It’s a big year for Final Fantasy.
The long-running RPG series, which made its debut all the way back in 1987 on Nintendo’s NES, is receiving not one, not two, but three major game releases this year – the long-awaited Western release of Type 0 complete with a swanky new HD update, arrives this week; Final Fantasy XIV‘s first expansion with Heavensward launches in June; and, of course, Final Fantasy XV – easily Square Enix’s biggest release of the year.
It’s fair to say that role-playing games were a large part of our formative gaming years here at Continue Play, and Final Fantasy was chief among them. Many hours were spent among seas of sprites and text boxes, reveling in the stories of fantastical, faraway lands. Games that weren’t just about mechanical reflexes, but also sharing a personally interesting story of another person. Games are many things, of course; but RPGs have always been so heartfelt, ready to share in the struggles of the characters is trying to save the world or thwart an evil plot.
Because of that, games by developers such as Squaresoft and Enix (now Square Enix, after a mid-noughties merger), and HAL Laboratory make up a great deal of our personal gaming history. Their games formed a large part of our early gaming years, but also informed a great deal about how we view games collectively, and how we choose to observe, absorb, and inspect gaming as a whole.
Among the great games released in the early nineties, Final Fantasy did more to excite and indulge our curiosities more than almost any other series – thanks in no small part to the unprecedented marketing campaign surrounding the 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII, which saw the genre moving from niche curiosity and into the mainstream. However, looking back on the core series in retrospect, we have very few solid memories of the core series. Final Fantasy VI was a triumph of excellence of course; Final Fantasy IX is one of the highpoints of the series and an underrated classic, as well as being one games I am personally most proud of completing (especially since I did so before any full guides had been written on GameFAQs); and Final Fantasy for the NES was one of the first games I ever played (even though I was too young to have done so sensibly).
But however popular the core series remains – and despite XIII throwing something of a spanner in the works, it does remain immensely popular, particularly in its homeland – some of the best times that the Final Fantasy series has provided gamers can be found in the spinoffs – games which are still unmistakably Final Fantasy in flavor (for the most part), but follow their own path towards greatness.
Here’s some of our favorites. Why 6, and not 5, or 10? Just because.
Final Fantasy Tactics
Format: PS One
Taylor: There are few games which come so readily to mind than Final Fantasy Tactics when it comes to Final Fantasy spinoff games.
Although a little awkward, a little confusing, and easy to manipulate once you learn its systems, Final Fantasy Tactics has always been the standard by which I judge other turn-based strategy games. The freedom to manipulate the abilities of team members, the occasional special characters kept the combat strategy unique and exciting. In giving the players so much freedom, the game often left player characters too readily able to manipulate circumstances to grand themselves a ridiculous amount of power, but it was still unerringly fun to play.
More than just the mechanics, though, Final Fantasy Tactics is a game about applying tools and techniques in ways they were never intended. The freedom to be able to bludgeon party members as well as foes, the fear of accidentally targeting a foe with a spell only to have the spell target move into friendly fire range, and to find oneself forced to apply every move selectively made the game the right kind of challenging. Spells had the potential to backlash, skills might sometimes hit a friendly target, and swaying enemies to and from each side was a risk going in.
While there were optimal strategies, there were no shortage of viable approaches, an that kind of freedom lends well to a strategy game. Final Fantasy Tactics struck the right mixture of freedom and solidity. Maps had defined shapes to introduce challenges, but still enough fluidity so that no one strategy was the intended course of action. It was a solid RPG, a great strategy game, and good time. Mix liberally with a twisting story and a brilliant soundtrack, and it’s near enough to impossible not to love it.
Hell, it was so popular that not only was its setting reused in a core Final Fantasy game – Final Fantasy XII – but it even spawned a spin-off series of its own in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which takes place in an alternate (and possibly imaginary) version of Ivalice. And then there’s Vagrant Story, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy
Format: 3DS, iPad
Dale: Taking the RPG trappings of the series, encasing them in rhythm-gaming shell and shrinking everyone down to chibi proportions, Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy was something of a surprise when it came out back in 2012 – mainly due to just how enjoyable it is. I don’t think anyone quite expected Theatrhythm to be very good, but the game rises above any cynicism cast at it to be a celebration of not just the franchise but the wonderful music composed by such luminaries as Nobuo Uematsu, who made his name working on the series.
Playing Theatrhythm is like being taken back in time and re-experiencing some of the best musical moments in gaming. One Winged Angel; Battle on Big Bridge; Terra’s Theme: the game is littered with some of the most memorable musical compositions in the entire medium, and even cycnics would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge Final Fantasy‘s impact on videogame music.
Last year’s Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy – Curtain Call may have felt a little unnecessary, simply recycling the same tracklist and adding in a superfluous adventure mode, but even the sequel remains an enjoyable, if overly familiar experience. A few niggles aside – such as the game being a bit picky over recognizing your swipes, and ignoring some better known tracks in favor of others – Theatrhythm is an essential accompaniment to any RPG fan’s gaming library.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
Taylor: As much as I’d love to exclude Final Fantasy VII from yet more press, belaboring the fact that it is a well-loved (if a little overrated, in my opinion) game, it’s hard not to mention Crisis Core in any list of Final Fantasy spinoff titles. Although it’s far more action than RPG, Crisis Core managed to evoke the feeling of a RPG while ceding to more action-based gameplay. In fact, I’d argue it even manages to do it better than the newer main series Final Fantasy titles – even if the production values were scaled down for the handheld.
Crisis Core is more mechanical marvel than narrative genius. I’ve never been particularly taken with the universe and mythology of Final Fantasy VII, even though I love the industrial setting of Midgar; so taking a long time to tread in and around the ShinRa corporation always felt like a necessary slog, rather than an integral part of the experience.
But Crisis Core is a game I have fond memories of, and for one specific reason: it manages to do combat very well, and the story is at least inoffensive enough to simply play a background note to everything else. By featuring Zack as the main character in Crisis Core, Square Enix managed to provide fans with a bit more backstory to the game which inspired it, while newcomers didn’t need to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of what came before – which is just as well, because most of the other FFVII spinoffs are a bit rubbish: Dirge of Cerberus, anyone?
Between the relatively quick combat, the interesting slot machine limit break system, and the surprisingly pretty aesthetic and atmosphere to soak in, Crisis Core is an excellent game – even if it will make you sick of seeing Sephiroth.
Format: PS One
Dale: Vagrant Story was never actually officially recognized or marketed as a Final Fantasy game, but make no mistake – Yasumi Matsuno’s creation is as much a part of the series as the core games.
That’s due to its setting, the world of Ivalice – which it shares with Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII (as well as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings), making it the only setting in the franchise to appear in multiple unrelated games. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that Vagrant Story was part of the series proper without paying close attention to its background – there are no Chocobos, no character named Cid, no airships or summons. Instead, Vagrant Story tells a very personal story and limits itself to a single location: the ruined city of Leá Monde.
Vagrant Story is also a rather experimental game. Rather than featuring traditional RPG design, instead the game is focuses almost completely on strategic combat. Hell, you don’t even interact with other characters throughout the story. Instead it’s just the player, protagonist Ashley Riot, and a series of increasingly tough opponents against which to test your mettle (and metal).
Vagrant Story deserves recognition for its technical accomplishments just as much as it does for its engrossing, and atypical, gameplay. Sure, the turn-based battles – which let you target individual limbs of opponents, resulting in different effects – were engrossing and compelling; but Vagrant Story was also one of the most technically accomplished games on the first PlayStation, featuring a fully-3d gameworld, high-poly character models (for the time) and graphical effects such as transparencies and advanced lighting techniques. So impressive is it from a technical perspective that it still holds up well today, particularly when downloaded from PSN and played on the PlayStation Vita, where the small screen manages to offset the lower resolution to a decent degree.
Vagrant Story received critical acclaim at the time of its release, but never quite managed to achieve the success that it deserved – perhaps due to its steep difficulty and complex mechanics, which proved too much for some players. Despite standing quite comfortably on its own as an excellent game, perhaps the game would have fared better if Square had made more of its ties to Final Fantasy, and perhaps it would have gone on to benefit from a few sequels and the technical grunt of later consoles. As it is though, Vagrant Story is a gem of a game, and more than deserving of its place on this list.
Legend of Mana
Taylor: Although not technically a part of the Final Fantasy series, the Mana series – known as Seiken Densetsu in its native Japan – got its start as Final Fantasy Adventure, and would not have been followed by the massively popular Secret of Mana without having first had its roots in being a Final Fantasy spin-off.
See? We’re educational, too!
That aside, Legend of Mana is probably the first game I was ever proud of having found, purchased, and played through entirely by myself. No magazine, no review, no advertisement. Everything about Legend of Mana was a complete bumble, and yet it is to date in my top five favorite games of all time. With a completely customizable world map, action-based combat, and near total freedom to complete the game through several different narrative tracks (and in any order), Legend of Mana hit all the right buttons for my hopes for an RPG. Solid story, variable gameplay, beautiful art, and an excellent soundtrack.
More than just its trappings, though, Legend of Mana is something of an ideal marriage of modern and classical RPG aesthetics and design. The sprites are high res, but still sprites. The hand-drawn backgrounds have a beautiful, vibrant, classical quality to them before 3D, polygonal or stark, dark, and gritty aesthetic design took a stronger foothold. Active, real-time combat that is still slightly down-paced. I encourage everyone to give Legend of Mana a try. Although it is a polarizing game, and certainly a black sheep in the Seiken Densetsu series, it’s well worth the time all the same.
Format: PlayStation 2
Dale: Taking Final Fantasy characters and sticking them in an action-RPG alongside the likes of Goofy and Mickey Mouse really shouldn’t work. On paper, it sounds ridiculous – the kind of thing that normally resides purely in fan-fiction. So the fact that Kingdom Hearts not only works, but works actually rather well, makes it something of a freak phenomenon.
In fact, Kingdom Hearts works so well that its popularity almost eclipses both Final Fantasy and Disney’s characters, and has spawned endless amounts of merchandise, multiple titles across a number of different platforms, and for years the absence of a third mainline game in the series drew constant complaints from devoted fans.
But just why did Kingdom Hearts prove so popular? The gameplay is fairly traditional; its lore started off as a bit daft, before becoming so complex as to be all but unfathomable to newcomers without the aid of a Wiki; and… well, it has Mickey Mouse and Sephiroth sharing screentime.
But perhaps that’s exactly the point – by mashing together two beloved and seemingly incompatible franchises, Square Enix managed to beat all the odds and deliver something which felt both familiar and fresh, and giving fans of both the House of Mouse and the venerable RPG series something which they didn’t even realize they knew they wanted – the chance to see their favorite characters from two different companies interacting with each other in videogame.
Of course, it helps that both Disney and Square Enix have such a rich legacy to draw from. Gamers grew up watching Aladdin, The Lion King, and then watching Cloud and Sephiroth go head-to-head in Final Fantasy VII. In its own way, Final Fantasy is as much a part of popular culture – albeit a much more recent part – as Disney’s stable of characters. Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just tickle the pleasure centers associated with one franchise – it manages to do so with two, at exactly the same time. That’s not bad for a series originally inspired by Mario 64 and which only exists due to a chance meeting in an elevator with a Disney executive.
Kingdom Hearts proves two things: first, it shows that Square Enix, while often accused of being overly traditional and risk-averse when it comes to handling its properties, is in fact capable of remarkable imagination. And second, it proves that even without being a mainline Final Fantasy game, the spinoffs are more than capable of attracting a devoted audience all their own.