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Why every Final Fantasy game is the best AND worst in the series

Why it’s the best FF ever: Everything people love about the golden age of retro-RPGs is wrapped up here in one wonderful little package. FFIII was the first game in the series to allow characters to gain and swap new abilities at a whim with its clever job system. Need an extra magic user? Just convert your sword-wielding fighter into a mage! A whole mess of now-standard FF classes made their debut here – what would FF be without Summoners to bring forth our favorite destructive monsters? It’s a visually endearing game, too: the Famicom original features exceptionally lovable sprite visuals, while the DS 3D remake boasts some wonderfully cute designs that capture that squashed, 8-bit feel perfectly.

The music of the Famicom original is some of the best on the platform, showing how memorable the 8-bit chiptune sound really can be. And tough? Oh hell yes, this game is wonderfully, brutally hard in a way few modern RPGs are. Every battle can be your last if you’re underprepared; strategy and using your job abilities to the fullest aren’t just encouraged but required, and some of the dungeons feature absolutely devious gimmicks that will make you feel like a true warrior once you’ve overcome them.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: You thought FF1 had nonexistent characterization? FFIII’s cast are literally blank-faced kids with no personality to speak of. They did get some semblance of identity in the DS remake, but they still have no distinguishing traits in combat, making them all just different-looking clones of each other. Some of these jobs are utterly worthless, too – hope you didn’t expect the Bard to be useful!

The story is all over the place, with bizarre plot elements pulled seemingly out of nowhere. And did we mention this game is stupidly hard? FFIII is probably the most unrelentingly difficult entry in the series, with dungeons designed to make you miserable (Run around as defenseless midgets! Fight monsters with certain weapons or they will multiply each turn!) and which have no save points whatsoever.

Personal Take: I have a strange soft spot for Final Fantasy III. Like FFII, it’s one of the least-played installments outside of Japan, so a lot of people haven’t experienced it enough to develop strong feelings about it. For me, it represents the best of things I love about 8-bit RPGs: a simple but distinct charm to both the story and presentation, and a difficulty that truly tests you. The job system is surprisingly complex for a game of its era, and it’s a lot of fun to play with, even if several classes aren’t worth sinking time into. I think FFIII is definitely worth a look if you haven’t played it – just know what you’re getting into first.

Why it’s the best FF ever: Final Fantasy is a series known for its sweeping stories, and Final Fantasy IV took the series to new heights. It features a real character arc – main hero Cecil falls from grace, questions himself, hits rock bottom and then achieves ultimate redemption on numerous levels. The constantly changing cast that accompanies Cecil brings a lot of uniqueness to the table, as every character is distinct in their own way. Their individual fates are always in question too; characters can be swept away, betray you or perform heroic sacrifices at a moment’s notice, keeping you enthralled and eager to see what will happen next.

On the tech side, FFIV not only took advantage of the vastly upgraded SNES hardware with its impressive use of Mode 7 visuals, it also introduced the FF-standard Active Time Battle system, which added an element of urgency to the decision-making process. Enemies would keep on attacking as you made critical choices, and certain skills had a “charge time” associated with them, making battle far more intense than ever before. Plus, it got rid of that awful “limited number of uses” magic system from the earlier games in favor of a traditional MP pool. Thank goodness!

Why it’s the worst FF ever: You call this an epic story? It’s like a constant stream of out-of-nowhere betrayals, revelations and deus ex machinas arranged into something that somewhat resembles a coherent story. Half the characters don’t stick around or get killed off too fast for you to form any sort of attachment to them. And the big bad villain… isn’t a big bad villain at all, he’s controlled by a bigger, badder villain you don’t learn about until the ass end of the game! How’s that for awesome plotting?

At least back on the SNES you had the excuse of a bad translation to cover all of the gaping plot holes, but once the game was “properly” presented… it turns out it’s just as dumb! Plus, it’s clear Square didn’t really test the whole Active Time Battle thing out like they should have. Sure, I can see why powerful spells take longer to cast… but they’re totally worthless if I can deal just as much – if not more – damage with regular attacks before the spells finish chanting. Speaking of worthless, how about that Edward, eh? He’s possibly the worst meat shield to ever grace a Final Fantasy game – except he doesn’t even function as that. Go ahead and hide some more, sissy-boy.

Personal Take: Considering how many re-releases and editions this game has seen, I was surprised to see how many people I surveyed just didn’t care for it at all. Maybe the appeal has been lost to time for some – but the people who really, really love FFIV often hail it as their favorite in the series. It’s definitely a high point for me as well, even though I might not list it among my top picks. The cast is great – even though a lot of them don’t get nearly enough screentime – the story is simple but effectively told, and there’s a lot of fun hidden stuff and extras to seek out. The spoony bard can rot for all I care, though.

Why it’s the best FF ever: In terms of sheer gameplay depth, it’s hard to top Final Fantasy V. The job system from FFIII returns, and it’s more complex and engaging than ever before. Instead of swapping jobs in and out when needed, you gain Job Points alongside EXP in battle, allowing your job levels to increase separately. As your jobs skills increase, you can actually retain the skills from each job and carry them over into other jobs, resulting in a myriad of potentially awesome skill combinations that puts your imagination and strategic planning to the test.

The story forgoes much of the constant melodrama of FFIV, delivering a more straightforward tale that still has a good deal of memorable moments, surprises and characters. (Who doesn’t love tomboyish pirate captain Faris?) We also get to meet one of Final Fantasy’s most lovable returning faces, the eternally inept Gilgamesh and his classic battle song.

Above: So good!

Why it’s the worst FF ever: After Final Fantasy IV’s epic saga of betrayal and redemption, that took us and a constantly changing lineup of heroes from the underground all the way into space, we get a followup with… some boring stuff about meteors, flying dragons and parallel worlds with a small gang of nondescript heroes. And they really are nondescript – these guys are basically empty shells with no distinctive abilities of their own. You can certainly craft them into whatever you want with the job system… through hours upon hours of grinding to master all of the good skills, which don’t come easy. Oh yes, and the main bad guy… is an evil tree.

Personal Take: Make no mistake about it: Final Fantasy V is my favorite FF game. The story might be weak compared to other installments in the series – and that’s why some fans don’t care for it as much – but the gameplay is absolutely meaty. There’s a lot of complexity to the job system that begs to be explored and tested, and while it’s entirely possible to find some game-breaking exploits, it still requires significant effort and strategy to do so. It might be tough to get past the slow-moving intro and the relatively weak soundtrack, but there’s a rich creamy center underneath that I just can’t get enough of.