Final Fantasy V-VIII covers a lot of ground graphically and features a wide variety in narrative and gameplay styles. Many of them have also been released several times on several different consoles. Many people consider VI or VII their favorites, so there are some frontrunners here. See if they appeal to you!
Original Release: 1992, Super Famicom (SNES)
Also Released On: Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, Sony PS Vita, Sony PSP, Sony PlayStation 3, Android, Microsoft Windows, iOS
What it’s about: The crystals are shattering, and nature is failing. A number of people notice this, including the princess of the Tycoon kingdom, a pirate whose sails go limp, and an adventurer with no goals beyond wandering the world. Of course, these three (alongside an amnesiac 60-year-old who’s just down for anything) meet up and decide to set things right. Final Fantasy V is a simple story, told simply. However, as with all Final Fantasy games, plenty of twists and turns await and create something new. Unlike its predecessor, the cast isn’t really the focus. Instead, the focus is on building a mythology and serving memorable moments.
How it plays: Final Fantasy V builds on the ATB foundation of the fourth entry, but it does a few brand-new things as well. Turn orders are much easier to predict thanks to ATB bars that are visible to the player. Monsters start working in a front and back row. Accessories make their first appearance in the series. But the biggest highlight is the job system. Evolving the job system from Final Fantasy III, your static party of four learns jobs through battle and can carry over an ability or two to the other classes. These jobs are unlocked at a steady pace and drive the player to change classes regularly. It wraps up this evolved job system in dungeons that are much easier to navigate than FFIII, making the whole experience a more enjoyable one.
What it brought to the series: The job system set the bar for the series and remains one of the most beloved class-based games around. Series staple jobs, including Blue Mage and Samurai, make their first appearance. Visible ATB bars stick around in some form for most of the rest of the series, allowing for more tactical planning in battles. This version of the ATB system would define the series’ feel for years to come. And lest we forget, Final Fantasy V features the first appearance of the universe-spanning boss, Gilgamesh.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy V is a blast. It’s got a less bleak tone than FFIV but isn’t afraid to build its own complex web. Dungeon and sidequest design evolve into a more modern state, making the game feel less aged than some of its predecessors. But really, the biggest selling point is the job system. If you like unlocking new abilities and uncovering interesting skill combinations, FFV is for you.
Why you might not: For most of the game, the story takes a back seat. The characters are a bit more broad, their internal crises resolved quickly (and sometimes in a single line of dialogue). While the story evolves into something interesting, you must either be patient or jive with the gameplay until it gets there.
Which version to play: Final Fantasy V skipped the US the first go around, only officially getting translated on the PSOne. It’s hard to recommend a single best way to play, but there are two clear frontrunners. For folks who want more content, the Gameboy Advance version includes more jobs, a new dungeon, and some interesting gallery features. Unfortunately, the color and sound quality are a bit lower than the SNES original. If you don’t care about those extra features, the Pixel Remaster looks great, sounds great, and feels very close to the original. Other available versions include a prior mobile version with some notorious visuals and the aforementioned PSOne release, Final Fantasy Anthology. Beware load times on the latter: they’re pretty significant.
Original Release: 1994, Super Famicom (SNES)
Also Released On: Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, Super NES Classic Edition, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, Sony PS Vita, Sony PSP, Sony PlayStation 3, Android, Microsoft Windows, iOS
What it’s about: Terra is a girl with the never-before-seen ability to use magic without any aid. As a mind-controlled soldier of the evil Gestahl Empire, breaking free is just the first step on a journey to uncover her past, contend with an evil clown, and of course, try to save the world. Along the way, she joins up with a ton of party members, most of whom have their own complete story arcs. Their stories diverge and rejoin throughout one of the most iconic stories in the series.
How it plays: The ATB system that has started to define the series by this point is back. While the foundation has seen few changes, characters are handled in a brand new way. Like Final Fantasy IV, each character in your party has a preassigned job that comes with a unique ability. These abilities are a bit more fleshed out than in prior games. Some require Street Fighter-esque inputs, others can be charged, while others affect how you control the character in battle. Character customization happens by equipping stones containing Espers, the summoned beasts of Final Fantasy VI. These stones can teach you specific spells, affect your stat growth, and be used to summon the Esper inside. Customizing your team is necessary, as few characters learn magic naturally, and none can build a robust spell list without utilizing Espers. Also noteworthy is the large cast of permanent party members, capping out at a robust 14. This comes into play most during sections where your characters split up, whether to follow different plot threads, traverse a split dungeon, or engage in some light tower defense in a handful of scripted battles.
What it brought to the series: The biggest leaps FFVI brought to the table were narrative. Not only does the story cover a massive scope, it includes quite a few never seen before twists. Event scenes like the oft-cited opera scene brought a cinematic flair to the series that hadn’t been realized before. The idea of customizing characters with some unique features would reappear in quite a few entries after this, perhaps most noteworthy as a precursor to Final Fantasy VII’s materia. Also a precursor to a later series staple: desperation attacks. When your characters are in critical HP status, their attack command has a chance to become a character-specific special attack, a feature that would later be expanded as Limit Breaks. It’s easy to miss them, though. Plenty of players will complete the game and never see one of these attacks.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy VI is often considered one of the strongest in the series and is a fan favorite from the 2D era. If you enjoy 2D Final Fantasy, you’ll most likely enjoy this one. The story is captivating, giving each character a spotlight and treating each as the main character. The spritework is some of the best of its era, especially in unique locales and elaborate enemy designs. And the battle system and character customization can really scratch the itch of more gameplay-focused players.
Why you might not: First and foremost: if 16-bit RPGs aren’t your thing, this likely won’t change your mind. It’s a top-tier example of the medium, but you’ll still be occasionally grinding and hunting for obscure side quests that hide amazing rewards. Final Fantasy VI is also a game that is going to take you on a journey, whether you want it to or not. The core gameplay loop is upended multiple times, which is a great ride but can be a bit too jarring for some.
Which version to play: There’s not a clear winner here. The SNES original (named Final Fantasy III in the West) has quite a few bugs and a less-than-perfect translation. The GBA version fixes a lot of these but comes with lower-quality audio. The visuals on the original mobile release are (to be diplomatic) a crime that remains unpunished, while the Pixel Remaster’s unified visuals end up being a noticeable downgrade from the original. Ultimately, the Pixel Remasters are probably the best experience for modern players, despite the visuals.
Original Release: 1997, PlayStation
Also Released On: Sony PS Vita, Sony PSP, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation Classic, Android, Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Sony PlayStation 4, iOS
FFVII Remake: Microsoft Windows, Sony PlayStation 4, Sony PlayStation 5
What it’s about: Move over, evil empires: capitalism has arrived! The evil Shinra corporation is killing the planet to power their cities, leaving small militant groups (like the one main character Cloud is working for) to destroy their reactors and try and reverse the damage. Of course, nothing ever stays simple. Between legendary war heroes seemingly losing their minds, a ruthless group of suited enforcers, and the will of the planet itself, things that start simple quickly become anything but.
How it plays: Welcome to the future! It’s all 3D now. While the 3D models atop pre-rendered backgrounds make navigating the world different from its predecessors, the comfortable ATB system remains. Battle parties are kicked down the three members, but each of those members is incredibly flexible thanks to materia. Materia is simple: equip materia, you can use its magic while it’s equipped. Keeping materia equipped levels it up, opening up higher tiers of similar magic. Adding to the complexity are limit breaks: special, super-powered attacks governed by a bar that fills up after being attacked. Limit breaks are the most unique elements of each character, and the limit breaks you want to use absolutely factor into party makeup.
What it brought to the series: Final Fantasy VII made the series mainstream, partially thanks to cutting-edge CG cutscenes that add heft and excitement to the game’s most important scenes. The game is a bit easier for newcomers to get into as well, thanks to less need for grinding and a more directed critical path. This design ethos would carry the series for years after. It also brought the production value up to some of the best of its time, making the Final Fantasy series renowned as a visual spectacle. Finally, limit breaks were front and center for the first time. Flashy, character-specific attacks like this remain a staple in the series to this day.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy VII is a classic story. References to it are all over the RPG genre today, and the influence of the game’s style cannot be overstated. It’s also a tight, well-crafted game. The game drives players through the story briskly, requiring little grinding to complete. Side activities are plentiful, from snowboarding to squat competitions to a self-contained tower defense minigame. Optional bosses offer interesting challenges and cool rewards. Environments are creative and crafted with a real sense of history. Simply put, FFVII is a classic for a reason.
Why you might not: Games age, especially those at the beginning of an era. FFVII is an early 3D game and it looks like it. It’s a classic, random encounter-driven RPG and it feels like it. It’s a game from an era with much lower localization budgets, and it reads like it. It’s where melodrama really becomes the standard mode for the series, even if there is still room for racing giant colorful chickens and doing squats to get the ideal wig.
Which version to play: This one’s easy: the modern port on PC and all modern consoles is the ideal way to play. It maintains all of the fine details of the original while offering up some gameplay boosters that let you glide through tiresome encounters (or turn them off altogether). The original PlayStation version isn’t a bad way to go, but given the regular sales on the newer version, there aren’t many reasons to shy away from the upscaled visuals and quality of life additions. A word of warning, though: do not start with 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake. While it’s a phenomenal game in its own right, it acts as something completely separate from the original, and you get the best experience out of that game if you’ve played the original first.
Original Release: 1999, PlayStation
Also Released On: Microsoft Windows, Sony PS Vita, Sony PSP, Sony PlayStation 3, Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android
What it’s about: It’s time to start using the term “fantasy” loosely. This time around, our main character is Squall, a student soldier and all-around Grumpy Gus. And if the term “student soldier” didn’t tip you off, the world isn’t exactly at peace. Squall and his cohort of teen soldiers have to grow up fast as the threat of an aggressive country backed by a powerful sorceress looms. As always, things get global very quickly, but at its core, Final Fantasy VIII isn’t really about international politics and alien horrors. Final Fantasy VIII is a love story.
How it plays: At first blush, Final Fantasy VIII has the hallmarks of a traditional Final Fantasy. The ATB system returns, and you’re still exploring an open-world map in a fairly linear fashion as you travel from town to dungeon to next town. What really makes Final Fantasy VIII stand apart is its multitude of subsystems. Junctioning makes traditional magic spells into inventory items that you can junction to your attributes, and that’s about as straightforward as it sounds. Summoned Guardian Forces grant abilities via their own growth system. A card game ties into every other system by offering the best magic and item rewards in the game. Suffice to say, it’s a lot.
What it brought to the series: Final Fantasy has always been willing to experiment, but FFVIII took it to a new level. While it threw bunches of spaghetti at the wall, a lot of it stuck. Sure, junctioning didn’t take the world by storm, but card games became a bit of a series staple. The concept of complex, intertwined progression systems that’s stuck with the series since its infancy ramped up with Final Fantasy VIII and hasn’t slowed down since. And truly, once you introduce the concept of a gunblade, you’re going to be returning to that well regularly.
Why you might like it: Final Fantasy VIII is a bit of an experimental masterclass that gets better with age. Systems that were strange and jarring in 1999 now feel easier to understand. Taking side trips to find hidden guardian forces and mastering a somewhat obtuse card game both feel extremely rewarding. Putting the romantic story front and center is still rare in the series and offers a very character-centric take on the traditional adventure tale. And let’s be honest: while Final Fantasy VIII is trying extremely hard to be cool, it mostly pulls it off. Pressing a trigger button to fire a shot with your gunblade as you attack will always feel good.
Why you might not: Okay, well, let’s not pretend Final Fantasy VIII isn’t one of the most divisive entries of all time. Those subsystems that can feel so interesting can also feel too convoluted to be worthwhile. While breaking the game with those subsystems can be fun, that doesn’t make the balance any less broken. Oddities like enemies that level with you and luck playing a big part in some primary progression systems can make it hard to move forward and get stronger. And the story, chock full of interesting ideas, doesn’t consistently execute them well. You’ll find inappropriate student-teacher relationships, mind-boggling coincidences, and plot points that seem to appear from and disappear back into nothing at all. You have to meet Final Fantasy VIII more than halfway, and that can be too much for some fans.
Which version to play: It’s hard to recommend any version but the modern remastered version available on consoles and PC. Newly touched-up models and quality-of-life features similar to Final Fantasy VII make it a more welcoming experience. That’s not to say it’s perfect. The lack of true analog control from the original release and a handful of bugs that still linger long after launch mean the game isn’t unequivocally better than the original, but the benefits outweigh the costs.