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Final Rankasy 2: The Ranking Continues (8th-6th place)

Welcome to the second installment of Final Rankasy, which ranks the top 11 best Final Fantasy games (not counting 11, 13, or 14 or any side games) ever made!

Last time, we covered Final Fantasy 2 at 11th place (by itself in the seventh tier). We also covered Final Fantasy 8 and 12, which were tied at 9th place (forming tier 6 of the FF series). This time we'll be looking at the three games that make up tiers 4 and 5.


Tier 5, Review Score: 8.5
Final Fantasy (NES), 1987 (though not until 1990 in the U.S.)

Let me start by saying that Final Fantasy 1 is easily the hardest to rank in the series. Its ranking is almost entirely dependent on how you weigh impact on release vs. current playability. For my part, I've done my part to balance the two, and, well, this ranking is the result.

So what's good about Final Fantasy 1?
Honestly, there's a lot here that is just great regardless of era. The music in this game is phenomenal. It's not surprising that its theme is still a big part of the franchise even all these years later. The graphics, for the time, were quite good. Don't believe me? Play Dragon Quest. Come talk to me after.

Hell, "play Dragon Quest" should be the slogan of FF1. Don't like the interface? Play Dragon Quest 1. Then tell me how much better FF's interface is. Graphics? Check. Story? Check. In terms of basics, FF1 outclassed the premium franchise of the genre. Sure, DQ2 introduced multiple characters, but FF1 had multiple, customizable characters. DQ3 would have a similar feature when it was released a few months later, but, still, this was impressive.

I remember, as a kid, being really impressed with FF1. It was my first RPG, and I become mildly obsessed with it. However, as time wore on, I remember getting the impression that FF1 wasn't all great. In Japan, it was basically a typical DQ-clone; it didn't bring a lot new to the genre; etc. etc.

Lately, I've come back to my initial view on FF1. Dr. Sparkle, over at the gaming blog Chrontendo, is playing through every famicom/NES game ever released. Watching his series, I've come to realize that most other JRPGs were dreadfully terrible, and that FF brought elements to the table that I never even thought about. For example, elemental attributes were a bigger element in FF1 than in any game before it. If you think about it, that was essentially the basis of the game and, until FF6, the entire franchise. It was all about those elements, baby.

On release, FF1 had great graphics, great music, a decent (though goofy) story, new mechanics, more polished and interesting battles, and a customizable party system. It was big news.

As for current playability, FF1 still has a lot of strengths. The game's old school difficulty almost feels like a different genre in comparison to its descendants. Going into a cave, daring to look for treasure, and making it back to town? Does that sound like a short leisurely activity, or a long, arduous trek filled with death and the possibility of failure? You really need to prepare for dungeon trips in FF1, especially in the first third of the game. You need to get the best equipment, the best spells, and a solid stock of items in order to make it home again.

However, FF1, for all the talk, is not that hard. After you get the airship and your class changes, the game isn't really that difficult at all. Through most of the latter parts of the game, you can deal with ghosts and poison easily, which are the real threats in the early game. Also, cabins and houses become more readily available, along with modes of transportation. This makes traveling relatively easy once you get a bit into the game.

The combat system, because of the smart little changes here and there to JRPG standards, is still fun to use. You need to plan appropriately to make the most of your force. Classes feel and play differently, and there's entire websites dedicated to different combinations of classes. The graphics aren't great anymore, but, unlike say DQ1, the graphics aren't terrible. You'll always know what the graphics are trying to convey, and, occasionally, you'll see a spark of that latter day FF spirit.

So what's not-so-good about it?
On release, as mentioned above, the game was solid and well polished. However, despite some real additions to combat and class/party customization, the game wasn't terribly innovative. It stands quite close to its Dragon Quest forbears. If it was as genre defining as DQ, this game would undoubtedly be higher on this list.

For current playability, FF1 is probably going to be hard to digest for a lot of folks raised on later systems. It's a fun game, and I do think the higher difficulty levels (especially early on) give the game its own taste. However, it's probably going to seem old and worn in pretty much every regard for modern gamers. Except for FF2, the failed experiment, every other game in the series expands on and improves upon the basic ideas shown in this first installment.

So, overall, I think FF1 is a very good game. However, it hasn't survived the test of time as well as, say, Final Fantasy 3 and 4, and it wasn't nearly as innovative or ground-break as Dragon Quest 1 and 2. That leaves it as the lone entry in the "solid" tier 5 of Final Fantasy games.

Tier 4, Review Score: 8.75
Final Fantasy 3 and 9
Editorial note: I nearly combined Tiers 4 and 3 into one "mega-tier" of 4th place games. However, I thought that would've been a total sell-out, and I final decided on an even split. However, that's why the "review score" changes are minor between Tiers 4 and 3, and, honestly, I do not consider these games to be "much worse" than those games. This is the split I decided on, and I think its right. However, I wouldn't lay my life on the line for it.. while I may do so for Tiers 1 and 2 (>:-)).

Final Fantasy 3 (NES), 1990

Let me start by saying that I have not played the DS version or its re-releases. I'm not against that version or anything. I just haven't had the chance to try it yet. This review covers the original NES release only.

In the war between "narrative" and "gameplay," Final Fantasy 3 stood solid, along with FF5, on the side of gameplay. I think if you understand that you have all of its weaknesses and strengths wrapped up in a nutshell.

On the good side, this game is fun. It has the first iteration of the AWESOMESAUCE job system. Oh yeah, that's right. That awesome system that made FFT totally great?! And the one that turned FF5 from meh to yeh?! Yeah, it started here, and it's glorious. Sure, it's not nearly as polished as later iterations. For the most part, you can't really keep much after job switches. I guess the idea is more that your members are capable of switching between classes when needed rather than keeping abilities and creating mixes of classes. Still, it's a definite step forward for the franchise.

Also, there is an intangible element about the gameplay that just works in FF3. The battles are, all in all, fun; the dungeons are well-designed; and the job system works well. This is a well designed game, through and through. The graphics are also good, as they look almost like a hybrid of FF1 and FF4. You can even see the graphical forbears of FF4's NPC's in some of the sprites. The game world is also relatively large with a lot going on. Honestly, for an 8-bit RPG, the gameplsy is exemplary.

On the downside, the game's story is.. well.. it's there I guess. There is technically a story. In general, the story is comparable in quality to FF1, with just a little bit off substance added around the edges. For a game released two years later (after Phantasy Star 2!), it's a little underwhelming. Also, as in FF1, the four main characters are blanks. It's not until FF4 that we see FF really take story and character seriously.

In terms of current playability, the focus on gameplay, IMO, makes FF3 easier to recommend. RPG stories tend not to age well, especially when you're talking about something on an 8-bit console, but solid gameplay is ageless. If you're willing to look past a bit of retro difficulty and the blank story, FF3 is definitely a solid installment in the series. If you like this general idea, but you want something a bit further on with some more polish.. play FF5.

Final Fantasy 9 (PSX), 2000

This is the other ranking that will, no doubt, earn me entry into the halls of Dtoid infamy. FF9 seems to be a leading candidate for "best of the series," and, honestly, I can see why. It's a conscious attempt to give a "throwback" to the retro days, with a medieval-ish-with-maybe-some-steampunk setting, crystals, black mages, and all that good stuff. It's also much better than its immediate predecessor and is one of the three best Final Fantasy games made after the SNES era. Impressive.

So what's good about FF9?
Honestly, FF9 is generally pretty solid. The graphics are good; for the most part, the artwork is enticing; the story is decent; the characters actually have a bit of -character- to them; and they haven't done anything FF2/FF8/FF12-style that completely ruins a core element of the game. I also generally like the item-based progression system. It gives off an almost Esper-y vibe. The class system is generally well-implemented. Like, say, FF4, each character has a base class that dictates their capabilities and approach to battle. I also like the return to four-person parties, and I think the Active Time Events were generally well-designed and well-implemented.

So what's bad about FF9?
It may be hard to put into words, but FF9 doesn't seem to be spectacular in any one way. It's a well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades sort of FF game, with a bit of everything but no specialties. The Red Mage of FF's, if you will.

The art work is good, and I like the return to the retro medieval epic setting. However, the character artwork is.. well.. off-putting. I'm sure this is one of the central disagreements I have with this installment's fanbase: I really don't like the character artwork. It may sound strange, but this is definitely an element of the game that kept me from being drawn into the story and the characters. It just all seemed so silly.

Some argue that, like the crystals and the medieval/steampunkish theme, this is a return to the retro sensibilities of the earlier entries in the franchise. However, I just have to disagree here. The early games had seemingly "super-deformed-esque" graphics because of the limitations of sprites and the way artwork was implemented. The actual character artwork wasn't silly at all. In fact, it was downright pretentious.

Here, let me give you some side-by-sides.

Here's the official artwork for Locke (from FF6) and Zidane (from FF9):

Here's the artwork for Kain (from FF4) and Steiner (from FF9):

Keep in mind, I'm picking the less ridiculous characters from FF9 here.

Just a few others:

Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing objectively bad about this art style or approach. I'm sure there are plenty of people who love it, and which think its add a bit of unique charm to FF9. However, nothing about the artwork recalls earlier days of FF, and, personally, I find it more off-putting than charming.

The graphics are technically excellent, and a lot of the environments and settings are stunning. It puts, for example, FF12's comparatively bland world to shame. I just find that the approach to the characters makes the game hard to take seriously.

However, the game never goes full on into silly or parody mode. The game isn't especially funny. The characters do have character, but they aren't my favorite FF characters by some margin. The central story is actually somewhat dark, especially as you get later into the game (more on this below). As a result, it seems like there are just some bits of silliness there, by themselves, isolated from any sort of connection to gameplay or narrative approach. I just don't understand it.

The story is decent in this game, but there is nothing in particular that stands out about it. There aren't any "HOLY SHIT" moments I could write a Memory Card about. Vivi is a character with an interesting backstory, but, again, the whole approach tends to take me out of the game. I never became emotionally connected to the world, the characters, or what was happening. The ending didn't impress me, and the final boss seemed to come out of nowhere. It's not a bad story, but it's not a game that can sell itself on story alone.

As for gameplay, well, it's basically in the same situation. The FF4-originated battle system is still there in all its glory, but FF9 is not a game that pushes it to its limit. This isn't, for example, like FF3 or FF5, where gameplay drives the game. The battles work, but I don't remember being particularly enthralled. Item-based progression is interesting, but it's somewhat lackluster on its own. The constraints of the FF4-style class system hold the game back from doing anything really interesting with character customization (FF4 has the same problem), so all you can really do is pick your party members and give them interesting abilities through items. All in all, the game plays fine, but it's not a game that clearly focused on gameplay. In the battle between story and gameplay (where FF3 stood solid with gameplay), FF9 is on the sidelines, yawning and staring at its watch.

One final issue I want to discuss is the towns in FF9. This will have spoilers, so be careful moving forward.[i].
Simply stated, I was underwhelmed with the number, size and explorability (yes, I made up a new word) of the towns in FF9. From the word go, there aren't too many settlements in this game to even explore, and the few that are available don't seem as fully realized as some of the towns in earlier installments. However, more problematically, most of the damn towns are destroyed as the game goes on. By the end of the game, you have barely any places to visit or explore. I mean, think of FF6 as a comparison point. NPC dialogue in towns often changed to match larger story shifts; there were loads of towns, filled with secrets, backstory, and atmosphere; and, halfway through, the towns all got significant.. redesigns. Awesome stuff. Seriously.
Exploring towns was always a major part of my love affair with these games. It was unfortunate that FF9 didn't really concentrate on delivering on that front.

Overall, FF9 isn't a bad game. In fact, none of the central elements that constitute the game are bad. It's just not a great game. The character artwork is a little off, especially in comparison to the tone and approach of the story over all. The battle and progression systems work, but there is nothing exemplary or innovative about the systems either. The settings look great, but there isn't a lot to explore in terms of towns, especially a little later in the game. It's a solid effort, which earns it a tie for 6th place in the FF series.

Again, I basically talked about these games in isolation, so I wanted to say a little bit about this set of rankings in general.

These two tiers, along with tier 3, make up the "solid core' of the FF series. If it wasn't for these games, we might talk about a few entries here and there, but the FF series just wouldn't be the same. Part of what's so impressive about Final Fantasy is the general level of quality that they've maintained for so long. These three games are solid examples of JRPGs of their eras, and they're all recommended even today.

Still, there are things that keep all of these games from excelling. FF1 would be hard for relative newcomers to enjoy. FF3 is fun, but the story is nearly non-existent. FF9 is solid overall, but it doesn't excel in any one area either. Also, strange character design choices and a lack of emphasis on town exploration take a bit of the wind out of FF9's sails.

Regardless, these are all very good games. If you haven't played these and you love JRPGs, you should play them immediately! Well.. unless you have played any of the remaining FF games. Otherwise, you should play those instead.

To sum up the rankings fo far:
11th place: Final Fantasy 2 (tier 7)
Tied for 9th: Final Fantasy 8 and Final Fantasy 12 (tier 6)
8th place: Final Fantasy 1 (tier 5)
Tied for 6th: Final Fantasy 3 and Final Fantasy 9 (tier 4)

To be ranked: Final Fantasy 4, Final Fantasy 5, Final Fantasy 6, Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy 10
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About killias2one of us since 10:58 PM on 06.03.2008

Favorite Games:

Mega Man series (This includes the Original Sub-Series and the X Sub-Series. I have no interest in any of the EXE/Network games, and I have little experience with Zero and ZX. Zero and ZX seem cool, but I just haven't played them that much yet.)
Zelda series
Final Fantasy series (2j, 8, and 12 are terrible though. No interest in 11 or the Crystal Chronicles Sub-Series)
Starcraft (!) (stay tuned for SC2!)
Warcraft series (Yes I played WoW for a while, but I prefer the RTS's)
Super Mario series (this includes all the Mario side-games like Kart, Tennis, Smash Bros.)
Paradox Grand Strategy Series (Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, Crusader Kings, VICTORIA, etc.)
Civilization series
Galactic Civilizations 2 (and expansions)
Total War series (I'm still divided on the last two though. They seemed so much more.. arcade-y than STW and MTW)
Street Fighter series (especially Street Fighter Alpha 3)
Castlevania series (but not the 3d ones.. they're all terrible)
Ninja Gaiden (The NES ones! The new ones are good too, though!)

Basically, I like strategy games, some fighting games, RPG's, and old school platformers. I like JRPG's less and less though. I play some FPS's, but I wouldn't say any of them are favorites of mine.

Other games I play often:
Devil May Cry series
Guilty Gear series
Time Crisis (I actually own TC 1, 2, 3, and Crisis Zone for the PS/PS2)
Shinobi series
God of War (Only played the first, but I'm guessing the others are sweet too)
Streets of Rage series (Where is a modern beat'em'up when you need one?)