Final Fantasy has been a staple of the gaming community since 1987, making it one of our longest running franchises and one of the few from its era that has been able to continuously adapt to the ever evolving world around it.
As we close out the month of March, Final Fantasy Type-0 HD has proved itself to be a solid spin-off but awkward way to kick off the franchise's 6th generation of existence. Final Fantasy XV "Episode Duscae" also has shown us that the series has a bright future for at least the next two years or so. Square Enix is practically daring its naysayers not to get excited about this game!
Let's not forget Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which is possibly the most exciting MMORPG on the market these days.
In fact, the franchise has a long and fabled history of capturing audiences, setting the stage for the generation ahead of it, and rewriting the rules of the JRPG genre. It has always been a trendsetter and played by its own mindset, paving the path for others to follow.
Did you think the heavy influx of 3D RPGs after Final Fantasy VII in the late 90s was mere coincidence?
Because of these expectations for ground-shattering hits, it's easy to get lost in the moment when playing the latest Final Fantasy. For me, the relationship between age, fun, and accessibility have always been a factor in determining what makes a great video game. I maybe like a game when it first comes out, but how easy will it be to enjoy 5, 10, 20 years after it first launched? Only time will truly tell.
With that in mind, here is how I would rank the past five generations of the Final Fantasy series as I see them today, not for the impact they initially had. For simplicity's sake, we'll be looking at just the games from the main series and the games that are available now. Final Fantasy Tactics is a timeless masterpiece, but if we bring that up, we'll have to give mention to less desirable entries like Dirge of Cerberus.
7th generation — Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
I don't think it's any surprise to find the previous generation kicking off our list in the bottom spot. Noticing the rapidly changing world of video games around it, Square Enix made plenty of moves in the 2000s to set itself up as a major AAA studio and show the world that it had the spirit to hang in with corporate America.
Some of its moves worked, others didn't. One of the most polarizing of its efforts is the ill fated Fabula Nova Crystallis, a series of Final Fantasy games designed around the mythology of Final Fantasy XIII. A main game, an action spin off, a portable game, a handful of mobile games. Square Enix essentially banked on the success of Final Fantasy XIII before it even became a hit.
No doubt this was in reaction to Western publishers' rapidly changing business model, which had just started beginning to lean on commoditizing franchises into yearly events. Square Enix dreamed up this loosely connected universe with a modern attempt at annualizing Final Fantasy. The only problem was that Square Enix's corporate ladder still operated with a pre-AAA era mentality, and Fabula Nova Crystallis hardly panned out as it was originally envisioned.
It didn't help either that Atlus and its Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series stole the spotlight from Square Enix, providing engaging and cheaply made RPGs and becoming the model of success that other JRPG studios tried to emulate. Square Enix found itself throughout the entire generation playing catch-up, a position it often has not found itself in.
Final Fantasy XIII is not a dreadful game, and neither are its sequels. They were just the products of a gaming company who painstakingly adapted to the modern world through trial by fire. Who can count the lessons Fabula Nova Crystallis taught Square Enix? Work more efficiently with resources. Don't depend on patches. Make better use of schedules and goals. Toss aside elitism and seniority within your ranks to let younger, brighter stars shine.
Each Final Fantasy XIII sequel didn't necessarily get better, but they showed rapid improvement on streamlining development, leading to a much more stable and functioning Square Enix for the next decade or so.
As a game, Final Fantasy XIII is really difficult to play. It's as linear as the franchise could possibly be. Its character development is way too abstract. Its artwork for some of its characters can be rage inducing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt in the music department, where it is one of the best the series has ever seen, but overall, its reputation will be something of an ultimate twist of fate.
The lasting legacy of Fabula Nova Crystallis will not be the success of Final Fantasy XIII but rather the success of the games its troubled existence spawned. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD and Final Fantasy XV were both born from under this shadow, and both will show how far Square Enix has come since its overly ambitious plans were first announced.
As for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, it too suffered from a horrible initial release. Square Enix's dreadful Final Fantasy XIV Online nearly destroyed the company, but thanks to a second chance from Director Naoki Yoshida, A Realm Reborn is the most loyal game to the series' roots in over a decade. The screenshots for this game are as gorgeous as they come, and exactly what you would expect an early Final Fantasy game to look like in amazing 3D graphics, kind of like Final Fantasy IX in that regard.
That spirit of fun carries over into the game as well. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a blast to play and hardly the painful grinding slog most MMORPGs turn out to be.
Just, it's better on an 8th generation console like the PlayStation 4 and doesn't really work as a 7th generation game. It was born here, but it shouldn't be enjoyed here. Go for the upgrade every time with this one.
3rd generation — Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy III
Speaking of games that should be enjoyed more on the later generations of consoles, here we come back to Final Fantasy's roots on the NES and Japanese Famicom. Each of the three original games has been ported and remade more times than I care to count, but only in their original inception will always retain that 8-bit charm that modern consoles simply can't replicate.
In 1987, a company called Enix was writing all the rules about JRPGs with the Dragon Quest series, and everyone else was following its train of thought. Countless clones plagued the Japanese Famicom, but nobody had really been able to replicate Enix's booming figures with the over-saturation of competition.
Also in 1987, a struggling company called Square was on the brink of bankruptcy and had enough money for one more game. It turned to its lead developer Hironobu Sakaguchi, a man with a losing streak for action games, to make one of these JRPGs that all the kids were buying up, and the rest is history. Final Fantasy was a hit and saved the company from destruction.
Sakaguchi's formula didn't see the same sales figures of the Dragon Quest games, but it did capture the imagination of other companies. First-person viewpoints began to phase out in favor of Final Fantasy's "side view' style. More emphasis on dramatic character art and storylines became the norm. The first Final Fantasy put the series at the forefront of the genre, and it didn't let up on this charge until, again, Final Fantasy XIII let a few underdogs slip in its way.
Much like Final Fantasy XIII, the original NES trilogy can be better appreciated for what they spawned rather than how much fun they are to play. The original, of course, set the rules for the entire franchise and the tone that it would take for the next five entries.
Final Fantasy II is generally regarded as the worst Final Fantasy for its offbeat ideas, but without its failures, we would have never seen the birth of Square's wonderful SaGa series. Designer Akitoshi Kawazu, infamous for his experimental designs, was booted from the Final Fantasy team after this step backward and was tasked to make Game Boy games instead. It was a decision that proved successful for both parties in the end.
Final Fantasy III is credited for formalizing Final Fantasy's classic "job system" which would go on to be perfected in games like Final Fantasy V and Final Fantasy Tactics. It's also incredibly hard, and I don't recommend unless you want to throw away a few years of your life to frustration.
As I mentioned before, all three are more accessible thanks to more modern ports. The PSP remake of Final Fantasy III has proved to be a fan-favorite, even if I am not the biggest supporter of it, and Final Fantasy Origins on the PlayStation makes for the best way to appreciate the first two. It's a PSOne Classic and can be enjoyed on a Vita!
If played on the NES though, they show a lot of age. An overreliance of grinding and several programming annoyances hold them back from being timeless masterpieces from the generation like The Legend of Zelda. It's a tough call, but I still prefer their 8-bit retro style to Final Fantasy XIII's beautifully hollow world, and I love the feel of the first five "classic" Final Fantasy games.
5th generation — Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX
Speaking of close decisions, placing the following two generations was far tougher than choosing our two "losers." In the end though, the halfway part of our ranking sees Final Fantasy at its undeniable peak of popularity, the PlayStation era. I know, I am "Mr. PlayStation-era JRPG nerd," but time has proved to me that some of the weirder hits from that era have more lasting power.
As far as Final Fantasy games go, Final Fantasy VII will eternally be the most popular. It rocketed the franchise to superstardom overnight and greeted a whole generation of fans aboard with its revolutionary graphics and accessible gameplay. You'd be hard pressed to find a roster of characters with more of a presence on the merchandising market than Final Fantasy VII's rabble of misfits, and its villain is regarded as one of the most vile the franchise has ever seen.
At least that's what you remember, yeah? When was the last time you played Final Fantasy VII?
I pushed through it about two years ago, and it's sad to see that it is not the masterpiece I remembered it to be. The characters lack that edge they once seemed to possess, muddied under a poor localization from back before we knew what a localization even was. Materia was easy to crack but too shallow to deeply explore, and it severed the connection between player and character. When it comes to battle, Cloud and his friends are just materia slots for their items, not their natural abilities.
Not that playing through Final Fantasy VII is a terrible slog like Final Fantasy XIII mind you. It's a solid game and an absolute gem for those who love the nostalgia of running through a classic favorite. Nowadays, we have both better access to the older games and the knowledge of where Final Fantasy would go, and by comparison, other games make its mechanics, story, characters, and even music seem like child's play in comparison.
It's a game, for me at least, that is enjoyable on a 100 percent nostalgic level. Really fun, but it doesn't have that extra edge anymore to inspire exploration or experimentation of its greatness.
Final Fantasy VIII is another weird beast. For it's time, Final Fantasy VII's greatest assets were its graphics and easy accessibility, but Final Fantasy VIII's was its impenetrable wall of convoluted ideas. Many fans of Final Fantasy VII, myself included, dismissed Final Fantasy VIII at the time, but we had very little knowledge of how to dig to the heart of such a boisterous and complex game.
Final Fantasy VIII is the largest, biggest budgeted experimental mess of all time. There is no way a game like it could possibly ever be created again!
As the time goes by, that experimental nature just might give it the extra kick needs it to land it the lasting appeal that Final Fantasy VII lacks. Its once awful reputation as an aimless game with no concrete focus has evolved over the years as a deep, highly customizable RPG that encourages enthusiasts to break it wide open. The Junction System is impossible to sum up in a single paragraph, but the years of drilling into its quirks prove that to be more of a compliment than anything.
For that matter, it's far from perfect and more difficult to sink in and enjoy than Final Fantasy VII. Summon animations drag the game's pace to that of a snail, and Squall is still the same insufferable angst bag you remember him to be. However, if you were a hater after this oddball failed to be "just another Final Fantasy VII clone," it's worth re-evaluating. It'll be tough to overcome 15 years of miserable feelings, trust me, I know, but it can be done.
Put it on a Vita and take it on a long flight somewhere. You just might learn something
And of course, we have Final Fantasy IX. There really isn't much to say about this one other than it is just "cute." The game solely exists as an excuse to recreate the old NES and SNES days of Final Fantasy using the cutting edge technology of the original PlayStation. In that regards it succeeds with flying colors, but by definition that also makes Final Fantasy IX very much a product of its time.
The simplistic battle mechanics and character customization seemed like a step back from Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, but that's because they were designed to be that way. Square was purposefully aiming for that goal of old school simplicity.
Whether you like it nowadays or not might depend on how much you enjoyed it back then. I played it once, but I lacked the knowledge of earlier Final Fantasy games at the time to really understand what Square was going for. Final Fantasy IV was my only point of reference. With the much more intimate knowledge of the franchise in my adulthood, who knows what my feelings would be if I gave it another stab.
Early PlayStation-era 3D graphics are hitting their nostalgia stride as well, so maybe the time really has come to give this one another chance. Again, I'll put it on a Vita and give it the time when I can get around to it.
As it stands in my brain now though, the most popular and revolutionary age of Final Fantasy hasn't aged as well as I could have hoped, but they are still an enjoyable batch of games.
6th generation — Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII
PlayStation graphics take a lot of heat for being difficult to go back to, and I can totally buy into that argument. The muddy textures and wretched framerates aren't exactly the most welcoming choice for when you are thinking of top of the line production value.
Luckily, the PlayStation 2 benefits from being released far enough into the life span of 3D graphics to still be tolerable regardless of the times, and when left in the hands of the right company, some games even look just as great to this very day.
Trust me when I say Square, or Square Enix as it became during this generation, is the king of the hill when it comes to being "the right company." In fact, Final Fantasy X's PlayStation 2 character models look better than its HD port!
Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy VI constantly find themselves in an eternal competition as my absolute favorite in the series. Both perfectly hit the sweet spot between accessibility and depth in ways that their peers don't and both have casts of characters that are actually worthy of the memories you have of them.
Yes, for all the flak that Tidus takes for being a flamboyant weirdo, he's actually one of the stronger and more likable protagonist's in the franchise's history! We've come a long way from the crybabies like Cloud and Squall or the ho-humness of Zidane to respect this awkward "fish out of water" athlete, but when push comes to shove, he faces problems without whining and tackles his ultimate fate without a shred of hesitation.
His supporting cast also live up to your memories as well, and they are particularly fleshed out thanks to the addition of voice acting. Thank you, PlayStation 2! For all the love and heartbreak Aeris gets, Yuna is a far more worthy target of affection and sympathy. And Auron … oh Auron …
It doesn't hurt Final Fantasy X's position either that it sports the absolute best battle system that the series has to offer. Each character is encouraged to participate, swapping in and out of battle on the fly, and most importantly, they do so at lightning speeds. No need for excessive battle animations anymore. Final Fantasy X gets you in and out of fights in the amount of time it takes a battle in a PlayStation entry to load!
That's praise I often save for the one and only Suikoden II, but its far more impressive with Final Fantasy X's graphic superiority.
The simple battle system allows newcomers to enjoy and get used to its surface. The extreme level of customization found in the sphere grid grants fans something to toy around with in more depth, and endgame ultimate weapons and monsters reward the seriously dedicated. All in all, Final Fantasy X works on all depth and nostalgia levels, and that's why its one that is the easiest to go back to and enjoy.
We'll skip Final Fantasy XI for a minute and jump into Final Fantasy XII. It would be fair to compare the relationship between X and XII to the one between VII and VIII. Final Fantasy X is the popular one that can be enjoyed by anyone, and XII is the experimental oddball that will lose players each step along the way.
Unlike Final Fantasy VIII though, Final Fantasy XII stands a better shot at a re-evaluation if Square Enix ever gets around to bringing it out on a modern console. Its open-world style is more widely accepted as "the norm" in video games than it was at the time, but it was a real turnoff back then for those who did not have much experience with the genre. You'll have a hard time following the story with all the sequence breaking and exploration that Final Fantasy XII encourages.
Its gambit system, license chart, optional bosses, and original battle system also seem like they would have a better chance with modern audiences thanks to the relatively newer tendencies of unlocking content through playing, more "hands-off" approaches to battle, and finding ways to break games rather than just enjoy a simple story.
Also unlike Final Fantasy VIII, XII's story is far more digestible with a cast that is easier to throw your support behind. Vaan and Penelo are rightfully disliked by fans, but they act as wonderful eyes into this complicated political world. Without their innocent viewpoint of the bigger "Star Wars rip-off" plot, writer Yasumi Matsuno's vision would fall flat on the younger audience Square Enix requires to make this franchise a success.
Again, it needs a rerelease in stunning HD, but Final Fantasy XII is one of those misunderstood entries that seems would get better with time rather than be forgotten.
Final Fantasy XI was Square Enix's first attempts at an MMORPG, and it shows. The game is a difficult grind and nearly impossible for newcomers to pick up and get into anymore. However, without its guidance and massive impact on the franchise's profits, the more open-ended nature of modern Final Fantasy games might have never happened. We'd still be running through invisible linear tubes from one village to the next.
In all fairness, it's a nice looking game with relaxing music and an interesting lore behind its setting. I'd easily recommend it if Square Enix made it free-to-play and chucked it up on the PlayStation 4, but Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn towers over it in every possible way.
The PlayStation 2 games of Final Fantasy have held firm as accessible fan-favorites as they head into their third generation of existence. More importantly, they appear to only get better with age, which is why they clock in at number 2.
Number 1 though is just in a class all on its own.
4th generation — Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI
The problem a lot of Japanese franchises have is that their classic formulas simply peaked during the Super Nintendo days. Metroid, Mario and The Legend of Zelda all suffer from this problem, but they are among the lucky ones which managed to somehow scrape out from under the shadow of this perfection and adapt to the changes of 3D. Many others were not so lucky.
Final Fantasy's classic ambitions also peaked during the Super Nintendo days with three undeniable masterpieces, and I would argue that any Final Fantasy trying to play by their rules, like VII and IX and even X to an extent, come up way short of what these three have to offer.
Final Fantasy IV excels in its storytelling. The overall plot isn't the greatest in the world with some weird twists and turns, but the magic of it all can be found in the smaller moments. The betrayal of a best friend, the romance of a lover, the emotional gut punch of one character after another sacrificing him or herself for the greater good. Over the course of his adventure, our hero Cecil transforms from a dark knight into a holy paladin, and he rises to defeat a conspiracy destroying his king, country, and even planet, and many of the friendly faces he meets along the way don't exactly carry the torch with him from beginning to end.
There isn't much to do in terms of breaking from the chosen path, but Final Fantasy IV is wonderful in that it knows it doesn't have to. Its path is a hard one with death and loss at every turn, and eventually your motivation for success is seeing who makes it out alive on the other side!
While many see it as a simple Final Fantasy game in terms of the gameplay these days, it was the first to use the "active time" battle system that became the standard up until Final Fantasy IX. It also makes the best use of it in regards to timing spells and planning deadly assaults.
On the flip side, Final Fantasy V provides a perfect companion piece for Final Fantasy IV. For all the gusto its predecessor put into storytelling, Final Fantasy V packs it into gameplay options. The shallowness of its story is lost on the fact that each of your main characters can be shaped into your ideal team of indestructible warriors. This is where Final Fantasy's "job class" system came into its pure ultimate fruition, and later entries have struggled with finding an answer to its magical balance.
No Final Fantasy game in the main series allows for more personalization than Final Fantasy V, and its open-ended "blank slate" style of character customization gives it infinite re-playability thanks to the power of imagination. Set a few parameters like "no magic" or "purely magic" and see how challenging the game can really be. The Internet has an entire community dedicated to toying with Final Fantasy V's limitless system.
And then there is Final Fantasy VI. Much like Final Fantasy X, this is just one that works on all levels.
Square backed off the uneven emotional roller-coaster of Final Fantasy IV's highs and lows to tell a much more even storyline worthy of the series' progress it had made to this point. Final Fantasy VI doesn't have a central character with each one able to claim that stake come the game's closing credits, and our villain Kefka is shallow, but his dastardly deeds far outweigh the actions of other similarly shallow villains.
The gameplay also lacks the depth of Final Fantasy V's customization option with its "Esper system" coming up a little shy. Of course, each character is home to their own unique abilities and equipment, so they are more than just an empty shell to insert materia into. Each can also eventually evolve a similar indestructible killing machine on the battlefield if fans are willing to grind them there, but the journey of getting them to that point provides plenty of variation.
And then there is the presentation behind these elements, which is Final Fantasy VI's true strong point. Square Enix's revolutionary use of sprites still looks amazing to this day and can be enjoyed by just about anybody with a soul. Its 16-bit sprites have become the standard Square Enix turns to when it wants to "get down and retro" with a mobile release or ironic trailer, and the game's cast can out-emote even the most complicated motion capture character models of today!
In fact, that is the saving grace for all three of the Super Nintendo games. Final Fantasy IV, V and VI can be picked up and enjoyed by anyone regardless of their age. They aren't bogged down by loading times, muddy graphics, or angsty storylines reflective of the times they were born into. Each is home to an air of timelessness that supersedes technology and trends, like all the best games that have ever been created.
That's where I stand on this issue. I have yet to see where or how Final Fantasy is going to play out on this console generation, but Final Fantasy XV and the adjustments that Square Enix has made over the past few years has given me a lot of confidence that the franchise has been left in the right hands and has at least another 25 solid years of revolutionary RPG experiences to deliver.