Final Fantasy Grudge Match

I woke up this morning and did my usual Saturday routine of grabbing some breakfast, a warm beverage, and sat down with my laptop to see what’s going on in the world.  I ended up at ign.com and checked out their review for the new Final Fantasy IV re-make on Sony’s PSP.  The game is yet another re-release of the Super Nintendo classic only this time with enhanced visuals and added content in the form of the episodic sequel released on the Wii from a year ago.  This isn’t about that particular game though, more about the comments made by reviewer Colin Moriarty regarding the quality of today’s Final Fantasy titles.  I both agree and disagree with some of the comments he made (which, to summarize, was that early Final Fantasy titles are the best and the present day titles subpar) but it got me thinking; what is the best game in the Final Fantasy series?

I have played most of the Final Fantasy games.  I haven’t played them all, and I can cite the ones I have never played as the original game, II, and the most recent Final Fantasy XIII.  I do not consider the on-line only games as being part of the same canon, but for what it’s worth, I have not played them either.  Of the ones I have played, the only one I never beat was the Final Fantasy III re-make on the DS (I still plan on doing so, one of these days), though I’ve never encountered anyone willing to argue that title is the best in the series.  I’ve also played many of the spin-off games, including the excellent Final Fantasy Tactics and the less than excellent Final Fantasy X-2.  Needless to say, I’m only going to look at the ones I have played and beaten and I’m not going to include the spin-offs, for as good as Tactics is, it’s just Ogre Battle with a Final Fantasy theme.

For my money, this becomes a contest between four games:  IV, VI, VII, and X.  Final Fantasy V is a lot of fun because of its job system, which was introduced in III and refined for V.  I had a lot of fun with that one on emulation before it was released in the US, and then again when it received a release for the Playstation alongside VI.  As fun as it was though, I couldn’t help but feel like the game’s plot was really chiche and the villain was not a viable threat, or even interesting.  Final Fantasy IX holds a special place in the hearts of many fans for its throwback approach.  Following three titles that blurred the line between fantasy and sci-fi, IX fully embraced that old fantasy feel of the first five titles.  One of the Playstation’s last hurrahs, it was a visual delight and the cast charming, but for me it doesn’t have the same scope as the premier titles in the franchise.  The item system also didn’t feel as if much time was spent on it by the developers to create a truly deep experience.

That said, the four titles I mentioned previously are the cream of the crop.  The fans of the other titles number far fewer than the ones for these four.  It’s time to take a look at each one…

Final Fantasy IV was released for the Super Nintendo in 1991.  It is not only note-worthy for being one of the best in the franchise, but also for the great confusion it caused gamers in the US when it was released as Final Fantasy II.  The true NES sequels of the original Final Fantasy were never released in the US, so Squaresoft decided to call IV Final Fantasy II in the states.  At the time it wasn’t confusing, but when Square decided to call Final Fantasy VII the seventh title in the franchise in all territories, American fans were left wondering how they missed IV, V, and VI.

Final Fantasy IV is the rare game where the player starts off playing as the villain.  The main protagonist, Cecil, is a dark knight who has committed unspeakable atrocities.  As someone who likes anti-hero characters, this gave the game instant appeal for me.  Of course, Square doesn’t keep the player in the role of the villain all game and Cecil eventually has a re-awakening.  From that point on, he has big purple hair and refers to himself as a paladin.  Lame.

The game was the first to introduce the Active Time Battle system, which made the game feel less turn-based.  It was also the last title to let the player control a party of five.  The gameplay is pretty much classic Final Fantasy.  There are summons, white magic, black magic, ninjutsu, and other familiar attack types.  Characters adhere to one strict class and become more powerful as they gain levels.  The game is very linear, and features a traditional good vs evil plot.  Atypically, the game feature space travel and the final dungeon is housed on the moon.  There’s very little in the way of customization, which must have seemed like a radical departure for Japanese fans going from III’s job system to this one.  Pre-programmed plot events dictate who will be available as a party member and who won’t where as future titles would often give the player a choice of who to send out into the fray.

Despite it’s limitations, the story is a memorable one.  It’s engaging watching Cecil sort out his emotions.  The plot events, while linear, allow the game developers to script some memorable action scenes.  The script is also surprisingly whitty, though some of that is due to the game’s original poor translation making the phrase “spoony bard” a popular one amongst gamers.  In typical Final Fantasy fare, the true enemy is revealed late in the game and takes away some of the excitement of the closing moments.  Nonetheless, the re-released PSX version contains a challenging and rewarding end boss fight (the US SNES one was dumbed-down) and the experience is overall a memorable one.

Final Fantasy VI also received a numeral change when it was originally released on the SNES in the US as Final Fantasy III.  Final Fantasy VI has also been re-released several times by Squaresoft over the years but has never received a sequel or a remake, despite being often cited as the best of the series.  Released in 1994, it represented an obvious visual upgrade over the two previous titles.  It also opted for a steam punk type of setting over the traditional fantasy one and is really the only title in the series to not feature a true leading role.  This is quite appropriate considering VI has the largest cast of available characters in the series totaling 14.

Outside of those differences, the core gameplay sticks to what Final Fantasy IV popularized.  Each character has their own specialized class that draws from popular character classes of the previous games.  There are some notable departures such as Edgar’s tech abilities and Relm’s drawing ones, but for the most part every character fits into the traditional mage, monk, warrior mold.  The plot is pretty interesting, and features the player as part of a resistance movement to take down an evil empire and introduces one of the most memorable villains of the series, Kefka, who’s one sadistic bastard.

The game is fairly linear, though once the player reaches the world of ruin it becomes more open-ended.  At that point the player can choose to track down more party members and scour some dungeons or go right after Kefka.  There’s also a moment where the player can lose a party member permanently, which is kind of cool even if it’s easily avoided.

Spells in this game could be learned by anyone, though certain characters were more well-suited for magic than others.  Magic was learned by attaching an esper to a character and as battles were won AP was earned which went towards learning spells.  The better spells naturally took longer to learn.  The espers also served as the game’s summons and could be called upon once per battle to unleash havoc on the opposition or bestow beneficial effects on the party.  Their use in that regard was nonessential, but the customization abilities were quite enjoyable.  This customization allowed the player to assemble his or her favorite party any way they wanted to.  The game did expect the player to use everyone at least a little bit though as certain dungeons would require up to 3 parties of 4 complete.

Final Fantasy VII was the first title in the series to be released in the US with its proper name.  It was also the first Final Fantasy game to not be released on a Nintendo console with Square electing to go with Sony’s Playstation due to its use of CD’s rather than a cartridge medium.  This allowed Square to include FMV sequences and true orchestral quality audio.

Final Fantasy VII is without question the biggest release in the franchise’s history.  Met with unfathomable hype, it was finally released in 1997 and met with much praise.  It was also big, encompassing three discs and taking most gamers over 40 hours to complete.  It’s 3D visuals were somewhat blocky at the time, and have not aged too well.  The battle graphics were much better and the CG sequences, at the time, jaw-dropping.  The dialogue was also more mature, especially whenever Barrett spoke, and the mood of the game was a bit darker than previous titles.

You can't have a blog post about Final Fantasy VII without including a shot of the most famous death in video game history.

The setting was again more of a tech heavy one as opposed to a traditional fantasy one, and this time around there was definitely more of a sci-fi element.  The esper system was gone and replaced with the materia one.  I’m still not exactly sure what materia is, but it was equipable like the espers and granted the character the ability to cast spells.  Each piece of materia has five levels and AP was earned to increase those levels.  These levels were denoted by stars on the menu, and the level determined how many times a spell or summon could be used in battle.  When a piece of materia maxed out at level five, it could be used an unlimited amount of times in battle and would spawn a level 1 duplicate.  This made leveling up unique pieces of materia (such as most summons) vital to create a super party of characters.

Each character now could only be equiped with one piece of armor and one weapon, and these determined how much materia a character could hold.  Some weapons and armor contained materia slots that were linked together, which could be exploited to great effect in battle.  Some of it was simple, linking the fire materia with the “all” materia turned the fire spell into an attack all spell.  Or you could join elemental materia with attack materia to grant that attacks elemental properties to an ability like mug.  Magic based materia often lowered base attack power when equiped, this discouraged players from turning their brutes into a jack of all trades.  And like with VI, certain characters were just obviously more well-suited to using magic than others resulting in greater damage from spells and summons.

The summons were a true spectacle of the time as using one initiated an FMV sequence where the summoned monster would unleash an awesome attack.  These did grow tiresome though after awhile, particularly the ultimate summon Knights of the Round, which was the best way to attack the game’s hidden bosses but lasted several minutes.  Future games would wisely introduce a way to skip some of these more over-the-top animations.

The plot of the game involved a struggle between the game’s main protagonist Cloud, against his former idol Sephiroth.  Cloud begins the game as a moody brat but becomes more likable as the game progresses.  The player is able to watch him grow into a leader.  There are also several flashback sequences, and one very notable death, along the way.  The look of the characters would prove quite popular, and the success of the game would eventually lead to several spin-offs and pseudo-sequels though it has yet to receive a true re-release or remake.  Due to its great success there’s been a bit of a backlash movement against the title by some fans since this was the jumping on point for many.  The success of VII proved to Japanese developers that RPG’s were viable in the States and the release of following titles became events as opposed to just another release.  To this day it is still one of the more dynamic released in the franchise as the materia system granted a great amount of freedom and flexibility to the user second only to the job system of earlier games.

Final Fantasy X marked more firsts for the franchise, most notably the first title for the Playstation 2 and the first to feature fully voiced characters.  These two things resulted in a gorgeous looking game with a more engaging set of characters.  The main hero, Tidus, winds up in a foreign land through supernatural means and ends up joining up with a band of heroes on a sort-of pilgrimage.  The voice acting is pretty solid, though some people find certain characters off-putting.

There were other firsts though, and one was a big departure for the series; the removal of the overworld map.  In past games whenever the player left a town or dungeon they would end up on a big map screen.  From here certain vehicles could be used liked the airship or a chocobo.  Now everything was linked together removing this map screen.  I remember at the time such a concept was hard to fathom, though I suppose for new-comers to the series it was completely logical.  The end result was uncomfortable for the purists, but ultimately created a better visual experience for the player and the world felt more intimate.  There was still an airship, but now the player didn’t pilot it freely and instead just used it as a means of quick travel.

The summons in this game played a bigger role.  Only one character, Yuna, could actually summon them now and when doing so the summoned beast was a playable character.  The other party members would be removed from battle temporarily as the summoned monster took over for a couple of rounds often culminating in the use of one awesome attack.  Characters leveled up via the sphere grid, where abilities and magic were learned.  As characters gained sphere points they could move along the grid and unlock abilities.  This allowed for a lot of customization, but like in previous games certain characters were naturally pushed in a specific direction.

The battle system received it’s first major overhaul since Final Fantasy IV.  Now the order of attack was displayed in a corner and this could be affected by certain spells and actions.  It added a more strategic element to the approach for the player though it admittedly made things easier knowing when the enemy was going to attack.  Party members could also be switched in and out of battle at any moment which was pretty neat, but also made it so that the player could go through the game barely touching certain characters.

The plot was definitely more melodramatic this time around with an obvious focus on the relationship between Tidus and Yuna.  There’s a bit of a tragic element thrown in, and I enjoyed the ambiguous ending.  The high production values enhanced the quality of the story, and Blitz Ball may be the best mini game in any Final Fantasy title.

Those are the contenders for best Final Fantasy.  My run downs, despite totaling 2600 words, are actually pretty brief and do not come close to touching upon everything these games do well and not so well.  It’s actually a pretty hard choice, and I began writing this with one title in mind but am finding myself changing my mind.  Regardless, for me this is actually a battle of two and not four.

Final Fantasy IV is a landmark title for the franchise due to its inclusion of the ATB system and impressive narrative.  The following titles really were just taking what IV did and adding to it right up through Final Fantasy IX.  As compelling a narrative it possesses, I did note that it’s a bit restricted which brings it down a bit.  Perhaps some of that is due to hardware limitations but so be it.  It’s also strictly a linear experience and represents the least customization for the player.  For these reasons, it is clearly not the best of the best.

Final Fantasy X is sort of a re-defining for the franchise.  It took that old ATB system and thew it out and gave the player a truly epic experience.  The sphere grid gave the player a lot to tinker with but did away with some of the more fun aspects of older games of finding new spells and abilities about the world.  Like IV, it too is quite linear and the path for most of the game is pretty clear.  It possesses another one of those villain-swaps at the end that derail some the game’s momentum, and though a great game, it ultimately falls short of the immortality other games in the series have achieved.  Though I will say, it does not deserve to be lumped in with the less than stellar Final Fantasy XII and XIII.

Which leaves two, Final Fantasy VI and VII.  On one hand, there’s VI with its engrossing story and great cast of characters and truly memorable villain.  On the other, there’s VII with it’s massive scope, excellent materia system, and stellar production values (for their time).  For me, it really is an either or type of argument.  I enjoy both immensely.  VI is easy to get into as the first part of the game keeps throwing things at the player and moves at a rapid pace.  The story is easy to follow and the gameplay is tried and true Final Fantasy.  It does perhaps prove a bit too easy, and as great as Kefka is, he goes down with a whimper in the end.  VII has a more convoluted narrative that gets murky at times but for those willing to dig deep it proves quite satisfying in the end.  The characters all have distinct personalities, despite numbering fewer than the 14 present in VI.  For my money, the materia system is still my favorite in any Final Fantasy, just narrowly beating out the job system from V.  It keeps the customization without making every character feel the same.  And while it does not take a great deal of skill to finish the game, beating the hidden bosses requires a great deal of savvy and a huge investment of time.

In the end, I don’t know that I truly prefer one over the other.  Both are great, near flawless experiences.  The strengths of VI are unique to VI, as are its faults, and the same can be said of VII.  Despite both being Final Fantasy titles, it really does feel like comparing apples and oranges.  I can conceivable pick one today, and tomorrow feel like my opinion has changed and writing this has made me want to play through the both of them all over again.  I set out to pick the best one though, and I’m not going to wimp out after over 3200 words.  So with that said, gun to my head, the best title in the Final Fantasy franchise is…

Final Fantasy VII.

And the winner is...

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