By Alex Schmitz
Released in 2000, Final Fantasy IX was caught between the end of one generation and the beginning of the next. The Playstation 2 was already out and many fans were looking forward to the amazing visuals of the upcoming Final Fantasy X rather than paying attention to an obsolete console. Though the game sold well, it couldn’t match up to the success of its two more realistic predecessors. Ask gamers about their favorite RPG on the original PlayStation and most will name Final Fantasy VII. This is a true shame since this game has arguably the best graphics on the PlayStation, a 140 piece soundtrack that composer Nobuo Uematsu has called his favorite in the series, and the highest Metacritic score of any game in the series. The return to a medieval fantasy setting recaptures the magic and fun of the series’ earlier titles. With eight permanent party members, players have character options but not so many that characters get lost in the crowd. Its beautiful story, huge world, and balanced battle system make it one of the best JRPG’s of all time.
Our story begins when the protagonist Zidane arrives in the grand capital city of Alexandria as part of the Tantalus Theater Troupe, secretly an organization of thieves. They kidnap Princess Garnet on the orders of Regent Cid of Lindblum. The group learns that Garnet actually wanted to go to Lindblum as a result of her mother’s increasingly erratic behavior. When the Tantalus airship crash-lands, Zidane leaves the group to guide Garnet to Lindblum along with two accidental tag-alongs: the perpetually frowning Alexandrian Knight Steiner and the adorable yet mysterious young Black Mage Vivi. Together, they begin a quest that involves them in wars, political machinations, and even in the fate of the universe itself. Meeting new people along the way, they experience a breadth of emotions from heartwarming happiness to crushing tragedy. With a dynamic set of characters and a massive fantasy mythology, Final Fantasy IX does not disappoint in its story.
The world itself is made up of several continents able to be traversed by land, air, or sea. Each town and city have their own unique qualities and usually have at least one fun side-quest or minigame. From the Chocobo Hot and Cold side-quest to the Tetra Master card game, there is plenty to do outside of the main quest. Players can easily put more than a hundred hours into this game before they find everything it has to offer.
Unlike its recent predecessors, Final Fantasy IX assigns specific classes to each character rather than letting the player customize through some type of job system. Zidane is a Thief, Vivi is a Black Mage, and Garnet is a White Mage/Summoner, to name a few. To learn new abilities, the player has to equip specific items to characters and earn them enough ability points so they learn it permanently. Action abilities include techniques like magic, weapon skills, and Summons. Support abilities are not techniques, but rather give the characters’ resistance to various status effects or enemy types. A limited number of these can be activate at any time based on how many Magic Stones a character has, which is increased by leveling up. The Active Time Battles return to using four party members instead of three. This gives players a greater variety of options when customizing their teams for specific battles. Overall, Final Fantasy IX’s battle system is easy to understand yet difficult to master. It focuses on building an effective team of characters whose strengths and weaknesses balance one another to form an effective fighting force. Some people may like the added complexity and customization of past Final Fantasygames more, but at the end of the day it all comes down to personal preference.
One less popular change is the Trance system, the replacement for Limit Breaks in IX. Once a character has accumulated a certain amount of damage over several battles, they enter Trance mode and gain unique abilities or power-ups. Zidane gains a series of powerful Dyne techniques while Vivi can cast two magic spells in the same turn. Trance will last for several turns or until the battle ends. While very useful in battle, the characters have to take a lot of damage over the course of many battles before it activates. When the Trance bar fills, it automatically activates; it can’t be stored until it’s needed in a difficult battle. This keeps the Limit Breaks from being over-powered and easily abused like in previous games, but it also lessens their usefulness.
The Final Fantasy series is widely recognized and respected for having some of the best video game music ever and Final Fantasy IXcertainly doesn’t disappoint in this area. Composer Nobuo Uematsu spent countless hours creating over 140 pieces for this game. Some of them such as “Melodies of Life,” “You’re Not Alone,” and “The Place I’ll Return to Someday” have been recognized by fans and critics alike as some of the best tracks in the series. Others like “Eternal Harvest,” “Border Village Dali,” and “Assault of the Silver Dragons” are less popular but still very high quality. Each location in the game is defined as much by the music as it is by the visuals themselves. It’s arguably one of the most impressive video game soundtracks of all time.
Though Final Fantasy IX does have a few confusing story moments and some gameplay issues, overall it’s a masterful RPG. While the graphics have not aged well, they still represent the best visuals the PlayStation could provide. The detail and quality of direction in the pre-rendered cutscenes remain stunning to this day. With its deep underlying themes about life and death, emotionally interesting characters, and fun turn-based gameplay, Final Fantasy IX stands up to this day as a contender for being the best Final Fantasygame and as one of the RPG greats.
Alex Schmitz is a Film major in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University. He hosts Shredded Cels, an anime podcast, at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tech-heads-avw-productions/id476169958 and writes for ZeldaInformer.com. Follow him on Twitter @DarthSchmitz to read his writing and hear his opinions on gaming, movies, and pretty much anything that comes to his mind.