Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ranking the Final Fantasy Games



Many fans and gaming sites have tried to rank the Final Fantasy games, so I thought I'd give it a shot as well. I consider the Final Fantasy series to be my all-time favorite game series. I've loved it for years, and I've played each and every game several times. So this begs the question: which game is the best in the series? This question is furiously debated, and opinions are often all over the place. Here is my personal list of the Final Fantasy games, ranked from worst to best. Note that these are just my own observations, so feel free to comment on your own thoughts.


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13. Final Fantasy XI
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Despite the game having a somewhat loyal fanbase and a somewhat sizable number of players, I can't reasonably place it within this list because it is a spin-off title of sorts. FFXI is an MMORPG, so it's not fair to compare this title to the rest of the series. Personally, I feel that the online titles could have just as easily been called "Final Fantasy Online" so they wouldn't have to take a number in the series. Anyway, it gets its spot here, outside the rankings.


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12. Final Fantasy II
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The second installment in the Final Fantasy series was the first to have unique characters instead of generic heroes characterized by their classes. It also introduced the first unique leveling system, focusing on attributes like weapons to strengthen. It attempted to step it up from FFI's straight-forward story by adding secondary characters and a layered plot. While it is, in a way, the granddaddy of what makes Final Fantasy the way it is today, its simplicity and dated mechanics cannot compare to its sequels. It also does not surpass its predecessor because it lacks a certain level of influence and charm that the first game oozed of.


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11.  Final Fantasy I
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I realize I should treat the original Final Fantasy with more respect, but we must look objectively at these games. FFI started it all, bringing RPG's and turn-based battles to the mainstream. It started a legacy that would last decades. In terms of story, FFI does not attempt to complicate it. In the first few seconds of gameplay, the world and the main characters have already concluded that they are in need of the warriors of light to save the world. It is simple, and the gameplay is also simple. The difficulty level is relatively high in comparison to its sequels, but it is only because the game is imbalanced due to limited availability of recovery items, limited magic usage, excessive random encounters, and sporadic save points. Its place near the bottom of the list is only fair as it acted as the beginning blueprint for its amazing sequels.


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10.  Final Fantasy III
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As the Final Fantasy series continued, its gameplay continued to experiment with new things. FFIII introduced the job system, which would be seen again in FFV and pretty much of all its sequels. In terms of story, FFIII didn't take too much of a leap forward. The characters also went back to being blank slates, though this was meant to accommodate the new job system. Overall, the game improved on the model that its predecessors invented, but I can't reasonably place it above its sequels.

I'll also mention that the DS remake is impressive with its new visual style and its completely new set of unique characters. However, it did little to fix the lingering difficulty issues that had to do with its sporadic save points.


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9. Final Fantasy V
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FFV had the same dilemma as FFVIII in that it had to follow up one of the greatest RPG's of its generation. Both games would be overshadowed by its predecessor (and in this case, its sequel as well), which is why they are more or less forgotten in gaming history. Still, FFV is a great game in its own right. It perfected the job system introduced in FFIII, and though the story and characters were weak in comparison to FFIV, it was ultimately a deep and lengthy experience. It even had the ability to tug at your heart strings, with scenes related to Galuf and Syldra coming to mind. Don't be quick to dismiss this game because of its lesser popularity; it holds its own as a Final Fantasy title. It simply doesn't top the rest of this list. And don't forget, this is the game that gave birth to Gilgamesh and the Clash on the Big Bridge.


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8. Final Fantasy XIII
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Despite what a lot of fans have said about Final Fantasy XIII, I think it's a thoroughly enjoyable game. It dared to experiment with series tradition by eliminating any sense of tedium and allowing the story to advance on one linear path. This meant omitting RPG staples like towns, NPC's, and a world map. Obviously, this was met with a lot of negativity, but the truth is that the Final Fantasy series has always been somewhat linear. XIII simply did away with the small details that typically gave players the illusion of freedom. So, while the linearity can leave a lot to be desired, it's certainly no reason to disregard the game completely.


In place of an open world to explore, FFXIII features one of the most exciting battle systems in the series. This is mostly owed to the Paradigm Shift system, which allows the player to customize several sets of team combinations that you can switch between in the midst of battle. Utilizing special strategies for late-game battles is simply exhilarating, to say the least. Speaking of late-game, the game picks up considerably near the end of the game when you enter the massive world of Pulse. Once there, you can take on a vast number of side missions. I know this is an example of "too little, too late", but I personally enjoyed the 100+ hours I got from completing everything in the game.


The visuals in XIII are absolutely fantastic. At times, I was just standing there taking in the beautifully rendered environments. The soundtrack isn't quite as memorable as what's been heard in previous games, but it does feature one of the best battle themes I've ever heard in any RPG. Overall, I think Final Fantasy XIII is a fantastic game regardless of what a few "fans" think. Now, to justify its lower placing on this list...

The story is often described as being empty and convoluted. While I don't agree with the claim that the plot is hard to understand (it's quite simple, in fact), I do agree that the story is rather unspectacular. The characters are also quite forgettable, with Sazh being the only stand-out. Story and characters are the two main aspects that make a memorable Final Fantasy, and XIII is severely lacking. Couple that with its aforementioned problems with linearity, and you have a game that is great, but discernibly inferior to the rest of this list.


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7. Final Fantasy VIII
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As I mentioned earlier, FFVIII had the enormous pressure of having to follow up one the biggest titles in gaming history (FFVII). It largely succeeded in that regard, but VIII still goes by rather unnoticed because of the shadow cast by VII. It's a shame, really, considering how FFVIII is actually an accomplished game in its own right. It vastly improved VII's blocky graphics by introducing an accurately proportioned, realistic style. The soundtrack was also equally as exciting and memorable as VII's. Content equaled, if not surpassed VII's level of quality and size. Basically, VIII was just as enormous of a game as VII was.


Though of course, I'm only talking about the basics. There are plenty of reasons why I can't reasonably place VIII above the rest of the list entries. Overall, I found the game a bit...easy, especially near the end. Once I had the proper equipment, I found myself tearing enemies apart. From what I can remember, all you needed was a combination of the Aura and Meltdown spells, and you could unleash unlimited limit breaks until you inevitably overwhelmed your enemy. Even GF's were exploitable near the beginning, as they had no limit to their use. The junction and draw systems were definitely unique, but they seemed a bit unnecessary and there were clear ways to abuse them.


Some may even be turned off by the characters and plot. None from the cast really stand out as memorable. Selphie, Zell, and Rinoa are often hated for their annoying personalities, and many players were frustrated with Squall and his stoic nature. There is plenty of development that stems from FFVIII's main theme of love, but plenty of people disliked this aspect of the game.

Please note, however, that these are simply the reasons why I consider FFVIII to be an inferior game to the games above it. Overall, I found VIII to be a fun and satisfying experience. It has hours and hours of content and the level of polish expected from a Final Fantasy title.


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6.  Final Fantasy XII
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Final Fantasy XII was the PS2's swan song. At the time, it was known for controversially introducing a new battle system that got rid of random encounters and turn-based combat. As risky as these huge transitions were, they were executed with perfection. Transition-less battles were a fresh change of pace, and the use of AI gambits allowed for some fun strategic customization. The graphics were also some of the best seen on the PS2, and the orchestral soundtrack was quality at its best. Even the voice acting was exceptionally well done. So clearly, FFXII did a great job of eliminating any prior worries.


The story in XII sets itself apart from the rest of the series with its serious tone and sophistication. There's almost no melodrama to be seen, and most of what goes on involves conspiracies and war politics. A lot of it was obviously a bit confusing at times, but I appreciated the maturity and its high level of quality. In terms of presentation and content, I might say that this is still the peak of the Final Fantasy series. So...why isn't it at the top of my list, you ask?


XII honestly just...didn't feel like Final Fantasy to me. The new style was a bit off-putting, and the tone was unfamiliar, but it was mainly the characters that did it for me. The characters just didn't appeal to me at all. The one shining exception was Balthier, who completely overshadowed the sort-of protagonist Vaan.

Each time I finish a Final Fantasy game, I'm reminded that "parting is such sweet sorrow". Unfortunately, I couldn't say the same about FFXII. Vayne was a weak villain, and his final boss design looked silly and unimaginative so the ending didn't do anything to leave me on a good note either. I've got to praise XII for its hours of content and uber-level quality, but I can't put it any higher on my list because of the aforementioned reasons. It's still an exceptional game; just not the ideal Final Fantasy.


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5. Final Fantasy X
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Final Fantasy X is, without a doubt, the best RPG on the Playstation 2. Never has a story been so layered in thought-provoking creativity. The premises behind the creation of Sin, the summoning of Dream Zanarkand, and the summoner's true fate, are truly the peak of originality in the Final Fantasy series. What I love most about the plot is the main character's unfamiliarity with his surroundings; it puts the player in a fish-out-of-water situation and really gets one involved with the game's world.


Opinions may be divided on FFX's cast of characters, but one things for sure: they have great chemistry. There was something about this group that actually made them feel like a group of familiars. Of course, there is the fact that they are all guardians of summoner Yuna (who I consider one of my favorite video game girls).  The english voice acting was definitely a bit off, but don't let that get in the way of anything. The visuals were an amazing breath of fresh air for its time, and the gameplay system brought some innovative new features to the Final Fantasy series. For the first time, you could switch out party members in the midst of battle. The leveling system was also done away in favor of the unique sphere grid.

If you're relatively new to the series, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Final Fantasy game more satisfying than this. It merely sits right outside of my top four because it strays just a step too far away from the formula that gave the series its charm. Otherwise, it would have deserved a much higher spot.


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4.  Final Fantasy IX
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Final Fantasy IX took a bold step in a completely different direction than its immediate predecessors by returning to its traditional roots. FFIX is basically an homage to the original games. It features vibrant fantasy settings, character classes, standard level-growth, and a soundtrack that brings about a strange sense of nostalgia. In terms of style, IX dropped the realistic feel of VIII and opted for a more light-hearted and cartoony look. These changes obviously alienated a lot of fans, but those who could look past their bias found what is essentially the ideal Final Fantasy game.


There's never a sense of linearity or staleness in IX's main adventure. You are constantly given small, memorable mini-games to do while the story advances, and you're given the option of watching short cutscenes involving other characters, mainly to give you the sense of a world flowing in real time. The main story itself is gripping and lengthy, but it's the character stories that really compelled me to continue playing. All the characters share a similar struggle for purpose, and through experiencing their struggles, I found myself growing really fond of these characters. They have an amazing sense of humanity to them, which is more than I can say about VIII or XII's cast.

Other aspects of the game, like the gameplay and graphics, are absolutely solid. The RPG elements are straight-forward and highly customizable, the graphics are some of the most beautifully detailed on the PS1, and the epilogue is probably the best in the series. Though, more importantly, there's an undeniable charm to the game that has since been missing in the franchise. It's the last "true" game in the series, if you will, and I lament the fact that it's so under-rated. FFIX excels from start to finish, and it would be a crime not to consider it one of the greatest Final Fantasy games of all time.


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3.  Final Fantasy IV
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It's simply amazing how, to this day, one of the earliest entries in the Final Fantasy series remains one of its best. Despite having relatively simple hardware, Square managed to achieve an incredibly high standard of quality with its first entry on the SNES. Like any quality RPG, FFIV earns its merits from its engaging plot and characters. Its plot is owed to a powerful lead character, who isn't designed to follow typical cliches. Main character Cecil struggles with the meaning of justice when he is forced to commit inhumane facts of violence in the name of his king. When met with a great evil that has been corrupting his kingdom, he realizes that he must cleanse himself clean and give up his dark sword in exchange for light. This inner struggle does an amazing job of driving the story and engaging the player.


Cecil isn't the only character who stands out either. Rydia, Edward, Tellah, and Edge all lose loved ones during the course of the story, and it's through their tragedies that they find the resolve to fight. Meanwhile, we as players are presented with one of the most challenging Final Fantasy games in the series. If you've played the original "hard type" on the Snes, you'll know that grinding and deadly enemies are constants throughout the game. While inexperienced players may feel frustrated at first, it ultimately makes for a highly rewarding experience. The soundtrack is incredibly memorable, and though the graphics may feel a bit dated, you always have the DS version to turn to. As far as remakes go, FFIV DS is one of the best in gaming history. With its new presentation and features, you'll fully realize just how great this game really is.


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2. Final Fantasy VII
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Here it is, the legend. This is the game that many gamers dare to call the greatest game of all time. So why isn't it number one? Well, because the truth is, Final Fantasy VII (and its brother, Ocarina of Time) often gets a massive boost because of its place in history. It's one of the most influential RPG's in history, and it was responsible for popularizing JRPG's and introducing an entire generation to a new level of story-telling in video games. Because of the utter shock we experienced from this amazing new genre, we still remember it fondly and put it up on an untouchable pedestal.


Now of course, that's merely justification for why it's in second place. Some of the most iconic characters and symbols in video games belong to Final Fantasy VII. Cloud, Sephiroth, and the Buster Sword are instantly recognizable figures, and events such as the death of Aerith are permanent fixtures in popular gaming culture. This is a game I can play over and over and over again and never get bored of. I don't know if it's the excitement I get every time I leave Midgar and enter the open world, or the fulfillment I get from maxing out materia and defeating the Ruby/Emerald Weapons, but I can find enjoyment in every new playthrough despite being able to list every part of the game from start to finish.

The graphics obviously look painfully dated, but there's a certain charm to it that I wouldn't have any other way. I loved the flair and variety that Limit Breaks gave, and I loved the freedom I had with party combinations thanks to the materia system. There's honestly such a flow with how the story moves along with what the player is allowed to do. Enduring plot elements are strewn in with a host of mini-games that include fighting bikers on a highway, snowboarding down a glacier, and shooting down submarines. It just barely misses out on the number one spot due to the one game that does everything it does better, but there's no denying its lasting appeal as the great RPG that kicked off an era of incredible games.


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1.  Final Fantasy VI
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It was difficult, but I'm quite set on my decision. Final Fantasy VI is the best Final Fantasy in the series and definitely one of the greatest RPG's of its generation. No game has ever come close to its level of creativity and depth, even beyond the 16-bit era. I think what really puts this at the top for me is its incredible ensemble of characters, which is arguably the best cast of characters in the entire series. FFVI is unique in that it has no designated main character. Each character is given a significant amount of backstory and each has their moment to shine. You really grew to like these characters, and given their unique innate abilities, the party combinations were endless.


Though, just as note-worthy are the villains, who absolutely ooze personality. Side character Ultros is especially great, with his ill-timed jokes and tendency to crash parties. Never has a Final Fantasy been as lively and likeable as this. Though, the main villain obviously takes the spotlight here. Kefka, who looks and acts like a clown, is as insane as he appears. Reminiscent of the Joker, Kefka enjoys the sight of innocent people suffering and much prefers to laugh and hop around childishly than to take anything he does seriously. Kefka's unorthodox nature definitely puts him up there as one of, if not the best villain in the series.


The plot itself is an incredible piece of story-telling, and memorable scenes like the opera house scene, the phantom train sequence, and the final battle are truly unforgettable. Its RPG gameplay mechanics are deep, enjoyable, and highly addictive. You'll get hours and hours of optional content, especially near the end-game. It's amazing how much they fit onto one little cartridge. With colorful graphics and an incredible soundtrack to round things off, it's no mystery why I consider Final Fantasy VI to be the greatest Final Fantasy of all time.


Parting Notes...
Thus, my biggest post ever is completed. This post took about a week to complete, and it underwent numerous rearrangements to achieve perfection. As of 5/11/13, I've done a complete re-write of the post, and I've rearranged one thing (IX has moved up to #4). If you don't agree with my order, feel free to comment and discuss your own thoughts!


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8 comments:

  1. Final Fantasy Legend II for Gameboy deserves a spot!

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    1. This list was for the main series, so I didn't include any spin-offs like the Legend series, or FFX-2, Crisis Core, etc...

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  2. Nice list. Thought you did a pretty good job getting all of those games in the right order, though I've not played a few at the beginning or end. Then again, FFVI is my favorite as well.

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  3. Excellent, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

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  4. FF VI was what actually got me hooked to the franchise! Locke x Celes ♥
    Anywho, I was getting scared that FF X-2 was missing at the start.
    After reading "2. Final Fantasy VII"
    I was like "oh shit. this can't be right.. I didn't even have it in me to play X-2 til the end!"
    But then, a pleasant surprise!
    My top 5 would have to be vii, vi, ix, viii, x..
    But I find myself fond of Lightning the most.

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  5. Nice
    Although I think XII deserves a higher spot

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  6. i completely agree with top one and two, but for top three id go with FF VIII or X :) just sayin :P

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    1. Pretty understandable. As I said, the top 4 are pretty much interchangeable, and no one game is massively better than the other. IV and X are definitely the likeliest to move around.

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