I know I already did a *Nostalgic Glasses: Gaming Post on this, but I really wanted to give the treatment this game deserves. So without further ado, please read my contribution to Final Fantasy Week. And as always with my posts, please remember: SPOILERS!
When I think of playing a Final Fantasy game, my earliest memories of the series usually drift back to Final Fantasy VII. I remember B.T. showing me the game on his old computer (he actually had the Windows version of the game before the PlayStation version. I hope he kept it!) and I had to get a copy. It is a great game, one of my favorites for sure, and definitely the game that got me into playing JRPGs. BT would end up setting the trend again, because by the time I got a copy of FF7, he had already moved onto FF8. And I remember when he first got that game and was telling everyone how much better it was than FF7 at the time and particularly how much cooler Squall was than Cloud (he was wrong about the first part and partially wrong about the second). And then everyone in our little group got that game too. But when the next Final Fantasy game came out, I was the only one who got a copy. Maybe it was because it was released near the end of the PlayStation’s life cycle. Or maybe my friends wanted different games. I know one of them didn’t like the art style, and I won’t say who it is… but not a single other person I knew bought or even played the game when it came out.
Which is a shame, because out of all of the main games on the PlayStation, Final Fantasy IX was probably the most complete one of the three. Unlike Final Fantasy VII and VIII, the characters weren’t unrealistic. Part of this was because the game was fantasy based rather than sci-fi, but there was a lot of uneven characterization with certain characters in the previous two games. Each and every one of Final Fantasy IX’s characters is realistic, you can feel what everyone is going through. They take time to flesh out each individual character. You really feel like you know these characters on an intimate level, their wants, needs, weaknesses and strengths are brought to life beautifully. You can feel that Zidane knows he isn’t quite normal like the rest of the cast. Vivi struggles with this too, but he also has to deal with prejudice that comes from the citizens in towns they go to despite being one of the series nicest characters. Garnet trying to adjust to life outside of the castle, and Eiko’s loneliness having grown up an orphan with no one but her pet moogles to care for her. Steiner has self-confidence issues, as he is always outshone by Beatrix. And who could forget Freya’s pain of not being able to find her long lost love, and then the heartbreak of finding him only to realize he doesn’t even remember who she is. The character development is on a whole other level. Plus Zidane is such a breath of fresh air compared to bi-polar Cloud and emo Squall. He’s confident, multi-talented, and pretty damn smart. His talents make sense, he was brought up in a gang of traveling thieves who double as actors. So it makes sense for him to be able to act, fight, and give insight on the geography of the game’s world. Compare that to Squall knows how to dance because…. he’s a mercenary? Or that Cloud is pretty much useless at discussing the inner workings of Shinra and pretty much needs everyone to explain things to him. It’s almost laughable at how much more intelligent Zidane is compared to these two knuckleheads.
And unlike in the previous two games, your characters weren’t basically just “skins” for what you wanted. Yes, the customization was really great, but because of this all of the characters pretty much played the game except for their limit breaks. Every character has a unique purpose that no one in the party can replicate. This makes setting up your party a little more strategic rather than “Let’s slap these things onto every character I have so they all play alike”. Oh and the antagonist? How about finally having a proper antagonist for once in that generation of games. Look, I like Sephiroth as much as the next guy but let’s face it, the mommy issues and the cast’s inability to tell him the truth about his birth make his motivation really weak compared to Kuja. And Ultimecia is so lame after encountering Edea twice, she came out of nowhere to hijack the plot. She doesn’t put the fear in you like Edea did. You never see the extent of her power, especially after seeing Edea brainwash an entire nation, and Adel sending subliminal messages through the nation’s satellite network (and completely rendering it useless for 17 years) because she’s cyrogenically frozen in space. But what about Kuja? Well, for one we know he’s incredibly manipulative. It is he who sets the games conflict in motion from the very beginning by urging Garnet’s mother to start a war. Unlike Sephiroth and Edea, we don’t know how strong he is, all we know is that he’s kind of a refined egocentric jerk who incites wars. Not only does he encourage Brahne to start a war, he supplies her too. And in addition to supplying her, what else does he do? He encourages her to steal her daughter’s eidolons (summons) and use them to attack three different kingdoms. All this under the guise that he’s serving his master, only to reveal he knows that if he follows through with the plan he will cease to exist, and steals the eidolons to combat Garland at his own game. The party even ventures to his palace and confronts him, but yet he doesn’t fight them, he just toys with them yet again. Trying to find a way into Terra, he eventually succeeds and finds a way in, only for Garland to explain that his lifespan will end as soon as Zidane is ready to take over as the “angel of death”. Enraged, Kuja kills Garland and absorbs all of the souls that his airship has captured and finally attains the power of Trance. Knowing his time his short, he decides to destroy the world thinking that if he can’t live, so can no one else. Immature, sure. But this isn’t that uncommon of a motive, even in real life, which is infinitely better than mommy issues or.. uh… Ultimecia… not being content with ruling her world… or something.
The game also doesn’t have pacing issues that plague the other two entries on the system. Final Fantasy VII has great pacing when you get out of Midgar and throughout the first disc, but the minute the second disc starts the game feels rushed. Final Fantasy VIII is all over the place, the first disc ends quickly but then disc 2 just drags and drags. Plus it also has the worst ass-pull plot twist of the three when it’s revealed that the main characters grew up together in the same orphanage. Final Fantasy IX has no pacing issues, you feel like you spend an appropriate amount of time in each town and dungeon. Now I know I’m making the game sound perfect, and it does have its flaws, but as an experience, it’s more fulfilling. In addition, you know how in VII and VIII there’s a bunch of parts where you literally go “I can’t freaking stand this part of the game!”? There’s one single part in FFIX where that occurs. That’s it. Just one. I can deal with that. The soundtrack is also as good as anything by Nobuo Uematsu, and he doesn’t disappoint. There are some of the most catchiest tracks in the franchise in Final Fantasy IX, with favorites like Vamo Alla Flamenco, Hunter’s Chance, You Are Not Alone, Feel My Blade, Burmecia, The Dark Messenger, Rose of May that are all fantastic. Yeah the battle themes aren’t nearly as good as the previous two entries in the franchise, but that can be overlooked. They aren’t bad, just not as iconic. And we all know a “merely good” Final Fantasy soundtrack is better than 85% of other video game OSTs.
So why can’t I consider this a perfect game? Well, for a few reasons actually. The first reason is the trance system. Like previous “limit breaks”, a character enters trance mode after taking a good bit of damage. However, it is not just one attack, but rather a powered up state in which they can use different attacks that would otherwise be unavailable. This is great in theory, but there was a big design flaw. And that is that you can’t store it. Once it activates, you have to use it or it’s gone. So if you’re fighting a mook, and it hits you and it activates, you can’t do anything about it. It’s rather frustrating, particularly since it seems like in the other two entries on the PlayStation you got these attacks every boss battle.
The second is the part after the Desert Palace when you have a red light, green light puzzle with the game’s resident Cid. It sucks because even though the the monster he’s trying to get past is in a cage, he’s still scared of it if it looks at you. And you move super slow. Oh and of course your timed. I can’t tell you how many times I nearly lost my sanity over this one part.
The third is active time events. Depending on how you view these, they could be a good or bad thing. On the plus side, they do show a humorous side to the characters of the story and give you an idea of what they are doing when they aren’t with you. On the bad side, there are so many of them and a lot of them aren’t skippable. This can become a giant pain when you’re just trying to get through an area as fast as possible (particularly if you’re doing the Excalibur II challenge), or if you’re just tired of countless asides in an otherwise great story.
The fourth and last gripe is the final dungeon and the final boss. Memoria is really boring, and the encounter rate is rather high. This is also where the story starts to run out of steam, but since it’s right after the climax of the story (the end of the third disc), the only thing to do is tie up the loose ends. But you get through it, find some cool weapons, and finally fight Kuja. But then the story doesn’t end. Nope, despite nothing indicating there would be someone after Kuja, we fight Necron. Who? Just some dark being who was “watching” the world. Any note about him in the plot? Nope! How about in some obscure lore book most players didn’t read? Nope! He just appears and you fight him. It’s a massive disappointment and one of the development team’s few mistake on this game, but a grave one nonetheless.
So all in all, why is this game not as beloved as some of the others in the series? Maybe it’s because of the badly timed release, right as the PlayStation 2 was ready to launch. Maybe the art style didn’t click with a lot of people? Or maybe it was because Final Fantasy VIII wasn’t as beloved as VII and therefore people figured IX wouldn’t live up to that standard either. Regardless of the reason, it’s a fine addition to the franchise, and while I know there will be people who agree with me, I know plenty more will disagree with this sentiment: It’s the best (main) Final Fantasy game on any PlayStation console. Final Fantasy VII may get a lot of the credit and introduced the west to the series, but make no mistake about it, Final Fantasy IX is the superior game.
Click the Image below to be taken to Jon’s Nostalgic Glasses: Gaming post on FF9!
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