People love Final Fantasy, and if there’s anything people love more than Final Fantasy, it’s arguing about Final Fantasy. Who’s the best villain? What’s the best piece of music? Where’s the best place to dry clean my replica Squall jacket? Too many arguments, too much to fight over.
And, of course, every discussion about Square’s flagship RPG series devolves into “Which game in the series is the best?” Well, that’s easy. There are five of them, and you can find out which ones they are right now, right here. I’ll assume before you clicked on this article you already know full well what your favorite game in the series is already, so hey, chances are you might find it on this list. If not, feel free to sound off in the comments below.
Oh, and as great as Final Fantasy Tactics and 4 Heroes of Light are, they are not included here. This list is for main numbered titles only. Tally-ho:
Final Fantasy VII
Reviled, praised and heralded as the Greatest and Worst Game of All time depending on who you ask at any given time, Final Fantasy VII changed everything. This was the first RPG most Westerners first played. It was the way the world saw video games in 1997. People who never paid attention to games before couldn’t help but take notice at all the commercials on TV and in movie theaters. They only showed the CGI cutscenes, but hey, it was a time when Square and Pixar were the only studios producing high-quality 3D animation and that stuff was impressive! I’ve shared my hate — the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII spin-off titles are worthless — but I’ll be honest. I was as enamored as the next guy when this came out. And the game itself holds up really well to this day.
The pacing is fantastic. It propels you from new setting to new setting constantly, yet still gives you plenty to do and explore. The characters are memorable, the story is interesting (if over-convoluted) and as dated as the graphics, sound and everything is — it’s great! It’s a product of its time. Memories are linked to it. Friendships and sexual awakenings (oh, Tifa) were made over it. Yes, Final Fantasy VII gained an enormous following since its release so long ago, but it kind of deserved it. They just need to quit bugging Square to remake it.
Final Fantasy IX
After Final Fantasy IX, the series would move on to the PlayStation 2, gain voice acting, go online and become a huge contentious mess. Before that, however, we got creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s personal favorite of the franchise — a love letter to all previous installments as well as games of its common era. It was the last big PlayStation game to come out, so localization expert Alexander O. Smith (Vagrant Story, Ace Attorney) saw fit to sprinkle the script with references to Resident Evil 2, Parasite Eve, and many more games (usually from Square) throughout. As a balancing act between the old and the new the game brought just about every familiar Final Fantasy trope back, including the importance of the crystal that was so prevalent in earlier iterations. And each playable character represents a classic Final Fantasy class: Quina the blue mage, Zidane the thief, Steiner the knight and so on.
The new mainly came in the way of pre-rendered CG cutscenes and backgrounds, and the compressed CD-ROM quality audio the PlayStation format was known for — apparently Final Fantasy IX‘s soundtrack is Nobuo Uematsuo’s favorite among his many compositions. It features a charming and heart-warming world contrasted with a surprisingly dark story about life and death, a well-written cast though it’s a little bland at times (Remember Amarant? No? Me neither.) and addicting gameplay that can be tough to put down, especially now that it’s on PSP. The best of the 32-bit era.
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo was my first Final Fantasy, and unless we’re counting the Zelda games and Secret of Mana, my first RPG. From the moment it showed those three robotic figures lumbering towards Narshe in the snow, with the cinematic opening credits and haunting music, I loved it. It showed me video games can tell huge, sweeping stories with amazing music and memorable characters. Cyan, Edgar, Sabin, Terra, Celes, Locke and all the others may lack belts and zippers or Gackt’s face, but they make up for that with compelling stories (and excellent theme music) that weave through the fabric of the game’s main rebellion vs. evil empire plot.
On top of Celes’ and Shadow’s personal tragedies and successes, bombastic set pieces like the storming of the desert camp and the opera scene set the standard for the rest of the series as it prepared to enter 32-bit territory. Yet even as it did we still haven’t had anything like the open-ended World of Ruin or an ending as immensely satisfying as Final Fantasy VI‘s 20-minute send-off. This would’ve been the top one if the next one on this list didn’t come around, or if I never got my hands on the first game on this list. So it goes. The best cast, best soundtrack and best villain by a long shot. You never forget your first.
Final Fantasy XII
If Final Fantasy XII were portable and didn’t take four hours to really get going, it would be the best Final Fantasy game ever. Instead it’s the best polygonal Final Fantasy and the best one on the PlayStation 2. Just like the true best Final Fantasy ever (look below!) it emphasizes pure gameplay above all else. Some say it takes too much control away from the player and I can’t help but wonder if they played a different game. The Gambit System gives you complete control over each and every possible variable in battle. Like the Tactics games — surprise, it’s made by the same super-talented people — it makes you the general of your own small army.
It makes you the programmer. It gives you so many ways to play the game, and if you don’t want to pre-program your characters to attack automatically you can still take direct control and input all the commands yourself. It’s very considerate. It’s also the classiest game in the series. Cutscenes are directed by someone who actually knows how to use a camera, the voice acting’s expertly done, the soundtrack’s restrained and subtle and the plot is about something more than teenage love or the power of friendship. It’s about history, power and the world at large and Ivalice is such a beautiful world to get lost in. This is the game Square Enix should port in HD to the Vita.
Final Fantasy V Advance
Kept from U.S. audiences for too long, this “lost” game in the series arrived as part of an awful PlayStation port before finally landing in its ultimate, playable form on the Game Boy Advance, right around the same time everyone moved on to the DS or PSP. So chances are you never played Final Fantasy V or gave it a second thought. If you have then you already know its rightful place as the best game in the series. Free of a maudlin plot or melodramatic whiners, the fifth game focuses on light-hearted adventurers as they save the world from an ancient evil. There’s no angst, no suffering, just airy, earnest entertainment with the funniest script in the series. Simple stuff.
The complications arise in the game’s dense, versatile Job System, which allows players to create whatever kind of party they wish. Want all your characters to be summoners? Done, though you’ll have to find and defeat the summoned monsters first. Want everyone to be a Black Mage? Go ahead, just remember to buy magic. Want Ninjas? Thieves? My favorite, the Blue Mage? Mix, match, experiment — make a black mage with white magic, a samurai with black magic — you can have it any way you want in Final Fantasy V and that kind of freedom feels so, so good. A rousing soundtrack, moogles, chocobos, airships, crystals, creative bosses (one boss has you mimic its moves), plot twists including the death of a major character — it’s the most Final Fantasy Final Fantasy there is. It’s the most fun you can have with a Final Fantasy, so go, play the Game Boy Advance version. Final Fantasy V is the best Final Fantasy.