With all the pandemonium surrounding recent AAA releases—whether Bioshock 2, Heavy Rain, or Battlefield Bad Company 2—people seem to have forgotten that there's a little indie title coming out tomorrow called... Ah, gee, what was it again? Oh, yes: FINAL FUCKING FANTASY XIII. Which isn't the legal title, but is surely how it's thought of by its global legion of hardcore fans and housebound otakus who have happily been sinking months of their life into each title for the past...23 years?! Yes, hard to believe, but the very original Final Fantasy came out in 1987. And if this is your first time considering a FF title, you may want to take a moment to peruse the game's previous iterations—after all, this has historically been one of the most sprawling and addictive franchises in gaming history (no shots, Elder Scrolls!), not to mention having more titles than the Sweet Valley High universe. So read on, because you can't know your future if you don't know your oddly compelling quasi-elfin past...


Final Fantasy I (1987)
Nintendo Entertainment System
THE PLOT: If you've played any of the later games, then you know Final Fantasy plots are the stuff quality novels are made of: shitloads of character development, political backstabbing, and sex. Well, maybe not sex, but flirtation—which is what happens when you leave the game developing to repressed Japanese dudes who don't get out much. But back in 1987, the game franchise was just getting started, so the story was relatively basic. With the four elements out of whack—earth, wind, water, and fire—players controlled the warriors of light on their quest to make things right in the world.
THE CHARACTERS: What characters? The four people in your party don't even come with stock names—all you could specify was what kind of soldiers you wanted them to be: Warrior, Black Mage, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage, or Monk.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Xcalber. Give the blacksmith in the Dwarf Cave a special item and you get the second best sword in the game for free. (And no, that special item is not a hummer.)
OVERALL GRADE: B-. Not a bad start, but any fan that got into the series during the 3-D era might not have the patience to deal with the barebones story and blocky 8-bit graphics. Only the most hardcore of fans need apply.



Final Fantasy II (1988)
Nintendo Entertainment System
THE PLOT: For no particularly good reason, the company opted not to release this game in the U.S., so Americans didn't get this until the 2003 Playstation anthology Final Fantasy Origins. Here, the group's on the run from the Palamecian empire who killed their parents. After stumbling across a resistance group, they join forces and strike back at the empire together.
THE CHARACTERS: Firion, Maria, and Guy. Virtual guy-about-town Cid makes his first appearance in the series as the pilot of an airship, as does the oversized Chocobo bird, which would eventually become the series' unofficial mascot.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The blood sword. Drains the enemy's hit points (HP) and gives 'em to the player instead. Works great against the final boss.
OVERALL GRADE: B. Looking back, FF II marked a radical departure by dropping experience points. Also, it's the first game that actually tried developing its characters.



Final Fantasy III (1990)
Super Nintendo
THE PLOT: Like FF II, the US didn't get FF III 'til years later—actually, it wasn't until a remixed edition hit the Nintendo DS in 2006. Both versions still revolve around four young orphans drawn to a crystal that gives them crazy power and tells them to restore balance to the world. You know, looking back, we're beginning to think that they might've been meth heads.
THE CHARACTERS: The fighters didn't come with names, though you could make up ones of your own. In the Nintendo DS game, you get more to work with: backstories, personalities and names like Luneth, Arc, Refia, and Ingus. Heh. Ingus.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: Sure, the Death spell costs a lot, but its effectiveness—it kills one enemy on the spot—makes the steep price tag worth it.
OVERALL GRADE: B- for the original, B+ for the DS version. The DS game merits a big uptick for a much-improved English translation and more developed main characters.



Final Fantasy IV (1991)
Super Nintendo
THE PLOT: This was only the second Final Fantasy released in the States, so the company marketed it to us as Final Fantasy II. (Confused much?) FF IV was all about the dark knight Cecil, whose conscience eventually draws him to his true mission to prevent the wizard Golbez from getting his hands on powerful crystals that could bring about the apocalypse.
THE CHARACTERS: Cecil Harvey, Kain Highwind, Rosa Farrell, Cid Pollendina, Rydia, Tellah, Edward Chris von Muir, and Yang Fang Leiden
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Ragnarok, used by Cecil, is not only the most powerful sword, it ups most of his vital stats too.
OVERALL GRADE: A-. This game marked the beginning of Final Fantasy's trademark storytelling. Too bad the original version's shit-tastic English translation holds it back. Do yourself a favor and pick up the Nintendo DS remake instead.



Final Fantasy V (1992)
Super Nintendo
THE PLOT: Released in the U.S. as part of Final Fantasy Anthology for the Playstation. A nomad named Bartz finds a fallen meteor and discovers that the four crystals that control the elements also keep the dark wizard Exdeath in check. Bartz and his party spend the rest of the time protecting the crystals so Exdeath can't resurrect himself.
THE CHARACTERS: Bartz Klauser, Reina Charlotte Tycoon, Galuf Doe, Faris Scherwiz (aka Sarisa Scherwill Tycoon), Krile Baldesion
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Phoenix bird summon. Does a decent amount of fire-infused damage to baddies and revives one of your allies to full health.
OVERALL GRADE: B. Great gameplay, weak-ass story.


Final Fantasy VI (1994)
Super Nintendo
THE PLOT: Released as Final Fantasy III in the US. The Gestahl empire holds dominion over the world. Locke, a member of a resistance group, saves Terra, a woman genetically engineered by the empire to be an instrument of war. Together, they try to overthrow the imperial dictatorship.
THE CHARACTERS: Fourteen in all, the largest group in this series so far. Terra Branford, Locke Cole, Celes Chere, Edgar Roni Figaro, Sabin Rene Figaro, Cyan Garamonde, Setzer Gabbiani, Shadow, Relm Arrowny, Strago Magus, Gau, Mog, Umaro, and Gogo.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Ultima spell is the most powerful in the game. It's not tied to any element, so it's equally effective on all enemies.
OVERALL GRADE: A+. One of the best in the series and definitely the best of the old-school, 2-D Final Fantasies. Longtime aficionados still reminisce about that Opera House scene (see below).



Final Fantasy VII (1997)
THE PLOT: Set in a rundown futuristic society, the first 3-D Final Fantasy followed disillusioned mercenary Cloud Strife who's hellbent on bringing down the megacorporation Shinra, which is draining the life out of the planet, using it as an energy source, and profiting off it. Dear writers: we think you misspelled "Wal-Mart."
THE CHARACTERS: Cloud Strife, Barret Wallace, Tifa Lockhart, Aeris Gainsborough, Red XIII, Cait Sith, Cid Highwind, Yuffie Kisaragi, Vincent Valentine, and of course, Sephiroth.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Knights of the Round summon uses up the most magic points, but it's worth it, trust. If juiced up properly, the 13-multihit attack can take out the final boss in two rounds. Yeah, that's right: two freakin' rounds.
OVERALL GRADE: A+ The perfect trifecta of cutting-edge eye candy, edge-of-your seat storytelling, and tight gameplay. There's a reason fans want this remade on the PS3.


Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
THE PLOT: A group of idealistic young soldiers get sucked into an international conflict and work to protect the world from a banging black-magic sorceress manipulating the war for her own purposes.
THE CHARACTERS: Squall Leonhart, Rinoa Heartilly, Quistis Trepe, Zell Dincht, Selphie Tilmitt, Irvine Kinneas.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Jumbo Cactuar. Don't underestimate this loopy-looking animated prick; level him up properly and he'll inflict double the damage of any of the other "guardians" at your disposal.
OVERALL GRADE: A-. Better graphics, but the story doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessor.


Final Fantasy IX (2000)
THE PLOT: Focuses on a young thief and his group of rebels who defeat Queen Brahne of Alexandria. Things take a sharp turn when the characters realize that Brahne is just a puppet for an arms dealer.
THE CHARACTERS: Zidane Tribal, Garnet Til Alexandros XVII (aka "Dagger"), Vivi Orunitia, Adelbert Steiner, Freya Crescent, Quina Quen, Eiko Carol, and Amarant Coral
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: Odin summon. This Godzilla-sized knight on a horse will cut any enemy in half, instantly killing them. Works on everything but the bosses. (Can't make things that easy, right?)
OVERALL GRADE: A. After two games set in far-out industrial worlds, FF IX's return to a more-old-fashioned universe with knights and princesses was a welcome blast from the past.


Final Fantasy X (2001)
Playstation 2
THE PLOT: Set in the fantasy world of Spira, FF X follows a group of fighters trying to smack down a rampaging monster called "Sin."
THE CHARACTERS: Tidus, Yuna, Kimahri Ronso, Wakka, Lulu, Auron, and Rikku.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: Bahamut summon. Normally, the max amount of damage players could dish out was 9,999 HP. But this huge dragon's special "overdrive" move broke the barrier, so you could defeat almost anything or anyone in no time at all.
OVERALL GRADE: A+ The first game in a while that experimented with the battle system. The result? Fighting was fast and furious. Also, just take a look at those super-sweet visuals.



Final Fantasy XI (2002)
Playstation 2
THE PLOT: If you're plowing through this massive online multiplayer role-playing game as it was intended—online, obvs—then there's not much of a story to speak of.
THE CHARACTERS: Create your own. Soldier classes included the Elvaan, Hume, Galka, Mithra, and Tarutaru.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Evoker's Ring. Cranks up your magic skills by one-fourth.
OVERALL GRADE: B+ The first online multiplayer is light on plot, but a great gaming experience that you'll want to come back to... if you've got a few buddies to help you out. That doesn't mean it's bug-free, though.



Final Fantasy XII (2006)
Playstation 2
THE PLOT: Caught between two warring countries, the princess Ashe and the ragtag orphan Vaan set out to take out the Archadian Empire.
THE CHARACTERS: Vaan, Ashe, Basch, Balthier, Fran, and Penelo.
BEST WEAPON/SPELL: The Zodiac spear. Besides being the most powerful weapon in the game, you can get it pretty early, as long as you follow some really specific, somewhat arbitrary guidelines. Break out the Prima Guide!
OVERALL GRADE: A+. Sharp graphics, a huge fully-realized world teaming with optional side quests, and roughly 80 hours of gameplay make this the best, most polished Final Fantasy to date—at least until FF XIII drops tomorrow.