Here it is, my first post on Bitmob in over a year! And here it is, my favorite video game of all-time: Final Fantasy IX!
Now, I love this game for many reasons: its evocative sense of nostalgia, its art direction, its simple but engaging battle system, and on and on and on.However, the biggest reason that I am so fond of this title is because of its characters.The prominence of character in Final Fantasy IX is what makes it a truly exceptional and truly unique entry in an already revered series.
Though all Final Fantasy games are unique, IX is still a bit of a pariah. Even among its PSOne brethren– Final Fantasy VII and VIII — it stands alone. Like a kid whose older siblings inherited the family business, Final Fantasy IX set out on its own path, and strove to be unorthodox (at least in "year 2000" terms).I found this to be rather odd, considering IX was meant to be a look backwards for the series: a fine send-off and fond remembrance before setting off into the next generation of consoles.
As the last single digit title and the last PlayStation Final Fantasy, IX was intended to bring the series back to its roots. The futuristic elements that had been introduced into the series prior were axed in place of a more “medieval” fantasy setting, numerous allusions were made to the older games, whole plot elements were lifted from past titles, and the game promised a notable return of the crystals. Despite this, IX did not feel like the old games. The references to the series’ past were only marginally comedic, the crystals turned out to be of minor relevance, and its familiar tropes and plot elements were constantly subverted. For series fans it made for a disparate (though wholly enjoyable) experience, while newcomers who took it at face value were left unaware of its intricacies.
As much as IX claimed to be the Final Fantasy about Final Fantasy, it is interesting how much the game is really about “character.” More than any other game in the series, IX’s focus is on its cast.Their journeys of self-discovery are what motivate the plot. Each of IX’s playable characters are searching for self-actualization. From the simple (Quina’s quest to sample all of the world’s food and become a gourmand) to the complex (Steiner’s personal struggles with the nature of honor when his loyalties are in conflict) each character’s motivation is an inward desire rather than some outward turn of the plot. Even the game’s most underdeveloped protagonist, a bounty hunter called “The Flaming Amarant,” is driven by a need more intricate than most would deem necessary.
In the game, Amarant is first introduced when he is hired to track down the game’s two main characters, Zidane and Garnet. If he wasn’t featured directly in the box art one might assume that he was just another of the game’s many bosses. However, after Zidane defeats Amarant several times, this cold and calculating killer is overcome by a dilemma: how is this target, who is obviously weaker than himself, so damn hard to kill? Bothered with this question, Amarant decides join Zidane's troupe and discover the secret of his strength. At this time, he learns of the clichéd (but touchingly presented) power of friendship.He realizes that this concept is something he may never truly understand.
This emphasis on character extends to the title’s gameplay systems as well. In the previous PlayStation Final Fantasy games, the characters were blank slates onto which abilities and skills were assigned. Aside from limit breaks, a character’s character mattered very little in battle. IX made each member of its playable cast unique. For example, Vivi is the only party member who can cast black magic and Zidane is the only one with the ability to steal. The game still lets you customize the characters by teaching them abilities from weapons, but even these abilities are unique to individuals. Eiko won’t learn “Firaga” no matter how long you grind. This system, while still giving the flexibility that has become something of a series trademark, emphasizes individuality in a way that other Final Fantasy games do not.
This attention on character also brings an element of comedy to IX that is absent in the rest of the series. Sure, other Final Fantasy games have light and comedic moments, but only IX is consistently funny. This game is a testament to the concept that jokes are not funny, characters are. Steiner parading around in his clanky armor is more hilarious than anything in one of Tim Shcaefer’s games (though some would disagree).And Zidane’s infamous line “Ooh, soft” is funny because it speaks right to the center of his character, even though he utters it at a time of urgency and danger. We laugh here because that is exactly the sort of thing Zidane would say in such a situation. What’s more, the light and comedic tone gives the moments of drama more punch than they might have had otherwise. The main plot of IX is nothing to write home about, but it doesn’t need to be. The characters are so engaging that when they face their obligatory moments of angst we pull for them. And the somewhat happy/somewhat tragic ending they obtain is moving not because the world is saved, but because we’ve laughed with these characters, and cried with them too. We’re sad that they’re gone.
Final Fantasy IX is a smaller, lighter experience than Terra’s globe spanning crusade or Squall’s convoluted romance. And in many ways it is a more engaging, moving, and important one. Final Fantasy as a series has yet to return to IX’s character driven sensibilities (though later titles have made some attempt) and so, IX remains a truly original entry. Yeah, it is flawed, but its sense of character makes it an absolute gem in my book.
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