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Where You Should Start in Final Fantasy on its 30th Anniversary

Want to get into Final Fantasy? We list entry points for beginning, intermediate, and experienced fans of the series.

Feature by Kat Bailey, .

[This is an updated version of a guide we published in 2014. We've cleaned it up for the Final Fantasy series' 30th anniversary!]

Final Fantasy is not that easy to get into. I've been playing for so long now that I forget that sometimes. But watching Jaz slowly work through Final Fantasy Tactics (sorry, Jaz) has reminded me that not everyone has spent 500 hours breeding chocobos in Final Fantasy VII.

For newcomers, Final Fantasy can come off as an almost bewildering web of numbered releases, sequels, and spinoffs. Most will be naturally inclined to start with the original Final Fantasy, but each entry is self-contained and largely unrelated to the next. A couple aren't regular RPGs at all, but full-on MMORPGs.

In that light, I feel like it would be helpful to offer newcomers an idea of where to start. I'll dispense with the introduction to the universe, the themes, and the characters (that's an article by itself). If you want to get into Final Fantay, here's what you should be playing.

"Warriors! Revive the Power of the Orbs!" (Beginner)

I've actually gone back and forth on this one. But after much consideration, I feel like Final Fantasy X HD is the best entry point for the series at large. As with everything related to Final Fantasy, it's sure to be a contentious choice. I'm betting plenty of people will suggest Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI, or Final Fantasy VII. But I'm sticking with Final Fantasy X, and here's why.

As RPGs go, Final Fantasy X is simple and relatively straightforward. It's a game that takes you firmly by the hand, rarely allowing you to slip off and become lost. The Sphere Grid, which consists of planting an orb in a slot, looks big and intimidating but is actually quite linear. The battle system is likewise quite easy to grasp, its only real quirk being that you can switch characters in and out at will. It brings you along slowly, taking the time to ensure that you have a firm grasp of its mechanics before moving on.

With those elements and its relatively balanced difficulty—Final Fantasy X is really as hard or as easy as you want it to be—it's kind of the perfect choice for beginners. And did I mention that it's really pretty? I would argue that the HD remaster looks even better than Final Fantasy XIII, if only because of the superior art design.

I'll grant that Final Fantasy X has its flaws. The pace can be a bit slow, and some people are likely to find the protagonist Tidus—an athlete with daddy issues—to be childish and annoying. But Final Fantasy X's ensemble cast is likable enough, and the story is laudable for its scope. Final Fantasy X was made at the tail end of Square's peak, when Final Fantasy was one of the three or four most important franchises in gaming, and it shows in its production values and its ambition.

Final Fantasy X isn't my favorite, but of all the games in the series, I think it's the easiest for the modern gamer to get into. Start with this one.

Final Fantasy XV is also worth trying if you're a newcomer to the series. The first half of the game is an open-world roadtrip (a mechanic that feels very familiar in many games today), and even though the game's four protagonists are a chatty bunch, they're fun to spend time with on the open road. The action-based battle system is also pretty exciting, and it's not too difficult to get a handle on. You shouldn't find yourself stymied by any major difficulty imbalances, either.

The game's story is admittedly a little weird, but even a Final Fantasy beginner should realize every Final Fantasy story is at least a little bit bizarre.

"You Sound Like Lines From a Self-help Book!" (Intermediate)

A lot of people would argue that Final Fantasy IV is the best entry point for the series. I would agree... to a point. Final Fantasy IV is a great RPG; but unfortunately, 16-bit sprites are an acquired taste for some people. It's also harder than you remember. The Four Fiends in particular can be pretty rough for newcomers.

If you really crave that classic Final Fantasy JRPG experience, however, Final Fantasy IV is still an easy recommendation. The original SNES version of the game has a poor translation and was re-balanced to make it easier for North American audiences, so you might want to download Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection off the PlayStation Store and play it on your PSP or PS Vita. There's also a Game Boy Advance version of the game, but it's a bit hard to come by.

Whatever you do, don't play the Nintendo DS version of the game (it's also on iOS and Android) before you try the original. Final Fantasy IV DS is a bit brutal, difficulty-wise. It's tailored to challenge hardcore fans, so it's best enjoyed as a supplementary experience.

Final Fantasy IV is definitely worth playing. It looks pretty dated, and the story is to JRPGs what Commando is to action films (entertaining but cliché as hell), but it can still cook when it wants to. And with virtually no customization to speak of—all of the characters come with preset jobs—Final Fantasy IV moves at a considerably snappier pace than most JRPGs. If you're comfortable with the mechanics, then this game fairly breezes by.

At the other end of the spectrum is Final Fantasy VI, which is a ponderous but epic story about the end of the world. Many fans would tell you that this is the best game in the series. I happen to agree with them. Final Fantasy VI's simple sprites belie a complex story and a strong (if occasionally easy to abuse) battle system. It's also home to the franchise's best villain—Kefka—who is essentially the Joker, but with the power to destroy the world.

One reason I don't recommend Final Fantasy VI as a "gateway" game is that, like Final Fantasy IV, it's kind of hard to find a good version of it. The iOS version is fine only if you're willing to put up with the atrocious sprite art (a problem that plagues the port of Final Fantasy V as well). The GBA version has a superior localization to the original SNES release, but it suffers from inferior music. Don't get me started on the PlayStation port and its load times. Honestly, the best way to play Final Fantasy VI is to get it on the Virtual Console.

I have no trouble recommending Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI to more adventurous RPG fans though. If you're willing to dig up one of the better ports, and you don't mind the lack of bells and whistles, then you're in for a real treat."

"Let's Mosey" (Advanced)

These are the games that I would recommend to people who have experienced some of the more popular Final Fantasy games and are hungry for something more in-depth. I would term entries under this header cult favorites—the games that get a lot of love from critics and hardcore fans but can be a bit of an acquired taste.

I'll start with possibly the most controversial entry of them all—Final Fantasy XII, which is championed by our own Jeremy Parish. Released on the PlayStation 2 back in 2006, Final Fantasy XII was a tough sell for many owing to its odd battle system and dark fantasy trappings. More mature than other games in the series, it largely eschewed the anime look for something more in keeping with the western fantasy tradition. Some loved it, and some hated it.

I put myself more in the middle category. I'm not a particularly big fan of the battle system, which is reminiscent of an MMORPG in that it has real-time combat, but isn't quite an action game. But I can't argue with the incredible freedom offered by Final Fantasy XII, nor can I argue with its beauty. As I said, it's kind of an acquired taste, but it's absolutely worth finding a used copy on the PlayStation 2. Or, better still, get the updated Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age on the PlayStation 4. The new License Board makes Final Fantasy XII considerably easier to understand and play.

Final Fantasy V also boasts a hardcore cult audience. Arguably the hardest game in the series, Final Fantasy V demands a certain degree of dedication from its audience. I've tried and failed to finish it on multiple occasions over the years, but I'll get around to it eventually. I almost feel like I'll have to turn in my hardcore RPG fan credentials if I don't.

The thing you have to understand about Final Fantasy V is that while it looks a lot like Final Fantasy IV, it is essentially its opposite. Final Fantasy IV is light on the customization and heavy on the story, where Final Fantasy V is all about its Job System, which is based on mixing and matching classes for optimal damage. For min-maxing stat nerds, Final Fantasy V is pretty much the best game this side of Final Fantasy Tactics.

Rounding out the selection of cult games is Final Fantasy IX, which has the distinction of being creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's swan song with the series. Final Fantasy IX could almost be considered a finale of sorts, as well as a fond look back on everything that had come before. There's a sense of closure to Final Fantasy IX that you won't find in other games in the series. It also happens to be the funniest and best-written of them.

Obviously, a great deal of the enjoyment to be found from Final Fantasy IX is derived from nostalgia, so it's not much of a gateway game. But there's a lot to love about Final Fantasy IX irrespective of one's experience with the series. Vivi, the Black Mage in the throes of an existential crisis, is one of gaming's most memorable characters. And its distinct art and light touch make it one of the purer distillations of the elements that define old-school Final Fantasy. I'm not of the opinion that it's the best in the series—the desperately slow battle system kind of precludes that—but I do admire the love put into its development. It's easy to see why Final Fantasy IX is Sakaguchi's favorite in the series.

If this is the Final Fantasy game you're determined to start with, opt for the Steam or PlayStation 4 version of the game. It looks great, plus there are a few handy features you'll be glad to have. The fast-forward button makes combat much more bearable.

Where's Final Fantasy VII?

I can already see the angry comments now. After all these years, Final Fantasy VII is still the most popular game in the series. Hell, it's one of the most popular games ever. I know it really resonated with me the first time that I played it. But that was also back in 1999. Times have changed since then.

The reality for the majority of PlayStation games is that they haven't aged very well. Many of them were built around the novelty of cutscenes, and Final Fantasy VII is certainly no exception. Even now, it's hard not to get swept up in the sweeping score and the grand summon cutscenes (Sephiroth's Super Nova attack may even be the best cutscene ever—no joke).

But would I recommend it to someone new to the series? Probably not. It's not a bad RPG by any stretch of the imagination, but it's tough to get past the blocky character models, and the story is borderline nonsensical without the aid of the supplementary material. For the record, this is why I'm glad the Final Fantasy VII remake is coming. It won't match the expectations borne of years of waiting, but it will be nice to experience Final Fantasy VII without the kewpie dolls.

Like Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VII also received a modern update for PC and PlayStation 4. Again, if you still want to jump into Final Fantasy with VII, nab it off Steam or the PlayStation Store.

The Spinoffs

As with the numbered games, the massive number of spinoffs can be a bit overwhelming at times. These are the games that I would recommend checking out.

You've probably heard of Final Fantasy Tactics; but if you haven't, may I suggest that you check out our Game Club? We've been playing it for the better part of a month now, and we've all been enjoying it quite a bit. One of the progenitors of the strategy RPG, its world also serves as a basis for Final Fantasy XII. We go into quite a bit more depth in our discussion; but suffice to say, it's really good.

I also count myself a fan of Theathrythm Final Fantasy, which is a celebration of the franchise's rich musical heritage from its earliest days up until the present. Though not especially deep as rhythm games go, it's a lovely little tribute to the series and its music, and its hard not to get drawn into classic tracks like "Battle on the Big Bridge." It probably helps to have a grounding in the series before you play it, but I don't think it's essential. Good music is good music.

Finally, there's Bravely Default, which is as close as you can get to being an 8-bit Final Fantasy remake without actually being part of the series. If you find that you really enjoy the older entries, then this is the game to get.

Crystallizing Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy has certainly had its missteps of late. Critics and fans love to hate on Final Fantasy XIII, and there has been more than one "Is Final Fantasy Dead?" article over the past year. To say that its controversial is putting it mildly. Really mildly.

But there's a reason that Final Fantasy inspires so much passion in both its fans and its critics. Final Fantasy was a formative experience for many western RPG fans back in the early 90s, and Final Fantasy VII was the game that arguably put the PlayStation on the map. Its roots run deep; and if people criticize it now, it's partly out of frustration because the original games were so good.

That, ultimately, is what makes it worth playing today. No matter your feelings on the later entries, there's no denying that Final Fantasy is as an indelible part of the medium as Super Mario Bros. or Halo. Even now, it's a series that anyone with an appreciation for gaming history should play. And hey, they're still pretty fun, too. I can't think of a better reason to pick up a series that continues to inspire so much passion after all these years.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #1 Tetragrammaton 4 months ago
    Y'know, I think I...agree with this? Wow. Gotta go with the crowd that prefers 4 to 6, but that's purely a personal preference. FF4 is a shockingly subtle game for something made for consoles in the early 90s, while FF6 is as subtle as a brick to the face. It's my favorite brick though, and I'll happily call 6 the best Final Fantasy game, but 4 is my favorite.

    I'd also plug the Dawn of Souls version of Final Fantasy 1, but your list is long enough to keep people busy for a year already.
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  • Avatar for donkeyintheforest #2 donkeyintheforest 4 months ago
    Pretty great intro to FF article! I feel like the spin-offs could fill another full article (crisis core ftw haha)!

    Also, I'd also note:

    If you like the look of an FF, might as well just jump in! They all have their good parts, and there are guides galore I'm sure if you're concerned about that kinda thing.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #3 riderkicker 4 months ago
    Great article, I nitpicked a bit but overall I concur wholeheartedly. I played all of the SNES Final Fantasys and only grew up with them in the past 13 years, all are on GBA and I did buy two of them. FF4 is my least favorite due to the inflexibility of the game systems, but very story driven and the most Dragon Quest-like.

    I beat two out of three of the PS1 games, and maxed out everything in 7 and 8. Waste of my time, and prefer 8 over 7, but will not play either again.

    I should just beat FFX already, I heard the last boss is really easy. FFXII came out when I was in college, but I was into Persona so I didn't have time to play it.

    If you're gonna play a Tactics game, stick with the GBA game, it's condensed and quick.
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  • Avatar for AstroDemon #4 AstroDemon 4 months ago
    I agree with Jeremy Parish, FFXII is the best one, and might be the game I recommend. It really depends on the person. If that person is okay with retro, then FFIV or FFVII. If that person wants to be dazzled, then FFXV. I don't think I could recommend FFX though (even though I enjoyed it). I think the character models are bad by today's standards, and the voice acting is mostly horrible. FF choice really depends on the person, I guess. Without knowing this, the newest entry would probably be my recommendation in the end, and after that FFXII, or maybe FFXIII (I'm not afraid to say that I really enjoyed XIII.)
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #5 TheWildCard 4 months ago
    Yeah but Final Fantasy X sucks. :p

    I usually recommend VI or IX. Yeah the ios version is bad and not everyone can get on board PS1 era graphics, but if someone isn't going to like those games I can't imagine they are going to like other entries.
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #6 Captain-Gonru 4 months ago
    Should I be surprised that the Crystal Chronicles subseries didn't even get a mention? Granted, the quality of the games varies wildly, almost as wildly as the genres that the games themselves span.
    But it still seems odd to bring up Bravely Default (a fine game in its own right, mind you), and skip the actual other FF spinoffs.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #7 MetManMas 4 months ago
    I still think Final Fantasy VII looks pretty damn great for 1997 (if nothing else its backgrounds and in-battle models still look pretty awesome and kicked the asses of non-Square imitators), but I definitely agree that it'd probably be hard for anyone who didn't play games/wasn't alive in the 90s to get past the visuals.

    Speaking of Final Fantasy-ish RPGs, it's a shame that Chrono Cross hasn't gotten the remaster treatment yet. I know it's not exactly beloved as a Chrono Trigger sequel (Let's kill off all your favorites!), and the story falls flat in some ways, but it was still a pretty great RPG in its own right. In many ways, I consider it the Final Fantasy VII follow-up I really wanted. Not to mention the game can seriously rival FF10 in the tropical style department. Art direction is everything.

    Oh, and,uh, the experience curb is also balanced so you're never too strong or too weak for an area on your first playthrough. And you can run away from practically everything. Those are big pluses.

    Bravely Default didn't do much for me personally, but that's mainly because a big thing I love about RPGs (especially the PSone era, which BD wears the skin of) is exploring tons of cool places, and that's a big place where the game doesn't deliver. The towns are little more than postcards, the dungeons are a boring pile of corridors, and your party actively resists your attempts to go any places you have no quest-related reason to visit yet.

    A strong cast could've saved the game for me, but honestly I didn't love or love to hate them all that much.Edited December 2017 by MetManMas
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  • Avatar for chiptoon #8 chiptoon 4 months ago
    I'm beginning to think I don't like Final Fantasy. While I still need to try 15, of the Final Fantasies that I have played the only one I finished (and LOVED) was Crystal Bearers, which doesn't ever even get mentioned in articles like this.
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  • Avatar for DrinkingWithSkeleton #9 DrinkingWithSkeleton 4 months ago
    I would say that FFXII is a good starting point for anyone already familiar with Western CRPGs (like Baldur's Gate or KOTOR) who is interested in exploring more JRPGs. The battle system isn't too dissimilar to what you'd find in one of those games, and the writing leans a little more closely to Western norms than many other entries in the series.

    And I'd say that FFIX is a great starting point for anyone who is especially interested in likeable characters. The battle pace is a little pokey, yes, and it's a touch more difficult than some other options, but for players who are motivated primarily by characters I'm not sure there's a better entry in the series.
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  • Avatar for moochan #10 moochan 4 months ago
    Think this is the best way to handle Final Fantasy. Feel FF1 for PSX (which I feel is the best version to play because of all the weird changes they made GBA onward) is a really good game too. Feel lots of people overlook it because it was the first and you should only play it with that mindset. But I feel overall it's still one of the best in the series in a lot of ways. Picking your class can lead to interesting outcomes. It's not completely hard (PSX version did a nice job balancing things out plus a normal and easy difficulty option) and it still have that fun feeling of exploring a big world. Story is dumb and nonsensical but so was pretty much every NES game.
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  • Avatar for Number1Laing #11 Number1Laing 4 months ago
    I agree on FFX - it's held up considerably better than one could have thought and it's really good. Perfect game for Vita as well (i'd love a Switch port). Blitzball is pretty terrible but I give Square credit for trying.

    I think FFXII is the best one to recommend for new players, honestly. It has the most Western-style mechanics and I think it's the easiest one for people who have never touched a FF but have played PC RPGs like KOTOR, WoW, Mass Effect, etc.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #12 pdubb 4 months ago
    I really enjoy FFX and I get where you are coming from, but there are some absolutely brutal boss fights that I think would turn off a new player.

    I don't know if you could really make the case for any other modern FF though if someone isn't thrilled about 16 bit sprites.

    So I guess my recommendation would be to give the game to someone and before they can move an inch, tell them that there are some really really hard boss battles mid to late game, and that it's okay (and almost expected) of them to use Game Faqs
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #13 odaiba-memorial 4 months ago
    @Tetragrammaton That's honestly an opinion on IV and VI I've never heard before. In fact, I've always thought the opposite -- IV's story and character interactions always seemed quite cheesy and melodramatic to me (the only truly complex and subtle one of the lot was Kain), whereas VI has a lot of understated melancholy to it that can fly right over your head the first couple of times -- I still meet people to this day who never realized Shadow was Relm's father even after multiple playthroughs.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #14 Tetragrammaton 3 months ago
    @odaiba-memorial oh, I guess that makes sense. I'm talking about how Cecil and Rosa totally have sex right before he leaves to deliver the package, and the game never makes a big deal about it. 6 really slaps you in the face with Shadow, for comparison.
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  • Avatar for odaiba-memorial #15 odaiba-memorial 3 months ago
    @Tetragrammaton I always thought it was really obvious that Cecil and Rosa were making hanky-panky on the regular. I never caught on to Shadow until it was pointed out to me, and I started putting two and two together.
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