Which Final Fantasy is Best? *Update*

It’s high time I updated one of the most scrutinized posts I have published since I started writing this blog over 4 years ago… There has been only one new release in the Final Fantasy series since the original publishing date (in the main series, that is. We don’t speak of the MMOs around these parts and spin-offs and direct sequels, ie X-2 and XIII-2 don’t count)

There has been some shuffling in the order, mainly prompted by recent changes of heart because subsequent replays and more critical thinking in general.

Anyway, there is one new game on the list (XIII) and the rest have revised descriptions. Begin!

#12 – Final Fantasy II (Famicom)

I still have this one at the bottom. It has definitely NOT improved since my original list. That being said, I gave this game a fair chance. I own it 6 times over (Famicom, WonderSwan, GBA, PlayStation, Reproduction cart, and PSP and I can say without a moments hesitation that this is the weakest entry in the series. The entire game is completely bogged down by the confusing, annoying, and punishing leveling system where by you have to exercise an attribute before you can have it bolstered. There are no levels as in a classic RPG system, where by you gain experience points and reach higher levels, instead your stats increase after each and every battle. This may sound pretty cool, and that’s exactly what I thought before I ever played the game, but the theory put into practice is a lot different, mainly because the game is incredibly difficult and having to level grind is so tedious using the game’s revamped leveling system that the first couple times I played it I got frustrated and lost interest. Overall, the game had a pretty good story and plot compared to it’s contemporaries, but there is a reason they did a major over haul of the game mechanics for part 3.

#11 – Final Fantasy (NES)

I have to admit that putting the original Final Fantasy game this low on the list was a tough decision for me. I first played this game around the time of it’s release and I must have begged my parents for it for months. But the memories of strategizing with my friends and leading heroic charges through Warmech territory has succumbed to the simple fact that there are better Final final Fantasy games. When it comes to North American NES games, Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior 4 stand shoulder to shoulder in dominance of the console for plot, game play and graphics, but the one that started it all just isn’t as good as many of the games that followed it.

#10 – Final Fantasy III (Famicom)

I originally had this game a lot higher on my list, and I dropped down a few notches after replaying it last year. The reason? The game is too hard. Now, I am not some wimp who only likes easy games; I love the challenge of a hard game, especially a hard RPG, but there are points in III where the difficulty grinds the pace of the game to a halt (for HOURS at a time) and it really affects the enjoyment of the ambitious story. The game is not really a good Final Fantasy game, but it is an important one. With the addition of the job system, III paved the way for the sweeping innovation that can still be seen in nearly every Final Fantasy title to follow. The job system that got it’s start in part 3, while primitive by today’s standards, created an amount of depth that at that time had not yet seen in console RPGs. In terms of series innovation, III is at the top of the list with IV and VII, and that’s where I got confused on the previous list. As a game, it doesn’t hold up quite as well and it’s best left in the past.

#9 – Final Fantasy V (SNES)

For a long time Final Fantasy V was an elusive creature to the English speaking west. The only numbered Super Famicom Final Fantasy game to not receive a North American release at the time, many Western gamers had no idea this game even existed because of Square’s renumbering of the localized Super NES titles. Part 5 was one of the earliest rom fan translations and finally saw the light of day in North America, first in 1999 as a part of the Final Fantasy Anthology series, and then as a stand alone re-release for the Gameboy Advance. Perhaps there was method to Square’s madness; the game is without question the weakest of the Super Famicom titles and not much stands out in the game other than the job system, which is an improved variation on the Famicom release Final Fantasy III. A solid game through out, the game really suffers because of the lack of a memorable antagonist, who would all but be forgotten if not for the Dissidia spin-offs.

#8– Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation)

Chances are VII is the first Final Fantasy game you played. In fact, part 7 was the first console RPG that millions of people played, and this plays a large part in its legendary status. You must remember that before Final Fantasy 7 came out, the console RPGs of the 16 bit era had a really tough time finding an western audience, and part 7 served as an introduction to not only the Final Fantasy series and console RPGs in general, but also to the Sony PlayStation, one of the most popular platforms in video game history. Now there is nothing wrong with this game; the addition of FMV cut scenes and the transition to 3D were truly revolutionary at the time of the game’s release, but I truly believe that if any one of the three PlayStation Final Fantasy titles were released in it’s place they would have had the same success and be held in the same bulletproof regard as Final Fantasy 7 is today.

#7 – Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation)

If you can get past the cheesy, elfish character designs (which is my least favorite of the series), then there is a lot of good here. Part 9 was the swan song for Final Fantasy games on the PlayStation and the game was treated as a retrospective tribute to the series to that point. In fact, there were many months of doubt during the games development whether or not it would actually be titled as part 9 or be a gaiden to the Final Fantasy series. The game is littered with tons of references to earlier Final Fantasy games, especially the first title. There is an awful lot to like about this return to the roots of the series, and while the game is the highest ranked title of the series on MetaCritic, it fell sort of expectations for many fans of the series. After the drastic and revolutionary changes made to in Final Fantasy 8, it was assumed that 9 would push the envelope even further. Regardless of it’s decided lack of innovation, IX actually succeeds by hearkening back to a simpler style of RPGs that made the series famous in the first place.

#6 – Final Fantasy XIII (PS3)

Upon it’s release XIII took a lot of crap for it’s linear progression and elongated combat tutorial that spans the first 25 hours of the game. What many people seem to forget is that every Final Fantasy game since VII has had the same lengthy linear introduction, but the developers of XIII just decided not to dress it up in this installment. Look at X, or XII- it’s about 15-20 before you really get any freedom to speak of in those games, much like Final Fantasy XIII. However, once Final Fantasy XIII opens up the world is enormous, absorbing, and  beautiful. The stars of XIII are the characters, and they are thoroughly developed and explored, each with their own arc, motives, and surprises. The combat system is among the best in series, with the Paradigm Shift system providing nearly limitless strategic layers to combat. The combat actually does require that you spend 20 hours mastering it’s nuances, because  every battle, even seemingly innocuous encounters with grubs, is potentially lethal and requires every bit as much strategic aforethought as any boss battle in the game. XIII is a game that asks a steep investment of time, but those who choose to surrender to the games linear structure are rewarded with a rich, satisfying experience and one of the largest post-game adventures in console RPG history. Plus the game is really hard (in a good way).

#5 – Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

This game holds a fair bit on nostalgia for me personally as I can remember playing when I was an impressionable young nerd. The vastness of the game at that time was unreal. Playing one video game for 40 hours before you beat it? It was unheard on a Nintendo console. It is with this misty eyed wonder that I look back on this game. Great characters, plots twists and a huge world to explore. Not to mention that Final Fantasy VI boasts the greatest, most vile villain in video game history. This is the game that new Final Fantasy games are still consistently compared to and is often remembered with the same over-inflated grandeur as Final Fantasy 7. But where as part 7 is often revered as a jump to the next plateau, part 6 is seen as the end an era and the close of the golden age of console RPGs.

#4 – Final Fantasy IV (SNES)

Easily one of the greatest RPGs made in the 16 bit era, Final Fantasy IV is, at it’s core, a story of betrayed loyalties and the bond of relationships. When moving the series to the Super Famicom Square took enormous strides in both plot and character development. The story and especially the score are among the best in the series to date and the game has seen several re-releases, including a complete 3D remake for the Nintendo DS and an enhanced port for the PSP that includes the DLC only “The After Years” epilogue story. If you have not played this game yet, then I would get the PSP remake before it goes out of print; this is a game that needs to be experienced.

#3 – Final Fantasy VIII (PlayStation)

I have no idea how this game got such a bad wrap. Maybe because Square didn’t remake Final Fantasy 7 and went in a different direction. While it’s true that much of the hate on Final Fantasy 8 comes from simply the fact that it’s not Final Fantasy 7, I can safely say that it’s completely unjustified. First off all, the graphics, both in game and cinema FMV, are among the best on the PlayStation, and the story is extremely well crafted and methodically paced. Final Fantasy 8 remains the champion of character development in the Final Fantasy series. The game features some cool elements such as switching between two different parties, one in the past and the other in the present. This opens the door for you to trigger events in the past that you can manipulate in the present. The game is truly cinematic and plays out more like a opera than a video game. Never afraid of innovating, Square completely revamped the leveling system by introducing Draw, Junction, and Guardian Forces, where by you learn abilities through your summons creatures. There was some initial backlash against this system because it was so radically different than anything else in the series, but the Draw / Junction system has ultimately proven to provide the game with a level of customization far deeper than that of the Materia system in FF7. If you have stayed away from this entry because of it’s negative stigma, then I suggest you pick yourself a copy, forget what you’ve heard, and let the exciting mission based game play, epic story, and rich characters be the judge.

#2 – Final Fantasy X (PlayStation 2)

Games this beautiful only come a couple times a generation. This best thing about Final Fantasy X is that at it’s heart it is basically a simple love story. two people come together, over whelming odds, etc. The back drop for this epic story is that of a world in ruin struggling to be reborn. Everything about this game is nearly perfect; the graphic, pre-rendered backgrounds, the game play, even the cinema FMW are motion picture quality CGI. The battle system has once again been re-perfected in the form of the Sphere Grid, which is an ingenious way of providing the player with true computer RPG level customization. The game holds a near infinite amount of replay power when you factor in the side quests, the legendary weapons, monster hunts, and hidden Aeons to name a few. I have a file clocked at just short of 140 hours and still don’t have half of the legendary weapons or all the hidden monsters. The game is just that huge. Final Fantasy X was also the first in the series to feature voice acting. The acting has been done incredibly well, however they faced some criticism due to the fact that the character’s lip movements where not re-animated for English localization, so often the English voice actors would have to fit a sentence of dialogue into one-syllable’s worth of mouth movement. This problem has been addressed in all subsequent games in the series, however. The one thing that makes this game stand out in my memory, though, is the story. The epic love story and the tragic beauty and attention detail that comprises the world of Spira made Final Fantasy X truly worthy of the ushering in the next generation of console RPGs.

#1 – Final Fantasy XII (PlayStation 2)

Winner of countless awards, the only Final Fantasy game granted 40/40 by prestigious Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, the cream of the crop, the best of the best. Final Fantasy XII is truly a feat. The developers managed to squeeze every last drop out of the aging PS2 and create a next generation level game on a six year old last gen console. Everything about Final Fantasy XII is first rate. Theater trained voice actors, sweeping orchestral score, a plot wrought with emotional and political intrigue. The depth of the characters, and the size the world combine to make this game on of the all time classic video games, not just of the Final Fantasy series, or of console RPGs, but of all gaming. Gone are the random battles, in their place a fully customizable battle system based on a mechanic referred to as Gambits that not only grant you complete control over every action your character makes, but also gives you total control over your entire party, even if you have them set to the games player-friendly AI. The entire world is laid out in front of you; no longer do you have to go to a map screen or world view, the transition from town to country-side to battle is 100% seamless. The attention to detail in Final Fantasy 12 is almost obsessive compulsive. It almost seems as the world around you is alive, constantly changing and evolving. The game is set in Ivalice, much just like Sqaure’s Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, and much of the quasi-medieval setting is borrowed and recreated on a grander scale. The main quest will take bear minimum 35 hours, but are so many side quests, hunts, and hidden dungeons to explore that a complete game, if you took your time, would take in the neighborhood of 180 hours. I know, because that’s what my 100% complete Final Fantasy 12 file ended up at. The strength of Final Fantasy 12 is the games ability not just to be one of the biggest console RPGs ever made, but to fill that space with enough depth, beauty, originality and rock solid game play that you keep coming back again and again. The level of quality of Final Fantasy 12 is what makes me excited each time a new Final Fantasy game is announced- the prospect that it has the potential to be as sweeping and absorbing this.


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