A Final Fantasy Retrospective: Final Fantasy IX (Playstation)

SPOILERS ahead.

In many ways, Final Fantasy – the series – was always leading up to Final Fantasy IX. Though the road was long and circuitous; though the path diverged in unforeseen directions; though the cobbles splayed and splintered beneath Square’s feet, it was always leading up to Final Fantasy IX. From the humble beginnings of the original game to the blockbusting conquest of the seventh, the inevitability of the series’ crowning achievement was looming ever larger, growing in stature with each instalment’s escalating success.

Surprising, then, that what would become Final Fantasy IX did not begin life as a numbered entry. Commencing development shortly before the completion of FFVIII in 1999, IX was as far from the sci-fi trappings of its Playstation forebears as it could get. Instead, it was intended to return to the roots of the series in an attempt to recapture what made it so successful in the first place. For the first time, instead of looking forward, the series leapt back into the past and indulged in its own fractured mythology.

Final Fantasy IX is a celebration of Final Fantasy. Conceived and partially-written by Hironobu Sakaguchi himself, it is nothing less than the capitulation of everything that had come before. Moogles, Chocobos and Airships return en masse; the four-man battle system bolsters the Active Time Battle stalwart; class-based character progression systems replace the interchangeability of Junctioning and Materia. If this sounds like a regression, it’s not – pre-rendered backdrops, cutting-edge 3D graphics and the complex theming and storytelling of its Playstation brethren seamlessly mingled with the nostalgia express and mechanical prowess of the 2D games.

It was a conceptual masterstroke. Not only did it introduce newer fans to the medieval aesthetic and constituent parts of the earlier entries, it reminded older fans that Square remembered the good old days. In theory, it was the best of both worlds. In execution, it remained the best of both worlds. There are no diminishing returns to be found here – everything in the game, with scant exception, is built as a time capsule for the series itself. Final Fantasy IX is a fond farewell to its own lineage before it rocketed into the pop-cultural stratosphere with the Playstation 2 and Sakaguchi’s Hollywood ambition: The Spirits Within.

It’s a game from a team with nothing to prove. FFVII had broken the industry in half; FFVIII was a diversionary tactic, and the upcoming FFX and FFXI would re-assert the company’s relevance in a changing industrial landscape. FFIX meanwhile, relieved of the pressures of next-generation development, was free to experiment. It bathed in the series’ legacy to comfortably find its own identity. With veteran Hiroyuki Ito at the director’s helm, and overseen all the while by Sakaguchi, the send-off to the series’ past was in the right hands at the right time.

FFIX honours its lineage in so many ways, whether through overt references or subtler nods, that it would take a separate article to denote them all, but one of the most immediate and crucial ways is its re-jigged battle system. Though it retains the classic Active Time Battle also seen in both VII and VIII, the way it approaches character progression is far closer to the 2D era. The free-form customisation and interchangeability of Materia and Junctioning are stripped away for a more conventional, class-based system that caters to characters’ individual strengths.

On paper, it resembles FFIV‘s more restrictive affair. Each character has a unique battle command, e.g. Zidane’s Steal, Vivi’s Black Magic and Garnet’s White Magic, but they are unable to learn abilities beyond the limitations of their class – you won’t get Steiner, the Knight, learning any Blue Magic, for instance. However, equipping specific items can grant characters access to passive abilities like status immunities and auto-buffs. Accruing enough Ability Points in battle, earned alongside standard Experience Points, gives characters permanent access to each ability as they come, meaning there’s a reason to hang on to an otherwise obsolete and inferior piece of armour so you can learn the ability first.

While this system rejects the total customisation of VII and VIII, it still allows the player considerable freedom in picking and choosing the equipment and abilities to use, taking into consideration the current situation and the tactics required to smoothly progress. Combined with the added benefit of less menu fiddling, it’s a strict system that retains the flexibility needed to offer consistently satisfying gameplay.

This is especially vital since the difficulty level has reverted to the 2D era’s more unforgiving heights. RPG veterans are unlikely to be truly tested by FFIX – you could run from most regular encounters and still be fine for the boss fights – but it’s certainly the toughest entry since FFV. Much of that challenge stems from the game’s superb balance; the true hard-hitters like Thievery and Frog Drop require active grinding to make them anywhere near as potent as previous game-breaking spells, and even then there are no multi-hit extravaganzas like Squall’s Renzokuken or the infamous Knights of the Round.

One of the most grievous offenders for imbalance was the Limit Break. FFIX replaces it with Trance which, upon the filling of a gauge through sustained damage, transforms each character and gives them unique and powerful commands. Crucially, the player has no control over when Trance activates; if the gauge fills, Trance flicks on. This is a double-edged sword – the unpredictable nature of Trance means the player can’t save it for bosses to spam powerful moves and kill any strategy, but it’s also grating when it activates halfway through an inconsequential random battle.

It’s not an ideal alternative, but it’s a noble effort that, intentionally or not, helps to emphasise the game’s insistence on strategy over brute force and lazy button tapping. At least the bosses are among the most creatively designed in the series, often employing status effects and delay tactics to throw you off your game, and the return to a four-person party adds an additional layer of complexity to proceedings. (It also prompts the question as to why it was downsized to three in the first place.)

To accommodate the extra character slot, there’s a lot more battling to be done. Along with heightening the difficulty, FFIX also ramps up the frequency of random encounters. The game already pushes the Playstation’s hardware to its limit, and the lengthy loading screens at the top and tail of each fight can prove taxing, especially when the battle speed is significantly slower than any previous instalment.

Thankfully, the game runs silky smooth outside of combat, allowing the player to soak in one of the most lovingly crafted worlds in gaming history. The world – Gaia – is vibrant and, frankly, stunning. It feels like the artists were given carte blanche to craft pre-rendered backgrounds so striking and detailed that they were forced to compress the hell out of them to account for the straining Playstation’s limited storage. The recent re-releases have allowed these backgrounds to truly shine and, even now, there’s a real case to be made for implementing this painterly, hand-drawn approach to environments in the modern era.

As a result of this painstaking attentiveness, the game’s locales are given real vibrancy and linger in the memory long after passing through them. Divided over four vast continents, each location the player visits brims with character and their own, idiosyncratic touches that hint toward a storied history. The Mist Continent alone, where the entirety of Disc 1 takes place, is chock full of memorable locales, from the Elizabethan clamour of bustling Alexandria to the rain-soaked melancholy of Burmecia.

Lindblum in particular is a mesmerising, cosmopolitan sprawl. Spread over three separate districts, themselves contained with an enormous castle, it’s the steampunk alternative to Midgar, complete with interconnecting tram rails between sectors. (It also plays host to the Pamplona-inspired and amusingly brutal Festival of the Hunt.) Even single-visit locations, like the arctic vistas of Esto Gaza and the topsy-turvy Ipsen’s Castle receive the same care and attention; hell, even single-screen locations like the various South Gates do. Chained together by a topographically-varied and fully traversable world map (the final such example in the non-MMO series), Gaia feels both vast and truly alive.

No screen feels under-nourished or disposable, and nowhere is this more apparent than the stunning, surreal walkways of Terra and Memoria. The former is an alien realm that truly feels alien, replete with strangely organic structures, dying trees and, in the hellish Pandemonium, Beholder-esque eyeballs that follow the player’s movements.

Memoria, meanwhile, serves as the final dungeon, a literal trip down memory lane that’s as haunting as it is astonishing. Visually and thematically, it deftly condenses every significant theme of FFIX – memory, existentialism, identity and life itself – into a seamless collage that serves as the perfect background for the game’s climactic moments. It’s a testament to the peerless work of the artists, headed up by Hideo Minaba, that FFIX’s world almost steals the show from its narrative and characters.

Almost. The attentiveness given to the game’s world extends to its writing and characters, which helps explain why they’re such a memorable bunch. To this day, there has never been a party as eclectic as FFIX’s, spanning a number of races, builds, genders – Quina, is, in fact, genderless – but it’s not their diversity that makes them so endearing. The quality of writing throughout the game is stellar, in particular its character writing which manages to blend thematic resonance with both humour and gravitas.

Take Zidane, the central protagonist. A welcome relief from the soul-searching ennui of Cloud and Squall, the monkey-tailed thief is a deliberate throwback to the light-hearted heroes of Final Fantasy’s past like Bartz and Locke. A flirtatious and self-assured know-it-all who nonetheless bleeds compassion, Zidane is the beating heart of FFIX – humorous and cavalier on the surface, but wry, thoughtful and yearning underneath.

When the game begins, his character is already near fully-formed. His quest for a place to call home has already been fulfilled, so his easy wisdom never feels out of place, and some of the game’s most poignant moments come from Zidane’s candid discussions with the other characters. Conversely, his moments of doubt – in particular, the famous ‘You’re Not Alone’ sequence in Pandemonium – hit all the harder.

Zidane’s arc touches every character, but of particular note is his relationship with Princess Garnet, A.K.A. Dagger. It’s one of the finest modern interpretations of a storybook romance that never resorts to overt cliché or simplistic pandering, the two naturally developing their connection in a believable and appreciable manner of the course of the adventure. Garnet is often misunderstood as a damsel in distress, pleading for aid from her hero Zidane, but she is never a passive object or a plot device.

At her most powerless, she is still an active force in the narrative. Even when she is rendered mute by tragedy, her thoughts reveal hidden depths to her character, often in frustration at her inability to express herself. When she breaks this reverie of grief, the player has been privy to her thought process throughout and seen how she has come to terms with her loss. Through the symbolic cutting of her hair, we are shown that she is moving beyond it. It’s simple but layered and effective storytelling, exemplary of the standard that FFIX’s writers bring elsewhere.

If Zidane is the heart of the game, the black mage Vivi is its soul. Still FFIX’s most enduring and appreciated character, Vivi represents one of the most mature and heartbreaking examinations of existentialism in any form of media, let alone videogames. Helped no doubt by his wonderful character design, his wide-eyed innocence is instantly endearing and made all the more tragic when it is discovered that he, like the rest of his black mage brethren, were created with a truncated lifespan.

Vivi’s emergence from this revelation, to the acceptance of his fate and determination to live, is one of the most beautiful arcs in a game chock full of beautiful moments. There’s none of the shrieking melodrama so commonly associated with JRPG narratives; it’s quiet and contemplative, allowing the player to appreciate the gravity of his plight. The more expressive character designs – closer to the super-deformed sprites of the 2D games – also provide a wonderful visual reflection of Vivi’s inward struggle, where no gesture feels wasted or unwarranted.

Vivi’s plight bleeds into the plot as a whole. What begins as a storybook fairy tale of knights and princesses and paupers and castles slowly but surely morphs into a surprisingly introspective experience that draws upon the most enduring question in human philosophy: The meaning of life itself. Though it adopts the cartoony charm of its medieval predecessors, FFIX is a fractal Nietzchian conundrum that delves into some of the darkest and most probing discussions of human existence I’ve ever seen.

What it means to live; how we should live; what do we do when faced with the crushing inevitability of death – these themes are woven into the fabric of the plot from very early on. It bears more in common with Blade Runner, The Seventh Seal and Albert Camus than it does with the game’s contemporaries like Legend of Dragoon or Grandia. Personified with Vivi and his fellow black mages – all weapons designed to kill, struck with the sudden horror of sentience – identity, life and how we learn to cherish it is integral to understanding the impact and sincerity of IX’s storytelling.

Even Kuja, the primary antagonist, is forced to come to terms with his own mortality, as the ultimate irony of his existence – made to kill and born to die, just like his hated black mage creations – consumes him from within, prompting him to deny existence itself in a world-ending bout of nihilism. It is only through the will of Zidane and company that he understands what it means to live; tragically, it comes too late. This knowledge changes Kuja from an otherwise standard, androgynous pretty-boy to a vulnerable and deeply broken individual. It’s almost Shakespearean.

The campy, adventurous tone made evident throughout the game makes these moments that much more powerful. The balance between the light and dark aspects of FFIX is struck perfectly. It knows exactly when to accentuate each facet; even at its darkest, it always offers the glimmer of optimism underneath. Eschewing the ambiguity of VII and VIII, FFIX is all about hope. It’s about overcoming the pall of death to embrace the fullness of life. A lot of people die in FFIX – nations are toppled, empires dominate and civilisations burn – but the game continually emphasises how its characters move on, no matter how oppressive their circumstances become.

Nobuo Uematsu is with us all the way. By his own estimation, FFIX’s soundtrack is his finest work, and the love he poured into all 140 (!) tracks is the greatest testament to his genius. Each location, from Daguerreo to Oeilvert to Conde Petie has a unique theme and seldom is a (non-character-specific) track repeated. In particular, ‘The Place I’ll Return to Someday’, the track played on the title screen, resonates throughout the game, cropping up continually as its central motif and forming the backbone of the entire score. It’s as stirring, mournful and joyous as the game it accompanies; a flawless, sweeping achievement that stands out as the best soundtrack in the series, bar none.

In the series tradition, FFIX doubles down on the amount of optional content while also incorporating varied mini-games and set-pieces. The Active Time Event mechanic offers alternate perspectives beyond the player’s immediate scope, providing character moments and valuable insight into the game-world that might otherwise have been missed. Exploration is incentivised by an exclamation mark prompt that appears in front of signposts, treasure chests and hidden items, handily delineating interactive elements.

Then there’s Chocobo Hot and Cold, an insanely addictive, game-spanning side-quest that rewards the patient player with great treasure, a terrifying super-boss and an adorable Choco buddy. This surplus of extra flavour adds 20+ hours to the already sprawling 40+ hour playtime, serving as yet another example of the developers’ meticulous attention to detail. (One sidequest in particular was uncovered 13 years after the game’s release!)

Hironobu Sakaguchi once said that Final Fantasy is a blue window with text in it. To me, Final Fantasy IX is Final Fantasy. It’s sitting on a cushion in a basement, surrounded by popcorn and D&D memorabilia, reading along with the text on-screen and giving silly voices to each character, wondering about the life, the universe and everything. It’s noticing Zidane check out every woman he passes. It’s laughing at Steiner’s eternal obstinacy. It’s watching in awe as Bahamut shreds through the sky. It’s being baffled by Tetra Master; starting in shock at Ragtime Mouse; smiling as Eiko cooks. It’s cheering when Zidane hurls off his cloak and demands his love. It’s weeping when Queen Garnet throws herself into his arms.

Only art of the highest calibre can provoke these reactions. Whether alone or with company, Final Fantasy IX is the only game I’ve ever cried at. Uncontrollably wept, even. It is the pinnacle of videogames as an art form that will likely never be toppled. When I leave it, I want to return. When I return, I never want to leave. Every playthrough is unparalleled joy. No, it isn’t flawless: Trance doesn’t work, Amarant is an afterthought, battles often take too long. But these faults fade, and what remains is the most powerful, cohesive and emotionally resonant game that Square, or any developer, has ever made.

In two words, it’s Final Fantasy. In one word, it’s perfect.

Next time, we ask how many polygons it takes to make a human face: Final Fantasy X.

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