RETRO REBOOT | Final Fantasy IX: Sakaguchi's FINAL Fantasy (PlayStation)

It's 1999. The PlayStation 2 was around the corner, and the Final Fantasy series, which truly spearheaded the PSX past the competition with its strong library. Part of that was the strong catalog of role-playing games. FFVII became a cult phenomenon, spawning a mini-franchise within itself. Final Fantasy VIII was pretty popular, yet became the black sheep of the series for a while. Then there's Final Fantasy IX, a beautiful swan song for the franchise's author, Hironobu Sakaguchi, that represented the end of Final Fantasy in a few ways.

While it was not my introduction into role-playing games, they were fundamental for broadening my enjoyment of the medium. My feelings towards FFVII and VIII felt fairly detached from what I liked about the previous games I enjoyed on the NES and SNES; they were very technological, far beyond the Arthurian aura of FF's 1,2, and even the rustic steampunk vibe 6 introduced (US 3 at the time). They felt like what anime was at the time, for both better and worse. 

Final Fantasy IX was the final game in the series where Sakaguchi would head the story. throughout it, this game felt like the games I began with, foregoing the heavy focus on theatrics and opting for a seemingly open approach with not necessarily heading a true protagonist. Like FF6 did with Terra, Locke, and Edgar, Final Fantasy IX equally split stories told between its three most dynamic characters, Zidane, Garnet, and the black mage Vivi. Not to prattle too long on the story, Zidane was a healthy break from the moody central Heroes Cloud and Squall, his upbeat and outgoing attitude providing a healthy contrast. Garnet, a self-reliant and capable princess of Alexandria fighting to save her home Alexandria from Garland and Kuja's destruction. Then there's Vivi, one of my favorite characters in the series, a little black mage created to be an instrument of war who learns to overcome his trauma of his identity and existence to free his black mage brethren.

Standard for the medium at the time, FFIX follows the same core turn-based combat and over-world/sub-world exploration of most JRPGs. Engage in battle where you select determined actions to beat monsters and bosses of various strengths and types. The Active Time Battle system remained near perfection. I personally always considered IX's combat and class system among the playable characters to be a revision of Final Fantasy VI, with a version of assigning crystals to characters which granted HP, Magic, strength, etc. feats. XI is similar in this fashion, feeling like a blast from the past while putting a new spin on what was familiar. Difficulty-wise, it is an easier game to play, compared to previous entries, which isn't a bad thing. It's led to it being one of my most played games in the series.

Graphics. Okay, this has been a bone I've picked with the community for 20+ years, because a lot of gaming fans didn't like the decision to return to the chibi-style character designs, they all had fallen in love with the statuesque anime teens from the last two games. Not going revisionist history here, I was a huge anime fan from the early 90's to the late aughts. And sure, tastes can vary, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. As stated with The Wind Waker in my Twilight Princess review, people looked at this kind of art style and viewed it as "kiddie". I HATE the idea that it's considered very hard, if not impossible, to tell a compelling story or be distracted by it because the characters are all shrimpy and super-deformed. I'm an artist, and I find it shallow. Rant over, I enjoyed the aesthetic, and with this being a period of Final Fantasy coming to an end, the callback felt amazing. yeah, PlayStation games remain very blocky, and few of it ages well. The storybook approach of Final Fantasy IX holds up, in my eyes.

This is still one of my favorite RPGs to pop in and play. The music provided by Nobuo Uematsu is embedded in my brain to this day, the ATB combat is engaging, some of the themes it carries plotwise are incredibly strong. There are a few gaffes here and there, one of the climatic parts of the story feels a little flat. I've also never found Amarant to be a particularly strong personality. He's introduced so late and has no real arc beyond being an imposing barrier for Zidane for about a half hour. And the Tetra Master card game (which I can barely explain how it functions) is nowhere near as strong or engaging as FFVIII's. But many of the Easter eggs littered throughout the game that are callbacks to the first five Final Fantasy games are greatly appreciated. I'm trying to not be "get off my lawn", guy, but the series has never really been the same for me since. 

As of this writing, there's a remake in the works that aims to retain the spirit of the original game. the grouch in me would say "leave it alone", but Square Enix can do whatever for current and future generations to enjoy. it may not be my cup of tea, but I'll always have this one.  


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