Final Fantasy: Ranking the Main Games

Final Fantasy XV is out today, which means it's time to take a look back at what's come before!

Today is a historic day for Final Fantasy fans. After a decade of development, rebranding, and adjusting release dates, Final Fantasy XV, the latest installment in the iconic JRPG franchise has finally arrived. That means we have an excuse to get nostalgic about what’s come before in the series. Some of the greatest adventures in video game history await within the packages of many of these titles. Through its almost twenty-year history, not many franchises are as memorable as Final Fantasy. Those of us who grew up with these games remember playing one awesome game after another. 

We learned the power of building strategic parties comprised of our favorite, coolest-looking characters and how much ass a huge summoned creature can kick. We discovered the magic of airships, goofy villains, anime-style hair, and the gorgeous soundtracks of Nobuo Uematsu. Some of us even took a foray or two into the MMORPG world thanks to Final Fantasy.

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So, after all these years of playing Final Fantasy, what else did we learn? Well, we learned that some FF games were amazing and truly stand the test of time as some of the best RPGs ever made. And others were… not so amazing.

Which were the best? Which could we do without? Here are all the major Final Fantasy games—ranked!

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All main numeral titles plus their main sequels were included in this list, but earlier spinoffs are not (Final Fantasy Tactics is still pretty damn awesome though!). For the sake of this list, we also disregarded launch version vs. later release discrepancies and all similar issues. We’re focusing on the big things here—plot, storyline structure, character development, combat, innovation, gameplay enjoyment, and the overall immersion factor.

So here we go…

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17. Final Fantasy II

Let’s just say there’s a good reason the Final Fantasy series didn’t really become popular until a few games were under the belts of the franchise’s creators. Many classic FF titles hold a special place in many a gamer’s heart, but FFII wasn’t one of the better titles. It was, however, innovative compared to the first game in a few ways, noticeably the battle system. Final Fantasy II was still a good game back in its day, but it hasn’t held up well, especially compared to its contemporaries.

16. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII

People just can’t get enough of Lightning apparently. So much so that Square Enix felt the need to create three titles based off of Final Fantasy XIII. This third and final installment didn’t feel a whole lot different from the first game. Its combat system and wardrobe systems were pretty fun, but there were a ton of useless quests, fluff, and far too many cutscenes in comparison to the amount of exploration that could have been available. We’re over Lightning, Square Enix. Really. Check out review of the game for more!

15. Final Fantasy XIII

Final Fantasy XIII was a serious disappointment to many hardcore Final Fantasy fans. It had its fun moments and cool cutscenes (and an excellent soundtrack, if I do say so myself), but the cons far outweigh the pros. The game was extremely, extremely linear, and offered almost zero exploration. It’s a complete game on rails, and it’s a shame. The character development could have also been much better.

14. Final Fantasy

The very first Final Fantasy game is, well, old. First released in 1987, it became one of those games that all modern RPGs were partially based on. It was classic, sure, and received fairly positive reviews, but it was pretty painful to play due to various flaws, including those troublesome random battle encounters. It’s safe to say Square learned a lot through the years.

13. Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy X-2 was a direct sequel to FFX, and a decent addition to the story. It was also odd. Square’s attempt at a pop-flavored “girl power” RPG in many respects, the only playable characters throughout were Yuna, Rikku, and Paine, and one of the main features of the game involved collecting costumes which changed their abilities during combat. To be fair, it was a rather silly concept, and a teensy bit demeaning towards the audience the gae tried to cater to, if you think about it…Overall, the game was kind of fun, though. You know, for a couple days. Until the novelty ran out. Check our review of the 2014 remaster.

12. Final Fantasy XIII-2

This game, in a sense, was Square Enix’s way of apologizing for the non-linear ridiculousness that made up FFXIII. This direct sequel used the same combat system and gave us a world that had a great deal more diversions and exploration than the original. This was good, and made the sequel a better game than the original. Still, numerous aspects didn’t click. The characters didn’t deliver as much depth as they could have, and the marketing felt rather misguided (Lightning didn’t even play a large role).

11. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

The original release of FFXIV was pretty awful. As such, the developers went back to the drawing board and completely changed the game for the re-release. It was kind of an unprecedented move for an MMO developer.

FFXIV: ARR would have made an awesome single-player RPG. The story’s solid, the NPC characters are fun, and the world is gorgeous — albeit extremely restricted in parts. As an MMORPG, however, the game world seems even smaller. Progression takes place almost entirely in instances which just doesn’t seem to fit the Final Fantasy paradigm very well. Still, as an MMORPG, those instances are well-made, and the developers are pushing out content at a solid rate. There are lot of players who really love FFXIV: ARR. Unfortunately, it’s just not for everyone. Make sure to check out our review of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn!

10. Final Fantasy VIII

FFVIII was one of those games FF fans either loved or hated. There aren’t many folks that can say “eh, it was okay”. Except for me, probably. The first time I played through FFVIII in high school, I thought the game was amazing. Fun story, fun characters, fun combat. Then when I replayed the game about five years later, I realized that the part of me who loved FFVIII had kind of grown up. Squall really was angsty and annoying. Triple Triad isn’t fun at all the second time around.

Still, the overall plot is decent (although very odd at times), and I suppose I still have a soft spot for FFVIII’s combat system and the random cutting back and forth to Laguna and his crew. Laguna still totally has a piece of my teenage gamer’s heart.

9. Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy V met with mostly lukewarm criticism after both its original release, and the Game Boy Advance re-release. The plot was weak in parts, but the game’s job system was pretty amazing. Cross-class characters? Yes, please. This is the game where many of our favorite Final Fantasy classes and archetypes were born.

8. Final Fantasy XI

Final Fantasy XI was the first MMORPG in the series. To this day, there’s still a subscription attached to the game, which is pretty impressive given the fact that it was released in 2002. For its time, Final Fantasy XI was a fantastic addition to the MMORPG world and offered players a unique experience that encouraged teamwork, exploration, and hunting down rare creatures that sometimes took hours to defeat within a raid. No MMORPG has been made since then that encourages such dedication from its playerbase.

Given how many years it’s been since its release, the game isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. Many class imbalances also became an issue later on as more games became available on the market. For its time, however, FFXI was a cause of many, many all-nighters.

7. Final Fantasy XII

After what seemed like a huge gap in between new Final Fantasy releases, 2006 brought us Final Fantasy XII. It had a ton of innovative and fun features like the gambit combat system and the free-flowing camera. The overall plot was also extremely solid, and featured some of the best voice acting in the entire Final Fantasy series.

6. Final Fantasy III

Out of the first three Final Fantasy titles created, Final Fantasy III was the true beginning of what we can dub as the “Final Fantasy experience.” Everything from the game’s class system to the plot, travel system (including airship travel), the varied landmarks that were ripe for exploration (including underwater areas!), and the spell-learning system were the founding bits and pieces that we’ve come to know and love about Final Fantasy. The game was also extremely challenging, which makes it a fan favorite.

5. Final Fantasy IV

Final Fantasy IV is often heralded as one of the best games of the series—and for good reason. The combat was improved upon dramatically from earlier titles, and the characters and plot are both top-notch. Despite some initial translation issues on the SNES, the Game Boy Advance version improved upon the original and even gave players some new cutscenes to enjoy.

4. Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy IX sports a classic, nostalgia-filled Final Fantasy-esque plotline, many fun character moments, great cutscenes, a large world to explore, and plenty of side quests and diversions to take part in. Those pluses give it a huge rating in my book. It’s one of those games that you can sink a whole lot of time into—and it just played well.

3. Final Fantasy VII

When it comes to Final Fantasy and hype, nothing can quite beat the hype that surrounded Final Fantasy VII. Fans went nuts over this one. As a gamer who just started gaming heavily during the release of FFVII, I’ll totally admit that VII is what sold me on the Final Fantasy series. It was different. It had grit, romance, melancholy, depth, humor, and a fair bit of darkness.

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Among all of the FF plotlines, FFVII’s might be my favorite. I’m a fan of dystopian stories, and that’s exactly what this one is at its core. Replaying it years later brings out the game’s graphical/emo-y faults for sure, but overall it remains one of my favorite gaming experiences. It also helps that the materia system is so cool.

2. Final Fantasy X

Final Fantasy X is where Square started swerving in the cinematic direction that would become a series staple. Around every bend in FFX was a cinematic. For some fans, the movies simply become too much (in later games like FFXIII, I’d agree with that assessment), but the mix between the cinematic and gameplay in FFX felt right. It still had open-ended exploration and areas, but it also had cutscenes for immersion purposes.

FFX was a gorgeous game with some of the best music in the entire franchise. Tidus, as far as main characters go, was a little annoying, but some of the side characters like Auron helped the overall cast shine. The sphere grid was also quite fun. Not as fun as FFVII’s materia system, but definitely up there in my book.

1. Final Fantasy VI

If someone asked me to name all of the aspects that make up a great Final Fantasy game, I’d point them in the direction of Final Fantasy VI. I actually didn’t play the SNES version. Rather, I experienced it a couple years later. It still remains my favorite title, however, and that’s due to the fact that it can still be played to this day and remain as awesome as I’m sure it was in 1994.

It has everything—from an epic plotline with major twists and turns to a great cast of characters, side characters that you truly feel connected to, fun combat that actually makes you work on leveling side characters instead of just ignoring them, epic music, humor, challenging battles, a solid mixture between battling and plotline development/exposition, and plenty of reasons to journey off the beaten path. Those are all the things that make up a great Final Fantasy title. Every RPG fan—no matter how young or old—needs to play FFVI at least once.

Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.

This article first appeared on March 17, 2015. It has been lightly edited.