The Final Fantasy franchise by Square/Enix is often regarded as the standard-bearer of the JRPG genre. The brand has been incredibly influential, especially with introducing players to the genre. Over the years, the Final Fantasy series has consistently set itself apart from the competition – and the gap in quality is only increasing.
The goal of this list is to explore the ten things that the Final Fantasy games do to set them apart. There were many Final Fantasy titles that were never given a North American release, so the numbering system of the games is not standard across all regions. For this list, the North American numbering system will be used.
Obviously, some exceptions do exist, but Final Fantasy's longevity is difficult to beat.
10 The Graphics
When it comes to graphics, Final Fantasy has raised the bar with nearly every title released. The original for the NES had good graphics for the time, but Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI in Japan) for the SNES is probably the best piece of evidence for this claim.
That Final Fantasy title could easily be mistaken for an early PlayStation or N64 game. There are some great looking JRPGs for the SNES (7th Saga), but none of them truly rival Square's series. This assertion is also true across all video game console generations.
9 The Music
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch the Houston Symphony Orchestra play video game music at a special performance. They had the usual Legend of Zelda and Super Mario tunes. The closing act, though, was music from the Final Fantasy games. You can usually find the soundtracks to Final Fantasy games being sold separately from the game – and people actually buy them.
If you’ve played any one of the franchise's entries, you should understand the previous two statements - the music is nearly always superb. There are other JRPGs that have great music, but it seems like Final Fantasy consistently has the best.
8 The Consistently Epic Stories
Few can argue that Final Fantasy's plots are not expertly written. Shocking reveals, heart-breaking twists, and quotable dialogue are available in abundance throughout the franchise. There’s almost always a little humor thrown in just to keep the games from getting too serious.
The plot of Final Fantasy VII is especially well-written; which is probably why it is getting a remake in 2020. Again, other JRPGs have had excellent plots, with some like Persona and Suikoden even rivaling Square's best offerings, but Final Fantasy has consistently told great stories over a longer stretch of times than most other JRPG licenses.
7 The Unique Characters
A lot of JRPGs usually have generic archetypes for characters. The knight, the wizard, the thief, etc… The only thing setting them apart from other JRPGs characters is their names – which is also usually generic.
Final Fantasy left that behind after the first title by giving us unique characters that are sometimes hard to assign a specific class to. Characters who exemplify this are Cait Sith and Kimahri Ronso. It is unusual to play through a Final Fantasy game and not feel a connection to at least one of the characters.
6 The Emotion
Touching on the “feeling a connection” aspect mentioned in the last entry, Final Fantasy tends to offer a strong emotional core. Many of us remember feeling a sense of loss when Aerith floated away in Final Fantasy VII.
It is almost expected that at some point you will become emotionally invested in the struggles of the characters, even if not all the entries are equal in this regard. Alongside the empathetic emotions, these games can elicit moments of pure excitement and satisfaction – such as when you finally defeat the Emerald Weapon.
5 The Concept Art
Another aspect that sets Final Fantasy apart from other JRPGs is the beautiful concept art produced for each title. Some of these works of art could be displayed in a museum. The concept art from Final Fantasy III by Amano Yoshitaka is absolutely breathtaking.
The subjects’ features are somewhat exaggerated and the pieces, with their muted colors, appear as though Yoshitaka used watercolors. Final Fantasy X’s concept art is more contemporary, but the quality is on par with works from legends like Larry Elmore. The concept art for Final Fantasy XIII is bold, with sharply contrasting colors.
4 The Challenge
It can never be said that Final Fantasy games aren’t challenging. The further back one goes in the library, the games become harder. The first Final Fantasy for the NES was difficult at times but never enough to induce rage-quitting.
Two of the hardest enemies you will ever face in a JRPG are the Ruby and Emerald Weapons from Final Fantasy VII. Most games in the Final Fantasy franchise don’t allow the player to adjust the difficulty manually – this is only a feature in the more recent games. In other words, the player is forced to “git gud.”
Shin Megami Tensei and Fire Emblem are probably more consistently difficult, but Final Fantasy often hits the right balance between challenging and fair.
3 The Bang For Your Buck Factor
While JRPGs are not exactly known for being short, with some lasting well over 50 hours. While more content is always a good thing, there is always a risk that the campaign will drag. There are also titles like I Am Setsuna, which lasts roughly 20 hours and seems to stop just as things really start to get good.
The amount of enjoyment provided by a Final Fantasy, for the price paid, is one of the best values in video games. The campaigns usually clock-in between 30-50 hours, while completionist will be looking at usually double that amount. Perfect for those with limited time and anyone looking to spend a couple of weeks grinding away. It is common to log-in over 100 hours while playing one of the Final Fantasy games.
2 The Ever-Evolving Battle System
Although there are more varied battle systems in modern JRPGs than in the past (like Ni no Kuni), the JRPGs of past console generations were a little “cookie-cutter” in how they handled not only the flow of the battles but the player's actions.
The familiar system of every character getting their turn in a set order, with commands like “attack,” “spell,” and “item,” was expanded upon as Final Fantasy progressed. Those options are still there for the player, but Square is always innovating the battle system and adding fresh options and concepts – like the Materia system in Final Fantasy VII.
1 Memorable Villains
Does anyone remember the main villains in the Phantasy Star games, or the Dragon’s Quest games? Me neither. Final Fantasy's villains are as memorable as the big bads in the Star Wars movies.
Many players can still conjure images of their battles against Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII or Kefka in Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI in Japan). Even the minor bosses, like the Phantom Train in Final Fantasy III (again, Final Fantasy VI in Japan), are extremely memorable. Every great hero needs a great villain, and Final Fantasy certainly delivers in that area.