Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Best of Final Fantasy

Today I'm going to look at what I consider the best of Final Fantasy. Complete with pictures and videos and everything. It's going to be sa-weet. Since I haven't played the online XI and XIV (yet), this will only include the main series games from one to thirteen. No spinoffs or -2's, either. Let's get to it.

NOTE: For each of these, the #1 entry will be worth three points, #2 worth two points, and #3 worth one point. At the end I'll tally them up and see which game wins.

Best Heroes
#1 - Final Fantasy VI - An ensemble cast where no one is ever solidified as "the main character". While the first half of the game is fairly linear, it opens up in the second half. At that point any character can be your hero/leader; whoever your favorite character is - be it Cyan or Gau or Gogo - you can center your game around them if you want. Terra and Celes are the starting characters in the respective game-halves, but you're under no obligation to stick with them as team leaders. When the entire cast (well, except Umaro) is this strong, settling on a single main character can be a tough call. FFXII manages to do the same thing with a much smaller cast; all six of FFXII's characters could conceivably be the main (Well, perhaps except for Fran). Problem is, aside from Balthier, the characters as a whole are less compelling in that game, so it doesn't make it onto this list. Still, I really enjoy the setup of having all of your characters potentially being mains. FFVI gets it -right-, and little things like being able to see your leader on the overworld as you walk around make the game even better.

#2 - Final Fantasy VII - The cast of this game is fairly iconic, but it's also a very distinctive and interesting crew. Cloud Strife is undeniably the protagonist of the game. Aeris and Tifa aren't just love interests, they're fully-realized characters with their own personalities. Cid is a foul-mouthed engineer and a walking mass of complexes. And so on and so forth. They're not all perfect (what's up with Cait Sith?) but they aren't too far off either. With a better translation, this game could have had character development off the charts.

#3 - Final Fantasy IV - The cast of this game is extremely well-designed. Following in the footsteps of the Famicom's FFII, a fair amount of characters die in this one (spoiler alert). All of them are memorable, and the ones who stick around are the top tier. Many of these characters got to carry their own chapters in the After Years sequel, and the effortless way that they managed to be compelling in said sequel really solidified their place in history.

Best Villain
#1 - Final Fantasy VI, Kefka - Sephiroth may be the picture up top, but I don't rank him as high as most people do. Fact is, he pretty much FAILED in his bid to destroy the planet. Aside from killing Aerith, I can't even think of anything particularly awful that he did. Shinra Corp did much worse stuff. But I digress. The real top villain of this universe is - hands-down - the rampaging general-turned-demigod known as Kefka. He actually succeeds in destroying much of the surface of the planet, rearranging the continents, building a tower out of what appears to be bone, and making life miserable for our heroes. When it comes to awful villains in gaming history, Kefka is where it's at.

#2 - Final Fantasy IV, Golbez - Golbez isn't the top villain of the fourth game, as he falls victim to the frequent RPG trope of Bigger Bad Syndrome (where a bigger bad comes along during the endgame and instantly replaces the guy you've been fighting most of this time). But for the time that he's around, he's quite a foil. Sporting a Darth Vader esque suit of black armor and a stop-at-nothing desire to acquire the crystals, Golbez is a force to be reckoned with.

#3 - Final Fantasy II, The Emperor - Emperor Palamecia (or Mateus as he is called in later works) is a mostly-unsung villain. Probably because of the system he arrived on; the NES wasn't known for having deep characterization or plots. Later remakes fixed this quite a bit, giving him more dialogue and chances to shine. The fact is, the Emperor in FFII is an aristocratic bastard of the highest order; he manages to kill about half of the cast and go on a rampage with a flying fortress wrapped in a cyclone. Don't know how that's scientifically possible, but it's bad-ass. He takes out a bunch of towns before the heroes manage to get to him and end his reign, and it's because of his overall heinousness that he makes this list.

Best Combat System
#1 - Final Fantasy XII - I liked the gambit system more than most. It was a lot of fun to set up and play around with, trying different things as you progressed to deal with new situations as they arised. It also freed the player up to focus on controlling their sole main character. In my case, this was Balthier for the first half of the game and Penelo for the second, as I realized Penelo was more fun to watch run around. My revolving door of supporting characters relied heavily on the gambit system. It allowed me to turn my party into an AI-controlled force, without any of the problems usually inherent to AI. Dragon Warrior IV and Persona 3, I'm looking at you. Gambits were awesome, and I wish they'd make a return. Is a Final Fantasy XII-2 too much to ask for?

#2 - Final Fantasy X - This game was turn-based rather than ATB. While I prefer ATB to turn-based, due to the complete randomness of turn-based (having a heal go off well after it's needed in a given round, rather than at a time you can control), FFX mastered turn-based with a Grandia-like system. You could see what order commands would be issued in and act accordingly, or even influence the order by using different abilities or delay attacks that would put the brakes on enemy actions.

#3 - Final Fantasy XIII - Here's a call that'll probably get someone on the internet angry, but I really enjoyed the managerial battle system of FFXIII. You don't really control it yourself so much as give the characters various jobs to do and issue new assignments on the fly. It was fast and furious without any of the stress or edge that typically goes with fast and furious. Very similar to the Gambit system, but less customizable, and thus it falls in a lower rung of goodness. Control isn't completely out of your hands past the managerial aspect, either; I frequently issued Fang's commands directly to ensure that the enemies were thoroughly debuffed.

Best Character-Building System
#1 - Final Fantasy V - This category is separate from the above in that it's more about increasing character power than issuing commands in battle. Still, it's another technical question. One of the cool things about this series at large is that the games tend to be so wildly different from one another; each one sorta exists in its own pocket world. Final Fantasy V wins on character-building, giving you a plethora of classes to choose from and abilities to learn from them. With this much customization and this many abilities to learn, battles stop being a chore and become an avenue to radness.

#2 - Final Fantasy VI - I liked the Esper system a lot. Equip Espers to learn their spells over time, and in some cases even get stat bonuses from them as you level. When I was younger I tended to not pay much attention to the stat bonuses, instead switching Espers around frequently to get as many important spells as I could for the characters. I still do that somewhat today, in part because the game is so easy that micromanaged frequent stat bonuses almost trivialize it (especially Magic and Speed). Most importantly, there's a special kind of magic to the Esper system. Like you're studying under the tutelage of these ancient beings, or absorbing their power by osmosis. Who knows how it works. I just know I enjoyed it more than the Materia system, in part because a character got to keep the mastered spells after unequipping an Esper.

#3 - Final Fantasy X - The Sphere Grid is a less-linear version of FFXIII's Crystarium and a less-overwhelming version of FFXII's License Board. It gets the balance just right, with a fair amount of choices at any given time as to how you want to influence the abilities or stat growth of your characters.

Best Classes
#1 - Final Fantasy V - Just by virtue of Final Fantasy Tactics not being a main series game and thus not being eligible, FFV wins this one in a landslide. There are an abundance of classes in this game and nearly all of them are unique or compelling. It's also fun that they unlock in groups over the course of the game, meaning you never really have a chance to get tired of your available choices. Being able to keep your mastered abilities when switching back to Freelancer puts this game's class system over the top.

#2 - Final Fantasy III - Nearly as many classes as FFV, but they aren't as compelling or refined. Rather than consolidating your learned powers at the end into a single class, you have two super-classes available in the endgame that consolidate melee and magery. Of course, the result of this is that nearly every player concludes this game with two Ninjas and two Sages (I personally go 1 Sage and 1 Devout). Your mastered classes don't provide you with any long-term boon the way FFV's do. Still, it's a fun class system to play with.

#3 - Final Fantasy I - The game that started it all. There are six very distinctive classes that each serve a notable purpose in the game (aside from the mostly-useless Thief). If that isn't enough, about 60% of the way through the game you can class-change them all into ascended versions of their classes. Sweet.

Best Story
#1 - Final Fantasy VI - I went into some of why this is when I was discussing Kefka earlier. FFVI has an epic story that takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions. Dark themes like the end of the world, suicide, and the responsibility of motherhood are all handled with a great degree of honesty and maturity. It also helps that the cast is so damn likeable. I still occasionally see people quoting Locke.

#2 - Final Fantasy IV - Another epic tale, centered around a soldier who begins to doubt the virtuousness of his leaders and questions their authority. He ends up becoming a hero through his deeds and good works, not because he's a "chosen one" or any of the tripe that often passes for RPG storylines. When it comes to evoking emotion, this game did an awful lot with 16-bit graphics. Little magician twins Palom and Porom turning themselves into stone to save Cecil and company from a trapped room is a surprisingly gut-wrenching moment even today.

#3 - Final Fantasy IX - Zidane and friends narrowly missed making it into the top three best heroes, but they succeed here. FFIX's whimsical plot is full of callbacks to games of the past, magic, and self-discovery.

Best Overworld Music
#1 - Final Fantasy IX - Nowhere is FFIX's sense of wonder more apparent than on the overworld. Designed to be misty and often rainy (the only Final Fantasy game to do that on an overworld), the FFIX landscape is already enchanting. Factor in some pretty amazing music and it's even better. When the melody "drops off" midway through the song, it brings pause to the listener.

#2 - Final Fantasy VII - Starts slow and ponderous, then builds to a crescendo. Added to the sense of wonder that being on the overworld had in this game, with lots of hidden areas and unique landscapes (and a general lack of it altogether for the first four to five hours of game time).

#3 - Final Fantasy III - Easily the best overworld track of any NES RPG that I've played, and one of the few instantly-recognizable tracks from this game.

 Best Individual Non-Battle Track
#1 - "Mines of Narshe" (FFVI) - A haunting melody that plays many times throughout this game and adds a lot to the sense of wonder of inhabiting the FFVI world.

#2 - "Liberi Fatali" (FFVIII) - The opening FMV to FFVIII is one of the most epic openings to a game that I've ever seen. While the game itself doesn't really follow through on the promise of a sweeping epic, the musical accompaniment for that FMV is pretty amazing.

#3 - "You're Not Alone" (FFIX) - A powerful track that plays during a particularly great scene in late FFIX. Emotional stuff.

Best Weapon
#1 - Buster Sword (FFVII) - The purist in me almost wants to rank Master attacks (FFI) at the top of this list. Seeing a huge number of punches pop up on the screen, followed by a big damage strike, was pretty cool. But unarmed strikes don't really qualify as a weapon. Regardless, the most memorable weapon in this whole series is by far Cloud's Buster Sword. It isn't even a contest. It's also what I'd rate as the best weapon overall. It's appealing and powerful, and the only real downside to it is that later different-looking swords render it obsolete. I'd like to see an endgame or postgame-level reforged Buster Sword if FFVII ever gets remade, just to put the sword back into the limelight later on. And Sapphire Weapon as a fightable super-boss, as was originally planned. Only problem with a reforged Buster Sword (Buster Sword Ultra? Buster Sword II?) is that the lategame Ultima Weapon is pretty much better than any other weapon could ever be by virtue of being tied to max HP. Keep your HP topped and UW consistently does max damage. Perhaps Buster Sword II could be forged out of the Ultima Weapon and retain UW's characteristics with a Buster Sword cosmetic look. Perhaps with a much higher floor as to how much damage it does when your HP is low.

#2 - Atma Weapon (FFVI) - And speaking of which, Ultima Weapon got its start in the previous game. Atma Weapon was a mistranslation, but one that lives on in our memories. The sword itself at full power was basically a blue lightsaber in FFVI, and it was hands-down the raddest-looking weapon in that game. You get it early, and unlike every other weapon in the game it grows in power as you do. Just a great sword all around.

#3 - Blood Sword (FFII) - A red sword so menacing that it made it onto the box art of the game. It drains health from enemies when you strike them... and I don't mean some weak Drain spell proc. I mean it gives you ALL of the HP that your attack takes off. It's super-overpowered. If it weren't useful enough already throughout the game, it ignores the defense of some lategame foes. As a result it absolutely destroys the final boss and several of the more difficult endgame bosses. I'm talking almost instant-kill levels, two or three hits and they're done. This sword is so nasty that I'd advocate putting it away and never using it, but the final boss is such a cheap bastard (using drain-punches of his own that ignore defense) that you don't have much of a choice but to whip out the Blood Sword and strike back.

Best Town Music
#1 - Luca (FFX) - An amazing track that accompanies a fairly plain city. Well, as plain as any cities are in FFX. It isn't the sprawling metropolis of Neo-Victorian magic and technology that some of the other cities in this series are, but it has music that would be fitting for any of them. I could legitimately listen to the music in Luca for hours.

#2 -  "Cid's Theme" (FFIX) - The tune I most associate with the early city parts of the game, even though it's evidently classified as a character theme. Running around Lindblum with this playing for dozens of minutes is one of my primary FFIX memories, and the greatness of this tune helps.

#3 - Main Town Theme (FFV) - Despite being on the limited Super NES sound chip, this tune manages to be a great listen to this day. Manages to evoke a range of emotions. The other, happier town theme from this game is also quite great.

Best Battle Music
#1 - Final Fantasy IX - Almost a remix of the original battle theme of the series, only with all kinds of instrumental improvements. The battle system in this game is slow and clunky, which is a shame given how outright amazing this track is.

#2 - Final Fantasy VII - I could do without the two rise-to-a-crescendo parts of the track. At least, they should have been later rather than right at the beginning of the song, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a GREAT one once it gets going.

#3 - Final Fantasy I - The original battle theme of the whole series is, to this day, iconic. It shows what the NES could muster from its meager sound chip. Also, this track manages to carry a lot of the identity of the larger series inside of its sound-DNA. If that makes any sense.

Best Boss Music
#1 - Final Fantasy VII - A rockin' tune that fits the dark steampunk theme of the game extremely well.

#2 - Final Fantasy XIII - Saber's Edge is one of the better themes from FFXIII. It has a somewhat exhilarating feel to it, and would have been perfect had the game featured any airship battles. It helps that this theme accompanies some truly epic fights; the game never hands you any wins, regardless of how much you grind.

#3 - Final Fantasy VI - Great track that isn't really what you'd expect from the game given the general mood. When this plays, you know things are getting serious.

Best Special Battle/Boss Music
#1 - "The Man With The Machine Gun" (FFVIII) - Just listen to that amazing build-up. For this category I'm looking at special battle themes that only play during a certain circumstance, and thus can't really fall into your standard battle or boss theme (or even decisive boss theme) categories. The winner in this department is, hands-down, "The Man With The Machine Gun" from FFVIII. Laguna's battle theme is fantastic on every level and absolutely destroys the standard battle theme from that game. The only problem here is that it isn't the regular battle theme for the whole game; then again, it only playing during Laguna's fights does make it more special.

 #2 - "Clash on the Big Bridge" (FFV) - There isn't much one can say about this song that hasn't already been said on the internet. Possibly the most popular track in the entire series, bar none. I feel like it's largely overrated, but I can't deny that it's a really fun battle tune that goes well with a very memorable character in Gilgamesh.

#3 - "Grand Finale" (FFVI) - The fight with Ultros after the super-memorable opera scene is a thrilling battle on stage, with frenetic, almost chaotic music to match. In small doses and in context, this theme is bombastic and just plain fun to listen to. I always thought the Opera House Orchestra was playing it in the background during the fight. Maybe they are, and if so, that's a coolest thing ever candidate. I think this should have played a second time when you fight the Dirt Dragon (Earth Dragon in later versions).

Best Decisive Boss Music
#1 - Final Fantasy V - For this category I'm looking at the themes of major boss fights. Those big fights that happen two, maybe three times in a game and are clearly intended to be above your normal tier of bosses. Here we have an intense, thunderous track that is almost entirely out of place in a Final Fantasy game, this song lets you know that serious business is afoot. It's very reminiscent of Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People", and helped make my various fights with Exdeath some of the best fights I ever had in the series. They'd be at or near the top if I had a category for "best fights". Unfortunately, nearly any battle in this series can be anywhere from a pushover to insanely difficult, depending on how well you've leveled and developed your characters. Thus, it's hard to determine any universally-good battles from that standpoint. In any case, FFV wins for best decisive boss theme.

#2 - Final Fantasy VI - The Super NES reign on this category continues. FFVI has an intense decisive battle theme that plays during several key fights. The first time it plays (during the fight with Atma Weapon) you know that things just got serious.

#3 - Final Fantasy VII - The theme for the various Jenova fights is almost alien in sound and very memorable.

Best Final Battle Music
#1 - Final Fantasy VI - "Dancing Mad" is one of the best final battle themes in videogame history, bar none. It'd be difficult to find anything comparable. It's quite fitting for a fight with Kefka in full-on demigod form, too.

#2 - Final Fantasy IV - The fight with Zeromus has a truly epic feel to it.

#3 - Final Fantasy IX - "Grand Cross" is a tune that I feel is somewhat underrated, and likely flew under a lot of radars. Perhaps because the final battle of FFIX itself is relatively meaningless, the accompanying music tends to not resonate as much. However, it's a pretty great tune in my view. It has a long, hell-evoking buildup (much like "Dancing Mad"), then kicks in with a fairly intense battle theme.

Best Postgame Content

#1 - Final Fantasy X - There's so much to this postgame. It's almost like an MMO... you've beaten the game (gotten to the end of the story), now max out your characters, do epic weapon quests, and fight "raid bosses". In a way, that's the true beating of the game. There are a bunch of optional super-bosses to fight, and the game presents them in tiers so you work your way up to the toughest of the lot. If that isn't enough, there are optional super-weapons, break damage limit sigils, and the ability to have your characters cross over into the sphere grids of other characters to keep leveling after they hit their own max. There's enough here to keep you playing for quite a while.

#2 - Final Fantasy XII - The Final Fantasy game that got me into postgame content to begin with. There are a TON of optional enemies and bosses to track down and slay; the last one is a dragon with 50,000,000 HP. That's right, FIFTY MILLION. This postgame is fantastic and I spent more time on it than I did on the main story. The only real downside to it is that it really just consists of fights and not much else. At least they're found in different parts of the world, wheras FFX has them all lined up in one area. Still, FFX wins based on all the other optional stuff like the Celestial Weapons. FFXII is all bosses and hunts, and it's still awesome.

#3 - Final Fantasy II - This one is interesting. The original NES version doesn't have any postgame whatsoever, but the GBA/PSP remakes have a pretty great optional storyline called Soul of Rebirth. It's basically its own little game; you get back four characters lost in the course of the main quest and play as them in the afterlife, building them up and taking on some steep challenges like Ultima Weapon and a 2.0 version of the final boss. There's also an Arcane Labyrinth side-dungeon to take on in the main quest, featuring the game's strongest boss. Neither SoR nor the AL are perfect, and both can be a bit tedious at times. Still, it's clear that a lot of effort went into this postgame, and being able to revisit fallen characters in the afterlife is a pretty damn cool concept for a side-story.

Best Soundtrack Overall
#1 - Final Fantasy IX - I thought about not even including this category because it's so subjective. When it comes down to it, FFIX was the one with the most memorable, thought-provoking, emotive, inspiring soundtrack in the series. The numerous versions of the title screen theme gave the game its own signature track, and by the time it goes into full chant mode in "Ipsen's Castle" it's already ingrained in your memory. Other standouts include Qu's Marsh, Gulug Volcano (a remix of FFI's stellar Gurgu Volcano), and Skirmish of Silver Dragons. Can't go wrong with this soundtrack, seriously.

#2 - Final Fantasy VI - Not much I can say about this one that hasn't already been said numerous times elsewhere. The soundtrack is a wonder of what could be achieved on the Super NES, and standout tracks include... most of them, actually.

#3 - Final Fantasy X - There were very few tracks in this game that I didn't like, and the soundtrack as a whole had a very unique sound to it. Nearly every area had its own theme, too. There are some distinctive standout tracks that go well with their areas, like Thunder Plains and Besaid Island.

Best Game Overall
#1 - Final Fantasy VI - This is entirely a matter of personal preference. FFVI is pretty close to being a perfect game, and even holds up today. It's incredibly playable and tells a timeless story. The first half of the game is fairly linear with some very memorable story sequences, while the second half is an open world adventure of sorts where you can chart your own path. It's good stuff all around.

#2 - Final Fantasy XII - The controversial pick. A lot of people really don't like this game, but I enjoyed it a lot. It utilizes the world of Final Fantasy Tactics and the general feel of Vagrant Story (having the same composer helps on that front). As a result, it feels different from the rest of the series. I also like the way it plays like an MMO, with a deep gambit system and a massive amount of skills to learn. While the main quest isn't that long, the postgame can easily take over a hundred hours.

#3 - Final Fantasy V - Edging out FFIX for the third spot, barely, is FFV. It's more or less a three way tie, but FFV's classes give it the nod. These classes are fun incarnate, and if you know what you're doing you can drop virtually any boss with the right class and the right abilities (Protip: Blue Mage). I also like the way this game sticks to the same four characters throughout (...sorta). Gives you freedom to build them up as you see fit without worrying about a character being blocked off or leaving the group, etc, worries that are way too common with most RPGs.

FFI: 2
FFV: 13
FFVI: 28
FFIX: 11
FFX: 10


Point Winner Overall: FFVI


  1. FFXII DOES NOT DESERVE 2ND BEST. Other than that, great stuff here and I enjoyed reading it. But SCREW FFXII. The series totally fell apart after FFIX and each one since has been progressively worse.

    1. To you FFXII might be awful, but to me FFXII is a really cool and unique game with a very different "Ivalice-y" feel to the rest of the series. I enjoyed my one 100% playthrough of it immensely, more than I can say I've enjoyed any other FF aside from FFVI.

    2. You're absolutely right. I just have a real problem with FFXII myself. I found it very unenjoyable, with a nonsensical storyline and a weird MMO-lite combat system. Glad you liked it, though.

  2. I would say that X has the best gameplay, VI has the best story and the Buster Sword is definitely the coolest weapon. 7 is obviously the most iconic game (and I like that you used that word) and it is great. But I think 6 really is something special and is maybe overlooked kinda? It has taken me a long time to, I guess, get over the "hype" of FF7 and agree that 6 is the best in the series. That being said, 7 is a groundbreaking a really incredible game. Almost all of FF is

  3. You did a really great job with this post, thanks. Gonna share it with my friends. I'm also really happy you gave a lot of nods to the later games, which is something others our age (me especially, having stopped after 8) wouldn't have. We need to be fair and realize there were a lot of great things about the later titles too. I learned a lot from this and you gave a lot of good song recommendations.

  4. This was great, thanks for writing it. Glad FFVI did so (deservedly) well. I too think FFXII might be too highly-ranked in the best given its lack of performance in the other categories, but I think the hate for it and 13 is a bit excessive.

  5. Stellar post!

    What's with FF5's Home Sweet Home being called "Main Town Theme?" It does play in Butz's hometown so it qualifies as a town theme (and is a standout track from the game), but it's isolated to that one place (as it should be).

    FF9's choice music picks tend to be "stuff I don't think about very often but are really good"

    FF7 only gets top billing for me when it comes to the battle music, particularly the regular battle theme. I wouldn't like it nearly as much without those rise-to-a-crescendo parts.

    I think FFX's postgame deserves a red mark against it for the multiple insane requirements for the ultimate weapons. No one should ever have to do what was required for the Tidus, Kimahri, and Lulu weapons.

    1. FF5 - There was some weirdness with the track name because when I was looking it up I didn't know what it was called. So I looked up FF5 town themes, and it popped up as "main town theme". If I linked it, that's probably what I linked.

      FF7 - The crescendos early in the battle theme actually bother me. They seem super out-of-place and should be later in the tune, not right at the beginning. They also get just a bit too loud. They build and build past the "yeah, we get it" point. I like the battle theme for the later crescendo that has an air of desperation around it.

      FF10 - Some of the ultimate weapons are awful to get. I've never even tried to get all of them. Thing is, you don't actually need to, unless you're 100%ing it. Kimahri and Lulu are pretty useless in the postgame. What you end up doing is picking three characters and going through the whole postgame with those three, building them up as much as possible (by going through the expanded postgame sphere grid that gives everyone access to everyone else's grids). No sense in diverting your time to building up all of the characters when you can use the best three for everything. As for who the best three are... Rikku, Wakka, and Tidus, if I remember right. Rikku and Wakka's ultimate weapons and break damage sigils are easy to get. Tidus' weapon isn't, but his sigil is. The one time I did this postgame, I got their stuff, then I got Tidus' sigil and made him a weapon that had the same abilities as a celestial weapon. It lacked that one unique passive attribute that they all have (can't remember what it is) but it was good enough to beat the whole postgame boss set. I never had to fool with Chocobo Racing at all.