One of my friends described Final Fantasy IX as macaroni and cheese. It tastes good and you like it, but it’s not one of the more exciting or exotic flavors. Hence the game is not as often talked about or heavily debated as Final Fantasy VII or VIII. I have to say, she was absolutely right about that (along with a great many other things about life.) In fact, her assessment of Final Fantasy IX is why I now describe good quality throwback RPGs as “comfort food” RPGs. Final Fantasy IX is certainly not as revolutionary or evolutionary as its PlayStation-era peers, but it is a fun, charming, refined, and all around terrific RPG that exemplifies why we started playing Final Fantasy games in the first place. In fact, Final Fantasy IX is easily my favorite Final Fantasy installment of the last decade, and the following treatise shall expound on my reasoning.
Final Fantasy IX features a beautifully told, character-driven story that does not collapse upon itself under needless complexities and also has an ending that actually *gasp* makes sense! Even the surprise final boss actually makes sense to me. The game also has straightforward fun gameplay devoid of needless and arbitrary gimmicks. Although the soundtrack is not one of Nobuo Uematsu’s strongest, it is still very good overall and there are some excellent tracks here and there. Visually, the prerendered backgrounds and CG cutscenes look stunning (if a little lo-res by today’s standards), but though the polygon characters looked rather good back in the day, they look a little rough now.
But let’s forget about the game’s nuts and bolts for a second. The magic ingredient that makes Final Fantasy IX one of my favorite entries in the series is that X-factor called “charm.” Other Final Fantasy games may have more complex stories, more experimental gameplay mechanics, stronger music, and flashier graphics, but Final Fantasy IX just oozes charm in spades, and that ultimately won me over the first time and made me fall in love with it all over again.
The lion’s share of the charm comes from the story and characters. Instead of the perplexed young adults and angsty teenagers you normally encounter in real life (and some other Final Fantasy games), Final Fantasy IX has a playful boy with a monkey tail, a stuffy knight, a semi-reluctant princess, a lovestruck Kindergartener, and other really cool characters, including one of the most compelling villains to grace the series. Of course, the character who warmed the cockles of my heart the most was Vivi, an adorable black mage child with a surprisingly emotionally charged plotline. If the pointy-hatted little guy doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, then there is something seriously wrong with you.
What makes the characters so great are their exaggerated personalities and the interplay between them. Greater glimpses into these character personalities come from the Active Time Event (ATE) sequences in towns where the party splits up and the player can witness the wacky (and sometimes insightful) misadventures the other party members get into when left to their own devices. The ATEs flesh out characters nicely and make the game feel a lot like the Saturday morning cartoons I used to watch as a kid. If Final Fantasy IX had voice acting, the voice actors would have had a lot of fun with these roles.
The story captures that spirited sense of fun and adventure many Final Fantasy fans missed with VII or VIII and may miss even now. It never loses its buoyancy, even with its occasional serious moments. I will admit, though, that since this was my second go at the game, I picked up on some minor plot hiccups here and there that I did not notice before. I also had to consciously suspend my disbelief a little more than usual at times. Of course, plot hiccups and suspension of disbelief could be argued as par for the course regarding Final Fantasy, and IX had such charming plotlines and characters that I did not mind these twinges in the slightest.
The visual design plays a major role in the game’s charm as well. Many fans felt that Final Fantasy VII’s and VIII’s modern and post-modern trappings were a bit cold and clinical. Thus, the return to traditional fantasy motifs in Final Fantasy IX was very welcoming. Every location, from big capital cities to podunk villages, was inviting to me. I would waste time wandering around large cities like Lindblum because they felt like the kind of fantasy towns I would daydream about exploring. Everything was so far removed from the world I knew that it really felt like I was whisked away to the fantasy worlds I dreamed about as a cartoon-addicted child.
Tetsuya Nomura, the controversial character designer for Final Fantasy VII and VIII, sat Final Fantasy IX out and Toshiyuki Itahana brought Yoshitaka Amano’s character designs to life. Many fans believe this was a wise move since the characters’ more chibi proportions and exaggerated traits remind them of Final Fantasies past. The Itahana interpretations of Amano art give Final Fantasy IX some of the most distinctive character art I’ve seen in a Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy IX is notable in that it was, for a while, the last Final Fantasy game where Nobuo Uematsu composed 100% of the music. From Final Fantasy X to XIII, composers such as Masashi Hamauzu, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and others have put their stamp on the series. Whether you love or hate Nobuo Uematsu’s music, he is synonymous with Final Fantasy in most peoples’ minds, and he will be back for Final Fantasy XIV.
Final Fantasy IX does not have Uematsu’s most gripping compositions, but the music is still very good. The compositions are generally not as striking as some of Uematsu’s more recognizable pieces but they work their magic, and I definitely appreciated them more this time around. Many of the themes have a retro style to them, both in terms of composition and instrumentation, enhancing the nostalgia factor. The Black Mage Village theme is one of my favorite town themes of all time and the main overworld theme is quite beautiful. Some people think the soundtrack is “meh,” but Nobuo Uematsu is so exceedingly skilled at what he does that even his “meh” work is better than some composers’ best work.
Speaking of skills, Final Fantasy IX does not contain a gimmicky or needlessly complex system for building characters’ skills. Each character falls into a unique class, has individual skills only he or she can learn, and has battle commands that no one else can use. No junctioning, no materia, no license boards, no muss, no fuss, everything’s intuitive, including the ATB system Final Fantasy combatants know and love. This is great because it allows players to enjoy the experience without having to waste countless hours learning a whole new system of micromanaging arbitrary and twiddly gimmicks. I generally prefer the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) credo when it comes to gameplay mechanics in RPGs, and that is why I had a more enjoyable experience with Final Fantasy IX than with many other Final Fantasy games.
It would not be a Final Fantasy game without mini-games, and Final Fantasy IX’s main one is a collectible card game called Tetra Master. Unfortunately, Tetra Master is a very flawed game with an erratic ruleset that does not make sense the way Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad does. I felt that winning was purely the result of dumb luck rather than skill. The positive aspect of Tetra Master is that cards are earned as battle spoils, which insures you’ll always have a ready deck should the need or desire to play cards arises.
The other major mini-game is the hot/cold treasure hunt game accessible after the party procures a chocobo (the yellow ostrich-like bird that is a series staple) named Choco. In the various chocobo forests throughout the land, the party uses Choco as an avian metal detector to locate treasure. This is really fun, and the best finds are Power Ups that give Choco new abilities such as swimming or climbing mountains to explore uncharted regions of the world. Other cool items are Chocographs that allow you to play the hot-cold game on the overworld and search for treasures on a global scale. This really makes the overworld more deeply interactive and not just a deceptively open pathway dragging you from one location to the next. Not only did I bond with Choco (cultivating him made him feel more like a pet than a mere mode of transportation, racehorse, or breeding machine) but Choco allowed me to bond with the game’s world.
Control is fine on the PSP, but I could only use the D-pad and not the analog stick. Plus, a few functions mapped to the L2 button are absent since the PSP only has two shoulder buttons. Of course, I prefer using the D-pad over the analog stick on my PSP in the first place, and anything requiring the L2 button is superfluous anyway since no player will miss that. Another minor issue with the interface is that sometimes during battles, the timing between when the ATB bar fills up and an action is taken is a tad off. It is a minor grievance to be sure, but there were a couple instances where a battle decimated me because my party’s moves were not coordinated exactly the way I anticipated them to be.
So is Final Fantasy IX the best of the PlayStation era Final Fantasy games? Many players would argue that it is not; that Final Fantasy VII is because it is revolutionary or that Final Fantasy VIII is because it is experimental. But the PlayStation Final Fantasy game that made me the happiest was Final Fantasy IX. The game made me feel like a kid racing downstairs in his jammies first thing Saturday morning to watch cartoons with a big bowl of Lucky Charms. I got that same feeling playing it now in 2010. If you have been disappointed with the modern Final Fantasy games and have issues with the direction the series is going in, download this game from PSN right now and remind yourself of why you fell in love with Final Fantasy in the first place. Because let’s face it, Final Fantasy IX was, and still is, a love letter to the longtime Final Fantasy faithful.