What is Final Fantasy?

This legendary role-playing game franchise is available on multiple platforms

final fantasy
The Final Fantasy series has come a long way. Screenshot / Square Enix

Final Fantasy is a role-playing game (RPG) franchise that features both fantasy and science fiction elements. The franchise spans fifteen main numbered titles, numerous spin-offs and side games, animated and live action television shows, and movies. One of the most well-known spin-offs, Kingdom Hearts, was even developed in cooperation with Disney.

Do You Need to Play Final Fantasy Games in Order?

At first glance, a video game series with over three decades of history might seem like it has too much baggage to dive right into. While it's true that the Final Fantasy franchise does have a ton of history, the fact is that very few of the games actually tie together in terms of actual plots and characters. That means a new player can pick virtually any game in the series, play it, and not miss out on anything.

The Final Fantasy franchise does have a handful of direct sequels, like Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Other games in the franchise are tied together, very loosely, by common themes, mechanics, monsters, creatures and character names. For instance, almost every Final Fantasy game has a character named Cid.

Common Elements, Plots and Themes in Final Fantasy Games

Final Fantasy games are not tied together in terms of story or characters, but they do feature many elements that fans of the series will recognize from one title to the next. For instance, crystals are often presented as mystical objects that are intrinsically tied to the health of the planet and feature prominently in many stories. The crystals are often tied or related to the classical Japanese elements of earth, water, fire and wind, which also forms the core of the magic systems in many Final Fantasy games.

Airships are another common element, and many Final Fantasy games feature them as as a means of transportation or base of operation. The chocobo, a type of giant bird that is ridden like a horse, is another form of transportation seen in many of the games. Other items, like swords named Excalibur and Masamune, show up time and time again.

Classes, or jobs, that define the abilities a character can use in battle are also seen across many different Final Fantasy games. White mages focus on healing and black mages focus on dealing damage, while red mages dabble in both. Dragoons leap into the skies to drop on their foes from above, knights and paladins fight with sword and shield, and so on. Some games feature systems that allow characters to freely switch between jobs, and others are more rigid.

In terms of plot, Final Fantasy games often focus around a small group of unlikely heroes that find themselves fighting a seemingly unstoppable force. In many cases a bait and switch also occurs, and the heroes end up facing a different, and much more powerful antagonist, by the end of the game.

Other common elements featured in many Final Fantasy games include amnesiac characters, characters that sacrifice themselves for their friends or to save the world, apocalyptic events, time travel, and steampunk or magic-based technology.

Gameplay in the Final Fantasy Series

Most of the numbered Final Fantasy games are turn-based role-playing games. The player typically controls a small party of adventurers or heroes in three discrete environments: an overworld map, dungeons and towns, and an abstracted battle environment where fights take place.

When a Final Fantasy game includes an overworld map, the player uses it to move between towns, dungeons, and other locations. Most titles in the series feature random encounters, where enemies can surprise the player at any time when they are moving around on the overworld map or in a dungeon. Towns, and other similar environments, are typically safe, and the player is able to move around and talk to non-player characters (NPCs) to learn more about the story or advance the plot.

Early games in the series featured basic turn-based combat. In these games, the player chooses an action for each member of their party, then the enemies get a chance to attack, and the cycle repeats. This was replaced by the Active Time Battle (ATB) system, where performing an action with a character in battle starts a timer. When the timer runs down, the character is able to act again. These timers run constantly, even when the player is accessing a menu, which adds a sense of urgency to combat.

Other games in the series feature even more active combat, and some, like Final Fantasy XIV, aren't turn-based at all.

Final Fantasy I

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Final Fantasy I started it all with a grand story about four warriors of light and their quest to save the world. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1987 (Japan), 1990 (US)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square, Nintendo
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: Famicom, NES
Also Available On: MSX2, WonderSwan Color, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, PSP, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Nintendo 3DS
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy Origins (PlayStation)

The very first Final Fantasy game introduced a number of staples that survive in the franchise to this day. When the game first opens, the player is able to choose and name four characters from a pool of six total classes: fighter, thief, black belt, red mage, white mage and black mage. These classes are all seen again, in one form or another, in subsequent games.

The characters controlled by the player are known as Warriors of Light, and they set off to fight a villain named Garland. Fans of the series will see these names pop up again and again.

Final Fantasy has very basic turn-based gameplay compared to later entries in the series. Each character takes a turn attacking, using magic, or using an item, and then each enemy gets a turn.

The original Famicom and NES versions use a unique magic system, where each spell has a limited number of uses that cannot be replenished without visiting an inn to rest.

This system was maintained in Final Fantasy Origins on PlayStation, which is why that is our recommended version of the game. The Dawn of Souls version on Game Boy Advance (GBA) is also a great way to experience this piece of gaming history, but it uses a modern system of magic points that makes the game somewhat easier.

Final Fantasy II

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Final Fantasy II iterated on the first game with small improvements, and it was the first to implement a magic point system for casting spells. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1988 (Japan), 2003 (US, as Final Fantasy Origins)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: Famicom
Also Available On: WonderSwan Color, PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, PSP, iOS, Android
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition (PSP)

The second Final Fantasy game is similar in terms of graphics and gameplay to the first. The player's party of characters is no longer presented in a separate box from the enemies, and useful information like hit points (HP) and magic points (MP) are clearly presented in a large box at the bottom of the screen.

The battle system remained strictly turn-based, but it was refined. Magic points were introduced to limit the use of spells, and a back row, where characters were protected from some enemy attacks, was implemented. Both of these features have been seen in subsequent games.

Final Fantasy II also saw the first appearance of a character named Cid. Every subsequent numbered Final Fantasy game has featured a character with that name.

Unlike the first game, the Famicom release in Japan was not followed by a NES release in the United States. In fact, the game wasn't released in the US until a PlayStation version finally hit the shelves in 2003.

The best way to experience the game today is the Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition for PSP, but the version included with Dawn of Souls for GBA is also very good.

Final Fantasy III

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Final Fantasy III was the first in the series to implement a job system. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1990 (Japan), 2006 (US, remake)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player, multiplayer (remake only)
Initial Platform: Famicom
Also Available On: Nintendo DS, iOS, Android, PSP, Windows Phone, Windows
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy III (Nintendo DS, PSP, Mobile, PC)

The third Final Fantasy game saw few graphical improvements, but it was the first game in the series to implement a job system.

Instead of having static classes like the first two games, the heroes in Final Fantasy III can change jobs. This allows the player to customize their party with a great deal of freedom and control. 

Final Fantasy III followed the trend set by Final Fantasy II of never seeing release in the United States in its original form. The game was remade for the Nintendo DS in 2006, and that version was released worldwide. Outside Japan, that is still the best way to experience the game.

Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II in the United States)

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Final Fantasy IV was the first game in the series to introduced the active time battle system. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1991 (Japan, US)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player, multiplayer
Initial Platform: Super Famicom, Super NES
Also Available On: PlayStation, WonderSwan Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, PSP, iOS, Windows
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy IV: The Complete Collection (PSP)

The fourth game in the Final Fantasy series was the first one to be released on the Super Famicom and Super NES consoles. That means it saw significant graphical and sound updates over the previous versions. Backgrounds, character sprites, and other graphical elements were all overhauled.

In terms of gameplay, Final Fantasy IV also implemented a whole new type of turn-based combat. This was the first game in the series to use the ATB system, where each character takes turns based on their speed.

The job system from the previous game was not implemented. Instead, each character fit into an archetype like white mage, black mage, dragoon, and so on.

Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is a direct sequel to this game that was released much later.

Final Fantasy IV was the second game in the series to see release in the United States, which resulted in an odd and confusing situation. Since gamers in the US weren't familiar with the second and third games in the series, the US version of the game was renamed Final Fantasy II.

Final Fantasy V

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Final Fantasy V included an extremely flexible job system. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1992 (Japan), 1999 (US)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player, multiplayer
Initial Platform: Super Famicom
Also Available On: PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, iOS, Android, Windows
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy V Advance (GBA)

The fifth game in the Final Fantasy series saw further improvements to graphics and sound, and it also built on the ATB system that was introduced in Final Fantasy IV. Unlike that game, where the timer was hidden, Final Fantasy V introduced timer bars to show when each character's turn would be ready.

Final Fantasy V also reintroduced a job system that was similar in concept to the one found in the third game in the series. This system allows characters to learn new abilities by switching jobs. After learning an ability, that character can then use it even after switching to a different job.

Final Fantasy V did not see a release in the United States until 1999, which created further confusion in terms of numbering. For players outside Japan, Final Fantasy V Advance for the GBA is the best way to experience the game.

Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in the US)

final fantasy 6
Final Fantasy VI was the final 2D game in the series.

Release Date: 1994
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Steampunk Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player, multiplayer
Initial Platform: Super Famicom, Super NES
Also Available On: PlayStation, Game Boy Advance, Android, iOS, Windows
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy III (SNES), Final Fantasy VI Advance (GBA)

Final Fantasy VI was the third, and final, game in the series to be released on the Super Famicom and Super NES. It also marked the end of the series' long and exclusive presence on Nintendo hardware.

The graphics and sound of Final Fantasy VI were both improved over previous entries in the series, but the gameplay is similar to earlier games. The ATB system is a very similar incarnation from the one seen in Final Fantasy V.

The job system from the previous game was not revisited. Instead, each character fits into a rough archetype, like thief, engineer, ninja, and gambler, and has a unique set of abilities based around that archetype.

Characters are also able to learn magic, and increase their powers, by equipping objects known as magicite. The origin of this magicite figures heavily into the story of the game.

Final Fantasy VI was the third game in the series to see release in the United States. Following with the previous naming scheme, it was released as Final Fantasy III.

Later releases of the game, like the excellent GBA port, were renumbered to bring them in line with the Japanese version.

Final Fantasy VII

final fantasy 7
Final Fantasy VII moved the series into the third dimension, and the third dimension turned out to be full of spiky hair. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1997
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Sci-fi fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: PlayStation
Also Available On: Windows, iOS, Android, PlayStation 4
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy 7 (PS4)

The seventh game in the Final Fantasy series was the first to appear anywhere other than a Nintendo console. It was initially released for the disc-based Sony PlayStation, which allowed the series to make the leap from sprites to 3D.

Despite the change in platforms and visual style, Final Fantasy VII made use of an ATB system that was very similar to the one seen in the previous two games. The biggest change was the introduction of limit breaks, which were powerful attacks that were charged up by enemy attacks.

This game also introduced a materia system. This system allowed players to insert objects called materia into equipment, which would unlock spells and abilities for the character wearing that equipment.

Previous entries in the series mixed some technology into predominantly fantasy elements, but Final Fantasy VII took a much more distinct turn toward science fiction.

Final Fantasy VII was released under the same name in all territories worldwide, which ended the confusing tradition of numbering the US versions differently from the Japanese versions.

Final Fantasy VIII

final fantasy 8
Final Fantasy VIII used a radically different system for magic spells. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 1999
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Sci-fi fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: PlayStation
Also Available On: Windows, PlayStation 3, PSP, Vita
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy VIII (Windows)

Final Fantasy VIII followed in the footsteps of the previous game with heavy science fiction elements and 3D graphics instead of sprites.

The biggest change introduced in this game was the removal of magic points for casting spells, which had been the standard in the series since Final Fantasy II. Instead of magic points, characters used a "draw" command to pull magic spells from enemies and locations around the game world.

These spells could then be stockpiled, used to increase the characters power, or cast during battle.

The best way to experience Final Fantasy VIII is the Windows PC edition, which features improved graphics and some tweaks to the magic drawing system.

Final Fantasy IX

final fantasy 9
Final Fantasy IX was a love letter to earlier games in the franchise. Square Enix / Screenshot

Release Date: 2000
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player, multi-player
Initial Platform: PlayStation
Also Available On: iOS, Android, Windows, PlayStation 4
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy IX (Windows)

After two sci-fi entries, Final Fantasy IX was marketed with the slogan, "The Crystal Comes Back." It featured a lot of characters and plot elements meant to appeal to fans of earlier entries in the series.

Combat remained similar to earlier titles in the series, with the same type of ATB system that was introduced in Final Fantasy IV.

Like the last several entries in the series, the characters were unable to change jobs or classes. However, a new system was introduced where characters could learn new skills by equipping armor. The available skills were limited for each character, which allowed for some customization.

The best way to experience Final Fantasy IX is the PC release, which has somewhat improved graphics.

Final Fantasy X

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Final Fantasy X was the first in the series to spawn a direct sequel. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 2001
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: PlayStation 2
Also Available On: Windows
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster (Windows)

Final Fantasy X was the first game in the series to appear on the PS2, so it saw improvements in both graphics and sound compared to the previous titles in the series.

This game also marked the first major departure from the ATB system introduced in Final Fantasy IV. Instead, it implemented the Conditional Turn-Based Battle (CTB) system. This system ditched the time sensitive nature by pausing the battle during each player's turn, and it also included a timeline to show the turn order for each participant in the battle.

By using spells like haste and slow, the player was able to control the flow of battle. The player was also able to swap in new party members at any time, even mid-battle, although only three could be active at any one time.

The game was so successful that Square released a direct sequel, Final Fantasy X-2, which featured some of the same characters but radically changed the battle system.

The best way to experience the game today is Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster on PC, which features both games in a single package.

Final Fantasy XI

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Final Fantasy XI took the series in a new multiplayer direction. Screenshot / YouTube / Square Enix

Release Date: 2002 (Japan), 2004 (US)
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square, Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Multiplayer
Initial Platform: PS2, Windows
Also Available On: Xbox 360
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy XI: Ultimate Collection Seekers Edition (Windows)

Final Fantasy XI is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, which marks a sharp deviation from the norm for the Final Fantasy series. All of the previous games had been single player, while some had implemented limited multi-player by allowing a second player to control one or more of the characters.

The other huge change introduced in this game was the removal of turn-based combat. Although combat remained menu-based, the concept of turns was totally ditched. Players join together in parties with other people from around the world, and combat takes place in real time.

The final expansion for the game, Rhapsodies of Vana-diel, was released in 2015. However, the game is still up and running. The best way to experience it today is to pick up Final Fantasy XI: Ultimate Collection Seekers Edition for the PC. The PS2 and Xbox 360 version of Final Fantasy XI are no longer in operation.

Final Fantasy XII

final fantasy 12
Final Fantasy XII was the first single player Final Fantasy to feature real-time combat. Square Enix

Release Date: 2006
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: PlayStation 2
Also Available On: PlayStation 4, Windows
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (PS4, Windows)

Final Fantasy XII returned to the offline RPG genre of previous games in the series, but it retained the idea of real-time battles. It also did away with the random battle encounters that were a staple of the franchise for the first 10 games. Instead, enemies can be seen wandering around, and the player can choose to fight or try to avoid them.

Due to the real-time nature of the battles in Final Fantasy XII, the player can only control one character at a time. The other characters are controlled by artificial intelligence (AI), although the player can choose which character to take direct control of at any time.

Final Fantasy XII also introduced the gambit system, which allowed players to set specific conditions under which a character would perform specific actions. For instance, they might set a healer to cast a healing spell whenever a party member dropped below a certain threshold of health.

The best way to experience the game today is Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which is available on PS4 and PC. This version of the game allows for a greater deal of customization of the actions each character can perform.

Final Fantasy XIII

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Final Fantasy XIII spawned two sequels and a tie-in with Final Fantasy XIV. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 2009 (Japan), 2010 (US)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Role-playing
Theme: Sci-fi fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: PlayStation 3
Also Available On: Xbox 360, Windows, iOS (Japan only), Android (Japan only)
Best Way to Play: No difference between versions

Final Fantasy XIII was the first game in the series to appear on PS3, so it saw a significant improvement to graphics and audio over previous titles.

Random encounters were left out of the game, with visible enemies wandering around just like Final Fantasy XII. However, engaging an enemy would trigger a transition to a battle screen like those seen in earlier titles in the series.

A variant of the ATB system was also implemented, although it was more complicated. The player was also only able to control a single character, while the rest of the party was controlled by AI.

Final Fantasy XIII received two direct sequels: Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XIV

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Final Fantasy XIV is a subscription-based MMO that digs deep into franchise history, like this fight against Halicarnassus that calls back to Final Fantasy V. Screenshot / Square Enix

Release Date: 2010, 2013 (A Realm Reborn)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing
Theme: Fantasy
Game Modes: Multiplayer
Initial Platform: Windows
Also Available On: PlayStation 4, OSX
Best Way to Play: Final Fantasy XIV Online Complete Edition (Windows)

Final Fantasy XIV was the second massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in the series. It was initially available only on Windows PC, and it was a spectacular failure.

After an initially disappointing release, Square Enix appointed a new producer to retool the game. Systems were tweaked and changes were introduced, but the game was eventually taken offline after an in-game event saw a catastrophic event lay waste to the world.

The game was re-released as Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which was received more favorably, and several expansions were released in the following years.

Combat in Final Fantasy XIV is all real time, although it is based on the concept of a global cooldown. Players are able to move around in real time, but most skills and spells can only be activated as quickly as the global cooldown resets.

The best way to experience the game is Final Fantasy XIV Online Complete Edition for Windows, which includes the base game and all expansions. For players without powerful gaming rigs, it also looks and runs just fine on the PS4.

Final Fantasy XV

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Final Fantasy 15 is the most action-oriented game in the series to date. Square Enix

Release Date: 2016
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action role-playing
Theme: Sci-fi fantasy
Game Modes: Single player
Initial Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Also Available On: Windows
Best Way to Play: No difference between versions

Final Fantasy XV marked a return to the franchise's single player roots and was also the first game in the series to be designed, from the ground up, for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Unlike previous entries in the series, Final Fantasy XV is an open world action role-playing game. The player is able to move freely throughout the game world and uses a car, which has to be refueled periodically, to get around.

Combat is in real-time, and it takes place in the regular game environment instead of a specialized battle screen. It uses the brand new Active Cross Battle (ACB) system, which assigns familiar commands, like attack, defend, and item, to buttons on a controller.

In similar fashion to Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy XIII, the player is only in control of the main character. In this case, the other two characters are always controlled by AI.

Final Fantasy XV was released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with a Windows PC release to follow later, and there is not enough of a difference to recommend one version over another.