For the past two months, we've been running a feature called Pecking Order, in which we rank every game in a series, from best to worst. First up was Halo, then Grand Theft Auto. Now it's Final Fantasy's turn. Which game in Square's crystal-packed behemoth is the best? Which is the worst? Which has the cutest moogles? Which has the best Aeris death?
Before I start ranking Square's flagship series, let's lay down some ground rules.
1) We'll only be covering the singleplayer Final Fantasy games, because throwing in the online Final Fantasys is like comparing apples and chocobos.
2) Only games in the main series. No direct sequels, no spinoffs. That takes us down to a manageable number: 12.
3) Remember, this is my personal opinion. You are more than welcome to post your own rankings and/or get really angry in the comments. But this is just my personal order of favourites. Keep that in mind.
1. Final Fantasy VI
Sometimes I wonder how much different my life would be if I hadn't discovered Final Fantasy VI and realised that hey, holy crap, video games can actually make you feel things. When I think about my favourite gaming moments, my mind always moseys back to the sixth Final Fantasy: from 16-bit bellowing at the Opera House to the reunion between the wildling Gau and his insane father, the individual scenes of FFVI are all brilliantly crafted, combining to make one hell of an overall experience. And the music! The music! RPGs don't get much better than this.
2. Final Fantasy IX
Most people think of the ninth Final Fantasy as one big homage to old-fashioned design, which is true, but it shines because it feels so unequivocally modern. Yes, you've got plenty of genre tropes here — wizards, knights, crystals, dwarves — but how many old-school RPGs tell the story of a person trying to deal with the fact that yes, he is a clone, and yes, he's going to die very soon? Final Fantasy IX has some great dungeons and a really interesting world, but it's the writing — and the impeccable Western localisation — that makes this game stand out. "How do you prove that you exist...? Maybe we don't exist..."
3. Final Fantasy IV
This is one of those "I know this game isn't really that good, but I've played it to completion at least 20 times and it's got sentimental value and also if you want I can recite to you, off the top of my head, an exact play-by-play of everything that happens, which is kind of weird but whatever" picks. FFIV might not hold up so well today, but in the early '90s, there was nothing like it. We were so used to RPGs with shoestring narratives like "go find the ORBS and save the PRINCESS", it was mind-blowing to pick up the Super Nintendo and find a twisty, powerful story about actual human beings and their emotions: love, revenge, jealousy. Also you get to go to the moon.
4. Final Fantasy VII
Much has been written about the charms of FFVII: the eco-terrorism, the terrifying bishounen bad guy, the elegantly simple materia system. But my favourite thing about this game is that it never takes itself too seriously. Even while your characters are suffering identity crises and trying to save the world, there's always room for a slap fight, some cross-dressing, and Red XIII in a sailor suit, which isn't quite as cute as it should be.
5. Final Fantasy V
People generally remember Final Fantasy as a game where four heroes go around the world collecting elemental crystals, and Final Fantasy V epitomises that concept. You go around the world, fight through dungeons, get better equipment, unlock new classes for your characters, and eventually fight a giant demon tree. Even in the late '90s, when FFV first came to US shores as part of a PlayStation 1 collection, this was all typical RPG fare, but there's still something really satisfying about the fifth Final Fantasy's class system and how you can use it to turn your characters into powerhouses of your own making. FFV also produced one of the most iconic Final Fantasy songs out there.
6. Final Fantasy VIII
Like many modern JRPGs, FFVIII starts off with a bang, then kind of fizzles when it turns out everyone had amnesia. But playing around with magic is really rewarding, the card mini-game is one of the best things you can do for fun in any video game, and you can fly a school. YOU CAN FLY A SCHOOL.
7. Final Fantasy X
While it's not quite clear how much involvement Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi had with the tenth instalment in his massive series — he's credited as an executive producer — I suspect that this is the game that made him want to go to Hawaii and surf all day. Filled with beaches and bathing suits, FFX is best known for starring Meg Ryan an aggressively whiny hero named Tidus who plays an underwater sport called Blitzball that's kind of like soccer if soccer was A) underwater B) played with magic and C) actually fun to watch. FFX is quite good in a lot of different ways, even when the journey starts to drag — and even when you want to smash your television while trying to dodge lightning bolts or complete one of the game's other infuriating side quests.
8. Final Fantasy III
Also known as the beta version of Final Fantasy V, FFIII is a really solid RPG marred by an impossibly unforgiving final dungeon, in which you have to battle through a gauntlet of difficult bosses with no save points in sight. Die once and you could have to redo hours of progress. Even the DS remake didn't make that final trial — which is a challenge in the same way that sticking your hand into an oven is a challenge — any more palatable. I recommend playing through the whole thing, then quitting before the last dungeon. Watch the end on YouTube or something.
9. Final Fantasy XII
Remember Vaan? Me neither. FFXII is best described as a single-player MMORPG, which might be why it ripped most of its plot from Star Wars and most of its characters from a Disney movie. (Vaan is Aladdin. Balthier is Jack Sparrow.) Still, the world is sweeping and lovely, and the combat system is brilliant: you can test out your AI programming skills using what the game calls Gambits, or actions that you can assign to your characters based on certain conditions. You could make one hero cast a heal spell as soon as someone loses more than half of their health, for example. The combinations aren't quite endless, but they're a great deal of fun.
10. Final Fantasy
While remakes of the first Final Fantasy have removed some of the antiquated moments — like how in combat, a character would stand around hitting empty space if their original target died, instead of moving onto the next one — the game still feels very old. But hey, if you want to see how this whole train ride began, from light warriors to deus ex machinas, the first Final Fantasy is still quite playable — and quite enjoyable — even today. (Just don't play the NES version.)
11. Final Fantasy II
This is the black sheep of the bunch. The second Final Fantasy discarded RPG conventions in favour of a SaGa-like levelling system where your characters gain stats based on their use in combat. Your heroes gain hit points, for example, after taking lots of damage in battle. Of course, savvy players figured out that they could break the game by just sitting in combat for an hour and making all their characters whack one another for HP gains afterwards. Whoops. Regardless, FFII isn't bad, but it's bad for a Final Fantasy game. Also, when you start, if you walk in the wrong direction, you'll die. Fun!
12. Final Fantasy XIII
Best known as The One Where You Walk In A Straight Line For 25 Hours, Final Fantasy XIII takes some really great components — eye-popping graphics, a killer battle theme, and fascinating combat — and packages them in a mediocre game. FFXIII's biggest problem, as I've written before, isn't that it's too linear: it's that the game discards all illusion or pretence of being an RPG. While games like Final Fantasy VII don't let you veer from the main plot all that much, you can still visit towns, talk to NPCs, and do interesting things that don't involve walking in a straight line, fighting, and watching cut-scenes. Gone are brilliant dungeons like the Ghost Train or the Babel Giant. Say farewell to fun mini-games like blitzball and Triple Triad. FFXIII is a shallow, lifeless experience that might be more forgivable if its writing wasn't so wretched. But hey, mums are tough.
OK, your turn. Post your thoughts — and your own Final Fantasy rankings — below.