Clearly I have an obsession with the Final Fantasy series, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. They were extremely important to me in my pre-teen and teenage years, and at one point it was the most popular RPG series in the land. Final Fantasy 7 practically won a console war for Sony. It’s a bit of a big deal.
What’s interesting to me, though, is that there’s a decent case to be made that every major console that a Final Fantasy game has been on, it hasn’t had the best RPG for that system.
NOTE: This is from an American perspective, so Final Fantasy 2, 3, and 5 aren’t counted here, though I don’t think any of those would have been in any running for “best RPG of X console.”
NES: Final Fantasy 1 was a fantastic game, though I personally feel that it’s not even a top-3 RPG on the system.
Dragon Warrior 3 and 4 are the best two RPGs for that system. They’re longer, have better stories, better characters, and were superior in graphics and audio. That last part isn’t surprising, since they came out later, but the point still stands.
Lesser-known RPG Destiny of an Emperor is an excellent RPG that I feel barely edges out Final Fantasy. If you haven’t heard of it, give it a try.
Ultima: Quest of the Avatar is a brilliant open-ended game with deep strategic combat and a sprawling world to explore.
SNES: Final Fantasy 4 and 6 are extraordinary games. Final Fantasy 6 is my favorite of the series. However…
Chrono Trigger is a masterpiece. It’s about as close to a perfect game as most games get.
Secret of Mana was revolutionary in its gameplay, specifically in its multiplayer features.
Earthbound. Don’t need any more words than that.
PSX: Final Fantasy 7 needs no introduction. Final Fantasy is largely considered a misstep, while 9 was a return to form. I think FF7 is probably the best RPG on the PSX, thus busting up my theory, but some contrarian arguments:
Breath of Fire 3.
MOTHER FUCKING XENOGEARS
PS2: Final Fantasy 10, 10-2 and 12 (we’re not counting the MMO 11) are all great entries into the series. I think 10 might be the best on the console (horrible voice acting notwithstanding…and I’m playing through 12 now, so this might change). But there’s a gaggle of other great entries:
The entire Shin Migami series
Kingdom Hearts series
Tales of Symphonia
PS3/XBox360: Final Fantasy 13 and 13-2 are tepid games at best, both plagued by iffy characters and slow plots. It’s not hard to find RPGs that could be/are better:
Elder Scrolls series
Dragon Age series
It’s not to say that the Final Fantasy series is bad, but with the increase of the video games industry as a whole (and the playerbase being far different as a result), things have changed. Final Fantasy just isn’t the showstopping series it once was. This is OK. Hopefully things go in one of two directions:
Final Fantasy reinvents itself in new, exciting ways
Square-Enix caters to the niche that simply wants more old-school style JRPGs, and works to refresh that formula in new, exciting ways.
As an aside, I feel that FF13 was a step in that “new, exciting way” direction, but the fact that the entire cast of characters were cunts (save for one) hurt that game to a great degree.
So at this point (that point being after FF7), my relationship with the Final Fantasy series…changed.
Firstly, this gem came out.
Technically, this is not part of the Final Fantasy numbered series. It’s a totally different game, and did not have any real tie-ins to previous titles. The gameplay is a huge departure from the normal Final Fantasy. The game barely looks like a PSX title; I think it probably could have been done on the SNES if the maps didn’t rotate.
It’s my favorite game of all time. Or at least tied for it.
I’ll write more about it another time, but let’s just say that the game isn’t perfect, but it’s perfect. That’s the best I can do without vomiting words for hours on end.
And it’s a good thing that Final Fantasy Tactics was so great, because it allowed me to feel OK largely skipping the next one:
Final Fantasy 8 is a hugely conflicted game. It feels like it’s trying to do too many things at once. It definitely is in love with itself. It’s almost as if the game is constantly trying to impress with cinematics and plot and this system and that system and oh here’s a gunsword oh my gosh I’m so amazing.
I feel this is the one where they got too cute. Too many cooks in the kitchen as well. There’s enough character customization systems for three games, all smashed into one. The boss fights are long summon-fests. It barely feels like a Final Fantasy game at times, with it’s real-word theming and regular-guy character development. While I personally detest the game, I acknowledge it as good in certain areas. The story seems fine (and have been told it’s the best love story told by Square, however that’s not saying too much). Non-boss-fight combat is good. It looks fantastic.
But it’s not enough to make up for its ample flaws. It feels that in order to top FF7’s materia system, they decided to add three customization systems all at once. This turned the game into a never-ending menu fuck, and also introduced more grinding into the game, which is never welcome. The boss fights rely on summons and little else. And much of the game just feels like a vehicle to make sense of the cutscenes, which I suppose is fine, but it felt very mechanical.
8 sucked. At least to me.
Then came a return to form, in my eyes:
Final Fantasy 9, mechanically, is very simple, and I feel that’s a direct response to complaints of too much complexity from 8. The development system is item-based and simple, characters have gone back to having unique abilities, and the tried-and-true staples of Final Fantasy returned. Good music (though not terribly memorable, outside of that Chocobo Hot-And-Cold music, good grief), excellent characters, a strong hero, a wily villain. And throwbacks to FF1!
I call this game good, but not great. It doesn’t really do anything wrong, but it’s a little odd thematically, and it doesn’t take too many chances on any front. I feel it’s gone from overrated to underrated and back to properly rated among fans, and I’m fine with that. A solid 7.5/10.
The only real complaint is that the summons are soooooo long, and that load times for battles are a bit much. Again, still good, not great, far from perfect.
I’ll stop here as well, since I have a cavalcade of thoughts about FF10. Stay tuned.
OK, that title is a lie. This is only definitive within my own experience. I have not finished every Final Fantasy game; there are actually a few I’ll probably never bother playing again. However, I can’t overstate the influence Final Fantasy had on me as a kid, and how much it influences my gaming and cultural tastes.
This is going to be very, very long. Courage.
My first RPG was Dragon Warrior for the NES. Unless we’re counting the Atari 2600’s Adventure, but we’re not, because it’a hard to role-play as a square.
Anyways, I loved Dragon Warrior. A totally new experience in gaming at that time, it was a game that allowed me to think and consider my actions, and truly feel like an epic medieval hero. You kill a dragon. You save a princess. You kill a dragonlord. Everyone loves you.
Then Final Fantasy happened. It was just bigger and better than Dragon Warrior. Four characters? Up to nine enemies at once? More than three bosses in the whole game? Classes? Ships? AIRSHIPS?
It was just so much. I’ve probably only beaten the game a couple times, but I remember so much of it, despite its size. Dragon Warrior was good, Final Fantasy was great.
(Here’s the part where we ignore, if only for a bit, that Final Fantasy probably ended up as the fourth-best NES RPG in America, behind Dragon Warrior’s three sequels.)
By today’s standards, Final Fantasy the First is probably unplayable. There’s a mountain of grind, the game gets pretty easy once you figure out its rather simple systems (and pick a well-rounded party). The graphics aren’t terrible, but they’re early-era NES, and still don’t age terribly well. The plot, while solid, isn’t anything new by today’s standards. The only thing that really endures is the music. If there’s a single RPG from the NES anyone must play, it’s probably Dragon Warrior 4. Or perhaps Destiny of an Emperor, which is also quite splendid and underrated.
Since I live in the US, I didn’t get to experience the the actual Final Fantasy 2 or 3. Japan didn’t release them in America because translating was going to take too long, and Final Fantasy 2 specifically had a lot of religious themes that they didn’t think would get through FCC standards. They instead worked on translating Final Fantasy 4, the first entry on the SNES.
As much as Final Fantasy was an influential kick to the face, Final Fantasy 2, I mean 4, was a revelation. And it wasn’t just the graphics, which were a similar style with just more detail. It was the music (that Red Baron theme still wanders into my head once a week, to this day). It was the character development. It was the plot. By today’s standards nothing terribly special, but the overall execution was paramount. The weaving of characters in and out of the party to accentuate plot moments, the dark-to-light transformation of the main character, an actual love story! Betrayal! Redemption! It was special, especially to FF fans who had been waiting so long for just any new game, let alone one on a new system with enhanced everything.
I played the ever-loving poop out of this game. The characters are memorable, the drama is high, the presentation was superb, and the music was face-meltingly excellent. It’s my favorite FF soundtrack, which is saying a lot.
(This is the part where we pretend Final Fantasy 5 didn’t exist, because it wasn’t released in America either! Common theories are that it was considered too hard, that it had the job system which had been introduced in another FF that wasn’t released in America, and that they also considered it a “weaker” entry story-wise, and felt it would fall flat after the dramatics of 4.)
Then, true, unmitigated greatness.
Final Fantasy 3, I mean 6, blew my fucking nuts off. Graphics: better. Music: fucking excellent (barely edged out by 4’s music). Characters: many. Character development: lots. Villain: fucking crazy. Plot twists: hoo boy. FF6 might have the best plot twist in gaming history. Character development system: simple, but good (and a first in America).
Humorous aside: FF6 is probably the buggiest major release on the Super Nintendo. Many of the problems are under the surface, and I honestly played the game the whole way through without noticing any problems. However, there were ways to break the game all over the place, and many minor issues that secretly plagued the game. Stats that don’t do anything, a method to insta-kill almost any monster in the game (including bosses), a way to glitch the game and replace a prominent character with a moogle. And a rather awful translation and censorship effort to boot. Pretty nuts.
Anyways, this game is amazing. It’s my personal favorite of the series. So many characters. So many fun battle mechanics. So much story. A villain whose calling card (the laugh) can still send a shiver down my spine. The first American FF title that “opened up” towards the end and had many asides, side quests, and even allowed you to choose whether to pick up old party members or not. Sublime soundtrack. So much good, so little bad. I feel that FF6 is the closest to a perfect game that Square has ever achieved (even with all the bugs).
To me, this is where the series changed a little. I feel that more emphasis was placed on presentation rather than substance. I feel that the general theming of the games alienated some of its audience. I feel that there was a magic to FF4 and 6 that hasn’t been recaptured. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the Super Nintendo, and it’s possible that my feelings are held tight by nostalgia and familiarity. But this is how I feel, and I can say I experienced all of it.
Here’s a big reason why many (any?) of you may have clicked on this article:
Final Fantasy 7 was a masterpiece. It almost single-handedly won the console war between the PSX and N64. It was many people’s first Final Fantasy game. It has a memorable villain, an iconic hero, and a dramatic, tear-jerking plot that fostered conspiracy theories and false rumors like no other. It’s character development is top-notch, its music is among the series’ best, and the gameplay was and possibly still is the best of the series. The materia system allowed for huge customization, which was a welcome “new thing” to American FF fans. It’s fucking excellent. Not my favorite, but excellent. Maybe I’ll examine this vs. 6 another time, because that’s 5000 words waiting to happen.
My only real complaint about 7 is as follows: I couldn’t ever get over how psychologically weak Cloud was. It’s explained well, and I understand it, but to make that character the hero? It just never rang true to me. That all these people were placing their trust in a guy who was so messed up he co-opted a dead man’s life story to just feel better about himself? I feel Tifa or even Red XIII would have made better heroes. Just my two cents.
Here’s where I say “stay tuned for part 2.” I feel this is a good place to break, if only because my relationship with the Final Fantasy series changed after the 7th installment. I’ll write more tomorrow.