What In The World Is Final Fantasy? A Beginner's Guide To The Biggest RPG Series On The PlanetS

Maybe you've heard of Final Fantasy. Maybe you're familiar with some of the basics: shiny crystals, giant swords, dead Aerises. Angry teens.

But you might not know much more about Square Enix's massive set of role-playing games. They can be intimidating to newcomers, chock full of strange gameplay systems and confusing nomenclature. How can you tell them apart? Where do you even begin?

Don't worry. That's what we're here for. Here's your beginner's guide to all things Final Fantasy.

So what is Final Fantasy?

A giant, hotcake-selling brand that has been attached to quite a few games over the past few decades. Some of them are great. Others are less great. But they all share certain common traits.

Like what?

They usually place you in the war-ravaged shoes of a hero or cast of heroes who has to fight against all odds to defeat some sort of powerful enemy. There are usually large, sprawling worlds packed with interesting settings and lovely music. You can almost always collect items and weapons, customize your characters' skills, and play through minigames and sidequests as you gradually work your way toward a nasty final boss.

What's with the "usually" and "almost always"?

Well, there are exceptions. Square Enix has slapped the Final Fantasy name on quite a few different games over the years: there are now Final Fantasy racing games, fighting games, and even a musical rhythm game. So it's hard to sum them all up nicely.

Back up. Can we start from the beginning?

Sure. The world was first introduced to Final Fantasy in 1987, when a scrappy company named SquareSoft put together a Dragon Quest ripoff full of dwarves, elves, robots, volcanoes, and underwater temples. As the legend goes, creator Hironobu Sakaguchi called it "Final Fantasy" because it was based on Tolkienesque fantasy novels and because he expected it to be the last game he ever made—unless it did well.

It did well.

What's the game like?

There are two main components: field sections and battle sections. On the field, you move your characters around towns, dungeons, and a large "world map" that strings them all together. While moving around, you can go to shops to buy items and weapons, talk to townspeople, and collect treasure. You'll also get into random encounters with invisible enemies, who will suddenly make the world flash and transport you to a separate battle screen.

To take down those enemies, you give each of your four characters orders like "attack," "magic," or "use items." Your team and the enemy team swap turns attacking, healing, and defending. Whichever team loses all of its collective health points first is the loser. If that's you, you'll have to start again from the last place you saved your game.

Does this actually require any skill?

Arguable. In Final Fantasy, the real challenge is resource management. Do you really want to waste those spell points on this battle? There's a boss coming up. Can you really afford to spend another potion? Is it time to exit the dungeon, restock, and try again? There are a lot of tricky decisions involved.

So the other Final Fantasy games are like this too?

Yeah! Many of the mechanics and strategies change from game to game, but the other main Final Fantasy games are, for the most part, also comprised of field and battle sections. Most Japanese role-playing games have followed this formula in some way.

Okay. So what happened after Final Fantasy?

Here's where things get a little confusing. Square developed two sequels to Final FantasyFinal Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III—but decided not to release them in the United States.

Hold on. Weren't Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo?

Yes. But those were actually Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, both renamed for U.S. audiences so we wouldn't be confused about the ones we missed.

I'm confused.

Guess Square's plan didn't work. Here's a quick breakdown:

Final Fantasy - 1987, Nintendo (U.S. and Japan)
Final Fantasy II - 1988, Nintendo (Japan only)
Final Fantasy III - 1990, Nintendo (Japan only)
Final Fantasy IV - 1991, Super Nintendo (released in U.S. as Final Fantasy II)
Final Fantasy V - 1992, Super Nintendo (Japan only)
Final Fantasy VI - 1994, Super Nintendo (released in U.S. as Final Fantasy III)

Jeez. What a mess.

Yep. Fortunately, Square has released English versions of all of those games. They also corrected the numbering for U.S. ports and re-releases. (Square loves ports and re-releases. It's a terrible addiction. They say they can quit whenever they want, but they're lying.)

So next was Final Fantasy VII, right? Is that the one with Sephiroth?

Mommy issues and all. With a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign, eye-popping computer-generated imagery and the promise of poignant, heartrending narrative, Final Fantasy VII took the world by storm when it was released for PlayStation in 1997. It is perhaps best known as the game where Aeris dies.

Wow. Thanks for the spoilers.

Shush. Aeris's death isn't a spoiler. It's a genuine tragedy.

That's kind of weird. You're kind of weird.

Let's move on.

So why does everyone worship Final Fantasy VII?

Lots of reasons! For a lot of today's 20- and 30-somethings, it came out just in time to shepherd us through adolescence. We watched Cloud and Tifa grow up as we were growing up. We sympathized with their mistakes and wished we could be as strong as they were.

But it was also an excellent game (even if it hasn't aged quite perfectly). It took you on a wonderful adventure through all sorts of cool places, from the gritty, dystopian city of Midgar to the carnival-esque Golden Saucer to the icy hills of the Promised Land. It allowed you to customize your characters by equipping them with magical orbs called Materia that could manipulate their skills and stats in creative ways. There was just a ridiculous amount of stuff to see and do.

What about the story?

Like many Final Fantasy games, number 7 has a wild, twisty plot. Sometimes it can get confusing, mostly because Square did an awful job translating the text. But it's still an emotionally resonant piece of work that takes you inside the heads of quite a few fascinating people with quite a few fascinating stories to tell.

Okay. I think I'm starting to get the appeal.

It's really good at making you feel like you're on an adventure, a wild chase that takes you through some really exotic settings.

So what came after Final Fantasy VII? Any other masterpieces?

Let's do another quick breakdown:

Final Fantasy VIII - The story of a grumpy teen named Squall and his adventures in military school. (And in prison. And space. And a time-compressed alternate reality.)

Final Fantasy IX - A medieval throwback chock full of wizards, knights, and Shakespearean dialogue.

Final Fantasy X - The one with Tidus. Dark, haunting, and full of water.

Final Fantasy XI - A massively multi-player online game. Fun if you're into that sort of thing.

Final Fantasy XII - A single-player massively multi-player online game. Fun if you're into that sort of thing and you don't like other people.

Final Fantasy XIII - A big hallway.

Final Fantasy XIV - A failed MMORPG that Square plans to totally revamp and release again later this year.

So there are 14 main games? Are they all connected?

Nope. There are some common themes, though. The items always have the same names—basic healing units are called Potions, for example, and reviving items are Phoenix Downs. There's usually a character named Cid. There are usually summon creatures named after mythological creatures like Shiva, Ifrit, and Bahamut. You can pilot flying vehicles called airships and use them to explore the world.

And there are recurring creatures that have become staples of Square's library over the years, like the yellow horse-bird Chocobos and the adorable puffy Moogles.

How many other games are there?

So we mentioned the 14 main installments, but there are also three direct sequels to main installments, and way too many spinoffs to count.

Which is the best?

Ask four Final Fantasy fans this question and you'll get eight different answers. My personal favorite is Final Fantasy VI, but I have strong feelings about almost all of them.

If I've never played a Final Fantasy game before, where should I start?

If you don't mind 16-bit graphics and sprites, pick up Final Fantasy VI on your PlayStation 3 or Wii. (Note that the Wii sells the Super Nintendo version, which is called Final Fantasy III.) It has aged quite well. The characters and cities are still pretty and fun to see, while the story is just as engaging as it was in the mid-90s.

If you want something that looks a bit more modern (and 3D), check out Final Fantasy IX on the PlayStation Network. It's easy to pick up and jump right into.

Are any of the spinoffs worth my time?

Yes! Although it might not be a great fit for genre newbies, Final Fantasy Tactics is a triumphant, addictive strategy game that's good at devouring hundreds of hours of your time.

I'm also quite partial to the DS game Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light.

Okay, Jason, tell me the truth. Why do people love Final Fantasy so much?

The music.

Really?

Well, yeah. Kind of.

The truth is that great Final Fantasy games, like great role-playing games in general, are successful when the whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. Final Fantasy games might not be the best at doing any one thing in particular, but they're wonderful at blending everything. By combining grand music, entertaining characters, lovely settings, and all the other factors we've talked about, they evoke this "I'm on an adventure!" vibe that you won't find many other places. You don't need to play these games because you need to hear their stories or fight their battles; you need to play them because they let you have an experience unlike anything else in the world.

Aw. How cute.

Thanks. They're neat games. You should pick them up. If you're willing to look past some oft-silly dialogue and delve into some unfamiliar battling systems, you'll be well rewarded.

Okay!

Oh, and don't bother with Final Fantasy XIII or its sequel. If you're not already a big fan of the series, they'll just bum you out.

Anything else I should know?

Grinding for levels is unnecessary. Talk to everyone. Be curious. Let yourself fall into the adventure.

Oh, and don't name all of your characters Sephiroth. It's only funny for like ten minutes.