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We ranked the top 10 'Final Fantasy' mainline games

<em>Final Fantasies XV, IX, X</em>
Square Enix
Final Fantasies XV, IX, X

I love Final Fantasy, and sometimes love makes you do drastic things.

When the first trailer for Final Fantasy XVI dropped in late 2020 I made the inspired decision to play and rank every mainline entry before it came out. I had finished most of them already, but why not relive the magic once more?

Final Fantasy is one of the most influential video game series of all time. But before the release and eventual success of 1987's Final Fantasy I, developer Square faced bankruptcy. There's a common misconception that the company named it "Final" Fantasy because it was their last ditch effort to survive. In actuality, they wanted to call it "Fighting" Fantasy, but the name was already taken.

However, the "Final" label became core to series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's philosophy, who believed that each game should be developed as if it was the last he'd ever make.

As for the list, I won't include Final Fantasy XI as I've only put 20 hours into it, which isn't sufficient to review a MMO. I won't include remakes or spin-offs, no matter how much I enjoyed them. And while I can't endorse the dumpster fire that is Final Fantasy II, I do recommend Final Fantasy XIII, III, and XII, even though they didn't crack this top 10 list.

This list has been updated to include Final Fantasy XVI.

Honorable mention: Final Fantasy VIII (1999)

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Square Enix

Right up until Disc 3, I had a remarkably good time playing Final Fantasy VIII. It has an incredible soundtrack, impressive pre-rendered CGI and an English translation vastly superior to anything that came before it, thanks to the work of the legendary Richard Honeywood.

But then Disc 3 happens and the story goes completely off the rails. Scene after scene of confusing exposition fails to piece together the events leading up to its anticlimactic ending. It's a real bummer because the final dungeon might be my favorite in the series — Ultimecia's creepy but endlessly intriguing castle is like Final Fantasy's version of the Spencer Mansion from Resident Evil.

10. Final Fantasy V (1992)

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Square Enix

Final Fantasy V improved upon the job system from prior entries to make one of the strongest turn-based combat systems of any game I've ever played.

For the first time, you could actually carry over abilities from different jobs, giving you the freedom to craft tons of powerful character combinations. By the end of the game I stacked my party with a spellblade knight, a ninja thief, a time mage, a white mage, and a dualcasting summoner.

Unlike its more serious predecessor and successors, Final Fantasy V is uniquely whimsical and light-hearted — as hilarious as it is facepalm-inducing. I mean, there's a twist where the antagonist Exdeath disguises himself as a splinter caught in one of the main character's fingers. Yes, you read that correctly.

9. Final Fantasy I (1987)

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Square Enix

Although it didn't exactly establish the Japanese RPG formula (more credit should go to 1986's Dragon Quest) Final Fantasy I provided a near-perfect template. It's an all-killer, no-filler experience. You'll go to a town, talk to the locals to get some hints, delve through a dungeon, then rinse and repeat. Yet the game's simplicity doesn't sacrifice its sense of wonder and momentum.

The combat is flexible enough to offer opportunities for experimentation and the dungeons are just difficult enough to challenge you without making you want to rage-quit. In addition to inventing the whole conceptof using airships for travel in an RPG, Square made the clever decision to give you one early on, which provides an exciting glimpse of the adventures that await.

I'm cutting Final Fantasy I some slack on the story because it was solid for its time, but the plot swings from spare to nigh-incomprehensible. It really just boils down to "I'm here to kill Chaos".

8. Final Fantasy XV (2016)

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Square Enix

Oof, get out your pitchforks. I try to judge games based on their strengths as long as their flaws don't entirely overshadow them. I absolutely loved Final Fantasy XV's engaging story, well-executed character development, and memorable soundtrack, but oh boy does this game have flaws.

At first the open world looks exciting, but as you explore it you'll find that it's surprisingly empty. You can win most battles — even boss fights — just by holding the attack button. That carelessness trickles down to the world-building, too. At one point I found the same character models in the same room sitting at the same table talking to each other.

Most controversially though, Final Fantasy XV's multi-media approach to storytelling forced players to invest time and money outside of the base game to understand it, with a pricey collection of five DLC episodes and a full length movie filling in the overarching plot.

So, why did I rank this game so high?

Final Fantasy XV has the most tragic and heart-wrenching story of any game in the series, balanced with a lightness and charm that will make you smile. You'll come to love the deep friendships built between the four main characters, and the game's conclusion can make even the most hardened gamer tear up.

7. Final Fantasy XVI (2023)

<em>Final Fantasy XVI</em>
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Square Enix

I know what you're thinking, "Isn't it a little too early to compare Final Fantasy XVI to the other classics on this list? It literally just came out."

Well, to this I say, "I'm an adult and I can do what I want. Also, you're not my dad."

Final Fantasy XVI's development team executed its vision with a confidence and swagger I haven't seen from Square Enix in decades. It's got everything you'd want from the franchise — a compelling storyline, virtuosic soundtrack, and an endlessly entertaining combat system. The production is often unparalleled, particularly with scripted Eikon battles that flex spectacular, cinematic animation at its finest.

The characters are well written and their relationships are beautifully developed — I particularly loved the romance between main protagonist Clive Rosfield and his childhood friend Jill, which is so touching that it made me weep a total of five times.

Yes, it was difficult for me to decide where to put Final Fantasy XVI on this list (truth be told, it gave me a mini existential crisis). It was not, however, difficult to decide it deserved inclusion in the top 10. Only time will tell how it truly stacks up against other entries in the series, but it's without a doubt a top-tier Final Fantasy game.

6. Final Fantasy XIV (2010)

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According to some dude I met at a party a couple of years ago, and corroborated by this REI climbing blog, there are multiple "types" of fun. Type II fun is "miserable while it's happening, but fun in retrospect." If Final Fantasy XIV encompassed only the Shadowbringers expansion it'd rank higher, but far too many of the quests in this game are Type II fun.

Patches 2.1 through 2.55 of A Realm Reborn essentially add up to 40-60 hours of fetch quests. In any other game I would have stopped long before finishing, but I put my head down and plowed through it because I had heard that "the story gets way better" from scores of players. Fortunately, it does.

MMO storytelling uniquely allows you to follow characters over long periods of time. If you end up playing through the last expansion, Endwalker, you'll have invested hundreds of hours in the story of the Warrior of Light and their companions, which pays off with some twists and turns that are truly incomparable.

5. Final Fantasy IX (2000)

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Square Enix

Final Fantasy IX marked the end of an era. It was the last game that heavily involved series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi before he left to start his own company. It was the last game that composer Nobuo Uematsu wrote the entire soundtrack for (excluding Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn). It was even the last Final Fantasy with an overworld map, a defining feature of the series.

To cap off this brilliant era, Sakaguchi and his team crafted a loving homage to everything that made the series special. As a result, Final Fantasy IX is the most "Final Fantasy" of any game in the series.

After a pivot to more modern settings in VII and VIII, Final Fantasy IX returned to its medieval roots. Once again, the world sprawls with knights, castles, fantastical airships, and ye olde wooden pulley systems. The game oozes with the charm and humor of classic Final Fantasy entries and the soundtrack is peak Uematsu — he's called it his favorite work.

Unfortunately, Final Fantasy IX didn't sell particularly well — it came out after the PlayStation 2 hit the shelves and Final Fantasy X had already been announced. But it will always be a fan favorite, and an unforgettable celebration of the series.

4. Final Fantasy X (2001)

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Of all the games I replayed during this project, the nostalgia hit hardest with Final Fantasy X.

The world of Spira is my favorite setting in the series. Unlike the European trappings of its predecessors, Spira draws from Asian cultures like Thailand and Bali, where members of the development team traveled for inspiration. Not only is it a wholly unique Final Fantasy world, but quite possibly the most engaging setting of any JRPG I've ever played.

Final Fantasy X's soundtrack, the first in the series not composed entirely by Nobuo Uematsu, also stands out. The work of Masashi Hamauzu, who would go on to do the soundtracks for later entries in the series like Final Fantasy XIII, contributed a new kind of ambient vibe to compliment Uematsu's iconic melodies.

Final Fantasy X is also widely considered to have the best turn based battle system in the series. It's smooth, quick, and (eventually) complex enough to stay engaging throughout the entire game.

3. Final Fantasy VII (1997)

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Final Fantasy VII almost single handedly popularized JRPGs in the Western market. It was the most expensive video game ever produced in its time, with a staff of over 150 compared to the typical development team of 20 people.

That investment paid off. Final Fantasy VII starts with one of the most iconic opening sequences in video games, with a swooping aerial shot introducing the city of Midgar and the game's celebrated main character, Cloud. This consistent, cinematic experience, along with a masterful plot with memorable characters like antagonist Sephiroth, completely blew fans and newcomers away.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the unforgettable soundtrack — tracks like "One-Winged Angel", "Aerith's Theme", and my personal favorite "On Our Way" are beloved by fans and remain series favorites.

2. Final Fantasy IV (1991)

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Square Enix

Final Fantasy IV was a massive leap forward in storytelling quality for the series. It's jarring how much more complex the characters are compared to the casts of Final Fantasy I, II, and III. It's full of emotional scenes: Cecil transforming from a dark knight into a paladin, Rydia returning to the party as a fully grown summoner, Edward saving everyone from certain death by playing his harp to render the Dark Elf vulnerable. These moments still hit hard.

The combat mechanics and open world exploration haven't aged so well, and might even be a step down from Final Fantasy III. But I can't deny my nostalgic connection to IV — it was the first Final Fantasy game I played.

There is a reason why so many consider Final Fantasy IV to be one of the best, if not the best, game in the series. It has an intangible charm that's hard for me to describe and analyze, but I can easily tell you how it makes me feel: a genuine happiness that few games can match.

1. Final Fantasy VI (1994)

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Square Enix

Final Fantasy VI is about resilience in the face of grief. It's not only the best story in the series, it's the first truly profound story told in video game history. Bold statement, I know. Come at me, Hideo Kojima's Snatcher.

Final Fantasy VI's strength lies in its brilliant ensemble cast. Unlike other entries in the series, every member of its development dream-team contributed to character scenarios, resulting in engaging backstories and masterful character development. It's hard to pick a favorite as everyone has lovable personalities and quirks (except for Umaro and Gogo... and maybe Strago... sorry guys).

In addition to its memorable protagonists, Final Fantasy VI also includes the series' most compelling villain — the brutal, psychopathic Kefka. His insatiable desire for violence results in one of the most shocking twists in video game history — he actually accomplishes his goal of destroying the world. The resulting World of Ruin sequence is powerful, beautiful, and haunting as you wander the landscape of destruction and rebuild your team to end his reign of terror.

If you haven't played Final Fantasy VI and are a fan of the series, you must play it. It's unquestionably my favorite video game of all time.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andy Bickerton
Andy Bickerton contributes to NPR's gaming coverage and acts as digital strategy analyst for the newsroom. Data is his forte, video games are his passion. He's based in Anchorage, Alaska, and really doesn't mind freezing temperatures.