Final Fantasy is just a few weeks away from turning thirty years old – so let’s celebrate with a good old fan ranking.
Thirty years provides an awful lot of history to mine and a truly ridiculous number of games. Since the original Final Fantasy made its debut in Japan on December 18, 1987 the series has seen fifteen main numbered titles, three films, and a ridiculous number of spin-off games including a few discrete series’ including Crystal Chronicles, Tactics, Chocobo’s Dungeon and franchises built around specific entries or characters.
But which is the best? Well, you know… it’s complicated. Obviously whatever I write here is going to come in for criticism, but screw it: I got my start writing about video games as a teenager by setting up a Final Fantasy fan site, so like any good fan I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this.
Before you hop straight to the comments to tell me to drop dead and all that, here’s the rules for this list:
- The MMOs aren’t included. I want to take a moment to say that Final Fantasy 11 and Final Fantasy 14 are very good games, and I in particular put a hundred hours or more into FF11 when it launched – but I’m not going to include them. This is about the single-player games, simple as.
- Neither are any spin-offs. If we get into spin-offs this could easily expand from a top ten into a top fifty, and that just seems ridiculous. Besides, to be honest – a lot of the spin-offs are sub-par anyway. For the record, however, my favourite spin-offs are FF Tactics (obviously), Final Fantasy Legend and city management sim Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King.
- Being on this list is good. Unlike the spin-offs, main-line Final Fantasy is pretty pure. Aside from the original release of FF14 there’s never been a truly bad numbered FF – they range from good to fantastic – so try not to get too mad about where I place a certain game, or about the three that didn’t make it.
So – deep breath – here’s my top ten Final Fantasy games.
10. Final Fantasy XIII
A lot of people really love to hate this one, and they’ve got a good reason – FF13 takes twenty-plus hours to get going, but it earns its spot on the list for its combat system alone. From a distance FF13 can look like a bore where you just hammer ‘auto battle’ repeatedly, but there’s actually a surprising hidden depth to its combat system where your consideration should be more about preparation, setting up the pre-set party configurations you’ll then switch through in battle in response to enemies.
Lightning is also a great lead, I think, though the rest of the game is a muddled mess that personifies Square Enix at the time of its development – which perhaps is why it ended up with its distinct corridor shape. FF13 is no classic, but it has its share of positive memorables.
9. Final Fantasy IV
At the time FF4 was a bit of a revelation, but it’s also an uneven game which is what earns it this spot on the list. It’s notable for a few reasons, though, from Spoony Bards to how this is really the game that after a little test run in FF2 truly, properly sets the story and character-driven template that FF would go on to be defined by. The game now has a new lease of life in the form of the 3D version released for DS, PC and mobile, by far the definitive version of the game.
FF4 is still above all three NES FF games for me (they’re absent from this list) because FF4 is a better expression of almost all of the ideas NES FF expressed – though it’s really a stepping stone, albeit an excellent one, to bigger, better things.
8. Final Fantasy X
At the time of its release FF10’s mind-boggling visuals and the addition of voice acting were the major talking points, but in hindsight there’s something a great deal more special about this one: just how different it feels.
From the protagonist-narrated story through to its more plainly Asian-inspired settings that mash up perfectly with sun-drenched beaches, FF10 is an absolute delight. It has a killer mini-game in Blitzball too (at least, once you understand it), and the Western release features some of the best post-game content in the series. FF10’s linear nature is similar to FF13, but it’s telling that the rest of the game is so cohesive and so good that nobody ever talks about that fact.
7. Final Fantasy XV
In at lucky number seven is the newest entry in the series, and though it had an infamously difficult birth FF15 really is a special game. The insane thing about it is how much it’s improved in the last year: twelve months ago I’d probably have put it lower, but it’s climbed a few places thanks to story fixes and other tweaks.
While I think most of the ‘FF15 Universe’ Square Enix has chosen to build around this game it absolute guff of the worst order, the game itself is a really brave and mostly successful blend of design elements from Western RPGs with classic FF elements, with the game even switching from an open-world exploration-driven game to a more typical FF rollercoaster journey around two thirds in. The real star is a unique new story for FF – a surprisingly compelling story of brotherhood that gets unexpectedly real and tender as it wears on.
6. Final Fantasy XII
The truth is that mechanically FF12 is the best entry in the entire Final Fantasy series, but the rest of the game stumbles in some significant ways. The gambit system and associated battle mechanics are a stroke of genius from Active Time Battle creator Hiroyuki Ito, and it arguably still remains the most interesting and depth-filled potential replacement for less dynamic turn-based battles we’ve seen in FF to date. The Zodiac Job System version, recently released on PS4, makes that system even better.
The rest of the game is very much of its time, but that’s the charm. Elements of the world and design echo Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars Prequels which were in cinemas at the time of its development, and Ivalice remains the most fleshed-out FF universe of all. There’s plenty of charm, but that side of FF12 strangely doesn’t gel as well as it could, perhaps because of a mid-development director change.
5. Final Fantasy VIII
Despite having an amnesic mid-game twist that still makes me wince when I think about it, FF8 still earns a nice high place on my personal top ten. The school setting is carried off effortlessly (significant when you consider how badly Final Fantasy Type-0 would botch the same setting years later) and protagonist Squall isn’t the whiner people quite make him out to be: his struggles and emotional wrangles as he suddenly finds himself a leader are really quite relatable to real-life teenage angst.
Best of all about FF8, however, is how thoroughly broken it is. If you know what you’re doing you can abuse its Guardian Force, Junction and Magic systems to rip the game wide open, and doing so is tremendous fun that isn’t really matched in the rest of the series. I’d never play the game any other way now.
4. Final Fantasy V
When I mentioned earlier that FF4 was the best expression of the ideas from the NES games, I lied a little. Some of those ideas are better expressed in FF5, a stripped-back game that’s about a group of heroes hopping the world to collect crystals as they swap character classes and grow. FF5 has a story, but takes a back seat to the excellent job system which made its debut in FF3 but really cemented itself as a series staple with FF5.
So satisfying is the class system that there are fan initiatives like the ‘Four Job Fiesta’, an annual event where people limit their choices in-game to challenge themselves. It’s probably the most ‘pure’ of the 90s FF in raw RPG terms, and you get to fight against a giant demonic tree. What more could you want?
3. Final Fantasy VI
It’s when we reach FF6 on this list we’re getting to the bits of the series that are without a doubt some of the best games ever made period, and FF6 is a magnificently crafted game that absolutely everybody should play. FF6 truly feels like the culmination of everything that came before it, and crucially it’s the first time that the series really makes emotion work beyond melodrama.
FF6 is a uniquely impactful story for a 2D game, and it’s incredibly impressive how effortlessly the game manages to tackle big concepts, even going so far as to absolutely depict and sell an attempted suicide with 16-bit sprites at a time when video game stories were for the most part a bit of a joke. It also features a landmark moment that I personally consider more impressive and important than better-known shockers in other games: for a period of time, the villain wins. Square, if you ever remake this one, please don’t screw it up.
2. Final Fantasy VII
It’s unquestionable that FF7 is a watershed game. I often describe it as the last punk FF game – kicking back at the bigger games, feisty and bold. We can do anything! And Square did. FF7 is a punk game, and not just because of the eco-terrorism. In a sense it’s the last FF before things got really serious – the last time when developers would just go mad throwing stuff in to see if it stuck.
That ends up part of FF7’s charm – while it likes to tug at the heart strings, it’s also pretty much constantly nodding and winking at you, well knowing that it’s all a little bit silly. It’s this that makes me wonder how its much-anticipated remake will fare: without those basic visuals, how does the comedic sight of Red XIII wobbling along in a sailor suit sit next to the extreme violence of our heroine being impaled on a five foot long sword? Time will tell, but the original game juggles these opposite ends perfectly.
This game has an enormous cultural legacy as well, the game that really cemented the Japanese style of RPG as something worth pursuing as a viable product in the West, but more important than that is that it’s a game that has so much heart it’s fit to burst. It’s so beloved for good reason.
1. Final Fantasy IX
Somebody I know once criticised FF9 for being ‘too safe’ and it was all I could to do not slap them. Sure enough it’s a game that pays homage to FF’s past, but in its timing it’s actually a rather bold game. After two thoroughly modern entries FF9 is a proper step back into the past with whimsical design and a more relaxed, meandering pace to its narrative.
That’s the other thing people forget about FF9 – while it has callbacks, it also has a tone and style all of its own. It remains largely unique in the series and is likely to for a long time to come since these more soft-edged approaches to FF appear to now be resigned to spin-offs only, though FF9 stands as a monument to the fact that this style can and did work, a fitting tribute to the games it pays homage to.
What is perhaps most surprising is how deftly FF9 manages to use cutesy, chibi characters to grapple with big topics, many of them revisited from previous games with a renewed vigor. Duty, family, memory and death are all key plot points, and it’s FF9’s incredible writing and stand-out Western localization that carries it through to the top spot.
One other thing…
For what it’s worth, Chrono Trigger is better than the lot of them. And I really love Final Fantasy 9.
Now you. What’s your ranking? Let us know in the comments. And go easy on me, would ya?