The Final Fantasy brand is one of the oldest and most well known series of JPGs, and is often the ruler to which other JRPGs are compared. Games from established companies and indie groups are often praised for being so similar to the classic series of games, and newer games from Square Enix are criticized for not being 'Final Fantasy enough.' The recent game Bravely Default is called by many fans and critics as being more Final Fantasy that the recent games marketed under that umbrella. And quite frankly, I have no idea what these people are talking about.
I was very late compared to a lot of people to become a player of Final Fantasy games. My first Final Fantasy game was X, which I got as a present from a friend back in 2006. I originally became interested in the series of games after playing Kingdom Hearts—a game I originally played only because I was a fan of Disney Animation. Since 2006 I have purchased and played various versions of the original 12 games as well as Final Fantasy Tactics and a few of the spinoff series such as Dissidia and Theaterhythm. But unlike a lot of people, I've played the majority of these games within a few months of one and other whereas most fans have been getting access to these games over a course of years. After all, the original Final Fantasy came out in 1987. And stripped of the nostalgia that most people have, I can approach the individual games with a more critical view.
The fact of the matter is that there is no one standard banner version of Final Fantasy. The things that are so closely associated with the game: Chocobos, Moogles, Cactaurs, Summons—none of these things are in the original Final Fantasy. Chocobos don't appear until the second game, Moogles and Summons in the third and Cactaurs, Master Tonberries and Magic Pots don't appear until Final Fantasy V. The most iconic part of the first Final Fantasy was choosing classes for your four named characters; Final Fantasy VII, probably the most famous game in the series, doesn't have any kind of pre-established class system at all. Final Fantasy II doesn't use an experience system for leveling up and Final Fantasy VIII levels are increased via tasks and tests and not battles. None of the 14 games in the main series had a uniform battle, exploration, class or armor system.
Many argue that while each individual game was different, their features changed and expanded upon, the unifying quality of the Final Fantasy series is the story, with complaints that the more recent games were lacking in quality stories, or reliance on melodrama between characters to drive the plot forward. This is of course a matter of opinion. I am not qualified to offer any thoughts about Final Fantasy XIII, the most commonly sited example of the series' decline, as I've never played it, but I've definitely played enough games to recognize quality storytelling over contrived nonsense. The fact of the matter is the original Final Fantasy's story doesn't make an ounce of sense. Most people can quote the premise—that Four Warriors of Light will use the power of the crystals to save the land from destruction, but very few actually tell the plot. The story of Final Fantasy is that when the knight Garland turns evil, he uses his powers to get the four fiends to be summoned to the future from the past and stop the powers of the crystals. By The Warriors of Light defeating Garland, his soul goes into the past to become the Lord of Chaos who creates the four fiends who sends Chaos into the future as Garland who then in turn can send the four fiends to the future as well. It isn't until the Warriors of Light go back into the past and destroy the Lord of Chaos that the fiends can't send Garland into the future to summon them as well. Got all that? No? That's kind of my point.
A lot of people also complain that the PS1 and 2 era games were the beginning of the end when the main characters started to become whiny emo pretty boys. Want to know who the first emo pretty boy in a Final Fantasy game is? Cloud? Nope. Squall? Try again. Tidus? Not even close. The original indecisive, past-dwelling, angsty Final Fantasy hero is Cecil, the main character from Final Fantasy IV. The main focus of the game was Cecil's struggle with his past as a Dark Knight, who had caused a lot of death and pain to serve his king, as well the constant betrayals from his best friend Kain, who is jealous that their mutual friend Rosa loves Cecil and not him. While people prefer to focus on the more humorous and lively characters, the game would not move forward without the love triangle between Cecil, Rosa and Kain, with Cecil constantly rejecting Rosa because he can't forgive his past, Rosa constantly rejecting Kain, and Kain constantly screwing Cecil in the most inopportune times and taking off with all your best armor.
I think the reason there is such a skewed view about the series as though Final Fantasy is one standard model is similar to comic books. People know that Batman as a hero that refuses to kill, hates guns and has a butler named Alfred—except none of that is true about the original character. Batman's used guns on dozens of occasions, Alfred was originally a bumbling detective and Batman throws a guy out of a window to his death in the original issue of the comic! However, after 75 years of stories being written and reinvented, we've come a general understanding of Batman that's pretty uniform. The same thing happened with Final Fantasy. There are people who played the original NES copy of Final Fantasy and know Final Fantasy VI as Final Fantasy III for the SNES, and they have one view of how Final Fantasy is versus the kids whose first game and defining gaming memory was Final Fantasy VII. Now with the games shifting again with the recent past couple of generations, Final Fantasy is going to continue to change according to technology, culture and market trends. There will be good games. There will be bad games. But all of these games are just as much or just as little a Final Fantasy game as the ones the came before it.