While “RPG” has become a catch-all genre encompassing an almost silly range of games that don’t share much in common, in the ’90s one video game franchise was the quintessential role-playing game. Yes, we’re talking about Final Fantasy from Square, now known as Square Enix.
The fantasy Japanese RPGs debuted on the NES in 1987, but became a cultural touchstone in the ’90s on Super Nintendo. From there, the series made an incredibly successful jump to 3D on the original PlayStation. After that, the mainline series started to take more risks, including the elimination of turn-based battles and MMO entries.
Most Final Fantasy games are at the very least good. Many are great. Some are masterpieces. With the remake of the iconic Final Fantasy VII in development, we decided to rank all of the mainline Final Fantasy games.
1. Final Fantasy VI
Far and away the best mainline Final Fantasy game, 1994’s Final Fantasy VI is an absolute triumph in every sense. Originally released in North America as Final Fantasy 3 (yes, it’s confusing), Final Fantasy 6 was the last 16-bit mainline entry. It featured a stellar cast of more than a dozen characters and ushered in the steampunk-style world design that would carry over to the PlayStation games in the late ’90s. This is where high fantasy became the stuff of legend, and magic was replaced by scientific advances and the burgeoning technology from the Second Industrial Revolution.
Perfectly paced, Final Fantasy VI achieved such high levels of narrative impact because of its setup. The first half introduces the cast, from the compelling starting protagonist, Terra Branford to the rebel treasure hunter Locke Cole, all who want to take down the Empire.
The linearity of the first half allows these characters to grow, to let you build connections with each one — an impressive feat considering there are roughly a dozen major players on your side. But the back half of the game opened things up, allowing you to complete objectives and dungeons in a non-linear order. This level of freedom was astonishing at the time. Robust customization features, including unique magic spells, a modified summoning system, and a wealth of weapons, made the traditional active time battle system feel like a constant joy.
Everything in Final Fantasy VI, from the story to combat systems to the world made for a nearly flawless Final Fantasy experience. This was Square at their absolute best. While it may sound bad that Square hasn’t bested Final Fantasy VI in the 25 years since its launch, it’s really a testament to FFVI’s staggering greatness. It may very well be the best turn-based RPG ever made. You can play it now on PC, Android, and iOS.
2. Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy VIII is probably the weirdest and boldest entry in the series. That’s a big reason why we love it, and why it’s slotted so high on this list. Sadly, the executives at Square Enix apparently don’t like Final Fantasy VIII at all. While every other Final Fantasy surrounding VIII in the timeline has been re-released for current platforms in recent years, Final Fantasy VIII has been sorely neglected, as if Square would like us to forget it exists at all.
But we’ll never forget Final Fantasy VIII, which reinvented the active time battle wheel without completely abandoning the series’ roots. The new junction system replaced armor and other accessories for customization, and each main character had a set weapon that drastically affected their combat style. The biggest change, however, was the increased emphasis on summoning. Throw in a neat collectible card game and a radically different scaled leveling system, and Final Fantasy VIII felt like the first really bold step in a new direction. All of these gameplay changes worked in incredibly interesting ways, allowing players to really choose how they wanted to approach the experience.
The planet, a futuristic set of five landmasses based off of Europe, had a level of detail we hadn’t seen in a Final Fantasy game thus far. While Final Fantasy VII introduced 3D models, Final Fantasy VIII significantly refined their designs so we could see Squall (one of the best leading protagonists) and friends in better detail. We’re happy that Square Enix is finally showing FFVIII some love, too. All of mainline games above and below it have received ports or remasters for modern consoles. Square apparently its fans, as a Final Fantasy VIII will arrive on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC later this year.
3. Final Fantasy X
Is it controversial to say that Final Fantasy X is a top-three Final Fantasy game? Probably. But here’s the thing: Final Fantasy X is as phenomenal today as it was in 2001. The PlayStation 2 allowed the visuals to move to the next level, making the Asian inspired lands of Spira and character models look more realistic than ever before. A mostly linear experience, Final Fantasy X has spacious and diverse environments along with dungeons featuring some excellent puzzles.
Final Fantasy X also has the greatest relationship in series history. Watching Tidus and Yuna’s bond grow as he accompanies her on a quest to destroy Sin is a constant delight. The cutscenes, which featured full voice acting for the first time, were mightily impressive and still look great today. Yes, we even love the infamous laughing scene, because Tidus and Yuna are adorable. The narrative, told exclusively through Tidus’ perspective is more focused than most Final Fantasy storylines. Sure, it’s corny at times, but the corniness winds up making it more affecting.
Moreover, Final Fantasy X replaced the active time battle system with truly conventional turn-based combat. The sphere grid added depth to the leveling system, giving you far more choices that essentially let you rework a character’s intended class. And, of course, who could forget Blitzball, the underwater sport that made Tidus famous. A standalone Blitzball game would be great, right? The direct sequel isn’t as impressive, but it’s still worth playing in the HD collection for PS4, Xbox One, Switch, or PC.
4. Final Fantasy XII
Revisiting Final Fantasy XII via the HD remaster for PS4, Xbox One, and Switch revealed an understated truth about the 2006 PS2 classic: It’s a modern masterpiece. The first mainline, non-MMO to drop random battles in favor of real-time combat, Final Fantasy XII was divisive amongst fans. Since it played so incredibly different, it was hard to compare Final Fantasy XII to any other Final Fantasy game. More than a decade later, Final Fantasy XII remains incomparable, and that’s why it’s so high on this list.
The wondrous world of Ivalice is filled with interesting characters and richly detailed environments. The combat, formally known as the Active Dimension Battle system, was incredibly deep thanks to the gambit system and modified Limit Break system called Quickenings. The License Board added further nuance to the leveling system, similar to the Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X.
Admittedly, Final Fantasy XII‘s opening handful of hours don’t excite as much as some other top-tier Final Fantasy games, but once the world opens up and you get used to the radical battle system, the world of Ivalice houses one of the deepest and most rewarding Final Fantasy experiences around.
5. Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX felt like a throwback experience despite the fact that it launched near the end of PS1’s lifecycle in 2000. The world of Gaia dropped science fiction in favor of a more medieval vibe seen in early entries. The return to high fantasy made Final Fantasy IX feel quite novel at the time, especially since the visuals pretty much topped out the power of the PS1’s 32-bit visuals. In many ways, Final Fantasy IX is the most traditional of the 3D-era Final Fantasy games around. The active time battle system is at its best here.
But it stands out most because it combines the fantasy-infused medieval environments of the early games with the stellar writing of the science fiction-laced romps that would follow. The characters are interesting, the world is compelling, and the gameplay feels positively retro in the best way. Final Fantasy IX is as pure and joyous today as it was nearly 20 years ago. Final Fantasy IX is readily available on many platforms, including Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Android, iOS, and PC.
6. Final Fantasy IV
The first entry in the series for the Super Nintendo, Final Fantasy IV is basically the first Final Fantasy that truly mattered. No offense to the first three games in the series, but Final Fantasy IV turned the franchise into a juggernaut. Final Fantasy IV ushered in the active time battle era, a system that continued uninterrupted until Final Fantasy X.
The class system also received a nice new layer, as each class felt designed to tell a specific aspect of the story. The story primarily follows Cecil, his love interest Rosa, and his longtime friend Kain, but a sizable cast of supporting characters contribute to the wacky story that revolves around the Lunarians, a race who lives on a fake moon near Earth.
The introduction of the active time battle system and the new focus on character-driven narratives made Final Fantasy IV feel a huge cut above its predecessors. Final Fantasy IV is the most important entry in the series, and it remains one of the very best. The 3D remake on DS, PC, and mobile is the best way to play it today.
7. Final Fantasy VII
Arguably the most iconic entry in the series, Final Fantasy VII‘s slotting on this list might disappoint its most loyal fans. Let us explain. Final Fantasy VII has a brilliant and transgressive story, featuring some of the most deservedly beloved characters, both good and villainous, in series history. We love Final Fantasy VII.
But the nostalgia-blinded memory of Final Fantasy VII, and the endless hype surrounding it ever since, often conceals its blemishes. The battle system was painstakingly slow, the jump to 3D was extraordinarily ugly (those hands!), and gameplay-wise, it didn’t do much to build off of Final Fantasy VI. In short, it wasn’t a graceful move to the 32-bit era.
It’s a great game, but it’s also the most unplayable of the post-NES entries today. Still, Final Fantasy VII is probably the most important entry in the series besides Final Fantasy IV. The action-oriented PS4 remake will let a new generation of fans experience the wonderful story. If you want to play the original, you can grab it on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, iOS, and Android.
8. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
Let’s be clear: Final Fantasy XIV would be on the very bottom of this list if it wasn’t for A Realm Reborn, the relaunch of the troubled 2010 MMO that was shut down and relaunched all in the span of three years. Final Fantasy XIV was bad. A Realm Reborn, which reappeared in 2013 on PC, PS3, and PS4 the following year, is wonderful. Featuring a wealth of quests, raids, and engaging PvP battles, A Realm Reborn is the type of MMO that you can easily sink hundreds of hours into.
The planet of Hydaelyn is one of the best Final Fantasy settings ever designed, and the story and lore are up there with the best of the best in terms of MMOs. Three great expansions have been released since launch, including the recent and excellent Shadowbringers.
Final Fantasy XIV is the ultimate communal experience for series fans. Even if you don’t fancy yourself as an MMO fan, Final Fantasy XIV could very well change your mind.
9. Final Fantasy V
Gameplay-wise, Final Fantasy V is exquisite. The last of the strict medieval-themed Final Fantasy games, this SNES classic remains as playable today as it was in 1992. The Job system received a staggering overhaul, which gave fans sheer endless possibilities for approaching the active time battles.
Final Fantasy V would probably be much higher on this list if it wasn’t for the story and characters. Square obviously spent a ton of time crafting an enthralling gameplay experience, and it showed. But while writing this entry, I honestly couldn’t remember a single character’s name or any of the plot.
After reading a synopsis, I remembered why I forgot it all. And I will surely play Final Fantasy V again only to forget the story all over again. The uninteresting and unmemorable story undercuts some of the best gameplay the series has ever seen. You can play the remastered version of Final Fantasy V on PC, iOS, and Android.
10. Final Fantasy XI
Like Final Fantasy XIV, it’s hard to compare Final Fantasy XI to other mainline numbered games in the series. The first of two Final Fantasy MMOs, Final Fantasy XI started off as an average MMO experience. While not particularly surprising, no one could have expected what it would grow to become over the course of the next decade and beyond. First released on PS2 and PC, it eventually landed on Xbox 360 as the first MMO on Microsoft’s console.
Set in the sprawling world of Vana’diel, Final Fantasy XI emphasized playing with friends to complete challenging dungeons and acquire better and better loot. Five expansions, numerous add-ons, and seasonal events would follow, with the final piece of content arriving in 2015. Console servers were turned off in 2016, but you can still play on PC today. Final Fantasy XI became a great, if fairly traditional, MMO over time, handsomely rewarding those who stuck with it for years.
11. Final Fantasy III
Final Fantasy III, the real Final Fantasy III, didn’t reach North America until the 2006 Nintendo DS remake. The 1990 Famicom game was actually the first in the series to really start leaning into some of Final Fantasy’s most well-known systems. Namely the Jobs and summon systems.
The DS remake is interesting to examine because it is rendered in full 3D but largely plays like the NES entries. The story plays out similarly to the first game in the series. Overall, Final Fantasy III is the best of the NES-era games, as it shows a franchise in the midst of welcome change. The easiest way to play Final Fantasy III today is on iOS, Android, and PC.
12. Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII certainly looked the part when it launched on PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2009. The animations were beautiful, the character models were realistic, and the environmental details were fine-tuned. Final Fantasy XIII also brought back the active time battle system, but it felt far more simplified than before. The result was a series of random battles that could almost quite literally be completed by pressing the same button over and over. You could even set it to auto-battle, which honestly mirrored the mindlessness of what you did most of the time anyway.
The main problem with XIII was how linear it was compared to previous games. That, added onto the rote science fiction story, made for a sort of genre movie-esque Final Fantasy experience. It was nice to return to Final Fantasy’s Japanese roots, but it felt like the safest Final Fantasy game Square Enix had ever made. It’s still a fun game, and to its credit, the story does get better if you move onto Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII when it’s over. Though Final Fantasy XIII hasn’t been ported to current generation consoles, you can play it on Xbox One via backwards compatibility or PC.
13. Final Fantasy
While some iconic franchises produce memorable classics out of the gate — Mario, Zelda, Mega Man, etc. — others, like Final Fantasy, take a few entries to hit their stride. While Final Fantasy was somewhat revolutionary at the time in 1987, featuring a relatively large overworld, strategic turn-based combat, and an epic story following four Light Warriors, it has languished in relative obscurity ever since.
It’s a grand RPG by NES standards, but there wasn’t enough customization or variety to keep it from devolving into tedium at times. If you’ve never played it before, you might want to check it out to see where the franchise started, but it doesn’t hold up super well and was quickly outshined in ’90s. The easiest way to play Final Fantasy without using an emulator is to buy it for iOS or Android.
14. Final Fantasy XV
The most recent entry in the mainline series took a lot of risks. We’ll give it that. But it added up to create an experience that felt distinctly un-Final Fantasy-like. The western RPG influence is readily on display. Final Fantasy XV is an open-world action RPG that entirely drops random encounters in favor of a real-time battle system.
It’s more exciting and flashy on the surface, but the action-based battles lack the depth and intricate nuance of earlier Final Fantasy games (and fall way short of the similar system in Final Fantasy XII). The main characters, a group of stylish and arguably insufferable adolescents, speak and act like they belong in a brooding emo band. Sure, the open world is pretty and interesting, but the story falls flat and the DLC expansions were uneven. Final Fantasy XV isn’t a bad game, but it’s the most underwhelming 3D-era Final Fantasy by a mile. It’s available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
15. Final Fantasy II
Final Fantasy II wasn’t officially localized until 2002, nearly 25 years after its initial launch on Famicom. Now it’s playable on a myriad of platforms including Android and iOS. It’s an interesting piece of gaming history for sure, but Final Fantasy II is quite forgettable. Subbing a traditional leveling system for one that only develops what you use, Final Fantasy II‘s turn-based random battles are competent but lack weight because of peculiar system. It tells a conventional story about taking down a villainous empire, but the writing doesn’t match what we’d become accustomed to throughout the SNES and PlayStation eras. It’s a fine experience, but Square hadn’t quite found the right formula for Final Fantasy success. And it showed. But if you’re curious, you can download Final Fantasy II on iOS and Android.
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