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Review: Final Fantasy IX 20th anniversary retrospective

Princess Garnet and Zidane Tribal meet for the first time.

As dusk falls over the kingdom of Alexandria, an airship docks at the castle. 

The ship belongs to the world-famous theater troupe (and secret band of professional thieves), Tantalus. Officially, they’ve been invited to preform the favorite play of Alexandrian princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII for her 16th birthday celebration. Unofficially, they’ve been hired to kidnap the princess. 

Tantalus member Zidane Tribal uses the guise of a scene of the play to sneak off stage and into the castle to carry out this mission, only to find Garnet as a willing participant in her own kidnapping. 

Thus begins one of the most overlooked gems in the long-running Final Fantasy series. 

With this week’s limited release of the Sony Playstation 5 and with Final Fantasy XVI on the horizon, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back in time at another entry in the series.

Final Fantasy IX was released in North America 20 years ago today on Nov. 13, 2000 for the original Sony Playstation. It’s an old school, turn-based Japanese role-playing game where you control a party of unlikely heroes united by a quest to save the world. 

While that plot may sound awfully familiar to fans of other Final Fantasy titles (it’s more or less the synopsis of every game in the series up to that point), that familiarity was by design. Squaresoft, the original developers of the series, set out to make Final Fantasy IX as a nostalgic return to the series roots after the excellent and highly successful Final Fantasy VII and VIII

Style and art direction are among the game’s strongest points. While VII and VIII take place in strikingly modern/near future settings, IX’s setting more closely resembles that of older titles in the series. The game takes place in a not-quite-medieval, not-quite-steampunk world that remains charming and beautiful to this day. 

Where VII and VIII went for a more realistic approach to the art direction (Cloud’s spiky hair not withstanding), IX took a more traditional fantasy approach. The result is some of the most memorable characters, towns, and dungeons of the franchise.

The party faces a boss battle in the rain. Final Fantasy IX‘s battle system is turn based, meaning players can take their time and think about what action to preform next.

Gameplay wise, it’s exactly what you would expect from a 20 year old Japanese role-playing game. They didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but frankly, they didn’t need to. Everything from the exploration and combat mechanics to the overall gameplay loop of making your way through an area, triggering an event that progresses the story, and then continuing on to the next area is the same as you’ll find in nearly every other entry in the genre. 

This isn’t necessarily a criticism though. It’s still a prime example of the genre, it’s just not revolutionary. 

Like the other entries in the series, most of the game isn’t particularly challenging. In fact, it has the same paradoxical issue that even the series more recent titles suffer from: if you enjoy the game enough to do all of the side content, by the time you reach the end of the main story you’ll be so overpowered that the final boss will present no challenge at all. 

While not explicitly stated in-game, Final Fantasy IX sees the return of the class system from previous installments of the series. Each character has their own class with their own unique abilities that only they can perform during the course of the game. For example, Zidane is a Thief. A Thief can wield daggers, steal from enemies, and use special skills. But a Thief can’t learn magic. This forces party members to rely on one another as no one can do everything themselves. This is a departure from the previous two entries in the series where anyone in your party could learn any ability, but overall I feel it has a positive effect on gameplay as it allows each party member to truly be unique. 

Music is another area where Final Fantasy IX shines. Long-time series composer Nobuo Uematsu did an incredible job creating a soundtrack that both metaphorically and literally hits all the right notes. It’s filled with both new pieces and reworked versions of classic themes from previous installments of the series. Some reviewers criticized the use of these reworked classics, but I’ve never understood why. The overarching design goal of Final Fantasy IX was to create a nostalgic return to the series roots, and the use of these reworked arrangements fits that goal perfectly. 

Highlights include Song of Memories, The Sword of Doubt, Terra, Assault of the White Dragons, and of course, You Are Not Alone.

Graphically, like most games of the original Playstation era, Final Fantasy IX has not held up well. The reliance on pre-rendered backgrounds made for a beautiful presentation back in its day, but as display technologies and screen resolutions have improved, these pre-rendered backgrounds have aged poorly. Video sequences can be up-scaled, as can the 3D character models, but those pre-rendered backgrounds are stuck the way they were 20 years ago. Recent re-releases of the game (such as last year’s Nintendo Switch port) have attempted to address this somewhat by adding post-processing smoothing effects such as anti-aliasing, but these effects tend to dull and even smear the image due to the already low resolution. 

Zidane riding a chocobo and exploring the world map.

With all of that being said, these flaws feel irrelevant when compared against Final Fantasy IX’s biggest strength: the quality of its narrative. The quality of the story, the main characters and their arcs, the dialog, the exploration of the themes of identity, mortality, and belonging – it’s all top-notch. 

Yes, as I said before, the plot can be boiled down to a group of unlikely heroes team-up to save the world. But while that synopsis is laughably predictable, the journey is not. I won’t spoil anything beyond the first few minutes I started this review with, but I will say that the experience is an emotionally charged thrill ride that will stay with you long after you’ve completed the game. 

I’ve often heard people say that video games are not art. That they’re essentially just expensive children’s toys and that they cannot be compared to books or film as a storytelling medium. I dare these individuals to try Final Fantasy IX

And being a 20 year old game now, it’s able to run on nearly everything. From consoles to Windows, emulators to iOS and Android phones, Final Fantasy IX is available on all major platforms. If you’re looking for an unforgettable adventure, give Final Fantasy IX a try. You won’t regret it. 

I rate this game five adorable baby chocobos out of five. 

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