Final Fantasy is a miracle story. Introduced in the late '80s for the Nintendo Entertainment System, it was something of a Hail Mary for both the company (which was having money troubles) and its creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was considering quitting the games industry and going back to college if it hadn’t been successful. Instead, fans in Japan and worldwide fell in love, and turned a single game into a massive transmedia juggernaut. Over 30 years, the series has sold over 100,000,000 copies and appeared in some form on a majority of the consoles released since the NES. But what makes Final Fantasy so appealing? There’s very little tying the series together, as the mainline series reinvents itself with every new installment. No two mainline titles have the same main characters, are set in the same world, use the same battle system, or even have the same villain. The series are loosely tied by different characters sharing the same name, or similar monsters and summons, but even those aren’t necessarily constants.
Instead, what Final Fantasy seems to be most recognized for is the high level of quality that comes with each title. In a post-HD console world, Final Fantasy is one of very few Japanese RPG franchises that can push visuals just as much as it can story and character development. Final Fantasy isn’t just a game -- it’s a spectacle that J-RPG fans don’t get to experience very often. But which of them is the best? Well, that’s where we come in, as we count down the 20 best Final Fantasy titles of all-time. So which title is at the top spot?
20 FINAL FANTASY II
Final Fantasy II winds up with a bit more flack than most Final Fantasy games because of its weird leveling system. Instead of doing the typical thing where characters level up after a certain number of battles, FF II gave stat increases based on how characters were used. Use a bunch of spells and you’d gain more magic, get hit a bunch and you’d gain more HP, and so on.
Despite having decent graphics and a strong story, most of what we hear about are its systems -- likely because RPGs spend so much time dealing with combat. Nonetheless, it’s not a bad game by any means, which is likely why it’s been remade and re-issued over a dozen times.
19 FINAL FANTASY I
While the game looks pretty barebones now, for its time the original Final Fantasy was extremely forward thinking. It featured an epic story pitting the Warriors of Light against the forces of Chaos, and offered players a half dozen classes to choose from, allowing customization and variety to each player’s experience.
The game was a smash hit on both sides of the Pacific, which makes it all the more surprising then that when Hironobu Sakaguchi first got the green light to make it, things were so dire. He was close to quitting video games, and Square was close to dissolving. Fortunately, none of that came to pass and we wound up with one of the most long-lived video game franchises of all time.
18 FINAL FANTASY XIII
It felt like this game took forever to come out relative to the rapid speed which Final Fantasies were released in the pre-HD era, but in hindsight it feels weird we complained about it at all. It’d be nearly seven years before we saw the next singleplayer mainline Final Fantasy in XV. Anyway, XIII is easily one of the weakest mainline entries.
Half its cast is unlikable, it’s battle system feels like it’s on auto-pilot, and it’s story is a “worst of both worlds” scenario where the world isn’t quite detailed enough to be engrossing, but uses enough weird, unpronounceable names for everything to pull you out of the story. It’s a shame too, since Lightning is one of the coolest looking FF main characters ever designed.
17 WORLD OF FINAL FANTASY
Never let it be said Final Fantasy isn’t willing to take a risk and have some fun with its properties. A Final Fantasy spin-off where every character is chibi-fied and a primary mechanic is having classic Final Fantasy monsters literally sit on each other’s heads in order to alter stats and abilities is, if nothing else, an inspired choice.
At a time where the other major Final Fantasies on the market were either an MMO or an action-RPG, World of FF actually manages to be refreshingly traditional too, employing a return to turn-based combat. It’s only real problem is it was announced the same time as Final Fantasy VII Remake and thus it kind of got overshadowed a bit.
16 FINAL FANTASY CRYSTAL CHRONICLES
After nearly a decade of developing titles away from Nintendo, Square finally came back to the Big N with this spin-off title. Free from the expectations of the mainline, Crystal Chronicles featured a ton of changes from what Final Fantasy fans are used to. They shifted completely away from turn-based combat into being more an action RPG, they went back to nameless protagonists for greater customization, and even added a multiplayer mode. Still, Crystal Chronicles experimentation worked; it sparked a series of titles under the same banner, and helped pave the way toward Square bringing the franchise back to Nintendo consoles once again.
15 DISSIDIA 012 FINAL FANTASY
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Dissidia game on it. Despite its absurd name, the sequel to Square’s Final Fantasy fighting game actually improved on the original in every aspect, with more characters and a superior balancing of all the fighters.
The game even offers a sizable amount of single player content for those of us who are absolutely horrible at facing opponents in the form of a legitimate story mode that incorporates story from the original game as well as offering its own story to players. Because even when Final Fantasy is a fighter, it’s still somehow an RPG.
14 FINAL FANTASY VIII
If Final Fantasy VII was pretty, then VIII is positively glowing for a late-era Playstation game. You play as Squall Leonhart, a member of an elite group called SeeD, who along with several comrades go on multiple military-esque missions together.
For its time, VIII featured a lot of cool things: the Guardian Force summons which were incorporated far deeper into combat than any summons before, a sweet car to explore the world in, and its Junction Magic system was pretty addictive once you got the hang of it. But the game’s nonsensical story makes it impossible to claim it tops other, stronger members of the franchise.
13 THE FINAL FANTASY LEGEND
Arguably, this game shouldn’t even be on the list -- it’s not technically a Final Fantasy. But at a time when J-RPGs had a more nascent fanbase, Square thought it easier to release this game, which is actually the first entry in the SaGa franchise, under the Final Fantasy banner for easier relation to the fans.
Regardless, given Final Fantasy reinvents itself every entry this doesn’t feel like too big of a departure. More than anything, Final Fantasy Legend is notable for its inspired ideas for its systems: your party consists of nameless people recruited through guilds, your equipment can be broken through repeated usage, and stats are increased through items bought in stores.
12 FINAL FANTASY III
Final Fantasy III might have the weirdest history going worldwide than any other FF title ever. To date, the original NES title has never been localized. While Final Fantasy II was released alongside I on the Playstation as Final Fantasy Origins, and V came alongside VI as Final Fantasy Anthology, the final NES Final Fantasy wouldn’t see any worldwide release until 2006.
By then, the game had gotten a complete 3D makeover for the Nintendo DS, and every official version we’ve ever seen in English has been a port of that. Still, that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining game, and the very first appearance of the Job Change system that would become so popular in Final Fantasy V and Tactics.
11 FINAL FANTASY X
It’s insane to believe Final Fantasy managed to release its first PS2 entry just a year after Final Fantasy IX, but the company was on fire at the time. Final Fantasy X was everything it needed to be to reintroduce gamers to the system on a more powerful console.
It had the next-gen visuals, voice acting for the first time ever, and it had Blitzball -- one of the most addicting mini-games of all time. The game was so popular it inspired the first “sequel” to a mainline FF in Final Fantasy X-2; up to then every game was standalone, regardless of how cliffhanger-y its endings got.
10 FINAL FANTASY XI
At the height of MMO popularity, Square decided to satisfy countless gamers by releasing an MMO of their own in the form of Final Fantasy XI. In 2002, PC and PS2 gamers were introduced to the world of Vana’diel, a place where they could completely customize their characters and tell their own story.
Immensely popular, the game would receive fairly consistent updates for years after its creation -- long after the PS3 had released and even well after Square-Enix’s second MMO, Final Fantasy XIV, had come out. In fact, they really only stopped supporting the game in 2015 after the release of the expansion, Rhapsodies of Vana’diel, and there’s both a spin-off mobile game and talks of making a single-player version of the title.
9 FINAL FANTASY XV
Final Fantasy XV spent something like a decade in gestation -- first as the Nomura-helmed Final Fantasy XIII Versus game meant to be one part of the Fabula Nobody Remembers The Full Name Project, then eventually reborn into the Hajime Tabata-led Final Fantasy XV that finally managed to release two falls ago in November 2016.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t a bad game either -- teleporting around as Noctis never really gets old, and the story is a compelling tale following a group of best friends while they travel to the city of Altissia so Noctis can get hitched and try to keep some measure of peace in the world.
8 FINAL FANTASY V
Final Fantasy V follows a guy named Bartz whose travels bring him to a meteor and a collection of people from across the world. Together, the group learns of a set of crystals protecting the world from a threat named Exdeath, and have to work together to protect those crystals or risk losing their planet.
But honestly, the plot of this title always felt secondary to the game’s biggest renovation to the franchise: the Jobs system. In FF5, players are given access to over 20 different Jobs which can give each character in their party unique abilities, offering a near endless variety to every combat encounter, and a replayability that few RPGs can ever hope to match.
7 FINAL FANTASY XII
After six years, Square not only finally allowed us to return to the land of Ivalice, home of legendary Final Fantasy Tactics, but did so in a mainline entry. Featuring a story from Tactics’ scenario writer Yasumi Matsuno, Final Fantasy XII did its best to be a powerful send-off to the franchise for the PS2, featuring sky pirates, Magitek armor, and some of the coolest architecture Final Fantasy had ever seen.
The game was equally ambitious when it came to its systems, too. It introduced a compelling “Gambit” system which allowed players to pre-program their characters and fight basically on automatic if they wanted, and a License Board which was a new way of customizing characters and giving them whatever skills the player wanted to prioritize.
6 FINAL FANTASY XIV
There are plenty of long time Final Fantasy fans that do a lot of complaining about how the “feel” of old-school Final Fantasy has been missing for over a decade now, but those people simply don’t know where to look. Despite being an MMO, Final Fantasy XIV exudes the creative high-fantasy, Magitek feeling of old school Final Fantasy better than anything put out in years.
With a surprisingly strong story that’s still receiving updates, engaging combat, and absolutely jaw-dropping visuals, Final Fantasy XIV has been one of the few MMOs able to keep existing in this era of co-op games and Destiny-likes.
5 FINAL FANTASY IV
As amazing as the Final Fantasy series was on the NES, it was during the SNES era that Squaresoft really started cranking out the genre-defining classics. Originally known as “Final Fantasy II” in the States thanks to the actual II and III never releasing here, the game followed the knight Cecil and his companions as they battled the evil sorcerer Golbez.
The game set a gold standard for RPGs thanks to its well-defined characters, much improved focus on storytelling, and introduction of the famed Active Time Battle system which forced players to make decisions more quickly. IV even received a 3D remake on the DS, for those weirdos among us who just can’t stand sprite-based games.
4 FINAL FANTASY VII
Final Fantasy VII was one of the many reasons gamers were forced to take the Sony Playstation serious as a contender in the console wars. After six main entries and multiple spin-offs releasing only on Nintendo consoles, with Final Fantasy VII everything changed. Square took advantage of the increased storage offered on CD-ROMs and never looked back, releasing a monster of a game on three separate discs.
With its breathtaking cinematic storytelling and beautiful art design, it went from just another Final Fantasy entry to a must-have title that ignited so much love for the franchise Square wound up porting five other FF titles over as well.
3 FINAL FANTASY IX
The swan song for Final Fantasy on the original Playstation console is probably the strongest mainline entry the series received that generation. Released at the very tail end of the Playstation’s lifespan, IX abandoned the futuristic elements of the previous two games to give us a return to the fantasy-centered settings of the original games.
You play as Zidane, a young member of a group of thieves who apprehend the princess of a nation known as Alexandria… who wants to be taken, to stop her power-hungry mother, Queen Brahne. While IX isn’t as varied or fun with the mechanics as VIII or VII, this game’s characters and storytelling elevate it to one of the strongest titles Square’s ever released.
2 FINAL FANTASY VI
It’s not out of line to say Final Fantasy was never stronger as a franchise than on the SNES. Square released three separate mainline Final Fantasy games and yet all of them are regarded as classics, and almost fundamental to any completionist RPG fan’s experience. But the last of those, Final Fantasy VI, isn’t just regarded as a great Final Fantasy, or even a great RPG -- it’s seen as one of the best games of all time.
Though it sheds the fascinating Job System of Final Fantasy V, it makes up for it with it’s beautiful Magitek world and a stronger focus on plotting, complete with one of the best and most captivating villains in video game history.
1 FINAL FANTASY TACTICS
When creator Yasumi Matsuno introduced us to the beautifully detailed world of Ivalice, he also gave us the peak of the Final Fantasy franchise. Telling the hidden story of The Lion War conflict, Tactics’ story is one of lifelong friends torn apart thanks to the circumstances of an unjust world, is so well-told that there’s no way we spoil it here.
Just as good as the story though is the game’s combat. Playing like a more in-depth Fire Emblem, each map becomes more addicting than the last, as players constantly tweak their army to become more efficient. Between the combat and the story, the game becomes almost impossible to put down until you reach the game’s tragic conclusion.