- People ask me all the time (nobody does), Nolan, why is Final Fantasy 9 your favourite Final Fantasy game? I scoff, and open my mouth to give a pretentious answer. And yet, I don’t have the words. Because the actual reason FF9 is my favourite Final Fantasy, is because it was my first one. I know. Very anti-climactic, but I will try and at least explain why this game means a lot to me. It’s not purely sentimentality fueling my love. Final Fantasy 9 is a really good game, and even 16 years after its release, it is still a fantastic game.
- Getting All of the Negativity Out of the Way
- So before I start with my gushing, let me be a negative sour puss. The first flaw is how jarring the characters look on the pre-rendered backgrounds. This flaw is not native to Final Fantasy 9, as many ps1 rpg’s have this flaw. These games looked phenomenal during their time, so it was more than servicable to an audience during that timeframe. However, if somebody who has never played an RPG before, and has been conditioned by modern graphical standards pick a ps1 rpg up, then I understand if they would be repelled by the graphics. Plenty of retro games turn me off because of how ugly they look.
- And the last flaw is how slow the battle system is. I didn’t notice this when playing it when I was younger, but when Darkkefka discussed the sluggishness of battles starting, I began to notice it. I wish I never heard that complaint, because before that, I was living in blissful ignorance. Now I can never unsee it, and with games like Bravely Default which have a fast-forward function for battles, Final Fantasy 9’s cause is not helped very much. Random battles are not particularly difficult, so they end up taking a much longer time than they actually should.
- And that’s it for my complaints. Those are pretty much the only problems I have with the game. Sure, there are things I wish were better, but those aspects are already good, so I don’t feel they are worth delving into.
Earlier I said that PS1 rpg’s would be tough for a modern audience to play for the first time. Outdated graphics are a reason for that, but another reason is the translation of some of these games. The translation of text from Japanese to English is something that is vital for RPG’s with novel’s worth of text and dialogue. If the translation is botched, it can seriously affect the player’s immersion. Final Fantasy 7 and 8 have mistranslations and awkward animations that do not reflect what the characters are saying. Again, I did not notice these when I was younger, but knowing what I do about the English language, some lines can come off as sketchy. Some characters have these jerky movements and odd mannerisms that reach into the uncanny valley. This was a product of the late 90s, and game companies did not value translations as much as gameplay and graphics. Console games were still getting used to the idea of a massive narrative.
Final Fantasy 9 came out in 2000 and finally had a great translation. Animations actually matched what characters said, dialogue was believable, and mistranslations were finally gone. Like the font of an article, or the editing of a video, the translation is only noticed when it is bad. If you, the player, do not question the dialogue during a game that was translated to English from Japanese, then the translators did a good (although thankless) job. This part of game creation is critical, as a botched translation is jarring to the player and can lead to a disconnected feeling. Sometimes this feeling of discomfort inadvertendly adds to a game. Silent Hill 2 is an example of a game that sets you on edge because of its odd and distant dialogue. However, for a large, RPG which is dependent on its story, proper translation is imperative to an enjoyable experience. Thankfully, Final Fantasy 9, and most RPG’s after it had a great translation.
Final Fantasy 9 knows what it is and is very confident about that. This sounds like an odd point, but remember in Final Fantasy 10, how there’s this really weird conflict between Tidus and Yuna over who the main character of the story is? That game struggled to really follow the tale of the protagonist at points. It wanted to be a person’s journey of acceptance, but it also wanted to be a “save the world” plot. This lack of assuredness diminishes enjoyment of the game, and shows that the developers were not confident in their product.
Final Fantasy 9 knew what it wanted to be and stuck with it. It was a story with multiple arcs, but it was ultimately a save the world plot. Everything the player does contributes to unifying the world and beating the big bad guy. Not very complicated, but that’s not a bad thing. Final Fantasy had a very traditional fantasy setting and had characters who were engrossed in the “Final Fantasy” motif. Character jobs were traditional, leveling was simpler, and there were less cumbersome systems. FF9 is so engrained in pure, raw, Final Fantasy, that I believe it is a perfect amalgamation of the series. There are black and white mage costumes, there are a group of colourful characters with differing abilities, and it takes place in a vibrant world that becomes worse as the game goes on. It employed so many tropes of old Final Fantasy games, that it acts as the perfect entryway into the series. This is a great game to start with and then move onto other Final Fantasy games. Other games in the series like Final Fantasy 6 and 7 are more revered by its fans, and I understand why. However, they all have fairly complicated plots and systems that may be daunting to a newcomer in the series. I would even go as far to say that Final Fantasy 9 works as a great stepping stone into the fantasy genre as a whole. Although one can percieve its tropes as bland and traditional, I believe the old Final Fantasy conventions still have charm. Final Fantasy 9 is incredibly confident in itself, and it becomes a much more appealing game because of this.
I know I harped on the visuals of old PS1 RPGs earlier, but FF9’s locations are steeped in raw atmosphere. This is the ultimate game to play if you are having a rough day and need to get engrossed in a world. All of my troubles melt away when I play this game. Looking back on it, there isn’t a lot of actual locations you visit in this game. There are only a handful of towns and dungeons. However, each one of these has a ton of effort put into it to evoke a feeling from the player. This game takes a “quality over quantity” approach The capitals of the world feel huge, because they have large buildings, people walking around, and fitting music playing. Lindblum really does feel like the capital of a continent and Treno fits that seedy slum aesthetic perfectly.
I feel that the pre-rendered backgrounds add a lot to the immersion in environments. I know that these backgrounds are essentially just jpegs, but by utilizing a static portrait as a background, the artist is able to have more control over an environments aesthetic. There is a location early on called “Evil Forest”. Yes, that is the real name. But even with a name as generic as that, the environment design adds a ton of atmosphere to the area. There are plenty of story events that happen here, but it acts as the perfect contrast from the kidnapping of Princess Garnet and the escape from Alexandria Castle.
then the player won’t be bored. These two areas are completely different, and are symbolic of a fall. Zidane falls from being a member of his crew, Garnet falls from aristocracy to a swamp-like forest, Steiner falls from being a Knight’s Commander to just a grunt that nobody takes seriously, and Vivi falls from his comfortable ignorance to the knowledge of his purpose as a weapon.
However, like most of the game’s story, there are glimmers of hope. Although Evil Forest starts with a swampy aesthetic, it gets better, when the player encounters this sight:
A beautiful spring with a Moogle that will save your game. A break, and a respite for the player. Not only is this sight gorgeous and memorable, but it is a place of peace. Now, not every location in this game accomplishes this. In fact, I may be over analyzing the game design, but suffice it to say, the beauty and atmosphere of these backgrounds hold up incredibly well, even 16 years after this game’s release.
Final Fantasy games, regardless of their quality, tend to have strong music. And Final Fantasy 9 is no exception. The music is phenomenal. Like Final Fantasy 10’s soundtrack, it is both atmospheric and great on its own. Every tune has me humming it while I am playing. And also like Final Fantasy 10, there are no ambient noises in the background so the player is left to their own thoughts while playing. There is also no voice acting in this game, so each character sounds just like the player envisions. Anyways I’ve gushed about music before so let’s move on.
I won’t act like the total package of Final Fantasy 9’s story is flawless, because it isn’t. In fact, the story takes a nose dive in the very last level, which is sad, because it was very strong up until that point. I won’t go into specifics, but anybody who has played the game knows what I am talking about.
However, the moment leading up to that nose dive is really great. The story balances simplicity and a complex narrative very well. It is always progressing, and unlike Final Fantasy 13’s, it never feels the need to take a detour. There is always a constant goal to be fighting for, so it makes the story involving. There are breaks, of course, but these breaks serve as time for reflection for the player.
One of my favourite parts of the game are at the beginning of disc 3. Disc 2 escalates a world conflict so much and has so many story events that is very intense. The thing that the player needs is a moment of respite, and the game is paced so well that it knows when to deliver that.
The story is able to stay optimistic, but that’s because it needs that for the emotional moments to hit. Big, sad emotional scenes don’t work if the player does not care about the characters. Final Fantasy 9 makes you care about them, as they grow and begin to understand their flaws and improve them. Freya’s stoicism and reticence holds her back from communicating with others, but as she hangs with Zidane, her anti-social shell shatters.
In fact, Zidane is what holds this story together. He is an incredibly important main character, as he serves to help them understand their problems and flaws. His easy-going nature allows for the stuck-up party members to open up more, and become stronger friends. He is the glue that holds this story together. It is why when moments where he gets sad hit hard. And it is also equally touching when every party member is there to support him.
Final Fantasy 9’s story strengths come in its character relations and their growth. It was the first main line Final Fantasy to include additional cutscenes which provide insight into party members lives. For most of the game, you don’t even have every party member together. They are often split together or have other duties to attend to. This is what makes the unity between them all on Disc 3 and onward so strong. Even when the story can get weak at times, the character drama is always strong.
I hope I could articulate why this game is one of my favourites ever. There was a lot of gushing, I understand that, but this is a very biased review. Just know that, if you want to get into the Final Fantasy franchise, I highly recommend starting with this one. The version on Steam is really good.
Featured Image Source: http://hachiimon.deviantart.com/art/Final-Fantasy-IX-Ice-Cavern-Fanart-499386023