I do a lot of Nintendo stuff usually, and its rare that I get to talk about a franchise that I sincerely enjoy for its own merits. Final Fantasy earned my respect long ago for its memorable storytelling, immersive worlds, and intense gameplay mechanics. There is no video game that consistently pulls me in like Final Fantasy. With that in mind, Final Fantasy is in competition with itself, often - as so many gamers are clear on their own personal favorite and are quick to champion their opinion above all the rest. From a solely objective perspective, let's break down the Final Fantasy games. I haven't put much attention into the first 3 titles, so I'm going to omit them and start with 4. I'm alao going to omit FF11 and FF14 for the same reasons.
Final Fantasy IV - It had a great story, for sure. Final Fantasy 4's story had a great cast of characters and the looming threat of villains around every corner. The game's balancing, however, was WAY off. Very often you'll level up a character only to lose them in an upcoming chapter and then get some new guy in his place. You have almost no control over the overall flow and pacing of the game, and there isn't much to do outside of the main quest. It also seems to get less and less focused the farther the game goes. Easily the most disjointed FF game on this list. It is also my least favorite.
Final Fantasy V - 5 takes the franchise deeper. There are endless mechanics and a very satisfying job system where you can direct the growth and trajectory of your characters. The story is very simple and straightforward, and while never surprising it maintains very high tension and a lot of unexpected things happen along the way. Lead antagonist Exdeath is probably the most enigmatic villain in the entire series: A cosmic mastermind whose only goal is to destroy anything and everything in existence. Clashing with Exdeath brings the feeling that you are facing something truly and inescapably easy, and he's probably the only villain in the series who never hesitates to kill. When you run into Exdeath, its likely he's not intending to let you get away. I also have to give Kudos for the game's 3 world mechanic, where you transition to different world maps at certain points in the game. It lends a depth and variety that can't be found in playing in the same map for the whole game.
Final Fantasy VI - The thing with 6 is that it is very well paced, at least at first. You are introduced to the story and characters gradually and with intention. It never feels choppy, and every character is just endearing enough to have you really feel as if you are on the journey with them. The story does not deal heavy handedly like with the upcoming titles on this list... it is often very subtle and about the experience, process, and little details that make the game along the way, rather than stuffing hours of exposition down our throats. All of the gameplay is par for the course, albeit deeper than the other SNES offerings. There's more to do and you can widen your possibilities for how you play the game endlessly. Last but not least the game is challenging - and I dare you to try to finish its final dungeon and take down the evil Kefka without massive frustration.
Final Fantasy VII - Call me devil's advocate, but Final Fantasy VII seemed to rely on a lot of flash and very little substance. The game was shocking and pulled no punches - it often hit gamers in a way that I think are effective, but are also low blows: As if the game is relying on being as twisted and outrageous as possible so we'll ignore its faults. For one thing the game has no cohesive plot, and its often hard to understand the little details and interactions between the characters along the way. The game does a poor job of getting its message across, to the point where you feel like an aimless missionary wondering what the heck you're doing until Sephiroth shows up and sticks a sword into the president's back. Its as if the game is like: "Now you'll pay attention! It gets good from here!" Until you've been playing for twenty hours and realize you've been chasing sephiroth around the world and nothing new has developed. The party just small talks along the way, and you never get the sense that these people care for each other at all. In fact, they probably don't with the exception of Cloud and Tifa. While the game is a disjointed experience, there's often a lot of fun to be had in experiencing its shock factor and full on weirdness the first time around. Final Fantasy 7 is a true specimen off oddity and is committed to bringing a truly unique experience, and despite its lack of heart I find it to be the scariest and saddest game in the series.
Final Fantasy VIII - Meet the behemoth. Final Fantasy VIII is a polarizing entry in the series. It introduced a system that gave you FULL CONTROL over your party's skills, attack power, etc... at the expense of expecting players to figure out how to work the darn thing. The junction system is indeed confusing, but if you master it you master all. FFVIII is cool in that it allows you to choose how you experience it. The base plot is all there and it is VERY good - not as shocking as FFVII - but good. And while the game's characters are an endearing and likeable bunch... probably the only realistic characters in the entire series so far... and while the story's conflicy evolves and twists and turns around a riveting love story: The masterwork of the game is still in its deep systems and how it allows you to exploit everything and anything to your advantage... you want to beat some of its toughest bosses and make it look like this boss with some of the highest stats in the game is NOTHING compared to the might of your party? You can do that. Want to ignore leveling and take on a wicked tough annd minimalistic approach? You can do that too, and with no hassel. FFVIII makes you work for your keep, and it pays off.
Final Fantasy IX - A soft spot in my heart, Final Fantasy IX introduces some of the most endearing characters in the series. Lead Zidane's antics are anything but the norm, and the lengths he goes to win the lovely Princess Garnet's heart is truly touching. Zidane is the hub of the main party, and heads the central theme of the game - loneliness. Zidane wanders and woos all types of girls as if it's nothing, yet he longs for and seeks a blue light from his past that signifies home. Vivi struggles with his imminent confrontation with dying and the meaning of life. Goofy knight Steiner reveals himself to be anything but after risking his life to defend his kingdom and gets clear on what really matters to him. The characters in FFIX are open to life's lessons, and are open to learning and being impacted along the way. They are the unlikeliest heroes in the main series, (A gourmand with an uncertain gender and a long tongue. a little girl with fake wings on her back, a rat chick) but almost because of that they carry the story way more effectively and with way more heart than the mindless missionaries of VII and the devout students of Garden from VIII could ever accomplish. IX has great gameplay with some of the best locales, minigames, etc in the series... but what really carries it is its deep tale of love, loss, and friendship.
Final Fantasy X - This one is rough because its such a multifaceted game. FFX brought many new weapons to the franchise - its story is presented with a level of depth and clarity that has not been replicated since - featuring Tidus's struggle with finding himself in a new world, his haunting past, and his ultimate fate as something other than what he originally thought he was. The game deals in secrets - it gradually doles out its big plot twists and because the surface interactions between the characters were so well done and often had so much humanity to them - it was easy to be distracted away from some of the strange things that were happening. As such, it was always a deep shock when the next plot twist was revealed... not because it was well hidden necessarily or unobvious, but just because the characters themselves did such a better job taking center stage and really shouting "WE ARE THE PLOT!" When secrets were revealed it took attention off the characters, shocked at the workings behind the scenes, and then reintensified back on the characters: Shocked and caring for them deeply. Because the gameplay is so straightforward and just doesn't branch enough, I can't give it an A.