Saturday, 3 November 2012

Top 10 Final Fantasy Games

I love Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy has been my go-to franchise for just about as long as I have played video games, and this is true for many RPG fans. As the years march on Final Fantasy has become a shadow of what it once was, but many people, myself included, can look back on decades of history with fondness. Anyways, that doesn't really have a whole lot to do with where I'm going here. One of the things I think is so interesting about Final Fantasy is that typically each game feels radically different from the one before without actually making that many big changes. As a result of this and the pure number of Final Fantasy games out there, people tend to have very different opinions on each game. I always find it really interesting talking to people I know about which ones they liked and which they did not, and why. That's where this post comes in.

Now before I go on, the title to this post is a lie. This list contains 14 titles, and is in fact just an ordered list of all the "main series" Final Fantasy games from worst to best. "Top 10 Final Fantasy Games" just sounds a lot better, and more accurately conveys my intent than "All the Final Fantasy Main Series Games in Order from Worst to Best". Also I included Final Fantasy X-2 and XIII-2 largely because I feel they are too often neglected, and are perhaps some of the more interesting games in the series to examine.

Also obviously keep in mind that any "top list" is going to be very subjective. Especially when talking about old games, I find a person's opinions depends a lot on how they feel at the time. I'm sure I could do this list every month and decide on a different order every time.  The point is more to just give a quick run through of my thoughts on each game, anyways. Because I tend to get very rambly I will try to keep each summary concise, but that will surely fail so I apologize for what will undoubtedly be a titanic post. Then again if you're like me and you could discuss Final Fantasy all day, then maybe you don't mind so much.


It kind of sucks putting Final Fantasy at the bottom of the list. After all it's a game that we owe an unimaginable amount of credit to. Of course we owe a lot to games like Dragon Quest and Phantasy Star as well, but this is a list about Final Fantasy. Even to this day the ability to customize your party is pretty novel, and creates a surprising amount of variety and replay value for such a simple game. In the end though, I think that's all it really has going for it. Final Fantasy suffers incredibly from what I call "Oldschool RPG Syndrome", more so than almost any game I've ever played. Very little storyline and worse, player direction, insane encounter rate, bad balance, unfair enemies, the whole shebang.

It doesn't hold up very well today unless you are looking for a nostalgia kick. Even then I know a lot of people who will play it for 10 minutes and then remember all the things wrong with the game. Even modern remakes don't remedy most of the problems. Although when it comes to that we start to get into the matter of what can and can't be fixed while staying true to the original game. But that is a topic for another day. We owe Final Fantasy a lot, but it's more valuable for it's legacy than for what it itself has to offer.


Final Fantasy III has always been one of the oddest Final Fantasy games to me. By rights I should love it. I'm a huge fan of class systems like the one FFIII has. I very much enjoy having that level of customization on a party-wide level. Yet I just couldn't ever get into Final Fantasy III. I was so excited when I heard the game was being released on the DS, I practically bought a DS just for that (and then sat on it for a year before any games actually came out). It's not like it's even a bad game, I can't really pinpoint one exact thing about it that turned me off or a point where I lost interest.

I think what it comes down to is just that the game never hooked me. The story of four random orphans just doesn't pull me in and make me care about these people or their world. Even playing the DS version, a modern remake of the game, I felt like the story was even more random and stilted than the first two games on the NES. The advent of the class system was clearly a very good thing for the series, but that's about the only thing worth while to come out of this one if you ask me.


Final Fantasy II is a game that I want desperately to like more than I do. Unfortunately like the past two games on this list, it just suffers a lot from originally being a NES title. The fact of the matter is that there is only so much you can do with the technology of the time. None the less Final Fantasy II was an incredibly daring title. Unfortunately games that strike out so boldly tend to be really interesting, but not particularly good. Or at least not widely liked. Final Fantasy II defnitely falls into the first category though.

FFII features the kind of leveling system I tend to like. I'm a big fan of small incremental stat boosts, especially when those boosts are determined by the actions you actually take. I get a lot of joy out of planning what I want each character to specialize in, especially when those specialties are born directly from actions and not just decisions. The game also had a surprisingly good story which is actually quite engaging if you pay attention. Especially surprising considering how small the script is. Sadly the game had major balance issues and is virtually unplayable unless you have the patience to grind for a long time (long even for an oldschool game), or know exactly what you are doing. Even grinding requires knowing how to do it right.


Yes you are seeing this right. Final Fantasy XIII-2 just barely edges out the 8-bit Final Fantasy games. If I'm totally honest the game probably doesn't deserve to be this low on the list. It does do a lot of things right, and it fixes pretty much every issue that existed with Final Fantasy XIII. The fact of the matter is however, that FFXIII-2 is the only game I can think of that I actually felt vindictively angry at. I had huge expectations for this game, and for a while it was meeting them. The more I played though the worse it got. In the end I strongly believe that despite the issues it fixed, it created many more, and even bigger problems.

The plot is utterly ridiculous, the world is disjointed and unimmersive, the game is incredibly easy, there is no "end game" content that isn't just makework, the puzzles were either lame or frustrating, the quests and NPC interaction was dull and lifeless, the character progression system was unintuitive and punishing to the uninformed... On top of all that the ending was insulting and uninformative, the DLC felt money grubbing and seemed to be made at the expense of the base game, and the only likeable characters were purposefully reserved for said DLC. It's the only Final Fantasy game that I actually advise people not to play. I could point out some specific positives and then rant for quite a while longer, but it's time we moved on. If you are interested, I posted several thoughts on the game back when it first came out (1, 2, 3)


I feel like Final Fantasy VIII was probably the most controversial entry into the entire series. I know a lot of people who hate it, but I know a lot who love it as well. I have a hard time understanding what people love about it though, honestly. It did some great things, don't get me wrong. I know a lot of people who spent ridiculous numbers hours on end playing the car battle system and ignoring the rest of the game. Laguna was a really fun and likable character (unlike about 80% of the game's cast, if not more so) and there are a handful of absolutely stunning songs. Say what you will about the game, I will defend Man with the Machine Gun to the end of time. Which, by the way, is Laguna's battle theme. Why is Laguna so much more awesome than the rest of the game?

On the whole though, I feel like it tried to be very different, and failed. Striving to be unique and new is certainly admirable, but unfortunately it back fires sometimes. The junction/magic system is broken and awkward (though, it definitely had potential). The plot was... I don't even know. The experience system is just straight up bad design. What kind of game makes leveling super easy, but punishes you for leveling up? Ultimately it's a game that can be pretty fun and offers a lot of flexibility and new idea, but it has some very glaring flaws in the worst of places.  If you can't see past some pretty big issues (or you leveled up to 100 at the start of the game like a lot of people I know did) this game just rubs the wrong way.


My experience with Final Fantasy XII was actually somewhat curious, but I don't think it was an uncommon outcome. At first I found it to be quite fun. I still love how seamless the gameplay is, and I think that is a very good goal to strive for in any game. It does a very good job of pulling you into the game experience. Once you're there though, things feel somewhat bland. The story is incredibly forgettable, and with one or two exceptions the characters were mind numbingly boring. Vaan is easily one of the worst protagonists ever. Oh how I wish he was a silent protagonist. Actually, that goes for half the cast.

I found it was a lot of fun to "program" my party (ironic, being as I am now a programmer), but it's a bit of a flawed concept. It's something you do once, and the game isn't usually diverse enough that you have to ever really tweak it. The result is a game where you basically just move your avatar place to place and let the AI do everything for you. Unsurprisingly the lack of actually doing anything combined with massive sprawling (usually uninteresting and samey) areas makes for a game that gets less interesting the longer you play. A formula for anti-success if ever I saw one!


Oh Final Fantasy XIII... I wish so much that you were a better game. I actually enjoyed you more than most, but I admit freely that you were a deeply flawed game. After such a long development cycle I expected so much, but alas. Perhaps that was the problem, but high expectations certainly don't excuse mediocre games. Your hallways were long and narrow, your world felt strangely shallow and unexplored, your characters weren't very likeable, your plot kind of convoluted and illogical... You had a really good soundtrack and some fun fast-paced combat, though. In fact the combat really was all you have going for you. I mean sure the graphics are real pretty, but that only gets you so far.

You sacrificed so much in the name of creating a good narrative, but forgot to make a good narrative. You focused so intently on your cast of flat characters, when all I really wanted to learn about and explore was the world. Your world seemed interesting! Why didn't you let me explore the world! I mean, the world outside of that one hallway, and the other hallway. I still believe there is the potential for much greatness in you. Your sequel was f*&#ing terrible, but perhaps Lightning Returns can finally show people what you are really made of.


I've always struggled quite a bit with how exactly to rank Final Fantasy IV. It was the first Final Fantasy game I ever played, and while I had played other RPGs before it, I always consider it the game that shaped the gamer I have become. So you can imagine that it is very hard to be objective when looking at the game. It doesn't help that it feels like a game that does absolutely nothing special, and yet I can't help but love it. I think that my mind immediately attributes that cognitive dissonance to nostalgia. It's a very hard line to draw, at least for those who actually put the effort into trying to stay objective anyways.

I do think there is something more to it though. Even by today's standards I think Final Fantasy IV is a very polished, well paced experience that tells a very touching, epic tale. It's plot and characters are certainly more interesting than most of the games that came before it on this list. It's also a surprisingly cinematic game that just draws you into what is actually a pretty straightforward and by the book tale. It was a technological marvel at the time it was released too, but that doesn't mean much any more. If you want a more in depth look at my thoughts, feel free to go to the place that these blue colored words will lead you.


I feel like Final Fantasy X-2 is a game that is frequently just dismissed out of hand. People see it as fan service, a cash in, girly, whatever. I have a hard time blaming them, it really does feel like all of these things. At the same time though it's hard to ignore the solid facts. If you can see past the airy, overly-sappy plot, the game is actually pretty darn good. Most of the game is extremely light hearted and upbeat, which is a very nice change of pace from your average JRPG. Even a game like Disgaea is doused in sad themes, but somehow FFX-2 manages to feel happy-go-lucky despite it's melodrama.

The soundtrack contributes a lot as well. While the songs aren't as objectively good and memorable as your average Nobuo Uematsu masterpiece, they are still very catchy. It's very big game full of things to do and discover, and a part of me just gets some sick joy out of hunting down every possible completion percentage. The biggest complaint I honestly have about the game is that the class system is a little too freeform. Yea sure ok I guess they want you to change costumes a lot, but it would be kind of nice if someone who spent 80 levels as a Thief was a better thief than someone who had been a Thief for 2 levels. I want gameplay, I don't want to play dress up  Ultimately though, I think it was the last truly good Final Fantasy game. Which, is actually pretty sad.


I think Final Fantasy V is the best example on this list of what I mentioned at the start of the post. My opinion of it has changed a lot over time. There was a time when I thought it was very mediocre. I actually tried picking it up a few times and ended up putting it back down very early on. After making a point of playing through it, and now that I am more able to look at it with a critical eye, I see a lot more value in it though. It actually  has the best class system of any of the main series games. Although that isn't really saying much when your only competition is Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy X-2.

The class system is a surprisingly deep system that really tickles the part of my brain that obsesses over planning long-term, customization and optimization. Plus it has Gilgamesh and Clash on the Big Bridge. It may be a 16-bit game but that scene is still one of the most epic things ever created if you ask me. I don't much care for the rest of the story, though. That's not to say it's bad, I just feel as though it isn't as endearing or epic as Final Fantasy games tend to be. My biggest gripe with the game is probably just that too many of the classes are over or under powered, limiting the viable options for someone concerned with min/maxing their party.


Final Fantasy IX occupies a very strange place in my heart. When I first played it, I kind of hated it. Something about it just felt like it was trying too hard to be epic without really doing anything to build fun. However I gradually grew to like it more as I played. As it turns out, it actually is very epic, and really feels like a classic by design. Every character has some interesting internal conflicts that make them endearing, and following the small disaster that was Final Fantasy VIII, FFIX is a real return to form. There's a special place in my heart for a classic medieval fantasy RPG, and Final Fantasy IX is unfortunately the last one to do it (well).

What's strange about it though, is that I actually feel like despite being an objectively good game, I find it kind of hard to play these days. The biggest thing that makes it so is simply the battles. For whatever reason, battles feel like they are very slow, and slow battles are less interesting. I also feel like the antagonists aren't really up to the standard of the protagonists. The way the bad guys are portrayed is good, but their character as a whole just makes it seem like they are just evil because why not. Not in a good way like say, Kefka, either. We don't speak about the last boss. On the whole though, the game is simple, but very very elegant, eking out lots of subtle advantages here and there.


Oh Final Fantasy VII... Of all the Final Fantasy titles out there, this is the one I like to talk about the least. It just seems like everyone has very strong feelings about it one way or the other and it always just leads to arguing. Many people seem to give it way too much credit ("fanboys" if you will). Similarly, I feel like it has become "fashionable" to hate on the game. I tend to think it gets a lot of credit just because it was the first Final Fantasy, perhaps even RPG to really break into the mainstream market, at least on consoles. As such it was a lot of peoples' entry points into both the series and the genre.

 As for the game itself, I love the concept of the Materia system (though it's implementation feels a little lacking). The story is batshit crazy, but when I'm playing I just don't really care. The game has a way of pulling you into the world and never letting go. The pacing, the music, the gameplay, the smoothness/polish. Honestly, I'm a little surprised it made it so far up the list, usually I relegate it to the middle somewhere in some rebellious attempt to fight the fanboys. It definitely deserves a high ranking though. I think what does it in the end is that it's simply fun and engaging from beginning to end, and everything you do always feels like it's important. It's a rare breed of game in which you can pick it up at any time, any point in the game, and have fun. Well... Unless you're at that part in Mideel with Cloud's acid trip fever dream.


Final Fantasy VI has become the go-to favorite for most people who don't claim FFVII as their one true god. I very nearly identify with this crowd. Final Fantasy VI is an amazingly stellar game, and it's dedication to narrative is virtually unmatched. It took the still-limited resources available to the SNES and said screw it, I'm going to blow your minds anyways. It's astounding to think how well fleshed out and likable they manged to make such a huge cast of characters, despite the surprisingly small amount of screen time / dialogue they each get. Plus, the world actually ends. How often do you play a game where the world actually ends? And not only does it end, but you have to fight your way back from adversity tooth and nail. You delve into the psyche of each character, experience their deepest demons, and instill the world with hope with your actions.

There are very few, if any games that have this much power to fill the player with so many emotions. The sound track helps a ton as well, and as someone who has seen several of it's songs performed by a live orchestra including the Opera, with vocals by professional opera singers and Dark World, performed by Nobuo Uematsu himself, I feel especially qualified to make that statement. Although I'm mostly just bragging. The gameplay is good, it's not great but it has a ton of masterful little subtle things that it does. The plot, cast and world are really what drive this game in a way that perhaps no other game ever has.


Final Fantasy X seems like a weird pick for my favorite in the mains series. It certainly doesn't seem like a common opinion (for what little that matters) and a lot of people seem to rather vehemently dislike the game. I guess I simply tend to look for value in different places than these people. FFX definitely has a lot of problems though. At any reate, there are two things in particular that make this game for me. The first is the sphere grid. I mentioned way back when I was talking about FFII how I like incremental stat gains, and in this regard the sphere grid is king. I love the feel of constant growth and customization.

The other thing that gets me is the game's world. I don't think any other world has pulled me in quite like Spira does. I think what does it for me is simply the fact that we as players get to explore and discover Spira along with Tidus. It's this big, colorful, exotic, strange, wonderful, terrible place and Tidus goes through the same emotions as the player does as we discover the world, learn it's horrible truths, and see them changing. It's a very powerful narrative device. Of course Tidus is pretty annoying and goofy (HA HA HA HA HA!), but his job isn't really to be likable  His job is to be a vessel the mirror's the player themselves.

Just as a bonus, because this is the top game, I would also like to say some stuff about the International Version of the game. If you weren't aware, in North America we got the original version of the game, same as Japan. However when the game was released in PAL regions a new international version was made, but NA never got their hands on it. If you can play it on an emulator or on a modded console, I highly recommend it.

There are 3 reasons for this. First, the master sphere grid. The international version of the game gives you the option to use the master sphere grid, which is specifically made to be significantly less restrictive than the grid in the base game. This does so many unimaginably wonderful things to the gameplay, it feels like the sphere grid the way I always wished it had been. It can make parts of the game a lot harder however, so be warned. The second reason is for the bonus content. The international version of the game contains some small balance changes, as well as access to a series of super bosses called the Dark Aeons, and ultimately the ungodly Penance. These bosses take significantly more planning and strategy than anything in the base game, and really take full advantage of the customizable equipment that the base game never really capitalizes on fully. And Finally (maybe most importantly), the Japanese voice overs.

I've never really been one who cares significantly about English vs Japanese voice over when it comes to games or anime or what have you. The Japanese voice actors for Final Fantasy X absolutely slaughter the English cast, though. Some scenes aren't as funny (Ride ze Shoopuff?), and most of the awkward scenes are still quite awkward. Pretty much every scene with serious emotion behind it, actually feels emotional though. The English characters seem incredibly flat in comparison. The Japanese characters feel so much more full of emotion, and it really makes you feel the weight of Spira's dark secrets. It's hard to verbalize how huge a difference this makes. If you are familiar with the scene in the Al Bhed Home in which Tidus learns the truth about the Summoners' Pilgrimmages, I suggest watching this video. It totally changes the tone of the game for me. I could rave about this for a long time, but  I think that's a good place to stop for today.

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