A Beginner's Guide To Final Fantasy, The Biggest RPG Series On The Planet

Maybe you've heard of Final Fantasy. Maybe you're familiar with some of the basics: shiny crystals, giant swords, dead Aerises. Angry teens.

But you might not know much more about Square Enix's massive set of role-playing games. They can be intimidating to newcomers, chock full of strange gameplay systems and confusing nomenclature. How can you tell them apart? Where do you even begin?

Don't worry. That's what we're here for. Here's your beginner's guide to all things Final Fantasy.

So what is Final Fantasy?

A giant, hotcake-selling brand that has been attached to quite a few games over the past few decades. Some of them are great. Others are less great. But they all share certain common traits.

Like what?

They usually place you in the war-ravaged shoes of a hero or cast of heroes who has to fight against all odds to defeat some sort of powerful enemy. There are usually large, sprawling worlds packed with interesting settings and lovely music. You can almost always collect items and weapons, customise your characters' skills, and play through minigames and sidequests as you gradually work your way toward a nasty final boss.

What's with the "usually" and "almost always"?

Well, there are exceptions. Square Enix has slapped the Final Fantasy name on quite a few different games over the years: there are now Final Fantasy racing games, fighting games, and even a musical rhythm game. So it's hard to sum them all up nicely.

Back up. Can we start from the beginning?

Sure. The world was first introduced to Final Fantasy in 1987, when a scrappy company named SquareSoft put together a Dragon Quest ripoff full of dwarves, elves, robots, volcanoes, and underwater temples. As the legend goes, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi called it "Final Fantasy" because it was based on Tolkienesque fantasy novels and because he expected it to be the last game he ever made -- unless it did well.

It did well.

What's the game like?

There are two main components: field sections and battle sections. On the field, you move your characters around towns, dungeons, and a large "world map" that strings them all together. While moving around, you can go to shops to buy items and weapons, talk to townspeople, and collect treasure. You'll also get into random encounters with invisible enemies, who will suddenly make the world flash and transport you to a separate battle screen.

To take down those enemies, you give each of your four characters orders like "attack," "magic," or "use items." Your team and the enemy team swap turns attacking, healing, and defending. Whichever team loses all of its collective health points first is the loser. If that's you, you'll have to start again from the last place you saved your game.

Does this actually require any skill?

Arguable. In Final Fantasy, the real challenge is resource management. Do you really want to waste those spell points on this battle? There's a boss coming up. Can you really afford to spend another potion? Is it time to exit the dungeon, restock, and try again? There are a lot of tricky decisions involved.

So the other Final Fantasy games are like this too?

Yeah! Many of the mechanics and strategies change from game to game, but the other main Final Fantasy games are, for the most part, also comprised of field and battle sections. Most Japanese role-playing games have followed this formula in some way.

Okay. So what happened after Final Fantasy?

Here's where things get a little confusing. Square developed two sequels to Final Fantasy -- Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III -- but decided not to release them in the United States.

Hold on. Weren't Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo?

Yes. But those were actually Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, both renamed for U.S. audiences so we wouldn't be confused about the ones we missed.

I'm confused.

Guess Square's plan didn't work. Here's a quick breakdown:

Final Fantasy - 1987, Nintendo (US and Japan) Final Fantasy II - 1988, Nintendo (Japan only) Final Fantasy III - 1990, Nintendo (Japan only) Final Fantasy IV - 1991, Super Nintendo (released in U.S. as Final Fantasy II) Final Fantasy V - 1992, Super Nintendo (Japan only) Final Fantasy VI - 1994, Super Nintendo (released in U.S. as Final Fantasy III)

Jeez. What a mess.

Yep. Fortunately, Square has released English versions of all of those games. They also corrected the numbering for US ports and re-releases. (Square loves ports and re-releases. It's a terrible addiction. They say they can quit whenever they want, but they're lying.)

So next was Final Fantasy VII, right? Is that the one with Sephiroth?

Mommy issues and all. With a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign, eye-popping computer-generated imagery and the promise of poignant, heartrending narrative, Final Fantasy VII took the world by storm when it was released for PlayStation in 1997. It is perhaps best known as the game where Aeris dies.

Wow. Thanks for the spoilers.

Shush. Aeris's death isn't a spoiler. It's a genuine tragedy.

That's kind of weird. You're kind of weird.

Let's move on.

So why does everyone worship Final Fantasy VII?

Lots of reasons! For a lot of today's 20- and 30-somethings, it came out just in time to shepherd us through adolescence. We watched Cloud and Tifa grow up as we were growing up. We sympathized with their mistakes and wished we could be as strong as they were.

But it was also an excellent game (even if it hasn't aged quite perfectly). It took you on a wonderful adventure through all sorts of cool places, from the gritty, dystopian city of Midgar to the carnival-esque Golden Saucer to the icy hills of the Promised Land. It allowed you to customise your characters by equipping them with magical orbs called Materia that could manipulate their skills and stats in creative ways. There was just a ridiculous amount of stuff to see and do.

What about the story?

Like many Final Fantasy games, number 7 has a wild, twisty plot. Sometimes it can get confusing, mostly because Square did an awful job translating the text. But it's still an emotionally resonant piece of work that takes you inside the heads of quite a few fascinating people with quite a few fascinating stories to tell.

Okay. I think I'm starting to get the appeal.

It's really good at making you feel like you're on an adventure, a wild chase that takes you through some really exotic settings.

So what came after Final Fantasy VII? Any other masterpieces?

Let's do another quick breakdown:

Final Fantasy VIII - The story of a grumpy teen named Squall and his adventures in military school. (And in prison. And space. And a time-compressed alternate reality.) Final Fantasy IX - A medieval throwback chock full of wizards, knights, and Shakespearean dialogue. Final Fantasy X - The one with Tidus. Dark, haunting, and full of water. Final Fantasy XI - A massively multi-player online game. Fun if you're into that sort of thing. Final Fantasy XII - A single-player massively multi-player online game. Fun if you're into that sort of thing and you don't like other people. Final Fantasy XIII - A big hallway. Final Fantasy XIV - A failed MMORPG that Square plans to totally revamp and release again later this year.

So there are 14 main games? Are they all connected?

Nope. There are some common themes, though. The items always have the same names -- basic healing units are called Potions, for example, and reviving items are Phoenix Downs. There's usually a character named Cid. There are usually summon creatures named after mythological creatures like Shiva, Ifrit, and Bahamut. You can pilot flying vehicles called airships and use them to explore the world.

And there are recurring creatures that have become staples of Square's library over the years, like the yellow horse-bird Chocobos and the adorable puffy Moogles.

How many other games are there?

So we mentioned the 14 main installments, but there are also three direct sequels to main installments, and way too many spinoffs to count.

Which is the best?

Ask four Final Fantasy fans this question and you'll get eight different answers. My personal favourite is Final Fantasy VI, but I have strong feelings about almost all of them.

If I've never played a Final Fantasy game before, where should I start?

If you don't mind 16-bit graphics and sprites, pick up Final Fantasy VI on your PlayStation 3 or Wii. (Note that the Wii sells the Super Nintendo version, which is called Final Fantasy III.) It has aged quite well. The characters and cities are still pretty and fun to see, while the story is just as engaging as it was in the mid-90s.

If you want something that looks a bit more modern (and 3D), check out Final Fantasy IX on the PlayStation Network. It's easy to pick up and jump right into.

Are any of the spinoffs worth my time?

Yes! Although it might not be a great fit for genre newbies, Final Fantasy Tactics is a triumphant, addictive strategy game that's good at devouring hundreds of hours of your time.

I'm also quite partial to the DS game Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.

Okay, Jason, tell me the truth. Why do people love Final Fantasy so much?

The music.


Well, yeah. Kind of.

The truth is that great Final Fantasy games, like great role-playing games in general, are successful when the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. Final Fantasy games might not be the best at doing any one thing in particular, but they're wonderful at blending everything. By combining grand music, entertaining characters, lovely settings, and all the other factors we've talked about, they evoke this "I'm on an adventure!" vibe that you won't find many other places. You don't need to play these games because you need to hear their stories or fight their battles; you need to play them because they let you have an experience unlike anything else in the world.

Aw. How cute.

Thanks. They're neat games. You should pick them up. If you're willing to look past some oft-silly dialogue and delve into some unfamiliar battling systems, you'll be well rewarded.


Oh, and don't bother with Final Fantasy XIII or its sequel. If you're not already a big fan of the series, they'll just bum you out.

Anything else I should know?

Grinding for levels is unnecessary. Talk to everyone. Be curious. Let yourself fall into the adventure.

Oh, and don't name all of your characters Sephiroth. It's only funny for like 10 minutes.


    Wow, XII is NOT an mmo. Bad writer, BAD. GO TO YOUR ROOM!

      He implies it plays like one. For example: it's almost exactly the same as XI in terms of gameplay.

        Could have been written more clearly I think.
        Reads to me as if there's such a thing as a single player mmo...

          //.hack? :)

    13 is..i-is okay you know >_

    Great read... Only one i haven't played is VI... I know I know... Shame on me... DISSIDIA RULES!!! AND FFCC!!!

    It's damn hard to choose, but yeah 6 is probably my favourite too. 8 is a very close second.

    Haha totally agree with the comment "a big hallway" regarding 13. I sunk so many hours into that game hoping it would all of a sudden change and get better, but I gave up.

      It kinda did, extremely briefly then went back to hallway gameplay. My biggest issue with it was the ending, it just kinda happened with little to no warning. You wandered up to the cradle knowing you were going to fight"a" boss, but as you felt like you still had tons that you should have done, you didn't expect it to be "the" boss

    Ok, so that FFIII remake on DS... was that FFVI or FFIII?

    Also I don't know what it is (could be RPG stigma, could be an annoying fanbase), but I can't think of a series I've less wanted to get involved with.

      there were 2 final fantasy remakes for DS
      III (which is also on iOS and android) which is about the 4 heroes of light. ) Is actually III
      and IV (Cecil and Friends) Which is DS only. Well worth picking up.
      For all modern final fantasy releases the numbers follow chronological order.
      It only gets confusing if your buying on the wii or emulating through a snes emulator and digging up the roms

    Not a bad article, more snippets of franchises like this would be welcome.
    Hmm my personal favourites would be: X(-2 too, VI, XII, VII and II.

    I have loved and played the series almost religiously and I loved FF13-2 (FF13 was tedius/linear but you connected with the characters) 0.o people seem to just love hating on games released these days.

    "For a lot of today’s 20- and 30-somethings, it came out just in time to shepherd us through adolescence. We watched Cloud and Tifa grow up as we were growing up. We sympathized with their mistakes and wished we could be as strong as they were." Liked because it's true.

    VII & IX were my faves (with VIII a close third). XII is the only one in the series I couldn't be bothered with finishing. XIII, for all the hate it gets from fans, still had compelling story and interesting setting.

    13 being a "hallway" makes sense from the action driven plot perspective.

    "biggest" is a little subjective here.
    Surely DragonQuest could be considered a bigger series than Final Fantasy.
    Or even Pokemon.

    Also, way to be a dick - write a "beginner's" guide, presumably since people might soon be playing the PC re-release of FFVII, then give away the most important part of the game.

      correct on biggest being subjective, how many expansions has the sims got now? over 9000? :P

    Finished the original Final Fantasy way back when. It's an achievement!
    Will finishe FF VI, VII and X one of these days...

    XIII was very nice, and this is coming from someone who played most of the games prior to it.

    It's not a big hallway, it's just linear. Linear games aren't bad, they're just linear. It didn't burn me (long time fan) out and anyone who has actually embraced that face that FF games are all different (and intentionally so) will be charmed by it. Here's a break down of why it's actually good and why people may refuse to accept that;

    Good: Apart from X-2, XIII has the best battle system to date. It starts off a bit bumpy, as you'll be spamming X/Xbox equivalent of "X" and using potions every now and again for the first 3 hours or so (this is the same with every Final Fantasy, get over it). But then you will utilize "paradigms". Basically, they're your strategy ticket in this game and using the wrong paradigms or the right paradigms in a flawed way will cost you many... MANY awfully difficult boss battles (fortunately you don't have to go back to save points when you die. A welcome addition in my books).

    There are 6 classes, which I didn't really appreciate, but oh well. You have your standard tank (commando) mage (ravager) debuff (saboteur) buff (synergist) defender (sentinel) and healer (medic). In battle, if your characters have access to the classes (they'll eventually have potential access to all of them after around 20 hours, before that they'll specialize in 3) you can change their composure during battle to fit their certain situation. This sin't something you will do occasionally, you WILL do it in EVERY battle following chapter 3. Constantly. You will be hard pressed not to change paradigm set ups at the beginning of each chapter or before a boss battle.

    There's also techniques (all of them come in handy, especially when the game opens up in chapter 10). Your summons are beautiful transformers. It's kind of dumb, but you get to... ride them ? I dunno. They look cool and you'll need to get platinum ingots for your ultimate weapons (fucking platinum god damn fucking ingots).


    All the characters appeal to some kind of fanbase, for Lightning it will be ANY ONE WITH A SOUL (if you don't like Lightning YOUDON'THAVEONEANDSHOULDGODIESOMEWHERESERIOUSLYPLZ) for Snow it'll be... I don't know. He's generally and arrogant ass hole. But Vanille will appeal to those who liked Rikku of Yuffie in past installments. Fang will appeal to everyone, because she along with Sazh are just unhateable. Try as you might, their charm will force you to embrace them.

    And Hope appeals to pedophiles. MOVING ON.

    The basic story is a convoluted mess enticing you to read it's progression in the datalogue because apparently the writers had not way of including a few extra lines of dialogue to make sense of every thing. But the mythology is amazing and the best of the series, we have to give them credit for that. Thankfully the voice acting and cut scene direction are top notch and make a very confusing story, a very pleasantly dramatic confusing story. And to be honest, you will "get" it. You just won't understand any of the details. But the ending is very satisfying and inspires hope, unlike its' sequel which has an ending that will kill you on the inside.

    The visuals are just, I won't even get into that. The game is beautiful and any one who disagrees will DIE.


    WHO CARES? It's linear for 50% OF THE GAME as opposed to X, which every one loves, which was linear for 90% OF IT. I don't understand how this became it's "make or break point" considering the story execution is really what is at fault here.

    The game opens up to a HUGE and BEAUTIFUL world in chapter 10 that will take hours upon hours to explore and "complete". I sunk 100 hours into side questing their, don't under estimate it.


    There are a few reasons people may not like this game, I will divulge.

    1: Final Fantasy XIII was announced in 2006, at a time when the internet was gaining serious momentum. Opinions could be spread, hype could be deployed at a damaging rate. So it's no wonder FFXIII was at the cusp of that. It was so similar in design to FFXIII in terms of progression, characters and linearity so it surprised me why so many people "hated it". I believe it's simply those who hate it have the internet, and like to make their opinion very known. The game still sold 7 million copies, don't give me this COD comparison crap because if it had only sold 1 million you'd say "lol cause it was crap".

    2: ... I can't be bothered writing any more.

      It was crap. Beautiful crap but you don't play an rpg for the visuals.
      Didn't even care about the linearity but all the characters lacked any depth and the drama always felt forced. And as for the characters honestly if any of them had died during the game would you have cared at all? And at the end with *spoilerspoiler spoiler* You are still left going "Meh"

      Fan's are allowed to be choosy. You cant just love it because its a Final Fantasy game. XIII and XIV were examples of square getting complacent and forgetting their fanbase. Its GOOD people spoke out. Last thing we need is for FF to become the CoD of RPG games.

        You're right, the linearity isnt the issue, its the characters. The 'linearity' for much of VII is actually its strongest point, it has such a wonderfully clear goal 'chase Sephiroth' for the first half of the game that you dont have to worry about WHY you're doing anything, you can just enjoy getting to know the characters and the world as you go, which means you CARE about them later on. Similarly with X. XIII never let you experience anything with characters to get to know and love them, (plus they were boring anyway so it was never going to happen!). To be honest, I think its the world map that needs to come back for us to genuinely care about a final fantasy world again, let us explore, and create deep worlds that have places, people and stories NOT directly connected to the characters we are playing. Have the balls to make places some players will never experience, even though the board room wont understand.

      I am happy to agree with most of this with FFXIII being my favourite FF game so far and i have played since VII through to XIII-2 all except for X-2. I prefer linear games myself as it gives you a constant goal and i hate running around aimlessly looking for crap and taking like an hour just to find something. I know alot of RPG fans love that shit could be why i always hear so much hate on the Linear subject.

      I don't really understand not getting to know the characters, sure there wasn't a huge in depth thing but i think they each showed their colours enough for you to know them, Lightning was indeed an awesome character a leader strong and fearless yet still you could always see her fear that she might not be able to save her sister. Hope in XIII-2 was a badass. Sazh was just trying to get his kid back it was touching to see how much he cared and would go to great lengths just to have him safe again. All the characters have a story that makes you come to love them as you progress, i know when i first got Vanille i couldn't stand her like i had been told by all my friends that she is so annoying. But as you move on further in you learn more and get to love her she became one of my main party once i was in the more open end part of the game where you have freedom over builds and characters.

      xWisp - I don't understand what you mean You are still left going at the end. I think they tied everything up nicely for what you had learned throughout the game. They did end it in a way that opened up for the start of the next game. But none of the characters you played through the game with had anything left incomplete.

    FFVIII will always be my favourite, since it was my first console and first game I bought with saved up money. First game I spent over 100 hours on too, getting 100% on my Triple Triad collection.

    I've not had much to do with the series outside of VII, X, X-2 and varying spinoffs and games with cameos (Kingdom Hearts) although there's a special place in my heart for Ehrgeiz (does anyone remember that?) too.

    Other notable creatures that appear in multiple games would be the Cactuar, Tonberry and the Flan.
    A (assumed) full list of recurring creatures can be found here:

    Much love for this series as a whole. So many hours spent engaged in otherworldly battles and adventures.

      You should definitely play IX
      I think if you play VI, VII, IX and X you can be pretty happy with yourself as far as playing all the "good" Final fantasy's go.

    I think there's a consensus from most fans (who've played all the main series games) that VI the best overall. Favourite game is a different matter entirely though, for example my favourite is V, but most of my friends like VII the best (probably because it's the first one they played, I personally can't stand VII - I was more of a fan of VIII and IX back in the day)

    So glad the music was mentioned as a defining feature of the series, many people don't realise how important (or amazing) it is.

      Nah i disagree, i've always got the impression that vii's the more popular, but that vi has the more vocal fans... could be wrong though :p.

      I personally prefer all of the psx-onward games since the only 8/16 bit rpg that doesn't feel horribly old for me is chrono trigger :p...... even when compared to the horrific polygons in FFVII

    Final Fantasy?

    Thats a retarded way to spell Dragon Quest.

    " war-ravaged shoes of a hero"
    Surely you meant 'fresh-out-of-puberty teenager'...

    Potion tier: Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II, Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance
    Hi-Potion Tier: Final Fantasy III, Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy XIII, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles
    X-Potion Tier: Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy XIII-2, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2
    Elixir Tier: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, Final Fantasy XII
    Mega-Elixir Tier: Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy Tactics

      Everything went to hell when you put FFXII in Elixir Tier - sorry =/

        Agreed 12 sucks

    Great article. I just finished playing (again) final fantasy 6 and it was great

    3 ff v
    4 ff xii
    5 ff x-2 just because you can see what spira is like

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