Final Fantasy is a mood. Not in the “taking a picture of your sunglasses next to a plate of over-garnished eggs, then hashtagging it” kind of way. (Although we could totally see the rowdy, road-tripping crew of Final Fantasy XV doing exactly that.) Square-Enix’s 30-years-and-running roleplaying game series—which receives its latest installment this week, in the form of the massively hyped-up remake of franchise stand-out Final Fantasy VII—is unified not by a continuous narrative, or even a consistent aesthetic. Weapons, enemies, funky flightless birds with big cartoon eyes, musical motifs—these all recur across the Final Fantasy pantheon. But the games themselves tend to be wildly distinct entities, from their grand storylines all the way down to the base mechanics of how they play. What they share, what defines the multifaceted crystalline heart of every Final Fantasy title (15 in the main series, 60-plus if we’re counting spin-offs), is a feeling.
Hironobu Sakaguchi, the man who created the original Final Fantasy in 1987—expecting it to be the swan song of his game-making career—had a name for it. “Sabishii,” a Japanese synonym for “lonely,” is how he described the game he wanted to make. And he succeeded.
From that broken, pixelated, but evocative maiden voyage, to latter-day sequels where you make Pacific Sunwear models summon pulsating demon gods to kill improbable fish in between bouts of excruciatingly boring sci-fi water polo, all Final Fantasy games conjure a sense of awe and humility. They dwarf you with beautiful worlds and high melodrama. They burden you with reality’s fate. But they still somehow leave you feeling small. Final Fantasy lets you steer glorious ensembles of swordsmen, martial artists, sasquatches, messianic fashionistas waging war in their underpants, and stuffed cats riding robots, while they all struggle with angst and discover strength in unity. Yet at their absolute best, these characters—and you, by proxy—feel like people who still go to sleep worried about dumb little things. Final Fantasy is lonely; everything else is a detail. And yet the series is also progressive: Every successive game following the first is built at least in part around trying to solve problems inherent in the original work.
“What defines Final Fantasy? It’s no specific word or phrase,” Yoshinori Kitase, director of the beloved Final Fantasy VI, and a current Square-Enix vice president, told me years ago. “One of the creators of the original Final Fantasy mentioned something cool that stuck in my mind: In order to create a Final Fantasy, you take the talent you have in your group [at] that moment and utilize their talents while maximizing the abilities of the hardware you’re developing the game on. That’s what Final Fantasy is.”
And so, the name “Final” Fantasy isn’t quite the misnomer it might seem to be. Each entry in the series is made by a largely different group of artists taking their shot at greatness, and each one is their best possible translation of the series’ signature mood. But despite those best efforts, Final Fantasy has never been a strictly uphill climb in terms of quality. Transcendent? Often. But it’s also been miserable and bizarre in equal measure, a stream split into creative tributaries, some full of time travelling witches beating the piss out of amnesiac teenagers, and others with Cup Noodle-stained Audis. Weighing which one is the best, the worst, and the weirdest isn’t a matter of deciding which is the least flawed—it’s all about determining which entries feel the most complete, incomplete, or alien to the lonely ambitions of this long and winding creative road.
By that metric, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age remains the game where its creators’ ambitions and their skills were finally fully aligned. At last, the pieces were all there: Deep strategy borne out of character customization. An intoxicatingly tactile setting. The undulating orchestral anthems from composer Hitoshi Sakamoto. The dialogue and emotive voice performances elevating the sharp script from Alexander O. Smith, all in service of a lovingly flawed and human cast, drawn with grace and precision by Akihiko Yoshida. It’s all there—and it only took 14 years of updates and tweaks to get it to its final, most successful form.
But despite a notoriously painful development cycle—which resulted, in turn, in a flawed initial release on the PlayStation 2 in 2006—the things that make Final Fantasy XII so seductive were actually all in place from the very start. Famed Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, whose gauzy ephemeral concept art had been part and parcel with Final Fantasy from the beginning, was less involved with XII than with any other game in the series. But it nonetheless captured his ethereal vibe better than any previous entry, painterly and impressionistic in a way that serves as an ideal reflection of its themes. The story of deposed royal heiress Ashe, her disgraced knight Basch, street rats Vaan and Penelo, and sky pirates Balthier and Fran— a.k.a. Steampunk Han Solo and Chewbacca—is captured with convincing humanity in the art, writing, and staging. And while it loses the charming abstraction of its pixel forebears from the ’80s and ’90s, Final Fantasy XII’s drama is also the series’ most accessible. (Not that it’s any less batshit insane, mind you; this is still a game where courtly intrigue culminates in a lingerie-wearing bunny archer shooting a triangle-shaped ghost until it explodes.) But this is the game where Final Fantasy’s lonesome splendor transcends the more abstract limits of older games, and it’s far more coherent, captivating, and concise than the games that followed it in the years to come.
This is a game, though, and Final Fantasy XII wouldn’t be the best Final Fantasy if it played like shit. It definitely doesn’t—despite detractors who’d have you believe that you don’t really play it at all. Ever hoping to refine franchise formula, FFXII’s creators tried to fix a feeling that previous games often descended into, that of constantly engaging in meaningless busy work in the series’ signature turn-based battles. Up to Final Fantasy XII, fighting in a Final Fantasy game typically worked like this: Outside of towns, you wandered around until a fight with unseen monsters was triggered, at which point you were brought to a separate screen to politely take turns battling it out. Throughout years of variation on that process, the core of what you did in Final Fantasy stayed locked in place: You mostly hit the attack command, watched the monsters attack back, then used a healing ability when you needed it. Over and over for dozens of hours, the only variation coming in bigger fights with ornery rare beasts or big, story beat-punctuating battles.
XII’s novel solution to this tedium was Gambits, i.e., increasingly complex programmed behaviors for the characters in your party to adopt, without you having to directly enter in every single command. That way, when you strolled up to savage Cthuhlu cats in the jungle, your team would just do what you would do anyway, based on the conditions that you’d set. Want to heal when your health dips below 60%? Set a Gambit. Need to use some medicine if some dickish squid blinds you? Go ahead and program it in. It’s a system designed to cut out a boredom-inducing middleman. And when you do directly intervene—as you have to, often, in Final Fantasy XII’s most tense encounters—it feels vital, with each choice carrying far more weight than the old “Attack or heal?” paradigm.
In fairness to the haters, that flexible, forward-thinking approach to combat wasn’t especially well-served by the game’s original version. While the six leads were all distinct as personalities, they were basically indistinguishable from each other as combat assets, all doing pretty much the same thing in every fight. That changed in 2007, with the game’s International Zodiac Job System edition (eventually refined and released Stateside as The Zodiac Age), which allowed players to send each character down a different job path to cover different party roles, giving the game the customizable flair that made earlier titles, like Final Fantasy III and V, so compulsively, repeatedly playable. Now you could create a dynamic team that truly felt diverse. And unlike those previous Final Fantasy sequels, this game actually had a good story to go with the fiddly strategy and customization, marrying the series’ greater flights of storytelling to its more mechanically successful entries. It took a decade and a half of tinkering, but it’s now preserved in all its glory: The best Final Fantasy game.
For the first half of Final Fantasy’s existence, every entry stood purely on its own. The passion for, and profitability of, those games, however, couldn’t be ignored after a certain point. In 2003, Square broke the seal by making Final Fantasy X-2 (as in “the second Final Fantasy X game”)—a game that asked the question: “What if we took the most annoying, gaudy Final Fantasy and turned it into Charlie’s Angels, as conceived by Alejandro Jodorowsky and the creators of Laugh In?” After that, all bets were off.
What followed was a whole host of sequels, most centered on the still uber-popular Final Fantasy VII. (Although Final Fantasy XIII got its own share of very weird follow-up installments, the last of which, Lightning Returns, could fill all three slots in a Best/Worst/Weirdest bracket of its very own.) But while mercenary corporate thinking has undoubtedly led to this trend of sub-franchising in Final Fantasy, by and large, the results have been positive. A shocking number of these tacked-on sequels have had plenty of merit, and a solid reason to exist. Final Fantasy IV: The After Years does not. It is the only mainline Final Fantasy that is so truly horrible that it tarnishes the good work of the original game it’s associated with.
You can sympathize with designer Takashi Tokita’s desire to make The After Years, though. Final Fantasy IV was a bold aspirational step forward in storytelling when it came to the Super Nintendo in 1991, with dramatic staging, a sprawling cast, and a more directed, linear structure that enhanced its emotional thrust far beyond its more primitive predecessors. Equally austere and weird—androgynous knight Cecil must literally fight the evil in his soul, become a paladin, and then fly to the moon inside a giant space whale—it also doubled down on making its party feel vital and unique. There are a whopping 12 characters to play as, all of whom have unique abilities. While nowhere near as distinctive or moving as follow-up Final Fantasy VI (a razor-close second for the best game in the series), it was nonetheless a beloved benchmark. That Tokita wanted to revisit its world once he had the option to do so makes sense. What he made is a miserable, tiresome slog.
Taking place seventeen years after Final Fantasy IV, The After Years’ story manages to be both needlessly complex and sleep-inducingly boring, retreading archetypal character beats and adding new characters with little to do or say. The lead this time is Ceodore, son of original heroes Cecil and Rosa, fighting monsters and trying to solve the mystery of why there’s a second moon in the sky causing all kinds of sinister goings on. All well and good, but his method of doing so is to wander through cramped, nondescript caves and dungeons, getting in endless random battles devoid of the variety and pep that makes classic turn-based fights irresistible.
Final Fantasy IV’s mechanical innovation to the series was the instantly intuitive “Active Time Battle” system: Instead of having turn order in combat be rigidly defined by characters’ attributes, a meter filled up on screen letting you know when your next fighter could take a turn. It was simple, straightforward, and engaging. The After Years needlessly gilds this lily by making combat actions also dependent on the current phase of the in-game moon. So if you’re steering around a party of bruisers who specialize in physical attacks, you’d better hope the moon doesn’t arbitrarily declare that only magic is effective, or every single encounter will take three times as long to fight through. Coupled with drab, generic settings that are recycled over and over as you play through the same environments with different characters in successive parts of the story, it makes for grueling play.
The After Years isn’t somber, or beautiful, or even just crassly enjoyable as a cash-in. It’s banal and crowded, the worst things Final Fantasy can be.
To be clear: Final Fantasy is always weird. Lightning Returns takes the stoic soldier lead of Final Fantasy XIII, puts her in a thong, and turns her into a 500-year-old Christ figure saving souls stranded in a crumbling, deathless reality. Everyone’s favorite, Final Fantasy VII? There’s a part in that game where you have to make a guy wearing a Shaq-sized broadsword flip off a dolphin’s face just so he can climb some industrial waste. Determining which Final Fantasy is the weirdest based purely on content is like trying to decide which oxygen molecule in front of you is the most breathable. With the right tools and patience, you could probably make that distinction, but why in the hell would you spend the time?
Final Fantasy II’s narrative is comparatively chaste when held up against the stranger story beats of the games that followed it. Released just one year after the original, it brazenly lifts the plot of Star Wars, complete with a scrappy band of youths led by a blonde-quaffed swordsman with a heart of gold toppling an evil empire. Firion, the swordsman, has to find legendary mystic warriors, all of whom have been wiped out. Our desperate rebels are trying to destroy an unfinished mobile super weapon called the Dreadnought. It’s all pretty on the nose. Sure, the emperor turns into a demon after being thrown into hell at the end of the game, but really, that’s just the old Final Fantasy flavor coming out.
What makes Final Fantasy II so truly bizarre—and what’s largely kept it on the fringes of the series’ legacy, beyond the occasional bashing from diehard fans—is how its fighting works. Rather than refine the clunky combat from the original game—in which your heroes and the monsters traded blows, with characters leveling up as they accrued experience points doled out at the end of every fight—Final Fantasy II designer Akitoshi Kawazu threw it out wholesale and replaced it with an absolutely bizarre approach to character growth that has a dignified, if misguided, logic to it. In order for any character attribute to grow in Final Fantasy II, it has to be used. Repeatedly. Even if it makes no earthly sense why you’d be doing it.
So, say, if you want rebel leader and archer Maria to bolster her defensive capabilities, she has to be attacked repeatedly. If you want the animal-loving Guy to beef up his brawling skills, then have him attack, over and over again. Winning a fight does nothing on its own merits—only repeatedly using the skills you want to foster. In theory, it makes sense, a video-game version of practice makes perfect. The problem is that growing each individual skill in a straight fight is so laborious that it becomes more economical to just beat up on your own party, ad nauseum. Watching your four heroes stand in front of a horde of harmless goblins, beating the crap out of themselves so they can withstand punishment from fiercer foes, is bizarre, even 32 years later.
None of this makes Final Fantasy II a bad game—at least, not as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe. There’s an appealing, distant quality to it—and the SaGa role-playing games Kawazu would continue to make afterward, which massively expanded these systems—that distinguishes it among its peers. Many of the aesthetic tropes that run through the entire series started here as well. Chocobos, those chicken-y beasts of burden inseparable from the Final Fantasy brand, first showed up in II. (Unlike the fluffy, manga-eyed delights they’d become, though, they were depicted in official art as fleshy monstrosities that look like they’d peck your face right off.) Moogles, the other plush critters that recur across the series, also spawned from this game—though they were cut from the final game and replaced with sentient beavers. All of it is lovely, but it’s hard to feel really lost in the hostile countryside when you’re taking time out to be sure to shoot Leon the dark knight with 50 arrows every battle, so he’s really good at not getting hurt by arrows—but also so Maria can get really good at shooting those arrows, too. Nothing is quite so lonely as punishing yourself for gains, though. No one can take that away from Final Fantasy II.
It’s notable that Final Fantasy XV, the most recent numbered entry in the series, shares some of its soul with Final Fantasy II. Self-flagellation isn’t a fundamental part of character growth in it, no. But there remains a willingness to throw caution to the wind and marry experimental ideas with a big, strange world and characters with beating hearts populating it. There are gaudy magic fights galore in Final Fantasy XV, but its best moments have you guiding its boy band principals to campfires in open countrysides, sitting under the stars, and preparing hyper-detailed gourmet meals in relative quiet. One of your final acts in the game is leading Noctis, its deposed prince, away from his friends, but picking a photo from their adventure to remember them by. Sabishii indeed. With Square’s focus on remaking Final Fantasy VII as an entire series of games that’ll dominate its line-up for the foreseeable future, it’s starting to feel as though Final Fantasy XV will truly be the last of its line. If it’s not, though, the next generation of creators need only tap into that wild feeling to guide them forward again.