The 25 best Final Fantasy games

Neverending fantasy

Hironobu Sakaguchi and his bosses at Squaresoft back in the '80s had had it. This whole business of making 3D racing games for the NES and sloppy adaptations of the movie Aliens for MSX wasn't cutting it. One more game, they decided, and if it didn't hit they would get out. So they made Final Fantasy. It all worked out.

Not only did their winsome spin on Dragon Quest save the company, it's come to define Japanese role-playing games for going on 30 years. While the series is known for recurring features like killer soundtracks and giant birds, it's also been a testing ground for experimental game design and weird ideas. Now, as the series is enjoying a renaissance on PS4 and Xbox One, we've compiled a list of the 25 best Final Fantasy games.

25. Final Fantasy My Life As A King

Final Fantasy heroes are pretty often the king's warriors sent to bring the world into balance, knocking off beasts and learning magic as they go. What about the king, though? What’s his deal? In attempting to answer that question Square built a shockingly good city-builder with all the trappings of its enthralling fantasy setting. As king your job is to get items to build up your kingdom, but not by retrieving them first hand - that's the job of the adventurers you choose for given missions. While the gameplay is by no means difficult, there's something decidedly fun about plotting out your expanding city and watching your warriors grow stronger. A lush, crisp art style ties it together giving the player a lighthearted and enjoyable game where you get to watch your many labors come to fruition. 

24. Final Fantasy Mystic Quest

Final Fantasy was the series that finally drove Japanese role-playing games into global consciousness - we’ll get to that PlayStation game in due course - but it took many tries. Squaresoft made Mystic Quest from the ground up as a gateway drug, a simplified version of the trademark fantasy adventure story and character raising mix that made the genre so rich in the ‘80s. The result is a charming oddity. At the time, Mystic Quest felt too basic in the wake of Final Fantasy 4. Today it plays like particularly artful indie RPGs like Cthulhu Saves the World, boiling down RPG progress to its essentials and surrounding them with bulbous cartoon art. Bonus: Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami turned in one of the best Square soundtracks of all time here.

23. Final Fantasy 13

Here’s the reality: most popular criticisms of Final Fantasy 13 are also applicable to the series’ most-loved entries. Final Fantasy 4 and 10 are just as restrictive in terms of exploration, Final Fantasy 8 is just as oblique in its storytelling, and the abominable Snow and Serah are no more or less annoying than Yuffie. Sorry. Final Fantasy 13’s biggest crime, and potentially the root of its notorious rep, is that it’s a very chilly game. The world of Cocoon and Gran Pulse is as cold and unforgiving as as the crystals that dominate its landscape, and the crew of burdened misfits we guide through it provide little warmth or insight into its culture to humanize it. Embracing the alienness of Final Fantasy 13, though, reveals a gorgeous piece of science fiction with sumptuous art, Masashi Hamauzu’s best soundtrack ever, and a cathartic ending that gives the game a beating heart. The excellent battle system, which admittedly isn’t fully utilized soon enough in the game, was given proper room to grow in 13-2 and Lightning Returns.

22. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call

Final Fantasy’s music is essential to the experience of the games. There’s a damn good reason that orchestral performances run around the globe for years on end. The aural tapestry of these games, from their earliest entries on, informs every moment you’re playing. “Prelude,” the series’ famous theme song by Nobuo Uematsu, embodies both the delicate thoughtfulness and brassy spirit that makes Final Fantasy itself. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call inverts the relationship between music and game to great effect. It’s the music that you play, using the 3DS' stylus to execute timed taps and swipes, and building a party of classic FF characters and building them up is the aesthetic background giving the game depth and flavor. Like the original Theatrhythm, Curtain Call takes players on a journey through some of the series’ most well-known memorable scenes during a musical adventures across a world map or fighting monsters with the power of song. The first Theatrhythm had the obvious musical choices, i.e. One-Winged Angel and Melodies of Life, while Curtain Call introduced a larger, more eclectic mix of songs. 

21. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7

The great promise of Crisis Core was that it would help clarify the murky history of Sephiroth, Cloud, Aeris and the occasionally seen Zack Fair from Final Fantasy 7. It only partially succeeded on that front because this PSP classic, arguably the best exclusive that remains stuck on the portable, presents its tale of betrayal as obliquely as its predecessor. It’s equally beautiful and entrancing, though, and its action is totally unique. As Zack, you fight monsters and mechanized soldiers with a giant sword but the real star is the magic system where you mix and match abilities to fuse new ones. Plus: a giant slot machine pops up in the middle of battle and matching character portraits gives you super attacks. It sounds dumb, but feels great in practice. Just like Final Fantasy 7. 

20. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers

The Nintendo Wii, with its diminutive horsepower and motion controller, is not where you’d expect Final Fantasy to get experimental but it hosted a number of strange offshoots. The best of these was Crystal Bearers, a semi-open world action RPG with a smug hero with a plush fur jacket and telekinetic powers. The story of roguish adventurer turned people’s champion isn’t wholly original or always well told - Crystal Bearers feels like it lost a lot of content getting out the door - but there’s a sweet charm that permeates the whole game and its unusual take on steampunk fantasy is easy on the eyes despite the Wii’s graphical deficiencies. The game ends with a handwritten thank you note from the director flashing on screen. Flawed, yes, but a labor of love that’s wonderful to experience. 

19. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

From the start, Final Fantasy felt more adult than its inspiration Dragon Quest. The gnarly monsters, flowing character art and more ethereal prog music drifted far from the big eyed, bouncy slimes and buoyant music of Quest. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance embraced young players, though, and didn’t dumb down its action in the process. Regular grade school kids find an old book actually called Final Fantasy and are sucked into its world. From there you build an army, raising up individual units and pitting them against each other in strategic confrontations on colorful, grid-based maps. Beneath that, though, is a story about how young people confront issues like bullying, poverty, and the pressure to excel in school. It also created a novel way to force players to change up how they played. Every battle is overseen by a judge that places different restrictions (no magic, only healing items, etc.) to make you creatively reconsider your plans.

18. Final Fantasy 11

In the pantheon of MMOs, Final Fantasy 11 is almost irredeemably dated in 2016. Its devoted followers keep playing, but myriad games have surpassed its demanding, team-based questing at this point including its own successor, Final Fantasy 14. But Final Fantasy 11’s artistry is still something to behold. The muted color palette, the design of its multiple playable races, and the game’s deliberate pacing make it feel fully realized and alive in a way that its contemporaries like WoW and Everquest never did. It may not play like core Final Fantasy games, but it captures their essence. 

17. Final Fantasy 3

Job System is a familiar term in RPG town. It refers to gameplay where you can change a character’s class or type so they can learn new abilities and classifications on the fly, an easy to understand spin on pen and paper role-playing that allows for deep customization. This NES game is where the Job System as we know it today was born. Turning back to the largely personality free cast of the original Final Fantasy after the story centric Final Fantasy 2, 3 is an archetypal story about good versus evil with pretty art and even prettier music. It was the ability to grind out new jobs and learn new skills that made it special. Final Fantasy 3 was remade for DS in 2006 and later ported to PC and mobile devices, but the NES version is, while more punishing to play, more visually and musically rich.

16. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles

From Final Fantasy 1 to 15, many of the games in the series have focused intently on the interplay between four people. In this deeply strange Gamecube spinoff, Square changed that dynamic to an interaction between four cooperating players rather than characters in a party. The resulting dungeon crawler was physically difficult to play, requiring four Game Boy Advances and specialized cords in addition to a Gamecube, but offered an unparalleled couch co-op experience. Describing it as an experience may seem tacky given that word’s overuse in gaming marketing, but anyone who’s played Crystal Chronicles to the end with friends know it’s the only way to describe it. In addition to the great play, Crystal Chronicles benefits from an absolutely lovely celtic folk soundtrack and bucolic visual motif.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I've been playing games since I turned four in 1986, been writing about them since 1987, and writing about them professionally since 2008. My wife and I live in New York City. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game ever made, Hum's Downward is Heavenward is my favorite album, and I regularly find myself singing "You Won't See Me" by The Beatles in awkward situations.
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