Top 100 Retro Games List: Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy IX
Playstation One

After the very disappointing Final Fantasy VIII, which we will discuss in our holiday episode at the end of the year, among some other issues, I was thrilled to find out that the next game in the series, Final Fantasy IX, was going to be a more old school styled game. By the time this game came out in 2000, I was already longing for more of the old ways. As much as I loved a lot of RPGs on the Playstation, I was not a big fan of a lot of more three-dimensional genres, which I feel pretty vindicated about in general as a lot of them have, uh, not held up well. This era is littered with games that do not stand the test of time, whether on the Playstation or N64.

One of the big reasons why I longed for a more retro styled Final Fantasy game was that I was playing a lot of them at this time. I had done a replay of Final Fantasy IV in the winter of 1999. I was literally trecking towards Zemus when Y2K happened. I had also replayed the first game in the series again too. Final Fantasy IX ended up being a great transition to all the reissues that Square did a year or two later of the first six Final Fantasy games plus Chrono Trigger. The quality of some of these ports is a bit iffy, definitely, but getting to play them again, or for the first time, was really neat.

So, the plot of Final Fantasy IX goes something like this: Gaia and its four nation states are enveloped in political intrigue and war as a thief named Zidane encounters a princess who wants to be anything but a princess. Oh, and there are mindless Mage drones and a mirror planet and clones and whatnot. I think Neon Genesis Evangelion might have inspired a thing or two in this one!?

A great summation of a lot of what we are going to say about this game can be found in Electronic Gaming Monthly’s coverage of the game. In the July 2000 issue of EGM, they argue that “Without question, FFIX is the best-looking game in the series. In every way, FFIX takes the best of the old and mixes it with the best of the new.”

The cover for Final Fantasy IX is really cool. I like how it foregrounds most, but not all, of the main playable characters in the game. Zidane and Princess Dagger are kept apart. I remember noticing Vivi and my attention drawing to him as a classic Black Mage, plus Steiner looking for a traditional Final Fantasy Knight. Coming on the tails of the very medieval Final Fantasy Tactics, I was, as I have said, really delighted and excited about this game to come out. I absolutely could not wait for it.

Final Fantasy IX has been reissued a number of times. It is available digitally on the Playstation 3 and Vita. A graphically enhanced version of the game was reissued a few years ago for phones, Nintendo Switch, the PS4, Steam, and XBox One. There are also some minor game play additions to make leveling a bit easier to avoid the moderate need for grinding in the original.

For my most recent play through of Final Fantasy IX, I completed the game via the remastered version on the PS4. SquareEnix did an impressive job of cleaning up some graphical issues and adding the ability to speed through various parts of the game via quick travel and “9999” feature that almost instantly kills just about any enemy until the end of the game. The “safe travel” feature was also really helpful a few times when I got lost. This feature allows you to travel without random encounters. When I am lost, I get so frustrated by them, so I was glad to see this game give you the option to just straight up turn them off if needed or desired.

These features made for an easy and breezy, for the most part, play through of the game. I was much more focused on going through the game for the podcast, and then this write up, than trying to be a completest, which I am rarely anyway. I am glad that this trend of offering more modern options for dealing with battles has become a bit of a trend in reissued games. I want to play these games for their content, not as a chore or, even worse, that dreading sense that the game has turned into homework.

Final Fantasy IX continues a large issue I had with Final Fantasy VIII and to an extent Final Fantasy VII as well. The relationships in this game are, generally, fine, but also fairly melodramatic. With the Final Fantasy games I have replayed in recent times, mostly for the podcast, it has been a bit jarring to go from the mature, very grown up, relationship between Cecil and Rosa to even Cloud and Tifa to…Zidane being pervy and gross. Huh. I have to say, I miss Cecil and Rosa.

Another issue with the game is the lack of status effect status on the menu. This game does, however, at least blocks items that cannot be used in a situation, so you do not waste items. Why that has not ALWAYS been done is beyond me. I can recall wasting plenty of supplies in early RPGs lacking knowledge of what to use as a curative or heal. I just do not understand why any game would do that!

Something that is great about Final Fantasy IX is Mognet. Moogles are super adorable, and I found their wacky antics, hidden spots, and letters that were often equal parts hilarious, passive-aggressive, and sad to be a really cool addition to the series. My favorite Moogle was “Mosh” by far.

While I generally enjoy the enhancements to the graphics of the game, there are still problems. It is hard to see around corners in the game. The further your character goes into the screen, sometimes they get a bit lost in it. These were problems in the original version, and with that era of console gaming at large, but still are there and frustrated me a lot. Final Fantasy VII has the same problem.

It would also easy, because of how the camera rotates, to get a bit turned around while on the world map. I really relied on the option to turn off random encounters because even if I knew where I was going, the constantly turning map would throw me off.

This is an obvious criticism of RPGs from before the more recent era, but there are far too many random encounters in this game in general.

I do have to praise the lack of voice acting as well. I have grown inpatient with it over the years. Games with dialogue are so slow or force watching scenes to understand plot. I would, personally, rather read dialogue boxes and be able to stop if, say, I have to go to the bathroom, without missing content. Or blow right through it all if I want!

Final Fantasy IX is decidedly an anti-war game. It opposes conquest and invasion. Many writers these days seem to run with the “could not happen after 9-11” cliché when writing about this game, but I think that is damning about our acquiescence as a culture to those sorts of awful narratives than anything else. There are, I will say, some gaps in my game playing history, for modern games, after 9-11 due to the rise of the militaristic, banal, shooter genre, which is absolutely pure garbage.

Continuing the retro flavor of the game, it is extremely tropey. The Evil Forest is….evil. The Ice Cavern is….icy. The Evil Forest is pretty cool though. The cut scene where everything turns to stone and Zidane barely escapes is really well done and still looks good on a modern television.

Both of these places also hold hidden Moogles, which is a cool addition to the game. I love finding them in all kinds of hidden nooks throughout the game. Some are pretty easy to find, but others are very well hidden and only found when overhearing a noise or interacting with the environment somehow to trigger them. I definitely missed some during this play through, but found a few I had not before.

I like how our group of thieves are also thespians who casually reference Shakespeare and also, inexplicably, have southern accents?

An interesting aspect of the game is how much it controls who is in your party. Party members, ala Final Fantasy IV, come and go a lot. The Game takes away Vivi and Dagger at different points, especially early on, which leaves you without a healer or magic. This leads to some difficult battles that are tricky to get through when you have, say, a lot of offense and not a lot of defense, or vice versa. In theory, this is good, but I found the lack of balance more annoying than anything else. I tried to avoid grinding as much as I could, but this definitely made it harder because I need more money to carry even more curatives. In the middle of a battle, I greatly prefer using magic.

It does seem clear that Vivi is pulled from your party a few times to keep him leveled behind, unless you do some serious grinding. Perhaps they were concerned about him becoming too powerful too early?

I did do better this time with balancing my team than my first play through when this game came out. Sometimes I have a hard time playing with a balanced team when I dislike the personalities of certain characters. This game very clearly marks out what each character is, but still offered the challenges I mentioned above as well. As the game went on, this issue became less of a concern as I leveled up. However, I think making you fight with an unbalanced team would work better later in the game than early when you are just trying to survive.

Something I never quite got used to in the game was the random battle camera angles. I GET IT in theory, and when it looks good it is nice, but in general, the camera would end up on a very awkward angle that was very distracting during battle. I definitely prefer the standard parallel battle structure of the 16 bit era over this.

The active time bar in this game seems to load very, very, slowly. I feel like active time fights works in some Final Fantasy games like IV and especially V, but in this era it was a bit more problematically implemented.

Speaking of active time, I remember thinking Active Time Events was an interesting experiment, and it still works here for the most part. I did get frustrated at some of the more superficial ones that felt like a time waste, but that happens.

This is yet another call back to Final Fantasy IV, which is a game littered with cut scenes that take the narrative to other places to show action happening somewhere else. They do not call it something fancy in that game, but looking back it does seem a little odd how much attention is drawn to it in this game for something that other games in the series had also done.

There is a decent chance one of the reasons I like Final Fantasy IX so much is that it reminds me so much of IV.

In general, for this play through, I tried not to use a guide and mostly was successful with this outside of a few spots that I always have problems with in the game which include the mine shaft and triggering a few events near the end of the game which are not really that obvious for how they work. Overall, I remembered most of how the game’s narrative went and felt pretty confident about my ability to play through it.

Zidane’s flirting with other characters is quite insufferable. He constantly flirts with Dagger and, nearly 20 years later, some of his more aggressive advances definitely made me uncomfortable. I think if this game was made now, a lot of that would be toned down for sure. Personally, I am growing tired of any kind of media where a man is very aggressive with a woman that has such a happy reunion for them at the end. For what it is worth, Zidane is a lot different by then.

Speaking of Zidane, I definitely tried to steal with him far too much in the early part of the game. I often do not take advantage of that much, so I figured this time I would, but I overdid it and lost some battles because I needed his attack skills instead. I have just never really balanced that out well.

Steiner is a character I respect a lot more during this play through. His growth throughout the game is well done, and I appreciate it a lot more now than I did in college. He is much more amusing if you imagine the dad from American Dad…the American….Dad…voicing him. But seriously what is with the hand gestures?

You know the ones I mean.

The game in general has a pretty cool story that, like most Final Fantasy games, takes a turn away from traditional RPG aesthetics towards weirdness and a somewhat unrelated end boss. The translation is not the best overall, but it could be much worse. I wish the new ports of the game would have taken a new shot at an updated translation.

Speaking of things getting an update recently, the Branbal Village portion of the game, and many of the character anxieties within, have a real Neon Genesis Evangelion vibe to them.

As I said earlier, I found Princess Dagger to be a really fascinating character. The metaphor anvil hits us pretty hard here, but her need to find her…voice, literally, is well done. She evolves as a character from a naive princess who does not even know what a dagger is to someone who is a confident mage ready to lead her people. It is a fantastic evolution for any character, but especially a woman in a game like this. She really comes a person, first and foremost, in ways that most women in Final Fantasy games had not previously. It is pretty neat and still very enjoyable to watch evolve as the game progresses.

Vivi is one of my favorite characters in all of Final Fantasy. In fact, I have a Japanese exclusive toy of him sitting in my game room next to my Vita and PSP. It is very clear that a lot of his angst, and the black mages in general, is deeply influenced by Evangelion as well.

I really felt the Evangelion vibe when Dagger’s mom dies and Vivi remarks, “Once I saw Dagger begin to cry, I didn’t know how I should feel.”

The angsting continues from the Black Mages as well. Black Mage #288 remarks: “I don’t know…fear? I don’t want to stop. And maybe I want to run away from it all.” Black Mages being created as weapons is a compelling turn of events that embraces the traditions of the series in both aesthetic and action, but also twists it for a new age. Neat. Their agony about their lives, and deaths, is heart felt and thoughtful.

Question: Why can’t I Phoenix Down a dead character? When one dies in battle, they are brought back to life. But when they die in story mode, you can’t sprinkle some Phoenix Down Dust and revive them. I find myself increasingly saying this to myself over the years.

You know whose voice I always hear when Cid is on-screen in this game? Wallace Shawn.

You know, The Nagus.

I love all the airships flying around in the background. That is such a nice little touch.

Later in the game, Beatrix is such an astonishing badass. Her power reminds me a lot of Agrais from Final Fantasy Tactics.

Tiamat is one of the most brutal battles I can recall in a video game. I have always JUST scraped by in previous playthroughs, and this time, to save time at the end, I used the 9999 cheat to burn through it.

In general, the end of the game throws far too much at you. It is really a bit of overkill and reminds me a lot of the second run through Bitterblack Isle in Dragons Dogma: Dark Arisen where the game tosses everything at you in ways that are excessive and fairly joyless. Balancing that out is really, really, hard, and these days with the 9999 cheat avoidable at least.

In general, Final Fantasy IX has held up really well. It is very playable on a number of platforms today and hopefully in the future. As this game drew from the past, it was also the end of the line for me with Final Fantasy. When Final Fantasy X came out, I played a handful of hours, did not like it, and never really played again besides a little of XII. Final Fantasy, as a series, ended up going in directions I did not like, but the classic games are still worthwhile.

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