In early Square role-playing games, it seemed like the go-to enemy organization was an evil empire. In the Final Fantasy universe, kingdoms are good (usually) and empires are bad, despite the fact that these games were made in a country with an emperor. Actually, that raises an interesting question. Do the nasty emperors in the game have the same title as the Emperor of Japan, or are they just translated the same way? Final Fantasy II featured Mateus, Emperor of Palamecia, who after being defeated managed to take over Hell.
FFVI returned to the theme with an empire ruled by Gestahl, who while quite a mean piece of work was actually not the final boss. Instead, he was betrayed and killed by his even more evil associate Kefka.
Secret of Mana can be summed up in much the same way, with Emperor Vandole seeking magic in order to gain power and joining forces with an evil being who eventually betrays him.
FFVII isn’t really all that different in this respect, although with the more modern setting the villains belong to a corporation instead of an empire.
I came across this post looking for information on the slap fight in the game, and noticed that there’s also a post on the Shinra Corporation, presenting it as not totally evil. Then again, maybe it’s not that Shinra isn’t bad so much as that the heroes are jerks. Normally your characters represent a rebellion like the one in Star Wars, while here they’re in a straight-up terrorist group. The Shinra Electric Power Company, their name basically meaning “all-covering” in Japanese, supplies power to the world’s cities through Mako reactors, which suck the lifeblood from the planet.
Obviously this isn’t a good thing, but I’m not sure how much the company actually knows about it. There’s an obvious environmental theme, and the reactors and the fact that people can be poisoned by overexposure to Mako makes it somewhat equivalent to nuclear power. But since they’re apparently taking energy right from the planet, isn’t it mo like geothermal power? It’s FFVI where you use fossil fuels, obtaining magic from the mineral remains of dead beings. And if Mako is radioactive, wouldn’t that also apply to Materia, which your party carries around in large amounts?
Anyway, Shinra eventually organizes its own army and police force, and gains total control over the city of Midgar, with its mayor being a mere figurehead. The short, chubby, cigar-smoking President Shinra is at the reins at the beginning of the game, with his son Rufus set to inherit it at his death.
Rufus has already participated in some skulduggery, but his father has forgiven him. After Sephiroth assassinates the President, Rufus takes over, planning to use an agenda of fear rather than his dad’s image as a public benefactor.
Meanwhile, the terrorist group AVALANCHE has decided to best way to save the world is to blow up reactors, apparently ignoring the fact that this would kill a lot of people. And those are the GOOD guys in this game.
Comic by Galvatron Zero
While the groups battle each other frequently, they actually have a common goal in stopping Sephiroth from hitting the planet with a meteor. As the post I linked to states, AVALANCHE ends up being complicit in giving Sephiroth the Black Materia that he needs to summon the meteor AND in thwarting Shinra’s attempt to blow up the meteor with a rocket loaded with Huge Materia. Of course, it’s part of pretty much every RPG plot (well, except maybe open-world ones) that you have to do stupid things in order to progress. Even if it’s totally obvious that obtaining a certain item is going to give a bad guy more power, there’s some obstacle that keeps you from just not getting it.
The Shinra executives are a crew of sadistic, power-hungry maniacs, with at least one exception. Scarlet, the head of weapons development, has a penchant for violence and an evil laugh. Professor Hojo, a mad scientist with no regard for life who injects test subjects with parasitic alien cells, is in charge of scientific research until he decides to take Sephiroth’s side. Heidegger leads the military, and you can probably guess that someone named after a philosopher who supported the Nazis isn’t going to be a nice guy. Until Sephiroth uses the Black Materia, there’s really no purpose at all to the space exploration department, which receives practically no funding since a failed rocket launch years earlier. Still, its leader Palmer is still on the board of directors, despite his being a senile, feeble old man who drinks tea with lard in it. He’s largely a slapstick character, being hit by a truck at the end of the one battle in which he fights, then almost chopped up by an airplane propeller.
He actually stuck with me rather more than the game probably intended, as some people on a message board I subscribed to years ago made a fansite for him. Finally, Reeve Tuesti, the head of urban development, actually has a conscience. While he was the one who developed the Mako reactors in the first place, he likely didn’t realize the damage they could do. He’s the only one on the board against President Shinra’s destroying a sector of the city. He apparently has some skill in robotics, as he made Cait Sith, a mechanical cat that rides around on top of a Moogle doll.
Reeve initially uses the cat to spy on AVALANCHE, but later helps them out. The company pretty much collapses toward the end, and I’m not sure if it survives into any of the direct sequels, although Rufus and Reeve definitely do.