In the mid-1980s, Hironobu Sakaguchi had a staff of seven people working on the first Final Fantasy, an unclear product, and the notion that if the game didn’t succeed, he was quitting. “The name ‘Final Fantasy’ was a display of my feeling that if this didn’t sell, I was going to quit the games industry and go back to university…it really was a ‘final’ circumstance,” Sakaguchi told Famitsu in 2007. Another reason for the “final” moniker was Square’s poor financial status at the time, which was verified by series composer Nobuo Uematsu in a 2009 interview with Wired.
It seems unimaginable that Final Fantasy could have never become the legendary franchise it is today. It’s a difficult task to reduce dozens of games to a list of nine, and there’s no way ahead without leaving several fantastic entries on the cutting room floor. Please be aware that there will be spoilers in the next paragraphs. After all of that, it’s back to the breach! The nine greatest Final Fantasy games of all time are listed here.
Final Fantasy IV
We’ve reached the point on the list where each game feels like it belongs higher. Final Fantasy IV is the quintessential Final Fantasy experience more than any other: The first entry to utilise the ATB system, as well as the series’ first truly fantastic music, features a full cast of developed, class-oriented characters. Final Fantasy IV, like X, has received plot expansions (Final Fantasy IV: Interlude; Final Fantasy IV: The After Years) that may or may not be required, but their presence demonstrates how much this collection of characters ignited fans’ imaginations. IV, I like to think, taught me a lot of valuable life lessons.
Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX essentially nails everything. IX is a lovely amalgamation of everything fantastic about the series’ first six entries — a broad cast of class-centric characters set within a mythical/medieval backdrop— mixed with the unavoidable drive towards the new and innovative that the industry often demands. As I stated in my proposal for a Final Fantasy IX remake, the result is a bizarre hybrid in which every component of the game is made up of many of the best metaphorical limbs left behind by the series’ prior games.
With a world filled to the brim with myth (Mist Continent), historical events (the “Airship Revolution,” Burmese genocides), and fantastic chocobo search-and-finds (Chocographs), IX has no genuine chinks in the armor. I could probably whine about Necron popping out of nowhere as a god-villain at the end, but I’ll let it slip.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Final Fantasy had previously experimented with the job system (Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy V), but in Final Fantasy Tactics, we see it incorporated into a completely new style of tactical gameplay, all while being backed by a complex political drama in which everyone is related, plots to kill each other, and then kills each other. Final Fantasy Fandom’s description of Tactics is as follows:
The game is set in Ivalice, a unified kingdom of seven kingdoms trapped in the middle of the Lions’ War, which pits two competing groups against each other for control of the kingdom. The tale revolves around Ramza Beoulve, a respected member of the House Beoulve, who becomes caught up in the war and subsequently discovers the truth behind a deadly plot.
It reminds me of Game of Thrones. The end product is a complicated carnage full of overpowering characters (Orlandu), appearances from old friends (Cloud Strife), and a fully adjustable job system that delivers on its foundation of gridded, tactical gameplay. And, regardless to what others say, the idiotic battle (Finath River) with all the red chocobos casting “Choco Meteor” all over the place was the most difficult section of the game.
Final Fantasy VI
I debated whether or not to rank Final Fantasy VI higher than Final Fantasy IV because I consider both games to be masterpieces. I ultimately chose VI over VIII since it, like VIII, excels at capitalizing on opportunities. Whether it’s the opera house, the coin toss between Edgar and Sabin, or Terra’s first snow crossing (complete with one of the all-time great Final Fantasy music pieces — “Terra’s Theme”), VI excels at precision narrative execution that seems beyond the franchise’s current capabilities — trying to decipher the convoluted jargon parades of the Fabula Nova Crystallis storyline has taken years off my life. Final Fantasy VI refined the design that Final Fantasy IV had started, with a vast, interesting cast of characters, the brilliant Esper system, and a powerful villain who truly destroys the planet.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Although including Final Fantasy VII Remake here is a bit redundant because its namesake will, as you might guess, be on this list as well, the new life infused into Midgar allowed for a great blend of nostalgia and new, untapped depth. That’s not to say that every adjustment was positive—I’m still not convinced about the scene in President Shinra’s office—but the end result was a stunning depiction of Shinra’s dystopian metropolis. The more action-oriented Final Fantasy titles that have dominated the series’ most recent decade of games, among which Remake is unquestionably the greatest, are also referred to as Remake (the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, Final Fantasy XV, Final Fantasy Type-O).
Final Fantasy VII
I have a strong emotional attachment to Final Fantasy VII, but it doesn’t change the fact that no meteor could have had a greater influence on the gaming world than VII. To get a sense of the game’s broad reach, just look at the “Impact” section of the game’s Wikipedia page.
We’re talking about things like Sephiroth’s iconic destruction of Nibelheim, Aeris’ death, and Cloud and Tifa in the Lifestream here, so VII has the same precision narrative skill as Final Fantasy VI. VII’s universe, like IX’s, is large and detailed, both in size and depth. Almost every place in the game has an important event that contributes to the overall plot.
VII has also spread well beyond its original entrance, making it even more noteworthy. The legacy has been smeared all over everything, with excellent side entries like Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, problematic ones like Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, movies (Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children), the aforementioned Remake, and others. For what it’s worth, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited to see a Final Fantasy town than Cosmo Canyon.
Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy VIII was always going to face an uphill battle after the huge success of Final Fantasy VII. But, with possibly the most thrilling start in the series, VIII proved up to the challenge right away. VIII is both the beneficiary and the sufferer of its own ambitions. This entry’s ideas are among the best, but the implementation of those ideas isn’t always dynamic. The Junction System is one of the franchise’s most innovative magic systems, yet taking magic from adversaries caused a perpetual reluctance that forced the magic side of warfare to be short-circuited (junction effectiveness decreases as you use your drawn magic).
Squall’s first dance with Rinoa, the assassination attempt on Edea in Deling City, and the discoveries at the Orphanage are among the plot highlights of VIII. These kinds of moments elevate the narrative above some of the less well-executed design features, making it less fantastical and thus more realistic than some of its predecessors. Well, until Ultimecia began compressing worlds in time, but whatever.
Oh, and Triple Triad made its debut in Episode VIII. That alone should be enough to put this game on your radar.
Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X, the franchise’s first entry on the Playstation 2, offers one of the series’ greatest storylines and graphics that have stood the test of time. But Square Enix added needless (and regrettable?) sequels to Tidus and Yuna’s story, the original conclusion was one of the most fulfilling, with the team of heroes successfully bringing about the Eternal Calm while also losing Tidus in a beautiful parting scene with Yuna.
Blitzball is the most well-developed minigame in the entire series. Wandering Spira in quest of better players, signing them to contracts, and then seeing your hard-earned footwork pay off on the, oh, “field” was perhaps even more exciting than playing Blitzball. I don’t think I ever gave up another goal after stealing Nimrook from the Al Bhed Psyches.
The series’ inaugural entry is both franchise-defining and franchise-black sheep as the origin narrative for all of these famous games. The absence of detailed characterization —you name your characters, who are otherwise known simply as the “Warriors of Light”— is unusual in the series, and gives this installment a bland vibe. However, the typical ability trees, wonderful music by Uematsu, and dungeons that are perhaps as demanding as any in the game are all present and correct. And the late-game class switch remains one of my favorite Final Fantasy moments, as such a large-scale party switch is both startling and uncommon.