Thanks to the release of Final Fantasy XIII, I've spent the last two days thoroughly immersed in the overwhelming decadence of the Final Fantasy series. Even my lazy, cursory research into the ephemera surrounding the Japanese roleplaying mainstay has highlighted an issue that continually sticks out like a sore thumb in any discussion of the games: The mess Square made with its naming practices during the 1990s.
You hardcore gaming geeks already know where I'm going with this, so feel free to skip along to Humpy's latest piece on the awesomeness of boobies. Odds are pretty good it will be both awesome and contain boobies. I fully support both of those things.
However, those of you who don't quite understand why Final Fantasy III isn't really Final Fantasy III should hit the jump for a bit of a history lesson.
Generally speaking, there are two camps when it comes to Final Fantasy fans: Those who worship the PlayStation's Final Fantasy VII as the finest roleplaying game in existence, and those who feel the series peaked with the Super Nintendo's Final Fantasy III.
I won't go into who is right and who is wrong (though I'd recommend both groups read this piece by 1up's retro wunderkind Jeremy Parish on why the two aren't all that dissimilar), but I would like to address all those people left scratching their heads as to why the series seemingly skipped three installments during the mid-90s.
See, it turns out that Final Fantasy III — the Final Fantasy III that was given to us Americans anyway — was actually Final Fantasy VI. Its predecessor, the American Final Fantasy II, was actually Final Fantasy V. The original Final Fantasy released on the NES was indeed the first Final Fantasy, but from that point onward everything gets kinda screwy.
Why, you might ask, did Japanese gamers get the properly numbered series, while Americans missed out on Final Fantasy II through IV? To put it simply, Nintendo hates you. When Square released the first Final Fantasy, it was seen as the last ditch effort of a struggling company desperately trying to avoid bankruptcy. Hence the "Final" in the game's title.
In an effort to be polite, Nintendo offered to localize the game for American audiences, realizing they would still make a profit on the licensing of the NES cartridges to Square, regardless of how well the game actually sold.
Nintendo, not realizing how successful the game would ultimately become, dragged their feet on the translation work, and only completed it after three years of half-assed effort. It was finished and released here in America only moments before the Super Nintendo would launch and kill the NES permanently. By that time however, Square had already released two more Final Fantasy games, both of which had proven to be hits.
When Nintendo came to ask Square about releasing a roleplaying title for American SNES owners, Square pointed to Final Fantasy II and III. Laughing at the primitive graphics of the two dated NES games (actually they're Famicom games, being that they were only released for the Japanese equivalent of the NES, but that's an entirely separate story), Nintendo instead told Square that they would rather wait for the next sequel, Final Fantasy V. Square agreed, but when FFV was finally released it was decided that offering American fans of Final Fantasy a game called Final Fantasy V would confuse the hell out of them. Thus, it was rebranded Final Fantasy II for its Stateside debut.
The next game, Final Fantasy VI was likewise renamed Final Fantasy III when it came to America.
When the PlayStation hit and Square left Nintendo for the lucrative world of Sony's PlayStation, it was decided that the whole damn thing was a clusterfuck of immense proportions and the company aligned both the Japanese and American releases under the same naming scheme. Thus, Final Fantasy VII is Final Fantasy VII no matter where you are on the planet.
But, of course, that leaves many gamers scratching their heads as to which game is which, and forces people like me to constantly reiterate which country's naming scheme we're using when discussing the excellent Final Fantasy VI. Personally I prefer the Japanese scheme simply because it allows me to discuss the Final Fantasy titles not originally released in our country, but I believe the official nomenclature for Final Fantasy VI's U.S. iteration is something like "Final Fantasy III (US)."
Fans of the series should also know that Square Enix has recently taken to re-releasing the entries we missed all those years ago in various forms. The best of these is undoubtedly the 3-D Nintendo DS versions, respectively titled Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy IV. They aren't quite as evolved as Final Fantasy VI, but they're still an excellent glimpse at the series in its prototype form.