Back in 1987, producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and small time company called Square developed and published a last-ditch effort in the form of a computer role-playing game for the Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. This humble little nod to Dungeons & Dragons and the Ultima series is called Final Fantasy. It was a huge success, saved the company, and the rest as they say, is history.
30 years on, we now have a heckaton of Final Fantasy sequels and spin-offs. To celebrate the release of Final Fantasy XV, we shall review every one of these games in a brief fashion.
Which ones are great and stand the test of time? Which ones should be left in the abyss of time and space where Ultimecia likes to chill?
Just some ground rules: we are only including the mothership games, subseries like Crystal Chronicles and Dissidia, and spin-offs. Also, the ratings are given based on practicality: if there’s a better version of an older entry, the older entry may get a bad rating.
-The Late 80’s to 90’s-
Final Fantasy (NES/Famicom)
You can never forget your first. This Final Fantasy started everything; from the four-man party system where you decide character classes at the start, to the long-spanning quest to preserve order from the forces of Chaos. Sure, the interface is super-clunky but if you must play the very first game in its challenging state, you can’t go wrong with the NES version.
Final Fantasy II (NES/Famicom)
Square opted for a story-based approach here, with character classes set in stone and players given a pre-determined party that switches its roster throughout the long adventure. FFII is also known for introducing the hero archetypes in RPGs.
Unfortunately, the game’s leveling and character progression system is so obtuse and broken that you can actually have your heroes attack one another in the same battle and be super powered beyond belief.
Final Fantasy III (NES/Famicom)
This title introduced the revolutionary class-switching Job System and is filled with challenging boss fights and dungeon crawls. But this version hasn’t aged well; why settle for this version when you can play the superior remake on the Nintendo DS? The latter improved the user interface, the pacing, and the barely-there story so much that it’s hard to recommend going back to the original source.
Final Fantasy Adventure (Game Boy)
Yes, we are aware that this is originally the prequel to Secret of Mana back in Japan, but we’re just following our “FF in title” rules here. This action-RPG gem was impressive for its time thanks to its meter-charging combat gameplay, multiple weapons & items system, and dungeon design.
The Final Fantasy Legend (Game Boy)
The SaGa series was gaining traction in native Japan, but perhaps people overseas might flock onto the title if it had “Final Fantasy” on it, so we got The Final Fantasy Legend. This cute Game Boy RPG entry may be nice at the time with its mutants and monsters classes as well as a unique leveling up system. In the end, it’s too basic when compared to its two sequels. Skip it.
Final Fantasy Legend II (Game Boy)
This second “Final Fantasy” entry was also a SaGa game back in native Japan. Apart from an English localization, nothing else was edited in this portable entry; thank goodness too, because it was boatloads of fun. With a rocking soundtrack by Kenji Ito, much more elaborate expansion over the first game’s features (more classes and skills), and a user-friendly menu, it’s hard not to recommend the game if you don’t mind an off-kilter RPG.
Final Fantasy Legend III (Game Boy)
One would think that the RPG flavor of Final Fantasy Legend II would be refined in the third entry. That didn’t happen, as a new team was in charge this time around. Everything is brand new here, and somehow made more generic and traditional. While devoid of charm and flavor, it could be worst…
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (SNES)
….and here’s the worst kind of dumbing down. With a half-baked story and simplified game mechanics and dead-brain battles, it’s clear that Square at the time did not know how to make an entry-level Final Fantasy title. At least the music rocked.
Final Fantasy IV (Super NES)
Don’t get us wrong: Final Fantasy IV is a great story-driven RPG with a wonderful cast of characters and creative fights. The SNES version (called Final Fantasy II) is a pale imitator. This version is saddled with a bad English translation and easy toned-down fights. Our advice? Go for the Game Boy Advance version or even the DS remake if you want to feel the full brunt of FFIV’s challenges and creative fights.
Final Fantasy V (Super NES)
The original Final Fantasy V is a masterclass game that improves upon the Job System and has an epic story with some humor splashed in; crossdressing pirates and buffoon henchman, anyone? Still, play the Game Boy Advance version as it comes available in English.
Final Fantasy VI/Final Fantasy III (Super Nintendo)
Arguably the best damn Final Fantasy game on the planet. It’s got a great cast, a chilling and irredeemable main villain, a nifty battle system where the main heroes have different skillsets, and a magnificent score from start to finish. This landmark SNES title alone is proof of the series’ high calibre, and that’s not including the many secrets, side stories, and that one final battle and epic ending that follows. A masterpiece, if anything.
Final Fantasy VII (PS One)
Also arguably the best damn Final Fantasy game on the planet by the masses, this PlayStation One juggernaut of a title made RPG fans out of many gamers. It’s all thanks to its pretty visuals (for its time) and its admirable cast of characters.
While the ill-conceived Materia system and tepid combat isn’t anything to write home about, you can’t fault it for its rollercoaster experience. It’s been the one game everybody wants to see remade for this generation, if only because it was a lot of people’s first JRPG experience.
Final Fantasy Tactics (PS One, PSP)
Take the guy who masterminded the Tactics Ogre series and make him work on a Final Fantasy offshoot. You get arguably one of the best Final Fantasy games on the planet (yes, we know we have said this a lot: it was the golden age of JRPGs).
The narrative mixes political intrigue and betrayals with the supernatural, and the turn-based combat is challenging and complex. This is made more so with the expanded Job System where with enough time and patience you can create your own super soldiers.
Final Fantasy VIII (PS One)
How did Square follow up to a monumental success as Final Fantasy VII? Simple, be different. New features like the Guardian Force system, a spell-drawing mechanic, and enemy scaling wowed a lot of fans. And then there’s perhaps the best minigame ever conceived: Triple Triad. Did I forget to mention that your base of operations is a flying college that teaches students how to fight with firearms?
Pity the love story is trite and its two main leads Squall and Rinoa are unbearable to watch. At the very least, the overall game itself isn’t crippled entirely because of it. Give it a spin if you’re one of those RPG fans who were too enamored by FFVII at the time.
Final Fantasy Anthology (PS One)
Here’s a doozy of a release back in the 90’s: a collection featuring the never-seen-before Final Fantasy V and a cheaper way to get Final Fantasy VI. But with better versions out there (like on Game Boy Advance), the loading times on these games may not be worth the hassle.
Final Fantasy IX (PS One)
The phrase “diminishing returns” is associated with the ninth numbered FF title. Its narrative throwback to the NES and SNES golden age of RPGing is admirable, but only within the first two discs. After that, it went downhill: the plot devolves to some space and Dragonball Z fanfic mumbo jumbo, and the incessant random battle encounters get very VERY frequent and annoying even for its time.
Still, if we’re looking at a gameplay standpoint, its challenging battles, multitude of side quests, and charming cast with varied abilities balances the above nonsense out.
Final Fantasy Chronicles (PS One)
This second salvo of Square’s collection bundle features the original version of Final Fantasy IV in English and Chrono Trigger, which has nothing to do with Final Fantasy but is still a welcome addition since it was a critically acclaimed game.
This bundle came with the best of intentions, but with slow loading times. Especially on the latter game known for its seamlessly integrated combat? Yeah it gets infuriating really, REALLY fast.
Final Fantasy X (PlayStation 2)
Square Enix’s (after the company’s merger with rival Enix) big RPG debut on the then-new PlayStation 2 pulls out all the stops in the graphics department, with incredible visuals and facial expressions and voice-acting; a first in the series. The slightly-depressing tale of heroes leading a pilgrimage in a spirit-infested world of Spira eschews the illusion of an open world from past games in favor of a more focused story, a great Sphere Grid system, and a turn-based combat system that makes use all your party members.
A step back compared to the PS1 games because of its huge linearity and not-so-polished English voice dub, but still enjoyable nonetheless. Having said that, it’ll be easier for you to get the HD remastered edition on PS3/PS4 since it’s got the full International Version content.
Final Fantasy Origins (PlayStation One)
The Final Fantasy 1 and 2 remake on this CD is worth the price of admission. The graphics are overhauled while maintaining its sprite-based gameplay, the broken system of Final Fantasy II is reworked for a way better combat and leveling up experience, and the tough-but-fair difficulty curve is preserved in both games. A must buy if you want to see a new take on the first two Final Fantasy games.
Final Fantasy XI (PlayStation 2, PC, Xbox 360)
At a time before World of Warcraft, this first-ever online entry in the FF universe was revolutionary. With a Job Class switching system, a multitude of quests and story weaved in well, it’s clear that this was Square Enix’s biggest moneymaker.
Being an MMO, it was fun with several big expansions that came post launch, and even bigger boss battles that require more than a simple 4-man party to take down. Unfortunately, the game has since shut down, and you are better off playing the newer Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, if you want your online FF-laden MMO jollies
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (Game Boy Advance)
Back in the late 90s, Square Enix jumped ship from Nintendo to PlayStation because of CD-based mediums and FFVII-related matters; it was business really, but still irked Nintendo. Fast forward to 2003, and this turn-based strategy RPG is a renewed partnership between the two gaming juggernauts. The actual game was serviceable with the Judge system and class-changing, but the meta-style gameplay was cringeworthy. Stay for the action, burn the story with Firaga.
Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles (Nintendo GameCube)
This is the start of Square Enix’s action RPG spin-off. Four players get together as different classes and races to explore dungeons and kill monsters in real time combat. At the same time, one of them must carry a chalice that protects the group from poisonous miasma in the world.
It’s a unique multiplayer experience that will reward those who are patient in learning the game’s advanced mechanics. Assuming you have a GameCube and a four-controller setup, you need to experience this game.
Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (Game Boy Advance)
Essentially the Game Boy Advance version of Final Fantasy Origins, this handheld version of the FFI and FFII remake has all the features and some extra colosseum boss battles to lengthen play time. Whether you want this on the go or rather have it on the PlayStation, it doesn’t matter: both versions are great blasts to the past.
Final Fantasy X-2 (PlayStation 2)
A lot of fans were raging and frothing in the mouth when they saw the first hour of this sequel. Pop music concert? A happy trio of girls trying to ape Charlie’s Angels? Yuna brandishing Tomb Raider-style guns?! Heresy!
Take a deep breath and calm down; the game itself isn’t terrible. In fact, we’d say that the changes made sense; even with the cheeriness of Spira post-FFX’s ending, there’s still a sinister plot that’s slowly unfolding. It was also nice to see past FFX characters living it up in a new and cheery environment. The Job System is back and given a makeover, and there’s a sense of non-linearity since you can pick to go to multiple places at your whim.
Give it a shot; you might be surprised! Though just like FFX, go straight for the FFX-2 HD Remastered version instead.
Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII Snowboarding (Mobile)
Before Crisis was an original bite-sized game where you controlled new members of the Turks group, made famous in FFVII. However, both aren’t substantial enough to warrant a playthrough, if we’re being nice about spin-offs. Of course, Square Enix wasn’t going to stop capitalizing on the mobile gaming market, but that’s a tale for the next part of this grand feature.
Final Fantasy IV Advance (Game Boy Advance)
After seeing Dawn of Souls’ good reception, Square Enix thought to themselves “why not give our past great Final Fantasy games this treatment?” Enter Final Fantasy IV Advance, the first legacy title to be fitted into a Game Boy Advance cartridge.
While the music sounded decompressed, and feels slightly hollow, the rest of the epic adventure featuring Cecil & co. works just fine and dandy. Best of all, it comes with better localization and restored story elements, as well as extra high-level dungeons for that extra challenge. While the DS remake is considered superior, this one is for those who want the definitive version of FFIV, sprites and all. A must own, in other words.
That’s it for our first part. Next week, we’ll be checking out the rest of the Final Fantasy games from the PS2, PS3, and Xbox 360 era and beyond. Let us know which titles between 1987 to 2005 that we’ve missed out on.