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Ranking the Mainline ‘Final Fantasy’ Games

The 'Final Fantasy' series has been around for 35 years, and in that time, it has graced the world with some of the best video games ever made. Today, we're ranking the mainline entries to get to the bottom of which is the best.
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The long-running Final Fantasy series bears little resemblance today to its earliest outings. Final Fantasy XV is a sweeping, epic road trip through a weird world of technology and magic. In contrast, the first entry in the franchise is a straightforward adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons, down the Vancian spellcasting and the class-based character progression. 

Final Fantasy VII
Square Enix

Ironically, the series’ very name speaks to how much it’s changed over the years. When the first Final Fantasy was in development, things looked financially dire for publisher Square. Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi felt that the game he was developing was his last chance to create a hit title in the gaming industry, and, as such, this would likely be his “final” fantasy. Luckily for all of us, the game went on to become a roaring commercial and critical success, so it was hardly final.

With fifteen mainline entries in the franchise, thirteen of which are proper single-player RPGs, there’s plenty for fans to debate in the series. Today, we’re offering our (completely subjective) ranking of the thirteen single-player titles in the mainline Final Fantasy franchise. We’ve got nothing against the MMOs, XI and XIV, or the spin-off titles, but they’re not quite comparable to the other single-player numbered entries in the series.

Final Fantasy II

The second Final Fantasy game isn’t bad, but it’s perhaps the least engaging of the thirteen mainline single-player games. Notably, this game didn’t receive a Western release until several years after its 1988 debut in Japan.

In any list of Final Fantasy games, the second entry stands out because of its unusual leveling system. Rather than earning experience in combat that advances your characters to the next level, your characters instead gain various stat bonuses based on their in-game actions. This unusual system is more head-scratching than engrossing, and it makes II a tough game to recommend to newcomers.

Final Fantasy III

It’s important to make a distinction when talking about any Final Fantasy games before VII that Square followed an unusual naming convention with the franchise in the West until the late 90s. The game that was released as Final Fantasy III for the Super Nintendo in 1994 was actually Final Fantasy VI.

The real Final Fantasy III, released in 1990 for the Famicom game system, is among the more rote entries in the series. It features a predictable story and a very unsurprising lineup of classes and monsters. In short, it’s the least ambitious Final Fantasy game, and that makes it pretty easy to skip over if you’re ever checking out the history of the series. 

Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy V is one of those often-overlooked early FF titles that didn’t get a Western release until years later. You might also notice that those three games also make up the bottom of our list! There’s a reason that Square didn’t localize these entries.

However, among the three “forgotten” Fantasies, V is a pretty fun title. Like the third entry, this one allows players to swap their characters’ jobs out at will–a mechanic that would later inspire the cult classic Bravely Default series. 

Final Fantasy IX

The ninth mainline entry in the series was a bit of an outlier in the PS1 era. After the cyberpunk look of VII and the gritty world of VIII, IX functioned as a “return to basics” for the series, embracing a more high fantasy aesthetic.

This makes it a bit less visually interesting than some of its contemporaries, but it’s still a fantastic RPG. Vivi, the party’s mage, stands out as one of the franchise’s best characters. If you’re looking for a slightly more modern take on a classic Final Fantasy adventure, check out IX.

Final Fantasy I

The NES game that started it all, Final Fantasy I, hasn’t aged very well. It’s a rudimentary game with only a handful of unique enemy sprites, extremely limited combat animations, and very basic graphics. However, the undeniable sense of place and an incredible soundtrack make it one of the most ambitious video games ever made.

It’s also impossible to overstate the impact this RPG had on the industry. Without Final Fantasy, it’s possible that the classic turn-based RPG would have never taken off in the West. The game is still worthy of a playthrough today, even if only to see how far the franchise has come.

Final Fantasy XV

The fifteenth mainline Fantasy is a bit divisive. It features a stunning open world, complete with gorgeous HD graphics and an action-oriented combat system that make it feel like the next evolution of the Fantasy series. However, it’s also a bit of a mess narratively, as you need to watch several movies and TV series to make any sense of the convoluted plot. 

Still, the game deserves praise for its open-world design loop and some truly awe-inspiring visuals. It might even be the prettiest of the numbered Final Fantasy games.

Final Fantasy VIII

Aesthetically, VIII shares many design elements in common with its lauded predecessor, VII. However, it’s got its own identity: it follows Squall and the SeeDs mercenary group as they get caught up in a scheme to warp spacetime. It’s all very high-concept, much like its other 90s Fantasy counterparts, and it has one of the more outlandish stories of the PlayStation entries in the franchise.

VIII also suffers from being divisive among fans for its unusual design decisions. For instance, the “junction” mechanic allowed characters to equip spells as though they were items, allowing them to boost stats. However, casting the equipped spell would reduce the related stat, resulting in a complex balancing act that some players loved–and others despised.

Final Fantasy XIII

The thirteenth mainline Final Fantasy was the main series’ first foray into HD, and it was met with critical praise and a bit of confused head-scratching from fans. The storyline is extremely high-stakes and dramatic, making it an obvious successor to VII in some respects. In fact, its protagonist, Lightning, has been compared to VII’s leading man, Cloud Strife.

While XIII features a more linear design than some fans would prefer, others enjoyed the stronger focus on the storyline. It’s also a downright gorgeous video game, showcasing Square’s unparalleled attention to detail.

Final Fantasy X

It’s hard to talk too much about X’s phenomenal storyline without spoiling it. As the first Fantasy on the PS2, X carried a lot of weight on its shoulders. It delivered in a big way, bringing a tear-jerking story and an in-depth world to a new generation of players.

Notably, it was also the first Final Fantasy with full voice acting beyond the main story cutscenes. Some of these lines haven’t aged very well, but it still makes the game a landmark for the series–and the RPG genre as a whole. 

Final Fantasy VI

Released in the West as Final Fantasy III in 1994, this Super Nintendo title had the unenviable task of following up the unparalleled Final Fantasy IV in the eyes of Western fans. And, for many fans, it was more than a worthy successor: some consider VI the finest entry in the franchise

It’s easy to see why! Kefka is an all-time great villain, the storyline is gripping and immediate, and the combat and graphics make this game vintage Final Fantasy. If you’re interested in visiting some of the earliest entries in the franchise, you should check out VI to get a feel for what RPG excellence looked like in the mid-90s.

Final Fantasy XII

Final Fantasy XII offered the most distinct break from the usual combat system since IV’s active time battle system. In XII, battles take place in real-time–more or less. It’s a bit like an MMO, in that characters automatically attack, but you can issue commands that allow them to make more powerful attacks.

XII features a sprawling open world and a massive cast of well-written characters. The war-torn world and realistic, politically-driven story make it one of the most beloved entries in the long-running franchise. 

Final Fantasy VII 

What can you say about Final Fantasy VII? It’s one of the most beloved video games of all time. It was the series’ first entry on the PlayStation, ushering the franchise into the third dimension and introducing full-motion pre-rendered cutscenes that blew people’s minds back in 1997. 

It’s got one of the most tightly-crafted stories in the series, the incomparable villain Sephiroth, and one of the most charming main casts of characters in any video game–Fantasy or otherwise. If you haven’t played this masterpiece before, you owe it to yourself to try it out. You can also check out its excellent remake, which is on both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.

Final Fantasy IV

Fans will argue about this one until the sun explodes, but, for me, IV is the best Final Fantasy. Released in the West as Final Fantasy II, this Super Nintendo title rewrote what a home console video game could be. It featured a dark, mature story that took its characters on a globe-trotting journey.

The game’s protagonist, Cecil, undergoes character development that had previously never been seen in a video game. Moreover, Square cleverly used in-game mechanics and stat changes to underscore the narrative progression. When Cecil forsakes the evil powers of his Death Knight class and becomes a warrior of light, his in-game class and mechanics reflect this. 

While this is my top pick for the entire franchise, it might not be yours. Everyone’s got a favorite game from the long-running Final Fantasy series, and it’s okay to disagree with the popular opinion. With such a long and varied history of excellent entries, everyone is bound to have their own favorite Fantasy!