No, I never beat Final Fantasy X. Barely made it halfway, in fact. And I never played a minute of XII, which I've heard is quite good. Still, I will state here and now that no one is more qualified to do this list than I am.
Doesn't take much of an intro, really. The title stipulates that only playable characters are eligible and I will further add here that I'm only counting the core series, games one through twelve, so no spinoffs of any kind. Perhaps a list of FF villains is something to think about for down the road. Worth mentioning on that note is that I think very highly of the main character of Final Fantasy Tactics, Ramza Beouvle, so if he wasn't ineligible, I would have to consider him very seriously for a top five spot. So for those that fall within the rules, the criteria is simple enough. How much of an impact do they make in the games in which they are featured? Are they fun to use in battles? How cool and likeable are they within the story?
As with any list I've made, if you find yourself disagreeing with me on any points, please know that you are wrong. Spoilers ahead, fools.
5. Kain (Final Fantasy IV)
Kain is the series's original brooding badass, appearing long before others like Shadow (FFVI) and Squall (FFVIII). I know that the whole betraying you, rejoining you, betraying you again schtick got old pretty fast but he's still a wicked character.
Final Fantasy IV was the first entry to feature characters with actually formed personalities and most of the cast wasn't really that deep. For the most part, they were little more than stereotypes. But Kain was more. He was complicated, damnit! His strong devotion to his duty as a warrior was probably his most striking trait and it would come into conflict with other aspects of his personality.
He was a dragoon and the whole honour thing mattered a lot to him. Then you had that honour being tested in the same way that Cecil's was - torn between his duty to the crown and his own personal sense of right and wrong. And his betrayal, while strongly influenced by Golbez of course, was still first made possible by his underlying jealousy for his friend who had the heart of the woman he (Kain) secretly loved. Golbez opened Kain's mind to the twisted possibilities that lay beyond betraying Cecil and, because he's not just a one-dimensional character and because he's not perfect, he gave in.
But he comes back to the right side and of course plays a major role in saving the world. But once things are set right, in typical Kain fashion, he leaves his friends to go off on his own and try to find himself. That shot of him with his helmet off (after his head being covered for the entire game) standing on the cliff still resonates as awesome even after all the other games that followed it.
4. Vivi (Final Fantasy IX)
Cute as any moogle, Vivi is a powerful black mage housed in the body of a shy existentialist. Although he is a mage of shrouded origins, in many ways he's like a typical kid of his age, often overwhelmed by the world around him.
When we first meet Vivi he's on his own, trying to get to a play. He's so shy and meek we immediately feel for him. And he's on his own! It's later revealed the one who raised him, who he called Grandpa (although they clearly weren't related), had passed away and left him entirely by himself in the world.
Despite this coupled with a lack of confidence, he proves to be heroic very early on and he only becomes braver and more dedicated as the game goes on. And all the while he's questioning his role in the world - this is a kid not afraid to ask the big questions - who are we, where did we come from, and why do we exist at all? And all the while he's just so darn cute.
Eventually Vivi does come face to face with some answers and they're disturbing to say the least. But he pushes on because he has discovered reasons of his own - friendship, loyalty, a sense of belonging and the drive to protect these things.
In battle Vivi is your primary offensive magic user and he has the ability to power up Steiner's sword techniques which makes him an even better team player.
Oh, did I mention he's cute?
3. Locke (Final Fantasy VI)
A swashbuckling adventurer who's also a skilled thief (but call him a treasure hunter or he'll rip your lungs out!!), Locke isn't as flashy as some of the other characters in FFVI but he has more depth and that's saying a lot considering that game's incredibly deep cast. And flashy or not, his steal ability is really useful throughout the game.
With greyish hair and sporting a blue bandanna, Locke is a character with an extremely tragic past for someone so young and he's really good at hiding it. Unlike certain more sullen and moody characters, he keeps a positive and enthusiastic attitude even in the most dangerous of situations which is actually pretty refreshing. He's always cheering his friends on and encouraging them no matter how tough things become.
Probably the most significant thing about Locke is his sense of loyalty and dedication. Although it might be true he has a bit of a thing for damsels in distress, when he promises to aid both Terra and Celes immediately upon meeting them, he never does go back on his word. We eventually find out a little more behind his reasoning for this but it really only makes us respect him all the more. Most people can relate to feeling guilt for something that's not even really their fault; I know I certainly can.
Locke's relationship with Celes throughout the game is one of the best romances ever done in any game as it's very layered and complex and anything but straightforward. It amounts to way more than just two people brought together through dangerous and extraordinary circumstances eventually falling for each other.
He's got some of the funnier lines in any rpg and in a game full of amazing music, his theme is just awesome, perfectly capturing his character. Locke is a hero you'd want in your party anytime.
2. Cloud (Final Fantasy VII)
Cloud first comes to us as a mercenary with a messed up past and as it turns out, it's even more messed up than he initially remembers. He starts out as kind of a jaded jerk but his compassion eventually comes through. Maybe the story of the loner who comes to see the value of friendship and maybe even love isn't a new one but it's still done extremely well with Cloud. The loyalty he has for his companions is exemplified over and over again through acts of extreme bravery and sometimes just...extremes (like dressing in drag to infiltrate a brothel). From his verbal jousts with Barret to his playful flirting with Aerith, we really do see some heavy character development that's very interesting and heartfelt. His date at the Gold Saucer with Aerith is the most romantic sequence in all of video games (as far as I'm concerned).
And as he discovers more about his past, Cloud actually goes right to the breaking point and even does end up broken for awhile. Because even for a video game hero, Cloud is messed up. And he doesn't just bounce back all at once. Even with all the fantasy that's going on, he is still very much human with flaws and weaknesses to balance his strengths.
Cloud's sword is all kinds of cool and his limit break techniques are the best in the game. The materia system keeps FFVII characters from having their own unique attacks but he still stands out as your heaviest hitter.
What easily could have been a one-dimensional character in the series is actually one of the very deepest and while FFVII is an amazing game in every capacity, the inclusion of Cloud as protagonist helps to push it into "masterpiece" territory.
1. Celes (Final Fantasy VI)
So much has been said about her I really don't know what else I could add, but I will try. In a series famous for being full of interesting and memorable characters, Celes stands above them all.
She comes to us fairly late in the game for a major character, even for an experienced player it takes about four hours of playing to get to where she becomes playable but that's just part of what makes FFVI such a wonderful game - it doesn't actually have one main character, instead relying on several to carry the load with lesser characters playing support roles. Anyway Celes is originally with the enemy but we find out that she wasn't loyal to them at any point - fused with magic, she'd simply been used by the Empire since her birth as a weapon. But as soon as she's in a position to defy them she does, even though it appears hopeless. We're only just meeting Celes and already we find out that she's bravely prepared to die rather than continue being a tool of evil.
Throughout the game it is mostly her relationship with Locke that stands out but she also interacts well with others, flatly refusing to answer wimpy Terra's dumb questions about "what love is" and staring down the other members of the party who don't trust her at first and threaten her. Although she was used by the Empire she at least makes good use of her training and is every bit as much a warrior as Cyan or Sabin. She also has an interesting relationship with a non playable character, Cid which seems almost trivial when first introduced but later on becomes quite significant.
At one point she is described as "cold as ice" by another party member and while she never gets annoyingly emotional like Terra, we do get to see her more tender side throughout the game, principally in her interactions with Locke. The opera scene has gained a fame that goes beyond even the game and this is not unwarranted. Besides all the other stuff like the music and presentation, that scene is also wonderful simply in the context of FFVI's story as we see the hardened warrior forced into a role she's never played before and actually pulling it off beautifully, perhaps discovering something about herself in the process.
Maybe Celes's greatest moment is on the Floating Continent in her showdown with Kefka and Gestahl. Her speech there is one of the most stirring and memorable moments in the entire series and its conclusion is punctuated by her daring actions.
Her runic blade is absolutely essential in some battles and always just fun to use in any situation and she's probably the game's strongest magic user when all is said and done. She's fair to the point of pale and hauntingly beautiful and feminine while remaining strong and forceful. Tragic, romantic and heroic, Celes is the best Final Fantasy has to offer. And that's saying a lot.