As we all know, video games are a medium of absolutes. Subjectivity has no place in a world where Metacritic is the highest authority, nor in one where our every opinion is dictated to us by crowd-appointed journalist-gods
. Indeed, in the modern day it seems criminal to hold fastidiously to one's beliefs. A human being's entertainment, much like his very soul, requires an absolute and unwavering measuring stick against which to be valued. I hope to provide that very same measuring stick for a series that once was loved by all (and since has - by popular demand - been re-categorized as a plague of corporate shilling), Final Fantasy. Without further ado: Final Fantasy, ranked.
TLDR version: 9 > 6 > 10 > 12 > 5 > 3 > 8 > 1 > 7 > 4 > 2
#12: Final Fantasy II
Why it's the worst:
Final Fantasy II is the commonly accepted black sheep of the series. It attempts to tell a comprehensive story on a platform not ready to accept it. This leaves it with a tale too grown-up to feel retro and too clumsily executed to be grown-up. Square ambitiously tried to change things and as we all know, it did not work out. Ultimately the game is downright forgettable and there's not that much that can be said about it.
#10: Final Fantasy IV
Why it's the better II (get it!? HAHAHA):
It's not hard to be better than Final Fantasy II. IV manages to do it. The first Final Fantasy to provide a real story, IV features characters who develop in a way that you could (almost) sympathize with them. The dungeons are also more interesting than those in II, with some genuinely intriguing boss battles tossed in for good measure. In many ways, Final Fantasy IV is the baseline against which all Future Fantasies would be (and are) measured. It sets the tone of the series and every change (for better or for worse) will be noticed.
#9: Final Fantasy VII
Why it's better than IV:
While IV is a good game in it's own right (and it's low position on this ranking should go to suggest how good the Final Fantasy series is) it definitely has some flaws. It was Square's first real attempt at telling a proper story, and without rose-tinted nostalgia glasses it's hard not to notice the weaknesses throughout. VII's story is much more interestingly told if not necessarily more mature. The characters have motivations and seem to meet up more through coincidence than fate. While it may be melodramatic, the identity-crisis theme of the game relates to the teenage audience for whom the game has had long-lasting impact.
The battle system is also worth noting. Though not better
than IV's, it is one of the few entries on 3D platforms to capture the same fast paced combat. The Materia system of character is advance is also one of the best in the series.
With so many plusses, it might seem odd that I rank VII so low on the list. There's a reason for that...
#8: Final Fantasy I
Why it's better than VII:
VII had a passable story and great mechanics. However, when out of cutscenes and battle screens, the game was tedious. Filled with useless fetch quests, mini-games and uninspiring locales, slugging through the day-to-day of VII is more of a chore than a joy.
The original Final Fantasy has none of this. It still has a passable story, it still has great combat. It also has a fast-paced and interesting overworld to match. Despite being rendered in eight-bit graphics, the locations of the original Final Fantasy stick in the mind, as do the dungeons. This comes in no small part from the game's obvious spiritual inspiration, Dragon Quest. The same sense of exploration pervades Final Fantasy, coming through as much through dungeons and landscapes as through dialog. It is pure adventure, and better for being so.
#7: Final Fantasy VIII
Why it's better than I:
Final Fantasy I is, above all other things, a typical JRPG. While this is nothing to hold against it - it did help define the genre - it does make it feel slightly rote when held up against modern competition. The first failed attempt to differentiate the series came in II. The second, while still a failure, found a little more resonance with the fanbase: Final Fantasy VIII.
Once again doing away with levels, VIII allowed players to use magic to customize their characters. In many ways it was an extension of the Materia system in VII. For those who took the time to understand it it became an interesting type of character advancement that tied a character's combat role and skills together like never before. It still allowed for the player to define character roles, but avoided the side-effect present in VII and XII of jacks-of-all-trades. Additionally, the Draw system provided the single most mechanically interesting battle in the history of the series: the final fight against Ultimecia where every mechanic of the game affects the outcome.
Of course, VIII is no slouch in other departments either. While the story is little more than passable, the world is one of the more interesting Final Fantasy environments. The Gardens set a theme of war and it comes through in decidedly militant theme music which is some of the best of the series (fans should really check out the piano collection, by far the best album with the words 'Final Fantasy' on it). Summons are hidden in every corner and only the most rigorous of explorers will find everything there is.
#6: Final Fantasy III (DS version)
Why it's better than VIII:
Okay, maybe I gave the story of VIII too much credit in the last paragraph. It was pretty terrible, and ruined the game for a lot of people. To be quite honest, III's story isn't any more complicated or developed. But much like Final Fantasy I used simplicity to provide a better experience, III also does away with the trappings of story or characters. Instead, it provides an extremely interesting alternative for character development: the job system.
Instead of taking characters on predefined story-driven paths, the role of the party members is up to the player in III. The first game to feature the job system, III defined the main classes that still pervade the series today. Developing the roles of your characters leads to a type of attachment not found in other entries to the series. Of course, a fully developed and interesting world backdrops this personal story and once again a Dragon Quest-like tale takes the player on a journey that's less about melancholy and melodrama and more about adventure. It's easy to lose yourself in this game to that "one more job level" mentality.
#5: Final Fantasy V
Why it's better than III:
Ultimately, it's harder to find reasons why V is not
better than III. The world is just as interesting, except this time it has characters who can speak and provide exposition (<3 Gilgamesh). The combat system is just as interesting, except this time the more dynamic ATB from IV is present. Most importantly, the job system is just as interesting, except this time there are more jobs and they're harder to find. In many ways, Final Fantasy V takes all the themes of III and decides on a do-over. It works out fantastically.
#4: Final Fantasy XII
Why it's better than V:
I've argued a lot for the merits of simplicity over complication in this list, Final Fantasy V being a prime example. Final Fantasy XII isn't an exception to the rule. Instead, it expands the idea to encompass a game with a truly mature story to tell, and a mature way of doing it.
In Final Fantasy XII, at least for one game, the theme of melodramatic tales with heavy exposition set by Final Fantasy IV was broken. Instead, the player is present with characters who's personal issues - if any - are merely reflections of the world at large. There's the princess who is uncomfortable with the responsibility of freeing her Kingdom. There's a loyal guard. An orphan boy who wants adventure. A sky pirate. It's rare for these characters to have scenes where they line by line describe their feelings to a glass-eyed player. These inflections are left to facial expression and the player's understanding of the characters. It's hard to describe how well the story of XII is told and how believable it is within the context of Ivalice. As Shakespeare wrote, "There is nothing either good or evil, but thinking makes it so." (a line which Versus XIII has taken to heart, apparently) and XII is really a tale about people fighting for what they think
Outside of it's stellar story and characters, XII has other claims to fame. It was the third attempt to revolutionize the series and the most successful. Taking combat into real time and out of the battle screen, it removed the monotony of "trash" battles, leaving bosses to be the same thrilling encounters they always have been. It is also one of the largest, longest Final Fantasies to date, with an attention to detail unmatched in the industry.
#3: Final Fantasy X:
Why it's better than XII:
As with most "first-ofs" Final Fantasy XII had some severe weaknesses. The pacing was all over the place, much of the game could be run on autopilot through the AI system and some of the world characterization was lost when all the dungeons were hallway-based affairs with random treasure. XII is a masterpiece of story in Final Fantasy. X, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of gameplay.
Easily the best combat system in the series, battles in Final Fantasy X are fast-paced affairs that can be approached from a thousand different angles. While the game teaches you to use your characters' specific roles to combat specific enemies (a mechanic which is interesting and fun enough on it's own merits) those same combat roles also provide huge opportunities for freedom within combat. On one playthrough, the player might use Auron as a Zombify/heal machine. On another, they might have Rikku as their main damage dealer, tossing out three amazingly high damage dealing items for every one turn that the enemy takes.
The character development system, the Sphere Grid, is also a series best. Perfectly straddling the line between characters with personality-defined roles and player based advancement, the Sphere Grid lets the player decide how to evolve their character into virtually any combination of the predefined roles with a flexibility no kind of "job system" has ever matched - all while still making sure that the character's background is firmly rooted in their history. An item crafting system allows the player to eventually "break" the system, eventually dealing 30000 damage in one hit and casting spells for 1 MP.
Finally, the world of Final Fantasy X is among the best. The mix of the steampunk/techno world of Zanarkand with the colourful fantasy of Spira ensures that every locale is interesting. The side quests are genuinely intriguing to follow and reward the player with concrete, useful
character advancements. While the story isn't a highlight, some of the characters (particular Aurun, Rikku and Wakka) bleed personality right out of the screen. The music is right up there with VIII for the best-composed soundtrack in a Final Fantasy game.
#2: Final Fantasy VI
Why it's better than X:
I just told you that mechanically, Final Fantasy X is the best game in the series. However, story and character are both equally important to a Final Fantasy. While VI may fall just shy of the lofty mechanical heights of Final Fantasy X, in every other way it surpasses it's distant younger cousin.
In VI, there is a story and characters worth caring about. With the highest character count in the series it's difficult to believe that each could be interesting, but they are. In fact, many of the characters in VI have set the standard for their archetypes in future Final Fantasy titles. Each character (except for the bonus ones) has their own detailed introduction that the player gets to see before they all come together in the "end" for the all-important combat for the fate of the world. Their characterizations also come through in the battle system. Each character has a unique special set of moves as well as a unique way of finding them. The pure effort that went into making each character a unique combatant is astounding, and the fact that one must travel the world to track down the ultimate moves for each of their characters lends an astounding credibility to the setting. It's impossible to journey that far across a planet and not fall in love with it, and equally impossible to not (spoiler) feel devastated when the party fails to save it.
It's very difficult to describe Final Fantasy VI's story without spoiling the moments that make it so enjoyable. So much of the love for the characters comes through the little moments that crop up unexpectedly through a playthrough. I could spend another paragraph describing the detail in the world, or I could just say it's better than Final Fantasy XII. I could spend a paragraph describing how well the story is paced, or just say it's the best in the series. I could spend a paragraph telling you that after you play this game, one of the characters *will* be your favourite in the series, and that that character will be different than your friend's choice. The game has so much to offer.
#1: Final Fantasy IX
Why it's the best:
It doesn't have the best combat. Final Fantasy IX is slow and ponderous compared to other series entries, and doesn't require the same tactical breadth.
It doesn't have the best mechanics: character's advance by learning abilities from equipment. It's simple, it's elegant, but it doesn't give you flexibility of the Sphere Grid by any means.
It doesn't have the story: it's rote and predictable, but the way it is told leaves you constantly waiting for more.
What it does have, and in such magnitude to overwhelm any lacking in the previous qualities, is the best world ever presented in a Final Fantasy game.
From the initial foray into the Ice Caves to the final confrontations in Memoria, every single location in Final Fantasy IX sticks into your mind forever. Every city has a unique feel and presence. NPCs that appear only briefly are memorable. Dungeons have as much identity as the cities (in some situations, they are the same). Even if a player were never to stray from the linear path towards the game's conclusion, the sense of identity for the world would match any other Final Fantasy game.
Of course, stray from the linear path and there is much more to discover. There are chocobo grottos with hidden treasure that allow you to propel your characters beyond their current rank. Enemies and bosses have genuinely unique and improved items to steal long before they would appear otherwise. A set of friendly enemies begins a trading quest that spans the world. The hidden city Dagguererro hints at the countless hidden items in the world and is home to the nameless treasure hunter. Stellazio coins are spread across the world, each inscribed with a bit of lore than leaves a player curious for more. The world-wide mystery of Mognet. Secret magics like Doomsday that make your party all-powerful. Optional bosses lurk in libraries and in the sky.
And while Final Fantasy IX doesn't boast the best cast of characters, it does communicate them on a level that is rarely matched in the series. The main characters are all endearing and lovable. In fact, some of the NPCs (Blank, Beatrix especially) are just as intrinsic to the experience.
It's difficult to encapsulate in words what makes Final Fantasy IX the best Final Fantasy. It has the strengths of the old and the new, and while it does have one weakness (slow combat) it makes up for it in every way. What I can say about this game is that it is the best representation of the series on the whole of any of the titles; IX, more than any other, is Final Fantasy. read