Paint me a picture
Final Fantasy can be goddamn impenetrable. It may not be as hard to grasp as Kingdom Hearts or Metal Gear Solid in terms of continuity and broken-slinky plot twists, but the sheer amount of content contained in each story feels overwhelming. Summing them up in their full glory - all the fantastical places, warring factions, mythicism, and unpronounceable names - seems like an impossible task. Unless, of course, you're a Square-Enix logo designer.
In the late days of its development, each Final Fantasy in the series gets its own ornate logo, like a right of passage for stories about swords and spiky hair. These logos are all centered on some important part of that game, with plenty of visual symbolism so it can contain as much of the game's spirit as possible. Even the simplest Final Fantasy logo can have a lot going on, and as a fan it can be hard to decipher what every dark line and curlicue is supposed to mean. So we put our minds to it (plus hundreds of hours of playtime, the Final Fantasy fan's struggle), and have here an explanation of what each of these fanciful logos are getting at. It all makes sense, once you get your mind into magic-and-belts mode.
WARNING: This articles involves deep story explanations, so expect spoilers throughout.
Final Fantasy 1 - 3
After Square saved itself from bankruptcy by the width of one eccentrically dyed hair with the first Final Fantasy, valiant efforts were made to bring the franchise to North America and Europe. That lasted for all of one game before hands were thrown up and FF2 and FF3 were abandoned to the wind. It was only in the early 2000's that the numbering was ironed out and Final Fantasies 1 - 3 finally got proper releases (in the FFOrigins bundle and FF3 DS release, respectively), with lovely new logos to boot.
Admittedly, they're all pretty simple: the original has an image of the nameless Warrior of Light protagonist, FF2 is set with a picture of its nefarious villain, The Emperor, and FF3 features hero Luneth brandishing two swords in attractive but highly inefficient fashion (seriously Luneth, you've cut your range of movement in half and lost your ability to defend most points of contact - get your shit together). That didn't change with the logos for the 20th Anniversary edition of FFOrigins, which are the same subjects made to look more ornate. But really, that captures the spirit of all of these games perfectly, because they're pretty simple themselves. The official beginning of Square's RPG dynasty, they lack both bells and whistles, but act as a solid foundation that started the series chugging. Basic, but effective.
Final Fantasy 4
This is where things start getting elaborate. Originally, Square didnt release FF2 or 3 in the US, so when it decided to bring FF4 to the Super NES, it did so with a bare-bones text logo that read Final Fantasy 2. Oh, theres a sword standing in for the T. Very cute. Meanwhile, Japan used the true logo, seen here with one of the games coolest characters, Kain Highwind. His actions move a great deal of the story along, easily earning his top-billing status on the front of the package.
Years later, when the 2008 DS remake hit the West, Square opted to showcase the villainous Golbez instead - a worthwhile swap as he was responsible for most of Kains misdeeds (let's just say there was brainwashing involved). In a fine fashion that would become common practice for the series later on, Golbez actually affects the game more than any one of its individual heroes. The story of FF4 is, in many ways, his story, so it only feels right that he grace the cover.
Final Fantasy 4: The After Years
After FF10-2 broke the series' cardinal rule and paved the way for direct sequels (good lord, I may faint), Final Fantasy 4: The After Years snuck past the naysayers in 2008, and brought a big 'ol spoiler of a logo with it. Thankfully, it's such a vague spoiler that you won't get it unless you know the ending of FF4, so I guess that's okay.
For those who don't know and don't really care about being spoiled, the two spherical objects behind the title are moons. Specifically, theyre the Red and True moons, both driving forces of FF4 whose true importance aren't fully realized until late in the game, when the Red moon departs with one of the heroes. The return of the Red moon in After Years means the return of mysterious and dark forces, and the logo revolves around them as much as the story does.
Final Fantasy 5
Okay, phew, this one's a fair bit easier to explain than FF4. The dragon in the background is simply a wind drake, which youre able to ride around the planet for quick and easy travel. Theyre sort of an endangered species in the FF5 world, and carry the main cast to and from a few key plot points.
Theyre not exactly the backbone of the story, but are important to several of the main characters, namely the two princesses Lenna and Krile. They also make frequent appearances throughout the story, since a whole lot of people seem to need saving and wind drakes are pivotal to those rescue missions, like scaly lifeguards. The drakes therefore have a huge impact on the cast, and are responsible for keeping the heroes' journey from ending too soon. Plus, one turns into a phoenix later, which is pretty damn sweet.
Final Fantasy 6
FF6 first launched in the US as FF3, and the logo once again didn't really gel with the Final Fantasy spirit. It did match up with the US FF2 though meaning it's just a logo with a swordy T", but this time there's a moogle and a spooky shadow!
The original FF6 logo seen above features Terra, arguably the star of the games ensemble cast, riding atop a hulking Magitek Armor. The games memorable opening sees Terra trudging through the snow in said iconic armor, though shortly after her inherent magical powers begin to cut loose and her true nature is exposed. It's revealed that Terra is half-esper, a sort of mythical being with innate magic powers, and that the Empire that controls her has enslaved several espers to steal their magic and power the Armor. It's the Empire's lust for esper power (the very sort that Terra carries) that creates the main conflict of the story, and the machine she's riding that represents the enemy to be defeated.
Final Fantasy 7
For those who have played FF7, this ones way easy - and for those who haven't, keep your voice down, they might hear you. Behind the familiar Final Fantasy text (notably standardized across regions for the first time, with IV and V still in transit) is Meteor, the world-ending spell that infamous villain and shampoo model Sephiroth summons to smash into the planet.
Sephiroth plans on bringing Meteor down, injuring the planet so badly that its regenerative powers (called the Lifestream, which is first seen being harvested by the giant Mako Reactor in Midgar) seep through the crust and attempt to repair the damage. Once its exposed, Sephiroth plans to absorb that energy and become a god. To pull it off, he needs the Black Materia that will summon Meteor, and manipulates Cloud and company throughout the entire game to bring it to him. Effectively, Meteor is what lies at the end of the heroes' path, the result of all of Sephiroth's machinations, and the real bringer of destruction hiding behind the scenes. Basically, kind of a big deal.
Final Fantasy 7 Compilation
The logos for FF7's many sequels vary from ultra-detailed to incredibly basic. The Advent Children logo, for instance, is far cleverer than a first glance lets on. That may just look like the meteor from VII with a futuristic makeover. But it's really it's a detailed blueprint of the now-destroyed Midgar, with the smattering of polygons to the right representing Edge, the city built in the wake of Meteor's destruction.
The rest of the Compilation's logos are fairly elementary. Before Crisis, a game that centers on the special ops force known as the Turks, features a picture of two Turk trainees as its symbol. Dirge of Cerberus has a set of three stylized dog heads (in protagonist Vincent's signature colors) set around its text. And the cloudy Crisis Core logo is easily the simplest of all, to the point that it looks like barely any thought went into it. However, I'd bet my last gil that simplicity is a deception, and it's actually a reference to this unacceptable scene. I'm not crying, you're crying.
Final Fantasy 8
This one's pretty simple, and purposefully so its hero Squall Leonhart holding heroine Rinoa Heartilly. Square made it clear early on that FF8 would flip the series script by being a straight-up romance with fantasy elements attached, rather than the other way around. They kept their word on that one, and though opinions on the quality of the game's romance plot vary widely, theres no denying that Squall and Rinoa are at the heart of it all. Ahem.
While this isn't a rendering of any specific scene (they start hugging quite a bit once Squall shakes off that inch-thick layer of teen angst), it closely matches two scenes in particular: the couple's first genuine moment of intimacy, and the sequence where Squall chooses to save Rinoa rather than fulfilling his military duty to cryo-freeze her for eternity.
Final Fantasy 9
FF9 was advertised with the slogan The Crystal Comes Back, a knowing wink to fans who cherished the days before Final Fantasy meant drilling for mystical oil and boarding schools that teach Magic 101. In the first six games, high fantasy was the order of the day, and enchanted crystals played an important role in each of their stories as world-saving devices or MacGuffins the villains could use for the exact opposite.
In FF9 - the last of the PlayStation era and a love letter to the age it was leaving behind - all life comes from the crystals. The entire lifecycle of the planet Gaia and its inhabitants revolves around the health of the crystals people are born from them, and when they die their memories and essence return to the crystal, refreshing it for another batch of spirits. The problem is that another worlds crystal is withering away, and the people of that planet found a way to move its fading crystals souls into Gaias. Cue the grand battle for the crystals, and the journey of the last old-soul Final Fantasy.