Final Fantasy VII was a watershed title not only in terms of opening the floodgates for JRPG localization in the Western Hemisphere, but was also a personal watershed title for many of our individual gaming histories, mine included. A huge part of why Final Fantasy VII is a personal icon lies in its cast of characters. While the main character is Cloud Strife, it's the entire ensemble cast that really makes the game the landmark title that it is. Watching a friend play Final Fantasy VII decades ago is what made me want to play a JRPG and go on my own interactive epic journey with a cast of characters (hopefully) as colorful as Final Fantasy VII's. Final Fantasy VII's cast set my own personal benchmark for what I think a JRPG's ensemble cast should be.
The characters themselves are disparate, but I was always struck by the common theme of "believing that which is untrue" tying the main cast together. Along with that theme, which I will expand on shortly, I witnessed many of the most arresting moments in the game where characters found some resolution in this area through help from their new friends. Without those friends, they never would have gotten over their fallacies and this subtle bond of abstract commonality anchored these distinct characters together in a wonderful way. The overall story arc of the game would be lost if any of one of them were absent, including the hidden/optional ones.
Final Fantasy VII's cast set my own personal benchmark for what I think a JRPG's ensemble cast should be.
Let's look at how that theme represents itself in each cast member. Cloud believes he is Zack. Barret believes that by allowing Shinra to build a Mako reactor in North Corel, it would bolster the town's economy, create jobs, and he could afford the medical treatment for his wife's illness. Tifa believes her feelings for Cloud were unrequited. (I could write an entire essay on why Tifa is one of the most amazing JRPG characters ever, but that's another op-ed for another time.) Aeris believes that her special materia was useless. Red XIII believes that his father was a coward. Cid believes that Shera selfishly crushed his dream of space travel. Sephiroth believes he is a descendant of Jenova and part of the race of Ancients.
The most complicated interpretation of this theme lies in Cait Sith. Some might say he's the embodiment of a lie in that his avatar of a dopey fortune teller is remotely controlled by Reeve, Shinra's urban planning executive. I think Reeve believes that he can make a genuine difference in the lives of all citizens, but is disillusioned by Shinra's corporate greed and inhumanity. Speaking of Shinra, this "belief in the untrue" theme could extend to its other members. For example, one of Heidegger's character traits is that he believes he can never make a mistake, despite clear proof in front of him. My point is that this overarching theme is what wonderfully binds Final Fantasy VII's dramatis personae, both major and minor, into a truly special entity.
The optional/secret characters, Yuffie and Vincent, may not exemplify the theme as strongly, if at all, but they are vital to the cast. Even though Vincent is a secret character, recruiting him fills in a gaping hole in the overall plot, making him far more essential than any secret character I can think of. As for Yuffie, though her storyline is tertiary to everyone else's, Shinra's devastating effect on her hometown of Wutai allows her the following common bond with the party: all of them have a bone to pick with Shinra in some way, shape, or form (including Cait Sith). Plus, the time when Cloud gave Yuffie tips to ease her motion sickness provided a sweet moment of character development for him. He became a better person because of Yuffie just as the others all became better through everyone they befriended on this journey.
And even though Yuffie and Vincent are optional/secret characters, can you really imagine Final Fantasy VII without them? Vincent even starred in spinoff games to flesh out his backstory. As for Yuffie, she's become a prominent figure in games like Kingdom Hearts, cementing her identifiability with Final Fantasy VII. Despite being an optional character, she is as much the face of Final Fantasy VII as Tifa or Aeris. I sincerely hope that Vincent and Yuffie are given mandatory character status in the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake because they are an integral part of making the ensemble work and deserve to participate in the ending cinematics this time around.
When I think about Final Fantasy VII, I don't just think about Cloud and Sephiroth. I think about Tifa, Aeris, Cid, Red XIII, Cait Sith, Barret, Vincent, Yuffie, and everyone else, including some of the Shinra execs the party crosses paths and swords with. Taking even one character away from Final Fantasy VII will cause everything we know and love about its epic yarn to completely unravel. And that is what essentially makes Final Fantasy VII's ensemble cast one of the most iconic ensemble casts in the genre.