The entire genre of RPGs, Japanese or otherwise, owes a great debt to Final Fantasy. 25 years ago, the original Final Fantasy graced the NES and Famicom systems with a unique battle system, story, and last but not least, music. The tale of how Final Fantasy came to be is itself legend. Square was on it’s last leg financially, and put everything they could into this “final fantasy” they had. They really expected this to be their swan song, but it became their biggest franchise. Love it or hate it, you have to give it up to the granddaddy of all RPGs.
The original Final Fantasy did wonders in Japan, but didn’t come over to the United States until 1990. It did well in the US, but at this point, the NES was on the decline, and the SNES was coming out in a mere few months. Japan saw Final Fantasy II and III on the Famicom, but we wouldn’t see these games for years to come. Allegedly, the games were thought to be unmarketable in the United States, as Final Fantasy II was too difficult (similar to Japan’s Super Mario Bros. 2), and Final Fantasy III was already too long gone. These two games would be released on handhelds years later, and aren’t nearly as celebrated as the original. The SNES era was Square’s Golden Age, without a doubt. Even outside of Final Fantasy, we saw Square create some of the most celebrated RPGs of all time like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana. However, Final Fantasy remained king.
Final Fantasy IV (known as Final Fantasy II for philistine Americans) was truly an innovator in all forms. The story was miles ahead of the competition, introducing some of Square’s most beloved characters like Cecil and Rydia. The battle system was also better than anything offered before, bar none. I still find it the most enjoyable battle system of all Final Fantasy games. The music was also spectacular, pushing the SNES to its limits sonically. Overall, this is my personal favorite, but we’ll get to that later.Final Fantasy V was an odd joint. The jobs system that was introduced in Final Fantasy III returned in a different form in Final Fantasy V. Due to that, we didn’t see this one in the US for years to come. Boy, these roman numerals are throwing me off. Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in the United States) came out toward the latter years of the SNES, and really asserted Nintendo’s dominance in the SNES-Genesis console war. Square was firmly established at this point in time, but this put them into superstardom, without a doubt. The game featured a unique cast of characters, better than we’ve seen in any Final Fantasy. The story was also completely in the other direction from say, Final Fantasy IV. Music was again a crucial part of why people consider this Final Fantasy the best, and to me, it’s a close, close second.
Square had to make a tough call – abandon Nintendo for Sony’s more advanced system, or keep brand loyalty strong. They went for the former, and Final Fantasy VII not only became Final Fantasy’s most prolific title, but pretty much thrusted the PlayStation into complete dominance. It was Final Fantasy VII that was another revolution in Square’s long line of RPGs. We saw the start of iconic characters like Cloud, Aerith, and Sephiroth, characters that still resonate with gamers today. The game was pretty much a franchise in itself, as many Final Fantasy VII spinoffs and movies, and is still considered a pillar of JRPGs. It was tough for Square to follow Final Fantasy VII, and due to that, there is quite a divide between Final Fantasy fans on whether VIII or IX is a better game. I’m in the Final Fantasy IX camp, though I haven’t had a lot of experience with these two titles. I did like the characters and aesthetics of Final Fantasy VIII a lot more than I did IX, even if it is also a pretty game. IX had a better story, though, compared to VIII’s love story.
Final Fantasy X was part of the PlayStation 2′s dominance just as much as VII was for the first PlayStation. This was the first Final Fantasy where it seemed like Square had no technological constraints. The game had full voice acting, fascinating combat mechanics that were different from any 3D Final Fantasy. The story was definitely unique (and completely confusing at many points), and the characters were definitely likable. I’ll be completely honest, I’ve had little to no facetime with Final Fantasy XI and XIV, the online titles. Sorry if I’m missing a crucial part of your history with Final Fantasy, but these titles seem completely alien to me, and are more along the lines of spinoff titles. With that, let’s talk about XII. Another black sheep in the franchise, the game had some odd MMO-esque mechanics that kept me from really falling in love with the game the way I did with X, even if they environments were great, and the story made at least a little bit more sense than X’s confusing narrative.
Enter Final Fantasy XIII. If you want to talk divisive, this is it. This title completely turned the Final Fantasy battle system on its head, introducing the Paradigm system. Some call it too simple, some call it dynamic, but whatever you think of it, it’s a nice change of pace from traditional RPG systems. However, XIII’s story makes X seem completely sensible, and many times I’d be completely lost in the story. Even if a majority of the characters were a bit on the shallow side, they were at least likable for their zaniness. Where the next Final Fantasy goes is completely unclear. We could see a traditional sequel to XIII (again), or we could see something entirely different. That’s the really cool thing about Final Fantasy - you never really know what’s next.
The Best and Worst Fantasies
This is such a divisive subject for many – so much so that I have to divide it into the 2D games and the 3D games.
Best 2D - Final Fantasy IV - Easy one for me, and the first Final Fantasy I delved into. Great music, characters, aesthetics really seal the deal for me, and while the rogues gallery isn’t the best, everything else makes it up for me.
Worst 2D - Final Fantasy V - Not a terrible game, but compared to the rest, it doesn’t hold a candle. Even II and III are special titles in their own right, but V just seems like a weird sequel to III, and the rogues gallery in V is just awful.
Best 3D - Final Fantasy X - Another easy pick, mainly due to the fact that this was the PlayStation 2′s first killer app that launched it into the limelight. I loved the characters, unique environments, and despite the convoluted story, I still ended up enjoying it.
Worst 3D - Final Fantasy VIII - Despite having a nice character development, this entry specifically lacks in almost every other department. Even the character development falls under itself while playing the game.
I actually didn’t get into Final Fantasy until the early 2000′s. Luckily, Square-Enix had pretty much all the 2D Final Fantasy games on the GBA, so I had an outlet to play these games. That’s where I first started playing Final Fantasy IV, and it was the first RPG where I had a deep connection with the characters, unlike other RPGs I’ve played like Pokemon, where death wasn’t really consequential. I’ll never forget the day I got the game (and VI) from a yard sale, literally for $20, and being completely obsessed with it for weeks to come. And while some have lost faith in the franchise, there hasn’t been a Final Fantasy game that I’ve inherently hated, so it’ll be very interesting to see where Square-Enix will go with the franchise.