With the Final Fantasy series reaching its 30th anniversary on Dec. 18, the question stands: Which entry in the sprawling franchise is the best? As with the Mario and Mega Man games, very few Final Fantasy titles are genuinely bad; most are great. But only one can be the absolute best — not just in terms of impact or how much we loved it as kids, but also in terms of how it holds up today.
1987’s Final Fantasy for NES has spawned dozens upon dozens of sequels and spin-offs, as well as spiritual successors like Bravely Default. Ranking them all would be a fool’s errand, so for this countdown I’ve adopted a very simple basic rule: numbered Final Fantasy games only. No Roman numeral, no go. A number or subtitle in addition to a Roman number? Also void.
That means no sequels or spin-offs, simply because of the mess that would entail. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7 may be worth including here, but with things like Dirge of Cerberus and Revenant Wings included, you'd have to wade through about half a dozen miserable cash-ins lurking at the bottom of the list in order to get to the good stuff. And how would I reasonably handle things like Final Fantasy 15's expansions? So I'm skipping that stuff altogether. I'm only allowing one exception to this rule, which involves a Final Fantasy sequel that was essentially transformed into another game altogether after launch. Hey, what good are rules if you can't bend 'em a little?
16: Final Fantasy 14 (PC/PS3/PS4, 2010)
The best thing you can say about Final Fantasy 14 is that its disastrous outcome forced Square Enix to take a long, hard look at its internal processes and drag itself back from the brink. A complete mess of a massively multiplayer game, FF14 somehow came to us from the very same people who had shepherded Final Fantasy 11 successfully. The archaic, backward-facing quest and class design of FF14 definitely reminded players of FF11 ... but not the durable work FF11 had become over the years. Rather, the somewhat clumsy initial version of FF11. From its lifeless world to its tedious design to the needlessly resource-hungry graphical excess that annihilated the game's performance on even the most powerful computers, the game was a disaster.
FF14 was supposed to have been the game that would keep Square Enix's books in the black for years to come. Instead, the company ended up literally destroying it with a total relaunch in order to survive. Come to think of it, the best thing you can say about the original version of FF14 is that it's no longer possible to play the game at all. You're safe now. The bad MMO can't hurt you anymore.
15: Final Fantasy 2 (Famicom, 1988)
Back on the Nintendo Entertainment System, sequels had a reputation for being weird and disconnected from the works they followed up on. Think Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda 2, Castlevania 2 and so on. Final Fantasy 2 never made it to the U.S. back then, but it certainly would have reinforced this concept. Ostensibly an RPG like the original Final Fantasy, FF2 changed up almost every system and mechanic beyond the basic idea of a four-person party of heroes engaging in turn-based combat. The class-based build-a-team system became a fixed cast of four named heroes and a rotating cast of tagalongs; character levels and experience points went by the wayside in favor of incremental stat bumps based around in-combat actions; the tiered spell system turned into a mana-pool system built around the same growth-through-use rules as combat stats.
It was all very inventive, and also extraordinarily opaque. For every cool thing FF2 brought to the table, such as a keyword system to make conversations with non-player characters more interactive, it also suffered from the fact that its designers didn't have time to properly balance the game and make it more player-friendly. This resulted in such memorable, unintended side effects as players attacking their own party members to make their stats increase. Future Final Fantasy sequels would go back to the traditional approach, while FF2's oddball ideas would continue to be explored in the SaGa franchise (a series that, as the newly reissued Romancing SaGa 2 demonstrates, remains as weird as ever).
14: Final Fantasy (NES, 1987)
You have to give it up for the game that started it all: It ... definitely started it all. It feels like a first attempt at this whole "role-playing" thing, and certainly it’s a product of its time. As a 1987 RPG, it stood out: A take on the genre that didn't simply mimic Enix’s Dragon Quest but instead attempted to reach back to the roots of role-playing, with many elements adapted from Ultima, Wizardry and even Dungeons & Dragons. It had an ambitious plot, too, invoking time travel and a closed temporal loop — heady stuff for an NES game.
That said, FF1's status as a first draft of sorts makes it hard to return to. The interface system alone drags down the experience (hope you enjoy buying 100 potions, one at a time!), and the glitches that affect many of the underlying systems make some stats and items worthless at best, while creating frustrating hurdles to progress in others. Remakes of the game have ironed out some of these more glaring frustrations, but they can't change the fact that, at heart, this is an extremely limited and simplistic take on an RPG. A fine game in its time? A classic that deserved to kick off a franchise? Definitely. But also terribly dated.
13: Final Fantasy 13 (PS3/Xbox 360, 2010)
Like FF14, Final Fantasy 13 stands as a monument to the breakdown of Square Enix's internal processes as the industry moved into the high-definition generation. Unlike FF14, FF13 is actually pretty good — no small miracle, considering that only the final phase of its extended release cycle actually involved hammering the characters, story and world into something resembling a video game. It's certainly the prettiest entry in the Final Fantasy series, but those looks came at the cost of starving other areas of the game: very little of the story is explained by the narrative, the world consists of one long linear path leading to the final boss, and the combat system removes players from the moment-to-moment decisions of battle in favor of setting up fighting formations and determining general tactics to be carried out automatically by the computer. In short, FF13 contains a whole lot of best-of-class elements that add to up less than the sum of its parts.
12: Final Fantasy 3 (Famicom, 1990)
In a lot of ways, this was the first Final Fantasy that really felt like, well, Final Fantasy. It introduced the Job system, which allowed players to redefine their party's character classes to better deal with new scenarios — for example, turning everyone into Dragon Knights capable of leaping invincibly off the screen when facing a foe capable of wiping the party in a single hit. It also established the tone of what we think of as the classic Final Fantasy narrative, which is to say it involves a vast and mysterious world that physically changes as players deal with NPCs and make their way to a nihilistic end boss whose presence and motives are never fully explained. Still, FF3 is an 8-bit RPG, which makes it tough to go back to. Changing Jobs isn't as simple as swapping out classes on the fly here, and certain portions of the adventure feel grueling. The final dungeon in particular takes the form of a sprawling labyrinth filled with high-level monsters, multiple ruthless bosses and exactly zero save points. A solid game, but one that requires a high level of tolerance for dated game design conventions ... and lots of grinding.
11: Final Fantasy 11 (PC/PS2/Xbox 360/PS3, 2002)
As with many long-running MMOs, Final Fantasy 11 today is practically a different creature altogether from the game that first shipped nearly a decade and a half ago. As you may recall, its having launched in 2002 means it predates World of Warcraft. The fact that it's survived to the present day (at least on PC; the console versions closed down last year) with a loyal player base speaks to its overseers' flexibility and willingness to reshape the game to roll with the tumultuous evolution of the genre. The game's world — Vana'diel — has become less restrictive over time; character growth has grown less onerous, while skills and classes have become increasingly numerous and flexible; and a dozen different add-on scenarios provided players with a constant churn of new story material and growth attributes to aspire to.
While FF11 never became quite so much of an institution as WoW, its steady popularity and stable subscriber base helped keep Square Enix alive while it wrestled with the challenges of FF13 and FF14. Perhaps most importantly, FF11 demonstrated that console gamers were open to MMO experiences, helping to lay the foundations for today's online console gaming space.
10: Final Fantasy 10 (PlayStation 2, 2001)
The first entry in the series for PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy 10 left behind many of the standards that appeared throughout the 32-bit chapters. Pre-rendered backgrounds were replaced with real-time visuals. Characters finally spoke voiced dialogue. Solving puzzle dungeons became as important to progression as defeating bosses.
And more radical upheavals came here, too: for the first time since the NES days, the franchise's trademark active-time combat system shed its real-time elements in favor of a strictly turn-based system. As with FF13, the majority of FF10 transpires as a linear journey along a single path to the end ... though in this case, the journey contains enough variety and hidden secrets (including pieces of a cryptographic alphabet that allows you to read texts in other languages on a second playthrough) that it rarely chafes.
FFX feels in many ways like an evolutionary dead end for the series now, with its unique battle system and fixed camera angles in a 3D world. But it brought welcome evolution to the franchise, helping it move beyond the formula Square had adopted for the PlayStation games. While it doesn't rank among the series' absolute best, it's a valuable transitional work.
9: Final Fantasy 15 (PS4/Xbox One, 2016)
Another victim of Square Enix's difficult entry into the world of HD visuals, Final Fantasy 15 was first announced as FF13 spinoff "Final Fantasy Versus 13" more than a decade before it eventually shipped. That's never a good sign, but despite everything FF15 had going against it ... the game turned out pretty well. It definitely has its issues, most notably the story not really making any sense unless you watch a lot of supplementary materials, but there's balance against those failings in FF15's curious blend of styles. On one hand, it presents the grandest, most ambitious setting in the franchise's history, a sweeping open-world panorama that players can explore at their leisure. On the other hand, the story revolves around a tightly knit group of friends hoping to set things right for the coterie's leader, the deposed prince of the city-state of Lucis, Noctis.
Amidst a battle between kingdoms for the fate of the world, FF15 shines for its small moments: Friends hanging out at a campground, taking goofy selfies together, bantering in combat and listening to classic Final Fantasy chiptunes as they hit the open road. In other words, there's a humanity in FF15 unique within the the series. For all the game's rough patches and questionably designed sequences (some of which have already been rectified through patches and DLC), it grounds the adventure by placing its focus entirely on Noctis's posse. For a game that began life as a troubled spinoff, FF15 does a remarkable job of pointing the way forward for the franchise.
8: Final Fantasy 7 (PlayStation, 1997)
By far the biggest game in the franchise in terms of its cultural footprint, Final Fantasy 7 exploded the series from cult favorite to global blockbuster. Ironically, the things that made it so popular 20 years ago are the ones that make it feel so profoundly dated today. Its nearly seamless blend of real-time polygons, pre-rendered backgrounds and computer-generated cutscene footage represented a brilliant example of game developers harnessing technology in new ways to blur the line between games and cinema (with far greater elegance and substance than the "Siliwood" movement of the early ’90s). Yet those elements feel clumsy and intrusive now, leaving FF7 with some of the ugliest visuals and shallowest game mechanics in the series' history. The flexible Materia skill system was done better by the games on either side of FF7, and the flashy monster summons fail to dazzle today; they're just drawn-out and dull.
No, what makes FF7 worth revisiting today is its ambitious story and character development. Although its convolutions are poorly served by the localization, FF7 makes some gutsy choices for its memorable cast. Protagonist Cloud Strife demonstrates a whole lot more personality and growth than the series' expanded universe works would have you believe, and the villainous Sephiroth cuts an imposing figure even as the narrative drops hints that he's more a pawn than a mastermind. I'm curious to see how the upcoming episodic remake processes and reinvents this landmark work — in a best-case scenario, it'll revitalize the game's best parts without losing the essence that made the whole thing so beloved in the first place.
7: Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn (PS3/PC/PS4, 2013)
Vanilla FF14 may be the worst numbered Final Fantasy, but its reboot — A Realm Reborn — ranks among the best. It's an unprecedented venture: Square Enix removed FF14's leads (long-time company veterans) and handed the reins over to a relative newcomer at the company, Naoki Yoshida, trusting in his deep passion for and understanding of the MMO genre to guide the game's reinvention. The confidence paid off. Yoshida literally nuked the original game, ending FF14 with an apocalyptic event that closed the book on the original world and gave both the land of Eorzea and its fans a fresh start.
A Realm Reborn plays like a love letter to both Final Fantasy and the MMO genre. It's a lean, accessible game that draws on the best of the format while managing not to feel like yet another World of Warcraft clone. The entire world is steeped in Final Fantasy heritage, with frequent events that reference the franchise's best moments (including an expansive tribute to Final Fantasy 12's realm of Ivalice). It manages to be both deeply immersive yet a game even a genre novice can pick up and play without trouble, and it works equally well on PCs and consoles. Although the unavoidable requirements of any MMO — lots of free time and a reliable internet connection — prevent this from being the most universal entry in Final Fantasy's history, it's both a great game and a welcome sign that Square Enix isn't afraid to take drastic measures to right a listing ship.
6: Final Fantasy 9 (PlayStation, 2000)
At once the culmination of Final Fantasy on PlayStation and a joyous celebration of the RPGs of older console generations, FF9 feels at times almost like a "greatest moments" compilation of the series. Perhaps tellingly, it began life as a spinoff game — not unlike FF15, really. But there's so much Final Fantasy essence here that it easily earned its Roman numeral. Turning back the clock on the sci-fi vibe that permeated Final Fantasy 6, 7 and 8, FF9 takes place in a rustic world filled with mages, castles and cobblestone streets. Protagonist Zidane has a roguish, Han Solo-like quality to him, making him something of a small fry and an outsider in a big-picture narrative that involves kingdoms at war, almighty summoned monsters and ancient races ... well, right up until the modern Final Fantasy trappings manifest themselves and reveal Zidane's place in the cosmos while also paying tribute to the original NES Final Fantasy with the return of villain Garland and his Four Fiends.
FF9 feels rather uneven in places, with a narrative tone that veers wildly between comedy and melodrama. Its underlying play mechanics feel a bit stodgy after the excesses of FF8. Its technical ambitions push the PlayStation beyond its limits, resulting in a sometimes slow and irritating play experience as the hardware wheezes to keep up. Still, it would be churlish to talk down FF9 due to these minor deficiencies. It's a good-hearted game brimming with lovable characters like the oafish knight Steiner and the innocent, doomed black mage Vivi, and it stands as a final heartwarming tribute to the vintage Final Fantasy series before FFX pushed it over the edge to modernity.
5: Final Fantasy 8 (PlayStation, 1999)
If FF9 is Final Fantasy at its self-referential best, its predecessor was the series at its most fearless and unfettered. Final Fantasy 8 might well be the most divisive game to wear the name Final Fantasy, which is really saying something, but its controversial nature speaks to what makes it so remarkable. After the staggering success of FF7, the development team could easily have churned out a carbon copy reiteration of that game to satisfy fans clamoring for more. Instead, it defied expectation with an RPG that elaborated on some of FF7's narrative motifs while systematically dismantling nearly every rule and mechanic fans had come to take for granted in a Final Fantasy.
Even elements that do make a return, like the active-time battle system, work in new and unfamiliar ways. Every facet of combat here revolves around summoned beasts: They play a major role in battle, in the story and in determining what skills and powers your party members possess. Meanwhile, the game's magic system does away with the concepts of mana pools or the old-school spell tiers, instead existing as a finite resource whose relationship to the party's combat stats introduces a risk-reward question to every battle: Do you cast magic and risk weakening your team, or tough it out?
FF8 demands you relearn how Final Fantasy works. You earn cash as part of a regular stipend and rarely use it in the world. Grinding for experience makes enemies stronger, too, resulting in a more difficult game. Magic is precious and essential. Your team operates from a military academy. You don't buy weapons; you reforge them. And sometimes, you play as a weird guy with long hair and a machine gun instead of as protagonist Squall. Many people find FF8 impossibly opaque, or crushingly tedious, as they find the easiest way to play is to evoke lengthy monster-summoning animations over and over again. The thing is, though, FF8 offers no end of unconventional systems and workarounds to what seem to be required tactics, allowing you an enormous degree of options to affect how the game plays both in and out of battle. Indeed, if you take the time to learn its workings, FF8 turns out to be the easiest and most exploitable game in the series. It's a fascinating subversion of the series, almost postmodern in its design, and there's simply no other game like it in the world.
4: Final Fantasy 4 (Super Famicom, 1991)
No game in the series has done quite so much to define the what it means to be Final Fantasy like Final Fantasy 4 (released in the U.S. as Final Fantasy 2). From the introduction of the dynamic active-time battle system to a narrative application of FF3's Job classes to its cast of distinct and clearly defined characters, FF4 marks the point at which the franchise transcended its early days of well-intended chaos in search of a personality to set it apart from Dragon Quest. All the silliness and melodrama that have come to define Final Fantasy found its primal form here, too: As protagonist Cecil embarks on a sulky quest to discover his true self, his allies drop into and out of his party, often leaving the story by way of a noble self-sacrifice. FF4 is hokey in the way of classical Greek theatre, with Nobuo Uematsu's groundbreaking musical score playing the role of the Chorus, and in its way the game did as much to lay down the rules of the console RPG as the Dragon Quest had.
If FF4 has a flaw, it's that this pillar of a genre feels entirely too brief and linear; you'll find yourself face to face with final boss Zeromus just as things really start to fall into place. But no matter how desperate you may be for another FF4 fix, please don't play its spinoff sequel. Trust me on this one.
3: Final Fantasy 5 (Super Famicom, 1992)
In FF4, the series' creators took the Job system of the previous game and used it as raw materials from which to build a story-driven quest. Final Fantasy 5 pushed the needle back all the way back from narrative — its story may well be the slightest in the entire series — and into the far end of the "systems" side of the meter. In doing so, its dev team put together the single most replayable entry in the entire franchise — a fact attested to by the fact that thousands of people revisit it every summer in a collective charity run.
FF5 expands on the Job system, offering more classes to choose from while allowing players to mix and match the skills that belong to each Job. The resulting setup doesn't technically give you an infinite number of ways to play the game, but it sure seems like it. Despite this immense flexibility, the game's difficulty level feels exquisitely balanced from start to finish; enemies pose a challenge throughout the quest, yet there's no scenario that can't be overcome by the proper party setup. While you probably won't remember much about FF5's characters or plot once the credits roll, the flexibility inherent in the game's systems give it a real "one more time" appeal. What if I played it with this class setup? What if I tried using that skill on the superbosses? The nuts-and-bolts approach to Final Fantasy design would reach its true apex with spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics, but within the series proper, this is as nutty and bolty as it gets.
2: Final Fantasy 12 (PlayStation 2, 2006)
Time has been kind to the divisive 12th chapter of Final Fantasy. This past summer's long-awaited HD remake (The Zodiac Age) helped cement the fact that FF12 was, indeed, a work far ahead of its time — one that has become only more relevant and engrossing through the years. A decade ago, FF12's determination to blur the line between single-player and massively multiplayer RPGs made it quite controversial. Its elaborate Gambit system (which allowed players to effectively program the behavior of their party members) struck many as a game design crutch that surrendered the actual process of play to artificial intelligence. Now, however, the prospect of AI-controlled party members in an open-world real-time RPG has become commonplace. Yet nothing that's come after FF12 has matched the flexibility and precision offered by its Gambits.
Open-world RPGs continue to struggle to live up to all the things FF12 did right. Even simple little details, like differentiating between passive and aggro monsters on sight by the color of their health icons, don't always make their way into games (including the very recent Xenoblade Chronicles 2). Few open world adventures manage to balance free-form questing with a structured narrative as well as FF12, either; the game allows you to wander wherever you like, even if you end up way out of your depth. But if you know what you're doing, it often simply lets you go about your way, making possible some interesting breaks from the "proper" order of events.
FF12 is a game that trusts and respects the player in a way you rarely see, especially in a story driven JRPG. While it may not have the greatest story in the series — much of the main cast exists at the periphery of much larger events — the vast world and durable game design more than makes up for its shortcomings.
1: Final Fantasy 6 (Super Famicom, 1994)
Ultimately, only one game perfectly embodies everything great about the Final Fantasy series, and that’s 1994's Final Fantasy 6 (which initially appeared in the U.S. under the name Final Fantasy 3). Sitting at the divide between the vintage games (with their elemental crystals and tiny sprite graphics) and the modern take on the series (full of sci-fi futurism and narrative-driven structures), FF6 truly feels like the best of both worlds. Its steampunk-inflected world may be drawn with old-school bitmap graphics, but those 16-bit visuals depict a setting every bit as gritty and modernized as FF7's. The story feels as enormous as you'd find in any of the games to follow on PlayStation, seeming more modest in scale only as a side effect of the tech limits of the hardware. FF6 may in fact be the only game where the villain not only pulls off his mad scheme to end the world, but in which the apocalypse simply kicks off the second half of the adventure.
That's not all that makes FF6 unique. The game somehow manages to juggle a party that potentially consists of more than a dozen characters while making most of them interesting, distinct and sympathetic. It then deftly combines the two fundamental structural approaches that have defined progression within Final Fantasy through the years: a highly linear, story-driven first half gives way to a wide-open second half that players can tackle in any sequence they prefer.
FF6 rewards players who take the time to explore its world with hidden skills, special weapons, challenging bonus battles and even extra characters. It also rewards players who take the time to understand its mechanics by granting them the keys to completely break the entire battle system wide open and customize their party members top to bottom.
FF6 remains incredibly playable (and replayable) nearly 25 years after its debut. It’s a climax to the series' early days that simultaneously embraces the changes yet to come. Its music, graphics and presentation push the Super NES hardware to its limits without ever feeling like they are making it strain too hard. The witty script manages to evoke humor, pathos and drama, yet it never feels confused or inconsistent. The game really is a landmark achievement, and while many of its sequels have surpassed it in one area or another, no other Final Fantasy has done everything as expertly as FF6 did.