Format: PlayStation 1
There was a point in time when Final Fantasy ruled the world. It broke from a relatively niche market into a gigantic series (cough cough FFVII) with a licence to print money regardless of the quality of the game (cough cough FFXIII). At the time I was relatively swept up in it all and even today and like many others, Final Fantasy VII would easily be included in my top 10 games. However that all came crashing down with the series’ final release on the PlayStation…
I will now complain about Final Fantasy IX’s presentation for a bit…
FFIX was a bizarre title for me. The art style was an eastern take on western but with all the negatives of both genres. The main protagonist also has a fucking tail which inexplicably filled me with absolute and concentrated rage for the leader of my party and one of the characters who you’ll spend the most time with. It doesn’t stop there; Steiner, an early party member is a night wearing mascara and a first name that was so androgynous (“Adelbert”) that the character serves as a perfect example of everything I hated about the artistic design choices. It just comes off as weird, like a Tim Burton movie with a regular script – he can’t help but spray ‘Burton-puke’ all over the script and turn it into a “Gothic fantasy” also known as Tim’s fetish corner.
Despite my issues, when I first played this back in 2000 I wasn’t fully aware of what was to be laid out in front of me. In fact the game opens with a pretty decent introduction to the lead characters as you are tasked with kidnapping princess Garnet who is actually in the process of running away. The plot mechanic works well to sync up your basic party with Zidane (the tailed gentleman), the Princess, my ‘favourite’ Adelbert Steiner and my favourite Vivi forming your 4 man team a nod back to the Final Fantasys of old before FFVII and FFVIII popularised the 3 party system.
But Vivi is a cool guy/girl…
This time around my affection for Vivi was my calculated as I tried to understand (or remember) why I liked him the first play through. He’s the smallest party member for almost the entire game and his magical and destructive prowess is alluded to many times through the game yet the character is overly innocent to the world by in large and his facial appearance or lack thereof can be both threatening and harmless with little change required. The character is clearly motivated by discovering more about his existence and his sub plot holds up many of later game story points by driving an extra layer of curiosity.
Beyond the opening sequence of events and a disc and half worth of toing and froing, the game quickly settles into a standardised approach for Final Fantasy: stop X and save the planet and it’s people. To be fair, this is one of the rare examples of when your characters aren’t motivated by some hippy bullshit about returning life to its natural source – though that features. It takes a more revenge-laden slant with your team focused on the preservation of life itself and valuing the life we have. So, you know? Fluffy feelings type stuff without all the eco crap usually thrown into the mix.
Shit, what you learn, innit?
The game plays closer to the foundations of the JRPG with specific party members only provided with specific skills eg. Thief, knight, mage and white mage. Interestingly you never feel restricted with your party choice and each member will have a clever ability to make up for the deficits. The ability system itself is a strong one especially after the horrendous ‘draw’ system from FFVII which had me hoard my magic like some religious zealot, scolding myself for every cast of a stat enhancing spell. Here you learn abilities from equipment as you battle the various enemy types across the four continents of the game.
Once an ability is learned you no longer have to equip the item to be able to select it as it’s stored to the party member. Seems simple right? Well the catch is you’ve a limited number points to activate each ability. This leads to strategic planning for the battles ahead as many dungeons and areas broadcast their enemy types in the first handful of battles. It’s fair, it’s fun and it gives a real sense of accomplishment. Narrative-wise, it serves to physically show that you’re not controlling a pack of morons who’ve no concept of knowledge.
Take out the ability system and Final Fantasy IX has all the standard gameplay features you’d come to expect; equipping weapons, using items, calling gratuitously long summons, exploiting gratuitously long summons with Regen, fleeing from bastard cacti etc. As is a staple of the series be ready for late game exploring for hidden secrets using your airship or undertaking monotonous tasks that enable you to fully explore the various mountains, seas and forests that cover the game world, and yet it’s all good fun… I say, reflecting on that sentence and comparing myself to those freaks who claim to enjoy frequenting a local gym.
No! ..buo Uematsu… not this time.
One of the major contributions to my distaste at the art direction is related to a factor that is usually an absolute no-brainer for Final Fantasy and that is the soundtrack. It does not float my boat and is probably one of the leading causes of my premature titanic like escapades. Rather than adding an emotional response to the universe at play it overshadows it with a carnival tone that I would happily put six feet under and never speak of again. It’s a shock, it’s a shame but I’ll admit that I got more from my experience by muting the audio and just listened to whatever I wanted to because I’m a fully grown man and I can do what I want!
Needless to say and soundtrack aside, if you’ve played a Final Fantasy game you’ll feel right at home here. The gameplay is reflective of the legacy before it and, less so, after it. Newcomers won’t have any difficulty picking up and getting stuck in given that a good portion of the game consists of selecting commands from a text menu and seeing them play out while you rub your body with cathartic glee.
My retro review score: