15. Final Fantasy 15
Ten years in the making and burdened with rekindling the series’ prestige, Final Fantasy 15 was saddled with expectations that were impossible to meet long before it came out. When it did, though, it managed to do precisely what it set out to: modernize Final Fantasy as a series and deliver something inviting to both new players and old school fans alike. Story-wise, Final Fantasy 15 drifts into the same realm as many post-PS1 entries with many big plot lines, all of them poorly explained, and a ton of confusing lore in the background. The game’s open world structure of wandering around hunting monsters actually feeds perfectly into its best feature: the relationship between its four primary characters. Ignis, Gladiolus, Prompto and their liege Noctis are a fun group to explore a world of mountain-sized walking turtles and ghost sword-commanding kings.
14. Final Fantasy 10
Still the model for Final Fantasy’s look today, Final Fantasy 10 marked many firsts. It was the first PlayStation 2 entry in the series, the first main line FF to have songs not written by Nobuo Uematsu, and the first Final Fantasy to sport actual human performances rather than silent text. Today the game feels stiff, with cramped environments and stilted pacing. The story about a simpering sports star falling in love with a doomed sorceress in a bizarre tropical archipelago is every bit as difficult to parse now as it was then. But all that weirdness is still intoxicating in its own special way, including Tidus and Yuna’s cringe-worthy forced laughing. With characters who may or may not just be dreams, Final Fantasy 10 itself is admirably dream like. Few games dare to be this strange.
13. Final Fantasy 5
Final Fantasy 5 metamorphosed Final Fantasy 3’s pupal job system into a beautiful pixelated butterfly. Featuring over twenty possible vocations - from the traditional (Fighter, White Mage, Black Mage) to the creative (Dancer, Chemist, Ninja) to the downright peculiar ( ...Geomancer? Mime?) - FF5 exploded the series’ team-building possibilities. That's all before it busts out the Freelancer job class, which lets players combine select abilities from different jobs and create an entirely new beast to unleash upon the world. For the obsessed fiddler, it’s the perfect role-playing game. Just don’t go in expecting a deep story. It does, however, have a purple-haired, gender-bending pirate captain and that makes up for the thorny narrative right there.
12. Final Fantasy 10-2
Final Fantasy 10-2 is regularly criticized for being too goofy for its own good. And it certainly is silly, with the already zany Rikku getting amped up alongside newcomer Payne and a sexed-up, gun-toting Yuna forming a sort of fantasy Charlie’s Angels. In continuing Final Fantasy 10’s story, though, 10-2 found the three things 10 itself was missing: a sense of humor, a well-paced story, and a way more interesting battle system. While your party is only three characters, Dress Spheres give the gals a visually dense, mechanically rich version of the job system that’s as fun to watch as to tinker with. It also makes 10’s world feel more open than the first time around, making for a more joyful journey. Getting the true ending is a pain in the rear, but the overall game is just more fun.
11. Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn
Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat - that’s Final Fantasy 14. First launched as a buggy nightmare that even the director called a cataclysmic flop, Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn saved both the game and the financial stability of Square-Enix itself. The game itself is a delight. The classes are versatile and easily interchangeable, the battle system is as intuitive, and the world is a vibrant mix of classic Final Fantasy features. Most remarkable is just how easy it is to play your own way. There is not one, not two, but five mission types that play to different styles of progression, from community quests to straight-up grinding. Characters are equally customizable at every stage of play: drop an ax and grab a bow, and your Marauder shifts seamlessly into an Archer. Then, when you have high-caliber visuals and a score worthy of the Final Fantasy name to accentuate the experience, A Realm Reborn offered a world that different types of players will want to explore for a long time. Heavensward continued to improve, refine and add to the redeemed Final Fantasy 14.
10. Final Fantasy Adventure
The world of Final Fantasy spinoffs is tricky, especially in the case of its very first spinoff. Originally called Final Fantasy Gaiden: Seiken Densetsu, this Game Boy game ultimately spawned the Secret of Mana series. While it’s an action RPG with more in common with Zelda than old school Final Fantasy, it does capture the tone and feel of the series. This makes sense in context: Final Fantasy Adventure was the directorial debut of Yoshinori Kitase, who went on to direct FF6, 7, 10, 13, and produce 15. Like those games, Adventure can feel a little weird. One second you’re in a gladiatorial arena, the next you’re in a vampire mansion. The whole game captures a powerful feeling of stoicism, though. Even on the diminutive Game Boy, the emotional turmoil of Kitase’s style of Final Fantasy shone through. It’s been remade numerous times, most recently on Vita and iPhone, but the original remains the best.
9. Final Fantasy 8
Final Fantasy 8’s story is ridiculous. There’s a witch in the future. She wants to rule reality by compressing all of time into a single moment that she controls. Only high school kids can kill her, but they have really bad memories. Why? Because summonable gods live in their brains. Yet somehow this all stays pretty relatable, and gorgeous to boot. Squall Leonhart and his heroic friends really do feel like teenagers trying to overcome impossible odds, and they’re as realistically sulky, confused, and prone to illogic outbursts as real teens. The series itself is known for appealing to teen angst. This is the entry the nails the actual experience as part of its tale.
8. Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13
In another world, this would be the only game bearing the name Final Fantasy 13. (The original Final Fantasy 13 could have been released later as a prequel called Final Fantasy 13-0 or Final Fantasy 13 Before Fallen Crisis Luodendium and a Half.) Taking place so far into the future that returning characters barely resemble their original incarnations, Lightning Returns is simultaneously the strangest Final Fantasy game and also one of its most moving. The story revolves around the very last days of a dying universe where most of the physical world has disappeared and no one has died for 500 years. Charged with rescuing as many souls as possible before everything ends for good, you play as a time-bending Lightning who’s racked by doubt and fear about her mission. Final Fantasy’s take on science fiction typically stays in the land of Star Wars fun, but Lightning Returns veers hard into the philosophizing of hard sci-fi and it’s better for it. And somehow the reduction of playable characters to just one makes the 13 series battle system even better. With a touch of dress sphere flair, Lightning fights using different costumes whose different abilities result in battles that are faster but even more strategic than those in 13.
7. Final Fantasy 9
At the time of its release, Final Fantasy 9 was billed as a return to the quaint fantasy motifs of the original NES games. Nobuo Uematsu’s score was bouncy and classical, a pudgy black mage with his conical hat and glowing eyes figured prominently. As the years have passed, though, it’s become clear just how much of an original statement Final Fantasy 9 was. Its kingdom involved a fair amount of swords and sorcery, but its squat characters and soft story about outcasts finding family together hits honest, quiet notes inside the traditional bombast. Brutal loading times and low resolution kept its artful presentation inaccessible on PS1 but recent re-releases on Steam and a PSN version that speed up load times preserve it expertly.
6. Final Fantasy Origins
How to play Final Fantasy 1 and 2 today is a complicated question. The NES versions are nearly unplayable by modern standards due to bugs, unfriendly design, and brutal level grind requirements. Some re-releases, like the gorgeous but far too easy Game Boy Advance and PSP versions, aren’t ideal either. In order to experience the elegant, challenging, and admirably simple Final Fantasy 1 under the best circumstances, the PS1 Final Fantasy Origins version is the best. Streamlined but still difficult, it is the best preservation of the strange role-playing that made the series a success. There’s still nothing quite like playing through the game’s first dungeon, a quest to defeat a dangerous warlord on behalf of a kingdom that feels like the end of another game. Here it leads into a striking (albeit dated) intro sequence, something that remains a series staple. Origins has the added benefit of a playable version of the utterly bizarre Final Fantasy 2, whose cruel leveling system basically requires you to attack yourself to build defensive stats.