Final Fantasy IX: The Game That Makes Me Love Games

I regularly watch several video game critics, as well as reading several magazines, reviews, etc. It’s part of what I do just in normal, but definitely something I pay attention to now that I’m regularly writing on video games myself. Lately I’ve been into Geek Critique, a YouTuber who regularly goes into various video games and discusses how they really affected his entire life. Obviously video games mean a lot to me; you don’t start writing something like this unless they do. There are a few games that at least reflect what I really look for in video games. I’ve touched on some of them before (mostly in what I look for in a Metroidvania).

The game that I’ve argued is my absolute favorite, and one that’s held that position for well over a decade, is Final Fantasy IX.

the screenshot that started it all

Unlike some gamers and the like, I can’t actually remember the first time I got my hands on my Playstation copy of FFIX. I do remember the first image that stood out to me about the game. I’d only recently switched over to the Playstation after the N64 became a desert for RPGs, the type of game I played most frequently. I literally talked and begged and pleaded for that second console because I couldn’t get my hands on the Final Fantasy series, my absolute favorite series of all time. Eventually, I got the Playstation as a reward for going along on a hiking trip for Boy Scouts (I did not want to go, though the experience now gives me memories for all the wrong reasons).

The early Final Fantasies for the Playstation were the ones that started breaking from the mold. FFVII had garnered popular appeal by being edgy and modern, including graphics ahead of their time and a deep story with meaning. I don’t want to besmirch it, but it was never my favorite of the Final Fantasy games. The materia system essentially made every character the same (I am not a fan of systems like that, and they show up in a few games), and while I definitely dug the modern fantasy vibe, it wasn’t quite my jam.

But they revealed screenshots and promises about FFIX on the internet and in magazines, and that one I put above was one of the first ones I can remember. FFIX would be a return to form: there would be classic character archetypes. There would be a black mage again, and a knight, and a dragoon. The crystals, missing for several entries, would return and be front and center. This game would celebrate all that is and was Final Fantasy.

Again, I don’t remember my first playing of the game. It’s a dim memory of absolute joy. Given that I was a young teenager at the time of its release, and it came out in mid-November, chances are I rented it and then got it for Christmas (I miss game rentals). I do know that while I loved it, I don’t know if I’d call it my favorite game of all time. The Playstation One was absolutely loaded with RPGs, so it had a lot of competition. I mean, just a few years back, I stayed in for an entire Fourth of July to play Super Mario RPG (I got in trouble for that), and Final Fantasy VI had been one of my all time favorite games for about five years (I didn’t play it the year it came out; rentals meant I got a game when it was available at my local store, not before).

No, it was later, coming back as someone more discerning, that I really started to realize that I loved Final Fantasy IX.

classic JRPGs at their finest

On the surface, FFIX is pretty much a sample of a classic JRPG. You move a character around on screen to interact with the environment around you. They do this thing where an exclamation point appears above your character’s head if there’s something to interact with, and it does always seem as if there’s something, usually an item to find.

You got into battle and it looks like it does in that screenshot. Your party lines up on one side of the map, while the enemy takes up the other side of the screen. There’s rarely more than three enemies at a time: it’s usually your entire squad versus one or two creatures. Commands get entered whenever the bar fills up, and they activate in order. The system is a bit wonky: it sometimes feels like it wasn’t entirely tested and there’s this odd lag sometimes when you input an entire party, but it mostly works.

can you tell who the mage is? the knight?

Each character has their own separate role in the group, which I absolutely love. Steiner is the knight, who stands front and center and uses various (usually subpar) sword abilities. Vivi is the traditional black mage, who even looks like he stepped out of the original game. Zidane, nearly permanent party member and leader, is a thief in the true styling of Locke Cole from FF6: noble and willing to sacrifice.

Each party member fulfills a role in the party, and they all feel distinct from one another. That breaks from what the previous two games had been establishing, and made it so much more engaging for me. Characters learn abilities from their equipment, which is a novel system I’ve only seen done in one other game (Tales of Vesperia, of all things). That encourages you to try different load-outs and to constantly cycle out equipment, which can be interesting.

It’s also one of the game’s weak spots. There are several abilities per character that just aren’t very good. The most telling of these is “What’s That?,” one of Zidane’s thief abilities. What’s That? can only be learned from one item in the entire game: the Butterfly Sword. It’s unlocked when you’re introduced to synthesis for the first time, the process where you take old gear and combine it to make new (rewarding players that horde items, which is most JRPG players). However, it’s unlocked at the exact same time as The Ogre, a stronger weapon from Zidane, and it’s unlocked at the time where you want Zidane to dish out more damage, as he’ll be by himself for a little bit.

This latest playthrough, I just gave Zidane The Ogre and kept it on him. He was more useful, and I nearly forgot about What’s That?. It wasn’t until much later that I decided to go back and get it. I still never used the ability in the entire game. Every character has these useless abilities. Sometimes you get lucky and it’s just one of the several passives, like Auto-Float, which is so situational as to be utterly useless (by the time you get it, you have equipment that also grants you resistance to Earth elemental attacks, the only way the Float ability helps).

It just feels like they wanted each character to have their own abilities, save for the two white mages who overlap, and as a result, everybody has a few duds. Not a single character avoids this.

So this game did give me some of the habits I still have. It made me want to take my time in exploring every area, to try and find items. It made me want to talk to NPCs, because sometimes they have little hints to drop, and because FFIX would go out of its way to make its world feel alive. Events would happen and you’d just sort of stumble on them: like a crowd of a fans mobbing a famous actor, or a bumbling innkeeper getting yelled at by his irate customers. They add nothing mechanically to the experience, but they make Gaia, the world of FFIX, feel lived in.

It also made me value individual characters, look for items, and learn to properly adjust my playstyle to whomever is in the group.

opening cutscene

But where it really gets me is the story, which shouldn’t surprise regular readers: I am all about story in video games. In fact, it’s these early RPGs that probably helped shape my desire for a good story, particularly one that is built around the individual characters. That’s where IX stands out more than several others in the series. Not since FFVI has there been as strong a focus on characters, and they really wouldn’t repeat it again (though I admit that I have not played any FF above XIII).

The story begins in an airship, as we control Zidane, who is working with a group of thieves (the band in my screenshot of the party above) to kidnap Princess Garnet of Alexandria. We’re also shown Garnet in that same opening, and she looks like a demure, beautiful princess we’d expect. Surprisingly, we barely play as Zidane, getting into one quick fight, before we switch over to Vivi.

Vivi is adorable little black mage who is childlike in his presentation. He’s come to Alexandaria to see the play that the thieves are putting on for Garnet’s birthday. Unfortunately, his ticket is a well done fake, so he has to sneak behind stage with a rat boy named Puck. After Vivi gets into position, we control Zidane again, who works with his group to sneak in.

Turns out that Garnet is a bit more rambunctious than we thought, and she’s been attempting an escape. She’s incredibly smart, and realizes that she can work the thieves to her advantage, so she convinces them to help.

Then our player controlled character switches again to Adelbert Steiner, uptight Captain of the Knights of Pluto. He’s played a bit for laughs, from his slightly awkward demeanor to his clanking armor (which makes noises every time he moves) to how he’s presented. It’s amusing to me now that he’s presented as a middle aged man, considering that he’s 33 (I think they meant to up almost every character’s age by a few years). He’s determined to get the princess back, so he follows her and Zidane.

This comedy of errors eclipses with an epic escape from Alexandria, one that causes the airship of the thieves to crash land and characters to get separated. It’s a brilliant way of establishing major characters, and it immediately sets the tone for the story that will follow. Each of these characters has their own motivation for setting off on the journey: they have their own path, as each works to discover their individual motivation (and I use “they” because there’s a character that’s essentially non-binary before anyone could figure out how that should work… though they’re played for comedic relief and one of my least favorite things in this game).

See, the game revolves around this idea of death and what makes us struggle as humans against it (an idea that I got from watching another YouTube video delving into the themes, but one I’ve dug into myself now). Each and every character has their own way of addressing this, of questioning their own existence and what they should do in the face of their own encroaching mortality. Should they consider their duty to others? Fight for their right to exist in a world that would say otherwise? Serve a country or a liege? Or just help other people?

Vivi embodies this the best, and has often been pointed to as the emotional core of the series. He discovers that there are several mass produced black mages who look like him. He’s definitely of that construction, and the game seems to indicate that he’s an early prototype, since he can grow and learn and is more compact than the rest. He literally learns that he’s been created, and that his people exist only to serve as weapons, weapons for the force of evil that wants to destroy and enslave the rest of the civilizations on Gaia.

Vivi is given heavy philosophical choices from the start. How does he react to this? What does he do? Keep in mind that the game sets Vivi’s age at nine (he acts more like a preteen; as I said, I think they wanted the ages to be a few years older than presented). He elects to keep following Zidane because he wants to find out his purpose. He’s literally faces with his own mortality when it’s revealed a little over halfway through the game that his people just… stop after a bit, usually around a year of life.

I’m skimming over the fact that originally, Vivi thought his people were just mindless dolls. It’s only a little bit into the game that he discovers that there are others who can think and move freely like him, that they, too, possess free will. This is done in an amazing locale called “Black Mage Village,” where the houses look a bit like black mages, the music is funky, and the characters are incredibly endearing.

Think on that: Vivi’s a child who just discovered that his entire race might only live to be a year. He’s been looking to belong, looking for answers. And the answers… aren’t great. But Vivi decides that he’s going to fight for his place, to do what’s right, and to live out his own will.

Literally every character deals with a similar situation in a brilliantly written way. Garnet, later renamed Dagger (to hide her royal ancestry), is worried about her mother’s erratic behavior. It turns out that Queen Brahne has lusted for power and got it through the whisperings of a dark advisor (the real bad guy, Kuja, one of the best in video games). Dagger is determined to do what it takes to fix this situation.

She’s actually quite active, particularly for a female in a game like this. Old FF heroines might have gotten kidnapped or just been helping the male lead. Dagger literally drugs Zidane and the others to sleep, bullies Steiner into escorting her, and sets off by herself to fix the problem, leading to another of my favorite sections of the game (actually most of what is originally late Disc One, early Disc Two is my favorite section of any game, period).

Dagger wants to find out what it means to be a just ruler, and we see her develop and grow from an intelligent, but naive and well meaning princess, to a determined, witty ruler willing to take action.

I can literally do this sort of analysis for everyone. Steiner questions his own personal duty, as he’s sworn to follow Brahne, but in the face of mounting evidence, has to admit that his sworn liege has become unhinged. He follows the examples of other knights and learns to serve the people (and falls in love with a strong woman in a series of cute, well written scenes). Amarant, a late arrival, sees his existence only through fighting. When he loses to Zidane, he believes his existence should end, and when Zidane insists otherwise, Amarant becomes confused. Life is a fight to exist, a struggle, and people use power to fight other people. Amarant will later say his first memory is the face of the first person he had to fight.

Eventually, Zidane manages to teach Amarant that he should use that strength for others, at least for his friends, if not for more.

The game actually does this great thing at making Zidane a core, someone who initially remains a cheerful font of advice, who seems to have things figured out. He cares about others, and he later explains that he actually went through his own journey of self discovery. He tells Dagger that he sought out his own home, and eventually decided that it was with his found family of thieves, his brothers and adoptive father. That gives Zidane his core, and then he continually decides to help and support everyone else.

This flips the script from the past two games, which focused a lot on their heroes learning their place in the world. Zidane’s here because he wants to be, because he genuinely cares about Dagger, Vivi, Freya, Eiko, Steiner, and the rest. Oh sure, he’s attracted to Dagger, and they have this lovely romance where she learns to fend off his flirtations and he learns where her limits are (he never crosses them, but continually flirts around them). But he’s there to help because it’s in his nature.

Late in the game, it’s revealed that Zidane, too, is created. That he’s an artificial life that was sent to Gaia in order to stir up war and fight against them. Zidane initially decides that means he’s an enemy of his friends, and thus he has to be removed from them (though, to be fair, he actually goes to confront the person who “made” him, loses that fight, and is put in a brainwashing chair). There’s this absolutely brilliant scene set to one of my favorite tracks, “You Are not Alone,” where Zidane fights a series of battles, each time joined by two members of the party he’s helped along the way. It shows the finale of Zidane’s journey, as it’s Dagger who eventually smacks sense into him.

It’s short, which it would have to be: Zidane’s always been quick to recover. He’s the smiling hero, and here he’s learned that by helping others, he did the right thing. The game emphasizes our relationships with other people, and how they have impact.

Even these narratives contrast with the villain’s. Kuja wants war and chaos, and spends most of the first chunk of the game vamping it up, posing and making snide comments. It turns out that he was behind Brahne’s villainy, and that slow reveal is just well done. It’s also made clear that Brahne gave into her own greed and lust. But Kuja wants war, and it initially seems he wants it just for the sake of it.

However, it’s revealed that he was created like Zidane. In fact, he was created as a stop gap, to work some war while Zidane came into his full power (this explains why Zidane has access to stronger abilities and can grow and level up, further tying gameplay into Zidane’s narrative). Kuja rails against his creator, insisting that he’s enough, that he doesn’t need replacing. When it’s revealed that he, like Vivi and the black mages, is simply created with a short life span, Kuja decides that if he can’t exist, no one should.

How brilliantly done is that? Kuja mirrors both Zidane and Vivi. It’s to such an extent that at the very end of the game, Zidane goes back to Kuja, ostensibly to save him, but possibly so Kuja doesn’t die alone. Zidane does this because he acknowledges that were it not for the people around him, he may have become Kuja. The villain is this brilliant mirror of the hero, and the hero does the right thing in saving the villain, in saving someone who reminds him of himself.

This is all masterfully done, and is really one of the best, character driven stories I’ve ever seen in a video game. Nearly every character is just brilliantly written, their main stories tying into that overarching theme. Even the villains tie in, with their thoughts toward creation and destruction.

There are a few… issues.

Issue One

Quina is a Qu, and I love that this game actually makes several different races playable (over half your party is non-human). They are addresses as she/he throughout the entire game, obviously because this is 2000, and “they” hasn’t become common parlance yet. Quina joins the group because they are told to seek out more food and broaden their horizons. Every single line they say revolves around this, save for a few moments.

They are obnoxious, and they really drag the story down for me. So much so that there’s a beat where they’re optional and I almost always opt to make the game harder and ignore them. They’re obviously built to be funny in a late 90’s, early 00’s, wacky sort of way. I understand the idea of having someone as comic relief, though Steiner was doing an alright job of that before Quina showed up (and had character).

Quina’s also a blue mage, a type of Final Fantasy class that learns abilities from monsters. Of all the FF games I’ve played, I’ve liked one blue mage: Strago from FFVI. I do acknowledge that they have this tendency to be great for grinding due to abilities, and that they sometimes have uses, but there’s just always someone better.

So, yeah, Quina is a big blotch on the game.

But not nearly as much as the botching of Freya.

Freya Crescent is a knight of Burmecia, a civilization of rat people who live in a city of eternal rain. She’s introduced as an old friend of Zidane’s, and she’s invited to sort of pal around the group at first because both she and Zidane are participating in the Festival of the Hunt. When it’s revealed that Burmecia is under attack by Brahne, Freya elects to return to her country. She’d left in search of her lover, Sir Fratley, and sworn not to return without him, but this is a pressing issue, and she’s one of the pride of the dragon knights. Zidane opts to go with her, because they’re friends; Vivi wants to investigate the black mages that are supposed to be there. Dagger is told to stay away, and that’s when she drugs everyone.

What follows is that aforementioned favorite area in gaming. Zidane, Freya, and Vivi all venture toward Burmecia to try and put a stop to it, while Dagger and Steiner are heading to Alexandria to reason with Brahne and stop the war that way. The narrative brilliantly weaves the development of these five into the overarching plot. Everyone’s learning about themselves and learning about the war and their place in the world.

again, favorite part of any game, period

They also use this to display just how powerful Brahne is. The black mages have wiped out Burmecia and the army. Then, summons ripped from Dagger herself, are used to utterly destroy another community of rats, Cleyra. It’s devastating and really brings the whole conflict into scope.

It all culminates with a mad dash to save Dagger from being sacrificed in Alexandria. It’s there where Freya teams up with Beatrix, a loyal knight of Alexandria (who has at this point felled your party three times: once in each of the major locations mentioned), and later Steiner, to fight off the encroaching enemies so Zidane, Dagger, and Vivi can escape and figure out a way to stop all this.

Then the game… sort of forgets about Freya. There’s this small thing with her and Amarant circling around, and Freya sort of pries Amarant’s history out of him. Then she swears revenge on Kuja, which makes sense, as he was behind the war. But nothing. We don’t see Freya really find Fratley (he’s briefly introduced in Cleyra). Her narrative just seems to stop. Eiko gets to summon some things, fight her feelings of love, learn that she has others who love her. Amarant gets to question his beliefs. Both have an entire dungeon in the later game that help them. Vivi and Dagger are written into the story. Zidane gets the climax. Steiner’s plot gets mostly resolved as he rallies with Beatrix and learns to properly help and serve.

But Freya? Freya is a loose end. The mishandling of Freya’s plot is what stops me from calling FFIX a perfect game. They just never seem to really handle her well, to give her a send-off worthy of the others. She just needed something, ideally a dungeon or something that shows her off. Make her encounter Fratley again, have a little beat where she has to go back to Burmecia to fight to save her people, do something. Just five years earlier, Chrono Trigger introduced late game narratives for literally every character. Squaresoft knew how to do this. Yet they just… don’t for Freya.

That being said, FFIX’s narrative is still brilliantly done. It has set this gold standard for me, and I’ve spent some time looking for games that come close. The game does everything: it has not one, but two believable, well written romances in Dagger x Zidane and Beatrix x Steiner (and a loose hint in Freya x Fratley). It tells this deep, meaningful story. It purposefully gives you characters across the age spectrum, from children learning to grow up to older teens learning their place in the world, to twenty somethings fighting to belong to a thirty year old man relearning his duties. It delves into this idea of belonging, of Doing What’s Right, of being good because we’re all going to end, but reaching out to others will help you get better.

FFIX is, to me, one of the best video games in existence. It tells this deep, meaningful story that matters to me and others who have played it. Yes, I do love its gameplay, and I kinda love that the Switch version lets me speed things up, making little annoyances like Chocobo Hot n Cold more bearable. Yes, I love its systems. But it’s its story, and, more importantly, it’s characters that make me keep coming back to this game every few years or so.

This latest playthrough I literally made rolling saves at every major point in the game. I’ve got one before the Festival of the Hunt, one before Zidane, Dagger, and Vivi head out to the Lost Continent to find Eiko and the truth. One during the false ending, where the Mist is gone. And one during that ending push, where they enter that last, lost world of Terra. I played through the game slowly, meticulously, uncovering little secrets and enjoying the parts I love.

As of now, this is my favorite game. I may have dumped more hours, at least recently (and according to my Switch) into Fire Emblem: Three Houses. I sometimes wonder if Hades didn’t manage perfection. But this game has my nostalgia, does precisely what I love in a video game, and demonstrates everything I look for and adore. I love it even with some of its flaws (and sometimes flaws work well).

It’s been said that it may be remade. I will buy that remake, even if I pray that it keeps the Turn Based system that Square-Enix has moved away from in its modern iterations (though Square-Enix has been extremely good about catering to nostalgia, with remasters like Chrono Cross, Saga Frontier, and more). I really hope they really do Freya some twenty year old justice, and really hope they don’t mess up this game.

It’s a game that perhaps helps make some part of me, and definitely helps explain my love of games and why story, and more importantly, character, matters so much to me. I wanted to share that with anyone and everyone who reads this, and I hope you’ve got games or media that does the same for your.

(Yeah, I’m not rating this one; it should be obvious where I stand on the game)

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