The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy X (2001)

Final Fantasy X (2001)
Developed by Square Product Development Division 1

Starting with this tenth entry, the Final Fantasy series started pushing itself in increasingly different directions. Gone was the ATB system that defined the six previous entries. Even something as universal as levelling characters had a massive overhaul. For me, the systems which acted as replacements were outright improvements. No future game implemented these ideas at the same capacity, neither within the series nor outside. Yet Final Fantasy X can easily be lumped in with IV through IX as the ‘classic’ era of Final Fantasy, largely thanks to its strong design and colorful cast of characters. There may be some hiccups with the voice acting, but if Final Fantasy VII fans can look past the in-game visuals, it’s kind of absurd that Final Fantasy X is endlessly criticized for a small handful of sound mixing issues.

The Conditional Turn-Based Battle system might be my favorite JRPG battle system. The ATB system the previous entries used has always hit me as odd. Having a bar slowly fill up does not change much compared to a traditional turn-based system, and having time continue as you choose adds an unnecessary source of stress. There were weird moments of downtime between actions. The CTB system in X captured the spirit (that some characters might have their bar fill up faster than others) while implementing a more traditional turn-based feeling. The trick here is that the turn order was displayed in the top right corner.

This could have been purely informational, but Final Fantasy X goes to great lengths to give the player control over turn order. Tidus operates somewhat as a time mage, and his abilities focus on getting more hits between enemy turns. The game also includes the option to switch out party members on a character’s turn, which opens up a few possibilities. It can be good to keep white mage Yuna in the back until she’s needed. But there’s a balance here, in that the game relies a bit more on buffs than previous entries and someone switching into the party will be lacking. The common encounter doesn’t take the greatest advantage of this system, but the bosses are some of the best in the series due to some extra strategic layers. Add in the late-game monster arena and the International Version’s bonus bosses, and there are a lot of fights which show off the best aspects of this system. The worst part is, it’s so easy to see how this system could be refined further, but no future game has made a real attempt.

Adding to this being my favorite Final Fantasy purely on a gameplay level is the sphere grid. Instead of levelling up, the characters gain points which let them move around a grid. In the beginning, each character has a clearly defined path with a few off-shooting branches. The central draw is that each of these characters share the same grid but start at different points. There is a promise here that you will eventually be able to mix and match classes, ultimately reaching the point where everyone is maxed out. Kimahri’s role is intriguing, as he starts in the center and essentially exists as an early excuse to jump between sections while others stick to their path. Several of the small branches have locks blocking the stronger abilities, and it can become a question of waiting for the necessary sphere to break the lock or passing it by to keep levelling. Usually, levelling simply means watching a few numbers go up, but there’s an extra feeling of control here.

Final Fantasy X showcased how big of a leap there was between the first two PlayStation consoles. Other than the aforementioned voice acting issue (which really isn’t that bad outside of a few scenes – the focus always being on a scene which is intentionally awkward should be telling), this was a great step forward in video game presentation. X felt cinematic in places where the PS1 games could only suggest.

Instead of an overworld map, this game is instead set inside large areas. Linear vs. open design will always be an endlessly tiring debate, but it really depends on the game. This linearity works because this is the story of a pilgrimage – the goal is to get from point A to point B. Despite the lack of room to explore, everything still feels larger than life and magical. Additionally, despite one of the obvious complaints about linearity being an assumed lack of content, FFX might just be the longest game in the series for a completionist run. The secrets are simply mixed into these large areas.

I’m also one of those weirdos who actually likes Tidus. This isn’t to say he isn’t annoying – you will absolutely want to slap him across the face several times. But he grows into something greater. Despite so many games insisting on having teenage characters, Final Fantasy X feels like one of the few to actually tackle maturing into an adult. I’m also fond of Yuna, the quiet, self-sacrificing summoner at the heart of this pilgrimage. The revelation of the pilgrimage being a suicide run for potentially negligible benefits hit me hard, especially with Tidus being kept in the dark just so he could be obliviously happy during the journey. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but this game’s themes of sacrifice have been a major influence on my own writing (in fact, the novel I’ve been working on for the last year essentially started as a deconstruction of the fantasy stories I grew up with, with Final Fantasy X serving as the backbone). So, sure, some of these scenes might have been cheesy. But, as far as I can remember, this is the only game to make me cry. I was admittedly only twelve or thirteen when I first played this game, but still. Simply hearing “To Zanarkand” is enough to make me sadly nostalgic.

Final Fantasy has enough variants on a classic formula that several could easily be argued as the best. For me, that title has always belonged to Final Fantasy X. From the addicting and simple combat system to the wonderful presentation and setting, this game has stuck with me like few others. Everything works so well that I can almost overlook the fact that none of these characters know how to dress. Lulu, what are you doing with those belts? For Yevon’s sake, this freaking game made me cry over a dude who wears zip-off pants with only one leg removed.

The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy IX (2000)

Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Developed by Square

In many ways, Final Fantasy IX feels like the last traditional Final Fantasy, as much as a series which constantly changes features can have a traditional form. Most grew to know the series with the SNES and PS1 titles, with all six games built around the Active Time Battle system. Though the last entry on the PS1, FF9 felt like a throwback to the SNES titles, focused on a more fantastical world than 7 and 8 while also featuring character designs by Yoshitaka Amano. Even the battle theme features the signature bassline from the earlier games. In many ways, IX is the best of both worlds and feels like a celebration of the whole series up to that point.

There’s a certain charm to Final Fantasy IX that the other games never achieved. Though the plot ends up as dire as any other entry, the game features a consistently lighter atmosphere. Each central character is designed to look nothing like another. The standout here is Vivi Ornitier, a shy boy with a design based upon the original Black Mage. Even the world design feels fresh, mixing together the more medieval styling of the earlier games with ever-present future technology.

Though it might be a minor point, I simply enjoy having more members in the active party. The SNES Final Fantasy games had four or five characters each, yet 7 and 8 reduced this number to three. FF9 brings this back up to four. Meanwhile, the twist on the ability system feels concise yet expansive. Each weapon comes with its own ability, which can be used whenever the item is equipped and becomes permanent after enough use. This gives a greater meaning to both finding and using each weapon.

Nobuo Uematsu is at the top of his game here, the final Final Fantasy to exclusively feature his music. The music is generally more whimsical than the other entries while also featuring some of the most singularly emotional pieces in the series. As mentioned before, the main battle theme builds upon the classic bassline to great effect. Many of the best tracks are limited to single moments. Otherwise minor character General Beatrix is elevated to another level through her wondrous piano theme, “Roses of May.” “The Darkness of Eternity” stands alongside the other classic final battle themes. My personal favorite is “You’re Not Alone,” which plays during a powerful moment where Zidane rejects the assistance of his friends after a devastating revelation. The piece starts as a gentle, melancholic arrangement, slowly building until finally bringing in a guitar and then chanting. It’s an epic theme to a great moment.

While I began by discussing the lighthearted charm, this cutesy aesthetic masks some of the darker themes in the series. The “You’re Not Alone” sequence helps elevate Zidane into a strong protagonist after a rocky introduction – one thing that often gets neglected when discussing the Final Fantasy protagonists is how much they evolve during the course of the story. Zidane and Tidus both get the short end of the stick. Characters like Cecil and Cloud start off cool and then gain more depth, while these later protagonists start as obnoxious teenagers and slowly mature. They may be abrasive, but seeing them grow is ultimately a rewarding experience.

Final Fantasy IX is the series at its most existential, with both Zidane and Vivi getting the brunt of this theme. Vivi is one of the best characters in this series, and this extends far beyond his iconic design. As a character, he is unaware of his origins. An early moment has the group stumble across an assembly line where black mages are being manufactured. What, exactly, is his purpose in existing? The revelations only get worse from there, but like Zidane, he’s not alone. This is a game about characters trying to break free of their intended purpose, whether it involves social roles or being literally manufactured. Kuja makes the perfect foil as the central antagonist. Where the heroes are learning to cope with their destinies, Kuja lashes out.

Final Fantasy IX also takes one of my favorite pages from the SNES era and jumps between characters until they finally come together. The game even includes a dungeon where the player must split the party into two. There’s also a massive world to explore, with plenty of rare collectables to gather. This game offers everything you could want from this series.

Everyone has a different Final Fantasy they call their favorite – the series is just that good. But IX stands as a culmination of all the stray ideas the series had explored during its breakthrough era. The only reason it gets less attention is due to the Wind Waker effect – certain gamers simply refused to try a game with this art style. Which is a shame, as this truly captures the spirit of Final Fantasy on every level.

The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy VI (1994)

Final Fantasy VI (1994)
Developed by Square

While IV and V are truly great in their own right, VI is when the Final Fantasy series started churning out downright masterpieces year after year. VI builds upon IV’s narrative foundation (V still stands as a distinct entry), telling the story of a bunch of plucky adventurers as they fight to save their world. Where IV was always centralized around Cecil and most of its revolving cast consisted of temporary characters, VI does away with a protagonist entirely.

Some will argue that Terra or Celes are the ‘true’ main character. This doesn’t really matter. Significant is the fact that this structure allows the game to constantly split the party while never relegating any party member to a minor role. This culminates in a final dungeon where the player must split their 14 party members into three teams of four. Many JRPGs have giant casts, but few utilize them all in such a meaningful way.

This split structure also helps highlight each member of this colorful cast. While the quality isn’t exactly consistent, characters like the Figaro brothers, Terra, Celes, Shadow, and Locke all rank among the best in the series. Then there is the first unforgettable villain in the series, dancing mad court mage Kefka Palazzo. His colorful outfit hides a ruthless sadist who only wants to see the world destroyed. The game doesn’t even treat him as a serious threat initially. His cackling soundbite is spine-tingling, and he’s one of the few convincing displays of destructive nihilism. There’s no cheap stab at creating sympathy – Kefka is a living embodiment of evil, plain and simple. The heroes absolutely have to stop him.

And what makes Final Fantasy VI so effective is that they don’t. Not initially. The game is divided into two distinct halves. The opening is rather straightforward beyond its branching paths, but the second half turns closer to an open world experience as Celes finds herself in a shattered world. All of the heroes have been split up, and the team must reunite to have a chance at getting their revenge on Kefka. This atmospheric shift was key in establishing FF6 as having one of the first truly great video game narratives, and it also gave the player a chance to have their own sense of control as they sought out the remaining heroes.

With its fourteen party members, FF6 stands out by giving each of them a clearly defined function through a special command. Sabin pulls off awesome physical feats which must be input like a traditional fighting game. Gau imitates enemies through his rage ability. Edgar utilizes special tools with a variety of effects. Each and every character fills a niche. Meanwhile, the esper system gives the player a bit of control over how the characters level and gain magic.

Most modern JRPGs have Final Fantasy IV to thank for establishing solid narratives in traditional video games. Final Fantasy VI refined these elements. From a strong cast to a surprisingly dark narrative to a large world to a phenomenal soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu, this is everything you could ever want from a Final Fantasy experience, years before VII finally set the world on fire.

The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy VII (1997)

Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Developed by Square

As someone who largely experienced 90s video games as a teenager in the mid-2000s, the overwhelming popularity of Final Fantasy VII has always been a bit jarring. The reasons for its commercial success are largely nonsensical now; this was seen as an example of cutting edge technology? But what gets people to pick something up in the first place can differ from what sticks with them. Square sold this game based on cutscenes which looked much better than the standard gameplay, but people who bought in were rewarded with the latest iteration of a solid franchise that had been largely overlooked during the previous generation.

Square simply does memorable characters better than most companies. While plenty of games feature deeper protagonists with stronger characterization, that quality rarely extends to the supporting cast. With Tetsuya Nomura’s distinctive designs, each individual party member has become a video game icon. One of Final Fantasy’s greatest strengths is its Seven Samurai-styled collection of disparate heroes coming together for a shared cause, and VII is absolutely the most consistent cast in the series. Even relatively minor characters like Zack Fair and Rufus Shinra have captured the imagination.

Final Fantasy VII truly outshines its legacy. Cloud Strife is absolutely deserving of his place as one of the definitive video game protagonists. Square themselves seems to have lost track of what made him special, framing him as the quiet brooding type in later appearances like Kingdom Hearts. The whole point of his actual character arc is that Cloud is deeply disturbed and has been clinging onto a personality which is not his own. One of the game’s defining moments has Cloud break out of this shell and become his true, more joyous self.

What makes this change special is how it affects our understanding of the cast itself. Cloud is caught inside gaming’s most famous love triangle, which is already complicated by one of the participants being the victim of gaming’s most well-known spoiler. But with this twist comes the realization that Aerith is drawn to the performance while Tifa has been longing for the real Cloud.

The surprise of FF7 is how it wades through some complex territory. Ecoterrorism, corporations killing the planet, identity, betrayal, death – this features some heavy stuff compared to most mainstream hits, and it seems that later entries were wary of tackling anything too controversial once 7 shot the series into the spotlight.

So many of these moments are magical. Stepping onto the world map for the first time, Sephiroth standing amidst the flames, that famous twist at the end of disc one – Square knew how to direct our attention. The standard presentation would have never been enough for this ambitious story, so the cutscenes really do assist in generating emotional resonance.

But the highlight of the presentation has always been the score. Nobuo Uematsu is the biggest name in video game music for a reason, and everything about Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack is phenomenal. Beyond the simple beauty of the music, Uematsu expertly links many of these songs together through distinct motifs. Even as the party strays far from where they began, these motifs are a constant reminder of everything being connected.

What made Final Fantasy such a definitive JRPG experience between the SNES and PS2 eras was the way each game offered its own unique spin on a sturdy foundation. While VII stands as the most popular, they are each of a distinct quality where any individual entry would be a reasonable favorite (except perhaps VIII). The Materia system does a fantastic job of giving the player control over what their characters can do. The fact there are many powerful Materia throughout the world also makes it essential not just to level but to hunt these items down – any JRPG that gives a meaningful way to power up outside of shopping and grinding has a distinct advantage.

The hunt for these Materia also highlights the size of this world. There are so many sidequests and secret bosses. Yet even while restrained to Midgar, this world feels huge. There’s always some new corner to explore, and the game offers some serious rewards, including two full-fledged party members.

I’ll never quite have the nostalgic association with FF7 like those who got to experience it upon release. Even then, the core experience stands strong – turn-based gameplay never really ages and the narrative concepts have remained unique. There’s a reason everyone had been clamoring for a remake – the graphics have always been the sole barrier for new players from an otherwise flawless game. But with Square deciding to experiment with the remake, the original remains a distinct and definitive experience.

The Greatest Games: Kingdom Hearts II (2006)

Kingdom Hearts II (2006)
Developed by Square Enix Product Development Division 1

From the beginning, Kingdom Hearts was one of those ideas which should have never worked. Even its creation seems improbable, starting as a literal elevator pitch as someone from Square Enix ran into a Disney exec on an elevator. The colorful world of Disney mixed together with the stylish Final Fantasy series seems like something which should appeal to exactly no one, yet it’s become one of the most popular JRPG franchises. The fact it took that odd creation as a jumping point to become one of gaming’s most convoluted narratives is both asinine and completely on-brand. Even several games in, I can’t help giggling as Donald Duck talks about ‘the darkness.’

But few songs hit my nostalgia like “Dearly Beloved.” Kingdom Hearts is nonsense, but it’s my nonsense. II stands high above the rest, fixing the clunky feeling from the original and, well, not being the later games. This game helped mark a huge shift in action gameplay alongside Devil May Cry 3 and the original God of War; graphics have advanced considerably, but the gameplay of these games are as smooth as ever.

The original Kingdom Hearts played a bit safe with its Disney choices. The only real surprise was The Nightmare Before Christmas, which had more to do with Disney otherwise keeping it away from their other animated properties. Everything else shared a generally colorful aesthetic. Kingdom Hearts II switches things up with Timeless River (designed to simulate the black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons) and Space Paranoids (which captures the neon cyberpunk style of the original Tron). Even the more obvious inclusion of The Lion King involves transforming Sora into a lion cub, which puts a fun spin on the combat. There’s also the more, uh, realistic Pirates of the Caribbean level, which might be a weak point but reinforces that each of these levels really capture their own unique traits.

Combat in the original was fun if a little basic. II maintains the simple feel while adding a few more options, the most central being the drive forms and reaction commands. The drive forms give Sora distinct boosts and unique traits. These are integrated well, as you can eventually unlock permanent upgrades for Sora through levelling these forms. They all level using different mechanics, which gives a reason to keep using each of them. This carries its own risk, as overuse can transform Sora into the Anti Form, where he loses most of his abilities but gains incredible speed.

Reaction commands break up the tedium of hitting the same button over and over. Certain moments in battle will reveal an enemy’s weak point, which can be engaged with through a separate button press. This may not sound like much, but gameplay is the one element this series was smart enough to keep simple. It’s just enough to make things more exciting.

The boss battles are a real highlight. Though I still don’t quite get Organization XIII on a narrative level, more humanoid bosses tend to be more engaging, and their presence offers a hefty amount. The Final Mix takes this further by offering even more difficult versions of each member, including those not actually present in the central narrative. What makes humanoid bosses great in action games is that those which are well-designed feel like a battle on even ground, even as the boss pulls off impossible feats. With so much fun content in the Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts II is one of the few RPGs which gives a compelling reason to grind for end game content.

While the opening hours can be a bit tedious after the first playthrough, Roxas’s story is a strangely resonant microcosm of the series’ themes. Having still not played Chain of Memories, I’m certain there are bits I’m missing, but “Looks like my summer vacation is over” still hit me like a brick the first time through. I think that’s the defining feature of Kingdom Hearts as a narrative – even if you don’t fully understand the overarching plot, it still manages to find the emotional core through the experiences of the characters.

Kingdom Hearts II takes the best of the RPG and Action genres, creating one of the most vibrant series in gaming. While its story may not be for everyone, it’s a rare RPG where the narrative might be its weakest hook. In fact, the individual moments count for more than the narrative at large – in a series where visiting Disney worlds started as the main selling point, Kingdom Hearts II simply has the best of the bunch. Over a decade later, this is still a blast to play.

The Greatest Games: Final Fantasy XII (2006)

Final Fantasy XII (2006)
Developed by Square Enix

It feels like every Final Fantasy since VII has split the fanbase. The polar opposite of Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy has always tried to redefine itself. Those between IV and IX were slight variations, focusing more on different ways to build your characters while featuring the same combat system. X overhauled that central system but still felt like a Final Fantasy. XII goes so hard in the other direction that, if not for its title and a few familiar creatures, one could have easily assumed it was a new series entirely.

I’m not going to pretend Final Fantasy XII is flawless. Previous Final Fantasy games have some of the most beloved casts in gaming – the only great character from XII is Balthier. For whatever reason, XII went with a more subdued and realistic art style, leaving most of the cast looking mundane. A messy production left non-entity Vaan as the protagonist, and the narrative is almost impossible to follow. Those drawn to the series for its stories had every reason in the world to be disappointed – it took until the 2017 rerelease for it to really click with me.

But once it clicked, it hit hard. XII is sometimes derided as a single player MMORPG. For me, it lands in the perfect place between the two genres. This is about as big as JRPGs come, yet it never gets as overwhelming and demanding as a full MMO. There’s so much to explore, but it never leaves you waiting or needing to endlessly grind.

A common complaint from its release now seems rather precious. Instead of controlling every individual action for each character, the game has something it calls a gambit system. You are given up to 12 lines of “if x, then y” statements for each character. The earlier lines take precedence, so you can set up your healer to raise the unconscious first, heal if no one is knocked out, and then attack if no one needs healing. It’s an ingenious system which allows fluid combat, which is key since this game avoids random encounters by having enemies integrated into the locations. With more RPGs moving toward action combat where the AI controls everyone but the main character, it’s shocking more games haven’t expanded on this feature to give the player precise control over their teammates. The only other game I know which uses a similar system is Dragon Age. While this can cause a lot of battles to essentially play themselves, I find this intricate programming preferable to mashing the attack button against random mobs. The player can always give commands when necessary, and there are plenty of hard encounters which will require restricting the programming. Combat in XII feels a lot more tactical than its predecessors, even when much of it is hands-free.

I’ve always been a fan of how Final Fantasy manages to reinvent leveling, and the license board started off as an intriguing concept which was fully brought to life in the rerelease. The original version gave everyone the same board, giving the player control over what path to send their characters down. The Zodiac Age mixes this with the underutilized job system and dual-classing, limiting the characters but guiding them down distinct paths. Deciding which ability to go after next is always a tough decision. Every RPG should aspire to make levelling this fun.

While I mentioned that the art style does little favor for the characters, the world itself is breathtaking. Few cities in gaming feel as alive as Rabanastre. Having enemies scattered across the land leaves every location bustling with life. Later locations are colossal, and the pure variety makes it feel like you are truly trekking across every inch of this world. There are dozens of side quests, and I wanted to do all of them just to visit every corner. In fact, I believe this is the only game where I bothered to get the Platinum trophy, simply because I was having so much fun seeing all this game had to offer.

Beyond simple scope, the world has a mesmerizing layout. Nearly every location has some passage sitting just out of reach. Many late game quests involve revisiting these areas and finally seeing what lies beyond those gates. Final Fantasy XII is constantly building a sense of intrigue.

14 years later, Final Fantasy XII still sits in a perfect niche. The only game I know which captures that not-MMO style is Xenoblade Chronicles. How more games haven’t followed in their footsteps is baffling, though it takes a lot of effort to make a world this awe-inspiring. While never capturing the typical Final Fantasy charm, XII managed to excel with its own distinct magnificence.