Warning: Contain spoilers!
This generation of hardware has yet to see the level of quality of Japanese Role-playing games (JRPG) that the original PlayStation era brought to home consoles. Hironobu Sakaguchi and co. at Square Enix, then known as Squaresoft, brought the renowned Final Fantasy series to Sony’s debut console and established themselves as the best of the best. Not even Uncharted, Halo or Gears of War, some of the most critically acclaimed franchises of this generation, have in my eyes captured the same level of quality.
You see, once I had the opportunity to play a JRPG on the original PlayStation, I completely fell in love with the genre. This was at a time when developers like Square Enix were at the height of the gaming industry. Their craft had been so refined, so wonderful that the world looked at these titles and revered them. That game I played all those years ago was Final Fantasy VIII. However, it was the Final Fantasy games I played subsequently that stunned me as a young gamer.
Many dispute that either Final Fantasy VII or the SNES classic Final Fantasy VI are the best of those astonishing classics, with good reason. While VI and VII are undeniably wonderful games, deserving of their ceaseless praise; the PlayStation era is defined to me by what I would consider the unsung hero of this legendary series: Final Fantasy IX.
More than any other Final Fantasy before, or indeed after it, the sense of togetherness that ran deep through Final Fantasy IX is virtually unmatched. From the moment these characters joined together, they formed a bond that I’ve rarely seen in videogames, prior to or since. They were there to aid each other, to be there for each other. Even when they split and went their separate ways during the story, that willingness to reunite was always there. That really stuck with me. Whether it was the loveable knight Steiner’s unwavering resolve to protect the Princess at all costs, or even his unlikely friendship with the black mage Vivi, bonds ran deep through the band of heroes whose story you witness in Final Fantasy IX.
The Final Fantasy series has often had stories which are underpinned by a deep emotional love and connection between two or more of the main characters. Final Fantasy IX’s is probably the most heart-warming of all. It’s fairy-tale stuff; the affable thief Zidane’s deep love for the Princess is a foundation for many of his actions and it’s inspiring if nothing else. Garnet/Dagger’s shy mutual affection and how she expresses it is beauty incarnate. Their relationship is one of the defining characteristics of this wonderful fable. There’s heartache aplenty and real, tangible, emotional moments that defined just how amazing the interpersonal relationships were in IX; a feat that is rarely, if ever achieved in modern games. Yes, it’s cheesy at times and what fable isn’t? But that’s all part of the irresistible charm the exceptional writing brings.
“I have to find out who I am… I’m scared…. What if I’m not even human?” – Vivi Orunitia
This lovable band of heroes in Final Fantasy IX is an example of a group of characters that show humanity through and through, without it being forced down the players’ throats. Those who’ve played Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2 will know what I’m talking about. The melodrama here is so forced and so overbearing, it’s as if the developers are pinching you with a clothes peg to draw tears. In Final Fantasy IX, every character has their own underlying reason for this journey; their own personal struggle they’re trying to overcome. It’s all subtly intertwined into the story that any emotion that you’ll surely feel is real and not coaxed.
A prime example of this is Vivi’s soul-searching endeavour. When he sees the black mages, these manufactured tools of war; he begins to struggle with his understanding of the world, wondering if he’s even a human. Through the support of his band of friends, he does eventually find himself, and a lot of that is surmised in one heartfelt speech to Zidane and the gang.
“I always talked about you, Zidane. How you were a very special person to us, because you taught us all how important life is. You taught me that life doesn’t last forever. That’s why we have to help each other and live life to the fullest. Even if you say goodbye, you’ll always be in our hearts. So, I know we’re not alone anymore. Why I was born… How I wanted to live… Thanks for giving me time to think. To keep doing what you set your heart on… It’s a very hard thing to do. We were all so courageous… What to do when I felt lonely… That was the only thing you couldn’t teach me. But we need to figure out the answer for ourselves… I’m so happy I met everyone… I wish we could’ve gone on more adventures. But I guess we all have to say goodbye someday. Everyone… Thank you. Farewell. My memories will be part of the sky…”
Whether it’s Vivi’s struggle to find his purpose, and even find out if he’s human or not, Garnet’s struggle with her life as a Princess and her control of the eidolons, Steiner’s struggle for appreciation and self-worth, or Eiko’s struggle against her own loneliness; these characters have their own personal life hurdles to overcome, and how that’s handled in the story is an example of story and characterisation at its absolute finest.
“Ooo, soft…” – Zidane Tribal
Despite the heavy character stories, in many ways Final Fantasy IX is an extremely light-hearted game; full of witty dialogue and one-liners that made me chuckle awkwardly from time to time. An early instance of this is the on-stage battle with Steiner at the very early stages of the game, where the bomb is ominously skulking behind Steiner’s back. The ongoing exchange while the battle is going on of “Hey, look behind you” and “I’m not falling for that old trick” had me splitting my sides. Make no mistake; it’s the simple moments that you’ll remember the most. It’s clever humour, a far-cry from the incessant dick and fart jokes of this generation, where unrelenting expletives are used to yank a sly giggle from the player.
Then there’s the moment to moment exchanges between the characters, the heartfelt dialogue that runs concurrent with the events of the moment, the self-awareness and the inner monologues; that at times could almost be described as poetic. Kuja’s memorable, ominous prose certainly stands out:
“Peace is but a shadow of death, desperate to forget its painful past… Though we hope for promising years. After shedding a thousand tears, yesterday’s sorrow constantly nears. And while the moon still shines blue, by dawn, it will turn to scarlet hue.”
“Doesn’t it feel nice to let yourself go under the stars?” – Zidane Tribal
For me, Kuja is probably one of the most memorable villains of the Final Fantasy series. After VII’s Sephiroth, VIII’s Ultimecia was nothing but a disappointment. She had no presence in the story, relegated to being an object of trepidation rather than a person, a being. Sephiroth, while also an entity of fear, yes, at least had his human qualities to back that up. Kuja was a return to form and while he may not have been the final boss in the game, he was that villain that I craved after playing VIII.
In keeping with the theme of Final Fantasy IX characters, Kuja has his own deep personal struggle. Kuja was a Genome, vessels created by Garland some 3000 years prior to the game’s opening, to house the souls of the Terrans so that the civilisation of Terra could one day be restored. Upon discovering this, that he in fact was actually created to provoke a war between humans, Kuja struggles with his own mortality. This struggle manifests in his drive to eradicate all life, compounded by one of the most memorable lines in the game: “Why should the world exist without me? That wouldn’t be fair. If I die, we all die!” He’s a fascinatingly deep villain, in some ways unlike most Final Fantasy villains, his speech is much more poetic and he has a sense of sophistication. While he may not live up to the likes of Sephiroth in the eyes of the Final Fantasy fan-base, he stands as one of the greatest villains of the series, up there even with Kefka, as bold a claim as that may seem!
Coming from VII and VIII, IX’s setting was a real surprise to me when I first played it, albeit a welcome one. Whereas the previous two games and most of the subsequent titles in the series were set in modern/ultra-modern environments, IX’s colourful, fanciful setting was a breath of fresh air. The character models were much shorter and more colourful; further pushing home that more light-hearted vibe, despite the deep emotional undercurrent. To this day Final Fantasy IX is still a pretty game; the 2D backgrounds are some of the more beautiful from the PS1 Final Fantasy games and I really do adore the cutesy artistic style.
The striking vibe extends to Nobuo Uematsu’s score too as it’s quite a different score to what Final Fantasy players are used to, yet it still maintains Uematsu’s style. A standout track is of course “A Place To Call Home – Melodies of Life”, a track that’s a constant feature among my favourites from the Distant Worlds live albums. The vocal track in particular is stunning; the lyrics in particular are heartfelt and memorable. The villain Kuja’s Theme is another fantastic track, with its menacing melody looming whenever he appears.
The gameplay is as one would expect from a PS1 Final Fantasy game; tactical, deep and immensely enjoyable, though not revolutionary at all compared to the previous games, as the concept of an open world to explore and the turn based battle system was certainly nothing new. Indeed, it was one of the aspects the Final fantasy series did best, and its omission from more recent series entries is lamented by most. The concept of the Trance mode was not too dissimilar to VII’s Limit and VIII’s Limit Breaks in that it allowed you to perform more powerful attacks after taking damage, except Trance was more like a state of being. Trance stayed active for multiple turns, and gave characters access to a multitude of special attacks that would deplete the Trance bar depending on their strength. It’s my favourite implementation of the limit style system, and it was discouraging to see it replaced by the Overdrive system in Final Fantasy X. It’s even more disappointing that there’s no similar style system XIII/XIII-2.
Writing this piece on Final Fantasy IX has made me realise how much I enjoy playing that game. When I turned on my PSP Go on the bus back from college a week or so ago and fired up Final Fantasy IX, I realised how under-appreciated that game is; all the wonderful memories I had experienced when I played it for the first time came flooding back to me. While the game was critically hailed, it saddens me that I rarely see it discussed amongst the likes of Final Fantasy VI and VII. In so many ways, it’s the best Final Fantasy on the PlayStation and can be summed up by one quote from the valiant Burmecian dragon knight:
“I’m impressed. There’s more to her than meets the eye.” – Freya Crescent