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

Why it’s the best FF ever: The more story-driven FF games tend to focus primarily on a single lead character, but Final Fantasy VI doesn’t have just one lead… it has a whole cast of them. Its presentation of different character tales, all carefully interwoven with each other, is unusual and unique for the series, and for gaming in general. Plus, every character is a very distinct entity with their own unique skills, personality, and quirks, but you can also customize them as you please with special accessories and techniques and boosts granted through the use of Magicite. The epic presentation matches the story - many games threaten you with the end of the world, but so few games have the cajones to actually carry out global destruction over the course of the narrative. On top of it all – figuratively and literally – is an awesomely insane killer clown of a villain who mocks you at every turn.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: Three words: World of Ruin. What was once an excellently structured, interesting game goes completely off the rails in a more “open” second act. The World of Ruin throws difficulty balancing out the window; its open structure means monsters all over the map wildly vary in level, as there’s no way the devs could know what level your crew will be at when they take on various dungeons, and your own team becomes so powerful near the end that if you can’t annihilate anything in your path you must deliberately be playing it wrong. Hardly as tightly knit as prior games in the series.

Personal Take: Final Fantasy VI was like a revelation back in 1994: a complex, hope-filled story with multiple leads that takes players to Armageddon and back again. It also showed that, despite 32-bit power looming just over the horizon, the SNES was still very capable of delivering a graphically and musically rich experience. It’s a game that had a profound influence on me, and I played it constantly as a teenager. Nowadays, I can look back on it and see a lot of its flaws, but much of its presentation and ambition still holds up amazingly well.

Why it’s the best FF ever: Everyone has played this. Its revolutionary presentation - the cutting-edge visuals, the lengthy, gorgeous CG cutscenes, and the awe-inspiring summoned beasts – set the stage for RPGs in the generations to come and introduced a whole new batch of players to the genre. The mix of technology and fantasy created a fresh new world unlike anything else in the series before it, and the varied cast of characters – drawn by a new character designer Tetsuya Nomura – remain beloved to this day.

Beyond the main game, there are numerous sidequests and mini-games to explore and master (Chocobo Racing!), setting a precedent for installments further down the line. But what’s really important is that FFVII has some of the most memorable story scenes in all of video games. In fact, the death of Aeris may be THE single most memorable videogame sequence of all time, period.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: It’s the FF game everyone has played and remembered… and it’s a clear case of nostalgia goggles. The stunning graphical presentation may have wowed us then, but its visuals have succumbed to time more than any other FF title. It introduced the RPG world to unskippable, lengthy summons and magic spells that look rad the first time and grow progressively more infuriating to sit through. It’s also the first step away from the “Fantasy” part of the “Final Fantasy” title – what’s with all the TVs and cellphones and crap?

The Materia system means characters are practically interchangeable save for their Limit Breaks… which you shouldn’t expect to use much. The main villain is a long-haired pretty-boy with mommy issues - Ooh, what a badass! And an ambiguous ending (which two characters don’t even show up in) leaves plenty of room for spinoffs and cash-milking of fans! But perhaps worst of all, FFVII also introduced us to the character designs of Tetsuya Nomura, whose style has since guided the general JRPG aesthetic. The epidemic of sullen heroes with spiky hair, stupidly huge swords, and zippers? It all began here, friends.

Personal Take: Depending on whom you ask, Final Fantasy VII is either the herald of the best era of FF or the first step towards the series’ precipitous decline. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle – FFVII isn’t a terrible game, but as a longtime RPG fan, I felt it didn’t live up to the crazy hype and promotion it had running in 1997. Of course, other folks had their eyes opened to a new genre they had dismissed entirely, and it’s easy to see why FFVII holds a special place in their hearts. It’s perhaps the most enduring installment in the series, as well – one look at all the numerous spinoffs and cameos it has inspired proves this is one of the most beloved games of not just the series, but of all time.

Why it’s the best FF ever: Final Fantasy VIII took the next-gen conventions that VII established and brought them to new heights. The story focuses more intently on character drama, with sweeping themes of loss, love, resentment and finding yourself with a cast of attractive young heroes. The graphics match the newfound sophistication in character design; gone are the ugly, Popeye-armed character models of VII, replaced with full-sized character models that actually look like the characters they’re based on.

The CG quality has also increased dramatically, making the cutscenes look better than ever. And who can forget some of those great story points? The parade, the dance, the game’s theme song playing with Squall and Rinoa floating through space together… oh, the memories! Plus, the Junction system introduced one of the most complex and interesting character-improvement methods in all of the Final Fantasy titles – you would literally suck spells out of monsters and store them for later use.

Why it’s the worst FF ever: Whatever, Squall, you’re a terrible lead who needs to get the hell over himself. Seriously, it’s obvious you’re leading a pretty comfortable life, but you’re still just wasting your time moping constantly. Actually, considering all of your party members are equally obnoxious, that isn’t terribly surprising. And wait, you actually knew each other when you were kids and you just completely forgot because your Bahamut buddy somehow destroyed those braincells? What? Well, there’s no time to explain that, because we’ve got a crazy lineage of time-warping sorceresses attempting… time compression? That’s the stupidest thing ever!

No, wait, the fact that everything is somehow Squall’s fault in the end is even stupider! Let’s not forget the comedically broken Junction system, either – you can game this thing for all it’s worth very, very early on with just a few hours of grinding, effectively sucking the challenge out of the majority of the fights.

Personal Take: Final Fantasy VIII is one of the series’ more divisive entries – you either love it to bits or you loathe it with the burning fury of a thousand suns. I definitely fall into the latter category – it is easily my least favorite installment of the series. Frankly, I would have preferred the goofy, lovable Laguna as the permanent protagonist over wimpy, whiny Squall, but even that wouldn’t have fixed the what-the-hell-is-going-on-here plot and the busted Junction system. It’s a game that definitely inspired heated arguments on both sides, and may be the most controversial of all FF games… but maybe not so much now that FFXIII is out.