The Final Fantasy series is one of the Great Ancients of the RPG genre. There are a lot of games, and more confusingly, even a single Final Fantasy game can have several versions.
It's no wonder Final Fantasy is the subject of one of gaming's most well-worn jokes ("Why's the series called Final Fantasy if it has so many games?"). Trying to wade through the deluge isn't funny, though. Retro Final Fantasy games are particularly confusing: A single NES or SNES title can have four or five remakes behind it.
This guide exists to help make your Final Fantasy experience easier and more comfortable. Even series veterans who want to go back to the beginning can benefit from knowing which revisions and remakes best capture the spirit of the original games while doing away with bugs, mistranslations, and tedious mechanics.
Note that this guide covers the mainline Final Fantasy games only, and it's focused around the single-player games. "Should you play Final Fantasy XIV on a PC or console?" is a big discussion by itself.
You should get: Final Fantasy Origins (PlayStation / PSOne Classic)
Also consider: Final Fantasy 1 & 2: Dawn of Souls (GBA) / Final Fantasy (PSP / Mobile)
If you're on a great big quest to catch up on the Final Fantasy games, your range of options for the very first title is huge. Daunting, even. The initial NES release is certainly historic (and also easily accessible thanks to the Virtual Console and the NES Classic), but it's buggy and a bit hard to grok thanks to a sub-par translation.
If you want to start at the start, grab Final Fantasy Origins. This PlayStation collection gathers up Final Fantasy I and II, fixes its considerable bugs, gives its translation a good once-over, and adds innumerable improvements to its graphics and sound. It also retains the original game's unique "charge"-based magic system, whereas Dawn of Souls (which is also excellent) adopts the more modern MP-based system. Finally, Final Fantasy Origins' presence on the PlayStation Network makes it very easy to snap up.
The PSP / mobile iteration of Final Fantasy is also worth a look. It features bonus dungeons that aren't in Origins, plus its redrawn sprites are awesome. Tiamat looks epic in high-resolution.
Final Fantasy II
You should get: Final Fantasy II (PSP / Mobile)
Also consider: Final Fantasy Origins (PlayStation / PSOne Classic), Final Fantasy 1 & 2: Dawn of Souls (GBA)
Final Fantasy II is infamous for its weird and tedious levelling-up method, but it's also the first Final Fantasy that tells an epic story (or just lifts the plot of Star Wars and calls it a day). Maybe you'll like it. Maybe you'll hate it. Give it a go, and see for yourself. If you're committed, try the HD remake for PSP and mobile: It features redrawn sprites, remixed music, extra dungeons, and a few tweaks that make the gameplay a bit more malleable.
If you've already grabbed Final Fantasy Origins and / or Dawn of Souls, you may as well drive into the included copy of Final Fantasy II. If you enjoy what's there, it's worth investing in the PSP / mobile iteration of Final Fantasy II. If you despise the game off the bat, however, even the extra spit-and-polish applied to the PSP / mobile version won't change your mind.
Final Fantasy III
You should get: Final Fantasy III (Nintendo DS / PC / Mobile / Steam / PlayStation Store)
Also consider: ???
Final Fantasy III is a weird bird. The original 2D sprite-based version of this classic Famicom RPG just doesn't exist in North America—well, not legally, cough cough. The 3D remake Square-Enix put on the Nintendo DS in 2006 is fine (it's on mobile, PC, and the PSP and PS Vita by way of the PlayStation Store, too), but if you're looking for a sanctioned authentic experience, you're out of luck.
Final Fantasy IV
You should get: Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection (PSP / PlayStation Store)
Also consider: Final Fantasy IV Advance (GBA), Final Fantasy IV DS (Nintendo DS / Mobile / PC)
Beware: The 3D version of Final Fantasy IV on the Nintendo DS, mobile, and PC is a very different experience from every other iteration of the classic SNES RPG. If you're new to Final Fantasy IV, you're going to want to start with one of the 2D versions of the game.
Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection for the PSP is a fine package, and you can grab it without fuss or muss from the PlayStation Store. The collection includes nicely redrawn HD sprites, a remixed soundtrack (you can switch out to the original SNES soundtrack if you like), the bonus dungeons introduced in Final Fantasy IV Advance, the much-improved translation from Final Fantasy IV Advance, and (sigh) Final Fantasy IV's direct sequel, The After Years.
The After Years and the short prologue that precedes it are optional, and frankly, they're not very good. They're only recommended for hopeless Final Fantasy IV nerds who write extensive fanfiction about the game's cast, e.g. idiots named Nadia. Still, just having the option to play or ignore The After Years as you see fit is nice.
If you enjoy 2D Final Fantasy IV, consider the 3D remake of the game for the Nintendo DS / mobile / PC. It's engineered to give veterans a much greater challenge, plus it adds additional story content and (hammy) voice acting.
Final Fantasy V
You should get: Final Fantasy V Advance (GBA)
Also consider: Final Fantasy V (Mobile / PC)
Final Fantasy V was something of a Holy Grail for Final Fantasy fans through the '90s (it eventually wound up on our Top 25 RPGs list). We knew it existed, but it felt so very far away. When we did get an official translation on the PlayStation in 1999, its load times and shoddy translation (RIP "Y Burn" the wyvern) made us retreat to the far superior fan translation.
All our waiting paid off in 2006, when Final Fantasy V Advance hit the GBA. It offers a great new script and new features, including four brand-new job classes. Unfortunately, the cart's a little hard to track down, and there aren't any official digital options for the game. You might have to hold your nose and go for the mobile / PC version of Final Fantasy V, which is essentially the Advance version of the game, but with awful "HD sprites" that look like a coat of Vaseline was applied to some second-rate RPG Maker sprites.
Looks aren't everything, though. Final Fantasy V for mobile and PC still plays well.
Final Fantasy VI
You should get: Final Fantasy III (SNES / Virtual Console / SNES Classic)
Also consider: Final Fantasy VI Advance (GBA), Final Fantasy VI (Mobile / PC)
Square-Enix has not done right by poor Final Fantasy VI. Despite being the best Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy VI hasn't received the Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection treatment it richly deserves.
The original SNES release is easy enough to nab off the Virtual Console or the PlayStation Store (via its digital release in the PlayStation's Final Fantasy Anthology), but its script feels truncated in parts because its translator, Ted Woolsey, was forced to save cartridge space. Final Fantasy VI Advance restores the script while keeping Woolsey's original charm, but the game's epic soundtrack is mangled by the GBA's rinky-dink soundchip.
The revised script and untouched soundtrack can be found in the mobile / PC version of the game – but that means putting up with the awful Vaseline-sprites that debuted in Final Fantasy V mobile / PC. They come across as even nastier in Final Fantasy VI, a game that pushed the SNES' graphics to its limits.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Try the SNES original and move on from there. Luckily, it's included in the SNES Classic's line-up.
Final Fantasy VII
You should get: Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / Switch / Mobile / PC)
Also consider: Final Fantasy VII (PSOne Classic)
Good old Final Fantasy VII. It's flawed, but it's still a masterpiece (if you need convincing, read Jeremy Parish's excellent Design in Action breakdown of the game). If you haven't played Final Fantasy VII, or you just want to return to its Mako-soaked lands one more time, consider picking up the "enhanced" version of the game that's on most modern game consoles and mobile. You can turn random encounters on and off, which is a blessed option when you're just not in the mood. You can also speed up gameplay at the touch of a button, which is very handy once you secure some of the longer Summons in the game.
Final Fantasy VII's Switch port is especially great because it's a game that lends itself well to handheld play. Unfortunately, it suffers from a music reset glitch that might grate on you. In fact, all the modern ports of Final Fantasy VII have this problem, but at least the PC port lets you download fan mods that fix the issue. Ultimately, picking the "best" version of Final Fantasy VII comes down to personal preference.
Vanilla Final Fantasy VII is still a safe bet, especially when played as a PSOne classic on the PSP or PS Vita. Whether you play on the Switch or a Sony handheld, Final Fantasy VII is comforting to enjoy when you're in bed, in the dark, and sealed off from the world with a good set of headphones. What was it late Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi said about RPG fans craving darkness and loneliness...?
Final Fantasy VIII
You should get: Final Fantasy VIII (PC)
Also consider: Final Fantasy VIII (PSOne Classic)
The "PC" recommendation here refers to the Steam re-release of the game and not the 2000 PC port of the original PlayStation game—unless you've got yourself a Windows 98-equipped Pentium that needs exercise or something.
Like Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation 4, Final Fantasy VIII PC has lots of gameplay options that let you blow through the more tedious aspects of the game if you so desire. Some purists aren't happy these options are even present, but hey, you're a busy person. Isn't it better to experience a classic game with cheats than to avoid it altogether because you don't have time for random encounters and the like? Hm. That's a conundrum worthy of modern philosophers.
In any case, vanilla Final Fantasy VIII is also available as a PSOne Classic download. Yay! Conundrum solved. In any case, your options are limited. Final Fantasy VIII's source code is scattered to the wind, so modern console ports aren't coming any time soon.
Final Fantasy IX
You should get: Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / Switch / PC / Mobile )
Also consider: Final Fantasy IX (PSOne Classic)
No confusion here: Final Fantasy IX never hit the PC until it was made available on Steam in 2016. Like Final Fantasy VIII before it, Final Fantasy IX for PC features optional cheats that can help you breeze through the game if you so desire. It also has upscaled models and FMV cutscenes, though the pre-rendered backgrounds unfortunately haven't received an HD makeover.
The PC port eventually made its way to modern consoles, including the Nintendo Switch. Again, playing this classic RPG on a Switch rules...and, again, it suffers from the music reset bug we see (hear?) in the modern Final Fantasy VII port. Use your discretion.
If none of the newer options catch your fancy, the vanilla version of Final Fantasy IX can be downloaded as a PSOne Classic.
Final Fantasy X
You should get: Final Fantasy X / X-2 Remaster (PlayStation 3 / PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / Switch / PS Vita / PC)
Also consider: Final Fantasy X (PlayStation 2)
Square-Enix brought its (mostly) beloved PlayStation 2 RPG into the HD era with a very decent overhaul for modern consoles—including the Vita! All versions of the Remaster are more or less the same, and all contain new content. A remastered version of Final Fantasy X's direct sequel, X-2, is included with the package, so this tenth anniversary collection isn't exactly a hard sell.
If you're determined to go retro, however, copies of the original PlayStation 2 version of Final Fantasy X aren't in short supply.
Final Fantasy XII
You should get: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PlayStation 4, Xbox One / Switch / PC)
Also consider: Playing the original Final Fantasy XII for the PlayStation 2, because it's hard to go wrong
Final Fantasy XII for the PlayStation 2 received an HD remaster subtitled The Zodiac Age in July of 2017. It's an excellent retooling of an RPG that was hardly a slouch when it first hit the market in 2006. While Final Fantasy XII's revised job system makes the game a little easier to digest for first-timers, Final Fantasy XII is just an epic experience all-around. Its MMORPG-inspired roots are undeniable, but that's not a bad thing: Even though it's a single-player experience, Final Fantasy XII captures that sweeping, epic feel a good MMORPG provides at its best. Also, there's no such thing as a bad time when you're in the company of Balthier.
If you have a good PC, you might want to download the Windows version of Zodiac Age. It offers 60 FPS visuals, three soundtrack options, and lots more additions.
Final Fantasy XIII
You should get: Final Fantasy XIII on the PlayStation 3
Also consider: Final Fantasy XIII on the PC
Our cousins over at Eurogamer did an in-depth comparison of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 releases of Final Fantasy XIII. The PlayStation 3 version of the game is higher-res than the Xbox 360 version, though the latter still looks good. If you live and die by game resolutions and you don't have a PlayStation 3, go ahead and grab the PC version of Final Fantasy XIII. It had a rough start, but patches have brought it up to snuff.
Final Fantasy XV
You should get: Final Fantasy XV Windows Edition (If your PC can handle it)
Also consider: Final Fantasy XV (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
Square-Enix's Beautiful Boy Adventure looks and plays well on both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. There are minor problems unique to each version of the game, e.g. PlayStation 4 not rendering a certain area quite as well as the Xbox One, and vice-versa. If you're interested in the nitty-gritty, Digital Foundry dives deep into these varying performance issues.
While Square-Enix hoped that Final Fantasy XV would be playable at a steady 60 FPS on the PlayStation 4 Pro, that's not yet the case. Again, Digital Foundry has an extensive breakdown of how the game performs on Sony's upgraded console.
If you want to play Final Fantasy XV at its peak graphical performance, you're going to want Final Fantasy XV: Windows Edition. It looks incredible, it moves at a steady 60 FPS, and there's a significant supply of weird-ass skin downloads for you to jump into. You need to have a solid rig if you want to take full advantage of Windows Edition's eye candy, though. Keep that in mind.