Final Fantasy IX:
The PS1 Final Fantasy games have always said a lot about you as a gamer. When asked whether you preferred 7, 8 or 9 – or even 6, for you purists out there – the answer was always a telling one. When I told friends that FFVIII was my favourite, I was generally derided as an idiot looking for attention. VII was the expected answer – but Final Fantasy IX was the one answer that said you were dealing with a true fan. FFIX is a beloved and sometimes overlooked late entry into the Playstation’s huge library of stellar JRPGs, and here, nearly two decades later, it’s just as special, and just as unique amongst its peers, as it’s ever been.
Final Fantasy IX sings in its characters. Sure, there’s an overarching narrative here about warring nations and evil plots and, as always, the end of the world as we know it – but FFIX breaks the mould and puts its excellent characters front and centre.
Playing as Zidane, a cheeky protagonist who proudly steps away from the brooding archetypes the series had recently been focused on, you’re embroiled in a plot to kidnap a princess who, it turns out, is totally okay with being kidnapped. So starts one of the series’ stranger journeys, but getting to know the princess Garnet, Vivi, Steiner and the rest of the party that slowly builds across FFIX’s campaign is the real treat.
The writing also deserves a shout-out, featuring distinct personalities and a script that’s genuinely funny at times. Occasionally the localization carries that wooden feeling that late 90s RPGs often played host to, but for the most part this is quality stuff that I was enthralled by, even all these years later.
Much like any self-respecting JRPG of the time, Final Fantasy IX featured a big world to explore, plenty of sidequests, a long-winded main campaign and turn-based random encounters. None of this has really changed for the re-release, and I don’t think fans of the series would have it any other way – but these recent releases of classic Final Fantasy games have come with some serious bells and whistles to help get newer, perhaps more impatient players involved – or just take the edge of for returning diehards.
There’s a fast-forward option here to mitigate some of the longer periods of waiting during the Active Time Battles that had become popular in the series by this point, or anywhere else in the game where you’re feeling things are slowing down. It’s especially helpful for a spot of grinding, as are the options to deal max damage with every hit or an option to skip the timer bars before attacks. An option to turn off random battles is also a godsend, and there’s a handful of completely game breaking modes that allow you to essentially only play for the story – if that’s your jam.
All of these make Final Fantasy IX playable without the need to do so through your nostalgia goggles. Going back to these games can often be a bit of a wake-up call for fans, especially fans that have enjoyed more recent releases in the genre. I’m glad Square Enix aren’t being precious about their old gems, and understand that the people who grew up loving these games as kids over the course of a summer simply don’t have the time to commit anymore now that we’re adults. These options make return playthroughs accessible to us again, especially now that it’s on the Switch – a console we can suspend and dump in our bag as soon as the commute is over.
Final Fantasy VII was a turning point for the series, and brought a surprisingly mature tale to a game riddled with super-deformed, overly cute characters on the overworld, and detailed models in battles. Eight sought to rectify that dissonance with more mature models throughout, but Final Fantasy IX said to hell with all this serious stuff, and went all in on beautifully detailed and overly cute aesthetics – and it comes across as a less confused effort because of it.
I love how crisp and clean everything looks here – especially when played in handheld mode. Final Fantasy IX looks like it was born for on-the-go gaming (though it certainly wasn’t, with its lengthy time between save points and punishing difficulty at times). I wish the background art had been cleaned up to match the fantastic work on the upgrading the character models, especially when you see fan-mods of other titles doing wonders thanks to neural networks, of all things, but all in all I’m pleased with how everything has made the transition to HD gaming.
Of course, the sound is as brilliant as ever, with that classic Uematsu score working wonders behind the scenes. This guy is one of the best talents in videogame music, and the twenty years between its original release and now haven’t dampened my love for these classic tunes.
“Final Fantasy IX” is, in many ways, as spectacular now as it always was. The rougher edges that the passage of time has illuminated have, in turn, been smoothed over once again by some smart updates courtesy of a developer who isn’t scared to re-evaluate their best loved titles. I wish more developers were willing to take a critical look at these things before blindly re-releasing a product that doesn’t make sense in the modern era of videogames – but I’m thrilled that if anyone’s willing to mix up their past gems, it’s Square Enix. Playing through FFIX again has made me excited to give the entire swath of incoming re-releases a go – but please, if you’re listening SE – I speak for all the idiots looking for attention when I say: do the right thing and add FFVIII to the schedule.