Let’s devote a small amount of time each week to remembering some of our most cherished video games. Starting today that’s the plan, and since it’s my plan I get to choose the first game. So, I’ve chosen to talk about my first ever JRPG, my favourite Final Fantasy game and the one I fiercely believe deserves a remake instead of the far more popular Final Fantasy VII. Today I’m going to celebrate Final Fantasy IX, the under appreciated jewel (perhaps crystal?) of the Final Fantasy series.
Unlike it’s predecessors Final Fantasy’s VII and VIII FFIX didn’t break new ground but paid respectful homage to the series roots. There were no weird high schools to train teenagers how to murder people with weaponry and spells. Nor were there any futuristic cities filled with soldiers equipped with firearms that were inexplicably unable to stop a pointy haired guy with an unswingable sword. Okay so I’m being a bit disingenuous, FFVII and VIII were both great games, Final Fantasy VII in particular is adored by the masses. And while both VII and VIII are unarguably better remembered and more important to the industry as a whole, neither ever appealed to me the same way Final Fantasy IX did.
A charming mixture of fairy tale, fantasy epic and with a peculiar smidgen of sci-fi thrown in Final Fantasy IX was at it’s very heart a pretty innocent story about friendship. If that sounds reminiscent of a Disney film that’s probably because Final Fantasy IX is the closest the series ever got to that tone. Blended with the heartwarming tale was all the traditional Final Fantasy staples which had been left behind when the series made he jump to 3D. Powerful crystals, warring kingdoms, traditional classes and elemental guardians all made their triumphant return to the playing field. In many ways Final Fantasy IX was the Bravely Default of it’s day. Both return to their roots following up a string of very different games, admittedly Bravely Default was better received if only because it followed up Final Fantasy XIII series which was overwhelmingly disliked.
Final Fantasy IX was a respectful look back at how far the series had come, and celebrated it’s heritage merrily. Little did we know at then this nostalgia trip would actually be the last Final Fantasy to subscribe to it’s predecessors formula. The world of Terra would be the last time we’d fly airships around a huge world map, fight using traditional classes, have characters with no voice acting, see Final Fantasy take on a Fantasy world as opposed to sci-fi and even the last time we’d see the regular mildly paced active time bar combat. Square Enix probably knew then Final Fantasy IX was more than their PS1 swan song, it was the swan song for the Final Fantasy formula as we knew it. Starting with Final Fantasy X the series became irreversibly changed.
Perhaps what makes Final Fantasy IX doubly important then is that it’s not only the last Final Fantasy to take advantage of the series traditional visual elements and fantastical setting, but simultaneously the last to subscribe to the design structure that all the games before it shared. We could lament the series fall from grace all day from here, let’s not though. Mostly because I like Final Fantasy X. I’ve told you why Final Fantasy IX is more important that people remember, but that’s only half the story. What really matters is that Final Fantasy IX was, and is, an excellent game.
Everything starts out simple. Lovable rogue Zidane and his fellow thieves are hired to kidnap the Princess of the Kingdom of Alexandrea. In order to pull this off the band plan to put on a show for the royals, a massive theater production that will captivate the kingdom, whilst the ruse plays Zidane will bring the princess aboard their airship and they’ll take off together. It’s a story akin to classic fairy tales. Once Zidane catches up with a mysterious hooded Princess Garnet (whose robe sneakily resembles that of a traditional white mage garb) the plot twists as he learns she wants to be kidnapped. As it unfolds the twists keep coming and story is constantly flipped on its head, intelligently structured wind through every Final Fantasy tradition in some capacity.
Combat too returns to it’s roots. Gone is the Materia that must be leveled and so too is stealing magic from foes. Playable heroes each specialize in one of Final Fantasy’s rich heritage of classes, Vivi in particular personifies the iconic black mage; Amarant meanwhile pays respect to the far less known red mage. Eidolons (or summons) make their return via the their traditional means, white mages can expend great amount of mana to call the huge monsters to battle who devastate enemies on command. Final Fantasy IX is series combat it’s purest, there’s no tricky gimmicks to wrap your head round just plain and simple 4-people strong parties battling foes using the old active time bar. Simple.
FFIX’s simplicity leaks into it’s general difficulty, compared to it’s predecessor it’s a cake walk, except for that final boss’s flipping Grand Cross move. Even so that’s nothing to whinge about compared to some of Final Fantasy’s previous big bads. Today the simplicity of Final Fantasy IX actually works to it’s credit. The ease makes it’s perfect to replay, there’s no stress just a relaxed nostalgia trip. A tour of Final Fantasy history. It’s nostalgia-ception really: Final Fantasy IX was designed to be a nostalgia trip in 2000, so now your nostalgia trip is playing a nostalgia trip. Wrap your head round that. Right now the perfect way to play is on the Vita. Turned based combat is perfect for on the go, and there’s no eye-watering difficult bits either.
Final Fantasy IX was, and is in my humblest opinion, not only the best Final Fantasy game on PS1 but the best overall too. To me it personifies what Final Fantasy is meant to be. A heart warming tale with warring kingdoms and silly plot devices like life ending crystals. Like being hooked up to a JRPG nostalgia drip it gleefully relives past glories: traditional classes, move sets even story beats. Final Fantasy VII might be the most remembered, but to me Final Fantasy IX will always better represent what the series is meant to be. With the forthcoming Final Fantasy XV showing off videos of guys on a road trip, well I’m sad to say it doesn’t seem like we’ll be going back anytime soon. I’ll always have Bravely Default I suppose.