Final Fantasy: The 'Definitive' Top 5 games in Square's JRPG series

Growing up, there were few games I loved more than the Final Fantasy series. Beautiful worlds, lovable charactes and engaging narratives have cemented the series as one of the best fantasy properties in the industry.

Originally envisioned by Hironobu Sakaguchi at the tail end of the 80s, he thought Final Fantasy would be his last game. Over thirty years later, and having sold 159 million units, we are now on the verge of another mainline entry in the form of Final Fantasy XVI.

The series’s wide-reaching influence fundamentally changed the industry numerous times over the years. It not only altered the way developers approached narratives, but it regularly set a new bar for audio and visual presentation. 

Final Fantasy fans are a passionate bunch, so it's quite common for people to argue over what they perceive as the best title. Fortunately, I am here to set the record straight. When you’ve finished reading, you will be in no doubt as to which Final Fantasy game is the best, and therefore all debates should cease. 

5. Final Fantasy IX

If you were born in the 90s like me, chances are you discovered Final Fantasy through one of three main games at the time: VII, VIII or IX. Touting some of the most likeable characters in the series, IX remains loved to this day because Zidane and crew were so likable. Unlike most lead characters in the series, Zidane and crew are cheerful and upbeatcompared to the likes of modern-day Lightning or Noctis.

It also has one of the best character arcs in the entire series in the form of the Black Mage, Vivi. After journeying through the world, Vivi not only discovered that his kind can be produced and is essentially enslaved, he also learns that he only has a lifespan of a year. His story is one of the most heartbreaking in the series, which is why Final Fantasy IX is such a standout in the series.

FF IX on Amazon

4. Final Fantasy IV

Released for the Super Nintendo in 1991, Final Fantasy IV was a pivotal point for the series. Often considered one of the best video games of all time, IV was built on the legacy of the previous games, while also completely revolutionising the medium. IV was made special by its narrative and characters; each character had their own personality and quirks, which made the story far more engaging than prior entries. 

IV also saw the introduction of the genre-defining Active Time Battle System, a staple of the series up until Final Fantasy X. Built on the turn-based battles of proper games, the ATB system further developed the concept by adding timings for characters. This concept of time added a more strategic element to gameplay, because players could see when a specific character could attack. The ATB system went through many iterations through the years, but they were all based on IV’s system. 

FF IV on Amazon

3. Final Fantasy VI

VI was a swan song to the 2D era of Final Fantasy and still stands as a fantastic game in its own right. VI features a cast of fourteen characters that make up one large central party. Despite this, each character is still a memorable inclusion to the Final Fantasy mythos.

FF VI was one of the first games in the series to focus on what dungeons could be, creating dungeons that were an entire experience instead of moment to moment. Using the huge cast of playable characters, players had to balance their magic and item usage in order to survive the dungeons. It created a genuine sense of tension, and tasked players with managing their band of allies in order to succeed. 

Final Fantasy VI also provided tonnes of additional content outside of the main narrative. Characters had side quests and additional items, including weapons and armour that were needed in the main story. This conscious effort to combine main story content and side quests was a design ethos that would stick with the series in the years to come. 

FF VI on Amazon

2. Final Fantasy VII

Effortlessly cool, and the reason why many people adore JRPG games, Final Fantasy VII remains one of the best games ever released. Featuring a deep narrative and numerous character arcs spread across multiple disks, the game set a new standard for story telling. VII's comittment to adult themes and story telling made it incredibly compelling at the time. While the likes of The Legend of Zelda presented fantastical childlike worlds, Square set Final Fantasy VII in a dark, repressive world interwoven with mature themes. 

Final Fantasy VII also has one of the best twists in the entire series, although if you don’t know what I'm referring to, I’m not going to be the one who spoils it for you. Twists aside, VII also had an ace up its sleeve in the form of the materia system. Unlike previous titles in the series that focused on job systems, Final Fantasy VII empowered players to equip an almost limitless selection of materia orbs. Alone, each one granted a new power or stat buff. Combined though, materia was a creatively devastating way to overpower enemies. 

There’s a reason why fans spent the best part of twenty years nagging Sony to remaster it.

FF VII on Amazon

1. Final Fantasy X

Some might consider this a controversial opinion, but Final Fantasy X is the best game in the series for a number of reasons. Yes, the voice acting is a bit hokey, and the general voice direction wasn’t great. However, Final Fantasy X is the most thematically cohesive game in the entire series. Square meticulously crafted every element of of the game, from how it looks, how it sounds, all the way through to the individual arcs of every character.

Of all the games that I go back to play in the series, Final Fantasy X always comes first. I still find myself discovering things I had never seen before, because the world is filled with so much detail. In my most recent playthrough, I learned a lot more about Seymour’s backstory and his motivations. Originally having seen him as just a baddy, I now know there’s a lot more to him. I certainly don’t empathise with him – as he was 28 and tried to marry a 17-year-old – but you can certainly see why he was so messed up when you dive into his optional content. 

Truthfully, Final Fantasy X was that last really great game in the series. I enjoyed XII and XV, but neither stuck with me in the same way Tidus and the gang did. X is the amalgamation of everything that came before, with the perfect sprinkling of new age tech. Let’s just forget the laughing scene.

FF X on Amazon

Honourable Mentions 

Final Fantasy I

The game that started it all. Final Fantasy I released in 1987 for the NES. Sakaguchi pitched the game to Square numerous times, but was shot down. It wasn’t until the success of Dragon Quest that the developer had the green light. Inspired by the likes of Ultima and Wizardry, the first game was unique in the fact it offered numerous character builds. 

What makes the first game so fantastic, is that it contains many of the basic elements that made the series so successful. A large open world to explore? Check. Deep, engaging combat? Check. A mesmerising soundtrack? Check. The first game was the blueprint that the team would go on to master in the subsequent releases. FF I walked so the sequels could run. 

FF I on Amazon

Final Fantasy XIV

XIV started on rocky grounds, but has since developed into one of the best MMOs available. The endlessly complex nature means that XIV has one of the best stories in the series, told across several releases. The latest expansion, Shadowbringers, takes players on a quest to stop a ruinous future. This quest takes players directly into one of the game’s thirteen source shards.

What makes Final Fantasy XIV so fantastic is that there’s an absolute heap of content to play through. This can be a bit of a double-edged sword, as it can seem quite daunting. However, XIV contains one of the best Final Fantasy worlds in the series, and is worth the time investment it demands.

FF XIV on Amazon

So there you have it, the definitive list of Final Fantasy games. There's no need to argue or bicker over which is the best again. The debate has been solved. 

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