Anyone who follows my work for the arcade or knows me for more than 5 minutes will probably know that I am a die-hard Final Fantasy fan. To clarify, when I say die-hard, I mean it in the most literal sense; my love for this franchise simply refuses to die. For every Final Fantasy that has pleased me, there has been one that has physically pained me and yet, like the pettiest of fanboy masochists, I find myself unable to let it go. Unable to write it off. There’s simply too much magnificence in the Final Fantasy lineage to dismiss it based one title. Or two. Or…three.
Subjective personal opinion aside, some people are occasionally just wrong and I didn’t get any of my many (imaginary) jobs in the media by being one of them. Final Fantasy fans can rarely agree on which one is ‘the best’ or ‘the worst’, as if such titles could possibly apply to over 30 games that span generations of players, hardware and evolving design philosophies. But hey, I’m nothing if not willing to put my neck on the line for the sake of some human interaction, so allow me to raise your tempers with my controversial, but absolutely correct, countdown of the 6 best and worst Final Fantasy games. And yes, they are ranked from bottom to top.
Needless to say, SPOILERS AHOY! You have been warned.
3: Final Fantasy VII
Already I can see fumes escaping fanboy ears but rest assured I, like you, LOVE Final Fantasy VII. It was a landmark moment for the series and, more importantly, for the medium as a whole. Not only was it the beginning of Squares relationship with the playstation brand (a relationship which gave us some of the finest JRPGs the world has, still, ever seen), it was also the beginning of Tetsuya Nomuras creative control over the series which proved so successful that it persists to this day. The characters were wonderful, the world felt rich and real, the soundtrack was stellar and perhaps most importantly, the storytelling was unyielding in its commitment to subtlety and fragility. Sure there are epic boss battles and heart-pounding action sequences but there are also moments of genuine suspense, such as waking up in Shinra HQ to find your cell has been mysteriously unlocked, presumably so you could follow that convenient and fucking terrifying trail of smeared blood; a terrifically creepy sequence that never really delivers a proper pay-off. And how did Square make us care about Cloud, a stoic, emotionless mercenary with no apparent principles? By showing us VERY early on that he wasn’t always so cynical. Less than one hour into FFVII we see our hardened bad ass protagonist as a child, sitting at a well with his best friend, oblivious to her naive, youthful affection but filled with determination to prove himself worthy of it. We didn’t care about Clouds sword, or is hair. We cared about his heart.
All that said, Final Fantasy VII is best regarded as what it was always supposed to be; a foundation. As magnificent as it was at the time (and to an extent still is) the fact is that Square (and other developers) have used its ideas and themes as a launching pad for other, significantly better games. There’s no denying VII its importance or its brilliance, but the best Final Fantasy it certainly is not.
2: Final Fantasy X
Disneys Mulan is, in my opinion, seriously underrated. Although considered by many to mark the end of the Disney renaissance, it is considered by many more to be a worthy, if somewhat experimental, addition to their canon. Final Fantasy X is the Mulan of its franchise. Following the incredible playstation 1 legacy squaresoft had left behind was never going to be easy and FFX, as the first Final Fantasy title to grace the Playstation 2, came with a lot of expectations. Sure, the voice acting was rough around the edges and it contains the single worst scene in Final Fantasy history (you all know what I’m talking about) but FFX did so much so well that I find it simply impossible to dislike. The battle system is beautiful and the Sphere Grid was a revelation, allowing more freedom of strategy than the series had ever seen before. The world of Spira was stunning, as was the world of Zanarkand, and my god, the show-boating spectacle of it all; holy jesus shit that tidal wave scene and Yunas ‘sending’ sequence are still some of the most brilliantly directed, beautifully designed cut-scenes ever. By focussing on religious and familial themes (as well as the then-obligatory Final Fantasy romance), FFX catered to a more mature audience than its predecessors and crafted a deep, intriguing world filled with characters that felt like real people. Let the haters hate, FFX, like Mulan, is a wonderful, unfairly maligned piece of work.
1. Final Fantasy IX
If I was to make a sweeping generalization (and I’m about to) I would say that there are basically only two types of Final Fantasy fans; those who love FFIX and those who loathe it. FFVII took the sci-fi lite feel of FFVI and ran with it for miles. This proved so successful that Square decided to run even further with it in Final Fantasy VIII and for long term fans it seemed as if that ‘Fantasy’ in the title had been long-forgotten. It’s undeniable that FFVII brought in hoards of new fans, understandably unaware of the franchises true fantasy roots and waiving those roots unapologetically in the faces of the oblivious playstation generation was a bold move on Squares part. Thankfully, many were able to see Final Fantasy IX for what it truly was and is; a masterpiece of the JRPG genre, a masterpiece in the medium and hands down, the best Final Fantasy game there has been to date.
Firstly; that ability system. Clothes and items come with abilities. Equip an item, leave it equipped until the ability has been learned, equip new item, repeat. Simple. Secondly; those characters. Instantly memorable, endlessly interesting and constantly developing based on the changing world around them. As someone with a major hard on for narrative in video games, I don’t consider it exaggeration to say that FFIX has some of the smoothest and most graceful character arcs the medium has ever seen. Thirdly; that soundtrack. Uematsu simply outdid himself on IX. Fourthly; That world. The towns and cities that make up Gaia are so rich with conversation, side-quests and sub-plots that secrets are still being discovered over a decade later. Only in FFIX can you spend your globe-trotting world-saving adventure also looking out for rare types of coffee to make a lonely old man happy. And how did FFIX deal with aging franchise archetypes like Summons and Job classes? By weaving them into the narrative, that’s how. The ability to summon is pretty much the cornerstone of the entire story. Vivis existence as a black mage is a pretty important plot point too. In FFIX, nothing feels arbitrary. Everything functions in a way that feels natural and satisfying.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, the father of Final Fantasy, is on record as saying that Final Fantasy IX is his favorite of the series. Nobuo Uematsu has made similar statements about its score. I know I’m being a dick about it, but when two of the most influential figures to ever work on the franchise can agree on what is objectively the best one, that should be pretty difficult to argue with.
3. Final Fantasy XII
As we have established, FFX was pretty awesome but when what followed were the almost-irrelevant MMO FFXI and the disastrous FFX-2 (more on that coming), things started to look pretty bleak for FF fans. At least until the first batch of screenshots for XII came along. It looked incredible. It looked like a total overhaul, a total re-invention, a new beginning and a fitting swansong for the franchises Playstation 2 days. It would be easy therefore to assume that FFXII was destined to fail under the weight of fan expectation, that we never gave it a chance, that we judged it based on what came before and not on its own merits. Easy, but incorrect. The fact of the matter is that although XII is far from the worst in the series, it’s remarkable only for how wholly unremarkable it actually is.
Although the open world was a relatively welcome change from the linear corridors of X and X-2 in theory, in practice it backfired worse than a 95 nissan micra made of matches and kindling. The abundance of open space robbed the game of a vital narrative focus and thus made it difficult to care about the characters involved. Despite boasting some of the best character designs in FF history (and Balthier, the only man in the FF universe who might be more charming than Zidane), the lackluster politically charged plot just wasn’t interesting enough to make them memorable. FFXII had the potential to be so much more than an over-complicated, directionless mess and yet, that’s exactly what we got.
2. Final Fantasy X-2
Okay so I mentioned a little while ago that FFX contains the absolute worst scene in Final Fantasy history. I’d be willing to bet that most of you know what I’m referring to, but for those who don’t, allow me to enlighten you. Just don’t hate me for it afterwards.
Take what you just saw, attach it to an RPG-platformer hybrid with an admittedly fun battle system, throw in some baffling casual misogyny and you’ve basically got Final Fantasy X-2; a totally superfluous celebration of fucking terrible ideas, regretfully related in name to a modern day classic. All the emotional weight of FFX is gone. Oh sure, they try to imitate it, but thats what it feels like; an imitation. X-2 follows two of the female characters from FFX, Yuna and Rikku as they attempt to do….something, its not really clear, with their kind-of androgynous friend, Paine, named rather aptly because that’s pretty much all X-2 ever gave me. Progressive you might think, yes? Well no. Firstly because FF had already seen a female protagonist (Terra, FFVI) two generations ago and secondly because the heroic, mature, learned summoner from FFX has been given a super-sexy makeover and now attacks her foes not with wondrous monsters summoned from the heavens, not with her honorable ghandi-esque principles, but with guns. Guns. Click click boom fucking guns.
I know X-2 has its fans, I know that, but I will never understand why. The dress-sphere system is interesting, sure. But the simple fact remains that FFX did not need a sequel. The ending to FFX is one of the most emotionally poignant in the history of the medium. It’s perfect. It’s bittersweet, powerful, upsetting and inspiring all at once. By the time the credits finished rolling, my life had been changed in a way that only art can achieve. We had watched Yuna, the true star of the game by the way, grow from a docile servant of yevon to a defiant political heroine. We cared about her. We cried with her as Tidus vanished into the ether. We stood with her as she delivered her final speech, and if you’re like me, cried again afterward. X-2 was not just an unnecessary sequel, it was the worst type of sequel; one that retro-actively damages and disrespects its origin.
1. Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy VIII has a lot in common with the other games in this list, both the good and the bad. It took the sci-fi aesthetic of VII and refined it into something with a cleaner look and broader appeal. In stark contrast to FFX-2 it would appear to treat its female characters with the type of respect that Anita Sarkeesian would so easily overlook. It avoids XIIs emptiness by moving the story along at a decent pace and it’s score is, unsurprisingly, magical. However, for every step FFVIII takes forward, it catapults backwards as if attached to its deadweight via bungee chord. Put simply, FFVIII is terrible.
Sure, its a better looking game than VII. But in shaving all the rough edges off VIIs gritty cyperpunk world, VIII created a world built on pure artifice where nothing felt real. The locations felt pristine but plastic, with no stories to unearth and no secrets to discover. Secondly, while the story moves at a decent pace, there’s really not much very much story there for the characters to carry. Which is probably for the best, as the main problem with FFVIII lies with its protagonist, Squall, who couldn’t carry a plot if it came equipped with easy-grip handles. Squall is presented from the outset as a moody, sullen ingrate with no people skills, no desire to interact and no awareness of just how fucking horrible he is to be around. He’s the type of friend you’d feel bad for snubbing on a night out, until you were wishing he was dead after ten minutes in his presence. What’s worse is, although the women in this story are presented as strong and independent; a teacher, a soldier and a rebel leader, their strength is undermined completely by the fact that they are all inexplicably enamored with Squall. They basically throw themselves at him for friendship, leadership and romance (in that order) and the chap just cant find any fucks to give. He’s not even looking for fucks. Squall cant give enough of a fuck to go and look for fucks to give. He’s an unlikeable asshole, without justification, that I found impossible to empathize with on any level.
But Squall is only one problem. Junction is the most ridiculously complex, unintuitive ability system the franchise has ever seen. By allowing any party member to perform any spell or ability, their character development is left entirely to the plot, which is too busy trying to handle its own incoherency to deal with any wayward character arcs, so there are major characters and plot points in FFVIII that just feel thrown in for the sake of padding out the games length. The gameplay, plot and characters never manage to connect and by the time they’re slammed clumsily together by a completely retarded plot twist late into the 4th disc, it’s already too late. The game might as well be over. 5 arbitrary boss fights later, it, thankfully, is.
There’s a rule that’s generally accepted within the Final Fantasy community; your favorite Final Fantasy is usually the first one you play. Final Fantasy is a franchise that has been consistently unique, even amongst its imitators, and for those who give themselves over to these distant worlds it is more often than not, an emotional experience and one not easily forgotten. So if you disagree with my choices, ask yourself if you fall in line with that rule. Regardless of what me or anyone else thinks, your first Final Fantasy is special and no one can take that away from you.
And who knows, Final Fantasy XV could very well make this list completely irrelevant. A new generation is about to begin and Final Fantasy is born again.