Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Twenty-eight years and even more games into the series and Final Fantasy has become ubiquitous. Dissatisfied with the ever-slowing production schedule required to pump out new roman numeric sequels, developer Square Enix has leveled up its bank account with innumerable Final Fantasy spin-offs, re-releases, HD remakes and loosely related mobile apps.
But those “numbered” epics (Final Fantasies I through XIII, the main games in the series) remain the core of the franchise. And now, for the first time since society became mathematically incapable of keeping up with them all, nearly every major Final Fantasy game is accessible through a combination of digital storefronts that include Apple’s App Store, Steam on PCs, Google Play, and Sony’s PlayStation Store.
Even if we shave off the music games (Theatrhythm Final Fantasy), the fighting games (Dissidia Final Fantasy, Ehrgeiz), the MMOs (FF XI and FF XIV), the most recent flagships (FFXIII and FF Type-0), and the sequels within the sequels (like Final Fantasy X-2 and Lightning Returns)—which is exactly what we’re doing, by the way—there’s still a mountain of games and several thousand hours of semi-coherent plot through which to wade.
Whether you’re a Final Fantasy vet and need to feed the nostalgia beast that resides in your gallbladder, or you’ve never played a Final Fantasy game and want to see what all the turn-based fuss is about, this is the list of where to start and what to skip.
One disclaimer: This ranking is based purely on original game quality and how much it demands a replay. It’s worth noting that several of the games listed have been remade for phones with ugly new graphics and crappy touchscreen controls. This ranking is not intended to be a review or endorsement of those remakes. Do your research before downloading and, when in doubt, the original is best.
And that’s final. Heh.
12. ‘FINAL FANTASY II’
Available on: iOS, Android
Even with the graphical “upgrade” first implemented for its re-release on the Nintendo DS handheld system, and more recently for the iOS download (barf-tastic), Final Fantasy II demands to be played like you’re demanding another random battle. Its job system isn’t as robust or refined as you’ll find even in FFIII, and it lacks the distinction of being the game to launch a storied franchise. If you’re going to reach that far back, might as well play the original.
Plus the FFII mobile remake features “smooth” graphics, rather than the original 8-bit look, and troublesome touch controls. The original is best, if you can find it.
11. ‘FINAL FANTASY IX’
Available on: PlayStation Store
Equip: rose-colored glasses. The most critically acclaimed game of the series (based on reviews from when the game came out in 1999), Final Fantasy IX has the odd stylistic distinction of being a “throwback” that’s now 15 years old. What happens when you’re nostalgic for a game that was built on nostalgia? Well, if you download it on the PlayStation Store or pop in the old discs, you’ll find it’s plodding nearly to the point of being unplayable. In a word? It’s boring.
Perhaps an iOS or HD remake will come along with zippy load times or a 2x play speed option that will allow the charming things about the game (of which there are many) to shine through its slipshod pacing. Until then, I highly recommend you take the walk down memory lane wearing fancy modern earbuds; the game music wizards over at ocremix just dropped their 58-track remix of the Final Fantasy IX soundtrack called “WORLDS APART”—and it’s available for free.
10. ‘FINAL FANTASY XII’
Available on: PlayStation 2
The first game in the series to eschew turn-based battles finds itself this far down the list not for any stylistic or critical reason (it’s great), but because of the awkward timing. A latter-day PlayStation 2 release, the nearly decade-old game isn’t yet quite old enough for a remake or re-release. A curious no-show on the PlayStation Store means eBay and CD load times are in your future should you decide to give it a go.
And hell, while we’re at it, let’s throw in a stylistic reason, too: XII is indelibly a Final Fantasy game, but it is also most notable for its departures from series mainstays, like turn-based combat and a central main character (this is much more a true ensemble). Your quintessential FFs reside further down the list.
9. ’FINAL FANTASY VIII’
Available on: PlayStation Store, Steam
The misunderstood younger brother to its overachieving elder brother Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII is without a doubt the moodiest game in the series, and that’s saying something. Spearheading the moody cast of the moody plot is Squall, who may or may not be upset because computer graphics animators at the time lacked the technology to render him a smile. The game has dozens of cutscenes (effectively mini Pixar movies that take control away from the player to move the plot along) that prove this out.
Squall may also be frowning because he has no idea what the hell is going on. In a series full of WTF plotlines, FFVIII is the most confounding. If Playboy contributor Phil Hornshaw and I ever make the web show we’ve always dreamed of—basically Drunk History with video game plots—this is where we’ll start.
8. ’FINAL FANTASY III’
Available on: Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, Steam
Funal Factasy: Final Fantasy IV was originally released in North America as Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy VI was originally released in North America as Final Fantasy III because originally Final Fantasy II, III, and V didn’t make their way out of Japan. Got it? The numbering confusion has since been rectified, so I kind of hate myself for even mentioning it. But it is notable because non-Japanese gamers had to wait sixteen long years after its 1990 release to play the true Final Fantasy III (not VI, remember) when it was remade by Matrix Software for Nintendo DS in 2006.
What’s great about the remake is that it looks and feels like a true throwback as opposed to something totally outdated or brand new. It has modern 3D graphics and an orchestrated soundtrack built around very traditional gameplay and plot.
7. ‘FINAL FANTASY IV’
Available on: Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, Steam
Final Fantasy IV has the distinction of being the first game in the series with real characters—that is to say, characters with distinct personalities and backgrounds, as opposed to vacant heroic shells for players to inhabit. Cecil and Golbez are perhaps Final Fantasy’s most famous hero-villain pairing this side of Terra-Kefka and Cloud-Sephiroth for this reason.
The feeling of guiding and befriending a team of distinct individuals is aided by the gameplay: IV grafts particular classes to particular characters. Cecil is a dark knight, Kain is a dragoon. You don’t get to change who they are by changing the way they fight any more than you can change their names.
Oh wait, you can change their names. Nevermind.
6. ‘FINAL FANTASY V’
Available on: PlayStation Store, iOS, Android, Steam
In many ways, V was a bellwether for VI and how we now think about Final Fantasy. Though the story sounds standard in brief—crystals, meteor, runaway princess, dying planet, etc.—this is when director and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi really began to take off the narrative shackles. Memorable characters and a dynamism of emotion is what keeps many returning to the series. And because V was originally not exported from Japan for not being “accessible enough to the average gamer” (eg, it’s hard), there’s a good chance you missed it.
That said, the FFV remake features “smooth” graphics, rather than the original 16-bit look. Game developer Bill Stiernberg provides a pretty detailed breakdown of why this is terrible on Twitter.
5. ‘FINAL FANTASY’
Available on: iOS, Android, PSP
Look, it’s the first one. If nothing else, beating it comes with the ephemeral badge of honor that says, “Yes, I’ve played the original.” But Final Fantasy is more than that. Sure, a lot of the series’ traditional ingredients have become rote or even abandoned since (crystals, random battles, turn-based combat, the job class system), but it’s truly remarkable to see them unburdened by their own history, seemingly formed from the ether in a completed state. Plus, it’s really hard—probably still the hardest game of the series. Now that’s an ephemeral badge worth fighting for.
The FFI mobile remake also features “smooth” graphics rather than the original 8-bit look, and troublesome touch controls. The original is best, if you can find it.
4. ‘FINAL FANTASY X’
Available on: PlayStation Store
Blitzball! Call me a blasphemer all you want, I’m going to say it: Final Fantasy X has the best turn-based combat in the series—or in any game, period. Bringing back a four-character battle system (it had been reduced to three for VII-IX) was just the start. Square-Enix managed to make the “dated” gameplay mechanic fast-paced, deep and challenging. And then, they never used it again. Might as well go out on top, eh?
X is also home to a bright, fun world that cares deeply for its characters. Also blitzball. Did I mention blitzball? The great HD remake is available in the PlayStation Store now.
3. ‘FINAL FANTASY VII’
Available on: iOS, Steam
If you haven’t heard, the most acclaimed, famed and financially successful Final Fantasy is getting a full first-pixel remake (which I wrote about in detail here). In the meantime, the original has recently become available again for PC and iOS. My biggest fear for the touchscreen release was its control scheme—the frequent battles, in particular, would become maddening without being able to rocket through using the muscle memory choreographed by use of a two-hands, big girl controller. But Square-Enix gets this mostly right by overlaying the full PlayStation controller array over the screen. The only bummer is that the port is optimized for an iPhone, which means things look a bit fuzzy on an iPad. Why outputting the game at two different resolutions wasn’t possible is beyond me.
Barring that, the reasons to play Final Fantasy VII again or for the first time are myriad. But you don’t need to hear them from me. Hopefully it’s already downloading to your phone.
2. ‘FINAL FANTASY TACTICS’
Available on: PlayStation Store, iOS, Android, PSP
“But you said you were throwing out all the spin-offs and namesakes!” Yeah, so I did. But look again! I never listed Final Fantasy Tactics—and honestly, how could I disclude it? It’s one of the greatest games of all time, let alone amongst those bearing the “Final Fantasy” title. The gameplay is deep and rewarding. The art style and soundtrack are intoxicating and enveloping. The story is, well, difficult to follow, in traditional fashion. But if you’re willing to give it another go-round, pay close attention. Unlike most games, Tactics tells a story with something to say. This essay about the game’s thematic focus on privilege and class struggle by Nate Ewert-Krocker is worth the read.
In recent years, it has been re-released for PSP and mobile platforms with the subtitle War of the Lions, and this version is also great, particularly with its beautiful new cutscenes.
1. ‘FINAL FANTASY VI’
Available on: PlayStation Store, iOS, Android
If there’s a midpoint on the series stylistically and spiritually, it lies between VI and VII. The evolution in focus from taut, challenging (if not repetitive) gameplay, to one of deep, epic stories with cinematic presentation is evident here. Both games are phenomenal, but VI gets the nod for replayability. It will satisfy the thirst for a throwback, quelling the nostalgia beast within, and do so with one of the most engaging stories and casts of characters of any game ever made. The 16-bit graphics mean there’s no need for a remake. Even though the tablet download “smooths” things up, much to my displeasure, nothing is lost in translation.
While the rest of the world waits for the full Final Fantasy VII remake, Final Fantasy VI is what you should be playing.
Nick Hurwitch is a writer and author living in Los Angeles, where his time machine broke down in 2008. His latest book, THE SPACE HERO’S GUIDE TO GLORY, is available now wherever books are sold.
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