When I did my Final Fantasy generation rankings a few months ago, I felt that out of all the games, the only one that didn't get an especially fair shot was Final Fantasy IX. Squaresoft's love letter to the days of old was the only pre-PlayStation 2 entry in the franchise that I never made an honest attempt at playing twice. Until recently, that is.
I played it at launch back in 2000 all the way to the fourth CD, inexplicably determined that I didn't like it, and walked away without completing its final dungeon. Too much chocobo side-quest? No motivation to see the characters turn out okay? Don't ask me why because I simply can't remember.
I had long dismissed it as one that I didn't care much for, and I wish I had an explanation.
Hopefully now, I can put that behind me and correct the last 15 years of this misconception. I just spent a month breezing through Final Fantasy IX on my PlayStation Vita, and it is an absolutely wonderful game, dare I say in the upper echelon of the fabled franchise.
Ill-equipped to understand – Final Fantasy's spotty localization history
First, let's take a look at why one might have been quick to overlook this game in 2000 when it first released. It's certainly not because it is a bad game, that much is for certain. Time travel back with me to the end of the 90s, my "be-all, end-all" favorite era of gaming. Neon Genesis Evangelion rocked the foundations of Japanese pop-culture a few years earlier, and 3D polygon graphics were all the rage in gaming thanks to its affordability on Sony's new PlayStation console.
Final Fantasy VII and VIII followed suit by leading their own little revolution into rewriting the rules of the booming JRPG genre, introducing experimental gaming mechanics, expansive 3D worlds, existential storylines, and much darker tones far beyond cheerful stories of dragon lords ransacking princesses.
Xenogears, Chrono Cross, Vagrant Story. These were the results of Squaresoft's massive overhaul; the hip, new-age, "mature" contemporaries Final Fantasy IX had to stack up against. What chance did a quaint excuse for series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to flush a little nostalgia from his system stand against these modern critical hits?
For those who don't know, Final Fantasy IX was originally never destined to have a number at the end of its title. Squaresoft intended it to be a sub-entry, a kind of throwback to the good old days of the series. One for the fans of the Famicom and early Super Famicom era, deemed too geriatric to stand among the newer favorites which lifted Squaresoft to the top of the video game world.
Anyone who played the entire series can confirm the first five share a very distinct feel from their barrage of liberal successors. It was these first five games that Sakaguchi directed before being promoted to Executive Vice President role overseeing everything at Squaresoft and the five he had the most hands-on involvement with.
It is also these five games which Final Fantasy IX models itself after. A return to the world of black mages, chocobos, moogles, airships, dwarves, simpler happier times. Oh, don't be too fooled, Final Fantasy IX is loaded with emotional moments and dark twists, but gone are the evil mega-corporations and militarized high school kids, elements which worked their ways into other Final Fantasy stories while Sakaguchi was probably distracted by his new responsibilities.
Unfortunately, of these original five games, only two had been released in the States in time for Final Fantasy IX to have the same impact as it had on the sentimental fanboys in Japan. This could also account for why one would overlook Final Fantasy IX's charm, missing the point entirely.
The first Final Fantasy made it to the States, but that was before RPGs were popular or understood. The only real candidate for that old timey sentimentality is Final Fantasy IV, released as Final Fantasy II. By the time the Super Nintendo rolled around, both it and its popular sibling Final Fantasy VI had a solid enough fanbase leading into the PlayStation days.
As for the ones that didn't make it, Final Fantasy II and III would not be released in the West until after Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy V was released a year or so earlier, but in a butchered PlayStation port that hardly had enough time or quality to leave that emotional imprint needed to appreciate its nostalgia.
I suppose one could argue Final Fantasy Tactics had plenty of these established tropes, and that was indeed a sentimental favorite by 2000 in North America; however, the differences between Hironobu Sakaguchi and its director, Yasumi Matsuno, are quite vast. Tactics provides enough classic imagery, enough for me to understand the basic job classes at least, but hardly the same tone.
The point is many of us were ill-equipped in the States for when Final Fantasy IX launched. Over the years though, I have gone back to find new appreciation for these older games. I learned to love Final Fantasy V through the far superior Game Boy Advance port, and Final Fantasy IV has seen a revival through more accessible channels as well. The original NES trilogy became readily available through the magic of fan translations, and their remakes have also opened up my eyes to the lore from before my time.
It's no doubt, armed with this new perspective on an older time, I was able to love Final Fantasy IX so much more this time around.
Lighthearted and shallow fun all around
Where to begin is the hardest part about Final Fantasy IX. The game finds its strength not in convolution like Final Fantasy VII or VIII but in its brevity. Rather than pointing out the stark differences in their plots, I'll just jump right in with Final Fantasy IX's colorful cast.
Final Fantasy IX tells the story of Zidane, a classic JRPG hero through to his very bones. He doesn't have an ounce of angsty fat weighing down his likability. Everywhere he steps proves that he is a sociable, likeable fellow. He would rather make friends, especially with ladies, than wage war with the wealth of power at his fingertips. He belongs to an acting troupe. He has a tail. He has no memory of his origin. This is our hero. Likeable, mundane, shallow, a little bland.
He falls in love with a princess that he "kidnaps," even though her hijacking comes at her own request. Garnet, or Dagger as she prefers, finds herself on the run from her greedy, oppressive mother. She plays hard to get with Zidane, but learns to like him over time. She also carries the weight of her kingdom on her shoulders. Again, likeable, mundane, shallow, a little bland.
You'll find a lot of this in Final Fantasy IX.
Steiner is stalwart knight who defends the princess and nation's pride at all cost, and sometimes a little too blindly for his own sanity. Vivi, the game's best character, is a youthful black mage who ponders the meaning of his life, knowing that his expiration date could be just around the corner.
Amarant plays the "tough guy" loner as a hybrid between a classic Final Fantasy monk and ninja. Zidane bests him in a one-on-one duel, and he hangs around to understand what makes his adversary tick. Quina, the humorous oaf of the group and a classic blue mage, travels the world looking for food and inspiration to cook new ones. Eiko, a summoner, is the last of her tribe and lives with Moogles on a secluded island. She has a crush on Zidane and tries to steal his affections away from Dagger in the most childish ways imaginable.
Freya is a lancer/dragoon knight, and she is on the lookout for her long lost love. Sadly, she is the only element of Final Fantasy IX which strays into the realm of "too shallow." She unceremoniously enters the party, stumbles across her love once, disappears halfway through the second CD, and barely interacts with the plot at all after she rejoins. Horribly underutilized and with so much potential too.
Zidane and his quirky band of misfits aren't particularly deep, but keep an open mind to that they are not really the stars of this game. Remember, this is not an emotional character drama like the Final Fantasy games immediately surrounding it, but rather a simple throwback trying to catch the "feeling" of the original games.
This "feeling" is the main star of Final Fantasy IX, and games back then didn't have such complex characters with a huge range of emotions or sympathetic back stories. I mean, in these games, black hearted villains named ExDeath wanted to destroy the world simply because they could. They were put in their places by princesses and wanderers who coincidentally stumbled across an adventure to save the world.
Time spent with these characters can be wonderful if divorced from the idea that personalities must be complex to be worthwhile. Final Fantasy IX tells a nice enough story, one which highlights the limitations of our own mortality and how we spend our time on this plane. Who needs such depth with a theme like that?
Why not just kick back, relax, and enjoy it? Let the nostalgia flow through your veins and take you back to sitting in an 80s basement or 90s living rooming, pounding away on a Nintendo or Super Nintendo controller.
Just like any other entertainment medium out there, video games exist because they elicit an emotional response, and feeling happy through sentimental memories is more than enough of a valid reason to get lost in one.
The characters aren't all that's shallow around here
I like accessible these days. I like having Skyrim's, Persona 4's, and Mass Effect 2's inner RPG mechanics right up and in my face. I like entering simple commands to get Dante or Bayonetta to do incredible acrobatic stunts. Maybe its because I am losing my patience as an adult, but I am tired of tinkering. Final Fantasy IX's up front and genuine character customization is the perfect drug for this new me.
To add new new abilities and passive traits to his or her arsenal, all a character must do is load up with equipment and fight away. Each and every weapon or piece of armor comes with two or three abilities it can teach, and once the character has enough AP points, he or she will learn it permanently without the need to leave it equipped.
Of course, this could lead to a messy stockpile if characters are to learn every skill Final Fantasy IX has to offer and become ultimate killing machines, but it also adds a light dose of decision making to approaching battle. Do you take in that ultra powerful sword which teaches Zidane nothing into the tough boss battle, or do you take in the weaker sword and mooch off of its generous AP drops?
Limit Breaks are also negligible in this game, but it's worth mentioning that they do more than be the sole defining part of an individual character. What do I mean by that? Simply put, Limit Break attacks in Final Fantasy VII and VIII exist solely to give each characters some sort of distinction in battle from his or her comrades. Beyond these attacks, every character in these games are blank slates which can be twisted and customized to the player's will.
Plug in a Materia set or attach a Guardian Force or two, and any character can be swapped in and out of battle with very little consequence.
The truth is that Final Fantasy IX's battle system succeeds thanks not to its shallow customization but rather through each character's individuality. Final Fantasy VII's Cloud can mimic Barret or Vincent with ease, but Zidane will never be able to match Vivi or Steiner. Certain battles require magic attacks or physical attacks or tanks, and a party will have a hard time succeeding if its strengths and weaknesses are out of balance. Ever try to beat the first Final Fantasy with just a party of white mages? Not going to happen easily.
Even being in balance can prove difficult if a battle is entered with a wrong focus. Instead, it is ideal to know the ins and outs of each of Final Fantasy IX's eight mainstay members. This is a game built more about building a tangible party rather than stacking a character's complex skill-tree. Again, this stays in line with Squaresoft's theme that simple is easier to balance for a bigger picture.
I dropped the word "ideal" because this is a Final Fantasy game after all. Eventually, every character becomes a walking freighter truck of indestructibility, the need for this balance vanishes by the end of the third CD. Final Fantasy IX isn't overly difficult either. I saw a Game Over screen only once or twice.
If anything were to be a detriment to Final Fantasy IX's enjoyment, I would probably only point to its loading times. As a monster of 32-bit polygon RPG, these battles will naturally take a long time to load, and some of the battlegrounds are a little too detailed for their own good. Slowdown pops up frequently, and some battles feel as if they could have been beaten in a fraction of the time had they been running smoothly.
On the reverse end though, Squaresoft realized that fans might not want to watch Bahamut being summoned hundreds of time over and over again, and it allows for the nice option to breeze through abbreviated summon spells. Nice touch!
So, after 15 years of misconstrued judgement, where does Final Fantasy IX lie on my grand ranking of Final Fantasy games? Honestly, I have no idea. My inlooks and outlooks on Final Fantasy are just all over the place these days, and it has become impossible to rank them individually. That's why I tried to stick with ranking generations in my earlier editorial.
I've played my perennial favorite, Final Fantasy VI, so much that can barely look at it anymore, and Final Fantasy IV and V are catching up with it each time I realize how much I love this "classic" Final Fantasy allure. Final Fantasy X gets better each time I play, and Final Fantasy VII gets worse.
There is no point in ranking these games, not with how drastically the series has evolved over the years and how much I've changed since I started playing them. I will say this about Final Fantasy IX though, and that is that Sakaguchi clearly had more input with this title than he did the previous three. He might not have directed it, but his name being all over the writing credits confirms an obvious presence can be felt every step of the way.
This focused creative voice nails the timeless aesthetic and storytelling of the originals using technology and artistry that were only capable during Squaresoft's peak of power in the closing days of the 32-bit generation. The company could have used all of the knowledge it gained over those PlayStation years to close out the console with a "modern" Final Fantasy, but I am glad that it decided to play this one closer to the heart.
Final Fantasy IX is a little too cute and simple to be called one of the greatest games of all time, but this unique ability to cross generational gaps could make it one of the most enjoyable. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and it is among the best when it comes to just losing yourself into a nice RPG.
The 32-bit graphics might not have aged as well as some would have liked, but don't look now! Janky polygons are starting to hit their nostalgic stride the same way 8-bit and 16-bit sprites did before them. Who knows? To some, Final Fantasy IX might still be a beautiful game.
It certainly was to me! The game even survives as a wonderful portable game, working its magic brilliantly on the PS Vita's OLED screen. Yesterday's blockbuster hits have become today's portable favorites, and success stories like Final Fantasy IX are the reason over 90 percent of my gaming time is spent in the palm of my hands.
I find that as I get older, I am far more attracted to things that are charming and fun rather than cool and hardcore. For example, I like the childhood adventures of Goku in Dragon Ball more so than his melodramatic fights to defend the Earth in Dragon Ball Z. I prefer sub-questing around the world as a goofy angel in Dragon Quest IX than I do sub-questing around the world as a hardline arbiter of justice in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I suppose with this gradual change in taste to lighter affairs, Final Fantasy IX has finally claimed its place as my favorite mainline PlayStation era Final Fantasy game… just 15 years a little too late.