Before we get into the meat of the argument, this entire analysis and its eventual outcome is solely based on the original game.
Why the Original Game is the Only Piece of Final Fantasy VII Related Work that Will Be Taken Into Account
Final Fantasy VII was a complete work, and it is the only piece of Final Fantasy VII related content that Hironobu Sakaguchi oversaw. Given Nojima and Nomura’s history of crafting irrational stories when left to their own devices. As a fan of the original game, I have decided to only keep the original game as canon, and the rest of the Final Fantasy compilation (including the Remake which makes even less sense given the introduction of the Whispers) as ‘official fan fiction’ material.
Even Crisis Core, which might be the best product out of the entire post FFVII – related – content has some irreconcilable differences with the original game. There are many, but the focus on Genesis (and Angeal) as major (and nonsensical) plot additions ruined the mysterious and grittier storyline of the original game.
The Nibelheim incident is one example. In the original game, the entire sequence with Sephiroth slowly uncovering the truth about his origins, and consequently going mad, made perfect sense. The addition of Genesis, just created a massive plot hole – within the context of the original game – that was hard for me to stomach.
Crisis Core introduced big “important” elements to the back story that would have had repercussions on the original game, and yet, Genesis was never mentioned in it (because he didn’t exist in the original canon).
What is strange is that in a 2008 interview with IGN, Yoshinori Kitase (Director) claimed that Zack (while a minor character in 1997) had its Crisis Core outline written back during the development of the original game. Kitase might have been trying to soften the blow of Zack’s new found grandeur with hardcore fans, as there had been backlash on how the Last Order had changed some events of the original canon.
Zack Fair fans, are likely his fans because of what he did in Crisis Core rather than his actions in the original game’s canon. I understand if some (or many) of you disagree with me here. After all, this is just my opinion and officially under Square Enix (which is all that really matters) the FFVII Compilation and FFVIIR are part of the canon.
Zack vs Cloud – Conception
From the get go, Cloud was to be the main character in Final Fantasy VII. Zack, on the other hand, was one of the last characters to be conceived. Zack’s primary role was to serve as an explanation to Cloud’s own character (during his amnesiac, and confused ‘personality’ phase).
I will admit that Zack was a cool addition to the story, and that he served his purpose well. Players who found some of the optional scenes in Nibelheim, got a clearer picture of who Zack was all the way up to his unceremonious demise at the hands of a few Shinra grunts, and what seemed to be an officer.
Certain important story bits about Zack’s life originally were intended for Sephiroth (who at one point was Aerith’s first love). Final Fantasy VII’s third most important SOLDIER member (in reality the 2nd most important as Cloud never really made it into the elite unit) was then placed in Sephiroth’s place as Aerith’s first boyfriend.
On the other hand, Cloud was destined to be the game’s protagonist, and was primed for eventual world saving greatness. Zack at one point didn’t exist, and when he did, he was fated to a gruesome death, so that Cloud could rise from his ashes.
In terms of the original vision for both characters, there is no doubt that Cloud was the most important character (between the two) in this fictional universe.
Zack vs Cloud – The Warrior
This one could go a few different ways. Ultimately, Cloud becomes much more powerful than Zack could have ever hoped to be. The simple answer for this is that Zack died (before he had a chance to level up), but going by the story, perhaps, Cloud was always the better fighter.
While Zack was a 1st Class SOLDIER (think Delta Force in the real world), and Cloud was a regular soldier grunt (think regular Army/Marine grunt). Clearly, Cloud who left Nibelheim as a teen to become a 1st Class SOLDIER – in order to attain the attention and fame that he craved – wasn’t good enough to make the cut.
It is never quite clear why he did not make the unit, but I suppose it must have been a psychological (mental) issue. He just wasn’t mentally strong enough to endure SOLDIER’s most rigorous training, even if he was physically gifted enough to be a very successful fighter.
For whatever reasons, Cloud never made it into first class – or even third string – he was just a good ol’ infantry man.
One could assume that Cloud was too young, and too focused on gaining attention (and fame) to succeed at the highest levels of military discipline. Actually, it was revealed that Cloud’s ultimate purpose as a teenage in joining the Military was to get “strong enough” so that childhood crush Tifa could notice him.
This is not exactly the mindset of a great elite military operator, but it served to denote the possible reasons why Cloud (despite being incredibly strong) was rejected from SOLDIER.
The fact that he goes back to Nibelheim and is too embarrassed to show his face to Tifa, just because he didn’t make it to SOLDIER, shows that he had major confidence (and maturity) issues.
Zack on the other hand, seemed mentally unshakeable, and a natural born leader of men. Two things that would have served him well within Shinra’s ranks.
So, Zack was the better soldier, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was the better fighter per se. Zack was clearly more experienced than Cloud, and had undergone higher levels of training, and Mako bathing (mandatory for all SOLDIER members) giving him super human physical abilities. All of these advantages meant nothing when final push came to shove and he had to take down the greatest SOLDIER of them all in Sephiroth.
Sephiroth easily handled Zack, but our younger blonde haired underdog infantry warrior would prove a much tougher match.
Cloud would follow Zack into the reactor (angry to the gills after Sephiroth had murdered his mother, and had burnt down the entire village). He witnessed how the presumably stronger Zack had been swatted away like an inconsequential fly by Sephiroth.
Despite all of this, and the fact that we have to assume that Cloud wasn’t Mako enhanced yet, Cloud picked up Zack’s buster sword, and went in after Sephiroth. Cloud was mentally frail (even as a child), but he did not lack for courage.
This is where things get interesting. Cloud was not – yet – Mako enhanced, and had not received intensive Sword training on the level that Zack did. Cloud’s service weapon was a firearm (the usual Shinra infantry rifle), as it takes less skill and effort to kill someone using a gun, than it does with a sword.
I will assume that given the fact that many people within Final Fantasy VII’s world utilized Swords, Spears, and fists as primary war weapons, Cloud, even as an infantry grunt, received some basic to moderate hand to hand combat training. This training would have included swords and spears.
Even though he failed at meeting whatever requirements had to be met in order to achieve entry into Shinra’s most prestigious military unit, it is likely that Cloud (as a candidate to the program) did receive Sword training. So, Cloud wasn’t a Sword ‘virgin’ per se, but he wasn’t a master of the weapon either.
Getting back to his moment of glory. Cloud went after Sephiroth managing to sneak up on him to deliver a near fatal blow. Cloud’s one mistake was not to follow through with a finishing blow. But, for a simple grunt to have been able to down such a luminary in Sephiroth, and by the sword, it was an impressive accomplishment indeed.
Sephiroth would survive and attempt to flee the scene, but Cloud went to stop him, forcing the silver haired disgraced hero to stab him. Cloud picked the end of Sephiroth’s blade (while stabbed himself) and lifted Sephiroth off the ground like a rag doll (keep in mind that Sephiroth was much taller and heavier than Cloud).
Sephiroth himself was in shock at the unexpected turn of events yelling, “It can’t be!” as Cloud tossed him down the Mako Reactor to a presumed (at the time) death.
Before the start of the events in Final Fantasy VII, post Zack’s death, I would say that both (Cloud and Zack) were tied in the who is the best ‘Fighter’ category. Zack was certainly brave, a leader, and a true comrade (no man left behind). But, he was completely outclassed by Sephiroth when it mattered the most. On the other hand, Cloud got the better of Sephiroth… twice… within the span of a few minutes.
In Zack’s defense, he did die the ultimate warrior’s death. He carried Cloud away from Shinra’s manor, even though he was dead weight at that time and his actions eventually allowed a small unit of the Shinra to catch up to them.
Zack proceeded to draw the attention away from his comatose comrade, and was gunned down (yes, bullets can easily kill, as this was before the DBZ shenanigans that arrived in the FFVII compilation) for his efforts.
Off screen, it sounded like Zack did manage to take down one of the Shinra grunts. Thus, it seems like it took 3 grunts, and a commander to bring him down. His death was gritty, and tragic, not some glorious DBZ inspired romp that culminated with J-Pop music and a lifestream reunion.
As a whole, given that Cloud did become incredibly strong by the game’s end credits, it is not a fair match for dead Zack. But Zack was the better soldier, and that has to count for something. Even if ‘grunt’ Cloud was the one who brought down the ultimate SOLDIER in Sephiroth, and seemed to be the much more capable fighter.
Zack vs Cloud – Aerith
This one is the one that causes the biggest debates amongst the fanzine, as the compilation (including the recent FFVIIR) made Zack and Aerith a bigger deal than it had been in the original game.
In the original game, Zack is referred to as Aerith/Aeris’ first boyfriend/love. Cloud then, had no choice but to be the ‘adult’/second love, and given that Aerith herself got the Ax (or the stab) during the story it felt like Cloud and Aerith’s love story was just as tragic (perhaps even more so) than Zack and Aerith’s love affair.
The original game, however, seems to be clear about two things. One, Aerith at some point did love/like Zack, and two, Aerith is over Zack by the time that Cloud comes crashing down from the church rooftop and into her chaotic life.
It can be inferred from the original game that Aerith’s relationship with Zack wasn’t all that serious, though her foster mother (Elmyra) hints at the girl’s previous heartbreak (when Zack never returned).
But many of us were 14 at one point in time, and were either dumped, involved in a split, or not corresponded by a love interest. By 15 (sometimes even within a week or two), we were (at least most of us) over it. The point is that Aerith seemed to fit the bill of being “over it” (Zack) by the time that she runs into Cloud.
Now, Square has done a heck of job in muddying things up, lending Zack a more prominent role in the ‘canon’ in every – FFVII related – work that the company has made post Final Fantasy VII.
However, after Cloud arrives at the church, as soon Aerith is pursued by the Turks, she promises him a date in exchange for his ‘bodyguard’ services. It is clear that she is ‘single’. This action in itself, should also make clear that she was no longer ‘waiting’ or interested in Zack Fair.
At that point in the game, Aerith had no idea that Zack had been shot down on the outskirts of Midgar. Technically, for all that Aerith knew, Zack could have come to visit her at any moment during her stint with Cloud; she didn’t seem to mind.
Upon escaping the Turks and reaching Elmyra’s home, Cloud expressed his desire to reach Tifa’s bar, to which Aerith responded,
“Is Tifa……a girl?”
After Cloud confirmed her suspicion, Aerith dug deeper right into the heart of her concern,
So, we know that Aerith is a teaser, and a “flirter”, but clearly, she was spellbound by our amnesiac hero, and wanted to find out everything that she could about him, including her possible rivals to his affection.
Aerith at this point doesn’t seem like a girl hung up on a past love. Besides, Aerith had bigger issues to deal with (that to sulk in Zack’s absence), such as talking to the planet, and escaping the Turks (and the Shinra).
There are other “official” sources from around the time of the original game’s release that perfectly explain what Aerith felt for Zack, and what she eventually felt (a much stronger love) for Cloud. But as stated at the beginning, anything beyond the original game is not considered canon (within this article), and as such we have this dialogue excerpt from the original game instead:
Cloud: Oh, I was… First Class.
Aerith: Just the same as him.
Cloud: The same as who?
Aerith: My first boyfriend.
Cloud: You were…serious?
Aerith: No. But I liked him for a while.
Indeed, Cloud did remind Aerith of Zack ( after all, how many first class SOLDIERS carrying buster swords pranced around the slums?). But that seemed to be the extent of what Zack meant to her in relation to what she was starting to feel for Cloud.
We don’t really get more from Aerith in reference to her relationship with Zack until our party reached Gongaga. At that point (depending on your numerical affinity with Aerith, and whether she is in your party) Zack’s parents, who have not heard from him in 6-7 years (Zack was a real piece of work it seems) recognized Cloud’s Mako Eyes prompting them to ask him about their son.
An interesting scene played out after Aeris ran out of Zack’s parents’ home:
Aerith: What a shock… I didn’t know Zack was from this town.
Cloud: You know him?
Aerith: Didn’t I tell you? He was my first love.
Aerith: Zack… SOLDIER First Class. Same as Cloud.
Cloud: Strange, there aren’t that many who make First Class, but I’ve never heard of him.
Aerith: That’s all right. It’s all in the past now. I was just worried because I heard he’s been missing.
Aerith: I think it was 5 years ago. He went out on a job, and never came back. He loved women, a real lady’s man. He probably found someone else…
Aerith: Hey? What’s wrong?
( If you selected “Poor guy” out of the dialogue choices)
Aerith: I don’t really mind that I haven’t heard from him. But I feel for his parents.
(If you selected “(…jealous…envious…)” instead.)
Aerith: Are you…jealous? Hmm? Hmmm? Are you, Cloud?
Aerith: I’m kidding. I’m sorry.
(If Aerith’s affinity value was 120 or more.)
Aerith: I was hoping maybe you were…
Every possible scenario in this exchange bodes terribly for the “Zack and Aerith Forever” crowd. In one instance she down plays his importance to her, and the scary fact that the “Hey, your first love (who happened to be involved in secret elite military missions constantly) hasn’t been seen or even heard from in 5 years, he could be dead… you know?” possibility doesn’t seem to faze the green eyed beauty much.
In the more dire outcome for #TeamZack, she actually only shows concern for Cloud’s emotional state in regards to his affection towards her: “Hey, my first love could be dead for all I know, but are you jelaous? By the way, I am really hoping that you are, because that would mean that you like me back!” Poor Zack.
In the near fifty hours that it takes to complete Final Fantasy VII, what we have discussed so far is the extent of Aerith’s take on Zack Fair. Again, this isn’t surprising as Zack was a minor character in the overall story of Final Fantasy VII.
Cloud needing an explanation for his mysterious background was the sole driving force behind Zack’s entire existence. To top things off, Aerith was able to hear the voice of Elmyra’s husband after his passing, but Zack? Not a blip. Make of that what you will, but that’s how things stand as far as the main game goes.
But what were Aerith’s feelings for Cloud? How strong was her short lived love for our hero?
Apart from what seemly appeared to be love at first sight (or second sight as they did meet priorly on the streets), it is hard to gauge much about how Aerith felt at first towards Cloud. It seems that teasing, and flirting came easy for our Cetra girl.
To be fair, Aerith was a relatively strange woman. She was the last of an Ancient race that could ‘listen’ to the planet. Apart from being ‘different’, her father was murdered when she was a baby, and she lived in forced confinement (while being experimented on) for most of her early infancy with her mother until their daring (but tragic) escape from Shinra’s labs which resulted in Ifalna dying.
Unlike with her dad’s passing, Aerith was old enough to understand the implications of her beloved mother’s death. Thus, losing Ifalna had a painful emotional impact that she carried throughout the remainder of her life.
Clearly, Aerith had as terrible a childhood as anyone could have had, and it is hard to say whether her initial attraction to both SOLDIERS had more to do with the possibility that these two strong men could have freed ( and protected) her from the shackles of the Turks, rather than ‘pure’ love at first sight.
Still, the original game doesn’t dwell on how she met Zack, and how deep their relationship went. We can infer that he was her mid teen crush, and that for some strange reason his ‘disappearance’ didn’t hit her strong enough to encourage her to investigate Zack’s fate further. Instead, she made up her mind that he was probably with another woman, as that is who he (a womanizer) was in her mind .
Fortunately, we do get the complete Aerith and Cloud saga in the original game, therefore we can make a few safe assumptions.
Firstly, Cloud reminded her of Zack at first. Think about it, if you date a nurse, and then suddenly you meet another girl that happens to be nurse, it is natural to make a co-relation back to your former partner.
If we add to that the fact that Cloud’s demeanor was, in someways a reflection of Zack’s own personality in certain traits (such as the clothing, Buster Sword use, a few mannerisms and some of the cockiness) then it would be difficult for the girl not to associate the blonde new comer to her old flame.
Finally, despite the fact that she did not know what became of Zack Fair (meaning that the possibility that he could comeback was real on her mind), she immediately promised Cloud a date as payment for his bodyguard services, and would find it impossible to separate herself from our hero from that point onwards.
One can say: “Yeah, she saw Cloud as her one ray of hope and chance of ever getting out the Slums and Shinra’s grip.” But, the same could easily apply to her previous relationship with Zack.
At the end of the day, in different occasions during FFVII’s run time, she told Cloud that she liked him even if she did so indirectly. She even went as far as admitting to him that she wanted to get “to know the real Cloud” when they went on that date in the Gold Saucer.
While Cloud had some of Zack’s mannerisms, he was a completely different guy. Introverted, shy, and a not cocky to point of annoyance. Aerith fell in love with Cloud’s uniqueness (as opposed to his similarities with Zack).
In one of Aerith’s last important dialogue bits (in reference to her love for Cloud), she asks Cait Sith (who is a fortuneteller),
“Let’s see how compatible Cloud and I are!” to which Cait Sith replied, “This isn’t good. I can’t say it. Poor Tifa.
Aerith, however insisted, “No! Tell me! I promise I won’t get mad!”
Aerith’s insistence left Cait Sith no option but to continue, “Is that so? Then I’ll tell you. Looks good. You are perfect for each other! Aeris’s star and Cloud’s star! They show a great future! Cloud, I’ll be your matchmaker, preacher… I’ll do whatever you want me to! You just call me when it all happens! Thank you for believing in me, knowing that I was a spy. This is the final, final farewell!”
Hindsight is 20/20 and we know that Aerith would soon after this scene meet a terrible fate, but even Cait Sith could see what was going on between our two love birds.
In the end, Aerith goes in to the City of Ancients in order to stop Sephirtoth herself, after Cloud had showed the inability to handle Sephiroth’s manipulation tricks (Jenova influence) at the Temple of the Ancients while handing over the Black Materia to his foe.
So, what more proof do you we need? She went to that City in order to fight her man’s battles, and died for it. Is there a greater example of love than Aerith’s selflessness?
So, who did Aerith love more? Cloud or Zack?
The original game doesn’t go one way or the other in that regard. It clearly stated that she loved both, but she didn’t love Zack enough to even try to poke around to find out what had become of him.
In contrast, she joined Cloud in what seemed like a crazy crusade. She was integral to the game’s narrative as the last Ancient (so yeah, she had no choice but join our party of misfits). But, she didn’t really have to go and take on Sephiroth by herself, but she wanted to protect her friends, and most of all, Cloud.
Going by the original game’s storyline, I would say that Cloud was the one that she loved the most, but that’s just my opinion.
Zack vs Cloud – The Character
This is another one where going by the first game’s canon it is tough to go against Cloud. After all, he is the main character, Zack is just there because someone was needed in order to justify Cloud’s mistaken identity.
But we will try. Most of what we know from Zack, we know from Aerith, his parents’ few dialogue lines, and the one important (optional) flashback scene at Nibelheim. From that small sample, however, we can gather a few things.
First, Zack didn’t like Gongaga (and the country) and wanted to leave for the big city. While he did have a mind to write to his parents, as apparently he hadn’t done so for 6-7 years (and Zack only had a valid excuse for not writing to them only on the last 5 of those years).
So, it is likely that he wasn’t very attentive to his parents, and even when he does escape with Cloud, he only talks about returning to Midgar, and maybe crashing down in Aerith’s house before remembering that she lives with her mom. No mention of his parents. Not what you would expect from someone who seemed to be an only child.
I don’t want to say that he was ‘entitled’ brat, because his last act in life was as selfless an action as can be. But he was certainly a bit full of himself when he expected that Aerith would welcome him back with open arms “just like that” after going AWOL for five years.
We know from Aerith’s own account that he was a womanizer, and that commitment wasn’t exactly his forte. Realize this: Zack is a ‘Team 6’ like Elite operator in the game’s world. His life is constantly in danger, but when he disappears for Five years, it never occurs to Aerith that Zack could have been killed, or maimed in a secret mission. Instead, she just believes the “Oh well, he ran off with another woman!” out come, as his likelier fate. Damn!
From what we know, Zack is the best friend that you want to have, but the guy that you wouldn’t want your little sister to date.
As a friend, buddy, comrade in arms, etc. Zack was Elite Class all the way, though. Cloud was nearly in vegetable state when Zack helps him to escape from Shinra’s Mansion. In fact, Cloud slowing him down is what aided that small Shinra unit to catch up to them which ended up costing him his life. For that, Zack deserves all the credit in the world.
Sure, you can chalk all this up to ‘military brotherhood’, and the ‘no man left behind’ philosophy, but when push comes to shove, many men break, whereas Zack did not. He cared about Cloud, and perhaps, he did feel some loyalty towards him as Cloud did take down Sephiroth, thus completing the mission for the team that he could not finish himself.
Zack did seem a bit cocky, and upbeat. He is unbearable in Crisis Core, but in the main game, he was just a ‘cool’ guy, a ‘ladies man’, and a caring leader.
He was also courageous. Though he is remembered for being swatted like a fly by Sephiroth in the reactor, it took man courage to go after Shinra’s golden boy knowing full well how extraordinary a fighter Sephiroth was.
He also chose to stand and fight, rather than to leave Cloud behind when confronted by what I assume were at least 3 men armed with firearms. Difficult odds for sure, but he stood his ground, and was shot down for it.
Cloud on his end, was a deeper character, and not necessarily because of his amnesia and personality disorder problem. But mainly because he was fleshed out in greater length by the game’s plot.
We get a glimpse of the insecure child, who grew up orphaned (father wise), but raised by a loving mother. He was an introvert who kids in his village didn’t like much, and apparently neither did their parents.
He was quickly blamed by Tifa’s father for her accident in Nibel even though Cloud, unlike the other cowardly kids, had actually tried to save her from the fall.
All of this helped to create an insecure young man, who often got into fights with other kids and who sought validation (and Tifa’s affection) through the military. Cloud was just angry kid in need of attention.
He was not a natural born winner like Zack. He didn’t have the mental make up to make it through SOLDIER, even if he was as physically gifted as its best members. That said, while he was insecure, he was not a coward, and certainly not someone to mess with when fueled by anger, as Sephiroth found out.
He would eventually overcome both, his confusion (brought about by Hojo’s experiments with Jenova Cells), and his insecurities by tackling Sephiroth’s most powerful (nearly godly) form. In his FFVII process, he turned into a leader, and a heart breaker (he had two hotties vying for his love). While he never forgave himself for Aerith’s demise, he was able to conquer his fears, his insecurities, and to save the world.
Cloud was a flawed hero, but a hero none the less, and he was relentless (with a huge Tifa assist as Cloud did have knack for going comatose) in his pursuit of Sephiroth.
It is likely that Cloud had a lot of regrets in his life (even after saving the world). He failed to save his mother, and the woman he romantically loved, and that made him more human than most heroes.
Zack has gained a lot of fans after Crisis Core, but even in the first game, he did have that “Damn, he was fated to die before his time” storyline that helped to endear him as a sympathetic figure.
He sacrificed himself so that Cloud could live. I didn’t dislike him at all in the first game, I began to dislike him with Crisis Core, he was made into an annoying jerk, but what bothered me the most was that many of the events in that game made no sense within the original canon.
Unfortunately (for purists like myself), things have only gotten more ridiculous with Final Fantasy VII Remake (Did Zack live? But how? Unless the timeline split. If it did split after the defeat of the Whispers…then how many times lines were created? Aerith didn’t feel his death in the original game as Zack should have no consciousness in the lifestream, but now she does in the expanded universe? Will Donald Duck and Goofy make an appearance?).
In the original game, Cloud was the hero, and as was meant to be by the original writing. He was meant to save the world, and Zack was to remain firmly entrenched in the past. So to me, as firm fan of the game’s original canon, Cloud will always trump Zack. As a hero, a warrior, as Aerith’s true love, and as a better character.
If stuck to this article so far, I thank you (regardless of your anger level at me right now). I have always been a Team Cloud, Team Aerith fan, and while I tried to be fair (no pun intended) to Zack Fair in this article, perhaps I was not.
If you feel that I didn’t do Zack justice, please feel free to comment below and on our social media pages. I have always found this storyline fascinating in its possibilities and characters, and I enjoy these discussions.
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