Final Fantasy IX, the last of the Playstation 1 era FF’s, was released in 2000. The last entry of what is sometimes known as FF’s Golden Era takes it back to the classic fantasy streets, electing for a medieval setting with steam punk trappings. Mechanically it brings back the four man parties (I thought that was new back when I first played), easily identifiable classes for the characters, and the more simplified and streamlined basic leveling features from pre FFVII entries. The decision to work in a new/old school mix apparently paid off, at 94% FFIX is the highest rated FF on metacritic, and two big wigs of the FF tend to agree. Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the series, has said that it’s his favorite Final Fantasy, and is the best representation of what constitutes Final Fantasy. Nobuo Uematsu, the main composer for a large portion of the series, has also called his work on FFIX to be his favorite score in the series. Now who am I to disagree? well no one, but I do disagree. I do not think FFIX is the best FF or the best FF score in the series, however....
Final Fantasy IX Is My Favorite PS1 Final Fantasy (and My Favorite Of The Series So Far)
And it always has been, despite the one I’ve probably got the least amount of play time in (this is partially due to it being really freaking short first play). Why is that? Honestly I don’t think I can point to any one aspect that elicits my love of the game. Really its the whole package which just draws me in. It’s kind of funny because at some point, someone asked me whether I prefer the old or newer FF’s, and I said the newer, and yet my favorite FF so far is one that harkens back to the old ones. The reasons for this is a bit obvious however, I hold that newer FF’s are just better made. they generally have less glitches and bugs (FFVII being a bit of an outlier), more coherent worlds and less generic designs and characters. Still it is kind of nice in the course of this project to see all the systems and worlds that FFIX harkens back to. There are more specific examples as to why I love FFIX so much, however those details are best left to their respective sections.
Mechanically FFIX Plays It Safe...And A Bit Boring
Whereas FFVII and FFVIII were more experimental, playing with less than standard systems of character development and modification, FFIX goes back to placing an importance on character levels and gear. Each party member represents a typical Final Fantasy job and their strengths, weaknesses, and abilities remain static. There won’t be any shifting of materia or summons to tailor your party to your liking, and like many FF’s, you’ll be quite a ways into your adventure before you have the ability to chose which party members you have active at any one point. If you weren’t a fan of story mandated inefficient party set ups in older FF’s, you’ll have to stomach them once again here. The one unique aspect of character progression is the relegation of abilities (passive and active) to gear. Each piece of gear has innate abilities that when worn are automatically granted to the party member. By gaining AP in battle the character can learn that ability permanently, and then equip it at the cost of ability stones. The stones work like a simple swappable perk system, you have a max number of stones (increased by leveling up) and you can equip/unequip whichever you want to mix and match whatever is most beneficial at the time...in theory. In practice, you’ll prioritize relevant status immunity passives and anything else is gravy. Clear Eyes (darkness) for physical attackers, Loudmouth (silence) for casters, then the “game over” statuses like Jelly (petrify), Clearheaded (Confused) and Body Temp (Freeze and Heat). Sure at some points you might not have enough stones to get all the immunities, or you may have to decide if you want auto-regen at the cost of something else, but the game is never really so hard that you have to make any gut wrenching decisions. It is nice however, that this system makes every piece of gear relevent, even you if you buy a piece, then find a statistically better one 5 minutes later, in the name of “but I might need this skill later” you’ll still want to use that bought equipment to learn their abilities.
The actual battle system itself is fine, but it’s also very slow. Even with 4 characters on the field, plus enemies, don’t be surprised if you’re twiddling your thumbs for a bit. Random battles, and even bosses, often don’t present too much of a challenge. It’ll be a long while before you encounter something that can’t just be attack/fire/cure spammed through. Trance mode is one aspect which FFIX changes it up a bit. Trance is built up like Limit Breaks, however unlike Limit Breaks, Trance isn’t one unique super powerful attack, but rather a state that lasts two turns. For each character it results in a general increase in power, however each character can have some unique aspect to their trance. Zidane gains access to his Dyne ability, Vivi gets Double cast black magic, and Steiner does 3x more damage (boring but effective, Steiner in a nutshell). There is one massive problem with Trance though. Trance is slow to build, and when activated, if something prevents you from using it, such as the battle ending, you’re shit out of luck, the trance bar resets, and you have to build it up all over again. You will have a character go in trance, only for another character to attack and finish the battle. You will have this happen multiple times. You will cry tears of sadness when it happens right before a boss fight.
In the end I can’t heavily criticize FFIX on its mechanical foundations, because while it can be boredom inducing slow or simple, the base mechanics are time tested troopers of the genre. It’s the pure old school distillation of the JRPG combat. But while I can’t heavily criticize the conservative and low key systems, at the same time there isn’t really a whole lot to praise about either. The main combat systems do their jobs to a satisfactory degree, no more, no less.
The Mini Game Diversions of FFIX Are Fun, But Quickly Wear Out Their Welcome
If you paid any attention to some of the furor over recent FF’s, amongst other things, you may have gotten the impression that FF fans really love their side quests and mini-games, and some froth at the mouth if those aspects are found lacking. Well FFIX brings two major diversions to the table, Tetra Master and Chocobo Hot And Cold. Both games seem fun on the simple ground level. However when it comes time to dig in, they both inevitably fall flat. Let us begin by examining Tetra Master, the sequel to FFVIII’s beloved card game Triple Triad, which I totally forgot to mention because...reasons (honestly i kind of ignored it for the sake of time). Tetra Triad takes the simple 4 numbers to a side, biggest number wins styling of triple triad, and tries to crank the complexity up to 11. Now cards have arrows that can be on sides or corners. if you place a card with an arrow pointing to an opponent’s card that doesn’t have an arrow pointing back, you automatically capture it. However if cards have arrows point then their stats come in to play. Here’s where shit gets complicated. each card has a p.att/m.att/p.def/m.def value represented by...hexadecimal values (0-F). These values are then translated in to an actual number, and both cards numbers drain. first one to hit 0 loses. The problem is how a hexadecimal value translates into an actual value, and the rate at which your points drain, makes almost no sense whatsoever. one card can have a value of 10 versus 50, but the 50 drains so damn fast it could actually hit 0 first..then chain capture to completely wreck you. It’s a classic case of overdone complexity with no eye as to whether or not it results in a more fun game. Also you actually HAVE to play at least 3 matches to continue the story at some point. My advice? just play the arrows to win and move on.
In contrast, Chocobo Hot And Cold is really really simple, and if you have shitty luck, you will absolutely fucking hate it. It’s a simple game of times hot and cold, so why does it draw my ire? a couple of reasons. Reason #1 is that almost all the ultimate weapons are tied to having finished it almost 100%. Reasons #2, which in part makes #1 so annoying, is that progression is completely random. I spent 10-15 hours to finish chocobo hot and cold. Thank god as a PS1 PSN title i can easily play it at work. Add in a short 60 second time limit, and an infuriatingly precise location for a successful dig (you will swear many times that the game is broken) and it’s a recipe for frustration. the items needed to progress, chocographs, and found completely randomly except for maybe the first one. Nothing burns more than a massive chocograph dry spell. Honestly, unless you just HAVE to have the ultimate gear, or you REALLY like the game, skip it. Those are 10 hours of my life I’ll never get back.
Don’t Let The Bright Cartoony Art Style Fool You, This Game Is Dark As Hell
Did you look at the cover and see the slightly chibi/deformed characters? the bright fantasy landscape in the opening cutscene? the cutesy anthropomorphic animal people? Did you think this was going to be a light hearted good vs evil romp around the lands? saving people, helping the defenseless? Yeah well, you aren’t getting much of any of that. Pretty much every party member is at some point going to suffer some form of loss or emotional crises before the credits role.The main female lead, Princess Garnet Til Alexandros aka Dagger, will lose everything she’s ever known and loved one after the other. What makes it quite effective is that prior to the game, and in the initial hours of the story, everyone of them was mostly happy. Unlike previous characters who already started the games being cold, distant, or mentally suffering, each character is broken down right in front of us. In the end you won’t even be all that successful of heroes. Of all the people you try to save, you’ll at most save a handful, and everyone else gets horribly murdered. FFIX deals with the ideas of life, how it struggles on despite everything, and the idea of facing one’s own mortality. You don’t do themes like these without causing massive damage to everyone involved and FFIX has no qualms about bringing the pain. It’s depressing, dark, and...fucking amazing to be honest. You’ll always be thinking “well, at least things can’t possibly get worse” and up until the end scenes role, you’d be dead wrong. The beginning and ending of the game is bookended by a performance of a shakespeare-esque tragedy called “I Want To Be Your Canary” which ends up setting the mood quite well, though overall the story doesn’t follow the classical shakespear tragedy too closely (at least as I remember them, it’s been awhile since I read McBeth). While the technology jump between FFIX and FFVIII doesn’t feel as great as the previous transitions, they still help bring the feels to bear greater than ever. People have died in FF’s before, a lot of people. However never have acts of such massive destruction been shown in such cutting edge (for the time) FMVs. Throughout most of my playthrough I was constantly asking myself “holy hell was this game always this depressing?”
Zidane Is A Very Different Protagonist, And That’s Great
Zidane Tribal, a thief and member of Tantalus, a theatre group and thieves guild, quickly differentiates himself from the stereotyped JRPG protagonist. He’s cheerful, cocky, carefree, flirtatious, and extremely mindful about the feelings of those around him. In other words completely different than the initial personalities of 4 out of the 5 Final Fantasy that have enough character depth to be considered. He’s such a refreshing main character that frankly along with FFIX being my favorite FF in the series so far, Zidane is also my favorite protagonist so far. In fact, the entire reason I initially held FFIX as my favorite because of how much I liked Zidane. In previous FF’s, the main protagonist is usually the one with the massive issues, and through events and the help of the supporting cast, resolves these issues before accepting that they are the only ones who can face the threats to the world. Zidane flips the script a bit by being probably the most well adjusted member of the party. He functions as the moral and emotional backbone of the entire party, when they feel the weight of their problems, he’s never far behind with an encouraging word, and a shoulder for them to lean on. When the going gets tough, he’s the one that tell you “You can do it”, and he truly believes it. When indecision grips you, he’s the one that says “You choose whatever you want, I’ll support you 100%” and he truly means it because he knows no matter what, it’ll all work out. As you get farther in to the game, Zidane is so cocky and sure that everything will work out, you almost start to think he knows he’s the hero of a JRPG.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had his problems however. One brilliant scene has him telling a story to Dagger (aka Princess Garnet, the lady mentioned above) about a man who didn’t know where he came from, and left his adoptive family and friends to try and find his home. The flashbacks show that this man was in fact him (something I’m not entirely sure as to whether Dagger realized this herself or not). It’s all these various aspects of Zidane’s character that work to make him fun...and make it so damn hard to watch when it’s finally his turn to be broken down. Zidane’s turn does indeed come, late in the game, via direct influence by one of the opposing parties of the game. It doesn’t take him long to break from of the hazy effects on his mind, but plenty of time to lash out pretty harshly at his friends (two of which are 6 year old kids). The reason he even found himself in his situation was because he tried to do everything on his own, something he often tells others not to do. In fact it’s when Dagger arrives to give him a little taste of his own supportive medicine, asking him to let them help him for once, that finally snaps him out of the funk.
Kuja Plays Wonderful Opposition To Zidane, As The Main Antagonist
I’m sounding like a broken record here, but Kuja is probably my favorite antagonist of the series. Why? you may ask? well lets take a second to reflect on two previous major villains. Kefka is often popular because of his batshit crazy and hammy antics, and I completely agreed. Then his wacky self was mostly absent from the final half, and I lost interest. Sephiroth, another massively popular FF antagonist, sold himself to me during a scene in which he played to the audience with a smirk, obviously delighting in tormenting Cloud. Kuja sort of takes this snarky dramatic flair to 11. Kuja is obviously a fan of theater, influencing his dramatic lines, his very out there outfit, and constant references to his plans as a play. In the same way as Zidane, Kuja seems acutely aware of the way these things work. He knows he’s the villain and he’s going to play it up for the audience. This is a man who truly enjoys what he does, and I enjoy him enjoying being such an evil bastard. Is he the most complex and well rounded villain ever? no. Does he ever call on you to question what is good or evil, right or wrong? nope, he’s just a massive bastard and no aspect of the game, not even he himself tries to show him any other way. His self awareness and competency make him seem like a threat that doesn’t fall into the cliche crazy and powerful, he doesn’t make the stupid self defeating mistakes that bad guys so often make. Overall he’s just a fun guy to hate. I’m most definitely in the minority here, but I think Kuja never gets anywhere near the mention and memorability amongst the fanbase as Kefka and Sephiroth, but totally deserves it. Thats okay though, I can be a FF villain hipster.
Final Fantasy IX Doesn’t Get The Mainstream Recognition It Deserves, and That’s A Crime
I’ve been over this before, but when any good word is said about about a Final Fantasy, it’s often about VI or VII, rarely IX. You know what? that’s a damn shame too because it’s ability to meld old school setting and mechanics, with new school design and presentation make it a culmination of everything that Final Fantasy was and is. Sure, the combat could use a little more spice, and the diversions quickly become tiresome and confusing, but that’s okay because at the center of FFIX is an amazingly paced story of life, death, tragedy, and triumph, but often at a cost. I’ve remained extremely vague about any actual story details because I want you to go and see them for yourselves (and honestly I hope many of you already have). Some of the characters don’t connect with the player all that strongly, and some of them fall to pure supporting character category, but for those that remain focal to the story (Zidane, Dagger, Vivi, and Eiko) you will feel for them as their lives are radically altered by the loss of what they hold dear, including the very idea of who they are. With its almost masterful mix of old and new, and a dark, tragic, yet epic and beautiful adventure, Final Fantasy IX is a game that anyone calling themselves a JRPG fan should play. The most amazing thing for myself after typing this up? This is only my 2nd favorite Final Fantasy overall.
9 Down, 7 More To Go
If you’re a regular reader of this series, you know the drill by now. Get to the comments section and let me know how right/wrong I am, and how you feel about Final Fantasy IX. Regardless of how you may feel about what comes next, Final Fantasy IX markes an end of an era to be sure. Coming up next we have the first ever Playstation 2 entry Final Fantasy X, with it’s voice acting, facial expresions, and for the time mind blowing graphics (hell i still think it looks good in the HD remaster). After that we have Final Fantasy’s first ever true sequel, it’s first ever MMO, it’s first ever multiplatform entry. A lot of firsts, not always good, but not always bad. So stay tuned as I try to get my ass in gear and maintain some form of regular release schedule which is already doomed because of FFXI...hey who knows, maybe FFXV will be out by the time i finish.