games instead, certainly didn’t help the genre either.

Two years into the 32-bit war, Final Fantasy VII changed everything. It was the first major JRPG in the West; a boundary-breaking game that penetrated the mainstream, creating a whole new audience singlehandedly. Even before the first screenshots were revealed it turned heads – SquareSoft famously claimed the Nintendo 64 couldn’t host the anticipated role-player due to its restrictive cartridge sizes, instantly giving it the reputation of being “the game the N64 couldn’t handle.”

Over the coming months, the gaming press dropped more enticing titbits, such as the fact that it was coming on multiple discs due to featuring an unprecedented amount of CGI cut-scenes. It was shaping up to be a game like no other; the PSone’s next huge hit.

Angst-ridden lead Cloud Strife made an excellent cover star. The supporting cast of the chaingun-wielding Barret, Sephiroth, and Tifa weren’t far behind. The mags of the era fuelled the hype train until its month of release, ultimately resulting in outstanding acclaim when reviews arrived. Own a PSone? This is essential.

Shortly after launching something unexpected then happened. Word began to circulate that despite universal critical praise and impressive sales figures, Final Fantasy VII had become ”the most returned game of all-time’ due to countless gamers mistaking it as a typical action game.

This appears to stem from a comment made by one of the UK PlayStation magazines – Google fails to provide a definitive source, but there are dozens of references to this. In the years that followed, this claim appears to have gained further traction, becoming a gaming myth of sorts. The most recent reference we could find was within this GamesRadar piece (via Retro Gamer) from earlier this year.

For reasons obvious, it’s doubtful Sony nor SquareSoft shared details about how many copies of FFVII were returned. It simply isn’t good for business. We’re not even sure how anybody could keep a record of how many copies were being taken back to stores.

There are reports of gamers claiming to see a surprising amount of pre-owned copies not long after release, which perhaps was the basis. A spokesperson from Sony or SquareSoft making a remark behind closed doors during an interview or similar is the only other explanation. A game doesn’t become ‘the most returned of all-time’ without some reasoning or evidence.

Sadly, reasoning might be all we have. Sony chose to advertise Final Fantasy VII in the same manner as an action game, and so gamers who didn’t know any better simply assumed it was a typical third-person adventure. In their eyes, this was just the latest in a long line of essential PSone games, with the added lure of sky-high production values, a gritty tone, a stylish protagonist, and a degree of sex appeal thanks to Tifa and her sports bra.

Little to no in-game footage was used during commercials, relying on the glitzy CGI cut-scenes to do the talking instead. Even the reverse of the game’s case skirted around its role-playing roots, focusing on such features as the snowboarding mini-game and the ability to “summon raging demons.” It looked cool. It looked exciting. It made anything on the N64 and Saturn look dull by comparison.

For gamers more accustomed to the likes of FIFA, Tekken, and Tomb Raider, playing Final Fantasy VII for the first time was no doubt a daunting experience. Under the stylish exterior, it was still a thoroughbred RPG – it had menu-driven combat, a steep learning curve, text-heavy dialogue, inventory management, and confusing abbreviations galore. In 1997 the typical gamer had no idea what experience points were let alone comprehension of the concept of levelling up. It provided a substantial challenge as well – even the early boss battles required proficient use of healing abilities. Again, this concept was beyond those who simply bought a PSone for post-pub FIFA matches.

Those hoodwinked by the marketing campaign swiftly marched their copies back to retailers. Not just a few gamers, but enough for FFVII to become a record-breaker. Or that’s how the story goes, at least.

Having mulled this myth over for the past few weeks, the term ‘the most returned game of all-time’ has become increasingly difficult to swallow. It’s a claim too ambiguous – why is there no figure ever associated with this myth? It’s fair to assume the majority of copies were returned close to launch, at a time when it was still being advertised on TV. Wikipedia claims it reached sales of 500,000 copies in less than three weeks. If 10% of copies were returned, that’s a colossal 50,000 copies. Even just 5% (25,000) doesn’t seem right.

The story of the Atari’s ET movie tie-in spoiling Christmas 1982 for countless kids and consequently being returned to US stores is legendary. It’s also very well documented – Atari had warehouses full of unsold stock because retailers were flooded with returns. We all know how the rest of this story goes. Just like FFVII, it cleared a million sales in the run-up to Christmas – the launch figures are almost identical. The market wasn’t as big in 1982 as it was in 1997, this much is true, but it seems there’s more proof out there that ET is the most returned game of all time in the US.

Final Fantasy VII could still very well be the most returned game in the UK, however. I’ll give it that. This tale began in a UK publication, and the events surrounding ET never occurred in this country. It came and went like any other video game before it. The PSone had a huge casual audience in the UK – lackluster movie tie-ins and terrible, terrible, football games often topped the charts. Sony was aiming FFVII at this demographic. It’s fair to say most only had a basic understanding of RPGs, so it is feasible they found this a baffling introduction to the genre, expecting something in-line with the more action-orientated remake.

Remember also that the previous Final Fantasy games never made it to Europe.

As for the amount returned, we’d wager the figure was in the low thousands – enough for retailers to notice an influx, and gaming journos to report as much, but not enough to generate a gaming myth of ‘Atari video game burial’ proportions.

Without wanting to get too off-topic, Rise of the Robots likely held the dubious accolade of being the ‘most returned game’ at some point. The much-maligned brawler graced almost every system going, from 16-bit to 8-bit. No matter the format, it was a total stinker that countless gamers were duped into asking Father Christmas for back in 1993. It didn’t shift in similar numbers to FFVII, but it stands to reason that a wealth of copies found their way back to retailers.

There’s even a chance FFVII wasn’t ‘the most returned game’ for very long. Driver on PSone did the numbers at retail, topping the charts for weeks. Many gamers struggled to complete its ridiculously tough tutorial, resulting in frustration and anger. If core PSone gamers couldn’t beat FFVII’s first boss, then Driver’s opening may have also been their breaking point. It’s debatable as to whether gamers were angry enough to march it back to Electronics Boutique. Unlike Rise of the Robots, it wasn’t an outright stinker. It just made a bad first impression.

Apologies if you came here expecting a definitive answer to the question posed. We will never know if Final Fantasy VII was returned in record numbers – any evidence has seemingly been lost to time, or perhaps never existed in the first place. Whispers and sound reasoning towards this lesser-known myth are all we have. It does make for an intriguing story, though. That’s something we can agree on.

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