OK, that title is a lie. This is only definitive within my own experience. I have not finished every Final Fantasy game; there are actually a few I’ll probably never bother playing again. However, I can’t overstate the influence Final Fantasy had on me as a kid, and how much it influences my gaming and cultural tastes.
This is going to be very, very long. Courage.
My first RPG was Dragon Warrior for the NES. Unless we’re counting the Atari 2600’s Adventure, but we’re not, because it’a hard to role-play as a square.
Anyways, I loved Dragon Warrior. A totally new experience in gaming at that time, it was a game that allowed me to think and consider my actions, and truly feel like an epic medieval hero. You kill a dragon. You save a princess. You kill a dragonlord. Everyone loves you.
Then Final Fantasy happened. It was just bigger and better than Dragon Warrior. Four characters? Up to nine enemies at once? More than three bosses in the whole game? Classes? Ships? AIRSHIPS?
It was just so much. I’ve probably only beaten the game a couple times, but I remember so much of it, despite its size. Dragon Warrior was good, Final Fantasy was great.
(Here’s the part where we ignore, if only for a bit, that Final Fantasy probably ended up as the fourth-best NES RPG in America, behind Dragon Warrior’s three sequels.)
By today’s standards, Final Fantasy the First is probably unplayable. There’s a mountain of grind, the game gets pretty easy once you figure out its rather simple systems (and pick a well-rounded party). The graphics aren’t terrible, but they’re early-era NES, and still don’t age terribly well. The plot, while solid, isn’t anything new by today’s standards. The only thing that really endures is the music. If there’s a single RPG from the NES anyone must play, it’s probably Dragon Warrior 4. Or perhaps Destiny of an Emperor, which is also quite splendid and underrated.
Since I live in the US, I didn’t get to experience the the actual Final Fantasy 2 or 3. Japan didn’t release them in America because translating was going to take too long, and Final Fantasy 2 specifically had a lot of religious themes that they didn’t think would get through FCC standards. They instead worked on translating Final Fantasy 4, the first entry on the SNES.
As much as Final Fantasy was an influential kick to the face, Final Fantasy 2, I mean 4, was a revelation. And it wasn’t just the graphics, which were a similar style with just more detail. It was the music (that Red Baron theme still wanders into my head once a week, to this day). It was the character development. It was the plot. By today’s standards nothing terribly special, but the overall execution was paramount. The weaving of characters in and out of the party to accentuate plot moments, the dark-to-light transformation of the main character, an actual love story! Betrayal! Redemption! It was special, especially to FF fans who had been waiting so long for just any new game, let alone one on a new system with enhanced everything.
I played the ever-loving poop out of this game. The characters are memorable, the drama is high, the presentation was superb, and the music was face-meltingly excellent. It’s my favorite FF soundtrack, which is saying a lot.
(This is the part where we pretend Final Fantasy 5 didn’t exist, because it wasn’t released in America either! Common theories are that it was considered too hard, that it had the job system which had been introduced in another FF that wasn’t released in America, and that they also considered it a “weaker” entry story-wise, and felt it would fall flat after the dramatics of 4.)
Then, true, unmitigated greatness.
Final Fantasy 3, I mean 6, blew my fucking nuts off. Graphics: better. Music: fucking excellent (barely edged out by 4’s music). Characters: many. Character development: lots. Villain: fucking crazy. Plot twists: hoo boy. FF6 might have the best plot twist in gaming history. Character development system: simple, but good (and a first in America).
Humorous aside: FF6 is probably the buggiest major release on the Super Nintendo. Many of the problems are under the surface, and I honestly played the game the whole way through without noticing any problems. However, there were ways to break the game all over the place, and many minor issues that secretly plagued the game. Stats that don’t do anything, a method to insta-kill almost any monster in the game (including bosses), a way to glitch the game and replace a prominent character with a moogle. And a rather awful translation and censorship effort to boot. Pretty nuts.
Anyways, this game is amazing. It’s my personal favorite of the series. So many characters. So many fun battle mechanics. So much story. A villain whose calling card (the laugh) can still send a shiver down my spine. The first American FF title that “opened up” towards the end and had many asides, side quests, and even allowed you to choose whether to pick up old party members or not. Sublime soundtrack. So much good, so little bad. I feel that FF6 is the closest to a perfect game that Square has ever achieved (even with all the bugs).
To me, this is where the series changed a little. I feel that more emphasis was placed on presentation rather than substance. I feel that the general theming of the games alienated some of its audience. I feel that there was a magic to FF4 and 6 that hasn’t been recaptured. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the Super Nintendo, and it’s possible that my feelings are held tight by nostalgia and familiarity. But this is how I feel, and I can say I experienced all of it.
Here’s a big reason why many (any?) of you may have clicked on this article:
Final Fantasy 7 was a masterpiece. It almost single-handedly won the console war between the PSX and N64. It was many people’s first Final Fantasy game. It has a memorable villain, an iconic hero, and a dramatic, tear-jerking plot that fostered conspiracy theories and false rumors like no other. It’s character development is top-notch, its music is among the series’ best, and the gameplay was and possibly still is the best of the series. The materia system allowed for huge customization, which was a welcome “new thing” to American FF fans. It’s fucking excellent. Not my favorite, but excellent. Maybe I’ll examine this vs. 6 another time, because that’s 5000 words waiting to happen.
My only real complaint about 7 is as follows: I couldn’t ever get over how psychologically weak Cloud was. It’s explained well, and I understand it, but to make that character the hero? It just never rang true to me. That all these people were placing their trust in a guy who was so messed up he co-opted a dead man’s life story to just feel better about himself? I feel Tifa or even Red XIII would have made better heroes. Just my two cents.
Here’s where I say “stay tuned for part 2.” I feel this is a good place to break, if only because my relationship with the Final Fantasy series changed after the 7th installment. I’ll write more tomorrow.