This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Final Fantasy franchise and fans have been celebrating all year. With collaborations from every corner of the consumer market, it’s a great time to be a Final Fantasy fan. With over 156 million game sales and 3 films (one that was even a theatrical release in the US) it is one of gaming’s biggest IPs around! That said, not every gamer has even touched let alone play through a mainline FF game. There are a lot of glaring holes in my gaming resume, but FF is not one of them.
If someone were to try to dip their toes into the series, what would be the best one to start with? The FF games share certain thematic elements and character archetypes (There is always someone named Cid in every game) but exist as separate standalone entries. Since none of the games require prior knowledge one can jump in at any point. But which would be the best to ease into? The best to cut your teeth on? That is what we aim to answer.
Now this isn’t a ranking or review of the best game, but rather an analysis of which one(s) are the most beginner friendly and accessible. The first six games recently got remastered on PC and are on mobile for individual sale. If you have never played one hopefully you’ll find one that makes a suitable starting point.
The one that started it off! Squaresoft released FF1 back in 1987 (Japan) for the NES and it did well enough to garner sequels and begin the FF dynasty as we know it. FF1 can be hard if you optimize your party poorly. The game allowed the player to choose four party members out of a total pool of six character classes: Warrior, Monk, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage, and Black Mage. Because of this it is entirely possible to form a party without a healer and instantly make the game very difficult (Warrior, Red Mage, White Mage, Black Mage is my favorite party setup).
Aside from that there is very little in terms of story and direction, although random exploring is enough to get you by. The game starts off with you rescuing a princess from an evil knight and quickly becomes about stopping a world ending event. Just your standard fantasy story. The combat in later ports (GBA, Mobile, Steam) is the classic turn-based RPG fare and basic enough for newcomers to grasp. If you’re not turned off by the simplicity and bareboned presentation of the game FF1 is a solid entry that is available on many platforms.
For most fans FF II falls in a weird place. Released for the NES in 1988, it is the first one to try at an actual story with character twists and scripted “cutscenes”, but it’s progression is unorthodox. FF II doesn’t have character classes, but rather it has three distinct characters who players can shape as they see fit and a 4th slot for guest party members.
Firion is the headstrong stoic leader, Maria is the moral compass of the group, and Guy is the gentle giant. Story progression uses a unique keyword system where you learn key words that you store in a word bank. If you hit a roadblock in the story it usually means you have to mention a keyword to an important NPC. It’s kind of odd but this system is common in point-and-click games of the time.
FF II tries an innovative leveling system where there are no set numerical levels except for the magic system. You can teach magic to any character, equip any weapon or piece of armor to any character. The way you improve is by exposure therapy essentially. You want to increase your skill level with a weapon? Use it consistently. Want to increase your defense and HP? Then get hit a lot. Increase your MP? Cast as many spells as you can. You get the idea.
There is a max cap for each of these stats but the game is particularly grindy and it will take you forever to hit those max stats. FF II is usually bundled with FF1 in some capacity but you can get it separately on mobile and steam. It’s hard to recommend this one as the first of the games to play because it is so different and not indicative of the rest of the series. That said it is quirky and innovative, so play it once you’re more acquainted with the franchise.
The last of the mainline early games to see an official release in the west. FF III came out on NES back in 1990 but wouldn’t get an official release outside of Japan until the 2006 remake for the Nintendo DS. FF III introduces my favorite mechanic, jobs. While FF1 did have classes they were permanently locked in and didn’t allow much customization. FF III expanded the jobs/classes beyond the first six and allowed your party members to swap out different roles.
The biggest problem with FF III is story progression. Without a guide it is very likely you will wander and roam aimlessly at several points. In the most recent versions of the game you can chat with the party and such to figure out what to do next. But there are so many secret passages in the dungeons that it can be a bit obtuse. Towards the endgame the difficulty spikes tremendously and only a select few jobs/classes become the sole viable options. It’s a decent entry in the series but I do not recommend this as your first FF at all.
The tale of the dark knight Cecil and his redemption is a favorite among fans. It is also the first to not debut on the NES but it’s successor, the SNES in 1991. FF IV is the first legitimate FF game to do unique things like weaving storytelling with combat mechanics. One example is a cave with strong magnetism so your party cannot equip metal weapons or armor. FF IV also introduces the ATB (Active Time Battle) system where party members take action when the ATB bar has filled rather than the traditional turn-based system.
This is one of the more challenging entries in the series as it forces players to allocate resources more thoughtfully. Running from battles will cost you money. Using bows requires arrows you need to buy. You will have to grind a bit more here compared to the previous games.
That said, FF IV’s cast of rotating party members make it a very memorable experience. They each have actual unique personalities and motivations. This is one game you play for the characters and story first, and the combat second. You can’t go wrong with this one! The pixel remastered version is on PC, while the 3D version is on PC and mobile.
From a combat and mechanical perspective FF V is one of my favorite chapters in this long-running series. Remember how we mentioned that FF III introduced the job system? Well FF V perfects it! FF V stars a young lad named Bartz who is joined by others on their quest to save the elemental crystals that govern the world’s balance of nature. The antagonist, Exodus/Exdeath (depending on the version’s translation), is one of the best villains and a well-designed one to boot.
Once again the ATB gauge returns and combat is pretty straight-forward. What makes FF V special is that our heroes can mix-and-match jobs and even master each job. You can have a monk who dishes out bare-handed justice but also cast white magic. Or maybe you want a Black mage who can use swords as well? This system allows you to grow your party members in another way besides traditional experience points and numbered levels.
The story is pretty neat and is divided into three parts with each part changing the world map and layout. The difficulty curve is pretty consistent but more importantly than your level is the combinations of jobs you use and your equipment. FF V is also the only mainline game to have a predominantly female party, which is a nice change I think. This entry is a terrific starting point if you don’t mind the 2D sprites and like old school gameplay.
This concludes this portion of the articles series of which Final Fantasy game you should play first. Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3. For other articles and opinion pieces related to gaming check out some of what I have written here. As always stay geeky out there!