Ranking the Final Fantasy Series
Final Fantasy has seen its share of highs and lows since the original launched in 1987. Anyone who loves the series as I do can tick off all their favorite moments without hesitation, just as I can. Having seen fifteen (!) entries in the mainline series, there are few games available today with such a storied history. Accordingly, there are few games with such a divided fanbase. It’s rare that I meet someone who’s top five Final Fantasy games are the same as mine. In that spirit, I’ve decided to rank the entire series as it stands from beginning to end. A few caveats before we begin:
1- This doesn’t represent SDGC’s opinion, merely my own, and I’ll be disappointed if there’s no discussion about it. Just please, be civil. These are only opinions.
2- I’m not including spinoffs like X-2, XIII-2. or Lightning Returns.
3- Be warned: there are spoilers ahead, so proceed at your own risk.
15- Final Fantasy XI
I’m not the biggest MMO fan. I played XI for about, oh, one hour and absolutely despised every moment of it. Technically it’s a numbered FF, so I have to include it. Well, here it is.
14- Final Fantasy XII
Bottom of the list for me. Final Fantasy XII, more than any other in the series, is a game with a boring, do-nothing protagonist. This model is called Vaan, and he carries the great distinction of being the only main protagonist in the entire series who has NOTHING to do with anything at all. Seriously. Play the game and you’ll see. He’s there as a passive bystander who tags along because BEING A SKY PIRATE MIGHT BE COOL. Originally the much more interesting Basch von Ronsenberg (of Dalmasca!) was written as the game’s main protagonist before being shoved aside for the trite, annoying, HORRIBLY designed Vaan, and it shows. Although I say screw ‘em both: it should have been Balthier. The game’s story is heavily steeped in politics and intrigue, and lacked that fantastic element (in my opinion) that defines the series. To me, it just didn’t FEEL like a Final Fantasy game. Even the summons aren’t series staples like Shiva and Ifrit; rather, they’re mostly elaborate versions of the Lucavi from Final Fantasy Tactics (it’s set in the same universe).
XII’s Gambit system allowed you to set AI conditions for characters in battle, but I found it a cumbersome bore to set up and just did it all myself, which I prefer anyway. However, I might not have bothered; XII’s MMO-style combat without the MMO remains my least-favorite in the entire series. As someone who loves a good villain, Vayne Solidor fails to impress; he never really gave me a reason to hate or fight him beyond “I am supposed to because this is a videogame”. The voice acting and writing are absolutely stellar, but the game even manages to stumble here with ridiculous mispronunciations. Seriously, Marquis is pronounced “MARQ-EE” not “MAR-QUIS”. XII has the distinction of being the only game in the series I never finished. I made it all the way up to the final boss, died once, and decided I simply didn’t care. For a Final Fantasy game, this is the gravest crime it could have committed.
13- Final Fantasy II
Remember what I said about a divided fanbase? Should have added a caveat; Final Fantasy II is present at the very bottom of 99.9% of similar lists. This is no exception. Despite introducing several of the recurring elements that define a Final Fantasy game (Cid, Chocobos, evil empire) FFII’s story manages to be bigger in scope than the original, while at the same time far less interesting. Even the Dawn of Souls remake couldn’t make Mateus an interesting villain or Firion anything more than a cardboard cutout. But what really hurts FFII is the broken leveling system. See, each character raises the level of whatever action they’re performing by…..performing that action. Using a particular weapon will make you better with that weapon, taking damage will increase your maximum HP, and so on. Clever players quickly deduced that having their characters attack one another would advance your stats far quicker than game intended, allowing you to make the entire game ridiculously, laughably easy.
12- Final Fantasy VIII
Look, Final Fantasy VIII isn’t a bad game. It’s not! But it’s one of my least-favorite Final Fantasy titles. One of my biggest gripes with FFVIII is the Junction system, in which you draw magic from enemies for various purposes. Of course, you can use individual spells like Fira, Cure, Shell etc. much as you would any other FF game. But you can also stockpile your magic, collecting 100 of each spell, and junction those spells to an individual stat to provide a boost. It sounds cool, but just like FFII, the system was easily and hilariously abused. Junctioning large amounts of powerful magic like Ultima turned your players into unstoppable, rampaging monsters far more terrifying than any superboss. FFVIII was also hampered by one of the most unlikeable, insufferable protagonists ever in Squall Leonhart. Seriously, this guy’s smug shitheadedness to nearly everyone within arm’s reach for the majority of the game had me rooting for the equally unappealing antagonist, Ultimecia. I feel like FFVIII was a victim of VII’s success, in that Square was determined that everything needed to be bigger and edgier, crammed with meaningless spectacle rather than a relatable hero or a focused, purpose-driven story. Just look at the final battle with Ultimecia, the absolute pinnacle of JRPG “THIS ISN’T EVEN MY FINAL FORM” excess nonsense.
11- Final Fantasy III
There are actually two versions of FFIII, one for the NES and a complete remake of the game, released initially for the Nintendo DS before being ported elsewhere. The original NES release focused on a group of young warriors from Ur village, all of them Onion Knights. The DS remake changed them to “freelancers” and bestowed individuality and personality; it’s the superior version, and the one I’ll be talking about.
FFIII is the JRPG definition of “standard”. It’s main cast of characters neither impress nor disappoint; they’re simply there. You won’t hate them, but you’ll forget them the minute the game ends. It’s turn-based combat is based in the Active Time Battle system, as countless others are. It has a job system, as several other Final Fantasy games do. The game’s (weak) antagonist later gives way to a bigger threat that wants to destroy the universe. It’s by no means terrible, and worth checking out if you have time, but everything it does is done better by other games in the series.
10- Final Fantasy V
FFV doesn’t hold up as well as you’d like to believe. The story is pretty basic, and the game’s 16-bit pixelated visuals are somehow less appealing than FFIV, the game preceding it. Bartz is another uninspired lead character, and overshadowed by the far more interesting Faris. Even the music (for most part) is severely lacking compared to other games in the series. ExDeath continues the trend of early Final Fantasy villains being uncompelling and one-dimensional. And yet, V does quite a few things right, namely introducing the now-ubiquitous job system present in many Final Fantasy properties. V also boasts one of the greatest final dungeons in the entire series; it’s long, has varied environments and boasts multiple challenging boss fights. And of course, V gifted the world with Gilgamesh, one of the most well-known and popular characters in Final Fantasy lore (who coincidentally also has one of the best musical themes ever). Gilgamesh is a MUCH more personable and interesting antagonist than the boring ExDeath, and marks the first time a Final Fantasy antagonist isn’t actually evil.
9- Final Fantasy XIV
I played XIV for about ten hours before deciding it wasn’t for me. I do plan on revisiting it to see if my opinion will change. However, I do think it’s beautiful, with an interesting combat system, and I know it’s quite popular. Therefore, I feel comfortable dropping it here until I’ve (maybe) played more of it.
8- Final Fantasy XIII
Look, Final Fantasy XIII gets a lot of heat. Some of it deservedly so! Its story is mostly a disaster. The game opens by flinging an incomprehensible word salad at your face (L’Cie! Fal’Cie! Purge! Pulse! Cocoon! Dude has a chocobo in his hair OK LET’S GOOOOOOOO) without one bit of explanation about what it all means. Sazh and Fang are awesome, but Vanille and Hope may be some of the worst protagonists in FF history. Space Pope/Secret Murder Robot Barthandelus is a terrible villain. The REAL threat’s motivations make the final battle completely nonsensical, although it’s a cool-looking boss.
And yet, it all somehow works at the end. The Paradigm system is one of the best iterations of combat the series has ever seen. The visuals and character design are amazing. Hamauzu’s sountrack is a sumptuous feast for the ears and stands at the very top of the series’ best. It’s ridiculously challenging at parts without being obnoxious. And the linearity of the game is an unfair criticism, as ALL Final Fantasy games before it are linear. This simply did away with any pretext. And considering the nearly identical linear progression of FFX, I always found it an odd complaint.
No, it’s not my favorite Final Fantasy, but neither is it the train wreck some people think it to be.
7- Final Fantasy I (Dawn of Souls)
Not much to say here; it’s a great re-imagining of the one that started it all. The warriors of light vs. the four fiends. Garland and Chaos. I played the original NES classic as a child, but Dawn of Souls stands head and shoulders above it in every single way. And of course, the original introduced the concept of the superboss in the form of the WarMech. It’s very basic, but seeing the classic game that got the ball rolling all prettied up really did something special for me. Battling Chaos at the center of the Temple with these beautiful new visuals got the kid in me smiling, and I remembered that seven year-old boy huddled in front of the CRT television, on the floor in my room, not yet realizing that one day, this series would become more dear to me than any other.
6- Final Fantasy X
FFX is notable in that it was the first mainline FF to eschew the ATB system, instead using what it termed “Conditional Turn-Based Battle”. Basically, it’s a turn-based combat system where the battle halts during a player’s turn, with a vertical timeline to the upper-right indicating whose turn (including enemies) was next. Even cooler was the ability to switch out characters during battle instantaneously, in case you needed Lulu’s black magic or Auron’s strength on the fly. It’s an extremely cool battle system I wish the series would revisit. FFX also introduced the sphere grid, a simple but effective way of managing character progression mimicked to varying degrees by XII and XV. FFX also boasts what I consider the series’ strongest, most developed love story, although the weak voice acting detracts from its impact a bit. Character design is also at its weakest here. I mean, LOOK at Lulu’s skirt. There’s nothing in the world more Nomura than all those belt buckles. Aside from Auron, I wasn’t really enamored with any of the character designs, really. The game is also saddled with one of the series weaker villains, Seymour. Aside from his standard “I WILL KILL EVERYONE TO SAVE THEM” shtick, his character design is just downright atrocious. He has some really cool transformations, but maaaan, I just never found this guy remotely threatening.
5- Final Fantasy IX
We’ve hit the top five, and first up is FFIX. The final FF game to hit the PS1, FFIX saw a return to the series high fantasy roots after several games filled with spiky hair, huge swords, cyberpunk cityscapes, and angsty teens. Zidane is a spunky, upbeat hero with heavy shades of Locke; I found him instantly likeable and quickly became invested in his well-being. In fact, the same goes for the entire cast: from Vivi to Steiner, IX’s protagonists ooze likeability and are all EXTREMELY well-written, with good motivations as to why they act the way they do. FFIX also pits you against Kuja, a strong villain who is equal parts flamboyant, evil, snarky, and cruel, with a great musical theme and a sympathetic backstory. While the battle system comes off as slow and clunky even compared to older games, the great story and characters stand up well when compared with today’s AAA offerings.
4- Final Fantasy IV
DAMN, I love this game. The main cast of characters are some of the most fascinating, multifaceted personalities the series has ever seen. Cecil’s story of redemption, cleansing himself of his Dark Knight background, really hit home for me. Kain’s tortured betrayal of Cecil, the battle with his inner demons, and his unrequited love for Rosa are still powerful even by today’s standards. Edge’s rage at his family’s slaughter was my rage. And Golbez! At first Golbez comes off as your standard, run-of-the-mill villain in dark armor, but when I discovered the truth under that helmet, my jaw hit the floor. And the locales in this game are some of the best the series has ever seen. Hell, this game literally TAKES YOU TO THE MOON. The final battle is also one of the best the series has ever seen, with all the companions you’ve met during your journey appearing in a dimensional landscape to lend you encouragement and strength. What a game.
3- Final Fantasy VII
The game which put Final Fantasy on the map for many people, Cloud Strife and the iconic Buster Sword are the virtual face of the series at this point. FFVII broke the mold in many ways: it was the first FF to feature an African-American as one of the main protagonists, and it introduced spectacle and huge set pieces to the series, and to gaming in general, the likes of which no one had ever seen. It was also the first FF to truly move past high fantasy and into a more futuristic setting, with elements of cyberpunk and heavy science-fiction replacing plate mail and white robes. The Materia system was interesting and I loved hunting for ever more-powerful colored orbs (yup, I got all the master Materia). And of course, Sephiroth. While I think other villains are slightly stronger (more on that in a moment), Sephiroth dominated the screen every moment he was present. His funeral dirge-like theme always heralded something horrific happening, the most famous of which being his murder of Aerith, launching years of sorrow and can-we-or-can’t-we revive her theories on the internet. While I don’t think the combat system holds up as well as others, what VII did for the series and for JRPGs in general alone warrants a high spot on the list. I cannot WAIT for the remake.
2- Final Fantasy XV
Ten years in the making, what began its troubled development as FF Versus XIII was rebranded as Final Fantasy XV and released this past November. Was it worth the wait? For me, absolutely. I don’t have many close friends. I lost my oldest friend to what I think was suicide a few years ago. I only have two truly close buddies I hang out with in my personal life, and my podcast brothers. They constitute my best friends, my bros. So the story of Noctis, on the road with his bros, camping with his bros, fighting alongside his bros, really struck a chord with me. The game is rife with callouts to older Final Fantasy games, which I loved seeing. The combat is some of the best the series has to offer. And you’re faced with one of the series best villains, Ardyn, who steals the spotlight whenever he shows up with scene-chewing intensity and an oily, almost snakelike charm. He’s compelling, and in the end you really get a sense for why is the way he is, and what motivates him. He’s totally evil for sure, but unlike Kefka, there’s a tragic reason for that evil aside from pure insanity. The game’s final battle is also one of my favorites, and leaves aside the elaborate, multi-winged divine transformations of final bosses’ past for something far more personal, yet still grand in scale and scope. I loved it. Yes, there are frustrations to be had in the story. I’d have liked more character development for Luna and some of the Imperial personalities (I remember the Emperor showing up literally once the entire game). Certain key story beats happen frustratingly off camera for some reason. But FFXV is greater than the sum of its parts, and stands tall as my second favorite in the series.
But there can be only one.
01- Final Fantasy VI
Come on. Was there another choice? I don’t throw the word “perfect” around lightly. But I spent DAYS trying to come up with flaws in FFVI. And I just can’t find any. It is quite literally a perfect game. I played VI before IV, and these characters were the first I ever really, TRULY cared about on a personal level. I wanted Terra to resolve her inner struggle with being half-Esper. I wanted Locke and Celes to find happiness together. I wanted Cyan to avenge his family and move past his grief. I wanted Setzer to find Daryl alive. I wanted those orphaned children to survive the World of Ruin. And I wanted Kefka to meet his end.
Kefka, the greatest villain in Final Fantasy history. The crazed result of a Magitek experiment gone wrong, Kefka stands apart from SNES-era villains like Golbez and ExDeath. Rather than show up every now and then with ominous music to terrorize the heroes, Kefka is constantly in your face from the onset, his impish, mischievous theme at odds with the absolute monster underneath that all that clown makeup. No other villain works so hard to make you hate him. From the genocide of Doma, to the slaughter of the Espers, to General Leo’s murder and the destruction of the entire goddamn world, by the time you’ve climbed his tower of garbage and heard his iconic laughter one more time, you’re just ready for this guy to die. The final battle, although rather easy, is unmatched in splendor, with heavy religious themes and Kefka himself as appearing an almost Luciferian, anti-savior type figure.
It’s impossible to pick just one favorite part of VI. The Opera House. The assault on the Magitek Facility. The attack on Narshe. The Floating Continent. The destruction of the world. Celes contemplating living in a ruined world. The journey to find your friends. That amazing ending with all the characters escaping Kefka’s crumbling ruins. It’s all perfect. The pacing, the story beats, the combat. All of it. Perfection. I’ve never replayed a game as many times as I have FFVI, and every single time feels like the first to me. VI came along at a time in my life where I needed an escape, and the positive emotions which well up inside whenever I play it are intoxicating to me. I want nothing more than for this game to come to current-gen consoles, just so I can continue to experience it over and over again. It’s not just my favorite Final Fantasy, it’s my favorite game of all time, period. Nothing else will ever come close. If you haven’t played it, I strongly and urgently recommend you drop what you’re playing, focus all your time and attention on this, and savor the experience. Because it will never be surpassed.
Plus, you can suplex a fucking TRAIN. If that isn’t perfection, I don’t know what is.