“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate, to be ruled by your genes. Human beings can choose the kind of life that they want to live. What’s important is that you choose life… and then live”
-Naomi Hunter, Metal Gear Solid
Final Fantasy IX is the ninth installment in the acclaimed series and has a prestigious position in the history of this franchise. It was the last Final Fantasy of the PS1. It was the last of the “single-digit” Final Fantasy games. In a sense it closed out that era for the franchise, like the curtain fall whence the actors take their bows.
As such, FFIX acts as a bookend for everything that came before it and it specifically paid homage to the earliest Final Fantasy games. For this reason, I recommend it foremost to those who have never played a Final Fantasy game ever. Play IX, then VI, then VII. Take it from a Red Mage.
“This title (currently in development) is based on a reflection of all the previous works in the series. The coming installment [Final Fantasy IX] is my “favorite”, it’s closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.”
-Hironobu Sakaguchi, original creator of Final Fantasy
IX honored the original games in several different ways. After the sci-fi settings of VII and VIII, the two games which preceded it, IX spearheaded a return to the high fantasy series’ roots. Abandoning the dystopian jungle of sprawling Midgar and the gilded, mechanical wonders of Balaam Garden, IX’s world seems steampunkish, Victorian, antique, medieval, populated with rich pseudo-European cultures and castles and the series’ traditional wooden airships. Nothing wrong with science fiction but this is Final Fantasy. Just sayin’.
IX also leaves behind the trendy, moody protagonists, Cloud and Squall, to adopt Zidane, a far more lighthearted and jocular trickster-archetype, albeit with a mysterious past. In FFIX there is humor, charm and genuine warmth, if even optimism. Not that none of those things were present in VII and VIII, but we never see Zidane brooding over himself or preoccupied with introverted thoughts so much as we see him constantly sticking his foot in his mouth or causing an impulsive ruckus.
He’s the proverbial life of the party. Lecherous but harmless. The same goes for the wacky cast of diverse characters, which are certainly more wild and varied than those of VIII. Steiner in particular (my favorite character) is funny as the game’s straight man.
These characters feel like they have real personalities and obsessions and desires. We can almost anticipate what we expect them to say but they can sometimes still surprise us. I’ve played a lot of JRPGs and this cast is one of the best:
Even the character design of IX moved away from the more realistic approaches in VII and VII with its super-deformed cartoon characters and eccentric personalities. It isn’t hard to image that this is what the 8-bit and later 16-bit sprites would actually look like if translated straight into PlayStation graphics. And IX’s world is populated by more than humans, with anthropomorphic animals and mystical creatures everywhere.
Lastly, the traditions of the earliest games are remembered in IX with its return to the class “Job” system. In VII and VIII, characters were generally blank slates in gameplay terms. They could all learn the most of the same abilities and skills and magic. This direction in RPGs can lead to homogeneous characters. Though this didn’t take away from any of the enjoyment of VII and VIII, the return to Jobs where every playable character has a set of unique skills and abilities is a welcome variation. There’s Zidane, a thief, then a black mage, a white mage, a knight, a summoner, a dragoon, a . They even tucked a blue mage in there, though of course games had developed enough by this point that their personalities take precedent over their class definitions.
I personally find IX‘s deliberate aesthetic a refreshing vision after the increasing trend of seriousness and realism from the previous two games. It’s a final farewell to everything that came before it. It reminds us what made the Final Fantasy series great in the first place and why it’s here, one of the most influential RPG franchises there are. The series has of course moved on and continued to evolve, as well it should, but Final Fantasy IX is always there to remind us of where we’ve come.
Final Fantasy IX opens by introducing us to Zidane and a group of thieves called Tantalus on a mission to kidnap Princess Garnet of the Kingdom of Alexandria under the guise of a theatre troupe. IX often juggles between the perspectives of multiple characters, so next players and put into the shoes of a little black mage named Vivi in Alexandria, on his way to watch the show. The game uses Active Time Events (ATE) to allow the player to switch between multiple characters, providing extra scenes and development.
The kidnapping doesn’t go quite as planned when the Princess’ guardian knight Steiner gets involved, uncovering the plot of Tantalus. But as it turns out (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Princess Garnet actually wants to be kidnapped, believing that her mother the Queen has been acting strangely. Only her uncle Cid, Regent of neighboring nation of Lindblum can provide refuge and perhaps an explanation.
What ensues is a massive, complex and thematic narrative involving lust for power, multiple puppets and puppet-masters, and an escalating war between nations. Zidane and his party will eventually uncover the meddling of forces more powerful than the Queen instigating the conflict for their own ends, as well as the existence of a parallel world and the nature of the threatening Mist. It’s… complex, like I said. Final Fantasy IX spanned four discs. It is quite a long tale and I’ve played through it multiple times but it’s still easy for me to get lost in the storyline.
This may just be because of the sheer size and scope of the story, but I’d blame it mostly on the wealth of sidequests in the game. Final Fantasy has been known for some time for its sidequests and IX isn’t going to be the exception. Yeah, you’ve got the odd minigame (jump rope, auction house, foot racing, etc.), your typical fetch quests and hunting for rare equipment, secret boss battles harder than the final boss and missable items, but there are also two sophisticated sidequests the game introduces: Chocobo Hot and Cold, and the Tetra Master card game.
Chocobo Hot and Cold is just what it sounds like, a game played like “You’re getting warmer! You’re getting hot!” It’s a buried treasure hunting game played on the back of the series’ avian mascot, the Chocobo. In various areas scattered across the world map, you can dig up treasures and chocographs that lead to more treasures found abroad. By finding items, your Chocobo levels up and becomes faster at digging with its beak and locating treasure. Certain rare items can only be found by completing the rather lengthy Chocobo sidequest.
The best thing about it is it returns to the system of colored Chocobos with different topography-traversing abilities. Blue and red Chocobos will be able to cross into previously unexplored areas, while the final Gold Chocobo takes flight.
And then there’s Tetra Master, a variation on VIII’s Triple Triad… Oh, man. The Final Fantasy series never had a sidequest as complex as Tetra Master up to this point (though FFX’s Blitzball may be slightly more so). Tetra Master is a card game with some difficult rules, and a lot of hidden rules as well, with a convoluted set of its own mechanics.
You can collect cards representing characters and monsters, some of them dating back to ancient Final Fantasy-dom, and use these cards in “battle” by playing the game with random NPCs scattered throughout the world. It’s actually a really awesome idea that you can just walk up to someone in a town you’ve recently entered for the first time and strike up a game with them.
The game itself is far too intricate to fully explain here but if you really need to, I’m sure you can find a helpful FAQ dedicated solely to that purpose. There are 100 cards in total and you can carry 100 cards at a time, making it pretty difficult to get all 100 since you forfeit a card if you lose a match meaning the more different cards you get the less duplicates you can have of them. I don’t think I ever got all 100. I think I meant to but I always beat the boss and completed the other sidequests and was like “I’ll get back to Tetra Master someday… Oh, look! A PS2!”
Final Fantasy IX is one of the highest rated of any of these games. For good reason. It was determined to be a modern classic, a nostalgic throwback to everything that built the series and made it what it is, introducing the earliest and most inaccessible games to new fans of Final Fantasy. And for that, it’s a valuable piece of gaming history. I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. Attention to “retro” sensibilities formed a large part of what made FFIX a critical success.
So I say again: Play Final Fantasy IX if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy title before. It’s now available on the PlayStation Network as a PSOne classic. Which indeed it is.
The 8-Bit Review
There are only a handful of moments from my younger years that I can still recall concerning my first reaction to a video game. I remember my jaw falling open when that opening title sequence played for me for the first time. Chills. This game was and still is gorgeous, especially its detailed pre-rendered background art, lively cutscenes and characters.
We mustn’t forget that this is a PS1 title and as such its original graphics today look blurry, jagged and aged. Characters look especially pixelated and warped further away from the screen, especially in comparison to the rich backgrounds. That’s as it should be as technology advances. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t breathtaking when IX was first released.
What gave that title sequence its impact was most likely the sheer beauty of its musical accompaniment. A soft, non-intrusive melody on the flute opens a game that knows what it’s doing and will take its time doing it.
Given the return to the high fantasy setting, the majority of the soundtrack is prototypical. A lot of it sounds like theatre music, and I mean the stage. There’s a sense of the performance of its songs, as if they are there for more than just background noise. Various themes run through the music, such as the central “Melodies of Life” motif, but these are played out to gentle, almost ballad-like, high middle ages sounds.
Vivi and Steiner’s themes above are perfect examples of the whimsy and personality of this soundtrack. Steiner’s captures the imagery of a bumbling, self-important idiot. Almost everywhere there’s this added flavor of European musical tradition. The inclusion of harpsichords and pizzicato strings, for example, seem to date certain tracks with a baroque feel Bach would be proud of. Heck, Nobuo Uematsu, the masterful composer of the majority of the Final Fantasy franchise, is probably just Bach back from the dead.
I don’t know how the man could craft so many soundtracks for so many games with such a broad range of emotions, styles, influences, and instruments.
The native Hawaiian in me adores the ukulele rendition of the classic Chocobo theme below.
One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the battle system. Active Time Battle first introduced in FFIV makes its return here, ensuring fights remain tense. Final Fantasy IX sticks to its genesis with turn-based combat and the Job system as we’ve already mentioned.
Each character having a Job ensures that strategy must be employed in choosing characters for your party based on their interactive abilities with each other, or being tactical about certain delicate situations when the story forces you to use a specific set of characters only.
There is also the newly introduced “Trance” state. This is similar to the Limit Break bar of FFVII, which fills up over time. When the orange bar gauge is full, your character will enter their “Trance” state. In “Trance” their strength is dramatically increased and they’ll have access to new skills and magic. It’s a neat addition in theory, but it cannot be saved up which means a character’s bar might fill at the end of a regular battle and their “Trance” state is wasted. It’s cool, but it’s not a game-changing addition.
A streamlined ability-learning system was implemented in FFIX. Leaving behind overly-customizable characters from the previous games, characters can only learn abilities particular to their class. Zidane can never learn black magic, Garnet can never use sword skills, and so on.
Specific abilities are learned by equipping armor or weapons that grant access to those abilities, providing they can be learned by a character’s class. As long as the character wears that particular armor or uses that particular weapon, they are allowed to use the abilities attached to it. Once the character gains enough ability points through battling with that set of equipment, they can take it off and keep using the ability anyway. The system made it so rare weapons are even more valuable as they typically allow access to rare abilities.
Characters can only “equip” a set amount of abilities they have access to based on their total ability points, indicated by the uppermost blue gem icon.
Expect a very long plot with a lot of character development and world building. This world is a rich tapestry of interacting cultures and characters. Thematically the game touches on some profound ideas like free will, memory, and the meaning of life and mortality. There’s an underlying scheme of choosing to live life, seen through Zidane and Kuja, the antagonist, who both turn out to be (spoilers: highlight to reveal) soulless creations given personalities. Kuja becomes nihilistic when confronted with the fact of his mortality. Zidane seems to confront life, and even death, with “an eat drink and be merry” attitude, though that wanes as he matures through the story.
A third character, Vivi the black mage, is also confronted suddenly with the harsh reality of the nature of his existence and reason for being, and mortality. His reaction is one of the most striking moments of this game’s narrative. It’s something I always remember about FFIX. There is little actual “quiet” in video games. They’re often so bombastic and loud and action-oriented, but there’s a scene in the village of black mages where Vivi and others discuss the nature of death, revealing their innocent ignorance of it, and it’s a scene for me that moves beyond the typical clichés of dealing with subjects of life and death in mainstream entertainment. It’s handled well and with care. It’s not cheap and frivolous.
The antagonist (one of them) Kuja is one of the weakest villains in the entire franchise, in my opinion. After Kefka and Sephiroth, he doesn’t have much going for him. I think the ending of FFIX suffers because of him. There are things that seem to just come out of nowhere. I feel like we all know that the conclusions of good stories should come about as a logical result of everything that happens during the story, and there are moments toward the end of IX where I didn’t sense that. It’s the one thing that keeps this epic from perfection.
Thankfully, there are other strong characters, like Vivi, who carry the story to its conclusion.
Given that pretty much everything about the battle system is found in one form or another in previous Final Fantasy entries, I’d say this game is quite accessible. Even if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy (for shame…), this isn’t such an ambitious project that it left behind all semblances of traditional RPGing. In fact, it must be its own focus on the traditions of the past that affirm a natural accessibility here. No surprises. Just great presentation. The battle and ability systems aren’t difficult to learn… unlike Tetra Master. If anything, it’s the game’s sheer breadth that makes it a game some will pass on entirely.
If you intend to complete this game 100% then you can jack up this Challenge score another two points. Finishing the main story is a feat of patience and dedication, considering how long this game is. Beside that, the sidequests may result in quite a lot of additional time being put in on top of that. This is really a sprawling significance we’re talking about in the world of Final Fantasy IX. Plus, there are some decently hard bosses scattered throughout the storyline as well as a handful of secret fights that will test your limits. Ozma, I’m looking at you…
How could a game that made as an homage and a farewell be so unique? Simple. It’s the only Final Fantasy that is both of those things. And despite those facts, it will always stand on its own, instantly recognizable among the Final Fantasy titles.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I think I would’ve played through this game more were it shorter. As it stands I’ve beaten it all the way through twice. Never found all the cards, though. Finished the Chocobo treasure hunting, so there’s that. The first time I reached Memoria my game glitched and froze. Turned out I had bought a faulty fourth disc. I couldn’t get the game to run past that part. It wasn’t until years later that I finally was able to get a hold of a fourth disc and finish the game. I replayed it again via PSN.
It’s not my favorite Final Fantasy game but it is up there, for all of the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Like Sakaguchi said, and I have to agree with him, if there’s one game that has come closest to capturing the energy and spirit of this franchise it’s got to be FFIX, with warmth and humor and the will to not be too afraid to be childish. Before the series moved on too far, it was good to take a look back at where it’d come from.
If you haven’t played it, get on with it, man! The crystal calls!
Aggregated Score: 9.3