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Ranking 30 Years of Final Fantasy

So many crystals, chocobos, and moogles, all in one place!


This game is at the bottom of the list because it represents an anomaly in the series. While the Final Fantasy XIV that exists today is a far superior game (and much higher on this list), the original launch of the game was a disaster of monumental proportions. It seems almost inconceivable that a massively multiplayer role playing game (MMORPG) that was developed and released after World of Warcraft (and even Square Enix’s own Final Fantasy XI Online) would have little to no design decisions based on the pros and cons of those previous games. Version 1.0 was aesthetically beautiful, but devoid of interesting quest design, penalized players for spending too much time in the game, and had boring, empty environments that reused assets en masse. This version of Final Fantasy XIV was so poorly received that Square Enix suspended monthly fees for nearly an entire year, and began developing the game’s successor while simultaneously adding features and content to the 1.0 release.


For the many reasons listed above, you can see why this game ranks at the bottom of my list. While it is true that the game became more interesting and fully featured as the launch of A Realm Reborn loomed, I only put a total of about twenty hours into it across a few different characters. As a huge fan of Final Fantasy XI, the first version of XIV simply didn’t fit the bill for me. 


Final Fantasy II came out during those heady early days of the Nintendo Entertainment System where sequels to popular games played fast and loose with game mechanics and visual style. Games like Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Final Fantasy II really stretched the idea of what a second game in a series could be. FF II in particular makes so many bold choices that little of the game resembles the 1987 title it’s connected to. Instead of a hand picked party of characters that fill specific job roles, the cast of Final Fantasy II have names and personalities, but are blank slates in terms of ability. Characters do not gain experience points, which sets this game apart from the rest of the series. Instead, party members improve in skills that they use the most. Swinging a sword improves sword ability and attack, while using cure spells improves that spell’s effectiveness as well as adding to the character’s magic point pool. It was a gamble that paid off in Japan, but the West wouldn’t see this game until the release of Final Fantasy Origins for the PlayStation.


This is the only game on this list that I actively dislike. The battle and leveling system is broken in such a way that I didn’t even find it fun to exploit, mainly because the path to victory seems to involve having everyone duel wielding melee weapons, right up until the end stages where magic suddenly becomes super important. Having the freedom to level each character as you see fit is an interesting idea that would be cool to see revisited someday, but the implementation here is poor. In the same vein, the characters and story are quite forgettable; I have played through this game twice and can recite very little of what occurs during the adventure. As such, I recommend Final Fantasy II only to fans of the series that want to experience every title in the franchise. 


Final Fantasy XV will likely go down in history as the most infamous game in the series, not for its gameplay or characters, but because of its now legendary development cycle. First announced way back in 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, it was originally supposed to be a spinoff to Final Fantasy XIII, the first FF game of the seventh console cycle. Directed by Tetsuya Nomura (character designer on FF VII, VIII, Kingdom Hearts, etc.), the title quickly fell into developmental limbo. After the first trailer, very little of the game was shown, and for years fans and games press were wondering what, exactly, the game was supposed to be. Rumors would say that even Nomura wasn’t quite sure, as one of his ideas was to make the game into a musical. Eventually, the game was given to a new director, Hajime Tabata, rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, and full development finally kicked in. Somehow, despite all the setbacks, Final Fantasy XV found critical and commercial success in 2016 when it was finally released.


So, I honestly don’t understand that critical and commercial success. I gave the game 3.5 stars for PixlBit, but the more I think about the game the more I find to dislike about it. The story is meandering and nonsensical, the world is needlessly huge but empty (even if it is gorgeous), and the battle system is by far the worst in the series. I kept going because of the wonderful main cast of characters, the stunning visuals, and what may be one of the best soundtracks in the series, but my complaints about the game outnumber my compliments at this point.


I should note that, as of this writing, the battle system is about to get a massive overhaul, allowing players to switch between all four characters, who each have their unique abilities and mechanics now. This could drastically improve my enjoyment of the game, especially since they have been tweaking the story over time as well, so this is one I’ll likely revisit in another year. 


Much like Final Fantasy XV, the thirteenth entry in the series had its share of developmental woes. The advent of high definition development seemed to take its toll on Japanese developers, and Square Enix certainly had a devil of a time with the creation of the White Engine, which powered Final Fantasy XIII. The finished product was, of course, a thing of beauty to look at, but it ended up coming out a full four years after Final Fantasy XII, which was one of the largest gaps between releases for the franchise. Featuring a far more linear design than most games in the series and a fast-paced battle system that put a premium on snap decisions versus strategic thinking, Final Fantasy XIII became one of the more divisive FF games.


I often think of Final Fantasy XIII and XV in the same space, and my feelings on them are very similar. Both games have bonkers stories that I could do without, but I enjoy the characters immensely (yes, even Hope and Vanille!). Both games are stunningly beautiful, but have environmental issues. XV is too big and empty, while XIII is too constrained and industrial until close to the end. When it comes to ranking the Final Fantasy series, I give XIII a bit of a nudge past XV because I enjoy the battle system more. While it’s true that the focus is on issuing auto commands, the need to change jobs on the fly to buff the party or weaken the enemy is quite compelling to me. At the end of the day, though, this is one Final Fantasy I am not likely to revisit anytime soon. 


For many years, Final Fantasy III was the big mystery in the series for many of us. Released on the Famicom in Japan back in 1990, the game would not see the light of day in the West until a DS remake hit store shelves in 2006. The DS release was a vastly different game than what Japan originally received, with named individual characters replacing the blank slates of the original release. This obviously has a direct bearing on the story, so it’s almost impossible to compare “our” version of FF III with the original without delving into fan translations and emulation. The biggest addition to the Final Fantasy legacy here is the job system; players can outfit their characters with classic jobs like warrior or black mage, and eventually find more advanced classes like dragoon and dark knight. This flexibility adds a lot of variety and tactics to the battle system.


For my part, Final Fantasy III is a perfectly adequate RPG. I’m sure if I had played it when it was new (I didn’t get my Super Nintendo until 1994, after all), I would have been impressed by the sheer amount of choice in the gameplay. It probably would have been a bit too much for me, to be honest. That was one of the reasons it wasn’t released here originally, on top of the fact that we had already received the first game three years late. Since I experienced a completely remade version of the game long after I had played the best games in the series, Final Fantasy III sits as an interesting bit of history, but I find it far less interesting to play. 


Like Final Fantasy II and III before it, Final Fantasy V remained something of a mystery to the West for a long time. With the Japanese and Western release dates out of line by as much as three years, the second Super Nintendo era game was originally deemed to be too difficult for players outside of Japan. If that infuriates you, it was a common practice in these days. Final Fantasy IV (II on the SNES) was significantly toned down in its difficulty, and this was one of the reasons why III also didn’t make it over. While V almost made it to these shores under the name Final Fantasy Extreme, North American players wouldn’t get access to the refined job system until the release of Final Fantasy Anthology for the PlayStation. In terms of the game itself, Final Fantasy V scaled way back from the huge cast of characters from the previous game, in favor of four static party members that could change between a multitude of jobs. It was a much deeper iteration of Final Fantasy III, including a richer narrative and, of course, far superior graphics and sound.


If there hasn’t been a controversial placing on this list yet, this will be the one. Final Fantasy V is the only game in the series I haven’t finished, and I have tried. I have tried so many, many times. Something about this game makes me bounce off of it by the twenty-hour mark. It’s partly the yawn inducing characters and partly what I feel is a vastly inferior soundtrack when compared to the other SNES releases, but I keep wondering if that has more to do with the emulation on the translated versions than anything else. Be that as it may, I am determined to finish this game one day. Now that I own the original Super Famicom cartridge I intend to try playing it with a fan translation patch and see if that changes my opinion on it. 

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Cary Woodham

01/06/2018 at 12:46 AM

My favorite FF games are FF6, FF4, and FF9.

FF6 is on my list of my top five favorite games of all time.

Even though I had played FF1 and Dragon Warrior on the NES, FF4 is the game that got me into RPGs.

FF9 is what FF7 and 8 should've been.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

01/18/2018 at 09:18 PM

FF IV was technically my first RPG too. I played just a teensy bit of FF I at a friend's house, and when I saw the SNES game for rent I convinced my cousin to take a chance on it. We instantly fell in love.


01/08/2018 at 08:02 PM

I played some of the first FF and forget what I thought of it. Then I played FF IV and loved that, although, I didn't beat it, yet. I've always meant to get more into FF even when I bought FFXII and didn't get more than a few hours into it, being baffled by the battle system. I think I might try and get into some of these later this year when I revisit '87-91. That would be FFI-IV.  I'll take your advice and try and get that GBA version of FFI, but maybe it's downloadable on PS4? I know it was a in PSOne Classics on PS3 a while back. Oh wait. . . I just realized I still have the NES cart. Phew. That one's taken care of. 

The Last Ninja

01/08/2018 at 11:36 PM

I grew up with FF II and III (IV and VI). I have tons of nostalgia for those games, especially VI. I've beaten FF III, VI, and IX. FFVI is my favorite RPG, the story, characters, and music are all incredible. I've gotten very close to beating FFI and IV, but they get quite brutal at the end! 

It's ironic that some gamers thought FFIX wasn't "a true Final Fantasy game" when in reality, FFVII and VIII were far removed from what a FF game was. Love the series on a whole! 

Super Step Contributing Writer

01/14/2018 at 01:21 PM

I didn't know FFV was held in such high esteem, since I never hear about it. 

Julian Titus Senior Editor

01/18/2018 at 09:19 PM

FF V is the "intellectual" best game in the series, the one that fans of will use to thumb their nose at people like me who don't care for it as much. 


01/18/2018 at 10:09 PM

retronauts did a neat episode about FF V.  Their 'expert' guest wrote a book on FF V from Boss Fight Books.  It sounds fantastic form a mechanics standpoint, but only okay on the story side.

Julian Titus Senior Editor

01/20/2018 at 02:17 PM

I just bought that book recently and am lookung forward to reading it!


01/20/2018 at 07:04 PM

I have the book as well.  Can't wait to read it

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