Final Fantasy 7 was such a big deal back in 1997 that it was the first Final Fantasy game to get a PC port in the west. It's been ported to all kinds of platforms since then, PC again, and remade (which we hope to see on PC in 2021). To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Square Enix even made a suite of sequels and spin-offs, including a mobile game, the movie Advent Children, a weird third-person shooter, and an action RPG for the PSP. That last one, Crisis Core, was the best received of the bunch: It starred Zack, the cool guy whose identity Cloud stole, swinging around the Buster sword in a game that looked ridiculously good for the PSP's hardware. Thirteen years and one huge FF7 remake later, Square Enix hasn't touched Crisis Core, leaving it to linger in obscurity. So some modders decided to give it the HD remaster treatment themselves.
"I saw it as a chance to teach myself a new skill and entertain myself during the coronavirus shutdowns," says Evan Qualls, who's spent the last nine months working on the FF7 Crisis Core Upscale Project in his spare time. Qualls works in telecom sales, and has continued going into his job as an 'essential worker' throughout the year.
Modding Crisis Core quickly turned into a distraction from the stress of working throughout the pandemic. "It was nice to have something to actually look forward to doing at home to take my mind off of questions like 'I wonder if I was exposed to the virus today?'" he says.
While many modders take on projects to enhance their favorite games, Qualls had actually never played Crisis Core, or even owned a PSP. But after playing the new Final Fantasy 7 Remake, he decided he was interested in learning more about Zack's story. Even playing Crisis Core on an emulator, though, it was clear some parts of its presentation, like the text, didn't hold up on a bigger, higher-res screen.
"As I was playing through it I got stuck at some part and looked up a YouTube video and noticed the text looked better and the creator mentioned he was using a text mod," Qualls says. "So I looked it up and saw how the mod worked with the PPSSPP emulator. Then I remembered the AI-upscaled FF7 Remako mod and the FF9 Moguri mod and thought 'why hasn't someone just dumped all the textures in a PSP game and used AI to automate upscaling them?' Next thing I know I was teaching myself Python and the project just went from there."
Unfortunately, upscaling an entire game isn't as easy as feeding a bunch of jpgs to an AI and letting it work its magic. After trying out the popular ESRGAN model, Qualls settled on Topaz AI, which is faster and better documented. But he says that both tools are built for RGB images, rather than RGBA images—the 'A' is the alpha channel used for transparency. And Crisis Core has a lot of textures with transparency.
"These tools don't handle transparency very well at all," he says. "They actually strip out the transparency channel all together and upscale that as a separate image before fusing them back together. Unfortunately that resulted in some very poor upscales."
That meant that much of the work on the Crisis Core Upscale Project had to be done by hand. Thankfully, Qualls wasn't taking it on solo. He made his project open source, and two other members of the Qhimm.com forum, which hosts a number of Final Fantasy modding projects, joined in to help. Working with Qualls, modders Devina and Zakkura have upscaled something like 6,000 textures to 4x their original resolution, sometimes creating textures from scratch if the original source couldn't upscale well.
"I felt Crisis Core was overlooked," says Devina, who's still actively working on the Crisis Core Upscale Project as a texture artist. "I want people to feel like they're really in Midgar and the game's world, so I don't want blurry textures to remind people they're playing what was originally a handheld game with system limitations. Hopefully when people use our project, they'll see something resembling a PS2 game at least, since a lot of the textures in the game are very Nintendo 64-like."
Devina pointed out that Crisis Core's textures include some strange choices or oversights, like spelling Nibelheim "Mibelheim." They've been fixing those sorts of mistakes, but have mostly tried to keep their HD version of Crisis Core faithful to the original. "We've had to make some artistic choices because the original PSP textures were lacking or hid the system's shortcomings, so not everything in the project is going to be a perfect representation of the original, but I like to think most of our decisions won't bother most people," Devina says.
That direction was a deliberate choice for Qualls, who said after playing Crisis Core, he actually didn't love the game. But some Final Fantasy fans do. Once he'd posted some initial work on the Qhimm forum, he realized how much it meant to some people, and decided to keep the upscale as close to the original as possible.
Devina has made a few original additions to liven up the game world, like creating legible textures for signs that were once unreadable blobs. The result is great—like the AI-enhanced mods for Final Fantasy 7 and 9, the upscale of Crisis Core looks better than many of Square Enix's own ports. Installing the hi-res texture pack is easy, too, thanks to emulator PPSSPP. After downloading the files from Github, you simply open PPSSPP's menu with the game running and set it to replace textures with the ones you've downloaded. The emulator will insert them on the fly.
Qualls and Devina estimate they're about 90 percent finished with the project, but that last bit of tinkering could go on for a long time. "I still have a lot of work to do on the characters and I feel like this is sort of a situation where you find a speck of a dust on the floor, but then more dust near something you already vacuumed," says Devina. "I'm always finding things to improve."
Still, even before it's done, this is likely to be the definitive version of Crisis Core for years to come. It seems like an obvious choice for Square Enix to port to newer platforms alongside the FF7 Remake, which I said to Devina.
"I used to sort of think like that, too (why can't Square just remaster this game already?), but having looked into the files and how the internal logic works, I can see why it would be hard for them," Devina says.
Qualls agrees—both think that Crisis Core was divisive enough to discourage Square from putting in the effort of what would likely be a full-on remake. A port would have to grapple with some of Crisis Core's stranger design decisions and the limitations of the PSP hardware, like its single analog stick, that feel awkward today.
The void of a modern port gave these modders a way to pass 2020, though, something Qualls is especially grateful for. He hopes a few more people will be interested in helping finish off the Crisis Core Upscale Project, or use the tools he created after teaching himself Python. They help organize dumped textures and generate the file PPSSPP uses to find them. Downloading the mod, tools, or getting involved is as simple as heading to Github.