Note: Be warned that there will be uncensored spoilers in this opinion piece.
Second Note: This article is an opinion piece, subject to someone's personal preferences and likes, and every reader is free to agree or disagree with its contents as they choose.
Final Fantasy has a long history of character-driven stories, although that aspect of the franchise didn't really come to the fore until Final Fantasy IV, where the story was the primary focus, and each character had their own arc, moments of drama, and narrative resolution. This did at the time, and still does to a degree, make the series stand out from the crowd. While many other series had strong stories, there weren't really many around that had the character depth and involved personal stories that each game attempted and often succeeded in offering. In this respect, if not in any other, Final Fantasy has often stood proudly aloof.
But there is one area where the Final Fantasy franchise has ended up being tangled up inexorably with the rest of the gaming world, whatever genre any game is in: female characters. This is a sore point for many people, and a continuing source of academic and online contention, especially when controversial characters come along, or characters that seem to pander to a rather outdated idea of women's roles in video games, in terms of both gameplay and narrative. While there are many gaming franchises that are notable either for their boldness (Tomb Raider, Metal Gear, Bayonetta), their forward attitude (Metroid, later Shin Megami Tensei: Persona games a few Tales games, Heavenly Sword), or their seeming unwillingness to commit to a more modern attitude of sexual equality (The Legend of Zelda, Mario, multiple Tales games), Final Fantasy presents a prime example for showing how female characters have evolved and changed in form, importance and strength since the first game's release in 1987. For this article, I will select specific characters and use them as examples for their times.
The early era is not exactly rich in characters for study. The original game and Final Fantasy III, while later revamped for more powerful platforms and a more modern gaming audience, had all-male casts, inspired probably by the heroic deeds of Medieval Knights and the tales of Samurai. In Final Fantasy II, there are two female characters, two who represent one of the "conventional extremes" of the culture of the times: Maria and Leila are both strong women, one a determined archer, and the other a pirate, but neither of them have much of a role, except that Maria's relationship with her brother forms one of the primary narratives. The most notable female character to appear is mostly likely not female at all. This one is the Cloud of Darkness, the Necron of her game, the main antagonist who only appears at the very end of the game and is not even mentioned before then. In the original game, she is merely a powerful boss to be fought, a plot twist after the death of Xande and the Warriors' seeming victory. Her personality is extended to a degree in Dissidia and its prequel 012: even there, she is little more than a nihilistic agent of eternity, knowing that everything ends and that everything will eventually become one with the vast fathomless void, the eternal darkness where the ancient Crystals and wayward deities of the Final Fantasy series rest and either sleep, support or scheme. As such, she's not as impressive as many of the later heroines and villainesses that have appeared over the years.
In Final Fantasy IV, there are three female characters who appear as crucial parts of the story: this formula of three female characters as part of the playable party would become a tradition in the main series as a whole. The one that springs to many people's minds when Final Fantasy IV is mentioned in series-savvy groups is Rosa Joanna Farrell, Cecil Harvey's love interest and the center of a love triangle between Cecil and Kain Highwind. While she may appear, because of her attire, to be something of a wet blanket in terms of helping out during battles, she has a single-minded determination to help Cecil that is commendable. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of instances where she needs to be saved, which rather sours this strong side of her character. There is even a large section of the game where she is a helpless prisoner in the hands of Golbez. Frankly, if it were not for these moments in the game's narrative, she would stand out (for the time when she was created) as one of the most strong-minded, determined and powerful female protagonist of the series.
The two female characters of Final Fantasy V more closely mirror the roles of the two from Final Fantasy II, as the game does its predecessor, so nothing much of note can be said here. It was only when Final Fantasy VI came along that something more substantial in the way of strong female characters appeared for our entertainment. The three that are there are the half-Esper Terra Branford, the artistic Relm Arrowny and the rather hard Celes Chere. The one that stands out in my mind is Celes, a General originally from the Gestahlian Empire and eventually one of the more compelling and tragic figures of the game's plot. She starts out as a somewhat antagonistic figure, although she always has her doubts about the wisdom of the Emperor and his adviser Kefka. She was also forced to become someone more than human, someone infused with ancient magic. In the game, she often uses her aloof attitude to keep herself shielded from the world's woes, and those shields are swept away with terrifying power after Kefka's actions create the World of Ruin. As seen if the player does the right/wrong things, she eventually tries to release herself from the broken world. But she also shows a very feminine side during her appearance as an opera diva, and also in her deep relationship with Locke. By the end, she manages to find a balance between her hard self and the side of her that should never have been so cruelly stifled, her purely human side. While the game was designed to have every character as a main character, Celes is a powerful figure among the cast, and in some ways overshadows Terra as someone who could qualify (in everyone's mind except Toriyama that is) as the main protagonist of Final Fantasy VI.
Final Fantasy VII has cast a shadow over the entirety of the franchise ever since its release, and its characters have had a similar effect. As Cloud Strife has cast a shadow over what is expected of main and male characters, so Tifa Lockhart has raised expectations for deuteragonists and female characters across the series as it has evolved since. Tifa is someone who acts as a secondary love interest for Cloud (alongside Aerith Gainsborough) and becomes his emotional support when he is nearly broken by Sephiroth. Of course, that's not her only quality: she represents a cultural shift in the times and a representation of one of the stock female protagonists of her time: the tough tomboy who also had a soft side. Her kind is seen in a more adult, balanced way in the film Red Cliff, and for dedicated gamers in the form of Chie Satonaka from the Persona 4 games. Her initial drive for revenge against Shinra for the destruction of Nibelheim quickly softens as she tries to help Cloud recover his old self. She also tries to be friends with everyone, giving her a cheery disposition that both complements and forms a contrast to Aerith's sombre kindness. In Advent Children, she was even more potent, forming the core of the film alongside Cloud and the mysterious Kadaj (principally because Toriyama and Nojima wanted to make her that way). My favorite moment during the film is when she snaps at Cloud when he tries to shirk off his duty to rescue the orphans he and Tifa had taken in: her outburst showed her inner power, and managed to break Cloud out of his self-imposed shell. For this reason, I feel that Tifa is one of the strongest characters in the game, and perhaps in the series as a whole. When VII was created, there was a major cultural shift going on in terms of what people thought about women and their roles both in society and in stories in both West and East. And Tifa reflects and reinforces that mood.
Final Fantasy VIII was quickly made riding on the previous game's success, and boasts several elements that can be found in VII, but of course it also features a cast that's both familiar and noticeably different. The one that stands out most deliberately is Rinoa Heartilly, the game's version of Aerith. She has been deliberately styled like that most tragic of heroines, although her love story with Squall Leonhart is much happier than the one between Aerith and Cloud. Many stoop to criticize this relationship simply because it is subtle and steeped in the traditions of another culture. In many Far Eastern cultures, love is something low-key and powerful to be shared in private or in subtle motions: this is what makes the steamy love scenes in House of Flying Daggers especially potent, because, for their culture, the characters release their passion with unnatural vehemence. Another parallel with Aerith is Rinoa's position as a Sorceress ('Witch' in the original), a race that is sought after, worshiped and feared all at once. This is another aspect of Rinoa that is admirable: she bears the burden of a Sorceress' power with a smile, and manages to find happiness with Squall, at the same time allowing him to drop his cool armor and become more open and human, maybe even to the extent where he can consider Seifer Almasy less as an enemy and more as a casual rival (just as Seifer managed to make peace with himself and his dreams at the end).
Final Fantasy IX was deliberately designed to hark back to the earlier games in the series, except with its characters. The cast not only featured a character who was sexless, but also boasted three strong female characters. One of the strongest on offer is Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, adopted daughter to one of the secondary antagonists, Brahne Raza Alexandros XVI, a member of the near-extinct Summoner tribe and love interest for Zidane Tribal. While she appears to be both girlish and rather sullen during the opening segment, a sign of her resolve shows early on when she chooses to leave her increasingly war-like mother and flee, with a little help from Zidane and the rest of the theater troop. Even when her devoted knight Adelbert Steiner tries to stop her, she carries on. She often shows this resolve and strength, and also bonds with Zidane to a degree that it's obvious Steiner can't understand. Her character takes a knock when Brahne dies, and again when Garland destroys Alexandria, but she rallies each time and strides forth with her allies to ensure continued peace and the failure of Garland's plans for their world. She is very much the game's female version of Zidane, and as such she holds a presence in the story she might not do if she was someone more akin to Rosa or Terra. She stands proud alongside the sombre Dragoon Freya Crescent and the Alexandrian General, Beatrix.
Final Fantasy X presents a challenge from its time, as it is the first game in the series to have voice acting. The three female characters for this game are Yuna, Lulu and Rikku. While Lulu and Rikka have impressive arcs and develop into characters you would side with, it's Yuna who stands out. She has elements from Aerith, Rinoa and Garnet inside her, but also has a unique side to her character that shows through completely by the end of the first game. At the start, she is a friendly woman who does not let her responsibilities weigh her down and make her more aloof than others who are summoners and high devotees of Yevon. She is also far more independent-minded than many another Yevonite, quickly seeing through the lies the order has spun around their fear of change once the first chinks begin to appear in their armor. Her relationship with Tidus is also one of the focal points of the game, her developing feelings for him, and what can be seen as the anguish in her at having to allow him living in the dark about her ultimate fate if she completes her pilgrimage. When she finally casts away her old self and embraces the possibility of a permanent solution to the sorrow plaguing her land, she becomes even stronger, and becomes a friend, an equal and a lover for Tidus. At the very end, though clearly saddened by Tidus' apparent 'death', she is willing to go on and help Spira rebuild, using the strength she has gained on her pilgrimage. And then X-2 came along, and while it lightened her mood and showed the progression of an entertaining friendship with Rikku and Paine, it destroyed her independence and turning her into one of all too many mushy female characters that blight the game. Don't get me wrong, I find a strong female presence in a game enjoyable and X-2 could have been a great game, but the emphasis on love extended too far beyond the original setting between Tidus and Yuna, Shuyin and Lenne: it turned Leblanc, who could have been a magnificent foil for the Gullwings, into a stupid, mushy... I don't even know what word to use without using something very inappropriate.
I shall skip over both XI and XIV as they are MMOs and their characters are very much simple stereotypes meant to emulate and embellish the journey of the player's character. Final Fantasy XII is the next entry where an intriguing character comes up, intriguing because she is so extreme: Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca. That can be traced to the origins of her pain; she lost her husband, whom she loved despite their marriage being a political convenience, then she was seemingly betrayed and robbed of her father by a trusted soldier of their kingdom, allowing Dalmasca to become a puppet state to the Arcadian Empire. Her lust for vengeance and her initial rage and coldness towards Basch fon Ronsenburg is perfectly understandable, though painful to watch. When she begins seeing the spirit of her husband, you know at once that something is wrong, so it's strange to keep guiding her along the path that's fueling her lust for blind vengeance. It is a relieving moment when she finally begins realizing her own folly and listening to the words of those around her who advise caution. Seeing her react and have a minor epiphany when Balthier reveals his past to her is one of the crowning moments of the game's narrative. Finally, she becomes someone more than just an angry wife and queen lusting for vengeance when she casts off the Occuria's allotted role for her and decides to make her own history. In the course of this change, she also fully embraces the possibility of peace reigning between Arcadia, Rozzaria, Dalmasca and all the other kingdoms and territories of Ivalice. While Penelo's story is barely impressive (an echo of Vaan's role in the game as the watching eyes of the narrative) and Fran's small arch is too short for its possible substance, Ashe's story is different: after a while of living in a dream world, she reached out beyond her rage and found something better, something far more human. Her role in the game is something that is both in tune with the times and shows something singular within the franchise.
Here we are. The latest in a long line, but also someone who was so different that she grated with some fans. While the other three principle female protagonists of the games, Serah Farron, Oerba Dia Vanille and Oerba Yun Fang, stand out as pretty darn impressive in many respects, Lightning reflects many of the moods of the then-present gaming community, a community that was more accepting of a woman who was mannish and good in battle, but could also be soft and feminine. Her creators wanted someone who would resonate with the fanbase, so they crafted her to be a female version of Cloud Strife: whether this was a good idea or not is debatable, as is much about Final Fantasy XIII and its two sequels. She has created controversy and division among fans and casual gamers alike ever since the first game came out, but whether you love her, like her, loath her or are indifferent about her, she has a strong story: a girl who lost her parents and chose to grow strong for her sister, but ended up becoming a puppet of the government, neglecting her sister and distrusting anyone who did not conform to the regime, like Snow Villiers. It takes her a while, bouncing between extremes, to finally find a point where she can accept what has happened and resolve to help the people of Cocoon whether they fear her or not. She matures enough that when she is whisked away into the neatherworld in XIII-2 and is made one with the Goddess Etro, she decides to stay and atone for the harm she did as a l'Cie. Ultimately, she does more harm than good, unwittingly calling her sister to her death and failing to protect Etro. In the final game, she is broken, easy prey for Bhunivelze to take and use her as his instrument for saving humanity for his new world, offering Serah's rebirth like a reward to a loyal dog. She knows it full well, and resents it. Eventually, rising triumphant, she manages to accept a side of herself that she suppressed for too long and become a true human being, casting off the shackles of divine destiny, and the painful past she had been shielding herself from, once and for all. Love her or hate her, in terms of her actions and development, Lightning is one of the strongest characters of the series.
End-note: Given the expanding nature of the series and the way people's minds can forget or switch to things, this article will inevitably expand.