I've been playing video games for twenty years and to date nothing give me more pleasure than playing a great RPG. While there are other RPGs that I would consider better than some/most of the games listed here I would still say that the Final Fantasy series of games is by far the greatest game series I have had the pleasure of playing. I originally compiled this list earlier this year for my blog on Gamespot and now I'm reposting it here as part of the process of me moving my blogging activities to Screwattack. I haven't played every game bearing the FF title but the only core FF games I haven't played are FF XI and XIV.
Chances are you won't agree with some of my opinions but this is my list and I ommited FF I, III, V, and XII because I just didn't enjoy them as much as I did the rest of the games on this list. Anyway, I hope you find some of my thoughts on these FF games interesting enough to drop me a comment. Oh, and I didn't consider Dissidia Final Fantasy for this list because a) it's not a core franchise entry and b) it's not an RPG. Were I to consider Dissidia I'd probably put Dissidia 012 somewhere in the top five because that game is fantastic.
Original release: 1988 on NES (Japan only)
Re-releases: Wonderswan Color (2001), Playstation (2003), GBA (2004), PSP (2008), iPhone/iPad (2010)
Thoughts/Comments: Most people outside of Japan didn't get to play Final Fantasy II until it was released for Playstation in Final Fantasy Origins. Having played both the Playstation and the enhanced PSP version I really believe that it is the most underrated game in the series. It had a unique character growth system based on need and use much like the one used in The Elder Scrolls games. Attacking monsters raised your strength, casting spells raised your intelligence, taking damage raised your HP and stamina. It's the only game in the entire series that features this kind of character growth system which is a shame as it feels more organic than "kill things, get exp, level up, be stronger, repeat". This system changed the nature of grinding as instead of engaging in random battles for hours you spend fewer battles with your characters casting spells and attacking one another to raise stats and proficiencies. All while a group of goblins watched in horror.
Final Fantasy II also featured a much more engaging story than both it's predecessor and it's sequel. Despite it being a tale about a group of youths fighting an evil empire it had an actual cast of characters several of which adventured with you for a while. It's all very basic stuff now but back then it was a tale much more complex than any other video game you could be playing.
For these two reasons Final Fantasy II is on this list beating out several FF games released since. If you haven't played it yet I highly recommend either the PSP or the iPhone/iPad versions of the game.
Original release: 2000 on Playstation
Thoughts/Comments: Interestingly enough Final Fantasy IX is the only game on my top FF list that I haven't played in over a decade. Every other game on the list has seen play or replay within the past few years. The thing FF IX did that makes me like it more than a lot of other FF games was the way it made every character truly unique. What I mean is that Vivi is your only black mage, you can't teach Zidane or Steiner black magic so if you want to cast elemental spells you have to have Vivi in your line up. This made your general combat strategy different depending on your party preferences which was awesome. Too many FF games (II, III, V, VI, VII, VIII, XII, and XIII) allow every character to fill any combat role which detracts from their character in that it makes them less unique and/or memorable. You grow attached to characters not just for their place in the story but for what they bring to your battle lineup which makes any of them twice as memorable as Red XIII with his materia placement or Selphie with her junction setup.
Anyway, that little rant aside the game was mostly fantastic. I say mostly because it was still all about the random battles, the card game wasn't anywhere nearly as good as FF VIIIs Triple Triad, and the very final boss comes out of nowhere leaving you wondering "who was that?". These things land it at the number nine spot but FF IX has a number of great story moments and a few great plot twists to boot. It also looked fantastic on the PS1 and had a lot of gorgeous CG cut scenes.
The other thing that struck me about FF IX when I first played it was it's return to a medieval fantasy setting. Prior to IX the only FF games I'd played were VI, VII, VIII, and Tactics so I associated Final Fantasy games with a sci-fi fantasy or steampunk kind of setting. For a lot of people it was a return to form for the series but for people who hadn't played the earlier entries in the series it was an interesting change of aesthetic. It's a shame Square hasn't really gone back to it since as a high fantasy adventure would make for a welcome break from the stories they've been telling for the past decade. Who knows, maybe FF XV will be just that.
Original release: 2008 on PSP
Thoughts/Comments: Crisis Core is a fantastic game in it's own right but the biggest feather in it's cap is the fact that playing it makes the plot for Final Fantasy VII (a game higher on this list) more enjoyable. One thing you can't deny about FF VII is that the plot is very confusing for anybody that hasn't played it at least once prior. Perhaps most of the FF VII plot confusion is centered around the question of "who is Cloud really?" and playing Crisis Core clears a lot of this up and makes playing FF VII a more enjoyable experience. If you haven't played FF VII it's still a great story with Zack being a very well written lead role. Even ignoring it as a prequel story Crisis Core is a great game on it's own. The mission structure works well for a hand held system and there is plenty of bonus content outside the core story missions. The Crisis Core take on the materia system was also a lot of fun to play around with with you leveling up materia and then fusing it to form more powerful or new types of materia much like personas in the SMT: Persona series.
It's not perfect; if you play the side missions you'll notice environments and enemy types are both limited and heavily recycled and there are some camera issues from time to time. These are minor blemishes though and are all but completely crushed under the weight of everything Crisis Core does right. If you think FF VII is the best story you've ever played then I would say that Crisis Core is a game worth picking up a PSP for if you don't own one. Yes, it's that good.
Original release: 2001 on PS2
Thoughts/Comments: FF IX is the only game on this top ten that I haven't played in over a decade but FF X comes pretty close. I think it's was the second PS2 game I played somewhere around the summer (or early fall) of 2003. I would say that it's the last "well rounded" game the series has seen. I say this because FF XII had fantastic gameplay but weak characters and story while FF XIII had a fantastic story with some great characters but was admittedly weak in terms of side content or general variety. FF X was the first game in the series to ditch the overworld map which I personally didn't miss at all. It was also the first FF to feature voice acting which was (mostly) a treat as it made the story much more immersive than reading text boxes. Square also replaced the card games found in FF VIII and IX with blitzball which I actually rather enjoyed. Well, I enjoyed blitzball itself and leveling up my players but not necessarily the scouting players bit. Come to think of it I'd say that Square could make a quick cash grab by releasing a flashy multiplayer blitzball game over the PSN. The game mechanics are already there and programed and there isn't any need for story. All they would need to do is throw together a few snazzy CG cutscenes, come up with a stable net code, and make everything looks up to current gen standards. I'm not saying I'd buy it mind you, I just think it would be a cool idea.
When I last played it I thought FF X was a good game but in retrospect I've come to think of it as a great game. The story has depth without having being confusing or overly melodramatic and the ending packed some serious emotional punch. Perhaps most importantly the characters all brought personality and played an actual role in the story which was a step up from a lot of other FF games. When you think about it a lot of FF characters don't need to be there. I'm not saying that people aren't justified for loving Mog, Yuffie, Selphie, Quina *snicker*, or Panello but each of the previously mentioned characters serves to contribute little or nothing to their respective narratives. In the case of Quina it's only purpose is to unnecessarily pad the game out with an "eat everything" sidequest.
Anyway, moving on to more of what FF X did right. The sphere grid was a fantastic character leveling system which gave the individual characters specific combat roles. Generally you had to choose carefully whose area of the sphere grid you were going to break into once you finished your area and you could only have "jack of all trades" characters if you really put in a lot of grind time. Speaking of grinding, I'm of the opinion that FF X has the second best turn based battle system of any RPG I've played. The best would be FF Tactics but more on that game further up this list. The way limit breaks are handled, the visible turn order, the summon system, it's all just fantastic. It's easy to see why Square chose to milk it for the first direct sequel in the series history and it's a shame that FF X-2 was so lousy in comparison.
Original release: 1999 on PS1
Thoughts/Comments: FF VIII was the first PS1 game I actually owned. When I got my PS early in the summer of 1999 it came with a copy of Final Fantasy VIII. While I had borrowed a Playstation before and played FF VII I actually beat FF VIII before I was able to play FF VII to completion. So you could say I have something of a personal bias where this game is concerned. The game looked amazing when compared with the blocky character models of VII and to this day it still has one of the best opening cinematics in all of video games history. Seriously, if you haven't played FF VIII then you need to click this link and watch the intro and you'll know what I'm talking about.
Despite my nostalgic attachment to it Final Fantasy VIII I have to admit that it also does a lot of things wrong. For starters the story, while epic, is quite complicated. Thinking back, it's a lot like FF VII in that it really only makes sense when you play it the second time. People complained a lot about FF XIII not making sense but in general I'd say it's less crazy to understand than FF VIII. While I'm picking at the story I'll also say that the lead character of Squall doesn't make a lot of sense either. Sure, he does the aloof angst ridden young man in black well but it's never really covered why he is that way. Maybe he's just a jerk by nature but his motivations, at least in the early game, are far from clear. It's a stark contrast with FF XII where you understood the lead character in the early portions of the game but towards the end you just had to wonder "why are you here?". Anyway, once you understand what's going on, it's a fantastic story with a ton of very memorable moments. Seifer makes a great rival and you know his relationship with Squall is going to be one of the more interesting threads from the into cinematic onwards. Interestingly enough the love story took center stage in FF VIII and it was very well done in my opinion. Rinoa is easily my favourite character here and the way her relationship with Squall slowly thaws him out and makes him more likable is a pleasure to watch.
The big shake up in game mechanics was the junction system where you attached summons and magic to your party members to boost stats. Personally I hate the system for a number of reasons. 1) It made me not want to cast magic unless I was drawing it directly from my opponent because doing so meant I was dropping whatever stats that my magic was junctioned to. 2) It left me with "jack of all trades" characters, which made party member choices mostly a moot point. 3) Grinding is generally tedious enough so I didn't need the added task of finding monsters that have magic I don't and spending time drawing it until everybody had maxed it out. The more I think about it I realize that I really don't have anything I liked about the junction system at all. FF VIII also did away with most of your equipment leaving you to forge new weapons out of components and then only if you found the proper recipes during your travels. The summons were a gorgeous feast for the eyes the first few times you saw them but by the end of the game you got sick of watching the entire animation over and over. At least you could teach your summons the boost ability which gave you something to do while things played out.
Moving back to what FF VIII did right, I'd like to talk about a not so little side game. Triple Triad is easily the most addicting side game I've ever encountered in my time playing RPGs. It's simple enough that it's easy to learn but complex enough to never get boring. Sure some really obnoxious rules get introduced late in the game but if you really hate a particular rule you can just seek out the card queen and use her to ban certain rules (like random cards at start). If collecting cards wasn't enough to you then there was the fact that you could mod the cards into real world items with the rare cards netting you some crazy stuff.
So I know I've blasted this game for a number of reasons but in the end it's still dear to me for it's epic story, great side content, and personal nostalgia factor. I wouldn't say it's "the" PS1 Final Fantasy to play if your getting into the series but you certainly shouldn't be calling yourself a serious FF fan if you haven't played it.
Original release: 1991 on SNES (Final Fantasy II in North America)
Rereleases: 2001 on Playstation, 2005 on GBA, 2008 on DS, and 2011 on PSP
Thoughts/Comments: A lot of people played FF IV as FF II when it came out in 1991 but I played it for the the first time only a couple years ago. As a result I must be one of the few FF fans that don't have a crazy nostalgic attachment to FF IV. Maybe it's because I went in with low expectations when I first played it but I was completely blown away by the experience. FF IV is everything a classic console RPG should be in every way. For starters the story is basic enough to be easily understood and have that retro charm but complex enough to be engaging. It's got a great cast of characters and despite the lead role sporting the name of Cecil he has a depth to him that must have put FF IV in a league of its own at release. Even the score is fantastic, so much so that some parts of it have become part of the curriculum in Japanese schools.
Perhaps one of the things I liked the most about FF IV was the fact that not only was the cast of characters memorable in their own right but that they were all truly unique within the game. Every character represented a specific character class and nobody else can truly do what they can do. Rydia is the only summoner you get in the game. That's it, you can't teach summoning to anybody else let alone everybody else, and that made her unique both in character and in what she brought to combat. The only other FF game that truly did this was FF IX and thinking about that I really do need to give that game a replay sometime sooner rather than later. The fact that your party lineup kept changing as you progressed through the story made the traditional random encounter combat a bit less of a chore. This was because each new party member brought something new to the grind and unlike other FF games you never got the chance to swap out party members. Thinking about that I think FF V was the last FF game that made you play with every character in the game. From VI on you almost always have the option of swapping out one character for another you like better. People who have played the game enough can likely tell you where you are in the plot just by glancing at your party lineup.
I think the fact that I liked FF IV so much is why I was so disappointed with FF V when I played it sometime shortly after. While the job system is fun, FF V just felt like an inferior game in every respect. The characters weren't nearly as memorable and the story just couldn't compete with the opus of FF IV's narrative. Perhaps this is why (or at least part of why) the original SNES version of FF V didn't see a North American release.
While I haven't picked it up yet I'd imagine the PSP version of FF IV is the most definitive version of the game released to date. It runs on the same engine as the PSP port of FF I and II and just the facelift alone would have been enough but Square also threw in The After Years saga as well as an all new bridging chapter. All of which are a pale shadow of the game they are based on but it's a nice gesture none the less. What I don't understand is why they didn't port Final Fantasy III to this engine because I would have bought that in a heartbeat.
Original release: 2009 on PS3 and 360
Thoughts/Comments: Yeah, I'm sure at least some of you are scratching your head and wondering if I'm crazy. When I originally wrote this list I tried to write this entry a few times but I kept throwing it out halfway through. I've come to realize that where FF XIII is concerned I tend to become something of a fanboy. I see this in the way I have the urge or feel the need to defend the game from it's critics. Like any form of fanboy nature this is completely unnecessary and I will do my best to keep it in check. If you hated FF XIII that's fine, but this is my top ten list and I loved this game to pieces.
Perhaps part of why I liked FF XIII so much was due to my disappointment with the characters and plot for XII (which didn't make this list). It's not that FF XII didn't have piles of potential it's just that it was wasted and we got little snippets of story and character development in between what felt like a constant slogging grind. FF XIII was a game totally in service to it's story. Everything was designed to centre around advancing and/or enhancing it's narrative. Personally, I play my games for story first and for the game second so you could say that FF XIII was a game after my heart from the get go. I'd say that the plot bears the most resemblance to FF X in that it's complex and character driven with some good twists; but straightforward enough to be enjoyed on the first play if you pay attention. While I love FF VII and VIII I was only able to really grasp and appreciate their respective plots on a replay which isn't actually a good thing. In my opinion a good story should be complex, compelling, and feature characters with emotional depth/complexity. But a story should not be complex to the point where it's finer points are lost amidst player confusion, nor should it be convoluted to the point where the player only understands events once they have seen the finale. Final Fantasy XIII walks this line gracefully and tells a character based tale that is as compelling as it is complex. To top that off Lightning is one of the greatest female characters in the video game history to date.
Unfortunately shifting the focus towards storytelling almost always causes a game to suffer in other departments. FF XIII is a very linear experience for much of the time you spend playing it. It compensates for this by making the linear nature as well as it's omission of conventional shops/towns explainable within the context of the story. Lightning and her crew couldn't just wander into towns because they were wanted criminals and would likely be shot on sight. Personally I prefer the linear nature of FF XIII to games like FF IV where you'd trek across the world map and enter a dungeon only to turn around halfway through so you could go back to town to heal up and restock. What FF XIII has done is remove the need to grind in order to make progress. Egoraptor said it best while contrasting Castlevania I and II when he pointed out that grinding is something game developers put in games to elongate a game and make you feel like you were accomplishing more than you are. Somehow this relic of the genre stuck around into the modern generation and that's mostly because grinding becomes a zen thing if your in the right mood. Performing a repetitive action over and over is relaxing and makes the game easier at the same time. You could strategize and play well, cast some buffs, exploit the game mechanics to your favour , or you could grind for a few hours and just kill the boss by hitting it in the face. I liked grinding because dumping more time into the game allows me to think less about advanced strategy and more about the story, which is why I'm playing a Final Fantasy game in the first place. But FF XIII let me play the game and made grinding available and completely optional at a point that made sense within the narrative.
This was further reinforced in the battle system which forced you to do things like pay attention even though it was almost completely automated. You only had direct control of the lead character and you input a series of commands which were executed in sequence after. This allowed you do enjoy watching combat which was flashy and generally a joy to watch as your party danced around enemies. At the same time you had to keep an eye on how the battle was flowing and change up your job roles according to combinations you preset. If you didn't do this battles often took sharp turns into defeat in short spaces of time. So here we have a battle system that both requires you to pay close attention to what is going on but also allows you to sit back and watch the cinematic action on screen. I don't know about you but in my opinion this is absolutely brilliant and should be the way forward for JRPGs.
Even from a technical standpoint FF XIII is well put together. In a console generation that has you waiting for fifteen minutes while a game installs to the hard drive FF XIII is a breath of nostalgic air. You simply put the disc in, and you play it. It looks fantastic at any given point in time and doesn't feature much in the way noticeable slowdown or load time. It's both a pleasant reminder of how playing a game is supposed to be and highlights how Square seems to be able to make use of hardware in ways that most other developers can only dream of.
There are a couple of things I don't like about FF XIII but the only real complaint I have is the lack of iconic music that has become the staple of the series. While the original score is mostly good, with the battle music standing out, the lack of things like the victory fanfare or the ending theme is unfortunate. That's it, that is the only real gripe I have with the game. Anything else I could complain about is simply crushed under the weight of how much I enjoyed FF XIII.
A couple days ago I was looking a the metacritic pages for a bunch of FF games and I was plesantly surprised by a few things. The main one being that FF XIII has a very respectable average score based on both professional and user scores. Despite all the whining and moaning that's been directed at it since it's release I think time will be very kind to FF XIII in the end. This makes me happy since I feel that most of the criticisms levied against aren't really as bad as people make them out to be. It's a lot like Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace in that regard. Fans of Star Wars had their expectation so high for Ep. I that it would have been impossible for George Lucas to make a movie that delivered. Is it as good as the original movies? No, certainly not. But it's still a fun movie that doesn't deserve the criticism that's been thrown at it by people desperately clinging on to their idealized youth. Just because FF XIII isn't as good as your memories of FF VI or VII doesn't mean that it's not a fantastic game in its own right. In fact had it not been called Final Fantasy XIII it wouldn't have gotten half the flak it got on release.
So there, I said it. Final Fantasy XIII is better than FF XII, X, X-2, IX, VIII, Crisis Core, V, IV, II, and I. I realize that it's brought out or bred some fanboy tendencies in me but knowing that I can keep them in check. Because really, I don't need to defend this game.
Original release: 1997 on Playstation
Thoughts/Comments: It's rather cliche to have FF VII near the top of any "top RPG" list because that's what everybody does. But if you've played FF VII you know that everybody does it for good reasons. FF VII is the game that got a lot of us into both the series as well as the JRPG genre and it holds a powerful nostalgic sway over the majority of FF fans (myself included). I first played FF VII somewhere in 2000 and I replayed it last summer. It got replayed both to follow up Crisis Core but also so I could judge if it was as good as I remember it. The answer to that question was a resounding yes. Despite it failings, of which there are a number, it's still one of the best games in the series on a number of fronts. Many aspects of FF VII haven't aged well, yet it remains one of the most involving games the genre has ever seen and as a result it deserves all the praise that gets heaped on it.
The characters need no introduction and that tale is familiar, if not held dear, to virtually every fan of the series. Perhaps it was so compelling on release due to it's complexity, something about it compelled you to keep playing even if you had no idea of the why things were happening. It starts off pretty black and white with Cloud working for Avalanche against the Shinra Electric Power Company. But once Sephiroth gets introduced the bottom drops out and you tumble helplessly into events epic, touching, and confusing. A quagmire of questions surrounding Cloud's true identity ensure that the finer points of the narrative are generally best appreciated on a replay. For me the question of who Cloud really was wasn't answered until I played Crisis Core last year and having played that prequel my appreciation of the FF VIIs narrative has only deepened. Going back to Sephiroth, he is easily the greatest villain in the history of video games to date. He is calm, calculated, ruthless, and yet totally mad at the same time. This is most noticeably seen in his relationship with Cloud; the way he almost goes out of his way to torment the boy who killed him. No other game in the series, even the ones I'm putting higher on this list, have villains as awe inspiring, or truly frightening as Sephiroth. This is likely why he's the hardest boss in both Kingdom Hearts games and why he seems more challenging than most of the other opponents in the Dissidia titles.
That's not to say that Sephiroth carries the whole story on his own. Cloud is certainly one of the most interesting characters the series has seen as well. Brooding but not to the childish excess of Squall, constantly doubting but not in a pathetic way like Yuna. He was a mystery, but perhaps most importantly for me he wasn't made of gold. Up till FF VII the series was dominated by characters that always did the right thing because deep down they were just good people. Firion, Cecil, Bartz, and the core cast of FF VI were all great characters but none of them were as emotionally complicated as Cloud, Tifa, Barret, or even Cid. FF VII's characters were flawed, petty, selfish, tormented by their pasts, and their personal demons all took center stage at various points to have their past and their motivations revealed.
Anyway, moving on to something other than the story. The main area where FF VII hasn't aged well would be the visual department. It was the first game in the series to use CG cut scenes but by today's standards they look terrible. The pre-rendered backgrounds still look great but the character models used outside of combat look like blockey garbage. The combat character models are more detailed but unfortunately they aren't used outside of battles. This is especially unfortunate considering virtually all the story telling is done with the blockey field models waving around their stumps as they progress the narrative through text boxes. Even worse is the way they tend to either move towards the camera or have the view already close so you can see just how awful they look. Unlike any of the 2D FF games before it or the games after, FF VII is easily the title in the series that would most benefit from a visual update. It falls into that early PS/N64 phase where 3D games were new; a short period where many of the games released fall deep into the uncanny valley.
My other big gripe with the game lies with the materia system. On one side it's a great system that lets you customize your party in all kinds of fun ways and gives you rewards for engaging in combat. On the other side it takes all these interesting characters and makes them virtually identical in combat. Any party member can have any ability or cast any spell as long as they have the right materia equipped. Most players just lumped similar materia onto their favourite characters (Cloud: summoning, Vincent: magic, Tifa: healing and support for me) but I found that aspect of the system bothered me regardless. While I complain about the materia system I will say that it's definitely superior to the junction system used in FF VIII or the licence board in FF XII. None the less it's a "jack of all trades" system that I feel enhances the game at the expense of the characters.
The only area that stands out as much as the narrative of FF VII would be it's score. Maybe it's the nostalgia factor but I would go as far as saying that it's the best score in the entire series to date. FF VI and VIII come close but in the end the sheer number of memorable tracks put FF VII on top where my ears are concerned.
Original release: 1998 on Playstation
Re-relases: 2007 on PSP, 2012 on iPad
Thoughts/Comments: This and my number one FF game are not only my favourite FF games but the two greatest games I have played in my twenty years of gaming. From a purely gameplay standpoint Final Fantasy Tactics is the best game I have ever played. It has the greatest battle system I've ever seen in a game and the best iteration of the FF job system in the series history. FF Tactics is a game where random battles take around half an hour to forty five minutes each and I've still re-played it several times over, investing over a hundred hours into the game each time. It's that good and if you haven't played it you've seriously missed out.
I suppose the best place to start gushing is with the battle system. If you've played games like Disgaea or better yet, the recent PSP version of Tactics Ogre you know what to expect. The battle system is actually an evolution of the one seen in Tactics Ogre and is actually made by the same team and has the same writer for the story. FF Tactics took everything Tactics Ogre did right, took it to the next step, and then blended the FF job system into it. There are twenty classes available to everybody with another thirteen character specific to keep things interesting. The system is perfect in that everybody can become anything but nobody can be good at everything. You see, as a character gains levels you get stat bonuses based on whatever class they are and after a short period of time it becomes unwise to switch from physically orientated classes to magically orientated ones. To add further depth every character has two stats (brave and faith) which predispose them to one or the other. A character with high brave will deal more physical damage, generally have higher defence, and better chances of dodging. A character with high faith will both be more effective at casting magic but will also be damaged much more by magic at the same time. On the other side characters with low brave deal less damage and physical attacks will hurt more. While if you have low faith you will take less damage from spells but you'll also be healed less by spells and have as much resistance to buffs like protect and haste as you do poison or slow. This is just one example of how deep the combat system is and illustrates how a FF game can have the job system and not feature "jack of all trades" characters. It is, for lack of a better word, nearly perfect.
I say nearly perfect because there is one thing I can honestly say is wrong with Final Fantasy Tactics. That one thing is that it is as punishingly hard as it is unforgiving. To top that off, it's not that FF Tactics gets hard after a while, it gets hard right away. I borrowed and played Tactics to death when I was rather young so I never realized how hard it was until I saw somebody who I had recommended the game to play it for the first time. It was then that I realized that it is very possible and likely to lose, repeatedly, from the second fight of the game onwards. FF Tactics is a game with incredible depth but if you don't learn it you will lose over and over until you do. You've got to learn the ins and outs of the system and be smart down to picking the starting positions of your party. You have to use the terrain to your advantage, have a diverse combat unit, and make use of secondary class skills to the fullest just to increase your chance at victory.
What's your reward for getting good at the game? Progression in the most complex, multi-layered tale the series has had to date. The tale requires multiple plays to understand it's finer points but it's actually a fantastic story that deals with themes of the nature of loyalty (both to ones country and to ones family), social class and religious social manipulation. All with political conspiracy that features layers you peel back like an onion. To further the story the lead character of Ramza isn't some angst ridden teenager, nor is he some noble vagrant, he's a soldier who does what he feels right when he sees that things are terribly wrong with his government. When things go wrong and people die for his beliefs he tries to run from this and lives as a mercenary before being sucked back into a political conspiracy that sees no regard for human life. It's good stuff but, as I said above, most players won't get it until the second play through at the earliest. I think I didn't really grasp the finer points of the narrative until my third replay of FF Tactics. To add further depth of the plot you can easily miss out on important character development depending on who you take into battle with you and on how fast you finish battles. If you grind up your party and mop up in story missions you miss out on dialogue that only occurs between certain characters and at certain points in particular battles. You can get by just fine not seeing these exchanges but doing so allows for character development which in turn helps you to better understand the plot and/or peoples motivations for following you into battle.
FF Tactics also has a ton of side content and several optional characters to recruit. Some of these side quests require you to already have other optional character in your party. If you play your cards right and make the right decisions (starting with buying a flower from a peasant girl) you can end up face to face with Cloud.
Aside from the learning curve the only other noticable area where FF Tactics can't compare to other games in the series would be where music is concerned. Were I to compose a list of favorite FF music there wouldn't be a single piece from Tactics. That's not to say that the score is bad, it's actually quite plesant and has a distinct sound. The problem with it is that it isn't memorable in any way. To it's credit though I would say that composing battle music that doesn't get old or annoying after forty five minutes is an accomplishment in itself.
With is punishing difficulty and rabbit hole complexity (both in combat and plot) FF Tactics isn't for everybody but it's #2 for me, both in terms of the Final Fantasy series and video games in general. If your wanting to give it a try I highly recommend the 2007 PSP version over the original as it features an updated translation of the script and anime cut scenes among other new features.
Original release: 1994 on SNES (Final Fantasy III in North America)
Re-releases: 1999 on Playstation and 2007 on GBA
Thoughts/Comments: Final Fantasy VI is to me what FF VII is to most fans of the series. It's the game that got me into the series and into the genre. My earliest memories of FF VI are me watching other people I knew play it and being enraptured by the experience despite not really understanding what was going on. The first time I played it properly involved me renting it from a local video store for several weeks in a row. I finally got a copy to call my own one x-mas after my parents lucked out and found it in a bargain bin at a pawn shop a few weeks prior to x-mas. FF VI represents everything I love about the genre and stands as the greatest game I have had the pleasure of playing since I started playing video games. Over the years it has collected more than enough sentimental and nostalgia value to ensure that it will likely keep this position for the rest of my days. My attachment to this game runs so deep that I cannot hear this or this without being hit by a tidal wave of emotions and if it's been a while they actually bring a tear to my eye.
Despite my attachment to FF VI I know it isn't perfect but it does so many things so right it should be easy for most gamers to look past its flaws. The story strikes a perfect balance between the classic adventure of good people vs. Evil and a modern complexity in narrative and character. It's simple enough to be charming but complex enough to be both compelling and moving. It's a balance that is rarely seen in video game storytelling and the only other good example of it that I can think of was a little game you may have heard of called Chrono Trigger. I can't explain how this balance is struck or how it could be duplicated as its' something ethereal, something a writer could work towards for years but never truly capture. From the moment you start playing FF VI it's obvious your playing something special as you watching the snow fall around Terra, Wedge, and Biggs' mech as they lumber towards the town of Narche during the opening credits. The opening sets the tone and exudes a quiet confidence about itself and it's narrative, it's not pretentious or melodramatic, it's just fantastic and it knows it.
So what does FF VI do right? Well as I've already said the narrative is nothing but fantastic at any given point in time. But it does so through a huge cast of characters, each of which are unique both in character and what they bring to battle. Every character has the same basic commands but every one has a unique talent. Edgar uses various tools (which you buy/find) to inflict massive damage while his brother Sabin executes devastating martial arts techniques that require you to input specific street fighter style commands in order to execute. Celes has a runic blade that allows her to absorb any and all magic attacks until her next turn, and Stezer can spin the reels on a slot machine that result in various effects (some deadly to the party). In total there were twelve main characters, two secret characters, about six guest characters, and each of them were unique in some way. No other FF game since FF VI has had as a cast as large or as diverse.
Even from a visual standpoint FF VI strikes a balance. While it's still a 2D game it looks better than any of the previous FF titles but most surprising is that it's held up much better than the early 3D FF games. As a result FF VI is one of, if not the best, looking SNES game available. Then there is the score which is still amongst the strongest ever composed for a video game, edged out just barely by Uematsu's score for FF VII. FF VI has a score that will stick with you long after you play it.
There is a moment in FF VI where everything comes together to form a moment of perfection. Visuals, gameplay, and music combine in an opera house for one of the most touching moments in video game history in ways that made and make me feel more than Areiths death ever did. If i had to come up with a list of favourite video game moments the FF VI's opera sequence would easily top everything.
But what does FF VI do wrong? Well a few of these unique characters aren't particularly useful in battle *coughcoughGaucoughcough*. Also the character of Mog just feels kind tacked on as he doesn't get much in the way of character development, nor does he contribute anything to the story. This feels like a wasted opportunity as Mog was the first (and last to date) moogle to become a true party member. Then there is the magic system. For the first third or so of the game only Terra and Celes can cast magic but once you start getting your hands on magicite you can teach every party member any spell which detracts from their uniqueness. But these things are just me nit picking at a game that anybody who likes FF VII or VIII should be able to get into and enjoy. Even if your not fond of older RPGs that use gameplay elements like random encounters you should be able to get into FF VI if you have an open mind.
That's it, I'm finished. If you want to learn some more about the Final Fantasy series I highly recommend the thirteen part Gametrailers retrospective. It does a great job summing up the game but it is filled with plot spoilers.
I'd like to thank those of you that have taken the time to read this wall of text that is a top ten list and doubly thank those of you that took the time to comment. You guys are awesome.