It’s an institution, a household name even among non-gamers, what with the three feature-length films. Among both online and single-player communities, Final Fantasy is ubiquitous. However, it’s possible that you’ve never played one - shocking to some, I know, but there’s no need to be embarrassed. What we aim to do here is provide a list of the best in the series.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough decades in the century to give a comprehensive list of all spinoffs, remakes, remasters, and offshoots. A comprehensive list of every final fantasy game would be nearing a hundred entries. As much as we’d love to talk about 4 Heroes of Light, Tactics, and, hell, Kingdom Hearts, we’ll be sticking to the numbered games, including their own sequels.
This may seem confusing to those outside Final Fantasy’s fanbase, so we'll briefly explain. Each numbered entry in the series tends to be a standalone outing, possessing a fantasy world with its own lore, unrelated to any other Final Fantasy. They’re connected by the genre (fantasy role-playing), recurring magical creatures, and occasionally character names, but that’s about it. However, sometimes these standalone games spawn their own sequels. This is why we have confusing titles like Final Fantasy X-2 (ten-two).
Each entry in this list will include the single title and the whole sub-franchise around that - sequels, prequels, remakes, and the like. This might not seem fair. The first Final Fantasy lasts about 17 hours, the X saga has two games of about 80 hours between them, and XIV’s evergreen nature gives it, well, probably a lifetime. But, as you’ll soon see, the cliche of quantity not equalling quality is a cliche for a reason. If you’re wondering which version of each game we’re ranking - it’ll always be the original. So please don’t tell us how good the PSP port of the first Final Fantasy is, because that’s not what we’re doing here.
Let’s get on with it, then. If you’re a newbie, if you’ve played every one, or if you’re somewhere in between - we hope this article is both entertaining and informative. Expect history, drama, and opinions to which we welcome passionate disagreements. And remember, there is no "right" ranking, just an opinion.
The Final Fantasy XIII project was ambitious from the start; it was always the intention to draw it out into more than one game. This, perhaps, is the reason the XIII saga remains one of the weakest. It felt like an attempt to make the longevity of Final Fantasy VII happen once again. Unfortunately, though, these things only happen in hindsight - if you try to contrive a cult-status series, you’ll end up with it fizzling out in a title like Lightning Returns.
The XIII sub-franchise was titled 'Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy', and it was supposed to include Final Fantasy XV - originally titled Versus XIII - but that soon became a standalone entry in its own right. All in all, then, it was a bit of a mess from the start. Even the first game, the hotly anticipated Final Fantasy XIII, required prior reading to fully understand the story - never a good idea. The battle system was criticized by fans, too, with MP replaced with the Paradigm system to make the battles seem more cinematic and quick-paced (the intention was to make the fights seem like those in the action-packed Spirits Within film).
The plot worsened with the sequel (Final Fantasy XIII-2), when time-travel elements were added - again, rarely a good idea. In fact, the ending to the first XIII had to be altered to make it work (someone didn’t attend storytelling 101). The plot of Lightning Returns is best left unspoken, and so, really, is the gameplay. But we have to say something. Plot = attempted fan service, because everyone loved XIII’s protagonist, Lightning, but she was absent from XIII-2. And yet, her appearance was drained of all character - a fact that no amount of outfit-changing gimmicks can make up for. Gameplay = time management (seriously), and way too many side quests.
In fact, the XIII tagline had left such a bitter taste in fans, it looked like Square Enix turned Versus XIII into XV just so people would buy it - nobody wanted another XIII after Lightning Returns. And it’s a good thing they did go through with that, as we’ll see later.
As we mentioned above, Final Fantasy XV was once part of the Final Fantasy XIII series as Versus XIII, but it was soon salvaged and released not just as a standalone title, but as a numbered standalone title. Everyone knew it was Versus XIII under a different name. In fact, it’s still considered to be a part of the Fabula Nova Crystallis series.
Despite this messy setup, however, it isn’t terrible. Players take control of Noctis and his three companions as they literally take a road trip across the world of Eos. It’s open-world, and the Active Cross Battle system is pretty fun - action based rather than menu-based, but it still feels like Final Fantasy. In fact, Square Enix used something similar for 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake.
Unfortunately, it’s let down by a few things. The open world is pretty empty for the most part. And often your companions mysteriously run off to do their own thing - and it wasn’t until the DLC that we found out where they were going. Not a good model. Finally, the second half became just as linear as XIII. Bit of a letdown.
The game that started it all, and - as the title suggests - there weren’t supposed to be any more. It was Square’s last hurrah, after falling into financial decline despite popular games on the NEC and Famicom. Hironobu Sakaguchi decided that if this game didn’t work out, he would go to work at his alma mater.
The plot of Final Fantasy is basic. 200 years prior to the story’s beginning, four elemental crystals kept the world in harmony. It was prophesied that four heroes would restore the world to peace. Enter the player, who takes control of these four unnamed heroes. It’s typical RPG stuff, but it’s worth adding that 400 years prior to the story, ancient people called the Lufenians built airships and technology. The addition of this steampunk element was the start of the genre-mashing that Final Fantasy would eventually be famous for.
The gameplay, too, was typical RPG: turn-based combat, with each character having different specialities, strengths, and weaknesses. However, while tabletop games had been doing this for a long time, Final Fantasy was the first video game RPG to have multiple characters in one player’s control, each with different characteristics - such as warrior, black mage, and white mage.
Both gameplay and story were, for a video game, pretty groundbreaking. Sure, they’d both been seen before in tabletop games and books, but on a screen, exploring a fantasy world and developing characters you can actually see - it was pretty special. And even though it looks and feels ancient and basic, it’s still pretty special today. This is the embryo of the franchise we love today: a big world with rich lore to explore, side quests, character stat development, and Nobuo Uamatsu’s beautiful score - his musical mastery just getting started here. And, oh boy, is it challenging?
Sakaguchi’s plan for the sequel was to put more focus on the storyline, and this is evident right from the start. In place of four unnamed and nondescript warriors, our protagonists are real characters with personalities, history, arcs, and development through the game. The world-building for Final Fantasy II is far more intricate, too. The narrative centers on four young people who have lost their parents to the armies of Palamecia, a nation that uses hellspawn to spread its evil empire.
This is the first entry that exemplified what it means to be a Final Fantasy game. As it’s the first sequel, it was the first time fans learned that the franchise isn’t a continual series but more an anthology of games set in entirely different worlds.
Although the first game set a few things in place, then, it was II that introduced what Final Fantasy is all about. Other elements that were introduced in II are chocobos, the adorable and tameable bird creatures used for transport, and an engineer called Cid (a different character in every game, of course, but there’s always an engineer called Cid).
The battle system is unique, too. To improve a certain skill, the character simply uses that skill more and more - which is pretty realistic. To improve defence, though, a character has to get attacked again and again, until eventually, they’ll get thicker skin, and their defence stats are increased. Not too realistic there, and the rewards and consequences of battles were infuriating to some fans. But we think the concept is pretty cool, and its daringness gives it a high spot on our list.
The last of the 8-bit Final Fantasies, the third game wrapped up what could be called the original trilogy. Only in Japan though, because Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III were never released for the NES in America, and IV was repackaged there as Final Fantasy II. It wouldn’t be until much later that the real II and III would be released outside of Japan.
In Japan, however, the franchise’s swansong on the Famicom was an absolute delight. Released on April 27th, 1990, Final Fantasy III’s setting and story are similar to that of the first game, in that four orphans from a small village find themselves destined to be the “warriors of light”. The motifs of four elemental crystals return, too. But it’s not a rehash of the first game. The crystals have a more complex background, and so too do the characters and NPCs.
The gameplay once again upgrades, however. It was also the first in the series to implement the upgraded “Job System” that would become monumental in future releases and spinoffs. The player has the option to change their character's jobs throughout the game, to best meet challenges from unique battles and puzzles - and there’s a plethora more to choose from this time. This gives the player many options and variables when playing, providing solid replay value.
Final Fantasy III was also a first for one of the series’ biggest mascots; Moogles. These cute little creatures only have a small role here, but they go on to feature prominently in the series. It’s not just a game of firsts, though - it’s gameplay and story remain challenging and engaging respectively, which is exemplified by the fact that a 3D remake was made for the Nintendo DS.
Final Fantasy V, released in 1992 for the Super Famicom, brought even greater depth to the Job System introduced in III. This time, each character begins with the default Freelancer class, and to gain new classes, the player must use a “crystal shard”, many of which are scattered around the world. Characters can gain AP to level up these jobs, as well as moving to another job while keeping previously earned skills. A character may then use characteristics from both jobs (such as “steal” from the thief class, and dark magic from the job of dark mage).
The story is cleverly presented, too, with very little background given away at the beginning. Adventurer Bartz witnesses a meteor crash to earth, and upon investigating he discovers a young girl and an amnesiac man. The 'in medias res' opening is a tradition continued in future releases, as is Gilgamesh (who is now almost a Final Fantasy villain-mascot). A particularly memorable character is the pirate Faris - if you’re to play this game, make sure you find a port that keeps her pirate dialect.
Final Fantasy VII was always going to be a difficult title to follow - arguably, the next in the series was bound to be a disappointment. Fans who had their first taste of Final Fantasy with Final Fantasy VII - of which there were many - were expecting another adventure like that of Cloud & co. Final Fantasy VIII, however, is possibly the most experimental of the numbered single-player releases. It looks similar to Final Fantasy VII if you take a glance - random encounters, turn-based combat, ATB gauges, summons, and moody teenagers with swords. However, if we look a little closer, the whole system is like nothing that came before.
Characters must be assigned a Guardian Force, which is essentially a summonable monster. It is from their GF that a character gets their abilities - such as magic attack - and their stat increases, like higher defence. Once a character gets enough experience to level up, the enemies around them also level up - in previous games, the enemy’s stats didn’t change depending on your level.
It wasn’t what gamers were expecting. The story, however, has a daring narrative that is perhaps the most ambitious of any release in the franchise. There are two storylines from very different timelines, both intertwined. The story of Squall, and the story of Laguna. As we change from one to the other, the level and stats of one character are transferred to the other. It’s ingenious, and we believe it’s aged well - but perhaps it was too early for the world to appreciate.
Known as Final Fantasy IV in Japan, Final Fantasy II is where the franchise took plot and character to the next level. The franchise is famous for its broody and pensive protagonists, and this tradition began with II. Cecil, a military leader, is stripped of all power after questioning his king’s motives. His resulting journey involves his severely ill lover, a mysterious and traumatized young summoner, a grieving father, and many other three-dimensional characters that transcend previous tropes of “heroes destined to save the world.”
It was also the first game to introduce the Active Time Battle system - in which each character has a gauge that needs to be filled before they take a turn. This replaced the traditional turn-based system of the previous three, and was used in the proceeding five games. If this wasn’t enough of a legacy, a remake was made for the DS in 2007, and a sequel titled Final Fantasy IV: The After Years for mobile and Wii in 2008.
A lot of people don’t realize that Final Fantasy’s first foray into MMOs is, today, just as popular as ever. It’s seen a boost in numbers recently, especially over the pandemic, and new story content, such as The Voracious Resurgence - still being updated as of may 10th 2022. So if you assumed you’ve missed your chance to play Final Fantasy XI, you assumed wrong.
It was groundbreaking at the time, though, being the first ever console-based open-world MMORPG - as well as the first online Final Fantasy. And most importantly, it plays well, looks great, and has decent storylines. After creating their character in a similar vein to Elder Scrolls (another first), players can move through the story by completing “missions” or go through the many side quests available - all the while joined by other players, making up a (hopefully) well-balanced party.
It wasn’t until the second version of Final Fantasy XIV that the series really found its MMO feet, but many still swear by XI - and we can see why. It still looks great.
Although the series had technological elements from the start, Final Fantasy III (confusingly known in Japan as Final Fantasy VI) was the first to stray completely from a swords-and-sorcery setting. There’s still magic, of course, but the setting resembles the latter half of 19th century Europe; trains, machinery, and the sort of robots you’d expect from this kind of steampunk world. It’s also the first in the series to explore dark and philosophical themes; free will, dictatorships, genocide. Protagonist Terra awakens to find out the Gestahl Empire has been controlling her actions with a device called a “slave crown”. She joins rebels to fight said empire - with complete amnesia. The primary antagonist is a soldier and jester called Kefka - a memorable villain everyone loves to hate.
Characters and abilities are customized with equippable items called Relics, as well as the usual weapons and armour, to increase their abilities and stats. The summons are a cool feature, too; they’re woven into the plot as deceased Espers - slaves of the empire, like Terra before her liberation.
Another contender for top spot, and I’m sure a lot of fans won’t be happy it’s not number one. After three dark titles that took the player to some gloomy places, Final Fantasy IX’s cheerful tone and wisecracking protagonist felt like a breath of fresh air. The setting returned to the franchise’s roots, too, with a world of swords and sorcery - with only a smidge of steampunk technology.
The gameplay went back to basics, too, after the experimentation of Final Fantasy VIII. Like in Final Fantasy IV, each character’s abilities are based on their job in the story. For example, Zidane, a professional thief, has the traditional thief’s command of steal, whereas mysterious hooded black mage Vivi can use black magic attacks.
It’s a wholesome story that combines story and gameplay ingeniously. You should play it, especially if you’re feeling low and can’t deal with Cloud’s broodiness.
The first Final Fantasy for the sixth generation of consoles was also the first to utilize voice actors. This was a gamble that paid off (if we ignore a certain laughing scene). It was also the first Final Fantasy game not to have a “world map” exploration system, instead opting for a real-scale world to journey through. It was the first in the series to really go for realism.
However, it was also the last in the series to have random encounters with enemies. The battle system reverted back to more of a turn-based one (called the Conditional Turn-Based Battle system), as opposed to the ATB of the previous five games. So the battle is halted as you pick your move, and although only three members can fight at a time, you can swap during battle like a tag team.
The story is heart-wrenching, and the setting stands out the most in the series - the tropical Spira differs from the previous European medieval and cybercity settings in the franchise. Definitely one of the best, as was its sequel - which ingeniously brought back the job system.
The first single-player game in the franchise since Final Fantasy X released 5 years earlier, making it the biggest break yet for Final Fantasy fans that didn’t fancy playing online. It was a huge departure, too - continuing the MMO vibe of Final Fantasy XI, battles were seamless and in an open world. As it was single-player, though, a “gambit system” was introduced, which essentially let the player program the AI of the party members they’re not in control of.
It sounds complicated, and indeed it is at a glance, but you’ll quickly get used to it. And although the License Board upgrade system is inferior to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, there’s something satisfying about having an upgrade system alongside levelling up and increasing stats the conventional way.
The story, however, is a huge contributing factor as to why we’ve given it such a lofty position. Set in the world of Ivalice (which previously appeared in 1997 spinoff Final Fantasy Tactics), the plot is innately geopolitical and focuses on the characters’ place within warring nations. The small nation of Dalmasca is caught in the middle of a war, where aspiring sky pirate Vaan is swept up in the resistance against the imperial Arcadian forces. A must-play - and it was re-released as The Zodiac Age for PS4 in 2017.
The second foray into online gaming wasn’t very successful to begin with. In fact, it was so unpopular with fans that Naoki Yoshida scrapped the whole thing and started again. In an event that was written into the narrative (players were witness to a cutscene in which a meteor destroyed the world), Final Fantasy XIV was rereleased as A Realm Reborn, and, this time, it did exceedingly well.
Today, not only is it one of the biggest MMOs on the planet, but it’s universally adored. On top of being fun and addictive to play, the whole thing is a love letter to fans of the franchise; locations, characters, and bosses from older games make an appearance - but it stands on its own, too, with one of the best stories of the series. Yoshida clearly cares about what the fans want, which bodes well for Final Fantasy XVI.
Final Fantasy XVI continues the trend that started with XV and abandons the turn-based combat in favour of a Dragon's Dogma-style battle system, which allows you to string together combos, magical attacks and even ranged projectiles. The end result is combat which feels exciting and challenging but might put off those who have grown up with the series since day one. This point aside, it's fair to say that this is the boldest, most lavish Final Fantasy adventure yet. The visuals are stunning, the music gorgeous and the voice-acting (by an English cast, rather than American) matches the epic scale of the story. If this is the direction that future Final Fantasy games will take, then we're personally quite hyped about where this venerable franchise is headed next.
We weren’t planning on including remakes in this list, but Final Fantasy VII’s legacy today is more than ground-up remakes and remasters. Without spoiling anything, the tale of Final Fantasy VII is still in motion, 25 years after its release. The game had a huge cultural impact - without a doubt the biggest a Final Fantasy game has ever had. It might be because, with its release on the PlayStation, it was many people’s first introduction to the franchise. It might be due to the movie sequel, Advent Children, released in 2005. Or it might just be thanks to the epically realized world, the heart-wrenching story, and the unforgettable characters. Square Enix wanted Final Fantasy XIII to have a legacy like VII, but it never would. And perhaps nothing ever will again.
The story of Cloud and his companions has many twists and turns, one of the most unexpected deaths, all accompanied by a killer soundtrack (One Winged Angel, according to Uematsu, always gets the biggest reaction at his concerts). While many fans will argue that the top spot should be Final Fantasy VI or Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VII had the biggest impact of the top three, and has endured the longest; even today, the compilation of Final Fantasy VII is thriving: the ongoing Remake series, The First Soldier, and Ever Crisis to name a few.