A significant portion of my childhood was devoted to Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy VI (known at the time as Final Fantasy III) came out in the U.S. when I was 8 years old. It was my first taste of the series; I’ve been a fan ever since hearing the MIDI organ blare the first notes of the game’s gorgeous title sequence.
Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Final Fantasy and I have had our ups and downs. There were years when I didn’t play any Final Fantasy, followed by weeks of binge gaming to catch up with what I’d missed. But it seems no matter how long I stay away from Final Fantasy, sooner or later I always return.
Now, nearly 30 years after the series’ inception, I join the debate: Which Final Fantasy is the greatest of them all?
Admittedly, answering this question is nigh impossible. The considerations one must account for are overwhelming: Story or gameplay? Cecil or Tidus? Terra or Tifa? Espers or job classes? Chocobo racing or Triple Triad? None of these comparisons have definitive answers.
I’ve done my best to weigh each game fairly. But first, let’s briefly discuss the games I haven’t ranked:
The unranked fantasies: Final Fantasy XI, XIII, XIV (and every game outside of the main series)
Simply put, I haven’t played these games enough to rank them. I never had much interest in MMO Final Fantasy; likewise, I don’t own a computer or gaming console powerful enough to run Final Fantasy XIII. Hence I didn’t include them in this list.
(Honestly, I can’t believe it’s already been six years since Final Fantasy XIII’s release. Sometimes I tell my friends that I’m a grumpy old retired gamer, always ranting and raving about the classics. Here’s more proof that that’s true. Maybe it’s time I come out of retirement?)
As for the unnumbered Final Fantasy games, I’ll say that many of them are superb. Some of them would rank higher than the games below. (Final Fantasy Tactics, anyone?) I’ve chosen not to include them, however, both because I haven’t played all of them and because their inclusion would make these rankings monstrously complex. (Is Final Fantasy Adventure a Final Fantasy game or a Mana game? What about Final Fantasy Legends? What about those Japanese-exclusive cell phone games? You can see how expanding these rankings could get complicated.)
With that out of the way, let us continue to the first spot on this list …
#11: Final Fantasy II
Every ranking must begin somewhere. In this case the least favorable position goes to Final Fantasy II.
Confession time: I considered including this in the unranked fantasies category above, as I never spent much time with it (even though I owned Dawn of Souls for my Game Boy Advance). But, based on my playing experience and on the consensus of other reviewers, I decided I feel comfortable putting it here.
Although Final Fantasy II’s story was deeper and more thoughtful than its predecessor’s, the revised gameplay mechanics less balanced than Cloud’s buster sword. Notably, the developers completely scrapped the level-up system and implemented a new skill system instead, with results that left something to be desired. The consensus is that the improved story was not enough to offset the chaotic nature of this new skill system.
Maybe one day I’ll go back and play this more thoroughly so that I can give it an honest appraisal. For the time being, however, it shall reside here.
#10: Final Fantasy
The fantasy began here. Did you know it very nearly ended here as well?
Back in the late 80s while developing Final Fantasy, Square was on the brink of bankruptcy. Believing this would be their last game, Square appropriately named it Final Fantasy. Needless to say, Square’s demise never came to pass; Final Fantasy became a hit as big as Bahamut, and has spawned hundreds of sequels. The final Final Fantasy probably won’t happen until after General Leo’s resurrection.
As for the game itself? It’s a solid J-RPG, albeit one that owes much to Dragon Quest, which debuted a year prior. But make no mistake: Final Fantasy is no mere copycat. It introduced us to four-man battle parties, airships, and novel innovations that have endured as vital parts of the Final Fantasy canon.
The game was fun as a bottle of Oxyale to boot. The original NES version has admittedly not aged well; it requires too much rote level-grinding. That said, if you can get your hands on one of the enhanced and streamlined remakes, you’ll discover a fun and lighthearted RPG experience awaits you.
#9: Final Fantasy III
With Final Fantasy III, the series returned to its roots while also adding new innovations. The resulting game was a major step forward.
The biggest addition is the job system. The original Final Fantasy let you choose a class at the beginning; in Final Fantasy III you can switch between classes throughout the adventure. If Final Fantasy was chess, Final Fantasy III is like Chess960 — more options, more combinations, more complexity. (Unfortunately, no: Completing Final Fantasy III will not make you the next Bobby Fischer.)
Final Fantasy III regressed significantly in only one area: plot. The game jettisoned the more complex themes of Final Fantasy II and returned to a simple, tried-and-true story. The Nintendo DS remake rectified this somewhat, but even in remixed form the plot is still weak.
(Yes, the first three Final Fantasy games sit at the bottom of this list. Although I didn’t intend to disrespect the series’ old-school classics this way, in the end I had little choice. While these three games laid the groundwork for what was to come, they simply cannot compare to the series’ later entries.)
#8: Final Fantasy XII
Ranking Final Fantasy XII gives me a headache. More than any other game on this list, it represented a new direction for the franchise. The question is: Was that change in direction for better or for worse?
Maybe that question isn’t fair. Maybe the new direction wasn’t better or worse; maybe it was just new.
Final Fantasy XII did do a lot of things well. The new battle system was fun. The visual design was equal parts intricate and awe-inspiring. The License Board system offered nearly unlimited options for developing your characters. The game’s English version even stirs up memories of Highlander. Yet, despite these achievements, Final Fantasy XII didn’t resonate with me as strongly as I would’ve liked. It was an excellent game, but it strongly veered from Final Fantasy traditions in a way that no previous game had (aside from, you know, that online installment).
While I respect Square Enix for trying new things within the framework of a venerable series — and for doing many of them well — I can’t justify ranking this game any higher. It’s great, yes, but why put it above other games that are more deserving?
#7: Final Fantasy V
This is getting hard.
Final Fantasy V is a good game — solid as Shiva and more fun than working freelance. It built upon the job system that Final Fantasy III introduced, and in terms of pure gameplay it is arguably one of the better games in the series.
The major strength of Final Fantasy V lies in the options it presents. You can form your party in any way you wish; it offers more customization than any other Final Fantasy game. (While later games offer deeper customization options, their characters tend to have more concrete attributes and roles.) And unlike Final Fantasy III, in which certain bosses essentially forced you employ certain party configurations, Final Fantasy V is flexible. If you want to battle with four white wizards, this game won’t prevent you from doing so (although that’s not to say it won’t make it difficult)!
What’s not to like? Well, the story is somewhat hackneyed. And the game does seem to lack the sheer grandeur that Final Fantasy games are known for.
Then again, it may simply be that Final Fantasy V suffers for being a game lost in time. Notably, it wasn’t released outside of Japan until 7 years after its original release; its first official appearance on Western shores was as a buggy Playstation port (which I played through in its entirety, load times be damned). Perhaps if Square had given it a proper release when it was brand new, it wouldn’t be relegated to this spot.
Sorry, Final Fantasy V. History did you no favors. You deserved better.
That wraps up Part 1. The rankings will only become more difficult to sort out from here. Check back on Wednesday for Part 2 – The Muddled Middle!