I don’t think I’ll ever see a license with a more divided fan base than Final Fantasy (old vs new vs 11-), Star Wars (re the prequels), and Star Trek (og vs tng vs ds9-).
8 is the real divisive one. Honestly? even though I didn’t like it, it’s a good game, very well made. Most of the fans seem to be big into anime & mange (Japanese cartoons and comics), etc. I think the reason so many FF fans dislike it, is because both the gameplay, the character design, and the overall story is more different from the rest of the series (as far as 1-10) than any other. Sure 7 goes out of it’s way to incorporate as many anime memes as it can, along with the art-style. But the story is classic FF through and through. 8’s characters are very mundane, and could just as easily be set in a war drama in the real world. Even the setting of the story over-all has less of an epic fantasy (1-7, 9) or surreal-world (10, X-2) feel than it does one of “real world+magic.” The draw system and the complex GF system are also pretty radically different from the others in terms of character development and combat.
-Final Fantasy: Interesting plot, but no real story. You pick a team of 4 characters from 6 classes (you can have multiples of a class), and work your way through the quest. Only one sidequest, which upgrades all your characters to prestige classes (your arms-and-armor guys gets white magic, your thief gets better melee and black magic, etc.). Spells are bought at shops, and are divided into levels. As you gain exp-levels, your mages can cast spells of a given level more often. Arbitrary stat growth.
-Final Fantasy II: your characters are assigned, and have predetermined abilities and equipment. Stat growth is directly proportional to use of it (attacking more often raises strength, getting hit more often raises defense, etc). Magic is learned automatically, and spells upgrade to more powerful/more costly forms with use. Good story, but lacking sidequests. 4-man parties.
-Final Fantasy III: not currently available in the US in any form
-Final Fantasy IV: Arbitrary stat growth, spells learned automatically, characters join and leave your party at will. Excellent story, few hidden summon spells and super-powered gear for side quests, but still pretty linear. Introduced early form of the now-standard Active Time Battle system: enemies can take turns while you take yours, and vice-versa; also, characters’ turn frequency is based on speed rather than being arbitrary (this an option that can be turned off, and is featured in every game up to and including X). 5-man parties.
-Final Fantasy V: Decent story (weighed down by goofy villain character design). Sidequests akin to IV. Characters can class change at will, and equip a few class modifiers they learned from previous classes (magic types, enabling equipment, etc.). You aquire new classes to choose from at certain points. Stats are a combination of a base (determined by your level combined with accumulated points distributed according to the class you were when you acquired them), and your current class (determined by your level, and your class level). 4-man parties.
-Final Fantasy VI: Massive, epic story, with lots of great characterization. After a point, you can swap heroes in and out of your current party, and certain dungeons require you to switch back and forth between multiple parties at once! Character growth involves predetermined stat-growth unique to the character, combined with modifiers at each level up based on which summon spell you have equipped. Everyone has a unique ability. Magic is available to everyone, though they’re stats may not be good. Levelling-up with a given esper (summon) will teach you certain spells. Large number of sidequests for character development, summons, equipment, etc. Also has a number of minigames. 4-man parties.
-Final Fantasy VII: you already know about.
-Final Fantasy VIII: see my above comments. Good romance story. Swappable party (after a point), draw system (you steal spells from enemies, and can use them like items, or equip them to modify your stats). GF system (you equip summons, and when you’re casting them the GF takes damage; also, you can boost the effectiveness of a summon by repeatedly pressing x during the animation sequence). no equipment per se. Numerous mini-games and side-quests (a standard from here on in) 3-man parties.
-Final Fantasy IX: Deliberately designed to pay homage to the older entries, IX was originally intended to be the last “traditional” FF, as X-on were all goin to be MMO’s or have partial online content (though this fell through for X in development). Typical epic story, a swappable party (after a point), and all the other fixtures. Used a cartoony style for characters, and has more of a pure medieval fantasy feel, though it’s somewhat light-hearted (even during the tragic parts) and fairy-tale like. Characters have defined classes (equipment/ability sets/base stat growth), but you learn individual spells, abilities, and stat-modifiers by leveling up with a given piece of equipment. This makes stealing really useful because it lets you get good abilities earlier on. Pretty architypal other than that, fans of VII and older entries usually like it. Kind of an unsung hero because Square released a lot of big-name titles the same year, and many were waiting for X. I don’t remember the party-size, 4 or 3.
-Final Fantasy X: You already know about.
-Final Fantasy XI: an MMO with lots of thematic content borrowed from the newer FF’s. Don’t remember the character development or combat systems, but I seem to recall them being surprisingly typical of the older series. Big with anime fans, especially because you share servers with Japanese players (uses a basic, automatic translator program). party-size?
-Final Fantasy XII: Visual style remniscent of X and XI. Set in the world of Tactics Advance. combat is somewhat remniscent of old games, but there’s no clear divide between combat and exploration (something like Zone of the Enders, you have to run away till the enemy gives up pursuit to break out of combat mode). Combat is somewhat of a real-time hybrid, with the player being able to pause the action and give specific orders to the otherwise AI-controlled team mates (you can only control one party member at a time). Don’t know about the Character Development system yet, as the game’s not available in the US, just a very short demo. 3-man parties
-Final Fantasy Mystic Quest: A very dumbed-down game intended for little kids. Simple story, arbitrary character growth, spell learning, and party changes. 2-man parties. Zelda or Lufia style dungeon exploration with puzzles to solve and various weapon/tools that affect the environment in different ways. Simple story.
-Final Fantasy Tactics: Epic fantasy story set against a pre-rennaisance society that borrows heavily from European history (in particular the War of the Roses, the Catholic Church’s history, and the process by which they decided what is and what isn’t cannon Christianity). Turn-based combat (though it maintains speed-based turn frequency, a meter to show when a character’s next turn or action will occur, etc.) on grid-based 3D maps. FFV style Class system. Old-fashioned cartoony visuals. Very dark and dramatic story, with great characterization (and a built in reference system that gives you bios and footnotes, as well as letting you reply and dialogue sequence in between battles). Excises exploration and puzzles completely; you move from one point on a map to the next, watching story sequences, fighting battles, etc. Instead of a town map, you move onto a town, pick a shop from a menu, and then go through the shop’s menus.
-Final Fantasy Tactics Advance: A kiddified version of FFT. Story is much more light-hearted, and somewhat remniscent of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (specifically Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). Similar gameplay to FFT, but broken up into missions, and much of the gameplay simplified, to adapt the system to use on hand-held gaming systems. Simple menus, and gameplay structured to short, 10-30 minutes sessions. Weird “Judge system” where the game imposes some sort of rule in each fight, like not using Black Magic, and penalizes the player when they ignore it.
-Final Fantasy X-2: You already know about this.
PS. a note on Final Fantasy Adventure and the Final Fantasy Legends games for the old Gameboy. These were actually the US releases of the Romance Saga games, and the first Seiken Densetsu (the series known in the US as the “_____ of Mana” series). I also left out spin-offs without Final Fantasy in the title because they’re usually things like Mario Kart-style games (Chocobo’s Racing), or a pure dungeon-crawler with a 2D Legend of Zelda game interface (Chocobo’s Dungeon).