It is the stuff of video game legend — a tale imbued, however dramatically, with a Shakespearean quality of hubris and irony. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, our three actors — the once and future king Nintendo, fair and beautiful SquareSoft, and mighty and brave Sony — put on a pageant of much tragedy. Nintendo had partnered with Sony to release a CD add-on for the SNES. Square’s Final Fantasy series was quickly becoming one of the most beloved and respected RPG franchises of all time. Even the encroaching threat of Sega seemed not enough to dent Nintendo’s iron grip upon the market.
But pride cometh before the fall, and what a fall it was. Nintendo broke its partnership and used the same exact model with Phillips instead, enraging Sony and causing them to create the PlayStation. When the hark of CD-Roms called, SquareSoft — ambitious as they were — could not resist. Even as their previous six games lay behind them, the Final Fantasy team then released Final Fantasy VII upon the PlayStation, releasing one of the most influential, grand, and fantastic games to ever exist. And so the union of Square and Nintendo had ended, and the reign of Square and Sony had begun.
And what a reign it has been — over two decades of new titles, spinoffs, and sales of which seemed inconceivable back in the SNES days. And yet, Final Fantasy as a franchise has in many ways floundered from its once mighty perch. It still sells by the truckload, perhaps, but it no longer demonstrates the same prestige and classicity that it once did. No release for the series today passes without controversy — indeed, none has since arguably VII itself back in 1997. But the dissension seems especially heightened today, after the divisiveness of XIII, the failed launch and glorious resurrection of XIV, and the bizarre development cycle of XV.
So too has my own affection for the series wavered. I originally got deep into Final Fantasy in my pre-teen years — discovering the series primarily through its cameos in Kingdom Hearts (thanks, Nomura), I played and enjoyed VII a great deal before falling madly in love with Final Fantasy VI (still my favorite to this day) and being encouraged to binge much of the original titles. And despite the occasional dud, it was difficult to deny the grandiosity, originality, and masterful soundtracks of the first ten FF titles and some of its better spinoffs like Theatrhythm or the first two Dissidia games. But throughout my late high school and college years I began to forget some of my love for the franchise. I didn’t care to even glance at the XIII sequels. I played (and greatly enjoyed) a month of XIV, but lacked the financial and time commitments to keep going. And while I’ve owned XV since it came out, I have yet to even touch the thing. While I still liked the games to a degree, the passion had faded. The most recent big FF experience I had was Dissidia NT, which seemed almost emblematic of my feelings on the series as a whole — what was originally there had been twisted and transmogrified until I no longer loved what remained.
When Nintendo announced that so many Final Fantasy titles would be coming to the Switch, a strange feeling welled up within me. Part of it was a keen nostalgia and fondness for some of the best games I’d ever played. But there was also an element of… fear. I’d fallen out of favor with the franchise in recent years — what if what was in the past, too, was lost? What if I couldn’t reclaim the joys of the games I had played? What if they had aged poorly, once innovative marvels now lost to the ravages of time?
It seemed almost prescient and thoughtful, then, that the first full, mainline FF game Square would choose to release on Switch was the one that’s meant to harken back. In fact, Final Fantasy IX is by all accounts the perfect game to bring the franchise back to Nintendo after all this time — not just because it’s a masterpiece that’s easily in the running for best in the series (if not one of the best games ever made), but because it represents something that the franchise today seems wary to do — to indulge in its own tradition and celebrate its past with majesty and aplomb.
Final Fantasy IX came out at the end of the first PlayStation’s life, after two more titles had established a precedent for what a then-contemporary Final Fantasy should look like. The protagonists were moody, anime-styled young adults with troubled pasts set up against worlds where magical swords and cyberpunk corporations clashed on the regular. VII opted for a psychological, revolutionary plot dealing with themes of environmentalism and loss of identity. VIII focused on the romantic side of things, with an elaborate and complicated tale that included time compression, memory loss, and spaceships. (Look, all I wanted to do was play Triple Triad, ok?)
IX does not completely dull the edge of its two immediate predecessors. But it remembers the series’ more fantastical roots and meshes the two styles in a way that comes across as serious yet entertaining. The more classical fantasy setting is awash in colorful creatures and imaginative world building elements. The art style, much rounder and more cartoony than either VII’s Lego people or VIII’s low-res female protagonists, had comparatively aged much better. But more than that, the tone of the story manages to hit a wide range of emotional notes, becoming both adventurously chipper and starkly grim for when it needs to be. It has its provocative and moving moments, to be sure – -but it’s not afraid to goof off and have fun.
As with all Final Fantasy titles, a large part of what makes and breaks it comes down to the characters — and IX has one of the best casts in the entire series. For its leading man, Zidane Tribal provided a daring, roguish contrast to the reticent and awkward Cloud and the scowling and distant Squall. The monkey tailed actor-thief and ladies’ man has both a stylish amount of grace and confidence and his own set of troubles, making for a rounded, fleshed out character and probably the most charismatic protagonist the series has seen. He’s set aside Princess Garnet ’til Alexandros, dubbed Dagger, a troubled royal who seeks to do the right thing and assert herself despite her relative powerlessness. It’s Dagger who goes through the brunt of the game’s emotional arc, dealing with fighting her home, her mother, and her own sense of who — and what — is right to eventually come out a strong and courageous woman. Together they serve not just as the greatest couple in the entire franchise, but as two of the most dynamic and wonderful characters the entire medium has ever seen.
They’re, of course, bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast. Steiner serves as comic relief, a blundering knight who nonetheless seeks to serve his duty to the absolute fullest. Eiko, the bratty summoner, serves as both an irritation and a sympathetic and lonely child. Dragon Knight Freya hits upon the game’s more somber points, searching for a lost love who can’t recall who she is. Quina and Amarant round out the cast — the former as a bizarre sidekick the likes of which is not seen nowadays, and the latter as a more brusque anti-hero accompanying the party. As a villain, Kuja overcomes his questionable fashion sense to become a deeply motivated and sympathetic figure. And who could forget Vivi Ornitier, one of the saddest, most tragic figures to exist in video games, whose tale raises intense questions about self-will, mortality, and the very nature of existence.
The game’s plot and storytelling is very reminiscent of that pre-PS2 era. No voice acting, basic CG, and limited disc space means the game has to make the most of out its handful of cinematics, relying on cinematography, lighting, and the game’s fantastic scoring to provoke emotion. The early scene on the airship against Black Waltz no. 3 is still one of the most evocative, heartbreaking, and intense I’ve ever seen, and it accomplishes all of it with no dialogue and minimal sound effects. It’s a reminder that limitations sometimes serve to heighten an art form due to the lack of options available forcing the makers to consider their choices much more carefully. And the game’s final, triumphant cinematic still sends chills to my spine just thinking about it — it’s so wonderfully made.
In combat, too, does FFIX serve to send us to the past. ATB-combat remains fresh if aged, like a fine wine pulled out of the cellar. Every character has their niche to fulfill, whether it be thievery, healing, or just hitting things really hard. Battles go by snappily, and since the Switch is the modern port version of the game there’s the addition of turning off random encounters if you really want. A couple aspects of the design are admittedly antiquated (just look up a list online for learning Quina’s spells unless you want a headache of trial and error), but I love how each character serves as a representation of a classic FF job class (Thief, White Mage, Black Mage, Knight, Dragoon, Blue Mage, Summoner, Monk) with their own quirks and uniqueness. Plus, pulling off an overpowered Trance at the right opportunity is always fun.
The game excels in other ways that newer games — not just Final Fantasy ones — seem to never quite grasp. Side quests are usually intuitively found and explained to you instead of having to hunt in the middle of nowhere for them. Old equipment proves vastly useful thanks to the game’s ability and synthesis systems. And the game has rock solid pacing, settling into great loops in both its story and exploration that leave the entire experience silky smooth.
I don’t know how I’ve made it this far into the piece without talking about Final Fantasy IX’s soundtrack. It might just be Nobuo Uematsu’s finest work, which is the boldest statement I could ever make. From the nostalgic timelessness of “A Place to Call Home,” to the upbeat chaos of the battle themes, to the heavy ominousness of “The Dark Messenger,” to the all-encompassing majesty of the game’s main theme, “Melodies of Life,” and all its derivatives — it’s stupendous. Utterly stupendous. And again, being from that era before VA and sound effects were super ingrained means the score is on full display much of the time. It truly does make — and never break — every one of the game’s sequences. Just try listening to “You’re Not Alone” after playing through and not feeling a twinge of the same intense emotion as that scene.
But more than any individual element, it’s what Final Fantasy IX represents that makes it so incredible — and so crucial. Looking back, it really does feel like the final hurrah for what the series was before 2000 — imaginative, focused, pushing the boundaries of video game storytelling at a time when such a subject was sorely lacking. It was the last game with ATB-style combat, the last game before the advent of the PS2, the last game to go very straightforward with a fantasy aesthetic and setting.
It was also the last game to feature series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi as a producer and scenario writer. While he would play roles in the development of X and XI as executive producer before leaving Square, IX was really Sakaguchi’s last time in a significant role, and I think it shows. No FF since he’s left has carried quite the same spark. Incidentally, IX is the only game Sakaguchi had a hand in writing after VI — which helps explain why this game’s tone is so similar to those earlier SNES classics.
Final Fantasy IX doesn’t merely reference and draw allusions to every single FF that came before it — it embraces so much of what made people fall in love with them in the first place. IX represents something that I wish the modern Square Enix would do: to look back upon its history with pride and distinction, and create a celebration of all it had done well up to that point. And it’s because it’s so rich, cherishing, and unabashed that people love it to this day. While reception upon release might have been mixed due to its departure from the other, popular FF titles, I can think of no other post-VI title that is as widely and unanimously praised as IX. And it’s that same fervent love that makes it such a good pick to bring the numbered titles back to Nintendo, even as VII, X, and XII looking to be dropping by very soon.
Playing through IX again, it’s not just the that the series has returned (in some form that isn’t spinoffs) to Nintendo after all these years — it’s my own deep love for all the greatness and influence that Final Fantasy had over me as a youth. And now more than ever do I want to put in a couple months of XIV, try a four-job fiesta run in V, and finally boot up XV and see what the hubbub is about. It’s not just a great showcase of what Final Fantasy was — it’s a thorough demonstration of what Final Fantasy can be.
Square is busy remaking Final Fantasy VII and undoubtedly trying to “modernize” and “fix” whatever problems were there originally. I’m sure they will improve some things, just as I’m sure that they’ll erase some of their own magic in the process. But I don’t want them to ever remake Final Fantasy IX. It’s perfect just the way it is.
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