Although Final Fantasy has been around for more than three decades, my first tango came in December 1997 when my parents bought me a PlayStation with Final Fantasy VII. I was under the assumption that it'd be my final fantasy, yet here I am 21 years later still playing these games for hours on end in the same way I did in my pyjamas during the 90's.
At this point I'd be nuts to call the series anything less than a favorite of mine. And maybe you do, too. Whatever the case, below I'm going to list my top 5 favorite Final Fantasy games and make a case for why they stand out. Feel free to share why you disagree and want to punch me in the face in the comments below.
5. Final Fantasy XIV
Release Date: September 30th, 2010
My Favorite Qualities: Fan-service, boss design, cat-girls
I enjoy myself an MMO from time-to-time, as evidenced by my severe addiction to World of Warcraft during vanilla. While most games in the genre have been god awful as of late, Final Fantasy XIV has been there to pick up the slack. But it wasn't always a top-tier MMO. I played Final Fantasy XIV during its beta in Summer 2010, and eventually purchased the Collector's Edition at launch. What a mistake that was. v1.0 was a cataclysmic disaster, undoubtedly the worst product from Square Enix that I've ever played, earning a bloody red 49 Metacritic average.
The game has since been revitalized into something great that appeals to PC and console gamers alike. It's something that millions of people are willing to pay a monthly subscription fee for at a time when really only World of Warcraft can get away with such a proposition.
Its dungeon design is about as good as it gets, with memorable boss battles and social tools that make you feel as if you're immersed in a world with a bunch of other people who would rather ride a Chocobo than step outside their house. Who could blame them?
At this point I have over 700 hours in Final Fantasy XIV. I might not be currently subscribed, but if I was a betting man, I'd say that I'll be back in short order.
4. Final Fantasy IX
Release Date: July 7th, 2000
My Favorite Qualities: Refined turn-based gameplay, optional side-content, Chocobo side quests
Final Fantasy IX was a sharp deviation from the previous two games on PlayStation, to a point where it caused a lot of division at release. I know I initially needed to warm up to it after expecting another sci-fi game with Mako juice and floating botanical gardens.
Once I got over the initial hump, I found myself hooked. The gameplay in Final Fantasy IX was familiar, but introduced deeper elements of strategy in many of its encounters that made the battle-to-battle experience a lot more engaging. For all intents and purposes, from a gameplay point of view this was vastly superior to most of the prior games in the franchise, and was mostly only forgotten by those who couldn't get over the fact that the main character looked like a rodent.
I spent god only knows how much time with the Chocobo sidequests and maxing out my characters, to a point where I can still see Chocobo tracks when I close my eyes. I also bothered maxing out my characters, as the end-game content was equally fun and diverse.
I played through Final Fantasy IX yet again just a few years back on my PSP, and found that it still held up over time. Not many games from its era can say that proudly.
3. Final Fantasy XI
Release Date: May 16th, 2002
My Favorite Qualities: Group leveling, social atmosphere, somehow losing a year from my life playing it
Most Final Fantasy fans would probably overlook this bizarre title, probably because many missed it due to not having a gaming PC or a PlayStation 2 with a hard drive. Whatever the reason, I jumped into the game after some friends in high school mentioned it in passing. I had no idea what to expect give I had never played an MMO before.
The average MMO gamer would tell you that everyone falls in love with their first MMO. I suppose I didn't break that trend given I hold Final Fantasy XI in only the highest of regard.
After more than a dozen hours of installing patches and battling with PlayOnline software, I finally jumped into Vana'diel. I still remember it like it was yesterday: walking aimlessly through a seemingly endless virtual world, talking crap to people who stole my monsters, and then praying that they'll forgive me when I later realized I have to group with people to level up. Ahh, those were the days.
Final Fantasy XI existed in a time when MMO communities actually meant something. You needed to make friends to progress, and you built a reputation over time. For all intents and purposes, it was a world like our own. Within the next year I would level a Black Mage to level 75. Or, in other words, there's an entire year of my life that I don't remember. At this point I have spent more time in Final Fantasy XI than any other game in the series.
2. Final Fantasy VII
Release Date: January 31st, 1997
My Favorite Qualities: Character design, music, a World Map that's cooler than planet Earth
Final Fantasy VII was a game of incredible magnitude. In its time it had it all: remarkable graphics, a story that touched your soul, music that rose the hairs on your forearms, and the best antagonist in RPG history (Sephiroth). It was heralded as the second coming of Christ back in the late 90's, and unlike other games that rose to such fame, that never seemed to fade. If anything, it's only grown over time as millions of gamers (myself included) have called it the GOAT, and wouldn't shut up about a remake until Square Enix finally caved a few years back.
For anyone who played it back in the 90's, all that begging made sense. This game touched our hearts in a way that usually only cat videos do, and sadly the game has aged very poorly. Barret, Cait Sith, and the rest of the discombobulated gang look like LEGO characters now, to a point where I consider it downright unplayable.
I'm incredibly glad that Square Enix is making a remake, although apprehensive that it can come even close to reimagining one of gaming's greats. Though, there is a part of me that believes that the core soundtrack, story, and characters are powerful enough that, assuming it doesn't half-ass its attempt, it should knock it out of the park.
All that aside, I have great memories of Final Fantasy VII. Things like exiting Midgard for my first time, Aeris being stabbed by Sephiroth, snowboarding at the Gold Saucer, and accidently being destroyed by Ruby Weapon. This is one legit game, you best believe it.
1. Final Fantasy Tactics
Release Date: January 28th, 1998
My Favorite Qualities: Job system, medieval theme, so much stuff to unlock it's impossible to get all of it
I had no idea what I was getting myself into with Final Fantasy Tactics. Turn-based RPG gameplay? Forget about it. 3D graphics standard? How about isometric battlefields. Midgard? How about a medieval castle. For some reason that didn't matter to me. The moment I saw its circle of available jobs, I knew I had to unlock and try all of them.
This was the game that taught me that I have affinity for grinding away for hours on end. I enjoy battling enemies endlessly, even if only to unlock one or two new skills for my Summoner and Ninja. But this wouldn't stand alone if it had to. No, it was the story that drew me in enthusiastically. Set in the medieval era with knights and bowmen, an epic narrative would unfold that showed what it was like to be the unappreciated good guy.
It resonated powerfully with me, to a point where I consider it one of the greatest stories ever told in gaming. I argue that Final Fantasy Tactics still has the best combat system of any strategy RPG. I've played my fair share of Fire Emblem, and even classics like Tactics Ogre. Nothing quite compares to incredible freedom of Final Fantasy Tactics' job system, which allowed for mixing the traits of two jobs on each character, and an incredibly long list of skills to unlock through leveling up.
Though, the main reason I rank this game higher than Final Fantasy VII is that not only have I beaten it several more times, I can actually play it today and still find myself having a great time. Final Fantasy Tactics is a game I play every few years to remind myself why it captivated me eons ago.