Final Fantasy might be about to make its triumphant comeback. With Final Fantasy XV out this week, Square Enix has made damn sure everyone even remotely interested in the series, RPGs, or video games in general has been made aware of their juggernaut and all of its surrounding spin-off ephemera. To the game’s credit, it appears that even in the highly unlikely event that XV isn’t a complete smash, Hajime Tabata and his team have seemingly crafted a world and a cast that are instantly recognizable, likable, and anime-chic pretty enough to become lasting poster boys.
As a rule, Final Fantasy has always had a history of utilizing iconography, from chocobos, airships, and known-quantity monsters like cactuars to Cloud’s Buster Sword or Squall’s Gunblade, and it doesn’t look like XV is going to buck that trend. Case in point: Prince Noctis’s royal ride, the Regalia, which is on loan from his dad. In celebration of FF potentially getting its groove back — arguably missing in any traditional sense since 2001 — here’s the franchise’s most iconic entries.
Note this isn’t a list of the best; that is a much more subjective undertaking. Instead, think of these entries as perhaps those that have best stood the test of time. If Tabata has played his cards right, XV should make a nice addition.
Final Fantasy X
X remains a fan-favorite today for a few reasons. First, it’s the series’s PS2 debut entry after 2000’s PlayStation swan song ninth entry, as well as marking the first time Final Fantasy was fully rendered in beautiful 3D environments. But the water-heavy world of Spira, largely inspired by various Asian cultures, held greater allures — the cataclysmic threat known only as Sin, some curiously prominent explorations on religion, and Blitzball (a completely fleshed out sport that was an entire game unto itself). To this day, it’s unlikely anyone who played has forgotten trying to get Tidus’s Jecht Shot. Oh yeah, and this.
Final Fantasy VIII
Squal Leonhart is a brash young military cadet with a chip on his shoulder, and Final Fantasy VIII is probably about as close to a full-on high school anime that the series has ever hit, archetypes and all. That isn’t really what people remember it for. VIII had the entirely unenviable task of following up VII, which even then had become cemented in fans’ mind as the best Final Fantasy ever (a point many would still argue in defense of). To up the ante, Square completely outdid themselves, moving from the rudimentary chibi character models of VII to realistically proportioned characters with full-texture mapped outfits, a big deal at the time.
More to the point, character designer Tetsuya Nomura’s outlandish outfits were just getting started with VIII, a game in which the fashionably facial-scarred Squall ran around in a midriff leather jacket with fur trim and complementary belts, and carried a gunblade, a sword with a powder barrel attachment that you could ignite if triggered at just the right point mid-swing. The Gardens, VIII’s military schools, were pretty sci-fi memorable, too.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
The fact that a spin-off is included in this list — a subset I’m otherwise not going to bother with — should tell you something about its characteristic essence. War of the Lions, from Square’s ex-strategy master Yasumi Matsuno who later went on to create FFXII, borrows heavily from Matsuno’s previous series, Tactics Ogre. if for nothing else, it’s necessarily unique from core FF titles because it’s an isometric, grid-based war game.
Despite its somewhat chibi-styled designs, which somehow still look appropriately mature thanks to the incredible work of character designer Akihiko Yoshida, this is definitely not a game for all ages. The cruel medieval world of Ivalice is punishing, and War of the Lions’s narrative echoes the darkness of Macbeth, chronicling a cynical political narrative with a Game of Thrones-caliber body count. If you’re looking for an entirely different kind of Final Fantasy, they don’t get much more memorable than this one.
Final Fantasy IV
FFIV introduces some of the most iconic aspects of the series: The trademark Active Time Battle system, which took FF out of the realm of rigidly turn-based combat, and the introduction of the narrative backbone, and the melodrama, that has since become a cornerstone of the series. As far as classic, old-school Final Fantasy goes, IV is only topped by one game — and Cecil and Kain are still among the most famous figures in the series pantheon.
Final Fantasy VI
The only reason VI isn’t closer to number one on this list is because it’s perhaps now too old for the legion of FF fans to have played, either when it was new or in one of the innumerable re-releases. Regardless, it’s notable for being the only accurately steampunk experiment in the entire series, set in a bleak sci-fi tinged world where magic is shrouded by hulking mechanical machines and the cultural affectations of 19th century Europe.
FFVI’s world alone is enough to make it a series milestone, even in 2016; equally as interesting are the fact that it has a female protagonist, a clown-painted villain, and an unforgettable opera scene. It’s worth going back to — just make sure you avoid the newer versions with the sinfully ugly re-touched pixel art.
Final Fantasy IX
To understand why FFIX might be considered iconic, just take a look at Vivi. A black mage evoking the series’s original, classic design, he is the embodiment of IX’s intent to return to a magical, medieval world of adventure, whimsy, crystals, and airships, only using (at the time) state-of-the-art graphics as befitted the series’s final entry on the original PlayStation. IX still holds up today for that reason — its intentional return to stylistic, chibi-esque form makes the PlayStation’s limited-yet-incredible use of polygons work to maximum effect, and just about every single character design from Steiner the uptight knight to the visually Kefka-like Queen Brahne absolutely sings, to say nothing of the world itself. IX is classic in every sense of the word.
Final Fantasy VII
Rather than going into detail here, I can just say that being in the audience at Sony’s 2015 press conference for the reveal of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII Remake — a game that fans have been begging Square to make for over a decade — was probably the most enthusiastic response I’ve ever seen to a video game. It also used no small amount of images every VII fan is well aware of: Cloud’s buster, giant Mako reactor tubes, Barret’s gun-arm. Let’s also not forget Sephiroth’s Masamune, Ruby and Emerald WEAPON, the Highwind, Aeris (not spelled with a “th” — fight me), materia … I could go on. If you think people are hyped for XV, this Remake is going to make Square a mint.