Over the last two decades, I’ve logged hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours playing RPGs, specifically the Final Fantasy franchise. I’ve never really had much interest in any of the others. Sure, I’ve gone off the beaten bath here and there and tried a few others, but none ever gave me the same rush or drew me in like the Squaresoft brand. As a result, I’ve played and beaten every Final Fantasy game since the American part two.
I’ve played these games through multiple times (I’ve played one of them every year since ’98… more on that later) and I could probably write a five part documentary on each of them. But I’ll spare you the torture of a dissertation-style dissection of every element of every game. We all know about graphics, gameplay and the like, so my rankings will focus on what I feel to be the most influential:
- The main character: How the main character affected the game, good, bad or indifferently.
- What made it unique: What was different about each version from other versions.
- Musical score: The FF franchise has a well-earned reputation for their legendary music. It would be silly not to include them in any ranking system.
- Its strength: Which of the above 3 elements stood out the most and vaulted them into my top 3.
Without further ado, here are the greatest Final Fantasies of all time according to yours truly.
3. Final Fantasy II
This was the game that got me hooked on RPGs. I’d never seen, heard, or played anything like it. I have a lot of nostalgia about this game, so I break it out every few years to relive the years I spent in my teens perfecting my RPG technique.
The game’s hero, Cecil, is a Dark Knight and former Captain of his kingdom’s Air Force, the Red Wings, who later becomes a Paladin after a pilgrimage in the mountains. He undertakes this journey because he was banished from Baron, his home, for rebelling against questionable decisions by his king. This makes him realize that in order to right the wrongs of his past, he needs to lay down his dark sword and embrace the power of the light. Cecil eventually learns that the King of Baron is being controlled by an evil force he must defeat in order to restore balance to the world.
Cecil embodies the classic story of redemption, which most people can identify with on some level. Though something of a cliche, the tale of a man who exorcises his past demons and perseveres through strife and hardship never gets old. Exploring the human condition always makes for a compelling character and Cecil Harvey is no exception.
What made this installment unique when it was released back in the early 90’s was the depth of the story and character development. Final Fantasy II was the first RPG that really immersed the player in the game’s characters. Cecil’s past, Rosa’s undying love for him, and Kain’s secret love of Rosa gave us the one of the first palpable love triangles in any game.
When you add Rydia, haunted by the loss of her mother, and Edge, the over confident Ninja Prince whose kingdom was decimated, you’ve got an unprecedented storyline that started a legendary run for Squaresoft. These characters left an indelible image and set a high bar for the sequels.
The musical score was the most important breakthrough on this version. Nobuo Uematsu officially introduced himself to the world and established himself as the unquestioned authority as far as RPG music is concerned. Between “Within the Giant” and the music that accompanied that unforgettable scene before the final battle, this score was easily the best of its kind when it was released. The sequence in the video below gives me goose bumps to this day.
Not surprisingly, the music is the runaway strength of this game and it’s not even close. The breakthroughs this installment made with graphics, story and color were all huge factors. But the sheer brilliance of Uematsu quite literally made this game. Without this exceptional score, FF2 would be above average at best.
2. Final Fantasy X
Because I’m a retro gamer, the latest gaming console I actually purchased was a PlayStation 2. If I feel the need for some Xbox or PS4 lovin’, I’ll just go over to a buddy’s house. But the one reason I bought a PS2 was Final Fantasy X. It was the first FF for the PS2 and I had to play it, especially after seeing the commercial that stated “Final Fantasy X is gorgeous and grand” in a voice that made you believe in miracles. Thankfully, he wasn’t lying, because I had a blast playing through it.
This was the first FF in the franchise that featured audible characters. Right from the title screen, you’re subjected to the quality and clarity of those voices which set the tone for the game. Up to that point, I’d played RPGs for 10 years and this was the first time I could hear the characters. This gave the game an entirely new dimension and greatly enhanced the storyline because of the nuance and emotion that accompanied the dialogue.
The game’s main character, Tidus, is pretty typical by all standards. Young, check. Cocky, check. Daddy issues, check. The list goes on. The long and the short of it is that he’s a jock (the city of Zanarkand’s most famed blitzball star) who is displaced from his city after it’s attacked by Sin. He ends up in another world called Spira where he teams up with its inhabitants to hunt down and defeat Sin, saving future generations from the destruction it brings.
I’m not one who requires any kind of deep psychological complexity in a game’s protagonist (e.g. Cloud or Squall), but Tidus seems pretty basic by all accounts. Yeah, he has the typical flashbacks that every hero has when dealing with forces greater than himself, which gives him a little more dimension as a main character. By and large though, he’s pretty ordinary. This neither helps or hurts the game.
What makes FFX unique is the sphere grid. Typically, for characters to grow stronger and learn new skills, RPGs usually require experience points acquired through battle. When you’ve met the qualifications for the next skill or hit point bump, you’re notified, and your characters are adjusted accordingly by the game.
The sphere grid is different. This concept gives the player unprecedented control over the complete development of the characters. The grid allows the player to decide when they wish to increase their character’s hit points, defense, or what magic they wish to add to their arsenal. What’s more is that the grid’s directions are themed; that is, if you’re looking to beef up your hit points, you can go one way, or if you need your character to be an offensive juggernaut, you can go another. Eventually, you’ll end up filling all of the nodes on the entire grid, but the option to choose when and how your squad develops is a really cool feature.
The musical score in Final Fantasy X was absolutely groundbreaking and is, once again, the biggest strength of the game. Any FF veteran knows and understands the emotions triggered by the score on any given game and FFX was no different. Nobuo Uematsu hit it out of the park once again with his brilliant mix of genres. From the clarinet (a rare instrument in Uematsu’s scores) in “Wandering Flame” to the slow, melodic harmonies of the violin in “Servants of the Mountain,” each and every movement is a further testament to the undisputed genius of Uematsu.
I could write a 30,000 word essay on the music alone but, again, I’ll spare you the details and simply highly recommend you listen to some of its best songs in the video below.
Final Fantasy X is a revolutionary RPG and is easily one of the greatest of all time. Though the battle scenes, the voices, the storyline, the graphics, and everything else that made this game great certainly factored into its quality, the musical score is the runaway strength of this installment. Perhaps the same could be said about all FF games, but this score was exquisite and Uematsu will be remembered for this one more than most of his others.
1. Final Fantasy Tactics
On Valentines Day in 1998 my college girlfriend gave me one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received from a woman to date: Final Fantasy Tactics. Hell, she even bought me the strategy guide for good measure. Needless to say, I kept her around for a while.
Final Fantasy Tactics was released at the perfect time as far as I was concerned, because I had just completed Final Fantasy VII. After that adrenaline rush of a game, I was looking for a new challenge and that came in the form of FFT. Admittedly, I struggled with it at first, but as soon as I got the hang of it, I found it to be one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played.
The game’s lead character is Ramza Beoulve, who is the son of Balbanes and half brother of Dycedarg and Zalbag. His character is one of virtue, strength, and courage: all typical characteristics of a classic hero. What’s more is that Ramza uncovers mass corruption in the Glabados Church (which is basically the Catholic Church) that involved his brothers and that’s where things get interesting.
As the plot advances, Ramza takes actions against his brothers wishes and threats, even exposing their involvement in the corruption. The conviction to do what’s right—even if it meant defying his own well respected family name—is one of the quintessential qualities of a hero and Ramza exhibits this in spades.
What makes Final Fantasy Tactics different from every other FF game is the Job Class option. The ability to choose between twenty Job Classes at your discretion (provided you’ve satisfied the prerequisites for a desired Job Class) is a dynamite feature. This allows the player to change Job Class in response to upcoming battles or personal preference.
Most Final Fantasies have set characters you play with and outside of abilities you learn along the way, there is little choice in terms of their modification. But FFT offers variety even with characters intrinsic to the plot. You can even purchase fighters and build them brick by brick into combat team member you deem necessary.
This feature is what makes the replay value of this game its biggest strength. Mixing and matching Job Classes and playing through the game with different combinations of characters ensures that no two journeys are the same. I’ve personally played through the game every year since I got it and it never gets old because the gameplay is different every time through.
It’s no surprise that the musical score on this installment is is impressive. Though Uematsu didn’t put his stamp on this one, the overall quality is solid. The classically-themed soundtrack does a fantastic job in setting the tone for each scene, battle, or turning point in the story. This is the only soundtrack I actually have in my phone (and burned to CDs) and if you listen to the score below, you might be compelled to do the same.
So there you have it: my top three Final Fantasies of all time. It wasn’t easy to whittle this list down, as Final Fantasy VII was one for the ages and is number four on my list. Final Fantasy III for SNES (the U.S. version) rounds out my top five.
So am I right, wrong, or crazy? What say you?