The most pointless exercise ever! July 2, 2012Posted by sinewysimian in Final Fantasy, Inanity.
Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is releasing in a matter of hours, and as I get geared up for the game it’s gotten me reflecting on my favorite moments in the series. Because of this, I shall now engage in the utterly useless activity of ranking the 14 flagship Final Fantasy games in my order of preference, from least favorite to most favoritest evar.
This is a vapid undertaking for a number of reasons, but the primary one is simply this: many of the strengths and weaknesses of each individual Final Fantasy title are subjective judgments, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people rank the series in exactly the same order. Which is weird, because intuitively I’d have thought there would be a greater number of people on the planet than permutations of Final Fantasy games… but as it turns out, that’s not true! The factorial of 14 is like 87 billion! Crazy. Anyway, my point is that there’s no meaningful conversation that can come from this. Whenever anyone on the Internet decides to rate the series from best to worst, the responses boil down to things like “Here’s my order!” “No way, it should go like this!” “I’d rank them differently myself.” “You’re stupid and you should feel bad about yourself.” Each reply invariably contains a unique ordering of the games, so after a few minutes the whole affair has devolved into an unintelligible mess of numbers. It quickly becomes apparent that this is one of those subjects that no two people will ever agree on, and no one really cares that much about anyone else’s preferences but their own anyway. So there’s no point, but I don’t care. I’ve got Final Fantasy on the brain, so here’s my take on the series (again, just the numbered flagship titles), in order from the dimmest of lowlights to the brightest of highlights.
The bottom of the pack: XIV and XI
I’m lumping these two at the bottom of the list, because I haven’t played them and don’t have any real desire to. The reviews of XIV were enough to scare me off, and XI just always looked bland to me. I’m sure I’m wrong and both of them are perfectly serviceable, but I’m just not interested in paying a subscription fee to play an MMO, so these two entries will for the foreseeable future remain unplayed by me.
An early chapter of the series that I could never get into, despite numerous attempts with fan-translated ROMs and a very brief spin with the PS1 release. The narrative never grabbed me, and the somewhat inscrutable skill leveling system was a pretty big turnoff.
I don’t harbor much guilt for not being swept away by Final Fantasy II, but I can’t say the same for III. I feel as though I should like this game, yet I can’t bring myself to care. Not even the lovely DS remake could make me give a shit about the series’ first implementation of the job system. I do love the soundtrack, though; “Eternal Wind” is one of my favorite overworld themes, and the town music is beautiful as well.
Final Fantasy XIII is not a bad game… it’s just so linear, and devoid of replay value. Think of that! A role-playing game with no replay value. I mean, that’s just insane. To think of all the games that exist today that could be enjoyed twice, five times, ten times, without having seen their entire contents! And then here comes the big HD debut of Final Fantasy after an excruciatingly long wait, and it’s one long hallway from beginning to end. You see it once, and you’ve seen it all… literally. The only things that save the game from mediocrity are a handful of strongly written, likable characters, and a fast-paced, dynamic battle system that turned individual fights into miniature puzzles to be solved. Also, “Blinded by Light” is the best battle theme in the series, hands down.
Easily one of the most controversial titles in the series, Final Fantasy VII gave some people their first taste of a grandiose story-driven JRPG, and these folks still love it to this day and place it on pedestals as the best game ever. Those of us with more extensive JRPG experience are better able to see the game for what it is: an ambitious, sprawling mess that made great leaps forward in presentation, but critical steps backward in gameplay from its immediate predecessors. I can still pick up this game anytime and enjoy it, but with the full realization that it’s not very good.
So rudimentary, so simple, and I love the hell out of it. I think it’s mostly nostalgia talking, but I can just play this original game over and over. I’m one of the few people who really loved the PSP remake, and I recently purchased the new Windows Phone version, which is based on the PSP version but implements touch controls rather intelligently—not to mention achievements! Yes, the remakes of this game are a cakewalk, but that just makes it all the easier to pick one up for a little while here and there, do some mindless exploring and grinding, and listen to the great music. Sometimes I need that.
I envisioned myself putting this one higher up on the list, because I have great fondness for this chapter. I imported the soundtrack before the game came out here, and I was mesmerized. “Suteki Da Ne” was one of the reasons I started studying Japanese, and I still remember being shocked when I discovered they hadn’t bothered to translate the song for the game’s American release. The addition of character voices was huge for me; despite some uneven performances, it brought the cast to life much more than in any previous game. And I can get behind any plot that involves exposing religion as a sham. So yeah… I really like X. I guess there are just a bunch of entries I like better!
I’m a little surprised this one landed in the upper echelon, considering that I groan when I think about how many times it’s been remade, how linear it is, how overwrought and melodramatic the story is. My favorite assessment of Final Fantasy IV comes from 1UP’s Jeremy Parish, who years ago said that FFIV is FFIII fanfiction. A very astute observation, as every party member in IV fits neatly into one of the jobs from III, and the story, while engaging, tends to feel a little amateurish at times (all the heroic self-sacrifices you can fit into 20 hours!). Despite all that, there’s something oddly timeless about IV that keeps Square Enix (and us) returning to it over and over again. Also, Rydia rocks my shit.
I hated FFVIII the first time I played it on PS1. Got a few hours in, realized I despised the game and everything it stood for, and traded it back in for something else. In the intervening months I found myself thinking about the game quite a bit, about how much I enjoyed the world map music, and how maybe I didn’t really give the quirky gameplay systems a fair shake. A year or so later, I saw a copy of the PC version on EB Games’s shelf with a discounted price tag. And I thought, you know, I oughta give this game another shot with a more open mind. That did the trick, and to this day I still think rather highly of it. I don’t enjoy the character of Squall, but there’s enough else going on around him that his sour demeanor doesn’t matter that much; plus I suppose I can get behind his dedication to his duties. As a part of the larger series, I love that this game stands out as being so different, so unafraid to try something new. There are flaws aplenty—the absentee villain and the abysmal love story, to name just two—but the music delights the ears and the junction/refining systems provide a playground of possibilities.
Not too much else to say about this one; my love for FFIX has been documented in great detail elsewhere on this very site, so I’ll just say that this is easily my favorite PS1 entry. Zidane, Garnet and Vivi still stand as my most beloved lead characters in the series, and they’re surrounded by a plethora of players, major and minor, who all have wonderful stories to tell. It strikes a few false notes, such as the character of Amarant, a crappy (and overused) main theme, and glacial pacing for battles, but such qualms can be forgiven. For a tale that seemed pretty trifling for nearly half the game, it managed to completely win me over in the end.
Third place: XII
I was so blown away by Final Fantasy XII that I wrote a piece laced with hyperbole about the series in general. That review makes me cringe nowadays because I really don’t view any Final Fantasy game as a truly extraordinary work (although maybe I should). But I do still adore FFXII, and though I have no interest whatsoever in the PlayStation Vita platform, I will probably buy one if this game is made available on it. This title took all of the fancy improvements Final Fantasy X introduced, and made them better. Voice acting was stronger; the setting and characters were more compelling; the music was fantastic; the real-time battles were refreshing; the awful awful puzzle shrines from X were nowhere to be found. Things kind of go off the rails at the very end, but then, nearly every game in the series does that. I also wish the creators had just made Basch the main character instead of writing twinkie Vaan into the story; that likely would have made an already wonderful game even better.
The pinnacle of freedom in a Final Fantasy game, FFV is all about taking four blank-slate party members and making them whatever you want. The job system from FFIII was re-featured here with a greatly expanded catalog of professions and the crucial addition of the Freelancer class, which enables all the skills from other mastered job classes to be mixed-and-matched, thereby creating a party of customized uber-fighters. Good times! Final Fantasy V was the first instance I can think of where I was truly thankful for the magic of emulation. I played all the way through this game on a shitty old 486 that was much too slow to properly run ZSNES, and I was only able to play it because of the frameskip feature. Still, the game was so enjoyable that my naïve college-age self couldn’t believe that such a wonderful entry in the series wasn’t available anywhere for me to purchase—this had to be some kind of cosmic joke! A few years later, Final Fantasy Anthology appeared in stores, and ended up being inferior in every way to the experience of playing on that crappy computer. The music was horribly botched, and my save states were of course gone. Plus, playing the game on PS1 eliminated that privileged feeling I had that I was getting to enjoy this awesome secret game that no one had seen or knew anything about. So, it is for all these incidental, personal reasons, as well as the fact that it’s just a fantastic game, that FFV is one of my absolute favorites in the series.
The winner: VI
Is Final Fantasy VI a step backwards in gameplay from V? I used to think so, but ya know, these days I’m not so sure. I have heard the argument, even used it myself, that the Magicite concept enabled the same abilities to be grafted onto multiple characters, thus damaging the uniqueness of the cast. But wasn’t it just as easy to do that exact thing in FFV? There’s also the claim that it’s easy to break the game by having several party members master the most powerful Magicite. And again, power-leveling is just as possible in V as it is in VI. So, I am officially declaring that the gameplay differences between the two titles are a wash, and that for me Final Fantasy VI is the runaway winner of this competition. With the scope of its narrative, its variety of colorful personalities, the twists and turns of the plot, the soundtrack—oh, that glorious soundtrack, probably Uematsu’s very best—FFVI accomplishes so very much within the constraints of its 16-bit limitations. It’s a feat of cinematic storytelling without the cinematic excess. Sure, it’s not the height of realism with its goofy sprites and bouncy animations, but what is lost in verisimilitude is regained in consistency and cohesiveness, not to mention charm. This is the first instance I can recall in which I did not want the game to end; so heavily invested was I in these characters and their lives that I didn’t want to leave them, and as mindblowing as the ending sequence was, it pained me to know it was over. Final Fantasy games need a NewGame+ feature, dammit.
So there you have it. Hopefully that was entertaining, so that my writing of it will not have been in vain. Would you rank them differently? Am I stupid? Comment if the mood should strike you, and be sure to include lots of numbers!