To celebrate the North American release of Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, I thought that there was no better time to take a look back at the entire Final Fantasy series. Square’s seminal RPG series has seen it’s ups and downs, but just how much variance is there between each title?
First, some rules. In this particular list, I’m only going to be ranking the numbered Final Fantasy games. That means no spinoffs such as Final Fantasy Tactics or Mystic Quest. I also will not be looking at any direct sequels, such as Final Fantasy X-2 or Final Fantasy XIII-2. Finally, I will be excluding the MMORPG’s from this list. They’re a different style of game from traditional Final Fantasy, and I’ve never been interested in any sort of MMO, and as such I have never played either of the FF MMOs and therefore cannot rank them.
Excluding Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV, this leaves 12 mainline games to rank, and I’ll be going from what I feel is the worst game to what I feel is the best. I’m trying to stay as objective as a personal opinion can be. While normally I would rank the games differently based on nostalgia and personal emotions, I’m trying my best to rank the games based on how good they are as actual games, independent of whatever memories I may have for each title.
Final Fantasy II
While filled with innovative ideas, Final Fantasy II had too much ambition and not enough ability.
Final Fantasy II introduced two big changes from it’s predecessor: A brand new battle system and an actual cast of characters. These characters, while primitive by today’s standards, were a great leap forward for the genre as they threw themselves around the screen and attempted to tell a story. Final Fantasy II told the story of a group of orphans leading a resistance against a powerful, evil empire and it never aspired to be anything it wasn’t. Added to this was a revolving cast of characters – the fourth character slot would be replaced by someone new in each chapter – that each had a distinct personality and gave the game world the flavour and variety that was missing from other RPGs of the time.
Unfortunately, the battle system didn’t fare as well as the characters. The core concept is that characters gain stats as they use them. For example, taking physical damage will raise a character’s HP and defense, while dealing damage will raise either physical or magical attack power depending on the type of attack used. It’s an interesting system, for sure, but is easily broken and often results in excessive grinding and damaging your own characters since their stats won’t grow enough just from enemy encounters. This battle system may be less than ideal, but it doesn’t ruin the game.
What ruins Final Fantasy II is a series of baffling design decisions that seem designed more to annoy the player than to entertain them. One example of this is the dungeon design. Most of the sprawling, labyrinthine dungeons featured a plethora of doors that the player can open and explore. Yet 90% of these doors contained empty rooms, and every time the player went through a door they would be teleported to the middle of the room, and every step toward the exit would trigger a “random” encounter.
Adding to this was the illusion of freedom in the overworld. Backtracking to and from locations was a frequent occurrence, and any attempt to stray from the beaten path would end in brutal defeat. Stepping even one tile too far would allow monstrously powerful enemies to attack, ensuring that the player stays focused in the most frustrating way possible. While I’m not sure I’d consider any numbered game in the series to be a “bad game”, Final Fantasy II certainly comes the closest.
Final Fantasy VIII
Following up Final Fantasy VII was no easy task, and I’m certainly not going to directly compare the two. Despite being subsequent entries in the same series, they are both very different from one another and seek to do different things. However, while I felt that Final Fantasy VII accomplished it’s goal magnificently, I felt that VIII missed it’s mark.
Final Fantasy VIII suffers from two main problems: Story and systems. We’ll start with the story. At it’s heart, Final Fantasy VIII is a love story, and the main story arc is about the growing affections between Squall and Rinoa. It’s an interesting concept, but it just doesn’t work. Squall and Rinoa have very little chemistry together which makes everything between them come off as contrived and forced. They’re together only because the game says they should be, not because they have any believable reason to be. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is just as weak, going from forgettable and inconsequential to just plain annoying, with the only bright spot being Seifer. The plotline itself is no better, presenting a few interesting scenarios but utterly wasting them by throwing in some of the worst twists ever seen in a story. You know exactly what I’m talking about here.
Moving on, we have the game’s systems, primarily the battle system and junctioning system. It’s an interesting idea, but is ultimately too inconsistent. It’s a complex system that the game never fully explains. If you don’t fully understand it, the game becomes a slog of endless summons and slow battles. Once you do understand it, the game breaks completely to the point where battles become wholly unnecessary and you’re left wondering why they even bothered to have battles in the first place.
Despite it’s well realized, interesting world and one of the best minigames in gaming history, Final Fantasy VIII‘s core components are just too flawed to allow me to rank it any higher.
Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII is the game that everyone loves to hate, and it almost seems too easy ranking it near the bottom of the list. I really wanted to like it, but for every enjoyable piece it presented, there were another two frustrating moments waiting just behind it.
The battle system was a brilliant, being fast paced and cinematic while maintaining a classic Final Fantasy feel. Unfortunately, the battle system only truly worked when it was used with a full party, and the game decided to let you go through two thirds of the game using only 2 characters. The battle was considerably less exciting and versatile when played like this, and it didn’t even fully unlock itself until you were well over a dozen hours into the adventure.
Outside of battle didn’t fare much better, with the rest of the game being accurately described by the word “straight”. JRPG’s are no strangers to linearity and illusion of choice, but Final Fantasy XIII took this to the extreme. The first 75% of the game is essentially one long hallway, with very, very few occasions to tread off the beatn path or even do anything other than “run forward, battle, run forward some more”. This extreme linearity permeated every aspect of the game – not even the levelling system was safe. It looked like you had choice, sure, with the branching paths of the Crystarium, but the game very tightly controlled how much and how often you levelled, locking away large swaths of the Crystarium and giving you just enough points to unlock the available skills in the exact order the game wanted you to.
This could, perhaps, all be forgiven if the story and world of Final Fantasy XIII engulfed me enough. But once again the game falls well short of its potential. It presents an interesting setting and backdrop, only to do absolutely nothing with it and instead introducing jargon and confusing lingo as an illusion for depth.
Final Fantasy III
If I’m being completely honest here, Final Fantasy III is the game I’ve played the least of. This is probably because it took so long to come to the west (we didn’t get an official release until 2006). From what I did play I saw that it was a very mechanics heavy game, and introduced the classic job system. There’s a lot of depth to the system, especially compared to other it’s contemporaries.
Final Fantasy III isn’t a bad game by any means, it’s just not as interesting as the games that came after it.
The original that started it all, Final Fantasy was an ambitious game for it’s day. Loaded with customization that Dragon Quest lacked, and attempting to tell a much grander story, Final Fantasy showed that the series’ cinematic tendencies can be traced back to the very beginning. The true brilliance, though, is that Final Fantasy treads a perfect line between simplicity and complexity. It offers enough complexity to keep the player engaged and moving forward, but not enough to have them bogged down in confusing systems and convoluted stories.
Final Fantasy XII
Not being a person who plays MMOs, Final Fantasy XII is probably the closest I’m going to get to experiencing what they are like. Clearly taking cues from it’s multiplayer focused predecessor, Final Fantasy XII eschews the traditonal turn-based battle system and instead introduced a real-time system that was like an MMO-lite. It also reintroduced us to the world of Ivalice and a story that had ambitions beyond the usual fare of young heroes saving the world.
This ambition is exactly what places Final Fantasy XII so high on the list – It’s focus on a political story and the subsequent clash of nations is a refreshing change and really helps give the game an identity unlike any other game in the series. Additionally, It has more of focus on world building than the other games in the series, slowly introducing us to the various races and factions that make up Ivalice and making it’s main city of Rabanastre not just a lifeless backdrop, but a place that actually feels alive.
The only thing preventing Final Fantasy XII from being higher on the list are results of it’s turbulent development cycle. The game switched directors partway through development and as a result there are some pretty radical shifts in tone between parts of the game that were clearly created by different people. This results in a story that often meanders for long periods of time while going nowhere as well as two main characters that are nowhere near as interesting as the cast supporting them.
I can’t help but feel that, if the game were completed following Matsuno’s original vision, that Final Fantasy XII would be near the top of the list, but I guess there’s no way to know for sure.
Final Fantasy V
Final Fantasy V isn’t a game from which many ideas originated, but it is a game in which those ideas were perfected. The legendary Final Fantasy job system is perfected in this entry, and is proof that an RPG can focus entirely around one central system if that system is done as well as it was here.
Final Fantasy IV
Looking back, Final Fantasy IV is filled to the brim with cliches and genre tropes – which is really a testament to it’s quality. Not so much that it managed to be a great despite its adherence to these tropes, but because it was instrumental in establishing them in the first place.
Final Fantasy IV introduced the Active Time Battle – the most used system in the series to date – and a cast that attempted to be more than cardboard cutouts. Whether it was the new technology or Square’s growing talent, Final Fantasy IV rethought what an RPG could be.
If I were ranking the series more personally, FF4 would take the #1 spot. It was, after all, the game that introduced me to the series and made me fall in love with RPGs. Instead, it’s outranked by a few later entries because despite all the leap forwards, Final Fantasy IV just isn’t quite refined enough and is still a little rough around the edges.
Final Fantasy X
A new platform always means big jumps for the series, and Final Fantasy X was no different. For the first time in the series’ history we got fully voiced characters and full 3D environments, bringing the story to life.
There were some changes – no world map and the battle system dropped the “Active Time” portion, but they were sacrifices I was more than willing to make. Finally, the entire cast could participate in battles, and outside they managed to interact in more ways than ever before. At it’s heart, Final Fantasy X is more of a character drama, and it’s the best one Square has ever produced.
Final Fantasy IX
After two modern-styled games that took the world by storm, Final Fantasy IX was considered a throwback to the classic days of the franchise. It went back to the traditional fantasy designs that originally made the series famous and served as a warm, nostalgic trip for longtime fans. Luckily, IX wasn’t a one-trick pony that relied solely on it’s nostalgic vibe to enthral players. It was every bit as good as the older games and was a great way to combine old-school sensibilities with new-age technology, as well as being Sakaguchi’s send-off to the series.
What really made Final Fantasy IX unique was it’s atmosphere: The entire game played out almost like a fairy tale. Characters were funny and quirky and the story was paced perfectly, ebbing and flowing throughout the course of the game to hold the player’s interest. Even the music, one of Uematsu’s best scores, gave off a fairy tale vibe and gave the game more a “magical fantasy” theme than any Final Fantasy before (or after). But the best part was how well the characters meshed together, becoming realistic representations of friends despite their cartoonish appearances.
If there’s one criticism I have of the game, it’s that the battle system is so damn slow. The pace and frequency of combat isn’t a problem, but the default speed for the ATB is excruciatingly slow.
Final Fantasy VII
Is there really much I can say about Final Fantasy VII? You know good and well what this game is. Even calling it a “game” is a downplaying it a bit. Final Fantasy VII is a phenomenon, an obsession. I’ve yet to meet a Final Fantasy fan who hasn’t played it.
If I’m being honest, the only real negative point I can give to Final Fantasy VII is that it has an almost laughably poor translation – but that’s not really the fault of the original creators.
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI is everything a Final Fantasy should be. From the moment the game begins with the march through the snow, you know you’re in for something special. Final Fantasy VI is hardly the most innovative game in the series; As the last of the SNES trilogy it’s more concerned with perfection than innovation. It took the best parts of every previous game and wrapped them together in a package that took the series to new heights.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s story. For the first time the characters became more than sprites on a screen – they became actual, living characters. Videogame storylines had never been more engaging or emotional, nor any villain more terrifying. It’s a testament to the strengths of FF6 that even 20 years after it’s release it’s still held as a beacon of videogame storytelling.
Final Fantasy VI may have been the last 2D game in the series, but it certainly ended with a bang and became the pinnacle of the entire genre.
There you have it, my ranking of Final Fantasy games. I’m sure your own personal ranking will be vastly different from what I have above, so leave a comment and let me know how you would rank them. Or spread this around Twitter and tell everyone how wrong I am.