History of Final Fantasy: Respecting the Past (Final Fantasy IX) - ArticleTaneli Palola , posted on 22 December 2016 / 12,692 Views
By the late 90s Final Fantasy had very much established itself as a giant of the industry. It could count itself among the most successful video game franchises of all time. New releases in the series were more than just games by this point - they were events. The last two entries alone had sold a combined total of over 17 million copies on the PS1, helping the console become the de facto market leader with practically no serious competitors. Now it was just a question of following up on this success with yet another major franchise title.
What Square and Hironobu Sakaguchi gave us next was probably something of a surprise to many fans of the series, especially those who had only been introduced to it by the previous two entries. Gone were the technologically advanced worlds and sci-fi elements, in their place was a notably more traditional-looking fantasy world and story akin to earlier games in the series, at least on the surface.
End of an Era: Final Fantasy IX
The development of Final Fantasy IX began well before Final Fantasy VIII had even been finished, with Sakaguchi writing the early version of the game's scenario script in July of 1998. Final Fantasy IX was directed by Hiroyuki Ito, this marking his second time at the helm after previously directing Final Fantasy VI. Hideo Minaba handled the game's art direction, while also designing many of the character alongside several other people. This meant that for the first time since Final Fantasy VI Tetsuya Nomura played no part in character design.
Yoshitaka Amano once again provided numerous illustrations for the game, including its logo. As with every previous entry in the main series Nobuo Uematsu created the soundtrack for Final Fantasy IX. He spent roughly a year composing the score, ultimately finishing with around 160 different tracks, of which 140 made it into the final product. This still makes it one of his most extensive soundtracks to-date, comfortably eclipsing most of his past and future works in terms of sheer content.
It's ironic then that, originally, Ito asked Uematsu to compose just the bare minimum number of tracks for the game. Ultimately, however, Uematsu went on to spend an extended amount of time travelling around Europe during the game's development, searching for (and no doubt finding in abundance) inspiration for his score. He has since stated that his work on Final Fantasy IX is his favourite from his long career.
When Final Fantasy IX first entered development Sakaguchi intended it as something of a reflection and homage to the series' past. As the last game in the series to be released on the PS1 it was seen as an end of an era, one that would pay tribute to the series' now lengthy history before it entered into a new age with the advent of the next console generation.
Additionally, it wasn't initially envisioned as necessarily being the next main entry in the series, simply because it was such a huge departure from the previous games. Eventually, however, it was confirmed as the next main installment, and by early 2000 development was nearly finished. Final Fantasy IX was released on July 7, 2000, in Japan, later that same year in North America, and early the next year in Europe.
As already noted, Final Fantasy IX was a huge departure from what people had become used to from the series in the years leading up to its release. Many older elements not found in VII and VIII were brought back, and the overall design of the game was intentionally more cartoonish and unrealistic than in its immediate predecessors.
In addition to directing the game Hiroyuki Ito also designed its battle system, which was yet another iteration on the ATB system he had originally created for FF IV. It also featured another return back to the series' roots, reverting to a four-person party during battles. Another throwback is that each character represents a specific classic job from the series' past, such as a thief, black mage, dragoon, or summoner.
This was once again in great contrast to the last few Final Fantasy titles, which had featured highly flexible character development systems where each character's abilities and attributes could be developed in any way the player wanted. As a result, characters were much more specialized here than in the previous PS1 installments. Each had its own class specific abilities that only he or she could use. This makes the characters in Final Fantasy IX much more unique, not just in terms of the story, but also in battle, which is a quality the other PS1 titles often lacked.
Characters learn new skills by equipping a specific weapon or a piece of equipment. Each piece contains certain skills that can be learned from it, with many of them being character specific, such as Vivi's black magic or Freya's dragoon skills. Support abilities are more universal and are generally available for multiple characters.
Limit breaks also make a return, this time in the form of Trance. Each of the main playable characters has a meter that slowly fills as they damage. Once it is filled the character enters Trance, unlocking a new set of skills or improving already existing ones. Unlike before, this transformation cannot be controlled by the player; it will simply trigger whenever the meter fills up, regardless of the situation in battle. This means it can even trigger after all the enemies have already been defeated, making it a fairly unreliable gameplay mechanic.
There are some notable mini-games available as well. A card game called Tetra Master is one of them, although I've always though it is just an inferior version of FFVIII's Triple Triad. By far the most useful and extensive mini-game is Chocobo Hot and Gold, a treasure hunting mini-game where the player goes around the world looking for buried treasure with a chocobo. Many of the game's best weapons and items can only be acquired through it.
The narrative opens with a theater group called Tantalus arriving in Alexandria to perform a play in celebration of Princess Garnet's 16th birthday. However, the real intention of the group is to kidnap the princess. Of course, things don't go quite as planned, and it turns out Garnet actually wishes to be kidnapped.
In contrast with the slow pace of VIII, IX introduces many of its central characters and sets the plot in motion very quickly. Within a few hours the main mystery that drives the storyline is nicely set up, and the initial motivations of each key character have been well established. In general, Final Fantasy IX does a masterful job of relating each character's personality, motivations, and way of thinking to the player. I can't think of a single other game from this era where the way a character walks and runs manages to convey so much of what they are like, from Vivi's swaying walk to Steiner's stiff movements.
The story and characters are among the series' best. Every character has a purpose and an arc they go through, and they genuinely change and develop as events unfold. Zidane is among my favourite main characters in the entire series. The fact that he is actually a positive, upbeat character after two overly serious, broody protagonists is a huge breath of fresh air. In addition, the game has what I consider to be one of the best main villains in the series.
Final Fantasy IX also introduces a new story mechanic called Active-Time Events. These are small, optional scenes the player can view at specific points in the game. They often give insights into a character's thoughts and actions, showing what they are doing when alone or away from the main party the player is controlling. They are an excellent addition to the game, as they provide plenty of room for secondary characters to develop and grow, and of course they give the player more insight into many of the game's key events.
Visually, Final Fantasy IX is absolutely gorgeous. An argument could even be made that it is the best-looking PS1 game ever made. The character models are impressively detailed and vibrant, and the pre-rendered backgrounds had never looked better. Most backgrounds also contain some moving elements like flags, smoke, or other small details that make the world seem alive. In terms of visual design, I don't think the Final Fantasy series has ever looked as good as it did here. The world simply looks amazing, with each location and area having its own style and feel that makes it memorable.
The FMV cutscenes are also some of the most impressive I've ever seen in any video game. Their scale and design is awe-inspiring, especially those featuring the game's summons, this time called Eidolons. The developers also once again used the trick where the game seamlessly transitions from gameplay into a cutscene and back, but it is here that they truly perfected the technique, before unfortunately abandoning it and using polygonal backgrounds starting with FFX.
One of Final Fantasy IX's major themes was the exploration of the meaning of life and death. This can be seen in the storylines of many of the characters and locations in the game, with an actual tree of life, an entire dying world, and the cycle of souls being key parts of the story. This is another aspect that really gives Final Fantasy IX its unique identity, and so even as the title intended to pay respects to the series past it still became its own creature.
The Best Part
The characters. Even with this entry featuring my favourite story, soundtrack, and visual design in the entire series, it's still the characters that make this game so memorable as far as I'm concerned. The main cast is fantastic, the villain is among the series' best, and the supporting cast is filled with memorable and fleshed out characters.
Every major character develops and changes over the course of the game, going through a distinct story arc that impacts them in fundamental ways. Additionally, thanks to their well written and defined personalities, when they go through such changes it actually affects the game's story as well.
The Worst Part
There's nothing really bad about Final Fantasy IX, just a number of smaller annoyances. The new limit break system isn't very well designed thanks to its uncontrollable nature, Tetra Master is too vague in its instructions to be enjoyable, and learning abilities from equipment can mean that if you missed an ability earlier you may have to return back to using an inferior weapon or other piece of equipment later in the game, which can be quite frustrating.
Still, perhaps the biggest issue for me is that it's actually too easy. Even the game's most difficult superboss is notably easier to defeat than its counterparts in most other entries in the series, although there are some decently challenging fights and sections, especially if you're playing Final Fantasy IX for the first time.
Does Final Fantasy IX Still Hold Up?
Yes, without question. To me personally this is the peak of the entire series. What few small weaknesses it has are entirely negligible and easy to disregard thanks to everything that is great about the game. Final Fantasy IX is often regarded as a game that kind of went unnoticed between three of the series' biggest ever releases, but in my opinion it is better than any of them.
Visually it is still beautiful over 15 years after its release, even with all the limitations of the PS1. The backgrounds are vibrant and colourful and in general the game is filled with thousands of tiny details that make it look impressive even today. The character models still hold up, and as already mentioned the FMV sequences are absolutely stunning.
The music is of course excellent, as is to be expected from Nobuo Uematsu. His score for Final Fantasy IX definitely ranks among his best. It had a very different feel to much of his work on VI, VII, and VIII, which all had darker, more sinister undertones. IX in contrast is much warmer and features many callbacks to the earlier Final Fantasy games, with many tracks from these titles being rearranged for the soundtrack.
The ATB system was slightly reworked again and saw the return of elements that its immediate predecessors had discarded. As a result it comes off as bit of a strange mix of old and new, but overall I'd say it's a good system that's fun to use, it just doesn't quite have the same level of complexity that VII and VIII's systems had.
One welcome change was the addition of a fourth character to the battle party. This gives the player a lot of additional tactical options in battle, and makes the combat much more varied as well. The frequency of the random battles was criticized, but I only found them to be an issue in a few specific places in the game, where the high number of battles starts to become very frustrating.
The characters are very well written and sympathetic. The writing in general is also very good and can often be genuinely funny, a trait which also extends to the characters themselves. While the core narrative does reuse many familiar storyline elements from older Final Fantasy games, it puts its own twist to them, which allows them to still feel fresh and sufficiently different.
Getting the game is probably easier now than it has ever before been. Not only is the original version available on PSN, but Final Fantasy IX was also rereleased on Steam and mobile with various updates earlier this year. The updated version was given various graphical improvements and various other changes, but both versions are equally viable.
Final Fantasy IX is perhaps one of the series' less talked about entries, but it more than holds up in comparison to other entries in the series. While I understand that its drastic departure from the previous two entries can turn people away from Final Fantasy IX, I still strongly recommend playing it. It's a very different experience compared to other Final Fantasy titles, but as far as I'm concerned it's a superior one.
With Final Fantasy IX being intended as a reflection on the entire series up to that point in time, it features a large number of allusions and references to previous games in the series. Here are a few of the more notable ones:
One of the game's main antagonists is called Garland, which also happened to be the name of Final Fantasy I's main villain.
To acquire Ramuh, the player must recount the tale of a man named Josef to him. Josef's story is taken almost directly from the events of Final Fantasy II.
One of Freya's most powerful weapons is Kain's Lance. Kain was of course one of FF IV's main characters.
During the play `I Want to be Your Canary´, Marcus says the following line: “No cloud, no squall shall hinder us!” The reference here should be quite obvious.