While the role-playing game (RPG) has become a catch-all genre, now encompassing an almost silly range of games that don’t share much in common, there was one video game franchise in the ’90s that was the quintessential RPG. Yes, we’re talking about Final Fantasy from Square Enix.
The fantasy Japanese RPGs debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1987, but they became cultural touchstones in the ’90s as Super Nintendo games. From there, the series made an incredibly successful jump to 3D on the PlayStation 1 before the mainline series started to take more risks, including the elimination of turn-based battles and massively multiplayer online game (MMO) entries. Now, many of those same titles in the Final Fantasy series live on the Nintendo Switch and other consoles alongside newer RPGs like Bravely Default and Genshin Impact.
If you’re just getting into Final Fantasy, though, where do you start? Most Final Fantasy games are at the very least good, while many are great — and others are masterpieces. With the remake of the iconic Final Fantasy VII released a few months back, we decided to rank all of the best 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 Final Fantasy franchise. That’s a big reason why we love it and why it’s slotted so high on this list. Because it’s so weird, VIII never lived up to the legacy set by VII and VI, despite being one of the most unique games in the series. Time brings perspective, though, and that’s true for Final Fantasy VIII. With a remastered version on PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC, now’s a perfect time to give it a shot.
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 choose how they wanted to approach the experience.
The planet — a futuristic set of five landmasses based on Europe — had a level of detail we hadn’t seen in a Final Fantasy title 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 VIII some love, too. All of the mainline games above and below it have received ports or remasters for modern consoles. The same is now true for Final Fantasy VIII.
We wouldn’t recommend playing it as your first game, though. Final Fantasy VIII is dated, even with its spiffy new remaster. It’s an extremely complex game, and if you’re not prepared to handle its idiosyncrasies, it could turn you off to the entire franchise. Our picks directly above and below are far better starting points.
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, FFX replaced the active time battle system with truly conventional turn-based combat system. 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, PC, 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 capabilities. In many ways, Final Fantasy IX is the most traditional of the 3D-era Final Fantasy games. The active time battle system is at its best here.
However, 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. Th