Whether you’re a gamer or not, chances are you’ve heard of the Final Fantasy series. A groundbreaking franchise of role-playing games, the first Final Fantasy released in 1987 in Japan for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, the series numbers in the double-digits with sequels, prequels, and spin-offs. Each numbered, mainline Final Fantasy is different from the rest, introducing a brand new cast of characters, a new fantasy-inspired plot, and a new memorable score of music to fall in love with.
This list contains each numbered, mainline Final Fantasy game only, including the online titles. Prequels, such as Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and spin-offs, such as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, as well as direct sequels, like Final Fantasy XIII-2, are not among our rankings. Though we’d be remiss not to give a special shout-out to the captivating political intrigues of Ivalice in the Final Fantasy Tactics games.
1. Final Fantasy XI
Undisputed for its enchanting story, in-depth systems, and incredible soundtrack, Final Fantasy XI is a hard game to live up to. While the Final Fantasy XI of today is nothing like its older counterpart, the memories its players created still live on with many of them today. Final Fantasy XI was once known for its dangerous world, blisteringly tough challenges, and gratifying rewards. Braving the Chains of Promathia storyline to unlock Al’Taieu, a celestial city under the sea, was among many players’ greatest accomplishments. The brutally-difficult gameplay built character, encouraging players to form strong communities and to always help others in need. That shared perseverance gave Final Fantasy XI players a strong sense of camaraderie missing in many modern MMOs. Yet the game needed to reinvent itself, streamlining the leveling and progression systems, in order to better respect the player’s time.
It’s unfortunate that so many missed out on the golden era of Final Fantasy XI. This golden era lasted from the game’s initial North American PC launch in 2003, throughout the expansion releases of Treasures of Aht Urhgan in 2006 and Wings of the Goddess in 2007. The gradual raising of the level cap from 75 to 99 changed the game dramatically over time, lessening the overall difficulty. Still, there are fragments of the past in the game’s unchanged locations, soundtrack, and existing storylines. These remnants offer newer players a glimpse of what life in Vana’Diel was once like for nostalgic veterans.
2. Final Fantasy X
Initially released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, Final Fantasy X marks the end of a certain era among the franchise. The young, cheerful main character, Tidus, embarks on a journey back home to the metropolis of Zanarkand, while traveling alongside the devout summoner Yuna and her companions. Seeing this highly-religious world of Spira through Tidus’ secular eyes, the player learns that not all is as it seems. The power and emotion of Final Fantasy X’s plot twists stand out among the series as a whole.
There’s a wondrous magic Final Fantasy X exudes—the whimsical silliness of some of its characters and side content, along with the fantastical awe of the main plot and setting. This magic had been present in nearly every Final Fantasy game since the first one. Similarly, the staple of single-player Final Fantasy games never taking themselves too seriously saw its last light with this entry. The ease of play with Final Fantasy X’s turn-based combat system also make this a popular recommendation for newer players. But, sadly, single-player Final Fantasies have yet to recapture or surpass the magic of this entry.
3. Final Fantasy VI
Another throwback to eras past, Final Fantasy VI originally released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1994. This steampunk-inspired setting was quite the departure from the more traditional fantasy locations of past games. But Final Fantasy VI keeps the staple magic spells, impressive summons, and undeniable charm with its storytelling, soundtrack, and characters. Final Fantasy VI also contains among the largest playable cast in the series. The haunting tale of the lead protagonist, Terra Branford, lends itself well to sharing the spotlight with her many companions. Their journey to defeat the wicked madman, Kefka, stands out as a story of strong bonds and friendship overcoming the odds.
Kefka himself is among legendary video game villains, all for his unbridled nihilism and the lengths he goes in order to achieve his goals. His very own orchestrated theme song, “Dancing Mad”, adds to his legend. “Dancing Mad” is a technically-complex track from the SNES era, beautifully capturing the madness of this demented clown Kefka, flourishing despite the hardware limitations present at the time.
4. Final Fantasy VII
First released for the PlayStation 1 in 1997, Final Fantasy VII has done a lot of heavy lifting for the franchise over the years. Revolutionizing the role-playing genre in its era, Final Fantasy VII put Square Enix (then Squaresoft) on the map across the globe. This is a difficult entry to ignore due to the outstanding characters, prescient plot with gluttonous mega-corporations pushing the world’s climate to the brink, the simple but fun turn-based combat system, comic mischief, and the impressively varied soundtrack. The lead protagonist, Cloud Strife, suffers such enthralling physical, emotional, and mental wars against the well-known antagonist, Sephiroth. Several prequels, sequels and spin-offs, and an ongoing multi-game remake cement Final Fantasy VII’s status as one of the greatest games of all time.
Comical translation errors mire the original game. The blocky graphics have also kept Final Fantasy VII from aging too well from a visual standpoint. But because of the game’s many positives, it’s possible to accept Final Fantasy VII for what it is. Just like Final Fantasy X, its plot twists and major story reveals offer a truly moving experience to players who have yet to experience them. Square Enix has continued to chase after their achievements with Final Fantasy VII since 1997, to varying amounts of success.
5. Final Fantasy XIV
Broiled in controversy during its initial PC release in 2010, Final Fantasy XIV is the story of Square Enix’s comeback. All but unplayable at launch due to bugs, slow systems, and poor design choices, Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 served as a massive disappointment for fans looking forward to enjoying the second MMO in the series. Director and producer Naoki Yoshida took the bold move of publicly destroying the world of 1.0 in a meteor attack, allowing Legacy players to personally experience the end-of-the-world saga with their own eyes. Restored, revamped, and re-released as the vibrant and bombastic Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn in 2013, the game has seen massive success since the initial disaster of 1.0.
While the game has hit its storytelling stride with Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers, the third expansion released in 2019, it’s taken a while for the plot and engaging gameplay to arrive. Getting through A Realm Reborn to level 50 can be somewhat of a slog. There’s improvement from levels 50 to 60 with the second expansion, Heavensward, but things take a step back with the unfocused plot in the third expansion, Stormblood. It is a tall ask for players to continue sticking through hundreds upon hundreds of hours of story and gameplay, all to reach the game’s fourth expansion. But the experience of the Shadowbringers story is well worth it, with much-improved main quests and dynamic battles.
6. Final Fantasy IX
The last of the PlayStation 1 games released in the year 2000, Final Fantasy IX harkens back to the traditional fantasy settings and whimsical tones of the series’ roots. Standing out for never taking itself too seriously, Final Fantasy IX is an entertaining blend of comic mischief and majestic, larger-than-life story beats and set pieces. The young protagonist, Zidane Tribal, is a traveling theater performer who also happens to be a thief. He and his companions aim to kidnap Princess Garnet of the Kingdom of Alexandria, only to discover that she actually wishes to be stolen away from the castle and her queen mother. The mysteries surrounding Princess Garnet, and Zidane’s faltering place in the world by her side, serve as a classic love tale between the haves and the have-nots, the royals and the peasants.
While Final Fantasy IX has some issues, such as main characters who quickly become irrelevant to the plot, and a questionable lead-up to the final boss, the game’s strengths make up for its shortcomings.
7. Final Fantasy VIII
Following the monumental success of Final Fantasy VII two years prior, Final Fantasy VIII released on the PlayStation 1 in 1999. Pushing boundaries with its photorealistic CGI cutscenes, and its gorgeous, realistic-looking cast of characters, Final Fantasy VIII stands out visually from its predecessor. Less emphasis on traditional fantasy pushed the game toward blending fantasy with reality. The initial premise of military students pursuing a dangerous sorceress quickly expands throughout the story, turning into sorrowful tales of lost memories and friendships. The lead, brooding protagonist, Squall Leonhart, resists the friendships around him, until meeting the sprightly and idealistic Rinoa Heartilly.
Final Fantasy VIII is mostly a love tale between Squall and Rinoa, with the stoic military leader slowly but steadily opening up to his unexpected flame. Squall’s transformation from recluse to romantic is a sight to behold. But the rest of the story suffers from that extended focus, often meandering and losing its thread. Like Final Fantasy IX, it is common for members of the main cast to fall to irrelevancy. Aside from Squall and Rinoa, there is little unity among the characters. Everyone feels like coworkers along for their work-mandated ride of saving the world from Final Fantasy VIII’s loosely-central antagonist. The combat is also quite broken, as it is easy to exploit the Junction System from early on, never needing to focus on progression afterward. Even with these many flaws, Final Fantasy VIII remains enjoyable, as much as it exists in Final Fantasy VII’s long shadow.
8. Final Fantasy XII
Originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2006, Final Fantasy XII is a frustrating mix of missed opportunities and wasted potential. A grave departure from Final Fantasy X’s fantasy-inspired settings and strong cast of characters, Final Fantasy XII focuses on the grittier aspects of war, politics, and waylaid royals vying for their thrones. There’s an overabundance of seriousness in the game’s plot and characters, and without the counteracting balance of charm and humor from previous entries in the franchise. Too many unlikable characters and lofty goals create a chasm of distance between the player and Final Fantasy XII’s storytelling and themes. That lack of meaningful connection weakens this game in the series, despite the plentiful potential with certain characters, such as the crafty and smooth-talking sky pirate, Balthier, and his unlikely companion, Fran, the quiet, mysterious, and mystical Viera woman.
Final Fantasy XII’s lead character, the thief and aspiring sky pirate named Vaan, is meaningless to the overall plot. Vaan and his longtime companion, Penelo, could be completely removed from the game, and Final Fantasy XII would be better off for it. The actual main antagonist also pales in comparison to what-could-have-been: the harsh Judge Magister Gabranth possesses an agonizingly compelling backstory, linking him to the main characters in a more personable way. These issues plaguing the characters, along with a massively undercooked and unfinished plot, leave Final Fantasy XII in an ill-fated place in the franchise.
9. Final Fantasy XV
The storied and troubled development of Final Fantasy Versus XIII, rebranded as Final Fantasy XV, is indicative of Square Enix’s troubles throughout the early 2010s. When Final Fantasy XV released in 2016, it was clear that the game was unfinished, damaging the grand, overarching tale of Prince Noctis and his efforts to reclaim his stolen throne. While the game’s main cast of characters fit together well, journeying together as a brotherhood of friends, their bonds fail to carry the rest of the story. Like Final Fantasy XII, there’s a host of unfinished business throughout the game. Characters outside the main cast are underdeveloped, and there’s no personal connection to the antagonists. The open world exploration and action combat lack innovation, existing as mish-mashes of trendy ideas from other games.
At the time, the only solution to some of these problems was to purchase the story-focused downloadable content rolled out in the months following Final Fantasy XV’s initial release. Additional free updates also addressed and fixed problems plaguing the main game, such as overall bugs or incomplete story sequences. The complete package now exists as the Final Fantasy XV: Royal Edition on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But this practice of scrambling together solutions for an already-released product has tarnished the game’s legacy, further damaging Square Enix’s reputation along with it.
10. Final Fantasy XIII
Another casualty of Square Enix’s lack of focus and cohesion, Final Fantasy XIII released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2010 worldwide. There’s a lot of initial promise in the action-packed opening, with the main protagonist and sharp-eyed soldier, Lightning, setting off on an impossible quest to save her younger sister. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy XIII suffers many of the same problems as Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XV. The game boasts a fragmented cast of loosely-connected main characters, underdeveloped antagonists, and an excessive amount of melodrama and seriousness with next-to-no levity to balance things out. Like Balthier in Final Fantasy XIII, the amusing and cynical Oerba Yun Fang in this game has her work cut out for her. While the aggressively linear plot does feel finished, it’s just not compelling, which is arguably worse than an unfinished story filled with potential.
11. Final Fantasy I, II, III, IV, and V
Rounding off the list is the group of earliest Final Fantasy games, though not because of their inherent flaws. These are all excellent titles. But the difficulty of playing the original games in their original forms makes them hard to grade. Sure, there are various re-releases out there. These re-releases are not quite the same—different translations, art styles and direction, and character sprites, and so on—but they’re available. You can also snag some of these titles digitally on Steam, or the PlayStation Store on PlayStation 3. Any potential players interested in the series’ roots should definitely check these earlier games out. They stand as the defining examples of why Final Fantasy came to be so revered in the gaming industry, at least until the franchise exploded with Final Fantasy VII. Playing through Final Fantasy’s growth and transformation for yourself could be an eye-opening experience.