Without question, Final Fantasy is easily the most famous and prolific console RPG series of all time, introducing several generations of gamers to the concept of turn-based side by side battles as heroes attempt to overthrow kingdoms and protect magic crystals.
The coming next-gen remake of Final Fantasy 7 was one of the biggest pieces of news to land from E3 this year, but it's not all we have to look forward to, with the anticipated part 15 arriving next year and slated to shake up the formula quite a bit.
Ranking these games from best to worst is a monumental task, especially considering the sheer number of titles released since the first Final Fantasy way back 1987. To keep things manageable, here I'm focusing on base single player games in the main series, with two spin-offs included solely because of their iconic nature. The mobile phone games, spin-offs, sequels, MMORPGs, and Legend / Adventure titles on the Game Boy are all being left off this time around.
Even by culling all those extra games and whittling it down to the 14 titles included here, ranking them is harder than you'd think, as most of the Final Fantasy games have been re-released in alternate versions, some with major graphical and gameplay changes. The first game alone has come out in no less than 11 separate releases from the NES to the PlayStation to mobile phones and most recently for the 3DS.
For consistency's sake, these are all being ranked based on their original versions and not on the later re-creations.
Best: Final Fantasy 6
RPGs not only cut their teeth but really hit their stride on the SNES, with the cream of the crop on that beloved system easily Chrono Trigger... and Final Fantasy 6. Originally released as Final Fantasy 3 in North America, there's a whole era of kids who first experienced this legendary game under that title before RPGs were even close to mainstream. We may have been the nerd crowd, but we had something awesome no one else had caught onto yet.
Fast forward from 1994, and Final Fantasy 6 still stacks up today as a game worth playing that frankly beats out a lot of modern titles in terms of characters, story, music, and yes, even art style. To be honest, I don't think Squaresoft/Square Enix has ever released anything better on any of those fronts to this day. The quality of the soundtrack can't be overstated, as this is some of the best music Nobuo Uematsu has ever crafted.
That opera house scene is one of the best in gaming that still makes people tear up today, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The multi-part battle while defending Narshe, switching between three groups of characters separated across the continent, stealing mechs in the imperial camp, the ghost train, and the world getting completely and utterly destroyed half way through the game are all classic moments in gaming.
Every playable character had an interesting backstory as well as a unique combat ability that made them all play differently, but let's not discount the bad guys. Has there ever been an antagonist like Kefka? Turns out the insane clown was way more evil than the evil emperor he worked for, and he succeeded where every other villain failed in a quest to destroy the world and rule the ashes.
Final Fantasy Tactics
The only game to truly compete with Final Fantasy 6, this turn-based strategy take on traditional Final Fantasy lore is another one where the music and sound effects are major highlights. For a game featuring a more serious and dark tone than the rest of the entries in the series, the music really ramps up the tension and perfectly matches the art direction.
While the job-based class system and grid combat system are excellent, it's the story and characters that shine most brightly. It's a complex story but one that's still easily accessible, and it was a little daring for the time it was released in (when games were still considered “for kids”) with its openly anti-religious themes.
That bleak ending is perfect for the story being told as Ramza – who saved the world – gets branded a traitor and forgotten by history, while Delita – who is actually the villain – becomes king.
Final Fantasy 9
Capping off the golden era of PS1 releases, FF9 returned to actual fantasy territory after two games that strongly blended sci-fi and modern day elements into the mix.
Although there was lots of comic relief (particularly with the knight character Steiner), there's some gut-punching stuff in this story. Vivi's storyline is both thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, even when it's filled with adorable little guys in overly large hats.
Final Fantasy 9 is also notable for working summoned monsters into the actual main storyline, rather than just being these beings of massive power you casually pull out for any given random battle and then send away a few minutes later.
Final Fantasy 7
Age hasn't been kind to the most famous game in all Final Fantasy history, but it still remains a strong contender for the top spots, even if there's a whole lot of nostalgia influencing that positioning. Props also have to be given where they are due for introducing RPGs to a much wider western audience.
On the positive sides, who could forget cross dressing for a mob boss, chocobo racing, snowboarding at Gold Saucer, the absurdly long Knights Of The Round summon, or the excellent materia system?
On the downsides, the graphics are straight up ugly at this point, and the story was often bizarre and sometimes incomprehensible (it took me more than one playthrough as a kid to figure out just what the heck Cloud actually was and what his relationship to Zack was supposed to be).
Final Fantasy 12
This one may be a bit controversial ranking above others, as plenty of Final Fantasy fans straight up despise this game and would like to see it stricken from the franchise's history. Those fans are also wrong.
I'll grant you Vaan is somewhere between annoying and forgettable, and all the characters do oddly look too similar, but that's about where the criticisms end.
Gameplay-wise, FF12 is very solid and offered a satisfying experience capping the PS2 era as the consoles were about to change over. The map-based skill system was interesting to learn and play around with, while the completely redesigned combat was a fun change of pace, and unlocking all the monster entries offered a reason to keep playing previous areas.
Final Fantasy 4
Released as Final Fantasy 2 originally in North America, this is another game in the franchise that's completely iconic and remembered fondly but actually has a ton of flaws.
While I probably played this game a couple of dozen times as a kid, returning to it as an adult will cause more than a few cringes. Despite the memorable characters and fun gameplay, much of the dialog and plotting is flat-out bad (who can forget such heart felt insults as “You spoony bard?”). But hey, you get to fly a space whale to the moon!
This was also one of the earlier games to feature major character deaths that really stuck with you, as well as villains that you won't soon forget. The music from that battle against the dancing calcobrena dolls thoroughly creeped me out as a kid, and I can still hum it to this day.
If you want to return to the kingdom of Baron and see what happened with Rose and Cecil's kids, there was a direct sequel for the Wii (in the exact same original art style) released in episodic format, with each segment revolving around a different character.
This is where it all started, and whoever would have guessed the absolutely massive industry it spawned? Going back and playing it today there's a huge D&D influence to the first game (especially in the magic system) that many probably missed back then.
Needless to say, this is a very bare bones game where the formula hadn't been refined yet. Some of the classes were completely pointless, and the combat system was in need of serious polish (you could actually attack an empty space if another attack took down an enemy), but there's a nostalgia to be had here, especially in that distinctly '80s fantasy box art.
The witch Matoya's backwards talking broomsticks are also a little gem of gaming history that have been referenced in all kinds of media since those heady early days of console role-playing games.
Final Fantasy 8
Although the graphics improved and many new elements were added in, the characters just weren't as likable nor the story as engaging as Final Fantasy 8's groundbreaking predecessor. Adding in a card game was an interesting twist for a time when kids were still trading Pokemon cards at recess, providing an extra level of depth for those who spent the time learning its mechanics.
Some of the changes were hit or miss, as the game didn't just completely change the magic system, it even changed the menu system. Letting you swap out which three abilities you wanted was cool in theory, but it was annoying to decide whether you wanted magic or items for the next few battles.
The characters were sometimes amusing and charming... and sometimes just flat out annoying. I'm still split on which side of that divide Laguna lands when he gets a leg cramp while trying to muster the courage to chat up a sexy singer and then somehow gets her back to his hotel room but doesn't make a move.
Final Fantasy 5
While graphically pleasing (for the early SNES days anyway) and fleshing out the class system that would become very famous later on, there's actually a lot wrong with this game.
Taking place in a variety of worlds that only had a few quests each meant that huge areas were pointless, and it's easy to get lost without figuring out just where you are supposed to go. The game also gets fairly repetitive after a few hours, and it's worth mentioning that in the North American version your main character's name is, oddly, “Butz.”
Nobody in North America played it (legitimately anyway) for a long time due to the lack of an official release until much later on, so FF5 really missed its window to shine. Of course, everybody in the know had downloaded an English translation ROM way before Squaresoft figured out people actually wanted to play this game and gave it a proper stateside release.
Final Fantasy 10
As a kid who grew up on the excellent storytelling and very different art style of the SNES and PS1 days, I never developed the same emotional connection to the PS2 games the next generation of RPG lovers has, so frankly I'm not a big fan of this entry.
Swapping out characters directly in battle was neat and some of the characters had their moments, but overall this is one of the weaker entries in Final Fantasy history on most other fronts.
Adding underwater football also really didn't do anything for me, as I found myself wondering why I was learning Blitzball plays instead of battling monsters or saving the world...
Final Fantasy 3
Playing the original NES/Famicon versions of the first three games in the Final Fantasy franchise, the visual style is incredibly similar with only minor graphical tweaks. The major differences were instead in the leveling and class systems.
Final Fantasy 3 is where many of the iconic elements of the series that appear in every game originated, but, unfortunately, they were only gestating here and not fully developed. Lacking the nostalgia of the original or the more polished style of the SNES games to come, FF3 exists mostly as a curiosity to be explored to see how far the series has come.
For those who can't handle the simple graphics and clunky controls, updated 3D versions with gameplay tweaks came to the Nintendo DS, the PSP, and the PC.
Final Fantasy 2
Not many games open with your party getting utterly annihilated, so FF2 has that unique start going for it. Everywhere else it remains as difficult to get into as the first game in the series, but without the nostalgia factor since it didn't hit the U.S. until decades after its Japanese launch.
Final Fantasy 2 definitely has the most odd skill and leveling system for the series, improving your stats as you use them in battle or as you are hit by enemy attacks rather than as you gain experience points.
Even for its age, the game design wasn't the greatest, as you could literally walk into an area where you'd die immediately in every battle without any warning or prompting to stay away until reaching a higher level.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
Mystic Quest is one of the very few Final Fantasy games to never get a remake or re-release, and unfortunately there's a reason for that. The combat system switched to a different view more along the lines of Phantasy Star, and the story and characters were incredibly weak, mostly existing as vehicles for a never-ending string of monotonous battles.
Trudging through the constant onslaught of repetition becomes a serious chore that makes Mystic Quest hard to play for extended periods. Despite all that, I have to admit I still I have a soft spot in my heart for this red-headed stepchild of the FF series, mostly because of the many hours I put into it as a young 'un. And on the plus side, it's not Final Fantasy 13.
Worst: Final Fantasy 13
You know how everyone feels about Final Fantasy 12? That's how I feel about part 13. Seriously, this abomination needs to be nuked from orbit and then some men in black need to show up and wipe the disappointment of FF13 from our memories. This is the only game in the series I've actually put down in disgust and never had any desire to pick back up again. That's 10 hours I'll never get back.
The first entry for the PS3 / Xbox 360 era may have enhanced visuals, but absolutely everything else was a tragic misstep. The absolute bottom of the Final Fantasy barrel, XIII made the tragic mistake of losing composer Nobuo Uematsu and then gave the double whammy of actively annoying characters (Vanille is the worst thing to ever happen to gaming) and a truly uninteresting combat system.
No matter how badly FF15 gets nerfed, I take solace in knowing it can't be as bad as this entry in the series.
Final Fantasy XV is now on the horizon, and the highly anticipated remake of FF7 is coming as well, so there's no shortage of major releases arriving soon for RPG lovers.
If the huge number of releases up till this point are any indication, we probably have many, many more spin-offs and numbered titles still on the horizon as Square Enix experiments with the formula and heads in new directions.
What did you think of our picks, and what order would you have placed the best to worst ranking of Final Fantasy games?