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The Retro Charm of Final Fantasy IX

The Last of the Old School Entries in the JRPG Series

We’ve come a long way traversing the history of the Final Fantasy franchise so far. From its humble beginnings on the NES, to the next gen beauty of the SNES era games, up to the PSX era entries, the series’ visual flair was ever changing. Some might argue that the Playstation era games (VII through IX) were not the most appealing to the eye, with their blocky character models and the dated pre-rendered backgrounds, but I happen to appreciate them for what they are, a product of their time.

Part IX continues that console generation’s love of full motion video (FMV) cutscenes and animation. People often say it’s horrifically outdated, but I actually disagree. The opening credits, as well as the early-game escape from Alexandria, are intricately detailed and full of arresting imagery. Yeah, the graphics are outdated by today’s standards, but I’ve never quite understood why that is even a valid critique.

Released “in the year 2000” (does everyone hear the voice of Conan O’Brien former house band member Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg when you read that phrase?), it was the last entry to appear on the Playstation Uno. A mere year later, the next entry Final Fantasy X would appear on the PS Deuce. While IX sold well, and was the second highest grossing game of that year, it under-performed compared to the previous two entries.

Many people were turned off by its old school approach to gameplay and visuals, but VIII was deemed too realistic after the look of VII. Some people like change, others do not. It’s a fickle fan base.

I’ve always been a fan of the older entries in the Final Fantasy series, hence why this is the last game in the series I’ll be covering (although I happen to like XII very much, and still need to complete XV). My personal favorites in the series are IV, VI, VII, and IX. These games managed to get me engaged with the story, which is something I easily manage to tune out in many other games.

The story of IX begins with an elaborate kidnapping that transpires during the staging of a play called “I Want to Be Your Canary.” While the rich upper class watch from the audience, the lower class is relegated to viewing from rooftops, so that the rabble does not mix with the 1% of Alexandria. The games intimates that there is some form of class warfare in the land, and that there are clearly-drawn lines between the haves and the have-nots.

You alternate control between several characters as you and your crew attempt to abscond with Princess Garnet, unaware that she was actually planning her own escape anyway. There were a few pop culture examples of the willingly kidnapped back in those days, in movies such as Excess Baggage and the underrated Danny Boyle oddity A Life Less Ordinary, starring Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz (seriously, check out this crazy mess of a movie, it’s one of my personal favorites).

This is yet another Final Fantasy game where the characters are likable and possess an almost child-like playfulness. Your main protagonist is Zidane, an affable thief who bucks the usual trend of the sullen lead that the previous games had. While he’s got his insecurities and fears, he’s outwardly positive, and fancies himself a bit of a ladies man.

Vivi, the iconic black mage, is your main damage-doer, while Dagger and Eiko are your white mages, who will heal and protect the party. Steiner, Garnet’s guard, is your swordsman. Everyone has their specific role, and the streamlined class system is something I appreciated, as someone who can easily get overwhelmed with too many choices and options. While some may find this restricting, I personally liked that you have to master what these characters do best.

While the clear protagonist is Zidane, it’s hard not to be drawn to Vivi, whose story is far more compelling. He fails to see his own potential and undervalues himself. In towns, the children make fun of him, and watch from a distance. His outsider nature is endearing, and he’s my favorite character out of the bunch. He eventually comes into his own, and learns to be comfortable in his own cloak.

Speaking of having to learn things you’re not comfortable with, now is a good time to mention that I’m not a fan of card games, and when a game forces me to play them I usually only half-know what I’m doing. I mostly understand how to play Gwent in The Witcher III, but I have no clue how to Magic a Gathering. I should probably consult with Conor O’Donnell, who knows of such things.

Tetra Master is IX‘s card game, and while it’s a fairly simplistic card game, it still took me a while to wrap my brain around it’s rules. Often times I was sure I had won, only to have the NPC turn the tables on me at the last moment.

Eventually, I started figured out what made a card more powerful, and realized the arrows on the cards showed which direction your card could “attack.” I began winning more games, and eventually, I learned why I was winning.

The card game Tetra Master.
It’s card battles, and I don’t totally hate it.

Moogles and More

Kupo! The Moogles are back, and they serve a few different purposes. First, and foremost, they are who you record your save data with. They write your progress down in the Imperial Scrolls of Honor (no no, that’s the other JRPG series, it’s actually just a book).

They also run a mail delivery system through a central processing center called Mognet. However, the system is down and you are tasked with delivering mail to various Moogles. A lot of this content is optional, but when playing an RPG I tend to take every side-quest that is offered to me (which made Xenoblade Chronicles quite a task).

Perhaps the biggest knock against this game is how it handles random encounters. No, I’m not talking about how frequently they occur (although it was quite frequent in my recent replay), I’m speaking of how long they take to start. A random encounter will occur, the screen will fade to black, and then slowly fade back in. Then the camera pans around the characters from multiple angles, before finally settling in place. It sounds like a minor gripe, but it’s so needlessly drawn out I makes every encounter a bit of a slog.

Battle sequence where the team fight the guard of the princess.
Every battle takes an insane amount of time to begin. The establishing shots drag on painfully.

If you’ve played a Final Fantasy game before, the combat will be nothing new. Sure, they’ve tweaked a few things here and there, but it’s more of less the Taco Bell method of changing the order of the same five ingredients.

What makes this game so deep is all the optional content: the side quests, the aforementioned card game, mini games, optional bosses, hidden and exclusive weapons, and more. I recently repurchased the game on PS4 and plan to attain all the trophies associated with the game. When I played it back in 2000, I was already past my completionist phase, as I was older and had far less time to devote to games. Now, older and wiser, I can block off an hour or two here and there, and chip away at this game at my leisure.

As the series moved into the PS2 generation, IX was a goodbye to the old Final Fantasy formula. I’ve learned to adapt to the new style of JRPGs (thanks to franchises like Xenoblade and Ni No Kuni), but I’m still a sucker for the old school format, which the other great JRPG franchise, Dragon Quest, has stuck with throughout its run. Whenever I want to replay a game from the Final Fantasy series, my go-to is always IX. The story, the characters, the gameplay, the pacing, and the sheer amount of things to do always keeps me engaged. As long as you’re not averse to turn based battle, this is game is a must play for any RPG fan.

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Written by Johnny Malloy

Johnny Malloy is the Managing Editor of Gaming at 25YL, and is a crafty arranger of words.
A gamer since childhood, he enjoys indie games and considers The Binding of Isaac to be a subversive masterpiece. He has also written an extensive series of articles about the Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy series.
He enjoys writing fiction, be it screenplays, scripts, or novels. His favorite TV shows are Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, It's Always Sunny in Flipadelphia, Community, and Workaholics.
He has one of those faces. Sorry about my face. It can't be helped.
He's @mistercecil on the Twitter. Follow him if you like wild tangents and non sequiturs.

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