#3: Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII was a big deal.
Hell, it still is a big deal. How big? Consider this: In late 2015, when Square Enix announced they were developing Final Fantasy VII Remake, the company’s shares rose to their highest value since November 2008 — a seven year high.
I’ll grant Final Fantasy VII this: It is certainly the most iconic Final Fantasy; it’s the game that made Final Fantasy a mainstream property in the West. Even now, two decades after its original release, Cloud and Sephiroth are still the series’ de facto mascots (and their swords are still as big as ever.)
But Final Fantasy VII wasn’t just iconic; it was an immaculately crafted game, loaded with cool characters, amazing cutscenes, fun minigames, and shocking twists. If social media had existed in 1997, this scene would’ve blown up the internet. No scene in gaming had ever carried this kind of weight … and perhaps none has since.
Final Fantasy VII was packed with atmosphere, too. Though earlier games had occasionally evoked dark themes, Final Fantasy VII was the first with enough graphical gusto to truly bring the darkness. Midgar looked and felt like a massive, scuzzy metropolis. The Nibelheim Mansion could’ve passed for a building in Racoon City. Of course, the visuals weren’t always dark — the Chinese-inspired decor of Yuffie’s village and the Leaning Tower of Pisa-stylings of Cid’s rocket were as awe-inspiring as anything we’d seen in a game.
So, why is Final Fantasy VII stuck with bronze? In fact, I seriously considered putting this at the top of the list. But after sleeping on it, I realized that third is where it belongs. The game has a number of rough edges: long load times, a sloppy, confusing English translation, and drawn-out summon and limit break effects that make you say “WOW!” the first time but quickly become Zzzzzz-inducing.
Though flawed, Final Fantasy VII remains an absolute classic. Who knows? Maybe the remake will be the game that inspires me to buy a PlayStation 4.
#2: Final Fantasy VI
My fantasy began here. It began with an amnesiac, a
thief treasure hunter, a playboy prince, a long lost brother, and a mysterious assassin who would’ve slit his mother’s throat for a nickel. (As I recall, I had to ask my dad to clarify the meaning of this throat slitting business. I’m surprised Joe Lieberman permitted such risque material to reach my impressionable young mind.)
This was the first Final Fantasy I played. I didn’t have an SNES when it came out, so initially I could only play it at friends’ houses. Even when I finally did buy an SNES, I lacked the funds to buy this game. Instead, I bought Final Fantasy Mystic Quest to tide me over (It was cheap! I was poor!) but it wasn’t the same.
When Final Fantasy VII came out in 1997, a huge schism opened up among Final Fantasy fans. The debate raged on GameFAQS: FFVI or FFVII? You can only choose one! Which side are you on, punk?
11-year-old Henry’s choice was Final Fantasy VI. 11-year-old Henry didn’t care about flashy FMVs, or humongous swords, or three discs, or 3D graphics, or Limit Breaks. 11-year-old Henry just wanted that pure story and gameplay bliss that Final Fantasy VI had in spades. Final Fantasy VII was for n00bs!
Strangely enough, once Henry was a few years older and had saved up enough money to buy a PlayStation of his own, his old-school purist fervor quickly evaporated …
It evaporated, yes. But not completely. Final Fantasy VI is still here, a notch above number seven.
Why? For me, much of it has to do with nostalgia. I loved this game. I hummed the tunes. I memorized my favorite lines (thank you, Ted Woolsey). I printed out an entire walkthrough, perforated it with a three-hole punch, made a proper book out of it, and read through it over and over again.
Looking back now, I can recognize that Final Fantasy VI isn’t a perfect game. It had its share of glitches, the characters weren’t particularly balanced, and its tight, entertaining narrative mostly fell apart after crossing into the World of Ruin.
Final Fantasy VI or VII? The battle lines were drawn years ago. Though I’m not as steadfastly in the Final Fantasy VI camp as I once was (I can have sane discussions about which game is better now — really!), I’m choosing to stay in my trench with Locke, Gau, the abominable snowman, and Gene Simmons’ long-lost brother.
So, bronze to VII, silver to VI, and the gold goes to …
#1: Final Fantasy IX
When I first started writing this list, I planned to give this spot to Final Fantasy VII. Then I was going to give it to VI. Then to VII. Then to VI. Then to … you get the idea.
FFVI represented the old. FFVII represented the new. I couldn’t choose between the two. So in the end I figured, hell, let’s split the difference: Final Fantasy IX it is!
Don’t get me wrong. This game is not just here because I couldn’t choose between the other two. Final Fantasy IX earned this spot by being the greatest Final Fantasy.
The tale of Final Fantasy IX’s development is a story as old as Richard Starkey. The original FF gang came together to hammer out a game, knowing that it could be their last. They eschewed the new and decided to do things the old-school way. They labored in that studio for hours, tweaking and adjusting until everything was just right. The product of their labors was a masterpiece whose reputation has only grown with time. Now, if it hadn’t been for Yoko Ono and her meddling ways, maybe the …
Whoops. Sorry. I forgot we were talking about Final Fantasy. All joking aside, however, I do feel that Final Fantasy IX is the Abbey Road of Final Fantasy games.
Also consider: This is very likely the most polished Final Fantasy game. Every aspect is impeccably well-crafted. As a player, you get the sense that the developers were masters artisans who could summon the essence of Final Fantasy at will.
This game brings together everything that Final Fantasy was. It is a compilation of all that was good, put together in a single, spectacular package. And it’s also a farewell of sorts. Because it’s doubtful we’ll ever see another Final Fantasy like this again.
Final Fantasy IX is fondly remembered by those who played it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as widely played as it should’ve been. Final Fantasy IX came out just a year after Final Fantasy VIII, and by the time it was released, the PlayStation 2 had already hit the market. As a result, Final Fantasy IX, much like Vivi, didn’t know where it fit in. Was it the hot new Final Fantasy game? Was it a tribute to all the games that had come before? Was it a rushed game to tide us over until Final Fantasy X?
At the time no one was sure. But looking back at it now, Final Fantasy IX’s place in the hierarchy is clear.
This, my friends, is Final Fantasy at its finest.
And there you have it. Writing this series brought all these memories back to life inside my head. It was a treat to write. I hope it’s been a treat for you to read, as well.
Header photo courtesy of Vadu Amka.