When someone says "Japanese role-playing game," one of two names will pop up. Dragon Quest kind of owns Japan and national productivity grinds to a halt whenever a new title is released, but in the West, Japan's #2, Final Fantasy, is the one that immediately springs to mind.
Final Fantasy was originally released for the Famicom (known in the West as the NES) on December 18, 1987. It was Square's last chance--failure really meant that it was going to be the end for the then-small-time Japanese game development house.
Betting on the popularity of competitor Enix's megahit Dragon Quest, the original Final Fantasy featured a simple story revolving around the Four Heroes of Light (who you named) setting out on a quest to defeat an ultimate evil and save the world. The game was later ported to the American NES, and remained the only US-released FF title until the release of the 16-bit SNES.
A year after the surprise success of Final Fantasy, a sequel--Final Fantasy II--was released, and while on the surface it looked similar to the original FF, there were quite a few changes under the hood. The game not only introduced series staples like Chocobos and the recurring "Cid" character, but had a much more focused story involving a group of rebels fighting against an evil empire, which I think accurately describes the plot of almost every Final Fantasy game ever made.
It's also safe to say that FFII was hilariously broken as a game--its Advancement System allowed characters to develop based on what they specialized in during combat, so spellcasters only became more powerful by casting more spells, and fighters got tougher and stronger the more they dealt and received damage, so partway in you became Death, Destroyer of 8-Bit Worlds.
Taking elements from the first two games and combining them with the then-revolutionary Job System, Final Fantasy III released on the Famicom in 1990. Original "classless" characters were called Onion Knights (later changed to "Freelancers" in the DS remake), creating another recurring series fixture. The Famicom version also brought back unnamed characters and a return to the simpler story of the first game, focusing on four unnamed youths who become the Four Heroes of Light and topple a faceless, apocalyptic evil. Not surprisingly, the bestselling remake for DS named all four of the characters and gave them distinct personalities to feel more like a "modern" Final Fantasy title.
With the launch of the Super Famicom/Super NES, Square decided to go all-out for its first 16-bit outing, 1991's Final Fantasy IV (initially released as Final Fantasy II in the US). FFIV introduced a series hallmark with the Active Time Battle, giving a feel of urgency to turn-based combat while weaving a story with then-unheard-of complexity and depth, focusing on the Dark Knight Cecil's redemption and journey toward becoming a decent human being.
In many ways, Final Fantasy IV is the start of what we now consider a "Final Fantasy game." It has a direct plot, strong elements of exploration, a large cast of varied and often specialized characters, and a unique twist on standard RPG turn-based combat. It gave the series direction--one it's stuck to ever since, no matter the changes in gameplay or aesthetics.
While FFIV showed a sense of restraint in its changes and innovations to what was becoming the Final Fantasy formula, 1992's Final Fantasy V went all-out in its revival of the Job System, giving players a whopping 21 classes to master. Along with EXP from winning battles, players also earned AP (Ability Points) that they used to raise Job level and allow for limited multi-classing, letting you combine abilities between Jobs to tailor your characters just the way you liked. FFV's story follows an adventurer named Butz Bartz, who gets caught up in an insane and ever-escalating war against the fearsome Exdeath.
Considered a high-water mark by fans, publications, and game journalists, Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in the US) ended the series' tenure on the SNES with a bang in 1994. Eschewing the Job System in favor of a large cast of specialized characters, FFVI's story started out as a typical-seeming rebellion against an evil empire and quickly spiraled out of control.
Final Fantasy VI has what I consider the tightest and best-paced storytelling in the series, with almost every character getting a chance to shine and get fully fleshed out, along with some of its most powerful moments... and its most memorable villain. From poisoning an entire town's water supply for the hell of it to breaking the world and ruling over its husk with an iron fist, Kefka Palazzo was terrifying not because he was an inhuman, extradimensional threat or a cloned supersoldier--he was just a power-hungry man.
Time passed, and Square geared up for the next generation of Final Fantasy. Taking advantage of the Sony PlayStation's CD-ROM media for polygonal 3D graphics, pre-rendered backgrounds and full-motion video, Final Fantasy VII lit the world on fire in 1997. For people unfamiliar with the series, and RPGs in general, it opened up a whole new genre for them to explore and experience.
A young mercenary named Cloud joins a rebellion against the globe-spanning Shinra Corporation (What? it's still a financial empire) that uncovers dark secrets about his own past, and how it fits in with the enigmatic and nihilistic Sephiroth, who is less a man and more a force of nature.
Final Fantasy VII was about more than just a change in hardware--the series had long relied on the ethereally beautiful art of Yoshitaka Amano, and had for this game shifted to Tetsuya Nomura's modern, anime-inspired designs and a gritty atmosphere that was more science fiction than traditional fantasy. New gameplay innovations like the Materia System allowed for a personally-designed party capable of multiple skillsets, and Limit Breaks gave a high-impact cinematic feel to otherwise static turn-based combat.
With the runaway success of FFVII and an army of loyal new fans, Square had high hopes with the 1999 release of Final Fantasy VIII. Continuing with Tetsuya Nomura's popular design aesthetic and sci-fi feel, FFVIII completely threw the book out on "traditional" Final Fantasy design in favor of trying as many new things as possible, specifically the Draw and Junction Systems, which allowed you to make the game almost laughably easy through a combination of Drawing the right magic from enemies, Junctioning it to characters' stats, and never using the magic so the characters were overwhelmingly powerful.
Final Fantasy VIII also had one of the most bizarre, difficult-to-describe stories in the series, if not among all video games ever made. What starts as a war between military academies against an all-powerful sorceress also fits in unexpected developments about memory loss, time compression, the sudden appearance of the real villain, and taking time out of saving the world to play cards like some kind of gambling addict.
After how bugnuts crazy Final Fantasy VIII was, Square dialed it back some for 2000's Final Fantasy IX, the last PS1 FF. Channelling the feel of NES and SNES-era Final Fantasy games, FFIX returned to a lighthearted world of traditional fantasy, superdeformed characters, and a feeling of going out on a grand, fun adventure with familiar mechanics like the Active Time Battle and a slightly-tweaked take on Limit Breaks with the Trance System. And yet, FFIX was able to offer one of the series' best character arcs with Black Mage Vivi Ornitier, who as a side character receives the kind of development that most main characters never get.
For its first outing on the monstrously powerful (for the time) PlayStation2, Final Fantasy X brought a bevy of new features to the series in 2002. Under the cover of stunning 3D graphics, we were treated to a fast, actiony version of traditional turn-based battle, the first time since Final Fantasy III that the series did not use Active Time Battle. Levelling your characters up was given an extra dimension with the Sphere Grid, another way to design the party completely to your specifications. FFX also featured full voice acting, a first for the series (for better or for worse), and was the first 3D Final Fantasy to use more in-game model cutscenes than pre-rendered cinemas.
Shortly after FFX, the massively multiplayer online RPG Final Fantasy XI landed in 2002. Unlike almost every other MMORPG, solo play wasn't allowed--you had to form a party with other players and faced down enemies in yet another evolution of the Active Time Battle system. Players could choose between five races and play a guided individual storyline for an experience that few other MMOs have tried to emulate. FFXI is still running, and allows cross-platform play between PS2, PC, and Xbox 360 users--the first of its kind.
Taking lessons learned from FFX and FFXI, 2006's polarizing Final Fantasy XII was the first Final Fantasy to be set in an already-established world: Ivalice, the setting of spin-off titles Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, a heavy and classically medieval Game of Thrones-like world of political intrigue and betrayal. There was just as much intrigue behind the scenes of FFXII's production, as longtime game designer Yasumi Matsuno left the game's development cycle, and the game's focus was changed from older, hardened soldier Basch's redemption to a younger, "more identifiable" lead with the almost universally-reviled Vaan. Whatever the case, FFXII is a major dividing line for series fans with its strong influence from Final Fantasy XI and the Western school of RPG design with its programmable Gambit System, letting the game practically play itself if you set your Gambits that way.
For the series' first HD outing, 2009's Final Fantasy XIII played it very safe, featuring the unmistakable and stylized look of Tetsuya Nomura, a return to the Active Time Battle System, and an interesting combination of Jobs with FFXII's Gambits in the Paradigm System. Trying to emulate Western game design and megahits like Call of Duty, the storytelling for most of Final Fantasy XIII was very direct, pulling players along a single set path instead of letting them explore and find their own way like in previous titles as they untangled the web of lies and prejudice between the floating continent of Cocoon and the lowerworld of Gran Pulse.
An attempted 2010 upgrade to FFXI, Final Fantasy XIV is probably the only Final Fantasy game that's universally agreed to be pretty bad. It has less to do with gamers' personal tastes regarding the game being another MMORPG, but more to do with the fact that the game is a buggy, broken mess that was indefinitely on free-to-play status until it was apparently fixed early this year. Heck, you can pick up a Collector's Edition of the game for $30 brand-new at GameStop.
Man, that's a lot of Final Fantasy... but a lot of memories, too. One thing to think about over the series' history: it operates in trilogies, only rarely deviating from this formula. No, not trilogies in terms of storytelling or themes, but a pattern of design.
Almost always, the first game in each trilogy (FF, FFVII, FFX and FFXIII) plays it safe, sticking to familiar gameplay mechanics and going for a more focused experience. Final Fantasy IV is the only exception, as it introduced Active Time Battle and a deeper, more story-oriented game than previous titles--but even that's debatable as it only gave small adjustments to an already-tested formula.
The second game in each trilogy (FFII, FFV, FFVIII, FFXI) will invariably go totally nuts with design innovations, throwing everything at the system to see what sticks. Levelling up by getting hit? Sure, why not! More Job Classes than any normal person would care to master? Give it a whack! Take out the single-player element of a completely single-player series and make it massively multiplayer? Go ahead!
Finally, the third game in each trilogy (FFIII, FFVI, FFIX, FFXII) takes all the lessons learned from the previous two titles and combines them to create an exemplary title for that generation. Of the three, it's the one that's the best "game" to play since it relies on smartly-designed mechanics--and in three out of four cases, it also provides strong writing and character development.
Thanks for sticking with me to the very end of this enormous look back at Final Fantasy--make sure to tune in to Part Two as we take a look at the series' spin-off titles and adaptations. Which FF is your favorite? What are some of your favorite characters, moments, or game mechanics from the series? Let us know in the comments!
Images via Final Fantasy Wiki
A big thank-you goes to YellowJacketGuy, who I could not have done this retrospective without. Look at the man's shelves--who else could I ask for help with something like this?
Also, thanks to Cavall and coolworlds for corrections!