If you are a fan of the Final Fantasy series, chances are that your favorite game is the first one you played. That's only natural, as these games are the first introduction to this kind of drama, scale, and storytelling for multiple generations of gamers. But in this list we're trying to take a different perspective. What if we let go of that old fondness and look at these games as if we were playing them all at the same time right now?
In order to rank these games, we needed to figure out first and foremost what factors make up the ideal Final Fantasy. They consist of a really good story (usually with at least one big twist half way through), interesting characters that we can become emotionally attached to, a battle system that is complex enough to stay interesting through a 60 plus hour game, a leveling system that incorporates variation and strategy in a unique and engaging way, and a final boss that is so hateful that you want to spend endless hours becoming strong enough to finally take the big jerk down.
I am not including the two MMORPGs, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, as well as any side series like Tactics or Chronicles since these titles all stray widely from the core concept of a single player traditional Final Fantasy game which was hard enough to rank as it is, you monsters.
Full disclosure: my subjective favorite of the series is Final Fantasy VII. (It's also the first one I played.)
Yes, I put it in last place. Many will absolutely be nodding their heads in agreement. Others will defend it by saying, "at twenty hours in, it gets great!" Oh sure. Wait, what? Twenty hours? I don't have that much time to spare. I've got important stuff to do. Okay maybe I don't, but I could at least play a better game in that time. This linear journey becomes an arduous slog as it deviates from so many things that make the series wonderful, namely world exploration. The producer himself, Yoshiki Kashitani, even said that they didn't want to work in the rpg genre when making the game. Final Fantasy is the ultimate rpg series. Are you kidding me? I hate to be a negative Nancy right up top here, but it is in last place for a reason. Don't worry, we get a lot more positive after this. For the sake of positivity I must admit the graphics are pretty neat. See, I said ONE nice thing about the game. Can we move on now?
Much like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, the second game in the franchise deviated from some of the aspects that made the original so great. Namely, it ditched the experience point system for an easily spammable activity-based progression system that had characters level up based on the skills they use and what happens to them in battle. Want more HP? Just have your own characters hit each other endlessly for massive gains YOU FILTHY CHEATER!!! It only came out in Japan at first (hence why FF4 was originally known as FF2 in the US), but has since been released in the states in several different forms for various Nintendo consoles. It earns some points for being the first game to introduce key elements to the series as chocobos, Cid, the back row, and playable characters that have in-game plot based permanent deaths. And when said character died in the game, you lost all of the weapons and armor they had equipped. It was Square's way to teach us that life is a cruel and unforgiving mistress that only serves to make us suffer. But hey, chocobos are soooo cute! The story and characters WERE much improved over the original game. It even had a message about the true consequences of war. Not too shabby for an 8-bit video game. However, the mess that was its leveling system and the basic limitations of a game on the original Nintendo console keeps it close to the bottom of this list unfortunately.
As you probably already know, back in 1987, Square was on the verge of bankruptcy. They then released what they thought would be their last game, which they appropriately titled it Final Fantasy. Feel free to use that factoid at dinner parties on a bunch of people who could give less of a shit. Hironobu Sakaguchi (or "The Gooch" as his close friends call him) created a landmark series that would stand the test of time. But again, this list is not about groundbreakers as much as it is about objectively ranking the games as if they were to be played right now alongside each other.
Since this is the very first entry, it had to get some big things right and some major things wrong. It nailed down important fundamentals like the leveling and turn-based battle systems. Its story, though obtuse, turns out to be pretty compelling as well ending in the four warriors of light stopping a freakin' time-loop 2000 years in the past to defeat the final boss, Chaos, and save a world that has no idea it needed saving in the first place. On the downside, there is an obscene amount of grinding involved with a high level of difficulty in order to extend the play time of the game as far as it could go with limited resources on the cartridge. Also, a lot of the game is just a bunch of fetch quests. Fetch quests are like the pooping of rpgs. We all do it. It even feels kind of good to do it. But nobody says they necessarily like the act of it. It started the legacy and opened the gates for far better games to come which means those games are going to rank higher.
The third installment of the series did not become available until a remake was released on the Nintendo DS in 2006. It is most notable for introducing the job system with 22 classes in total ranging from Warrior to Dragoon to Summoner to Sage. These jobs were changeable for each character at any time leading to very interesting customization based on player preference. This sort of system is used even today in Square's most recent rpg series Bravely Default and Bravely Second. I highly recommend these games if this article is giving you the itch btw.
The story here is arguably less compelling than the one in FF2 with what pretty much pairs down to a classic good versus evil battle without any of those fun player character deaths that you get in the previous game. Still, it does involve four orphans and everybody knows that everything is better when orphans are involved.
With a more complex and interesting version of the job system introduced in FF3 but a story that is not nearly as compelling as some of the other entires (crystals yadda-yadda-yadda big evil dude yadda-yadda-yadda save the world) it's no surprise that it fits one step above FF3 but below several others. The overall tone of the game is much lighter all the way down to the color palette, along with more humor based characters and plot. It's not to say this is a bad thing, but it does kind of stick out from this list of games that are most known for fantastic twists and turns in epic storylines that the fate of the world hinges on. For FF5 though, that's not the point. What makes this game special is the freelance job system that allows you to mix and match different job abilities together for a heavy amount of customization. Again, it is a true precursor to the Bravely series on the 3DS along with the humor-infused characters.
The first game to hit the Playstation 2, Final Fantasy X was hugely popular and sold very well. It was also the first game to feature full-on voice acting. This is the undisputed favorite for many people and it was popular enough to warrant an at-the-time unheard of sequel. I question these people's judgment because the character of Tidus is the worst whiny baby ever to helm a Final Fantasy game. I understand that this issue can easily be argued as personal preference. But seriously, he's like the Jar Jar Binks of video games. He's like the facebook political discussion of video games.
The sphere system is a really neat innovation on the concept of leveling yet at times can feel pretty tedious. The visuals are fantastic. The fighting is truly where it's at with this title. It allows the player the ability to switch characters in and out at any point in the fight making every battle strategically interesting and fun.
Still, the loss of a world map to explore and switching out the air ship for a list of locations absolutely took away from the joy of world exploration that makes so many of the other games so great. There were also plenty of tedious side quests (dodge 200 lightning bolts in a row ARE YOU SERIOUS????!!!!) that keeps this title a bit farther down the list that some would probably like.