Revisiting the Classics – Final Fantasy IX
Being a Final Fantasy fan in the mid-to-late 90’s meant you were probably in one of two castes. Either you were a new fan, whose first FF title was VII and you were enthralled by the semi-realism of the series settings and moody, post-modern characters; or you were an old fan, who may feel a bit off put by the sudden drifts away from the “fantasy” aspects that the series had embodied, and the androgyny of character roles in battle. Being some of the most popular games in the series Final Fantasy VII and VIII have a lot to do with why XII and XIII are even more polarizing in their particular stances, on the formula that once was credited with saving the Asian super-publisher Square Enix.
But what about the old school?
Hironobu Sakaguchi asked the same question (reportedly before VIII’s completion) and a small team was put together to work on a project that, at the time, wasn’t guaranteed to be a fully-fledged Final Fantasy title. As producer and lead writer of the project, Sakaguchi had the opportunity to lead the series back towards the direction he’d always pictured it going, while delving deeper into the technical aspects of the tried and true formula, in order to continue the trend of innovating on their craft.
Final Fantasy IX finally was announced in ’99 and in obviously elated reaction to the world not ending, it was released late in 2000. It was the last Final Fantasy to be released on the PSX, and at first glance (if you were a part of the “new fan” group) you probably wouldn’t even recognize the game as what you’re familiar with.
Steampunky fantasy with heavy European mythology influences?
Young protagonists with comically designed features?
“What has Squaresoft done?” you might ask.
But the old-school fans smiled on the inside. Since the pixelated and humble beginnings of the original Final Fantasy, the series has painted a unique and drastic take on standard high fantasy stand-bys. This particular game not only harkened back to the days of two dimensions, but it elaborated on it, achieving a brand new evolution of the style that they pioneered.
Admittedly, my first go around with Final Fantasy IX was sort of lost on me. As I was an old school fan by association (I’d played almost every other game in the series up to that point) I was somewhere around twelve or thirteen at the time. I could only really take the game as far as my personal experiences allowed me to, and that wasn’t very far. I lacked the critical eye and the wisdom to notice the finer things about this title that really makes it one of the best in the series.
A newer, older, wiser, more critical me can appreciate the narrative and characters with greater warmth. Like most Final Fantasy games, the underlying themes of the journey at hand tend to be relatively heavy, but arguably, they’re even more so in this edition. The idea of the duality between personal beliefs and sense of duty versus blind loyalty and slavery, or topics as potentially morose as death and the desperate struggle against it have been caveats that have dominated literature almost as long as human beings have been telling stories.
But somehow, this game found a way to make these topics both relatable and sobering, yet light-hearted. This is easily because of how well designed the characters are.
The lead character is Zidane, a swashbuckler of sorts with an appreciation for adventure and theatrics, and as your main protagonist, provides and brighter point of observation for most of the stories events. As a very extreme departure from Cloud and Squall, Zidane takes up his call to heroism with a great sense of enthusiastic proactivity that really motivates players. He is brave and strong, but never shies away from danger or responsibility. As he is somewhat short sighted and prone to tunnel vision, Zidane’s flaws make him that much more interesting as a protagonist, providing the sort of Hollywood blockbuster smart-ass character that western audiences love so much.
His supporting cast is very well fleshed out as well. Vivi, a very young Black Mage struggling with his identity throughout the tale, is one of the most likeable characters in the entire franchise, thanks to his childlike sense of wonder and purity of purpose. Even though he struggles with who he is and why he is, he is always brave enough to grow past it.
Eiko, also very young and sort of his antithesis, is a girl who grew up too fast thanks to her responsibilities, and is struggling with loneliness and losing touch with the world. She presents these themes in a refreshing way that doesn’t way you down and over load you with depressive self-righteousness.
Garnet, Zidane’s love interest and the Princess of a wayward country, struggles with her sense of duty, but her interactions with the main character is the kind of fun, romantic cat-and-mouse that can attract even the most cynical of people to the love train.
Steiner and Freya, both torn between service of country and service of self, are interesting and different takes on similar stories; being bound to one idea or person, and learning the hard way that the things they expect almost can’t, by definition, be the things that actually happen.
Quina is a cult of personality who is unshaken by its’ glaring physical and cultural differences with the rest of the world. Amarant, (my favorite) is a man of few words, and despite his attempts to dehumanize himself for the sake of his deadly craft, knows that life isn’t always about the day to day struggle, and that anyone can get a second chance at living up to people’s expectations.
As the argument can be made that the movie Inglorious Bastards is a film about filmmaking, so could be the argument that Final Fantasy IX is a story about storytelling. Theatre culture is huge in every part of the game and the love of listening to and performing stories permeates every facet of the design. So much of this game makes efforts to make everything live and breathe, and to make everyone you meet dynamic and alive.
When you talk to people multiple times, you more often than not get different responses each time, re-enforcing a sort of self-awareness in them. The main character is an actor in a troupe of playwrights and performers that travel from city to city and put on shows. Many key items have engravings of small snippets of legends from the world in which these characters inhabit, adding further depth to the lore. Many points in the game involve actually telling stories in order to move on, like gaining your first summon. Every inch of this game is replete with nods to classic playwrights and novelist, if not directly, than in clever satire or mimicry.
A new mechanic was designed to help develop characters and plot points that you didn’t directly come into contact with call the Active Time Event. When the screen presented itself, you can select from a list of events involving characters that weren’t with you at the moment, to just see what they are up to while you complete the task at hand. This system is fully optional, but can provide some really interesting moments of character development that really couldn’t happen in the scope of the games main story.
The battle system sports then ATB bar that FF IV invented, and bring back the notion of classes and jobs. Each character has a very specific set of actions based on the archetypes they embody; Zidane is a thief, Garnet a summoner, etc. Having specific roles for characters really enhances your attachment too them; the way they act in battle gives them a technical and practical worth to you, which can bolster your emotional attachment to them. This idea is what was sorely missing from the some of the installments prior.
If Quisitis and Rinoa can, effectively, be equipped the same way, what am I left to judge them on, as far as who I want to interact with more? (The correct answer is, “Who’s hotter?” and the bonus round answer is: “Quisitis.”) But in FFIX, I can like Steiner and Vivi not simply because of their personality, but because of their roles and combat (and their fierce tandem moves.) That’s the key to melding gameplay and story that other devs like Kojima Productions master, and truly makes for a more complete gaming experience.
Visually, the game is vibrant and funky. It’s old world fantasy, but with a heaping helping of steampunk, and a giant dollop of cartoonimation. Any given character model looks weird and gaudy on its own, but in the context of the rest of the world, they are dynamic and inventive. Cities are built with buildings with oddly slanting roofs and crooked chimneys, and in these buildings live bipedal hippos and four armed humans. This world is crazy, but it’s wacky diversity makes perfect sense after only a few hours in it. Shirking really any sense of realism, one can see why people could be turned off by it initially, but its unique-ness shouldn’t be undersold.
The music is some of my favorite in the series as well. Two of my most beloved FF tunes (“The Place Ill Return to Someday” and “Sleepless City Treno”) exemplify the ideology that legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu was aiming for in this soundtrack. The fantasy influences evoked motivations towards more ancient and tribal music, or in layman’s terms, simpler.
“Sleepless City” only has one instrument, the piano, and the clumsy, old west saloon-style plunking of the keys really speaks to the games ability to say a lot with very little. A lot of the music also revived elements from old FF titles, most notably the return of the opening battle base line that is synonymous with the series. If there was any game in the franchise who’s music enhanced the overall experience of the gameplay and story more than Final Fantasy IX’s, than I surely don’t know it.
It isn’t without gripes, though. The equipment system is incredibly tedious, as you can derive skills that enhance your combat defenses and abilities by equipping particular pieces of armor or weapons and gaining ability points from battle until you master it. This makes for plenty of moments where characters have to wear inferior equipment just to get the AP necessary for a skill that they’re behind on. And not all pieces teach characters the same things. It can be a real mess.
The last boss is also infamously and dubiously regarded in retrospect. The game crescendos with a very appropriate and emotional battle against the main villain, Kuja, and upon his defeat, you think the game could find a way to end. Instead, you run into Necron, one of the most bizarre and out of place bosses in any game. Beating him feels like a means to an end, as there is absolutely no warning to his arrival, and no rhyme or reason to why the battle is happening to begin with. It’s a very silly way to end what was a pretty remarkable final act.
Critically, is was very well received, and if you played this game in the past and was on the fence about it like I was, I would strongly suggest a revisit. Anyone who is a fan of great character play with a Shakespearian appreciation for stories should really give this game a look.