On top of helping my feeble child-self understand the basics of Roman numerals, the Final Fantasy games of the 90s and 00s are about 80% responsible for getting me hooked on video games, fantasy (final or otherwise), swords, and the angsty dramatics of stylish teens (the other 20% is a mixture of Zelda and emotional repression).
Now, I’m not looking to get into a “which Final Fantasy is best?” debate here – too many lives have already been lost to ever look that heart of darkness in the eye again. And, frankly, it’s not even something I can answer. I always assume I think it’s 7 but then 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10 all pile in and it’s only a matter of time before I’ve thought-fucked myself into oblivion.
Ultimately, it’s pretty much whichever one I looked at most recently, which at the moment just so happens to be Final Fantasy IX following its very lovely re-release on PS4 (and, incidentally, learning that IX wasn’t Onety-Ten or negative-9 was a particularly challenging chapter in my Roman Numerals for Idiot Children lessons).
So to celebrate its release and to give me an excuse to replay it for the XXXVI time, here are 9 reasons why Final Fantasy IX is better than the rest. Probably.
1. The music
Final Fantasy during the age of composer Nobuo Uematsu remains a universal high point in artistic expression, human or otherwise. To say he’s a master is as redundant as the exercise bike I bought on Gumtree. Uematsu is to music what I am to unfulfilled potential – frequently staggering, always impressive, and emotionally stirring. And he’s right at the top of his peerless game across FFIX.
2. The characters
Zidane, Garnet, Vivi, Steiner, Freya, Quina, Eiko, and Amarant. FFIX’s main cast is, hands down, the strongest across the entire series (okay, Amarant can get in the bin – he’s cool and everything but utterly pointless). They all have distinct personalities and are all intensely likeable and memorable. In what other Final Fantasy game – actually, scratch that: in what other anything is that true? I mean, Scrubs came pretty close, but then it shotgunned itself in the abdomen with Med School – goddamit, ABC!
Kuja represents a high point in videogame villainy (and androgyny, those hips don’t lie) supported by the excellent Thorn, Zorne, and elephant/hippo/Queen Victoria caricature that still nobly haunts me to this day — Queen Brahne.
Also, Zidane has a tail. Does Cloud have a tail? Or Squall? OR YOU? Didn’t think so, sit down.
3. The design
After the dreary, neo-futuristic “gritty realism” of FFVII and FFVIII (which on the PS1 looked like an orgasm of pain, polygons, and poor resolution) FFIX was a welcome reprieve. All those colours! And the sheer beauty of its world and town design are still an absolute joy to behold.
The cable cars and high-tech wizardry of Lindblum, the gothic, rain-soaked brutality of Burmercia, the ostentatious grandiosity of Alexandria – every place had its own character and story to tell. It was a world you couldn’t wait to sink your teeth into and tear apart like the unthinking night-beast you hide deep inside, all supported by beautifully realised art direction. It’s the series’ best depiction of the “futuristic past” trope and proof that it can be done well and doesn’t have to be a the lazy check-out option. That’s right I’m looking at you, most other RPGs.
4. The gameplay
I can hear the “Well, actually”s from here. At its core FFIX is the same as most other RPGs in that it uses a turn-based battle system where enemies patiently wait for their turn to stab each other in the face like gentlemen queuing for the crumpets stall at a golf game (disclaimer: I don’t know what gentlemen do. Or how golf works). It uses the ATB (active time battle) system of previous Final Fantasy titles and, if anything, is a pretty clunky example of it, but everything else is on point.
First of all – 4 party members should be drafted into the Bill of Rights or something (I assume we have one of those, otherwise let’s go for a pinky-swear). It’s just better, giving enough room to craft a balanced, kick-ass team and to even rotate in other party members if needed without doing a Scrubs and shotgunning your team in the collective abdomen (disclaimer: I have unresolved issues with Scrubs).
Also, FFIX’s ability/equipment system is excellent, refining the materia system of FFVII while stripping back the Lovecraftian mind-fuck horrorshow of FFVIII’s junction system into something fit for human consumption. It hit the Goldilocks ratio of giving you enough options to feel like you were in control without being overwhelming, something no Final Fantasy game has managed since (except FFXII maybe).
5. The story
Don’t worry, we’re not heading into spoiler territory here – though if you haven’t played this game yet please immediately lock yourself in a dark room, count your sins, and don’t re-emerge into our enlightened world until you’ve completed it.
What I will say however is that I adore FFIX’s story – not just as a Final Fantasy or videogame story, but because it’s a solid example of how stories should be told, full stop. From your inauspicious beginnings as a member of a thieving theatre troupe (that, in itself, being inspiration enough for a Netflix series that I would watch immediately) to the escalation to intercontinental, and then interdimensional war, it’s a story that keeps you constantly on your toes and hungry for more. Like Nandos when it’s busy and the next dish they hand out just has to be yours… right?
6. It’s bright and cheerful…
I mentioned it earlier, but I can’t overstate how fresh FFIX feels in comparison to its predecessors. Characters laugh and joke, even when faced with danger and death, like when a forest called Evil Forest is – plot twist – evil and literally turns itself to stone in its efforts to megakill you.
Gaia is a world you’d actually want to visit – it’s a place where hippo-people challenge strangers to foot races in the street, where skipping children run underground playing-card cabals, where frogs can be president (though I guess we’ve given that a real-life go now). Simply put: FFIX is a Final Fantasy game that tries and succeeds in putting a smile on your face – how often can you say that? Because if you’re thinking about Tidus’s laughing scene in FFX then you can get straight in the bin.
7. …But it’s also dark as shit
I mean, holy crap does this game go into some pretty deep, dark places. And I’m from South Wales; I know gestating pits of the deepest, darkest, human misery when I see them.
We’ve got existential reflection, slavery, pathological narcissism, actual genocide, enough orphan issues to send Batman to a therapist, and not forgetting the frequent scenes of utterly devastating warfare. I mean, this is a game where a tiny cat-thing lives with a giant chicken in an adorable cylindrical forest that you can use to go treasure hunting before going to a literal giant chicken utopia in the sky where they all hang out happy as shit in some sort of magical spa – so when it turns around and is all like “DEATH IS INEVITABLE, YOU’RE A TOOL IN THE MACHINE”… it hurts. A lot.
8. The minigames
If I stopped to think about the collective number of hours I’ve sunk into FFIX’s minigames and sidequests I’d probably never stop crying from the shame of it all. They’re. Just. Too. Good.
You’ve got Chocobo Hot-and-Cold, the aforementioned giant chicken treasure hunting minigame that’s possibly the most fun thing I’ve done literally ever. Then there’s Quina’s frog-hunting minigame, a distraction that’s as enjoyable as it is existentially haunting. Not forgetting Tetra Master of course, a card game so addictive it makes Blackjack look like cold porridge on a Tuesday morning. Or how about the Treno Auction House, a gateway drug for genuine gambling problems if I’ve ever seen one, but damn fun. Or the skipping game? Or the running game? Or the game where you travel around the world tracking down friendly animals and force-feeding them precious stones like a thief with a cosmically fucked-up sense of irony? So many good games, so little time – may the gods bless my aching thumbs.
SPOILER, SPOILERS, SPOILERS. Here be actual spoilers. Though again, if you haven’t played the game yet I direct you back to my advice in point 5.
Yeah okay, we’ve already talked about the characters and the story but if you thought I was going to write a 2000 word article on FFIX and not put Vivi up on the pedestal where he belongs then you were majestically wrong.
Vivi. Man, I still can’t even. How great is he? The greatest, that’s how great. Greater than what we deserve. He even died for our sins. Because yeah, Vivi dies, guys. Vivi dies. I completely missed this the first time I played the game as an idiot child. But he totally dies. He’s very much the moral compass of the game despite being all of 9 years old. He’s even the narrator – did you notice that? That’s how intrinsic he is to your entire experience.
He’s the sweet kid that we come to love like our own family. Precocious, friendly, theatre-loving, and a total badass black mage; a master of magic. He literally only wants to help others. He spends the whole game trying to work out who he is, who his family is, where’s he’s from… and discovers that he was a prototype build for a new generation of weaponised black mage slaves who he’s forced to fight and kill again and again throughout the story. He’s a 9 year old kid who finally finds somebody like him, a village of black mages that escaped captivity, only to be immediately told that he has a limited lifespan, like food in your fridge, and one day he’ll just… stop. Not die exactly, because he was never alive, but he will cease to be. And soon. And you know what Vivi does? He grows a spine and gets on with the job, saving his friends, bitchslapping Zidane when he finds he’s also a manufactured war slave (goddamn, FFIX) and goes all emo for a minute, fighting to save a world that so cruelly made him and callously cast him out again. All because he loves his friends and wants to make things better. And then finally, with Vivi’s help, the good guys win… and sometime later, he dies. Offscreen. Leaving only a letter he wrote for his friends for us to say goodbye. My heart, it hurts.
He can also summon a literal meteor from the sky. What a motherfucking champion.
Joking aside, Vivi really is the pinnacle of character creation and not just in videogames. His story sticks with me as vividly today as did way back in the heady days of the year 2000.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye…
Final Fantasy IX is available to download now on the PlayStation Store for your PS4.