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If there’s one thing nerds love to do, it’s argue about our favorite things and which one is better. SNES or Genesis? Batman or Superman? Mike or Joel? Amongst the myriad of geeky topics than can spur internet flamewars, there’s a particularly contentious one: which Final Fantasy game is the best?
Anyone who has attempted to engage in such a debate has discovered something: your favorite FF game is somebody else’s least favorite FF game – and oftentimes for the very same exact reasons that you love it. With that in mind, we’ve set out to settle the debate once and for all. We’ve taken a long, hard look at all the mainline, numbered FF games – no spinoffs, no direct sequels ala X-2 – and have decided to end all arguments once and for all by describing why each and every one is simultaneously both the best and the worst Final Fantasy game ever. In the face of such irrefutable evidence, all arguments are certain to cease now and forevermore… right?
Why it’s the best FF ever: Every saga has a beginning, and this is where the root of one of the most legendary game franchises of all time took hold. Final Fantasy I is a classic that hews closer to the classic pen-and-paper RPGs that inspired the genre than any game to follow. By assembling a party of your own choosing (out of classes that would become standard in sequels to follow), you decide for yourself how you will tackle the story – much like assembling a group of buddies for an AD&D campaign. There are countless ways to challenge yourself – how about trying to complete the adventure with an all-mage party? And by challenge, I do mean challenge – Final Fantasy has some very tough dungeons, and even the regular enemies pose a series threat to the party, unlike the pushover monsters in the games to follow. And when you do get to the end, prepare for a story twist that’s surprisingly sophisticated for its time.
Why it’s the worst FF ever: FF1 is nearly 25 years old, and it shows in the game’s sloppy construction. The story and the way it’s presented is lame: the game rarely spells out where you need to go next, leaving you wandering aimlessly quite often – this results in hundreds of unwanted, frequently lethal random encounters. These regular enemy groups are incredibly tough, while bosses are a relative pushover. And did we mention how incredibly buggy and imbalanced the game is in the magic department? Half the spells don’t work as advertised, and since the intelligence stat is completely worthless, mages are woefully underpowered at endgame. Sure, you can play Dawn of Souls on GBA for a lot of bugfixes and a revised MP system… if you like Wii-style Baby Mode difficulty.
Personal Take: Final Fantasy I is certainly a relic, and whether its oldness is charming or obtuse depends wildly from person to person. I found that if people didn’t really understand – or particularly like - the way old-fashioned RPGs were made, then they couldn’t enjoy FF1 very much. You’ll still find plenty of people who enjoy FF1, though it’s rare to see anyone hold it up as a de facto favorite. You can create multiple party variations so it’s got a surprising amount of replay value and offers a lot of ways for players to challenge themselves, so it’s not as impossible to love as some might think.
Why it’s the best FF ever: The original Final Fantasy may have set the ball rolling, but Final Fantasy II is where traditions for games to come were set in stone. Final Fantasy II introduces elements like Cid, the much-beloved Chocobos and a host of familiar monsters that would make constant reappearances throughout the series. It was also the first game in the series to deliver individual, well-defined characters with their own distinct personalities and dialogue. You’ll meet several of them throughout the story as it takes numerous twists and turns that were uncommon for RPGs of its day. It’s also a wildly experimental game; the shift away from the standard “leveling” system and the unique conversation system show that even in this day and age, the Final Fantasy development team wasn’t afraid to take chances and introduce new, interesting elements to the series.
Why it’s the worst FF ever: Surely every gamer knows how “level” systems work – beating enemies earns experience points, which raise your level and boost your stats. It’s a mechanic ubiquitous to gaming… and it isn’t part of Final Fantasy II. Instead, you’ve got a hilariously broken stat-building system that you basically have to grind to proceed. Example: want to gain attack power? Use “Attack” a lot to build strength. Want to gain hit points? You have to be hit a lot - the game’s subtitle should be “attack your own party for fun and profit.” Oh, and there’s a whole word-learning and conversation system that’s awfully implemented. It sure is fun trying to find some NPC with a keyword I need to remember and pick from a list later in order to proceed! Wait, no it’s not. And stop me if you’ve heard this story before: a bunch of rebels organized by a princess works to fight against an evil Emperor. Hmm!
Personal Take: Final Fantasy II is a very odd beast. It’s usually on the bottom of peoples’ rankings of FF games… provided they’ve actually played it. It’s not hard to see why, either: the simple acts of building your stats and NPC conversation are changed in weird and frustrating ways. One interesting bit of trivia is that FFII was at one point slated for a North American release – in fact, a very early translated version exists. It would be interesting to imagine how peoples’ nostalgia (or lack thereof) for this title would have been affected had it actually received a proper release back in the day.