Final Fantasy Rankings (Part 2 – The Muddled Middle)

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This is the second part of a three-part series that ranks the Final Fantasy games. In case you missed it, Part One is here.

Today we continue ahead with fantasies old and new. Enjoy the rankings and check back this weekend for the conclusion!

#6: Final Fantasy VIIIFf8_logo

Let’s take a walk down memory lane. It was the late 90s. Sony was pummeling Sega and had Nintendo on the ropes. I was in middle school. (Fortunately I can remember all of this. Unlike the characters in Final Fantasy VIII, I never junctioned any Guardian Forces.)

First there was the Final Fantasy VIII demo disc. My friend and I played that demo disc until his Playstation’s laser seared a hole through it. (Only then did we start in on the free game that had come packaged with the $50 FFVIII Demo Disc.)

Then came release day. I asked my dad to stop at Best Buy on his way home from work to pick up a copy of Final Fantasy VIII; I paid for it with my allowance money. It was the first time I ever played a video game on release day (previously I’d always been a year or two behind the release curve). Needless to say I was excited.

I popped Disc 1 into my Playstation and fired it up. The opening sequence set the mood: An epic soundtrack! A mysterious sorceress! Guys fighting with swords — swords with GUNS!

My eighth-grade mind was blown. It continued to be blown for a number of hours. I remember the first time I saw the world map. It looked even more dazzling than the one in Final Fantasy VII. I remember spending hours upon hours on Triple Triad.

But as I delved deeper into the game, my passion started to wane. Maybe it was the story. Parts of it went over my youthful head, and other parts seemed silly — I still haven’t gotten over the huge, seemingly out-of-nowhere plot reveal that happened at the orphanage.

The gameplay was a problem, too. When I played the game the first time, I didn’t understand its nuances. Notably, I didn’t realize that the game punished players for level-grinding — a big change from the earlier Final Fantasies.

In the end, however, Final Fantasy VIII‘s biggest failing was largely out of its hands: It suffered from coming directly after Final Fantasy VII. FFVII was an epic tale about saving the planet; FFVIII was a confusing time-traveling love story. FFVII had a relatively simple skill system (and OMNISLASH!); FFVIII featured a system that was far more complex.

Final Fantasy VIII was misunderstood. More than any other game on this list, this is the one I’d like to go back and replay. It has an adult ambiance, filled with jazz parlors and Haruki Murakami-esque dreams, that my 8th-grade brain was not ready for.

One day, perhaps soon, I’ll give Final Fantasy VIII another shot. Whether another play-through would affect my ranking remains to be seen.

#5: Final Fantasy XX_usfront

I feel that Final Fantasy X is, in some ways, the game that Final Fantasy VIII wanted to be. It’s the game that realized the cinematic and storytelling flair that Final Fantasy VIII reached for but couldn’t quite grasp.

Final Fantasy X represented a major overhaul for the series. It brought in voice acting and fully three-dimensional environments. It removed the overhead-style world map. It was the first game for which Nobuo Uematsu didn’t entirely compose the musical score. All these changes helped create a game that felt fresh and new.

And yet for all its brand-spanking newness, Final Fantasy X also felt a bit flat.

I remember the day I bought my Playstation 2. I went into Best Buy with the money I’d earned from my job at a gas station. I had just enough to buy a Playstation 2 console, a memory card, and one game — I had a coupon for $10 off either Final Fantasy X or Grand Theft Auto 3. Being the fantasy geek I was, I went with Final Fantasy X.

For a long time after that day, I wondered if I’d made the right choice. You see, I’d also played Grand Theft Auto 3 (at a friend’s house — not the same friend I’d played Final Fantasy VIII with, tellingly). I knew how much fun it was to drive around the city, crashing into other cars, generally wreaking havoc. I had chosen Final Fantasy X over the joyride that was GTA3. And while both games are great, I’m now willing to fess up and say that I made the wrong choice.

Final Fantasy X’s most serious flaw is that it didn’t keep up with the competition. It feels modern yet dated, dynamic but perhaps a bit boring. The Playstation 2 had opened up all sorts of possibilities; Final Fantasy X delivered an experience that could’ve, for the most part, been achieved on a lesser console.

Final Fantasy X is great. But in my mind it also marks the point when Final Fantasy was reduced from being the preeminent video game series to being merely excellent. Given current trends in my gaming habits and the gaming market, it’s unlikely Final Fantasy will ever reclaim that revered spot at the apex of my gaming consciousness.

#4: Final Fantasy IVFf4_logo

Discussing Final Fantasy X was depressing. Let us now shift these rankings onto a more positive course, a course from which they will not stray.

Final Fantasy IV is Final Fantasy at its most essential. If someone asked me “What is Final Fantasy?”, I would point to Final Fantasy IV.

Let’s start with the story. Final Fantasy IV‘s story is simple, but it also has nearly everything a fan could want: love, vengeance, murder, and redemption (Cecil’s path to redemption, in particular, resonates with me). No, these themes aren’t explored in depth, but they are portrayed in a way that made me and millions of other fans around the globe give a damn.

Then there’s the gameplay. While the game doesn’t offer as much customization as the series’ other entries, I enjoy the simplicity of it. Gone are the limitless options of Final Fantasy III; in Final Fantasy IV each character has a specific role. Party members come and go; you enjoy their awesome abilities while they’re with you, and when they leave you get to try something new. Does this limit your options? Of course it does! But because the game designers dictated when and where you have access to certain characters, they could also ensure that every dungeon, every boss battle, and every scenario was tailored to your current party.

The game’s other facets also have much to offer. The soundtrack is great — Within the Giant is one of my favorite themes from the series. The graphics are simple but visually pleasing. And the translation is special; while I’m sure some things were lost in translation from Japanese, the playful whimsy of the English version makes for a memorable experience.

Final Fantasy IV expanded upon a solid formula; the result was a spectacular game. Why is it ranked #4? It’s here because the final three games on this list are ever better.

That’s a wrap! Check back this weekend to see which game will be crowed the ultimate Final Fantasy.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Henry Olsen

Writer, adventurer, and humble servant of the universe since 1986.