Top 5 Final Fantasy Games of All-Time
With the 25th Anniversary of the first Final Fantasy game quickly approaching, I've taken the time to look back on the games that I've played and reflect on which of the numerous Final Fantasy titles deserve to be on top. No matter how you look at it, the Final Fantasy franchise is still a major force in the video game industry, and many of the games hold a special place in most RPG gamers' hearts as some of their most memorable and favorite titles ever.
With fourteen main series games and a legion of spin-offs, from fighters to third-person shooters to rhythm games, the Final Fantasy franchise has consistently dished out game after game over the years, with no end in sight. Many of these games are critically acclaimed and are known to be some of the best Japanese roleplaying games to date. With so many to choose from, I've decided to stick to five titles that I think are the cream of the crop, the best games that Final Fantasy has to offer.
5. Final Fantasy IV
The first Final Fantasy title to be played on the Super Nintendo, Final Fantasy IV (known as Final Fantasy II in America) set the benchmark for RPGs at the time. Everything in the game exceeded the other three games in scale and execution; the story was bigger and grander, the characters were more fleshed out, the soundtrack was more diverse and longer. The fourth installment in the franchise introduced jobs that were firmly set onto each character, something that deviated from the last game, Final Fantasy III, which utilized a more complex job system that furthered the customization of characters. While it initially seemed like a setback and a limitation, by giving specific jobs to characters, such as Rosa as a White Mage, Cecil as a Dark Knight and Kain as a Dragoon, it gave characters more depth and personality.
Storytelling was a central part of Final Fantasy IV, and this distinguished the game from its predecessors. The scope of the game was exceptionally grand for its time, traveling to distant lands, to the Underworld, and eventually to the Moon. It also had one of the earliest examples of a love story in Final Fantasy and JRPGs, and its "Theme of Love" composed by Nobuo Uematsu is so well-known that it's actually part of music curricula for Japanese musicians. Final Fantasy IV, ultimately, was a story about growth, love, retribution, and forgiveness, and each of its characters were involved and developed strongly, playing out one of the best tales of its time.
Turn-Based in Real-Time
From a technical standpoint, Final Fantasy IV revolutionized the roleplaying genre and subsequent installments with the first incarnation of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. ATB quickened the pace of the random encounters familiar to all RPG gamers by making battles run in real-time, while still retaining the "turn-based" quality of things with selecting menu commands. This led to more complex scenarios such as the infamous Demon Wall and the Summon Odin. Enemies were also able to counterattack and retaliate under certain conditions, adding more depth to battles that would normally be strictly turn-based.
Final Fantasy IV is an important milestone in the franchise as well as for RPGs in general. And while the story had increased in scale, some of the plot points in the game were slightly predictable and overused. Nevertheless, Final Fantasy IV is still one of the finest and most memorable titles in the series.
4. Final Fantasy IX
It's funny how Final Fantasy IX, developed alongside Final Fantasy X and XI, was actually almost going to be labelled a gaiden episode, or a side story because of its nature as a throwback to the entire series. Perhaps if it had stayed that way, IX would've been further overlooked than it is now, already overshadowed by the success of its predecessors Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Being a favorite of both producer and creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and composer Nobuo Uematsu, Final Fantasy IX not only successfully creates a fantastic story filled with tributes and nods to Final Fantasy's older titles, but also exceeds the expectations that it would what would seem like a rehash of the series, touching on many deep issues such as the ephemeral nature of life, memories, and the nature of free will.
A Return to its Roots
As a salute to the series, Final Fantasy IX takes on a more traditional approach in almost every aspect. The battle system is standard ATB material, along with Limit Breaks, powerful attacks and a staple in the Final Fantasy franchise, now known as "Trances." The standard battle theme in the game brings back the recurring bassline that is present in all the games until the Playstation era of games. The general feel and aesthetic appeal to the game is faithful to the fantasy settings of old, most reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI's steampunk and less of the sci-fi settings of the cyberpunk Final Fantasy VII and the more modern Final Fantasy VIII.
The customization present in the game, now in the form of assigning magic crystals that gave buffs, abilities, and resistance to status effects, is more straightforward than previous installments like VI's Esper system, VII's Materia system, and VIII's Draw and Junction system, all of which allowed for all characters to have access to Magic and, in the case of VII, abilities as well. IX, like Final Fantasy IV, decided to limit the player to set character jobs; Zidane is a Thief, Garnet/Dagger is a White Mage/Summoner, Vivi is a Black Mage, etc. Similarly, this gave the characters more personality outside of the story and in the battlefield as you had to decide who to bring along for the fight.
Oh, and there's also the card mini-game, Tetra Master, which you can play with many of the non-playable characters in the game. But unlike Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII, where winning rare cards can actually get you rare weapons and items, Tetra Master is simply for fun, and thus seems very irrelevant or insignificant in comparison.
Something Old and Something New
The thing that truly impressed me in Final Fantasy IX was the game's storytelling that, despite referencing every game before it, still manages to synthesize and innovate, using motifs and themes from former games and bringing new ones to attention. Recurring icons such as Black Mages and Eidolons are implemented in similar and new ways simultaneously, and the themes approached in the story are touched on with effectiveness and at times when these themes are addressed, the scenes are truly moving.
Nevertheless, the feeling of déjà vu never really goes away and you can't help but think that they recycled many things. Several themes in the soundtrack were remixes of songs from older installments, yet this is understandable given the context that many locales were in fact references to older games as well. Another problem is how there were some plot points that, while forgivable in past installments, were rather sloppy in execution, and some things were not thoroughly explained. The existence of the numerous nods and references have divided many in their evaluation of Final Fantasy IX, but as the game is indeed meant to be very nostalgic, I feel that this is very fitting for the title and it doesn't surprise me that Final Fantasy IX is a fan favorite and a memory cherished by Sakaguchi and Uematsu.
3. Final Fantasy VII
Yes, Final Fantasy VII is third on my list, not first. No, I don't think it's the best Final Fantasy game ever made. And no, ultimately I don't think they should've made all those spin-offs and side-stories in that "Compilation of Final Fantasy VII" either. Even so, Final Fantasy VII deserves to be remembered as a significant game in the video game industry and in the series as a whole.
If not overrated, Final Fantasy VII is indeed overexposed. It is the most popular title to date, and, besides from Final Fantasy XI's subscription fees, is the best-selling Final Fantasy game as of now. Regardless, in many ways, it's understandable why this game was so popular and in most cases this fandom is not unfounded. The game was the first of the series to feature Full-Motion Video (FMV) cutscenes, and all the sprites that were so common in past games were replaced with 3D polygons and pre-rendered backgrounds, something that was relatively new at the time for console gaming. The game also began the series' departure from the true fantasy setting and opted for a fresh, futuristic cyberpunk world. If there was any game that truly marked the revolutionary change in the Final Fantasy formula, it would be Final Fantasy VII beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Final Fantasy for a New Era
From the opening cinematic alone, the player is immersed in a futuristic and gritty world and this was undoubtedly exciting for Final Fantasy veterans and newcomers alike. The graphics, while seemingly primitive to some now, was a big deal to everyone back in 1997. The transition from 2D to three dimensions is an important jump, and Final Fantasy VII executed it brilliantly. Everything was more cinematic: the cutscenes, Uematsu's iconic soundtrack, and the storytelling. For many, this was a game that they would never forget.
The gameplay felt somewhat familiar, yet it innovated in many ways. The biggest, most notable change was the true introduction of Limit Breaks, special attacks under the player's disposal once the characters took enough damage, dealing much more damage than usual. This was briefly experimented on in its predecessor, Final Fantasy VI, in the form of hidden "Desperation Attacks," in which there was a small chance for characters to use special attacks while under critical condition in battle. However, now this was fully introduced to the gaming world, and subsequently many RPGs followed suit in the years to come. Materia, a major plot point in the game's story, also played a part in the customization of characters, allowing free reign over their stats, magic, and abilities, and opened many possibilities for players to experiment with.
The Birth of a God
Final Fantasy VII's story encompasses many allusions to environmentalism, the death of loved ones, and catharsis. No matter what you think of Final Fantasy VII, the tale it tells is one that is among the most memorable the series has to offer. The characters are colorful, diverse, and dynamic, and many are fan-favorites. The plot is filled with many devices that are unique to the title and doesn't rely on recurring elements of the long-running franchise, such as the giant destructive monsters known as WEAPONs and the Lifestream. Sephiroth, the antagonist virtually worshipped by fans of the game, has been bashed by cynics who claim that he is simply another villain with a messiah complex as well as a pseudo-Oedipus complex. However, it is interesting to note that Sakaguchi's mother died during VII's development, and this greatly affected how the game turned out. Final Fantasy VII is truly a personal story from Sakaguchi's experiences coping with the loss of his loved ones.
Along with the memorable plot is an equally iconic soundtrack by Uematsu, "One-Winged Angel" and "Aerith's Theme" being forever known as some of the most iconic pieces of music in gaming. The entire soundtrack is quite diverse and there's a very nostalgic and reflective quality to it all. The game also introduced mini-games to distract players from the main story and multiple sidequests.
If you look past the rampant fanboyism and the equally fanatical hatred for the game, and evaluate it on its own, then Final Fantasy VII is indeed a great game, and one of the best games in the series. Despite its consequential spawning of countless lackluster spin-offs and tie-in movies (except for Crisis Core... that was a great game), the seventh installment of the franchise is one of the most important games in the video game industry and among the best Final Fantasy titles, forever placing the series as an unstoppable juggernaut in the industry.
2. Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
"B-but... it's a spin-off!!" you might say. I can't stress how important it is to note that this game is barely qualified to be labelled as such.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is an incredible game, setting itself apart from any other Final Fantasy spin-off title. The grand scope of the game is apparent in its extensive customization options in its gameplay, its suspenseful and beautiful soundtrack, and its complex and powerful storyline, filled with gripping narrative and pressing themes.
I specifically note that this is the War of the Lions release for the PlayStation Portable because the revised script is simply amazing and incredibly well-written. The exchanges are evocative and expressive and the dialogue is eloquent (also grammatically correct, thank God!). The new cel-shaded cutscenes are also quite gorgeous, the voice-acting is brilliant, and they give such great aesthetic appeal, fitting in perfectly with the in-game art and graphics.
Raising an Army
If Final Fantasy V is the definitive example of the Job system, Final Fantasy Tactics tweaked it and modified it to create an incredibly addicting aspect of the tactical RPG. With numerous amounts of jobs to choose from, Tactics allows you to level up these jobs and have your characters learn new abilities, and carry them over to other jobs, giving your units multiple options for how they perform in battle. You could have a Knight that uses Black Magic, or a White Mage that uses firearms, or a Samurai that can jump like a Dragoon, etc. This gives the game a surprising amount of replay value; every time I've restarted this game feels fresh and new, because I'd be trying new combinations and experimenting with different jobs.
The battles are surprisingly fast-paced for a tactical RPG, and the difficulty is challenging for most seasoned gamers. Players are forced to keep their soldiers alive or else they'd lose them forever, doomed to constant resurrections via reloading old save files. There's a lot of depth and strategy involved in Tactics, on and off of the battlefield.
The Zodiac Brave Story
Final Fantasy Tactics presents a story unlike any other Final Fantasy game before or after it. It is a story filled with political intrigue, corruption, ambition, class struggle, and betrayal; the game's serious tone looms over the entire course of the story, and the plot takes numerous dark turns for the grim and macabre. It also tells the tale of two young men who are scarred by the world around them as they experience the realities of the cruel world they live in, and that is what makes Tactics so great. All the characters in the game have their roles in the world in varying situations and they're developed fully, having intricate relationships with one another and the words they share have emotional weight, their motives true, real, and human.
The soundtrack, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, is outstanding and deserves to be praised among the best of Uematsu's work. It's more orchestral, majestic, and suspenseful, building great tension in every battle. All of the character themes, battle themes, and event themes are memorable and beautifully done and truly reflect upon what is happening.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions should not be considered a spin-off, because it easily beats out some of the fan-favorites of the series, and rivals the best Final fantasy titles. Its engaging narrative, addicting gameplay, and beautiful soundtrack make it sit comfortably in second place for the best Final Fantasy game in the franchise. Its replay value ensures that I will continue to play this game again and again for the years to come.
1. Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI is a video gaming masterpiece, a truly defining moment of Square's ability to release quality games during the 90's, and the reason why many gamers are doomed to play every Final Fantasy release since then, despite the series' descent into mediocrity that most people have realized. It epitomizes the entire franchise and the 2D JRPG genre, with its iconic storytelling, unforgettable characters, balanced and innovative gameplay, and incredible soundtrack. This game truly defined how an RPG should be made.
Critically acclaimed and a memory cherished by fans, Final Fantasy VI is simply one of the best games in the history of the Final Fantasy franchise, and one of the best games of all-time.
The Definitive Final Fantasy
Unlike its predecessors, the first thing that most people noticed was not only the beautiful 2D graphics, but also the fact that the same character sprites were used for every event in the game, rather than having a smaller sprite for the world map and a more detailed one in the battle screen, giving greater consistency within the game. The sprites were also a lot more capable of expressing emotions by having various expressions, and this made the characters more charming and interesting.
The gameplay was innovated in various ways that revolutionized RPGs and gave way for the transition to 3D in Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VI has one of the fastest and smoothest iterations of the ATB system, and battles go by pretty quickly, making level grinding much less of a chore than usual. The Esper system allows characters to equip magical stones called Magicite to grant them access to eventually all the magic spells in the game as well as the ability to summon creatures called Espers into battle. Unlike the Materia system, however, this only granted those two things, and the characters in Final Fantasy VI still had as much personality in battle as they did in the story, and the base stats of the characters made it imprudent to focus teaching magic to the bruisers and damage-dealers in the party. Even the Limit Break originated here in the form of a very rare "Desperation Attack", which would only trigger when the characters are in critical condition.
A Fantasy Unlike Any Other
Set in a majestic steampunk world, Final Fantasy VI's plot revolves around the the story of the largest playable cast of Final Fantasy to date facing the power-hungry struggles of the Gestahlian Empire. While seemingly standard fare for fantasy games, VI's narrative is gripping and paced perfectly, along with one of the most diverse casts Final Fantasy has to offer, including a ninja with his trusty dog, a girl who paints portraits of her enemies to deliver death, a king who uses many tools as weapons, including a chain saw, a man who uses Street Fighter-esque moves in battle, and a sadistic antagonist that is considered by many to be the most notorious villain in Final Fantasy and in gaming.
Each of these characters have much depth and their back-stories and relationships intertwine beautifully. The development between the characters is so well-done and extensive through several peripheral story arcs that some people argue that there isn't a true protagonist in Final Fantasy VI. While this is debatable, the story is truly about an amnesiac girl named Terra who seeks to find her place in the world while fighting against the Empire. The story eventually becomes even more philosophically sound as it delves into nihilism, the nature of life and death, true love, and topics like teenage pregnancy and suicide, ideas that would normally be censored in a heartbeat at the time. The plot takes many twists and turns that are iconic for the series and are so different compared to any of the RPGs on the market, and the story ends with a great sense of closure. The charm of it all is that the game doesn't take itself too seriously; there are many moments in the game with jokes and silliness that makes the game so much more enjoyable and fun to play, and the flexibility of the characters sprites' expressions mentioned earlier contribute to this.
A Masterpiece in Gaming
While composer Nobuo Uematsu said that Final Fantasy IX was his favorite game to compose for, Final Fantasy VI was a milestone in his career; he stated that he "could quit doing game music with no regrets" and was one of the most challenging scores he had ever composed. The Final Fantasy VI soundtrack is beautifully written, with unforgettable character themes, battle themes, and event themes, such as epic final boss theme "Dancing Mad" and "Aria di Mezzo Carattere" for the Opera scene. Fans regard this soundtrack as one of Uematsu's best works.
Final Fantasy VI is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the best that Final Fantasy has to offer. It is a defining moment in the video game industry, and it is the epitome of the perfect JRPG. With its memorable characters, wonderful soundtrack, and definitive gameplay, the game tells a beautiful tale that explores themes never before touched on in the video game medium, and revolutionized the RPG genre, forever influencing the games that came after it.