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Fans use machine learning to deliver the Final Fantasy 7 HD Remaster the game deserves

The CG backgrounds in Final Fantasy 7 only exist at a low resolution for the PS1 era - but fans using AI are hoping to change that.

A few months ago, an article appeared on VG247 about why the problem with porting Final Fantasy 8 to other platforms lies in a maintenance issue. In short, it's mostly about the fact that in the 1990s, few game developers meticulously kept "master" copies of their creations. In many cases, developer tools were deleted and overwritten after a game was completed, and then reused in the studio's next project. This means that when it comes time to up-res or otherwise improve classic games, in some cases it's a difficult and daunting task.

Such was the case with Final Fantasy 7. A full year passed between the announcement of the PS4 version of the original FF7 and its release, despite it being a mere port - but probably for good reason. It probably took Square Enix that long to get the PS4 version of FF7 up and running. Emulating the PS1 version is an option, but then you'd be left with a low-resolution game stretched out in an ugly way. The final released version was hacked and pieced together from the then flawed, now improved PC version of the game. The PC code needed a lot of work, but it was easier than working on the PS1 version.

The backgrounds in FF7 are gorgeous, but they only exist in a low resolution that scales poorly.

Using the PC version as a base allowed the modern version of FF7 on PS4 and mobile devices (and soon on Xbox One and Switch) to run at higher resolutions. This meant crisp, clean fight scenes (which are rendered entirely in real-time 3D) and equally crisp character models on the battlefield. One aspect of FF7 couldn't be saved though - the pre-rendered CG backgrounds.

These backgrounds were rendered at a low, PS1 and CD-friendly resolution - as low as 320×240 in some cases - and it looks like Square didn't keep the original files, so doing a native render at a higher quality is impossible. In the latest version, Square applied blur and smear filters to hide the pixelation when these backgrounds were upscaled to modern resolutions. It looked good, but not sensational. That was always a shame, because CG backgrounds are in many ways the driving force of FF7, presenting its eclectic, wide world in surprising detail.

Up goes the Final Fantasy modding scene on PC. In a new post on the Qhimm.com modding forum, one modder has revealed the "Remako HD Field Mod", which uses AI upscaling technology to try and increase the size of the CG background in FF7 by as much as 400%. The end results are pretty good, as you can see in this preview image:

To enlarge this comparison, click on it. Enlarge. At full size when opened, this image is the width of FF7 at 1080p resolution.

Take a close look at this image and the difference between the original (top) and remastered (bottom) backgrounds. In particular, notice details such as the red signal light at the end of the train platform, or the detail of the railings behind Barret or on the train itself. These are small improvements that ultimately add up to a significant visual overhaul of the game - all using the original assets.

Using machine learning to scale images and videos is obviously not a new idea. I've already seen some impressive demos showing how the technology is progressing, including a great demo showing how well the new Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti graphics cards handle such tasks - but this is the first time I've seen it used in such a way to preserve and improve classic, older games. It's usually used for things like saving old family photos. In games, such improvements are usually hardware upscal, as in the case of the excellent Xbox One X version of Final Fantasy 13, or painstaking manual reconstruction of renders and textures, as in the excellent Resident Evil 4 HD project. Compared to that, it seems like an incredibly clever alternative way to make an HD remaster for a game with hundreds of pre-rendered backgrounds - and in theory, it could also be applied frame-by-frame to FF7's video cutscenes, which also don't exist in higher resolutions.

"Traditional upscaling leaves a lot to be desired, and manual remodeling takes a lot of time," says mod creator CaptRobau in a forum thread - and this is a strong, good-looking alternative. The other great thing about this idea is that it allows for a lot of fan interpretations - another modder from the same community is also working on machine learning FF7 upscaling using a different algorithm, and the end results are slightly different. Hopefully in the near future fans will be able to choose between different background mods with different advantages and disadvantages depending on what visual fidelity you value.

Honestly, I'm really excited about this. Given that a full remake of Final Fantasy 7 will certainly be a very, very different game, preserving the original classic has never been more important - and if I were Square Enix, I'd be trying to track down these guys and get them elected to use their methods to improve and patch the existing console versions of FF7, 8, and 9. That's almost a certainty, unfortunately - but FF7 owners on PC shouldn't have to wait long before they can get that clearer, cleaner experience themselves. CaptRobau believes an initial release of the mods will be possible "within a week or two" - and seriously, I'm already hovering over the 'install' button for FF7 on Steam in anticipation. FF8 next please, fellas?