There's been a long road up until this point. We've covered the brokenness of Final Fantasy 2 (11th place). We've covered the problems that held FF8 and FF12 back (9th place). We have discussed the original Final Fantasy and its role in JRPG history (8th place). In the last two articles, we broke down the "solid core" of the FF series, with FF3 and FF9 tied for 6th place, and FF5 and FF10 tied for 4th place.
Here we are folks. I am about to reveal the two games tied for 2nd place. In addition, if you are remotely capable, you will be able to figure out the best FF ever as well. Of course, that will be discussed in its own entry, but this is it folks. FINAL RANKASY 2012: THE TOP THREE REVEALED!!!
So what's second place? What's getting held back for best of the series?
FIND OUT IN
FINAL RANKASY 2012, PART 4
Tier 2, Review Score: 9.5
Final Fantasy 4 and 7
Final Fantasy 4 (SNES), 1991
In previous articles, I discussed how FF3 and FF5 chose "gameplay" in the eternal struggle between gameplay and narrative. FF4, however, chose narrative. Fo realz.
Sure, for today's jaded, spoiled gamers (when I was your age...), FF4's story may not seem particularly awesome or well done. The presentation capabilities of the era were constrained (understatement of the year), and the story may seem sort of.. commonplace. In a lot of ways, FF4's story is a generic JRPG story as of 2012.
However, let me take you back over TWENTY YEARS to 1991. Now, all of a sudden, FF4 doesn't seem commonplace. It seems -revolutionary-. Literally, JRPGs just -did- -not- -have- -good- -stories- back then. They didn't even really try! In the Final Fantasy series, FF2 is the only game that gave a half hearted effort. Yeah, that's right. FF2. You might remember it as ranking dead last on this very list. Yeah, like I said, the stories just weren't very good. In fact, the only JRPG I can even think of with a half decent story at this point was probably Phantasy Star II for the Genesis.
In comes FF4, and, boom, we're talking just a different set of expectations. The characters had story arcs
, in which they developed, changed, and became different characters. They also had backgrounds, motives, families, friends, hometowns, histories, relationships, and jealousies. Many characters we got to see redeemed, but, in the process, many others were lost. There were so many touching moments in this game, that it's hard to even talk about them competently. SPOILERS: there's when Cecil rids himself of his dark powers.. or or when Cid bombs himself to close the entrance to the underworld.. or or when Kain redeems himself.. or or SPOONY BARD /spoilers
Seriously. Good stuff. Great characters. Awesome.
Like all FF's before FF6, the story basically boiled down to "collect crystal, kill bad guy." However, it was the particulars of the story that really set it side from the competition. It was the development and time given to a (rather large and colorful) cast of characters, in which almost everyone had some time to shine. The game had some great twists, and you visited some utterly fantastic locations. Hell, from the word go, the cinematic approach with the opening scene.. phenomenal. This game knew how to sell itself, and it did a bang up job.
Up until FF6, FF4 easily has the best story and presentation in the series, and it's still a contender.. all these years later.
Outside of the narrative, the game still has a lot of great strengths. The dungeons are all made very well, and the battles are interesting. FF4 saw the introduction of the LEGENDARY Active Time Battle (ATB) system where turns were given a "real-time-esque" flavor, with the loading bars. It added a lot to the battles in the series, and it was used through FF10. I also like that you have relatively large parties, and I think the summoning system and the magic systems worked quite well. Also, most of the different classes had special abilities, which added a fun element to the battle system.
So, if it's so great, why not number 1?
Well, despite all of its strengths in terms of narrative and presentation, FF4 ain't perfect. More than anything else, I think its progression system just pales in comparison with its immediate predecessor (FF3) and successor (FF5). In those games, you had the HOLY AWESOME job system, while in FF4.. well.. you level. And you occasionally can do more things. That's pretty much the progression system. There's really no party member customization here. In fact, in the original release, you couldn't even really pick -who- would be in your party. You were basically straightjacketed into doing things pretty much how the developers anticipated. I believe the re-releases (starting with the GBA version) have added some ability to select party members for the end-game, but I haven't played them.
All in all, FF4 is a phenomenal game. It revolutionized JRPG narrative; introduced the ATB system; had large parties of classes with unique abilities; had fun dungeons, solid town exploration, and interesting areas; and it had a large and fun cast of characters. However, the lack of an interesting progression system or any real form of party customization definitely hit FF4 in the stomach.
Still, to be fair, that's not the real reason FF4 isn't number one. The real reason is because the actual #1 game is just too God Damn great. FF4 is awesome. If you haven't played it.. go play it. Right now. I'll wait here.
Final Fantasy 7 (PSX), 1997
Let me get this out of the way immediately: Final Fantasy 7 is overrated.
There. I said it. FF7 is an overrated game. It is routinely discussed as the the best JRPG of all time or the best FF game of all time or the best PSX game. Because of its popularity, FF7 is basically its own brand. There's a movie, a shooter game, a prequel action RPG, a cell phone prequel and much, much more. There are people out there who probably think FF7 is Final Fantasy and vice versa.
However, FF7's overrated status has lead to a large reaction. Now, on gaming forums and blogs, "informed" gamers regularly crap on FF7. Ridiculous statements like "FF7 is teh worst evar" have become almost routine. Your view of FF7 is essentially a signal for whether or not you "actually" know JRPGs. Whether or not you actually have taste.
So.. to summarize: Final Fantasy 7 is simultaneously overrated (by the mass public) and underrated (by so-called hardcore gamers).
So why does it deserve second place?
I think there are four elements of FF7 that make it worthy of this high placement: Narrative presentation, large world, solid story, and solid gameplay mechanics.
1. Revolution in narrative presentation
Remember how I was just saying that FF4 revolutionized the JRPG story and narrative? Yeah, take that and multiply it by about 10 billion billion. Seriously, if FF4 kicked it up to 11, FF7 kicked it up to 11,000. Square took the PSX by the balls and made it its bitch. Hell, let me correct myself. It didn't just revolutionize JRPG narrative/story. It revolutionized video game
narrative/story. Can you even think of a game that impressed you with its presentation before FF7? Sure, games like Ninja Gaiden for the NES were impressive, but FF7 went much further. It wasn't just cool for you to watch. It was the kind of thing where you want to show people who don't even play video games. "Look at this crazy ass shit!"
I'm sure that the TENS of THOUSANDS of people who will eventually read this are sitting there and stewing. "CINEMA?" they scream. "IN MY VIDEOGAEMZ?!! THE THOUGHT!" However, I want to clarify that FF7 was the first game to do this. This is years before games ruined FMV by overusing it and only using it for the most idiotic, common denominator action scenes imaginable. When FF7 came out, there weren't any video gamers sticking their nose up at it as they might now. It's sort of like how the Matrix had awesome special effects but then copy-cat (and the God awful sequels) ruined everything the Matrix did. Try to remember a time before crap like this (http://youtu.be/SGXYaKA9rjI?t=9m15s). That first time you saw those FF7 FMVs as a young one, you were impressed. Don't even lie to me.
And, you know what, FF7 didn't just introduce these narrative elements. They used them. Well. I don't care who you are, the cutscenes in FF7 sold the story for me. I'll discuss the story itself a little further on, but damn. Just... damn. Remember when Sephiroth burned-- or when he stabbed--- or when Meteor-- or like when Cid had the spaceship---Oh man.
I think I'm overloaded on crazy FF7 memories.
Seriously. In terms of narrative presentation, FF7 changed the whole ball-game. Sadly, FF still hasn't used the cinematic approach as well as it was used in FF7. In FF7, its use was still almost minimalistic. It wasn't used to tell the story. It was used to enhance the story, especially in certain parts. There also wasn't this crappy fanaticism about voice actors that plagues modern RPGs. FF7 is probably the best game in the series when it comes to presentation. I'm also going to just state that the music is awesome, the art work is awesome, and the world.. well...
2. Large world
Jesus Christ this game is FUCKING HUGE. Remember the first time you went to the Golden Saucer? Hell, remember the first time you left Midgar and realized there was a world map? Remember breeding gold chocobos and playing defend the base real-time strategy games? Remember how Yuffie and her whole Japan-esque town is optional? Seriously. This game is huge.
However, unlike, say, FF12, the world is also -oozing- with character. The location artwork is top notch, with almost every location just looking -good-. Each town also has its own feeling and character. Beach resorts, electric playgrounds, mining towns, quite villages, industrial mega-hubs, desert valleys, military bases, etc. etc. etc. This game has it all.
3. Solid story
FF7 has a variant of the "asshole tries to destroy world, so you stop him" story, but it's done better than most of the other games in the series. I think what really sets FF7 apart is the personal relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth. Other games have shades of this, but it's never made such an important part of the story. It's central to Cloud's character, and it also tells you a lot about Sephiroth, who he is, and why he does what he does. In fact, Sephiroth is almost certainly the most well developed primary villain in a Final Fantasy game.
Also, FF7 has "that moment." You know. That one.
This wasn't my first death in a JRPG. Not by a long-shot. My personal first as in Phantasy Star IV, followed, IIRC, by Phantasy Star II. However, as impressive as those are (especially PSIV, everyone needs to play that damn game), FF7 just blows them out of the water. The character development; the cinematography; the music; the character interaction; and the story all come together to leave you really feeling it. I think "her" death still might rank number 1 for me. Honestly, it's that well done, and, in 1997, it truly blew the competition out of the water.
Overall, FF7 has a solid story with interesting, well developed characters; lots of twists; and a satisfying ending. Really, what more can I ask?
4. Solid gameplay
FF7 lacks the jobs system.. unfortunately. However, it's materia system allows for quite a bit of experimentation and customization. My only problem with it, really, is that material availability is scarce early, which encourages a "jack of all trades"-type approach to how you build your party. I also wish the party members had a bit more in terms of built-in natural battle tendencies to set them apart. Besides some differences in stats and the different limit breaks, the different characters are largely blank tablets. This is good, but I think we could've had it all with the materia system. Unlike the jobs system, I'm not sure the materia system really stands on its own.
Still, the battles are fun; there's tons to do; the end-game is great; the dungeons are interesting; and.. well.. the gameplay is just solid all around. Good job guys.
Still, as I said above, the game is overrated. Why do I think so?
1. Small cast of characters, only a few are developed
Honestly, do you really give a shit about anyone besides, say, Cloud, Aeris, and Tifa? Vincent has some interesting back story elements, but, for the most part, he's not a part of the story. After all, he's optional. Ditto with Yuffie. Cid is a good character, but I don't know that I really cared about him after his inital story arc (which was, admittedly, quite fun). Ditto with Barrett and Red XIII. Cait Sith was almost more comic relief than character. And.. well... that's that. That's the entire list of characters. Compared with FF4 or, even more crazily, FF6, this just seems anemic. This is probably my biggest problem with this game.
2. Three characters fight at a time
Seriously, only three? Big disappointment after the SNES games.
3. Materia system is fine but doesn't entirely stand on its own
I pretty much covered this above, but, yeah. This.
4. Cloud's story seems needlessly crazy at times
Seriously, does anyone even understand what happened to him early in Disc 3?
These might seem like nitpicks, and, to some extent, they are. Otherwise, FF7 wouldn't be getting second place. However, overall, FF7 doesn't quite hit the sweet spot when it comes to either character development (outside of the main trio, of course) or gameplay. That's what holds it back from being number 1.
Well.. that and FINAL FANTASY 6 IS @#%$ING AWESOME
FINAL RANKASY PART 4, FINAL THOUGHTS
So, yeah, there you go. FF4 and FF7 are tied for second, and, next time, I'll talk about why FF6 is the best in the damn series.
I don't have a lot of final thoughts to add this time. I think I've largely covered my feelings in this insanity above. One thing I'll address here is a simple question: why are FF4 and FF7 tied? Simply put, I think both were revolutionary upon release and both have aged well. FF7 was basically the FF4 of 1997, and FF4 was basically the FF7 of 1991. They were both narrative focused games with less focus on gameplay. FF7 has maybe aged better, but it was also released significantly later. 6 years may not seem like a lot these days, but that was essentially an eternity in terms of mid-90's game design. Keep in mind, we went from Super Mario Brothers to Mario 64 in 11 years. I don't think FF4 should be needlessly punished for being released when it was released, nor do I think FF7 should get bonus points for being the first FF released on the PSX. I think FF7 deserves credit for what it did to narrative, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't deserve points purely for being released on a technically superior platform.
I also think that, despite the weaker progression system, FF4 actually plays better than FF7. It has a tight, fast, minimalist quality combined with large party management and more difficult gameplay, especially if you play a version other than the Easytype release the U.S. initially received. FF7 has the advantage when it comes to narrative presentation, world size, and minigames/side-quests, but, otherwise, I think FF4 plays a bit better. I also think that FF4 has a larger, more varied, and more interesting cast of characters, although the central drama in FF7 is rather significantly better than the central drama of FF4.
So there you go. Maybe that will sell you. Maybe not. But that's my viewpoint.